The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I had expected the climb up Bear Ridge to be the hardest part of the trip, a 2,000 vertical foot slog with the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried. Instead, the route led through a garden of such exuberant loveliness that I was carried aloft on wings of beauty. As the trail switchbacked up and up I was surrounded by so many different kinds of trees, shrubs and especially flowers that I didn’t have a chance to think about myself, the weight of my pack, my blister, my achilles tendon, or my knee.
By nine I was nearly on top, and I sat on a log, trying to capture the morning in my journal.
“This forest on Bear Ridge is exquisite. I counted nine different wildflowers in one 30 foot stretch of trail, a transition from dry forest to aspen grove. The willow thickets are similarly profuse. I got to 14 flowers (all in profusion) before I got confused. Mushrooms 4 inches across, reddish brown or gray, from many a fallen log. A fawn’s tiny tracks on the trail…”
A sudden movement caught my eye. Looking up, I saw a small gray-brown hawk dart past me and vanish silently between the boles of two huge Red Firs. After it disappeared, a chickaree chattered loudly, perhaps an all- clear signal to others of his kind, perhaps a derisive shout at the hawk, “You can’t catch me, nyah, nyah, nyah!”
Starting out again I flushed a family of quail. The chicks, little puffballs of buff and tan, scattered in all directions like an exploding feather pillow. The mother fluttered down the trail, alighting every ten feet or so, then darted off into the underbrush, confident her brood was now safe. I went on, calling back, “I won’t eat your babies!”
At 11 I met a South-to-North End-to-Ender. He greeted me with the inevitable, “Had any bear problems?” He seemed surprised that I hadn’t even seen a bear. To hear him talk, walking the southern half of the trail you ran a gauntlet of bears snuffling pots, bluff charging, and generally making life miserable for everybody. He asked me, “So what problems have you had?”
“Yeah,” he said, “They have been pretty pestiferous, especially the last couple of days.” He pulled out a bottle of insect repellant, rubbed it lavishly on his hands and then distributed it over his face, head and arms. His neck was grimy, with rivulets where the sweat had run down, and his pants seemed coated with dirt and grease. He said he went by the nickname Snafu, because nobody knew the troubles he’d seen. He was an incarnation of Muir’s shepherd companion during the summer of 1869, when he took Pat Delaney’s 2,000 sheep up to Tuolumne Meadows.
“His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as small beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, with flowers petals, pollen dust, and indeed bits of all plants, animals and minerals in the region adhere to them and are safely imbedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows. … These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.”
Below the ridge I rested by the trail and puzzled over cries I heard every minute or two, each time a little louder. They sounded like the “Ki!” of a karate expert chopping through a stack of bricks. Soon a backpacker appeared, bent under an awesome load. Her frame pack was draped with a lantern, a folding chair, and some assorted, unidentifiable metal tubes. I said Good Morning but she merely grunted and continued up the trail. When she reached a steep step up, she bellowed out something that really did sound like “Ki!”
Just behind her, a big black Labrador came trotting along, seemingly unburdened by the two large green canvas saddlebags strapped around him.
Another “Ki!” –deeper and louder, told me they were not alone. A man came up the trail carrying easily the biggest load I’ve seen since I watched some porters in Nepal carry an iron bridge along a trail, piece by piece.
His load was nearly that big. A gas cylinder was attached to the bottom of his pack frame, a chair was hung from the back, and everyplace else was hung with bags, boxes, tools, cups, pots, pans and clothes. He was the reincarnation of the great mountaineer Norman Clyde, known to his friends as “The Pack That Walked Like A Man.”
He saw me and stopped, smiled, said hello, and wiped the sweat from his face.
“Quite a load you’ve got there,” I said.
“It’s not as bad as it looks. We’ve been out two weeks so far, so it’s down to about a hundreds pounds or so.”
“Do you have to carry dog food, too?”
“No,” he answered, “He pulls his own weight and then some. The only problem is we have to watch him above timberline. The sun’s so strong, he gets overheated from being black. Sometimes we have to take off his pack and throw him in a lake to cool him off. Gotta keep moving. Bye!” He followed his companion up the trail. At the same high step, he bellowed out, “Ki!” The sound shook the forest.
Down off Bear Ridge, the trail followed Bear Creek, which runs through a narrow valley, thickly strewn with elaborate campfire circles, log benches, and one amazing stone table with four stools, all merely granite boulders of the proper size and shape, set up like something out of the Flintstones’ dining room.
As I sat at this incongruity, a young ranger came along. After a few pleasantries (I noticed that he, at least, had some greeting other than the bear question) he asked if I had a wilderness permit.
