The next time I go for a walk in the woods, I'll be sure to pay attention to the ground beneath my feet. Along with the trees lining it, and the birds flitting above it, and all the animals that may amble across it, a trail itself deserves attention. As easy as it is for you to walk it, that's how hard someone worked on it. I know this now from experience.
I spent this past week out at White Sulphur Springs, working with the Forest Service cabin and trail crew and a group of SCS volunteers to repair an old trail that had fallen into disrepair. For those not familiar with the area, White Sulphur lies within West Chichagof-Yakobi, designated wilderness in 1980, and derives its name from the naturally occurring hot springs to which it is home. If there was ever a perfect place to first experience trail crew, White Sulphur was it. At the end of a hard day, what better way to calm aching muscles than by sliding into a warm tub, the whole time gazing out at an uninterrupted panorama of alternating mountain and ocean?
Yet while we relaxed at night, the days we worked were long. At it by 7:30 every morning, the next nine hours were spent carrying rock, hauling gravel, sawing logs, digging steps, constructing bridges, and brushing overlying vegetation from the trail. It was hard work, but equally rewarding. A week ago I had never even seen a crosscut or heard of a Pulaski. I now know how to use both, along with a slew of other tools. But in addition to the technical skills I gained while building trail, what I most appreciate about the trip is that it allowed me to experience and engage with wilderness in a completely new way.
People who take issue with wilderness often level the charge that it's wasted space, that it's land that's been cordoned off from humans, that it leaves no place for people. But what I saw out at White Sulphur was quite the opposite. Far from being a place that excludes people from the land, I saw the extent to which the wilderness can facilitate positive human interaction, can foster camaraderie and companionship. These things I felt with my fellow crewmen, with the individuals we met out there who thanked us for our hard work, and even – on a more abstract level – with the many people who I knew would in the future walk this trail, enjoying the product of our labor. Thus, although wilderness, by definition, is a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," wilderness's definition by no means completely excludes man. People, when exercising respect, need not be seen as antagonistic or antithetical to these places. To the contrary, I conceived of our work at White Sulphur as being to the benefit of both people and place. Mending a trail system begun over 75 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps, we were making it easier for people to come to, have contact with, and care for these wild areas. Thus, within wilderness, within these "areas where man and his works do not dominate the landscape," there clearly remains at least some room for man.
Still, people often take issue with the 1964 Act. In particular, I have often heard people, even ardent supporters of wilderness, angry over the line in which man is defined as a "visitor who does not remain," arguing that man should not suffer exclusion any from these places. But to make this critique seems, at least to me, to ignore the broader context of the act, in which wilderness is being designated and defined as public land. And put into conversation with the notion of "the public," the definition of wilderness starts to seem less restrictive, less exclusive, less qualitatively different than other public spaces. Think of the last public park or beach you were at. It probably wasn't open all hours of the day, and if it was, there were most likely, at the very least, some rules or restrictions posted. And that's because public space – be it a road, a park, or a wilderness area – does to some extent require the monitoring and control of human use. It's not meant to exclude. Rather, it's how the preservation of these places into perpetuity can be ensured.
Thus, when it comes to the definition of wilderness and man's place in it, it strikes me as a glass half-full or half-empty situation. You can interpret the law as having written people out of wilderness, or you can see it as having explicitly written people in, allowing and inviting man to visit and enjoy these places. What I saw out at White Sulphur was unmistakably the latter. It was people experiencing not exclusion from the land, but communion with it, working hard at a trail so that others will similarly be able to experience such harmony between self and space, person and place.
Be sure to visit the wilderness page of our website for more information on upcoming trips!