When we arrived in Alaska, we heard about efforts to build more trails into wilderness areas — to alter the way the half-century old Wilderness Act is interpreted. We learned what a mistake that would be.
The speedboat dropped us off on the north shore of Lake Clark, about seven miles away from the Port Alsworth gravel runway where the bush planes land. As the sound of the engine faded away, reality set in.
I would spend the next 43 days in the Alaskan wilderness.
The shore spanned only two feet and beyond that I saw a thick wall of brush and alder, a tangled and nearly impenetrable plant. The four of us glanced at each other nervously… and we began to bushwhack.
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve was established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (ANILCA). This park is one of the least travelled in Alaska, partially due to its remoteness and inaccessible terrain.
When we arrived in Alaska, we heard about proposals to create trails in order to facilitate travel through Lake Clark. This is a part of a larger debate going on in the country about the meaning of wilderness and the interpretation of the half-century old Wilderness Act.
Just last month, attorney Ted Stroll wrote in The New York Times that the U.S. Forest Service had grown too severe in its interpretation of the act, restricting even minimal trails and signs that would open wilderness areas to more people. “The result may be more pristine lands, but the agency’s zealous enforcement has also heightened safety risks and limited access to America’s wilderness areas,” Stroll argued.
Stroll was thinking of places exactly like this.
We had spent three days reviewing routes and planning our itinerary. In Anchorage, we sought advice from guides who worked in the Lake Clark area. In all this time, however, we never imagined that the light shade of green on the topographic maps would in reality be such dense and relentless forests.
We headed in from the shore, fighting through the brush at an achingly slow pace. We typically walked (or crawled) four to five hours a day. Carrying heavy packs, we traveled about a mile, if we were lucky.
Hours began to feel like days, and days like weeks. Our spirits were as low as the clouds that surrounded us. I got sick — a fever of 102.5 degrees, chills, and a severe headache. And there was always more alder.
We eventually descended from Low Pass into the Twin Lakes valley and made our way onto the wide gravel shores of the turquoise waters. We spent the day contouring the shore, sometimes trudging through the frigid water when the shoreline disappeared into the lake, anything to stay out of the brush.
When we arrived at the eastern end of the lake, we saw other human beings for the first time in two weeks. Kay Schubeck and Monroe Robinson invited us into their 8×10 foot log cabin where we sat and listened to them tell their tales. We were mesmerized. These two have spent the past twelve summers in the cabin called “Spike,” studying and filming the wildlife of the area.
They told us of wolf dens in the upper Kijik River Valley, bears of the highlands, the vast caribou herds that migrate through the tundra, and the thousands of sockeyes that swim through the weirs. Monroe said he appreciated observing marmots run across boulder fields as much as watching a grizzly bear wrestle with her cubs.
When they told us of the current debate in the Lake Clark National Parks Service regarding the construction of trails in the wilderness area, we began to reflect. We thought about how miserable the last two weeks had been, moving one mile every day. We thought about how much we hated the alder.
But as we listened to Monroe describe the importance of this wilderness area and its history, all of the pain and suffering of the past 14 days slipped away.
With each word, I began to develop a radically different outlook on the days ahead.
After the first two weeks, we began to gain elevation. The brush subsided and we could cover more ground. Still, we encountered some obstacle every day. The terrain could be difficult or there was low visibility. There were rockslides or our gear malfunctioned. We were cold, hungry, and exhausted.
We had become so accustomed to the convenience of everyday city life that we had no conception of what true survival was. Before this trip, I had no notion of what it felt like to live in these conditions, for they are things that one can only experience in true wilderness.
It wouldn’t have been the same if there been a trail. The wilderness forced me to learn how to navigate using topographic maps, a compass, and what I could see before me. The thick, low clouds often made it impossible to plot a route through the expansive valleys, and we would be forced to set up camp until the weather cleared.
We saw many animals: moose, lynx, great horned owls, fox, dall sheep, marmot, and many bear.
We were camped on the shores of Two Lakes late in the trip. The sockeye salmon were just beginning to spawn and were jumping like popcorn. We took walks and collected stones and driftwood. Back at camp one day, Laura whispered, “Bear.”
We all looked up. A large grizzly bear was moving quickly towards us. Its face seemed curious and slightly confused. Laura was standing and Meghan, our experienced guide, came to her knees. Martha and I still sat. It stopped fifteen feet away and cocked its head. We silently observed each other. When the bear appeared as though it was going to continue moving forward, Meghan slowly stood up, a sign for the bear to remain where it was.
As soon as the bear saw Meghan stand, it stood on its hind legs as well and began to sniff the air, as if still figuring out what to think of these strange creatures. The bear stared at us, and we stared calmly back for about 30 seconds, but it seemed like much longer. It stood seven or eight feet tall, but the bear’s pose was not aggressive. Its arms were bent in front of its chest and its nose up in the air, taking in the smells of our camp.
This grizzly had probably never seen a human before, so it didn’t see us as food. I realized then the importance of keeping wild animals wild.
This grizzly acted the way it did because it had existed undisturbed by humans. If there were trails through these remote areas, there would be the chance that some people would not treat the wildlife with respect. Once a wild animal is exposed to humans who feed them or are a threat to them, peaceful sightings like this one could turn dangerous.
Humans in modern society have become accustomed to convenience, efficiency, and accessibility. We want our lives to be painless. We have created a world in which we are almost always able to avoid the forces of nature.
Ted Stroll is right. Building trails and erecting signs would make wilderness areas more accessible. But thousands of trails have been built that allow people to explore almost every national park in the United States. Is it necessary to drive trails into the country’s few remaining wild lands? Isn’t this the definition of selfishness?
The conservationist Margaret (Mardy) E. Murie was instrumental in the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the passage of the Wilderness Act, the law that some say should be altered. Murie is gone now. She died in 2003 at the age of 101. She once said, “I firmly believe that one of the very few hopes for man is the preservation of the wilderness we now have left, and the greatest reservoir of that medicine for mankind lives in Alaska.”
On our final evening in the wild, I retraced our trip in my mind, one day at a time. I realized how insignificant we had been in comparison to the land that we had traveled through. Our impact on the terrain would disappear the instant we departed.
The Alaskan wilderness, however, will stay with me forever.
Amalia Smith Hale is a high school senior in Austin, Texas.