I love the word “wilderness”. It never fails to set me to imagining.
I imagine being out of sight and earshot of civilization, in a place where man’s touch is absent; and you see, hear and smell only nature – and yourself.
Earlier this month, I spent four days backpacking in and around a wilderness, at least a place that is officially designated as one. If you take a purist view of wilderness, you might certainly argue that none is left, that man has altered everywhere now. Our plastic fills the oceans, our soot covers the icecaps, the seas lap ever higher around remote desert islands. My hike around New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness got me thinking about just what wilderness means.
Wild River Wilderness is small – less than twice the size of Manhattan. The forested White Mountains valley it occupies has been anything but untouched by civilized man. It was thoroughly logged in the 1800s, unnaturally burned in 1903, and set aside as wilderness by Act of Congress only in 2006. I was interested to see what that designation meant in practice.
The first 3.7 miles of my hike took me to a ridge called Eagle Crag. Speaking casually, you could call it a wilderness hike. The only obvious works of man were the trail itself, its blazes, and a few signs. A careful eye – not mine – might notice that in places the trail followed an old logging road. But all of this was before the wilderness boundary. (There were, by the way, fantastic views from Eagle Crag, and if you are not interested in my ramblings on wilderness, you can just follow the hike via photos and notes here.)
I crossed into the wilderness just beyond Eagle Crag in the early afternoon, and remained in it – on and off – for the best part of two days, and two full nights. The wilderness was a mixed forest in the drainage of the Wild River. I saw no one and my cell phone did not work. The main differences from the non-wilderness land around it was that its trails showed no sign of maintenance, trail signs were few, and blazes scare and not to be relied on. In places, the Wild River Trail vanished. The river itself had always to be forded.
Then there was Perkins Notch where I spent my first night. I knew the shelter had been removed, but was unsure what other camping facilities would remain. Apart from a few packed-earth tent pads, there were none; no privy, no bear pulley. I would have liked the pulley especially, but this was a wilderness so I strung a rope over a half-fallen pine.
All through day two it poured. Thankfully, I had left the wilderness for Carter Notch Hut for most of the storm. I had planned, on day three, to hike over Carter Dome, and then cross seven miles of the wilderness on the Blue Angel Trail. But a cold front was due to come through in the morning. It promised thunder, and I did not want to be on a mountaintop for it.
But there was another factor in my decision to retrace my steps down the Wild River; I now knew where the trail could be lost, where it would be wettest, where I would have to wade streams. I knew none of that, firsthand, for the Blue Angel Trail. It was now irrelevant to me that the White River valley had been logged and burned a century ago. It didn’t matter either that its very air held man’s invisible interference. It was a wilderness, even if not quite a trackless one, and I had better err on the side of caution.