The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
My campsite was so near Pinchot Pass, I was on top by 7:45. A breeze had come up during the night, and despite the warmth of the morning (47 degrees at dawn) I put on a wool shirt as I sat on the pass named for the man Theodore Roosevelt called his conservation conscience, the man that Earth First!’ers most wish had never been born.
Pinchot said, “There are only two things on this material earth–people and natural resources,” but he is hated primarily for his support of the dam at Hetch Hetchy and the Forest Service’s policy of allowing clear cutting of National Forests. This is too bad, especially the latter. He never believed in clear cutting. The original Forest Service organic act, inspired by Pinchot and quoted by him in his autobiography, said, “the Secretary [of the Interior] was authorized to sell `the dead, matured, or large growth trees’ on the Forest Reserves, after the trees had been Ômarked and designated.Õ”
Conservation, for Pinchot, was part of what Samuel Hays has termed, “the gospel of efficiency” –the theory that social well-being can be furthered, and socialist revolution prevented, only by the most efficient use of all the natural and human resources of the nation. That was the basis for his support of the damming of Hetch Hetchy. He could easily have written the 1908 decision granting the City of San Francisco the permit to dam the valley, which said, “Domestic use … especially for a municipal water supply, is the highest use to which water and available storage basins can be put. … The next great use of water and water resources is irrigation.” A national survey in 1980 found that most Americans would still agree with this.
This issue of a dam in a park arose again years later over the Grand Canyon, but this time the “preservationists” won. The Canyon remained pristine, in part because the Sierra Club and others were able to invoke the words of Pinchot’s mentor. “Leave it like it is.”
Teddy Roosevelt. There’s nothing on the JMT named after him, but he seems in a strange way to lurk behind all the conflicts and contradictions I had noted all the way along, perhaps because he was so magnificently contradictory himself. He could call for a Grand Canyon untouched by the hand of man, but support the dam at Hetch Hetchy. He could answer Muir, on being told hunting was childish and he should give it up, “Perhaps you’re right,” but he subsequently went off to Africa to “collect” literally tons of animal remains for the New York Museum of Natural History.
His views on the efficient use of natural resources echoed Pinchot, but he was more in tune with Muir on the spiritual values of nature. In fact, it is little remembered today, but he entered college with the intention of becoming a naturalist. When he traveled to Yellowstone in the spring of 1903 with John Burroughs, author of over a dozen nature books, he impressed Burroughs as much by his ability to recognize birds by sight or song as by his stamina, unfailing good humor, and encyclopedic memory.
Muir, camping with Roosevelt a month later, was similarly impressed. “I never before had a more interesting, hearty and manly companion, ” “I fairly fell in love with him.”
Roosevelt’s ability to reconcile his preservationist and wise use philosophies echoed his social ideas, particularly his ideas about women. As early as the 1880’s he supported women’s suffrage, and in 1913 he supported equal pay for equal work. Yet throughout his life he believed that a woman’s primary function was the production and rearing of large numbers of children, four, eight, ten, the more the better.
Probably the best insight into the world of Roosevelt’s ideas about nature was that of John Burroughs. After their camping trip to Yellowstone, Burroughs wrote:
I have never been disturbed by the President’s hunting trips. It is to such men as he that the big game legitimately belongs, –men who regard it from the point of view of the naturalist as well as from that of the sportsman, who are interested in its preservation, and who share with the world the delight they experience in the chase. Such a hunter as Roosevelt is as far removed from the game-butcher as day is from night; and as for his killing of the “varmints,” –bears, cougars, and bobcats, –the fewer of these there are, the better for the useful and beautiful game.
The President wanted all the freedom and solitude possible while in the Park, … he craved once more to be alone with nature, he was evidently hungry for the wild and the aboriginal … he sees things as wholes, and hence the relation of the parts comes easy to him … The spirit of the boy was in the air that day about the Canon of the Yellowstone, and the biggest boy of us all was President Roosevelt.”
— Joh Burroughs
Roosevelt epitomized what Aldo Leopold talked about in Sand County Almanac in his chapters on hunting and fishing. He understood the transforming experience of immersing yourself in nature, wild nature, but he did it without, perhaps, fully understanding the game-playing aspect of his method. He played the primitive hunter. Nothing is more telling than the incident, described by Burroughs, of Roosevelt walking 18 miles in Yellowstone so he could stalk a herd of elk and eat his lunch with them, calmly sitting on a rock within 50 yards of animals he might otherwise have shot, for meat, for a trophy, or for Science.
Roosevelt was a voluble exponent of The Strenuous Life, a life he raised almost to a Creed:
Hardy outdoor sports, like hunting, are in themselves of no small value to the National character and should be encouraged in every way. Men who go into the Wilderness, indeed, men who take part in any field sports with horse or rifle, receive a benefit which can hardly be given by even the most vigorous athletic games.”
