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What is Wilderness? Experience Exceeds the Definition

Posted by Alex Weinberg, Olympic National Forest, U.S. Forest Service in Forestry
Feb 21, 2017
A fall dusting hints that winter is coming to the high country at Charlia Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic National Forest. The pass offers breathtaking views of Mt. Constance, Del Monte Ridge and Charlie Lake. (U.S. Forest Service)
A fall dusting hints that winter is coming to the high country at Charlia Pass in the Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic National Forest. The pass offers breathtaking views of Mt. Constance, Del Monte Ridge and Charlie Lake. (U.S. Forest Service)

As I reach the pinnacle of this stretch of trail my heart is racing, my calves are burning, and my face is dripping with perspiration. I feel strong. I remove the pack from my aching shoulders and grab my water bottle. I am refreshed as I gulp it down. This is sweet mountain water that will eventually trickle down to taps in the city below. Up here, it’s clear and icy cold and the only type of water I have consumed during my five-day wilderness experience.

I lower the bottle from my mouth to admire my accomplishments. The top of the mountain pass has rewarded me with spectacular views of surrounding peaks. I feel alone, but not forlorn. I unravel the contents of my pack and begin to set up my final camp.

When defining wilderness one can easily speak of boundaries; after all, wilderness boundaries are clearly defined on maps and marked on trails. Olympic National Forest has five wilderness areas that were established by Congress in 1984. This year marks the 30th anniversary of their designation.

The route to Goat Lake in the Buckhorn Wilderness of Olympic National Forest is a challenging trek on an unmaintained footpath that resembles more of a climb. The relentless nature of the hike deters many visitors from visiting the beautiful lake, which is known for its tranquil setting. During the evening it is common to hear the whistle of the endemic Olympic Marmot, along with the quiet splash of rising trout. (U.S. Forest Service)
The route to Goat Lake in the Buckhorn Wilderness of Olympic National Forest is a challenging trek on an unmaintained footpath that resembles more of a climb. The relentless nature of the hike deters many visitors from visiting the beautiful lake, which is known for its tranquil setting. During the evening it is common to hear the whistle of the endemic Olympic Marmot, along with the quiet splash of rising trout. (U.S. Forest Service)

The definition of wilderness also extends beyond boundaries. Those who never visit these areas benefit from the pristine water and air that these untrammeled ecosystems provide. Many Americans who never set foot within a federally designated wilderness area appreciate simply knowing such wild places continue to exist, forever connecting our society to its natural heritage.

To further define the concept of Wilderness one can also draw from the Wilderness Act of 1964, which provided a legal means to designate protected Wilderness areas. The act describes the qualities, values and characteristics of these wild areas that continue to be used today when Wilderness is designated and managed.

These eloquent phrases from the Wilderness Act, help land managers identify and manage wilderness areas, but they do not entirely capture the meaning of these wild places. To fully realize the benefits of wilderness, one must explore within their boundaries.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape…Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…[That is] affected primarily by the forces of nature...[and] has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation...”

The sun sets behind a layer of clouds in the elusive Wonder Mountain Wilderness of Olympic National Forest. The 2,349 acre wilderness area has no trails leading into it and subsequently sees few visitors every year. The adventurers who do reach one of its beautiful subalpine lakes are rewarded with the challenge and solitude that are characteristic of a true wilderness experience. (U.S. Forest Service)
The sun sets behind a layer of clouds in the elusive Wonder Mountain Wilderness of Olympic National Forest. The 2,349 acre wilderness area has no trails leading into it and subsequently sees few visitors every year. The adventurers who do reach one of its beautiful subalpine lakes are rewarded with the challenge and solitude that are characteristic of a true wilderness experience. (U.S. Forest Service)

Wilderness is an experience and it must be felt: the air breathed, the rivers sipped from, the peaks climbed, the natural sounds attended to. Wilderness is an area to realize goals. It’s a place for reflection, physical and mental challenge, and renewal. Wilderness is emotional. It’s a place for jubilation, doubt, wonder, inspiration.

Wilderness builds relationships. It’s a place to know yourself, know your companions, and know your surroundings.

Wilderness is a celebration. It’s a place to celebrate America’s foresight to preserve its special places, and to recognize 50 years of protection. Wilderness is a place one regrets leaving—even after five days of complete solitude, even after long miles and achy joints, even after living only off what you carry on your back, even while knowing a soft bed and four walls await.

The sun has set and I lay outside my tent reflecting on my time in the wilderness. I hike out tomorrow. This knowledge fills me with a sense of accomplishment, but sadness also creeps in. In my short time here, I have grown accustomed to traveling the backcountry.

But this is not my home and like any polite guest I must not over-stay my visit. I find solace knowing that I am always welcome.

Editor’s note: Alex Weinberg is a recreation specialist on the Olympic National Forest and has worked as a backcountry ranger and has coordinated wilderness inventory in five wilderness areas.

Buckhorn Pass is a popular destination in the Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic National Forest. The wilderness area covers more than 44,000 pristine acres with stands of old-growth Douglas-fir, western hemlock and western red cedar at the lower elevations. At higher elevations subalpine fir and western white pine give way to alpine meadows. (U.S. Forest Service)
Buckhorn Pass is a popular destination in the Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic National Forest. The wilderness area covers more than 44,000 pristine acres with stands of old-growth Douglas-fir, western hemlock and western red cedar at the lower elevations. At higher elevations subalpine fir and western white pine give way to alpine meadows. (U.S. Forest Service)
Category/Topic: Forestry

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Comments

Chris Daley
Sep 15, 2014

Yes we all have our experiences and memories. I just did Yosemite hiking in May; drove along King's River from Grant Grove at 4am ahead of the crowds. The Challis NF in Idaho not too shabby either!

SgtSteve
Sep 16, 2014

I was a ranger in the Sawtooth NF in Idaho in the early 1990s. I have been 'round the world and this is by far the most beuatiful place in the world!! Wilderness rules!

Shari
Sep 20, 2014

Wilderness makes me feel left out, like I am missing the places that are most beautiful. Why, because I am an elder now and I cannot physically walk there and especially with a pack on. I cannot share it with the children because they cannot get there either. How many miles do you have to hike with a pack to see the views featured in the wilderness. Wilderness is locked up so the elders, the young, the handicap, and those that cannot afford to take days off work do not have access. Anything over 3 miles one way is not a day hike, Anything with more than 500 ft elev. gain is not a day hike either. So in all reality the rich, the physically strong get to enjoy the solitude of wilderness. In Darrington the trails left have become so crowded with folks there is no opportunity for solitude and the resources are being hammered with too many people. Congress is not budgeting to maintain the trails we have on the system as it is. We do not need more parks and wilderness when what we have already is not being cared for