Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wilderness and the New England mind

One of the pleasures of living at Galehead Hut is its access to the fabulous peaks and valleys within the Pemigewasset Wilderness. In June, I described bushwhacking to Red Rock Pond, possibly the most remote body of water in the Whites and, I thought, a prime destination for a true wilderness experience. But to my surprise, I found along the way the remains of an old logging railroad bed and a small cairn, and by the shore of the pond, charred wood. Obviously, I was only the latest of a great many people who have sought out Red Rock Pond, and though the hike was well worth the effort, I did not achieve the feeling of solitude I had sought.

Safely back at the hut, I began to examine how my visit may impact future bushwhackers. While I am a careful hiker and certainly did not light any fires, I left a trail of trampled moss and broken branches. It is quite possible that I left some remnants of trash from my lunch by the pond. Might I myself have degraded the wilderness? In fact, if we define wilderness as pristine or free of human influence, is it possible at all to enjoy wilderness without destroying it?

As Laura and Guy Waterman relate in their book Wilderness Ethics, Professor Charles Fay faced a similar quandary in the late 19th century when he built Dicey’s Mill Trail, which runs from the Ferncroft Parking Area in Wonalancet (then home to several hotels, though it could hardly be sleepier today) to the top of Mt. Passaconaway. Fay, an early AMC president as well as professor of romance languages at Tufts University, and his companions not only completed the trail but also built a log shelter below the summit and cleared a summit view. On the final night of their endeavor, however, Fay had a crisis of conscience. By encouraging travel to the peak—he suspected the trail might be expanded into a bridle path—he feared he was hastening the destruction of the forests and peaks he wanted to share.

Ultimately, Fay’s misgivings were never realized. Dicey’s Mill Trail is popular, but it remains a far cry from the yak routes of the Franconias and Presidentials. However, an activity of far greater impact than hiking began to dominate the Whites during that era: logging.

In the Pemigewasset, JE Henry’s East Branch and Lincoln Railroad reigned supreme. Henry’s rapacious drive to deforest his lands can perhaps be traced to his childhood—by 15, he was forced by his father’s death to provide for his family. Between 1892 and 1948, he and his successors systematically clear-cut nearly the entire Pemigewasset. The railroads beds over which locomotives hauled timber to Lincoln still line the valleys, only they now serve as excellent paths for foot traffic. The scars of old logging roads, along which horses drew sledges loaded with wood in the winter, are still visible remarkably high (up to about 4000 feet) on the mountainsides. The species composition on the old roads is different than on adjacent slopes—white birch is dominant due to the history of disturbance. Balsam fir and red spruce are more common in the older parts of the forest, providing a dark green contrast to the lighter green leaves of the birch.

With a little practice, one can find all sorts of remnants of the old logging operations. Clearings still exist where old logging camps once stood, surrounded by rusting bedsprings, pails, and other bits of junk that the loggers cast aside. The marks of old landslides, caused by the root decay following clearcutting, are still visible, and railroad ties, rails, and even one old trestle dot the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, Howard Zahniser, its author, defined wilderness as “untrammeled.” Synonyms for untrammeled include unbridled, untamed, or uncaught. Clearly, Congress endorsed the idea of wilderness as distinct from human landscapes.

The act itself has been quite successful, at least in terms of the growth of wilderness areas. Since the Wilderness Act’s passage, Congress has created 702 new Wilderness Areas. Most recently, as I wrote earlier this year, Congress created and augmented several wilderness areas in New England. See http://gullivers-nest.blogspot.com/2007/03/wilderness-expands-in-new-england.html to read about it.

Even with the wilderness regulations, which limit group size to ten and restrict machines and camping, pristine backcountry is hard to find. 100 million people live within a day’s drive of the White Mountains—it is perhaps inevitable that illegal, or bootleg campsites, as they are known, spring up. Come midsummer, hikers are everywhere. The Vermont National Air Guard finds the Whites to be particularly useful in preparing its pilots for service in Afghanistan, so it is common to hear jets overhead. Verdant and relaxing the Pemigewasset may be, but it is hardly untouched by man.

In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, published in 1967, Roderick Nash challenged the dominant view of wilderness. Might it instead be a human construct—a state of mind, rather than a condition of geography? As I found leading trips as a camp counselor, wilderness journeys are really about finding solitude and achieving self-reliance. Indeed, though we abhor bringing large groups into wilderness, a backpacking trip can teach an enormous amount about camaraderie and teamwork. Ultimately, most of our excursions into the wilderness are about the human skills or emotions we seek, which wilderness can enhance but not create from scratch.

My ignorance doomed my hike to Red Rock Pond. Wilderness, as Americans have traditionally defined it, simply does not exist in New England; perhaps not even in those vast western landscapes. 400 years of European settlement, not to mention the often overlooked native influence in prior millennia (though it should be pointed out that there were few natural resources in the White Mountains to draw native tribes, and the locals at the time of English settlement, the Abenaki, were loath to visit the summits and risk offending their spirits), has had its effects on the landscape. But what we seek in wilderness—fun, self-improvement, spiritual renewal—is certainly close at hand.

To me, the close proximity of consumptive landscapes, e.g. North Conway, to our wilderness areas, is much more alarming than the passing of pristine wilderness. It suggests a double-standard of land use, an inconsistency which makes sustainability far more elusive. Stewardship does not end at park boundaries, and the insatiability of advertising and consumption poses the true threat to healthy landscapes, whether physical or mental.

Pictures: Birches in the Wild River Wilderness, Professor Charles Fay, the hiking trail on Bondcliff, behind which the scars of old logging roads are visible on Mt. Hancock, Roderick Nash, and looking south into the Dry River Wilderness.

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