Friday, February 7

The Misunderstood Wilderness: Interim Anecdotes

This is sort of an interim post before I hit you with the conclusion to the series.  In looking back through my photos of the myriad adventures over the past 20 or so years I realized there are some specific adventures I want to share, and maybe try to find a little meaning in the context of this discussion.  You could also consider this a Froback Friday (my version of Throwback Thursday, always got to be different!)

To expand on my personal definition of wilderness I’d like to add that I think “wilderness” has a lot to do with perception.  And it has a lot to do with how far you’ve separated yourself from your environment of comfort.  If you push yourself to go beyond conventional boundaries, no matter your actual geographic location, I believe you've gone into the wilderness.

It’s not always about what you see, but sometimes what you don’t see, and sometimes how what you see has been separated from it’s normal context.

Ghost town of Caribou above Nederland, CO
As the snow continued to fall it became more
and more dangerous to drive out.
My earliest wilderness experiences were within Clifty Wilderness in the Red River Gorge and the most remote area is along the river down in the Upper Gorge proper.  It seems more remote than it is, but paddling the river is a serious affair.  The first time I attempted it was in a 20 year old aluminum canoe with almost no paddling experience.  Yeah, we heard banjos.

Inexperience heightens the wilderness experience.
Calaboose Falls, Upper Red River Gorge
Clifty Wilderness

Bike can take you deeper into non-wilderness places much faster than you can go on foot.  This has the added benefit of putting you into deeper potential danger when something goes wrong.  While the ability of a bicycle to carry you farther than you'd be able to go afoot, it also can get you in way over your head and contribute to your wilderness demise.  Have an unfixable mechanical 20 miles from the trailhead before a storm an hour before sunset?  You're up a creek.

Buskin Trail, Cave Run Lake, Kentucky
I rode in three miles and had a flat...with no extra tube or patch kit.
It was a long walk out.
Wouldn't get away with that as successfully in Buffalo Creek, Colorado

On paved Mount Evans road you can get in way over
your head when the lower gate is closed.
The wilderness can eat you.
Indian Peaks, CO
Sometimes going into the mountains or the forest or on the ocean alone creates a wilderness experience.  For years I did my own thing and rarely notified anyone where I would be going.  It was too onerous because most often I changed plans before I set foot on the trail.  In Colorado I tried to minimize doing this because I was generally unfamiliar with the places I went and because I was often putting my wife in a situation where she would have to try and figure out what to do if something happened to me when I really didn't even have a clue myself.

Summit of Father Dyer Peak, Tenmile Range, CO
My family was 1,200 miles away in Kentucky and no
one in Colorado knew where I was that day.

Designated wilderness areas are often the focus of human recreational activity while the surrounding areas are less sexy and get less traffic.

James Peak Wilderness

Looking into James Peak Wilderness from an obscure
10,000' peak to the east that few people go to.

Cross country skiing near Indian Peaks Wilderness
Didn't see too many people out that day.
Sometimes developed areas give the false sense of not being remote.  A paved road civilization does not make.  There are some places in Western Colorado and Wyoming where just being on the road means you're extended yourself into a potentially dire wilderness experience.

First bikepacking trip with the kids.
Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming
Despite this picnic area being right by the road
we only saw one car in two days.

Clifty Wilderness in the Red River Gorge is relatively small in land area, but rugged enough to keep you from easily hiking out if you injure yourself.  It can be more unforgiving than other deeper wilderness areas because of it.

Panorama from Eagle's Nest, Clifty Wilderness, Kentucky
This is as deep as you can get in my neck of the woods.
Used to you could not see human lights fro this vantage point at night.