An even more telling passage, one replete with the magnificent contradictions within him, is the Forward to his account of his African Safari of 1909-1910.
‘I SPEAK of Africa and golden joys’; the joy of wandering through lonely lands; the joy of hunting the mighty and terrible lords of the wilderness, the cunning, the wary, and the grim…These things can be told. But there are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm. There is delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game. Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars; where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn by man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting.”
I headed down from Pinchot Pass, walking quickly in the cool breeze. It was still clear but I was certain the gusts of wind I had felt the day before really were the harbingers of changing weather. This was the first time on the whole trip, 19 days, that I had walked in the sun with a wool shirt on. The trail headed down steeply and my right knee, which had been perfectly healthy, started to ache. I took the brace off my left knee, hoping it was now fully recovered from the training-induced tendonitis, and switched it to the right. Then I continued down more slowly, more delicately. Down towards Woods Creek.
I had, of course, promised myself that I would not camp there. I had had enough worries about bears getting my food even before hearing from the guy who had his tent trashed by the bear at Woods Creek. But when I got down there about 1 PM it was so hot and my right knee and left heel blister both hurt, so I reconsidered. I was not going trout fishing. I had non-smelly food. There was a bear box with lots of claw marks marring the paint. And mostly I was tired, physically and emotionally.
I hadn’t really assimilated my experience of the night before. At least, I hadn’t intellectualized it, but I had been profoundly moved, feeling at one with Light as I watched the moon rise. It was one of those experiences that illumines a whole trip, or a whole phase of a life, like Thoreau and the phosphorescent wood he found by the shore of Moosehead Lake.
“I did not regret not having seen this before, since I now saw it under circumstances so favorable. I was in just the frame of mind to see something wonderful, and this was a phenomenon adequate to my circumstances and expectation, and it put me on the alert to see more like it. … I let science slide, and rejoiced in that light as if it had been a fellow-creature. … It suggested to me that there was something to be seen if one had eyes. … Your so-called wise man goes trying to persuade himself that there is no entity there but himself and his traps, but it is a great deal easier to believe the truth. It suggested, too, that the same experience always give birth to the same sort of belief or religion. One revelation has been made to the Indian, another to the white man. I have much to learn of the Indian, nothing of the missionary.”
One revelation made to many of all races was the notion that the bright stars near the hub of the sky had something to do with a bear. Most constellations rise and set, appearing and disappearing with the hours of the night and the seasons of the year. Not the bear, The Great Bear. He is always there in the north, and so we talk about getting our bearings, which means both comprehension of physical location and understanding of your “place” in the universe.
Most animals live and die where they are, or migrate with the seasons. Not the bear, at least, not in the snowy reaches of the northern hemisphere. The bear enters the earth, a cave, or the hollow beneath some boulders, or among the roots of a massive tree. The bear goes to sleep in the earth, dies to the world while the forest is in the grip of winter, and reappears with the budding of new life in the spring. So the bear is not merely eternal in the sky, he enacts the mystery of resurrection, an animal enacting the universal re-birth of spring.
And not content with being resurrected, the bear, if a female, comes forth to new life with new life, cubs born and nurtured in that earth womb, so we speak of women bearing children.
For all these and many other reasons, the man-like, powerful, animal force that we call Bear has literally personified the Wild for as long as humans have had the intelligence to recognize and think on their kinship to us. Bears are hunters and gatherers, like humans. They are resurrected, like gods. In fact, resurrection is the focus of the bear sacrifice cult as practiced by the Ainu, the aboriginal people of Japan, and probably by their paleolithic predecessors. Just as the moon is sacred because it is light, and is resurrected each month, bears are sacred because they are dark and wild, live in the woods, and are resurrected each year.
Once I was rested and cooled off, with my food locked away securely in the food locker or “bear box,” I decided that, after all, I really did want to see and maybe photograph a bear. I scouted around and soon found what looked sort of like bear tracks. I decided to follow them. They led down to a swampy pond, where mosquitoes rose to greet me, and the air was still, hot, and rank. I scanned the tumbled trees lying in the water and the rich grass, skunk cabbage, and dense underbrush. Nothing. I retreated to my tent.
A bit later, several groups of people arrived, twos and threes. The ones coming up the trail stared in wonder at the $80,000 suspension bridge, then threw down their packs with weary sighs. Those heading down ignored the bridge, but soaked their feet gratefully in the river. Soon there were over a dozen people camped around the bear box. It made an excellent platform for out cooking stoves, and we traded bear stories.
I had a message to deliver. Sweetpea, the Yosemite packer I had met two days earlier, had asked me to tell Steve, the boss of a trail crew working this area, that he was a day late but still coming to pick up his extra food. I wandered down to the trail crew’s camp.