“I’m glad you asked me that. As a matter of fact, I do have a wilderness permit, and you’re the first ranger I’ve seen who has asked to see it.”
He grinned broadly. “That’s what everybody says.” While he checked my permit, noting the details in his log, we talked and discovered we were off-season neighbors. He was an Environmental Studies major at U.C. Santa Cruz. I used to go there, and now live just a few miles away. His name was Todd.
“Do you find many hikers without permits?” I asked.
“No, actually, I think there have only been two so far this summer.”
“What do you do? Fine them? Jail them? Smear them with bacon fat and let the bears lick it off?”
“No, nothing quite so drastic. I just explain that we need the permits so we know how many people actually use the backcountry, and so we can spread out use so it still feels like a wilderness. I tell them where the next ranger station is where they can get a permit. If I came on like law enforcement, I’d just spoil the experience for them. I’d rather not ruin anybody’s day if I can help it. The first thing they teach you in Ranger School is the Minimum Tool Policy, don’t use a jackhammer if a shovel will do the job.”
“Are you going to use a jackhammer to take out this dining room set?” I asked.
“No, though I’d love to. We’re going to nuke it in a couple of days. I don’t know why people think they need this stuff in the wilderness. It’s the horsepackers, of course, not the backpackers. There’s even an iron grill over behind that log. As fast as I destroy fire rings they build new ones.”
“Let me ask you the burning question of the whole John Muir Trail. Had any bear problems this year?”
“Not yet, but I guess you heard about the bear up in Quail Meadows?”
“No, in fact, I camped near there last night.”
“He got half of somebody’s food a couple of days ago. Probably wasn’t hung right. Are you hanging your food safely?”
“Mostly,” I lied. “Tell me, have you ever had a bear take your food?”
He grinned. “Just once. I was in high school. It was the first time I went backpacking. I was camped at Lower Cathedral Lake. A bear climbed the tree where I’d hung my food. I threw rocks but it wouldn’t go away. Finally, it got the food and ate it all. I was a dumb high school kid, what did I know?”
I asked him if he had seen the grossly overburdened couple. “Believe it. The guy calls himself an ‘inventor/welder.’ He carried in 130 pounds, stove folds out from his pack frame, tablecloth, lantern, everything.
Half a mile down the trail I met another Forest Service Ranger, Don, a burly guy with a beard twice as grizzled as mine. He’d been out surveying the damage to the bridge at Rosemarie Meadow (it had been wrecked by spring floods) and other needed trailwork. I said something about the need for bridges on a lot of other crossings, ones that were dangerous when the water was high in early season or after a storm.
“It’s all a matter of budget. If we get more money for trail work, we can have more bridges. With our current budget, we can barely keep the ones we have alive. In a phrase, ‘Write your Congressman.'”
He was 54. He had hiked the John Muir Trail years before, but thought he was too old now. I told him about John Sanroma, four years his senior, doing the trail for the fourteenth consecutive year. He looked pensive as we said goodbye.
I’d seen only five people all morning, and I saw only five more that afternoon. One impressed me tremendously, Blair. He was young, maybe 25, lean, with the muscles of a marathon runner, muscles he showed off as much as possible, since he wore only hiking boots and shorts. He carried his big internal frame pack lightly, as if it were empty, and walked with long, brisk, powerful strides. He was doing the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to somewhere in Oregon.
“Alone?” I asked him.
“No, I have a buddy, but you know how it is. Two people can get on each other’s nerves, hiking together, cooking together, everything. We’re taking a week or so off from companionship. He’s a real Earth First! type, hates trails, bridges, rangers, signs, thinks the mountains should be really wild. If he goes ahead and picks out a campsite, he’ll just leave a tiny cairn by the trail and then bushwhack a mile so it takes me an hour to find him. He gave up rock climbing because the rubber soles of climbing shoes leave a smear on the rock. I carry my tackies, and I like to boulder after a twenty mile day on the trail, puts me back in touch with the rock after eating trail dust all day.”
I looked at his pack. It looked too new to have been carried 700 miles from the Mexican border. “New pack?” I asked.
“Yeah. My frame pack died. Crossing the desert was tough. I’m glad I had this Katydine water filter. Once we had to drink out of a puddle that had a dead cow in it. And for a few days we had to walk mostly at night along the access road for the LA aqueduct, it was the only water, and the shortest trail, but it was a real bitch. Not like the John Muir segment.”
“Have you hiked the JMT?”
