Feeling the Heart of Wilderness

Jess Raty – Wilderness Ranger Intern

University of Montana- Missoula

Wind Lakes/Graves Peak with IDAWA

July 25-28

Clearwater National Forest

“Wow, life is so good,” I say as I soak in some hot springs under the sweltering summer sun. I probably should not admit to the rest of my crew, all of whom went on a different, more difficult hitch, that I got to spend my first day with a group of high schoolers from Iowa, a project lovingly referred to as IDAWA,  at Jerry Johnson Hot Springs. We spent the morning hiking around DeVoto Cedar Grove, admiring the large cedars and comparing the flora of this area to the farmlands found in Iowa. We discussed the importance of ecological diversity, and even took the time to talk about how logging old growth forests can greatly affect the landscape. Then we took the afternoon to hike up to the local hot springs to experience what wonders the natural world provides. Nevermind the fact that not a single tree was cut on that first day, the time we spent learning about the Wilderness around us made for an excellent beginning of a fantastic hitch.

Now, I do not want this post to sound like I am about to shoot rainbows out of my eyes with fake positivity, but the amount of development and change in passion that I witnessed from these high schoolers over the course of this hitch was very real.  There are no words that I can use to describe this experience without sounding insincere. It is going to sound so cheesy, but part of what made this hitch with the IDAWA group so great was how welcoming the tight-knit group was to me, an outsider who did not join them for the 22 hour drive out to Idaho. As soon as I squeezed into the back of the van with them, they immediately made me a member of their group by including me in their jokes, discussions and activities. The guides of the group, Chris and Bob, were phenomenal leaders and even better people, encouraging each of us to forgo the clock and eat when we were hungry, rest when we were tired and stop living our lives around an abstract concept like time. It was liberating, I could see each student growing from the freedom that Wilderness granted them.

I would like to think that I taught them all about “capital W” Wilderness during their time in the backcountry, but honestly, I think the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness itself gave them so much more of a life-changing experience than I ever could have. These students were the ones who taught me so much more about conservation than I could have ever imagined. Sure, I provided them with the basic facts about the 1964 Wilderness Act and taught them how to safely use a crosscut, but they were the ones who gave me a whole new perspective on conservation. I spent my entire life growing up in the mountains and designated Wilderness areas, but I never quite took the time to stop and consider what the “Bread Basket” states of the Midwest might be missing from their landscapes. Watching these Iowans gawk over the crystal-clear waters of Wind Lake made me chuckle at first, until they told me that the only river in their area was the second most polluted river in the United States and “sticking a finger in the water would mean that you would immediately lose it in the depths of its murkiness”. They also expressed their concern over the diminishing native prairie land left in their state and how the less than 1% of their native prairie is along the railroad tracks, not in parks or protected areas. This shocked me and not only opened my eyes to how lucky I am to have grown up in such a pristine place, but also to how much harder we must fight to save and conserve the last of the wild places in our country.

One of the highlights from this hitch was the final campfire discussions we had as a group. Chris had the four “old women of the woods” (Anna, a Wilderness Ranger in the Selway- Bitterroot; Connie, an ex- Wilderness Ranger; Hannah, a USFS employee in recreation and me) talk to everyone about what made us dedicate our studies, careers and lives to Wilderness and conservation. It was emotional as well as empowering to have four women be the examples and leaders for these high schoolers. The most touching moment for me was when a girl came up to Hannah and me after the talk and said that we had inspired her and made her reconsider what she wanted to focus on in college. Hannah and I both agreed that that meant the world to us; it was the perfect way to end an already empowering night.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to join these wonderful people for a hitch in the beautiful Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness. Everyone’s enthusiasm to cut trees, clear drains and work hard was contagious, and I saw a lot of progress gained throughout their time in the Wilderness. What I learned from them was so incredibly valuable, and I cannot wait to see what each of these intelligent people do with their lives and careers in the future.