Defining Wilderness

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." - US Congress 1964

View across Red Bluff Bay - Photo Paul Killian

What is wilderness? It was described legally, albeit vaguely, by Congress in 1964 with the passing of the Wilderness Act. However, it remains something deeply personal, is experienced in a multitude of ways and is not always clearly defined amongst its supporters and defenders. I attempted to define wilderness for myself as I joined one of SCS' wilderness crews this summer, spending eight days at Red Bluff Bay. While we were there enjoying and exploring, taking full advantage of the opportunity the trip afforded us, we were also conducting Wilderness Monitoring and outreach. Wilderness Monitoring is required by the Wilderness Act, that is, managing agencies (US Forest Service) are responsible for monitoring designated wilderness areas and preserving the ‘wilderness character'. Therein lies the conundrum, how do you monitor something that is not truly defined in the wilderness act? Additionally, both the wilderness character and individual experience are further muddied by the fact that wilderness areas may be adjacent to areas not subject to the same restrictions as a designated wilderness area.

Such is the case with Red Bluff Bay. While the land is part of the wilderness preservation system, managed by the US Forest Service, the bay itself is ocean waters. The Forest Service has no jurisdiction over ocean waters therefore; the bay isn't bound by preserving the same wilderness character as its land based neighbor. So, how do you define a wilderness, or is it really reduced to a matter of boundaries? Due to its remote location, Red Bluff Bay is most often accessed by boat and sometimes float plane. If it weren't for the bay and the access it provides to boaters and planes, the number of visits it receives annually would likely be reduced.

Float Plane Float plane delivers us to camp

We were there, primarily, to monitor wilderness solitude, which entailed counting boats and planes and encounters with other visitors. Given our task, it should be noted that our crew arrived there by floatplane and left by boat. We relieved a few crew members from the previous week and joined the camp that was established on the edge of the Northside of the bay, halfway between the entrance at Chatham Strait and the estuary in the west. We spent our days exploring the landscapes around us including the bluffs that give the bay its name, Falls Lake, an old abandoned cannery site, and the estuary nestled quaintly in the western portion of the bay. Our first night we kayaked into the estuary to explore a little and once back there found nine sail boats and two yachts anchored up for the night. Two more yachts anchored just offshore from our campsite, one of the captains telling us they didn't want to crowd the other boats. On another day we saw the entrance of the bay brimming with activity as a sailboat parade trickled out, replaced by new yachts and small cruise ships motoring in and jockeying for prime spots in the estuary and near the falls. There were the daily salmon surveys conducted aerially by ADF&G planes and commercial fishing boats that occasionally anchored up for the night, flooding our campsite with light. The busiest day had two yachts coming in along with a small cruise ship (towing a skiff) and a float plane landing all within a few hundred yards of one another. We had spent a quiet evening, just the four of us, paddling around the falls a few days ago, tonight the waters would be filled with kayakers from the cruise ship on a post dinner excursion.

Cruise ship kayaks await a trip around the falls - Photo Paul Killian

While all of this activity disrupted the quiet or gave the impression that you weren't far from civilization, I still felt a sense of wilderness. I still felt awe struck and grateful for the experience, even if it came with a little traffic and noise. The people that we met were always friendly, and they certainly thought they were experiencing the wilderness. We had our fair share of wildlife encounters too. I found myself mesmerized, sometimes terrified, by bears and sea lions. Whenever we were hiking or kayaking, I found the landscape to be ‘untrammeled by man' and felt a sense of peace and solitude, along with a dash of anxiety. But that is what makes defining wilderness so difficult. My perception is likely drastically different from those on the yacht, or the cruise ships, or other members of our crew. One person may need a cabin easily accessible by road or a semi-quiet spot in an estuary to feel they are enjoying something wild, while another may need to find themselves truly lost, engulfed by remote spaces that are rarely visited, if ever, by a human being. It's these differences that make wilderness so attractive; it is subject to context and open to interpretation. For me, it's a place (where cell phones don't work!), a habitat description, a technical classification and a feeling. It's a place where I can connect and feel lost, even if only for a short time between boat visits and salmon surveys.

Bluebird day at Falls Lake - Photo Paul Killian

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