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Fall 2004 Issue
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What is Wilderness?
By Joel Bergstedt


A young man went into the Western Wilderness to look for his brother who had been gone too long and was now thought to be lost.  His brother had left him a map, which was marked with the route he had planned to take to the top of Western Peak.  The young man had decided to follow the route into the wilderness in hopes that he would find his brother along the way.

He began his journey by following a blazed trail next to a river that climbed up from a valley to the top of a high waterfall.  At the river’s edge, just before the crest of the waterfall, was a young woman who was filling a bag with water.  The young man approached the woman and after describing his brother and his expedition, asked if she had seen him or heard news of a young man traveling alone.  The young woman said that she had not but that she and her three sisters had only just started a two-week backpacking trip that same day.  Although she had not had much contact with any other hikers, she had visited the Western Wilderness many times and so was familiar with the terrain.     

“The way to Western Peak is long and difficult to navigate and should not be undertaken alone”, remarked the young woman.  “My sisters and I are camped in the woods on the other side of the trail.  Come camp with us tonight and tomorrow we will hike with you to the mountain.”

The young man liked the sound of her idea and so walked with the woman to her camp.  After introducing him to her sisters, she recounted the story of his lost brother.  The sisters agreed to accompany him to the top of Western Peak and to have him stay with them at their camp.   Two of the women then set about helping the young man find a suitable place to put up his tent, while the other two started cooking dinner.  After the meal, one of the sisters took out a map and the group went over the route they planned to take the next day.   Once everyone was satisfied with the plan, the group cleaned up, and the young man went to sleep eager to begin the next day’s journey and confidant that he would find his brother.

Early the next morning the group set off on their expedition to Western Peak.  The women led the young man away from the trail, and into the backcountry.  After about one mile of difficult hiking, the young man slipped on a rock while crossing a stream and fell face first in to the water.  One of the sisters helped him to his feet.  He was wet from head to toe and had bruised his knee.  He assured the group that was not badly hurt, so they continued on their trek. 

Over the course of the next mile, the going was somewhat easier as they used a river to the west to keep their bearing.  The land rose gently, and the group moved along at a steady pace from open meadows to wooded glens with the only major obstacles being large areas of deadfall and the constant presence of mosquitoes.   

The land then began to slope upwards, and the river forked.  Because of the river’s strong currents, instead of crossing the water, they were forced to follow the north fork up along a ridge.  Soon the group came to a wide expanse of marsh.  At the side of the marsh from which they came the river was still uncrossable.  The other side seemed relatively flat, so the group decided to walk around the marsh and find a better place to cross.   

Once they had made it to the other side, the land did in fact flatten out.  The river’s banks were much wider and the currents slower, giving the group suitable places to cross.  Upon finding such a place, the group waded into the water, locked arms, and sidestepped in unison across the creek. 

By this time the young man began feeling as if he could rely on the sisters to lead him right to his brother.  However, after crossing the creek, they turned to him and said, “Your Turn”.

He was then given the task of leading the group the rest of the way to Western Peak.  The young man removed the map from his pocket and set out in front of the group.  He came across what seemed to be a game trail that led in the general direction of the mountain.  The trail climbed upwards along a brook until finally reaching a small lake.  Because of heavy rains that had covered the area in previous months, the lake had overflowed its banks to form a maze of inlets, seasonal islands, and marsh.  The young man knew that the most direct route to the peak was to get across the flooded area and walk around the lake to the west; however, that side of the lake was also guarded by a steep rise, which would be hard to pass. 

The sisters suggested another way that while longer, would be more manageable.  The young man agreed, so the group headed back east away from Western Peak, and traveled along the alternate route, which followed the ridge of a deep gorge cut by an arm the river that the group had crossed earlier.

After a few miles of hard climbing, the group went past the tree line and entered the alpine region.  From here on the land, having changed so dramatically seemed to affect the young man in ways the valleys below had not.  High peaks jutted fiercely above cold, quiet lakes, which were surrounded by the remnants of a late spring snowfall.  The trees of the valleys had been replaced by fields of massive boulders.   Interspersed among the rocks were thin meadows of grass colored throughout with the reds, whites, yellows, and blues of wildflowers.  The land was full of contrast being both harsh and beautiful, but the young man had an overwhelming sense of peace.

The sisters informed the young man that they now needed to move south, but in order to do so, had to cross Deep Lake.  Upon reaching its shores, the group noticed that large rocks rose above the water across the entire surface of the lake.  By helping each other from rock to rock the sisters were able to cross without getting their feet wet.  Having injured his knee after falling on a rock earlier that day, the young man hesitated to follow their lead, and instead of heeding their warnings, walked straight through the freezing water. 

Once across the lake, one of the sisters noticed the young man shivering from cold.  Fearing the outset of hypothermia, the sisters had him change his clothes, made a pot of hot soup for him to eat, and setup their tent in which he was able to get warm and recover.

So, after an unexpected night near Deep Lake, the group set out the next morning on the last leg of their journey to Western Peak, where the young man hoped to find his lost brother. 

After a full morning’s hike, the group made it to the foot of Western Mountain.  To reach the peak, they decided to follow a long, natural ramp up the mountain’s eastern slope.   And so they climbed.  The group traveled slowly, but eventually made their way to base of the summit.  As they neared a steep snowfield that led straight to the mountain’s peak, the sisters halted. 

“We cannot climb any further”, they said.

One of the sisters had started to get sick and needed to be brought down the mountain immediately.  The young man, however determined he was to reach the top and find some sign of his brother’s whereabouts, could not leave his new friends, and so, he left the peak and descended the mountain. 

Once down the mountain, the young woman began feeling better.   After setting up camp, the group decided that two of the women would stay with the sister who had gotten ill, while the young man and the sister he first met at the river’s edge, would make another attempt to ascend the peak.

Early the next morning, the two started their climb.  They hiked back up the ramp and to the snowfield at the base of the summit.  The young woman led the way up the snow, carefully kicking her boots into the slope creating a footpath for the young man to follow.  After reaching the top, the pair walked along the perimeter of the peak looking for any sign that the young man’s brother had been there.  At the edge of peak’s northern wall, the young man came across two large boulders.  In a crevice between the rocks was a bottle. 

The young man opened the bottle to find a notebook, which served as a sort of registry for hikers who had made it to the top of the peak.  He searched each page for a note from his brother, but found nothing.  Distraught, the young man considered his brother’s fate.  He then thought of his own journey to the mountaintop and what would have happened had he not had the help of his newfound friends.  A cold wind blew across the young man’s face.  He thumbed to an empty page in the registry, took the pen and made the following entry:

What is wilderness?  These areas remind us of who we are; that we are human and cannot survive alone; that we must accept the blessings of the land, the wildlife, and each other and accept our dependence on and connectedness with everything.  Without respecting this rightful place, we are forever lost.

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