They had just gotten back from a day’s work, rebuilding the trail up to the Rae Lakes, and they were washing by the river or sitting around their camp, drinking coffee. Sweetpea’s friend Steve was, it turned out, the author of the Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park Trail Handbook, the guide to trail construction and maintenance. He had seemed pleased but not surprised when I commented how much better maintained “his” park’s trails were than Yosemite’s.
“We’ve done a lot more with CCC crews. They’re getting into that now, with the work they’re doing on the Mist Trail, but we’ve had a head start on them. We start down low as soon as we can get at the trails in the spring, and work our way up. Every year there are a few big projects. Two years ago we built the big bridge. Last year we did a major re-route away from the shore of a lake up above timberline. This year, we’re totally re-building the trail up from here to Dollar Lake. We’re digging out the trail bed, filling in with rock, and covering it with soil, some of it from under other socks. It’s a lot of work but it’s the best kind of trail, low maintenance, durable, and not too intrusive-looking. These kids do great work.”
I asked him about the bear that had attacked the tent. He shrugged.
“I hadn’t heard. Anybody hear about a bear opening a tent from the top down?” he asked the group. Three people shouted at once.
“Yeah. Twice. Once to a camper, once to Hannah. A bear ripped open her tent and started to run off with one of her boots. She screamed and we chased it and he dropped the boot. It was a couple of weeks ago. The funniest thing was, she stood there holding her flashlight and shouted that she’ll never sleep alone again and of course all the guys applauded.”
I went back to my tent, thinking about packing up and moving up the trail, away from Bear City. Then a foursome arrived and I suggested they camp close to my tent, to discourage the Big Bad Bear. They did, and I felt better. Besides, I thought, maybe I’ll get some bear pictures after all.
I saw Steve Griswold and another ranger inspecting some cracks in the support timbers of the bridge and went over to talk to them. I asked why the park had decided to spend so much money on this one bridge.
“Safety. We used to have a log crossing, a big old log with a handrail, but it would get shifted by the spring floods every year, and we had to winch it back into place. But meantime, the early-season PCT hikers would come along and look at the river and think, ÔThat looks okayÕ and step in and get swept away cause in the spring flood it’s four feet deep and 50 miles an hour.”
I asked if anyone had made plans to do anything about the aggressive bear. Steve said it had been reported, that was all. His companion said. “I hope you have your food locked away. I saw a big, black-colored bear a few minutes ago.” I thought again about getting some bear pictures, and walked over to look for tracks, off where Steve had pointed, towards the swampy area I had seen before.
I had fast film in both cameras, since it was very dark under the trees. I had left my tripod, walking stick, and all other encumbrances behind. Just where I had lost the supposed track an hour earlier, I found fresh tracks in a patch of mud at the edge of the swamp. The whole impression of each foot was clearly visible, as were the claws, just beyond the impressions of the toes. The water was just beginning to ooze into the broad sole-print of the tracks. They were very fresh. They pointed away from the swamp towards a patch of thick brush twenty feet to my left.
I looked around, holding a camera at the ready. The forest was still except for a chickaree chattering loudly somewhere above me. I wondered if he was warning me or the bear. More likely, on reflection, he was just warning off potential competitors as he hopped from branch to branch, high above my head, dining on pine nuts. Bears didn’t scare him, and neither did photographers.
I walked slowly and cautiously towards the brush, but found the tracks veered off towards the campsite. I realized then I was looking at the tracks he, probably a he, from the size of the tracks, had made before Steve had spotted him. The tracks led towards the camp and I lost them where the soft forest soil turned to hard granite.
I cast about and found them again, now heading towards a place where the forest was thick with mature trees but the ground was open except for tangles of fallen limbs. I followed slowly, trying to pierce each tree and brush-pile with my gaze. I didn’t want to stumble over the bear, but I hoped to approach close enough for a picture before he ran.
I found a large pile of fresh manure–very fresh. I noticed no trace of Mountain House foil packs, tea bag tags, or other evidence that he had recently succeeded in taking anybody’s dinner. A good sign. The bear box was obviously beyond his capabilities.
I walked a bit deeper into the forest, following the fresh tracks. Then I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I was playing a game, a silly game. Great White Hunter, stalking a bear, like Roosevelt and his elk.
But like Faulkner’s boy in The Bear, when he tried to stalk and see the bear, carrying his compass, I still had my civilized cameras, I had my ulterior motive, and I never saw that bear. Perhaps he saw or heard me following him and mistrusted my motives. Maybe he was hungry and, finding no readily-accessible food at the camping area, was heading to a lily-garden to dig bulbs. It was the closest I came on this trip to meeting a bear, and the last time I worried about them.