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Spring 2004 Issue
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Trying to Define Wilderness
NOLS Executive Director John Gans on a family trip in one of his favorite wilderness areas – Utah's Canyonlands.
© Steph Kessler


This is a significant year for NOLS as it’s the 40th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act in the United States. As you all know, wilderness is at the very core of NOLS, and it is no coincidence that Paul Petzoldt started NOLS one year after the signing of this act. Paul foresaw that interest and visitation to wilderness was going to increase, and it was important for these visitors to be educated in wilderness skills, leadership and conservation. Each issue of the Leader during this anniversary year will dedicate a portion of its content to the Wilderness Act and wilderness.

The longer my relationship with wilderness, the more difficult it is for me to describe or define. As a kid in central Minnesota, the wilderness was 40 acres of a creek bottom pasture. It was a place of adventure, filled with the unknown, and inspiring a bit of fear. It was a place where I could get muddy and could get lost.

I never visited a “designated” Wilderness area until I was 18, but my relationship wasn’t limited to visits. I found my reading interests turning toward explorers and their adventures. I also sought out wilderness photo books and developed a list of the remote areas in the world that I wanted to visit. My relationship was developing with the land, and at the time there was little relevance to people in the wilderness. I developed a passion for climbing, altitude and winter camping, and this added a new edge to my zest for wild places. As I experienced international wilderness, where indigenous people resided, I found that wilderness took on yet another fascinating dimension. Spending my last college semester with NOLS showed me that wilderness could also be the ultimate classroom.

Somewhere in my personal timeframe, I began to think about wilderness stewardship. Desert Solitaire and other books prompted me to look at how I could best save and support wilderness. Wilderness became one of those things worth fighting for and definitely worth saving. David Brower, Mardy Murie, Roderick Nash and others became my heroes, and time with them inspired me.

As my relationship with wilderness continued, people and education seemed to play a more important role. I loved teaching and spending time with students in the backcountry. I have 25 years of watching tens of thousands of students grow and change with lessons taught by their instructors, fellow students and the wilderness. I have seen how powerful wilderness education can be. Today, many of our schools aren’t comfortable teaching in the outdoors, and thus students receive little experiential education on our natural environment. But NOLS Instructors understand the outdoors with both their hearts and their minds.

The wilderness also helped build the bonds of my closest friendships. I even proposed to my wife while sea kayaking through gale force winds in the wilderness of Prince William Sound. I have found my memories of wilderness would not be the same without my fellow wilderness travelers. Wilderness is a place of bonding.

So my definition of wilderness has expanded a bit from a place where I got muddy and lost. While I celebrate the anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I am not able to offer a concise personal definition. But I do know that wilderness for me has drawn out tears of awe, tears of joy, tears of pain and tears of passion. Today, this place where man does not permanently reside is the place where I feel most at home.

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