The White River tumbles fast and cold over its bed of rose and white stones, through the country burned by the 2003 fires, a green mess of a country now in a blaze of come-back: blooming fireweed, balsamroot, Indian paint brush, and jackstrawed timber for mile after exhausting mile. We rode under the enormous fire-scarred survivor pines on a park-like plain to the place where the White pours into South Fork of the Flathead River, and tied our horses and mules to the cottonwoods on a gravel flat carved and mounded by the snow-melt floods. We had planned to swim, and fish the big river, where I had heard so many stories of hooking cutthroats, only to lose them to the bull trout that rose like makos through the clear green water to take any thrashing creature that they could close their jaws around.
We were a bit over 30 miles from where we’d saddled up at the trailhead, Scarface Peak looming above, in the thrumming heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We’d been invited on a trip with our neighbors, Tucker and Amy Mills, the supersonic energy duo behind Mills Wilderness Adventures, and were seeing more country in a week from horseback than I could have in a dozen trips on foot. My ten year old son, Harold, whose best friend is Turk Mills (age eleven, already an accomplished wrangler and trail clearer), dug his lunch out of the saddle bags on his mule Alvin, and worked out a comfortable seat in the gravel, back against a stump. After a short lifetime of forced marches after antelope, mule deer, and “let’s just see what’s through that notch up there,” I’ve lost him to the luxuries of the saddle and the long view from high on a horse or mule.
I’ve also lost myself, after a lot of years away, to the real glories of wilderness, wilderness with a capital W. The kind where you stop in the July snowbanks on White River Pass and look back at mile after mile of elk country with not a single road or other sign of man’s endeavors. Places where the toughest and smartest bull elk or buck mule deer can die of old age, or a cutthroat trout can grow to 23 inches long, the scars from close calls with bull trout slowly fading along his bright-colored flanks. Where you run into people who’ve walked 20 miles that day, and are going 20 more the next, to a favorite camp on a river or creek where they’ll sleep-in and howl by campfires under a sky unsullied by artificial light, until the food runs out, and then they’ll head back, passing others bound for the same wild freedom, bought and paid for with time and muscle and the kind of absolute self-sufficiency which so much of our culture seems to demand that we all give up, just because so many others have.
Because the essence of America’s 1964 Wilderness Act is the essence of the nation that spawned the unique idea of setting aside wilderness in the first place: it is freedom. Freedom to hunt and fish, freedom to get in trouble. Nobody is coming to save you here, and there’s no on-board satellite system to phone the medical team when you stub your toe. The modern nanny-state, you-can’t-do-it-yourself mentality cannot get its skinny fingers around the neck of wilderness. Citizens who cannot do without their daily fix of fast food, or Rachel Maddow, American Idol, or Rush Limbaugh, won’t be on the South Fork of the Flathead, or the upper Selway, the Sipsey, the Cohutta, or in the Cirque of the Towers. As the numbers of citizens who can’t live without all modern protections, all the time, grow, there will be more people who just can’t understand why there should be more protected wilderness, or why we should have wilderness at all. That’s okay-those people will keep us on our toes, keep reminding us what our grandparents fought for to get the Wilderness Act in the first place, and encourage us to pass those values on to new generations, to introduce others to the beauty and freedom that is there. I don’t know if we’ll win that battle, but I do know that for me, having fished and hunted and seen some of that country, I have to continue to fight for it. I was raised on the caution and the command: “to whom much is given, much is expected.” All Americans have been given a whole lot, wilderness included. Let’s don’t crash the ship.