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Inhabited Wilderness Is It Still Wild?
By Glenn Goodrich, NOLS Instructor
In many international NOLS classrooms, like this one in Patagonia, the wilderness is a place where people live.
© Nacho Grez

In the early 1980s, a friend and I set out on a scouting trip into Lake Clark National Park, a beautiful and very isolated region west of Anchorage, Alaska. We were well into our travels and, given the extreme rigors of the trip, were certainly feeling immersed in a quintessential wilderness — pristine, untrammeled, without man’s influence. We crested a high pass and dropped into Twin Lakes, a stunning valley of turquoise blue waters. And then we knew we were not alone. One of our goals had been to meet with a prominent resident of this wilderness, a gentleman named Dick Proenneke, the star of the PBS show “Alone in the Wilderness.”

Proenneke lived alone in his isolated, hand-built Alaskan cabin for 30 years. A gentle, shy man, Dick had in every sense become a resident of this wilderness. He knew it as well as we know our own homes, and lived in harmony with its moods and provisions. In meeting and visiting with this man, I recall harboring a bit of discomfort, attributed to my perceptions of wild lands as places without permanent human presence. I had grown accustomed to interpreting “wilderness” as it is defined by the Wilderness Act — a place where man is but a visitor. But what about wild areas where people aren’t just visitors but permanent residents?

I also remember feeling strangely like an intruder in his wilderness home, like I’d walked across his doorstep uninvited.

Proenneke told us of the rhythms of the land, of hidden waterfalls and paths that would welcome our travel. He knew the creatures of Twin Lakes, where they were and what they were up to. He had become part of the land. As we chatted, shared stories and talked of our mutual respect for wild lands, our feeling of intrusion proved unwarranted, and our perceptions of wilderness were enlightened and expanded. That day brought affirmation in my mind that people and wilderness have very deep connections, and that given time, familiarity, and caring stewardship, wilderness can essentially become a home where people can reside.

Like Proenneke, we travel to far-flung wild places across the globe for adventure, refreshment and education. These wild lands are places of rich human history and flourishing cultures. Are these lands still wilderness? Yes, if we broaden our definition and believe, as John Muir did, that “going to the mountains is going home.”

Experiencing the relationship between the land and people reminds us of the thread that ties the human spirit to the wild places of this earth. We see this connection with the villagers of the Himalaya, the Bardi Aboriginals of the Kimberley in Australia, the Maori of New Zealand, the Masai of East Africa, the rancheros of Baja or a resident of the Alaskan outback. Those that dwell in the wilderness offer a greater understanding of our place within the natural world. In many ways, people and cultures that live in wild lands already possess what we seek to gain. To them wilderness is simply home, and from their lessons perhaps we can learn the same.

Glenn Goodrich, a NOLS Instructor since 1979, is currently revising the NOLS Wilderness Ethics Handbook.

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