Friday, June 6, 2014

40 Freedoms and a Blank Spot on the Map

By Jill Alban

Most hunters and anglers like to swap tales—whether of a 30-mile day on horseback, a big trout that just got away, or a 12-mile hike through snowdrifts in pursuit of an elusive bull elk.

For me, my most formative backcountry experience came in 2012, when I spent 10 days alone in a Forest Service cabin in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. “The Bob” was one of the very first wilderness areas created after the 1964 Wilderness Act, and today the entire Wilderness Complex includes over 1.5 million acres and is the third largest wilderness area in the Lower 48.
I’d spent long weeks in the Bob before, but never by myself. My solo backpacking experiences up to that point had consisted of one and two nighters. I was excited – for the chance to be out by myself in the complete and utter quiet; to explore, hike, and fish on my own; and to spend as much time as I wanted writing in my journal or reading. I was also nervous – about the possibility of running into a grizzly bear, or – worse yet – a human that didn’t have good intentions.

I did manage to get more comfortable as the week went on. Nights were hardest – I waited as long as I could before going to bed, squinting to see my book under a combination of starlight and my headlamp. Once I laid down on the old USFS mattress, my mind would prick and startle at any little sound, whether at a deer tromping through the woods or the hordes of mice scuttling about in the rafters. I was perfectly safe, shut up into the cabin with my dog sleeping by my side, but I was still a little on edge all night long.

But just as the night brings out the strange fears that usually dwell beneath the surface of the brain and twists and shapes them into surreal, unimaginable things, the morning does the opposite. I’d wake early, unlatch the front door to the small cabin, and let my dog out to sniff any new smells that had emerged overnight. The morning air was usually chilly.

I’d grab a hat and jacket, pick up the metal pot from the stove, and carry it down the narrow game trail to the small creek running beside the cabin. Holding the pot under the surface of the water, I’d watch hundreds of startled scuds and nymphs scatter in the loose sediment. The sun left its dappled imprint on the creek, making the river rocks gleam red and purple in the light.

Back at the cabin, I sat in the sun on the front porch, waiting for the water to boil, watching songbirds. Groups of red crossbills flew in dangerous loops around me, flitting and chirping as they hopped among seeds and pieces of grit on the ground. Sometimes one or two of them would fly so erratically that they’d end up inside the cabin. They’d alight on a chair, perhaps the stove, before shrieking a bit in alarm and taking to the air again to try and find a way back out. I’d read somewhere that the less intelligent species were actually the most brazen. It was the smarter types who seemed glad to keep their distance.

Each day, I’d wait for the light to lengthen and air to warm before I set out on a hike. Ten days, alone in the wilderness with nothing to do, nothing to accomplish except to follow any desire or impulse I had. Mostly, I wanted to hike and fish, to climb the trails leading to high alpine lakes and cajole tiny, naive cutthroat trout to take my fly. To watch the fish cruise the edge of the deep water and rise from the blue depths to chomp at my Royal Wulff, over and over again.

Aldo Leopold once asked, “Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank space on the map?” Because of philosophies like his – and those of Mardy Murie, Wallace Stegner, Sigurd Olson, and Bob Marshall himself—today we are fortunate to possess ‘blank space,’ to have access to majestic and irreplaceable wilderness areas.

Yet for me, ‘blank space’ is not exactly the most fitting term. For one thing, this phrase seems to compare wild areas to white canvas, places that we humans can fill and color with our own narratives, our own desires. Our stories are part of the wilderness, but not all. And this sentiment also turns the wild once again into another place to fill with something, to provide us with what we need—whether solace, escape, or a fulfillment of some fantasy.

So I’m not sure what the best term is, how to best describe the absolute need for wilderness. I’m so grateful to have these wild areas—to walk in them, wonder in them, marvel in them, and even cower in them from time to time. I’m enormously indebted to all who came before me, all who fought tooth and nail to preserve the little open space, intact floodplains, and big landscapes we have left. For me, wilderness—especially on a solo trip like the one I took in 2012—offers me a chance to see and feel myself raw. To feel alive, open, vulnerable, and capable all at once, against a backdrop of open sky and water. Wilderness offers us completely incomparable opportunities: swimming naked in a high alpine lake, spotting a grizzly bear from 50 yards away and watching it lift itself onto its back legs, or stumbling upon a waterfall surrounded by moss and wildflower.

The year 2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Find out more about upcoming celebratory and commemorative events in Montana at

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