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Wilderness, and those who travel there

August 25, 2012
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors columnist ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have been exploring the concept of wilderness in the Adirondack Park. I have offered up a good deal of information, raised many questions and asked readers for their opinions. Fortunately, they have responded.

Their remarks include important insights to help us delineate the physical aspects of wilderness as well as the spiritual and social concepts of traveling through and living in wild places.

Regardless of any self-professed competencies or the lack of such, their remarks illustrate the seemingly impossible task of detailing or describing what it takes to make a wilderness area truly wild. Quite obviously, there is no legitimate or universal stamp of approval on the quality of wilderness character.

Article Photos

(Photo — Joe Hackett)

As with beauty and other such aspects of human character, the true caliber of wilderness is akin to a multi-faceted gemstone. Obviously, the wild jewel is typically viewed through an amateur's lens, since there are very few professional wilderness observers. As a result, it is difficult to gauge the caliber of such a valuable or rare commodity without having an established standard. Traveling through lands that one individual considers indicative of true wilderness may actually be like a walk in Central Park for others.

Individual perceptions of wilderness are often an extension of personal experience, combined with an understanding of both the human and natural history of the land.

Nature, when left to its own devices, can have extremely restorative effects on both the land and the people who utilize it. One of the most intriguing aspects of raw, wild land is its capacity to heal nature landscapes as well as the hearts and souls of those who travel to and through such lands.

A majority of readers claimed the Park's finest wilderness was to be found along the upper reaches of the Oswegatchie River."Beyond High Falls, that's where you'll find really wild country, where few have ever treaded," claimed one enthusiast.

However wild it now appears, there were once over a dozen or so camps and cabins scattered along the river banks. While the river corridor now appears to be as wild, quiet and lonely as anyplace in the East, I can recall the days when trappers traveled upriver in motorboats to check their traplines. However, with the establishment of the Five Ponds Wilderness, motors were banned and the dams returned. In recent times, there are only a few trappers still working the Oswegatchie, and as always, the industrious beavers continue to build their dams.

And while the region may appear as wild as ever, it's interesting to note the most common complaint revolves around paddlers having to haul their fully loaded canoes over all those beaver dams. At last count, there were more than six dozen beaver dams spanning the river between Lows Lake carry and Inlet.

Regarding the caliber of wilderness, one reader noted, "I suspect the answer depends heavily on the individual reasons people value wilderness. Is the quality of a wilderness area defined by the character of the land, the zoning or by the skills of the travelers?"

It is an important point to note, especially in areas such at the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, where the terrain is particularly rugged and wild, and yet the worn trails and crowded conditions often make it seem tame.

There is no doubt the wilderness concept is often corrupted by many of the efforts intended to protect it such as lean-tos, outhouses, dams, foot trails, log bridges and signboards. Although these "signs of man" are intended to minimize the extent of human impact, they are often regarded as equally intrusive.

Another important aspect of wilderness that receives very little attention is the human element. Certainly, the sheer number of travelers and the lack of common courtesies are considered major factors by many in determining the quality of their overall wilderness experience. By a far measure, negative social interactions were the most common denominator mentioned in determining the quality of the wilderness experience.

However, only one individual noted the positive social aspects of wilderness travel as being of great importance. He described the concept eloquently, explaining, "Deeper still are the friendships I have had with people who grew up and lived - and some who have since passed away - in the Adirondacks. It moves me deeply to realize how much of my sense and appreciation of the Adirondacks has to do with the people of that place. Wilderness is just the stage where life is lived and breath is breathed."

He added, "From the standpoint of pleasant night breezes carrying sounds of owls and coyotes, the fragrance of balsam, life seems not to despise the wild forests over wilderness areas - or even the little towns that dot the Adirondacks. Biodiversity doesn't care that much where lines have been drawn, whether some trees were cut 20 years ago, or that a tractor that an old man mowed his field with was silenced 10 years ago."

I also received valuable insights from a retired outdoor professional who spent his career protecting the wilderness. It's quite obvious the folks who protect our natural resources have a far different concept of the land than those who simply utilize it for pleasure. He acquired a unique perspective working with his boots on the ground rather than under a desk, and as a result, his understanding is much more practical than theoretical.

"I think guides, outfitters and all user groups need to band together and put some pressure on DEC to bring some common sense into the management planning process," he explained.

"The idea that campsites need to be closed and or moved back to a point where no one will use them is a fantasy of the imagination of people who like to pretend that we have a wilderness here.

"My idea of wilderness is a place where there is no human impact like the Canadian far north, or places in Alaska where you can go hundreds of miles without crossing a road, or the Amazon basin, or the Antarctic. If we call the Adirondacks a wilderness, then what do we call these places?"

To provide some perspective by comparison, a study of the Adirondack Park indicates only three percent of the territory encompassed within the Blue Line would be designated as primitive lands, according to standards established by the U.S. Forest Service.

The study reveals that only 180,000 acres out of the total 6 million acres of protected park lands are located more than 3 miles' distance from motorized uses (roads and snowmobile trails) or 2 miles from waters where motorboats are permitted.

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