A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1889 translation
Our backpacks were ready, boots snow-sealed and we were drinking coffee prior to embarking for the Beartooth Wilderness last week when I opened the morning paper. The lead story was of a grizzly bear killing and partially eating a tent camper and mauling two others in the Soda Butte Campground, about a mile from where we had intended to hike to a trout-filled lake where I had previously camped. Good judgment took precedent over familiarity and we decided to go into the wilderness from the north side instead. And there, while we enjoyed the paradise of wilderness, myths were vanquished while other questions arose.
We took the Lakes Fork of Rock Creek trail that begins in a verdant green valley and follows the river high into the mountains to a series of beautiful alpine lakes. Our first surprise came when we reached the parking area. Although it was mid-week, there were 31 cars, trucks and stock trailers at the trailhead. As we finished loading our packs we took note of the license plates. The slim majority were Montanans, but there were vehicles from all over the U.S. Unlike the Beartooth Plateau, which provides immediate access to the stunning vistas surrounding Granite Peak, we mistakenly thought this little trail would be the path less traveled.
Nonetheless, we shouldered our packs and hit the trail, knowing we still had miles to go before camp. Our next surprise came at the information display where, for some unknown reason, there was no trail register. I thought it odd since, without a register, the Forest Service has no idea how many people are actually using the wilderness, how long they'll stay, or where they're from. Without that data, one might reasonably wonder how the agency can determine its priorities for budgeting time, money and employees. It's even stranger when you consider that every non-wilderness Forest Service campground requires completion of just such information for all users.
But we came to find that which wilderness provides—solitude, beauty and a landscape determined by the hand of nature—and so left policy pondering behind and followed the stream uphill for miles, accompanied by the nearly continuous cacophony of sparkling waters rushing over giant boulders in a roaring whitewater symphony. We met at least 30 people heading out and stepped aside for horse and llama packers, greeted day hikers and backpackers, and noted the assortment of kids, young adults, middle-aged and elderly folks in all manner of physical condition. And thus, another wilderness myth devised by its political opponents was exposed—that only young and "in shape" people can access wilderness.
We had earlier eyed a lovely meadow in a flat area where the stream settled down, but a cow and calf moose were grazing there while a huge bull moose lay nearby in the shadows, his enormous rack still covered in soft velvet. As most folks know, moose with calves can be very protective, so we opted to continue upstream and leave the moose family to enjoy their chunk of wilderness.
The next morning we hit the trail again and, in very little time, arrived at a lake backed by jagged granite peaks that perfectly described the "bear's teeth" for which the wilderness was named. It was apparent that powerful microbursts had frequently rushed down from the frozen heights, leaving thousands of trees blown down. Some might point to this as a useless loss of "resources," but that night a rainstorm rolled through and by morning, dozens of beautiful Boletus edulis mushrooms had popped from the needle-laden ground. We enjoyed the delicious bounty, marveling at nature's efficient and constant recycling of nutrients without need of man's interference.
We left on Saturday and were surprised to count more than 50 people going in. Again, we noted the wide diversity of shapes and ages, including a party with an obviously developmentally disabled teenager doing just fine at least four miles in from the trailhead. At trail's end, almost twice as many vehicles were crammed into the parking lot as before and it was clear that Americans from all over the nation love wilderness and are more than willing to hike or ride a horse to enjoy it.
Which brings us to the moral of the story. If so many people are using wilderness, why isn't the Forest Service tracking it and apportioning its limited resources accordingly? Do we really need more multi-million dollar "visitor centers" with videos and highly developed campgrounds instead of nature? Or is it simply the agency's misdirected focus on revenue production?
Second, why does the myth concerning wilderness users persist? Politically motivated and patently false, anyone who takes the time will see that wilderness is not just for the young and fit. This truth, undeniably, is self-evident.
And finally, given that those who love and use wilderness come from all across our nation, what makes Sen. Jon Tester—or any other politician or special interest group—think local interests should be the determining factor in designating or managing these national treasures? Given the use our wilderness areas are getting, why push quid pro quo legislation that demands mandatory timber harvests as a condition of designating new wilderness? Why not simply have the courage and commitment to formally designate wilderness for its own sake?
Perhaps the answers to these perplexing questions will be forthcoming. Or perhaps not. Regardless of the muddled condition of wilderness politics in Montana for the last two decades, it's worth remembering that men and women of conviction and foresight once set these areas aside for future generations. And thanks to them, we can still, as did Omar Khayyam nearly a thousand years ago, take a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a loved one and enjoy our wilderness paradise.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.