A view very few people see despite it not being within
a designated wilderness area.  There's no trail to Short Creek Arch
The drive in to the west side of Lost Creek Wilderness in Colorado is pretty desolate.  In fact, Lost Creek Wilderness is bounded on both sides by notably uninhabited regions: Buffalo Creek to the east and South Park to the west.  To put a wilderness area between those two huge empty expanses that are sparsely populated both makes sense, and is quite insane.  Lost Creek feels remote before you ever leave the car.  I remember a deep sense of foreboding on New Year's Day 2009 when I locked my car and set out for a failed attempt on Bison Peak with skis and snowshoes on my back.  There was a couple getting in their car as I was heading out and they were not happy I was heading up the trail on my own.  Bison Peak is a six mile hike in up to 12,000'.  It was a solid hour drive back out to Bailey and Bailey is a one horse town.   You're a long way from modern conveniences on the summit plateau of Bison Peak.

South Park from the summit plateau of Bison Peak within the Lost Creek Wilderness
South Park is pretty desolate for an inhabited area.  This might be the loneliest
place I've ever been. 

We only met one couple on the trail.  Otherwise our trek in to summit Bison Peak
was lonely.  This is as far as I've ever been from "civilization."

Mount Evans has a paved road to the summit yet still feels wild.

You've got to know how to get yourself in and get yourself out.
Wilderness areas in the big mountains have a different feel than some of the wild places I've been in the East.  Terrain has a huge impact in the feel of isolation. 

Wild places can be ominous.
Indian Peaks Wilderness
Being 5 miles from a remote trailhead and seeing a storm rolling over you can put a true sense of fear in you.  Being on a high ridge and seeing lightning can make you wet yourself.  At the point where I took the photo below (summit of Shoshoni Peak) I was a solid hour from treeline.  And it wasn't an easy hour.

The weather can "enhance" the wilderness experience as well.
Summit of Shoshoni Peak, Indian Peaks

This might have been the farthest I've ever been from aid in my life.
Along the AT, Great Smoky Mountains
The last photo I took over Christmas break in 2005 or 2006.  A friend invited me to go on a backpacking trip to the Smokies.  We hiked in 7 miles to camp with the intent of hiking in 7 more miles the next day to Clingman's Dome and then returning to our camp for a second night.  In the morning my friend was too beaten down from the hike in to continue, and feeling bad, insisted I go on alone.  Feeling comfortable with the idea I took off with minimal gear.

I made it almost to Clingman' Dome 3,000' higher than our camp when my thigh muscles began cramping.  I was all alone on top of the ridge in poor weather 7 miles from shelter.  I turned back and trudged back to camp, 21 miles after I started hiking 24 hours earlier.  When I sat down I realized if I slept in camp I might wake and be unable to hike out.  So we packed up and continued 7 more miles back to the trailhead that night.  In a little over 24 hours I had hiked 28 miles.  At 14 miles out from the car I was almost stranded by cramps.  I doubt I would have survived the night on that ridge with no shelter.  The temperature never got above 35F that day and dropped fast down in the valley when the sun went down.

I wasn't in a designated wilderness area.  There was evidence of humanity all around me.  I saw one party of four near this sign.  They were a bit freaked out that I was all alone up on the AT.

I'm not really saying this to brag, though it has that effect I guess, but merely to show that on paper sometimes an adventure seems pretty tame, but in the end its bigger than you can handle.  28 miles doesn't sound like much to me these days after riding my bike so much, but back then it was a big chunk of trail to try and chew up and digest.  Despite that I never doubted my abilities, though surely they could have been put to the ultimate test if a single thing had gone wrong that day.

To me the federal wilderness designation doesn't mean much.  It identifies an area where machinery is prohibited for the most part, and an area where future development is unlikely to occur.  If that coincides with a rugged landscape and remote access then it's a well earned label.  But there are so many other areas that are remote and inaccessible that don't have any governmental designation.  And like I have mentioned a few times, sometimes conditions make a location more remote.  Weather can prohibit your retreat.  Injury, darkness, confusion...they can all affect your ability to return to a place of safety, a place where you can persist in living with the resources at your command.


  1. I relate to your definition of 'wilderness'. If I was in New York City, I would consider myself to be beyond 'conventional boundaries'.

    1. Right, I'm thinking a future installment will be "Urban Wilderness." I wanted to hit on that a little harder, but I can never decide which rabbit hole is the most attractive, so I went with what you got. But I agree, I have been in the city before and felt like I would in the midst of grizzly country.