Seeking Wild

The storm began in earnest an hour after sunset.

I felt the charged air beginning to circle the meadow while I was eating my dinner. The quick, anxious bursts of wind carrying the organic scent of freshly wet earth brought a tingly, anxious prickling to my mind. The heady aroma of the earth waiting for a storm enveloped my senses, so I quickly finished eating and double checked the tent’s fly before taking a last photograph of the sunset and closing myself into a nylon cocoon.

Animals know better than we do when the sky is about to turn into an enemy. While I was checking my tent, the massive clouds of midges that had been swarming the shore of the basin lake vanished in anticipation of the winds that might sweep them out of this high basin and into the plains. The mountain sheep that had been grazing on the ridges above the meadow also disappeared, apparently finding shelter high up in their precarious habitat. They sensed what was coming and weren’t waiting to watch.

It started as a gentle but persistent pattering. I lay awake listening and wondering if it would get worse or pass. Small gusts of wind brought staccato patters of rain and breathed fresh unidentifiable scents into the small space. Would the wind press the side of my tent against me, soaking my sleeping bag and pack by the morning? 

When the last of the light was gone, I heard a voice over the light footfalls of the rain. It was scarcely there, faint enough that I lifted my head to hear better. And then, there it was there again – distant but unmistakable. The cry of wolf, and this time there was the barest rejoinder from a different direction. A pair, perhaps more.

Their voices drifted over the rain, echoing back and forth across the basin, filling me with a spinning maelstrom of feelings. I lay awake listening until little by little the rain fell harder and wrapped me in a wall of sound that cut me off from them and everything else outside the thin walls of my tent. The wolves disappeared under the roaring silence of a deluge.

I strained to hear something more but sleep eventually claimed me, and as it did my dreams ran away from the tent, over the ridge at the top of the basin and into the mountains in search of an elusive presence that kept running and running.

Photograph from Hyalite-Porcupine Inventoried Roadless Area in Montana by Nelson Guda

What is Wilderness?

The wolves I heard calling to each other through that storm were in a roadless area in Montana that stretches north from the edge of Yellowstone. This is wild land – almost as wild as it gets in the lower 48 states of the USA without going to Alaska. To get more any more wild you would have to go to the wilderness area outside the southeastern corner of Yellowstone, where the park service relocates the problem bears from the park. That unique location remains so wild not because of the grizzlies, but because it is the furthest you can get from a road anywhere in the US outside Alaska. 

This past weekend was the 58th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a monumental law signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 that created a system of public lands specifically to preserve wilderness. That was the first time that wilderness was given a legal definition.

But what really is wilderness?

That may seem like an obvious question, but it’s important to ask, because conservation communities around the world are rallying to the idea of rewilding, and words have meaning in law.  

Photograph from Ice Lake in a Colorado Inventoried Roadless Area by Nelson Guda

Wild Complexity

Growing up in suburbia, my vision of wilderness was shaped by a strange mix of National Geographic and Indiana Jones, and I developed dreams of a planet still filled with wild, unexplored places. But reality is much more complex than dreams. Wilderness is more than just the places that are remote, grand and difficult to get access.

The truth is that being wild has nothing to do with a landscape being rugged, dangerous or exotic. It doesn’t matter whether the apex predator is a large, toothy mammal or a small, insect eating bird. 

In Idaho and Montana, Wolves are a keystone predator, and their rebound is a great success story that speaks directly to the idea of rewilding. Northern Idaho is beautiful and rugged, and keystone species like wolves are a critical piece of that wilderness. But wolves are only one part of a rich and complex ecosystem.

Northern Idaho also the birthplace of the Columbia River and the spawning grounds of the river’s salmon. While wolves have rebounded across drainages that were once logged but have now regrown, many of those same tributaries will take decades to recover as salmon habitat, because the sediment from runoff clogs the small creeks and makes it impossible for salmon fry to survive in. The tiny baby salmon need the clear, cold waters that run beneath undisturbed forest. 

I have hiked into old growth forests in these watersheds in northern Idaho, and the diversity is staggering – a strange fairy world blend of trees from both the northwest and the Rocky Mountains. This photo is from one of thousands of tiny creeks that pulse like a network of tiny arteries  beneath the forests that cover the dense folds of land in the Clearwater watershed. 

Simply put, wilderness is our absence – the world before we disturbed it.

This is the beating heart of the problem, because we are now inextricably involved with every square inch of the planet. Beyond our many direct impacts, our disruption of global climate affects every ecosystem on earth. Which brings us back to the question – what is wilderness now? 

As difficult as it is to answer that question, we actually need to rethink it entirely. Some wilderness systems may have to change, because they can’t function in a changing climate. Understanding and helping manage that change as we try to rewild will be critical.

We need wilderness. I need it. When I go to sleep at night in the city I need to know that there are still places where wolves call to each other over brewing storms and people are secondary. But far more importantly, the earth needs these places. The planet needs intact ecosystems, and that requires wilderness. Wilderness today may not be what we thought it should be, but what it must be is a place that can largely sustain itself so our planet can continue to sustain us. 

Wilderness is often surprisingly resilient. Nobody expected the wolves to repopulate the northern Rockies so rapidly. I’m confident that the planet can rewild if we help it.

Photograph from Buck Mesa in a Colorado Inventoried Roadless Area by Nelson Guda

The Future Wild


My relationship with wilderness is long and diverse, but some of what I consider my most important wilderness experiences were in the patchwork mosaic network of US Forest Service Inventoried Roadless Areas, which I sought out to map and photograph for years when the law protecting them was in danger of being gutted. 

Those explorations gave me more insight into the land, the people who use it, and the political fights around it than any other experience could have.

One of the many people I met and talked with in the Roadless Project was Pat McKenna, a ranch manager in eastern Centennial Valley, Montana. Pat grew up hunting and working in the logging industry. Eventually he decided that he didn’t want to cut forests down and went to work for a ranch owner looking for someone who respected the environment. His story is fascinating. You can read more about the Roadless Project here, and find out about the book. 

Pat McKenna, Photograph by Phil Borges