June 18-26: The Greatest Challenge

Standing at the edge of the wild Salmon River drainage beyond Trout Peak on Chamberlain Trail #001.


It's easy to look back on any experience and forget the things that didn't go as planned. Those memories tend to fade quickly until we are only left with successful highlights and greater achievements to take with us into the future. Reflecting on our time spent at 6,300 ft beyond Trout Peak in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, it's apparent to me that the moments of uncertainty, instead, are the ones that will remain with me long after I return home in late August. Sure, we put a saw through a fair amount of trees, had the pleasure of meeting a gracious and knowledgeable host at Campbell's Ferry, and had a few peaceful nights camped out along sub-alpine ridges, but these things are not solely what I would use to define our hitch.

I recall somewhere on the eighth mile, our last water source around 3,500 feet below us, having to take off my pack and crawl on my knees through a downed tangle of Fir. Muddied, exhausted, and consistently frustrated with each seemingly endless turn in the trail, I remember thinking to myself that I had found the exact path I was seeking. Or as we worked our way down the mountain on one of the last days, watching a micro-cell plow its way into the steep walls of the Salmon River drainage, high winds and rumbles of thunder surrounding our quickened attempt to move downhill. Watching the skies darken and crack above us in a flurry of rain, I felt both thrilled and terrified at the relentless will of that kind of force.

There were moments such as these throughout our entire time spent on the switchbacks and saddles around Trout Peak, unexpected moments filled with frustration, exhaustion, and disbelief, yet I would have it no other way. So many wilderness recreationalists arrive seeking the challenge of traversing an area where they are only “a visitor who does not remain,” but in one short week, I found the greatest challenge is not what we encounter in the wilderness, but what we encounter within ourselves. The ability to balance fear and awe or weakness and strength in the context of an uncertain environment is the most basic and greatest challenge we all face in the experience of humbling ourselves to — and continuing the protection of — these great wild lands.

So come September, when someone asks me what I'll remember most from the summer, I'm sure there will be stories of great company, full days of quality work, and the starry nights that followed, but I know I will have an even richer experience to share. Perhaps I'll be fortunate enough to share those uncertain moments with others, where I stood at the very edge of myself and saw just as much wildness within me as there was in the surrounding landscape. Perhaps one day we'll all be fortunate to share those experiences with each other and learn to embrace the challenge of ourselves as much as we see the challenge in the land. Perhaps, then, wilderness will mean more to us all, whether alone 20 miles back into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, or surrounded on a crowded street in New York City.

     — Jack Markowski, Wilderness Ranger Intern | June 27, 2013