“Yeah. Three years ago my buddy and I did it. It was October. The nights were damn cold and the days were short but it was so nice and we had the whole Sierra practically to ourselves. Say, everybody keeps talking about bears. Have you had any bear problems?” he asked.
“No. Actually, I haven’t even seen a bear on this trip, and I don’t even hang my food most of the time.”
“Me neither. Of course, I mostly camp above timberline, and there are lots of bear boxes further south, especially between Rae Lakes and Crabtree. Well, I better get going. I’m gonna soak out the miles in Fish Creek Hot Springs. It’s the cleanest, wildest hot pool in these here mountains.”
It had been an enlightening but tiring day. I camped early, where Hilgard Creek runs down into Bear Creek, and lay in the shade, sipping lemonade, nibbling trail mix, and thinking about campsites along streams, campsites a mile off trail, and the challenge to the rangers, trying to enforce vague rules about where people should and should not camp.
There seems to be almost universal agreement that Wilderness management shouldn’t impinge “excessively” on visitor use. The Wilderness Act merely refers to, “a primitive and unconfined type of recreation,” but most interpretations, both by managers and users, go much further. The editors of a collection of Wilderness Area management studies said, “The role of visitor management is to accomplish the maximum of resource protection with a minimum of intrusion on the visitor.”
This permissive attitude is consistent with American ideas of personal freedom, and with the universal idea of the Wilderness as the antithesis of Civilization. Sometimes, however, the managers and users of the Wilderness follow this notion to opposing logical conclusions.
Studies have consistently shown that most Wilderness users prefer seeing few other people. They have also shown that overuse of certain campsites destroys the local vegetation. To managers, this has generally suggested dispersal of camping, either by regulation or by education. One of the major purposes of the Backcountry Permit system in use throughout the Sierra is just such a dispersal. But other studies have shown that, in some environments, dispersed use leads to the destruction of a very wide area. Heavy use of certain areas can save the bulk of a Wilderness area, while designating camping areas in biologically less sensitive zones can eliminate nearly all adverse effects. Campers like lush valleys, like the one along Bear Creek. Lush valleys are very sensitive areas, easily damaged. Alpine meadows are even more sensitive, and recover very slowly if at all from human use and abuse.
Yet managers will ignore studies of visitor preferences if they produce a version of management that conflicts with their own. Great Smokey Mountains National Park has rigid controls on camping. Camping is allowed only at designated sites. Some of these sites have rough shelters, making it unnecessary for backpackers to carry a tent. Three quarters of those surveyed in 1973 favored retention of the shelters. Park Management decided to remove them anyway. In all studies of backcountry user preferences, it has been found that 60-70% object to horses using hiking trails. Yet horses seem appropriate to managers, so they stay.
At least one of the reasons Wilderness managers tend to ignore studies is their long experience with the emptiness of most of the statistics they have had to work with. Originally, in the Dark Ages of the 1960’s, the infancy of the Wilderness Act, backcountry use was estimated and it was known that the figures used were just guesses. When the permit system was introduced, partly to monitor use, it was quickly learned that these figures too had to be taken with a grain of salt. One study in the Great Smokey Mountains showed actual use 18% lower than the permit statistics indicated.
One of the ostensible reasons for the collection of these statistics is to limit use to the “carrying capacity” of trails, basins, and Wilderness Areas. The National Forest Management Act states Wilderness Plans must, “Provide for limiting and distributing visitor use of specific portions in accord with periodic estimates of the maximum levels of use that allow natural processes to operate freely and that do not impair the values for which wilderness areas were created.” Unfortunately, most Wilderness Areas have not yet done studies to determine their carrying capacity. In any case, such statistics will probably be ignored by managers, already so suspicious of statistics. In one eastern Wilderness Area, actual use a few years ago was literally double the established carrying capacity.
Even worse, the very idea of a numerical “carrying capacity” ignores the enormous differences between the impact of Blair and his friend, who truly did “take only pictures, leave only footprints” and the horsepackers, with their iron-shod horses, their cooking grills, and their Flintstones’ tables along the trail.
What all this meant on the John Muir Trail was that some areas were heavily used, some were lightly used, and the Forest Service and Park Service were pursuing the goal of low impact dispersed use without any assurance that they were going about it the right way or that the goal itself would best further the purposes of the Wilderness Act, the National Park Act, and the Forest Service Management Act. Sounds just like the government, doesn’t it?
And the epitome of it, the Sysiphusian image of eternally wasted, repeated effort, was young Ranger Todd, spending so much of his time knocking apart fire rings that the horsepackers and fishermen will build up again. And Again. And again.