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Backpacker Magazine – May 1998

A Blank Spot On The Map

We travel to New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness to understand the roots of the preservation movement and see just how far we've come.

by: Jeff Rennicke


John Muir Wilderness, California

For more than a century, the voice of John Muir has rung like a bell through the conservation movement. As the founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir and his words were a call to action. In his books of inspired prose, he made us stop and consider the beauty of nature and its effects on the soul. Some captured the wilderness in photographs, others in paintings. For Muir, his life was the work of art that most reflected his love of wild places--walking 1,000 miles through the Sierra with little more than a pocketful of rice, swinging from tall trees during storms, clinging to the edge of roaring waterfalls, all to experience nature firsthand, directly, and in all its raw beauty. He died in 1914, his heart broken over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, but his spirit, his words, and the example he set still ring through the mountains he loved and in the hearts of all who love them still.

On the trail: When John Muir was asked in 1868 where he would like to go, he replied, "Anyplace wild." Today, a good choice would be any of the trails within his 580,000-acre namesake wilderness. One particularly good place to look for his bootprints is the South Lake to Whitney Portal, a 92-mile, one-way hike that leads along the very crest of what Muir called "The Range of Light" and to the summit of 14,410-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Although some sections of the trail get a lot of use, icy stream crossings, high mountain weather, and rocky summits give the hike a wildness that even Muir himself would appreciate.

Contact: Inyo National Forest, White Mountain Ranger Station, 798 N. Main St., Bishop, CA 93545; (760) 873-2500.

Trail guide: 100 Hikes in California's Central Sierra and Coast Range, by Vicky Spring. The Mountaineers Books, 1001 S.W. Klickitat Way, Suite 201, Seattle, WA 98134; (800) 553-4453; $12.95.

Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

He could hike 40 miles at a stretch, bag 14 Adirondack peaks in a single day, and talk the ear off any politician who'd listen to his wilderness ideas. Bob Marshall packed a lifetime of living into just 38 years. Born in 1901, he wrote books, explored Alaska's Brooks Range, co-founded The Wilderness Society, and became a tireless voice for wilderness, all before his death in 1939. Marshall liked his wilderness big, and he sought places where a hiker could "spend at least a week or two of travel...without crossing his own tracks." Today, the 1-million-acre wilderness affectionately known as "The Bob" pays tribute to the short but full life of Robert Marshall.

On the trail: If Bob Marshall could come back for a hike in the wilderness named for him, you can bet that trek would be a long one-perhaps along the remote and beautiful North Wall, a sheer 10-mile-long cliff of limestone and shale deep in the heart of "The Bob." The well-maintained trail that winds along the base of the cliff can be hiked for about 9 miles, or make it part of a longer North Wall Loop hike that covers more than 50 miles, beginning and ending along the South Fork of the Teton River.

Contact: Lewis and Clark National Forest, Rocky Mountain Ranger District, 1101 Main Ave. NW, Box 340, Choteau, MT 59422; (406) 466-5341.

Trail guide: The Trail Guide to Bob Marshall Country, by Erik Molvar. Falcon Press, P.O. Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624; (800) 582-2665; $19.95.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Montana

Lee Metcalf was known to his friends as a shy, gentle, sensitive man. But to those who upset him, he was a man with a voice like the "bellowing of an enraged bull." In 17 years as a U.S. senator from Montana, he used that voice many times against the myriad of abuses he saw on public land. Overgrazing, air pollution, dam-building, migratory bird protection, wilderness protection-nearly every environmental issue considered by Congress in the 1960s and '70s had Metcalf's stamp on it. But nowhere was his voice heard more loudly than on the issue of logging versus wilderness. "I do not subscribe to the oft-stated notion that somehow timber exploitation represents 'multiple use' management but wilderness does not," he said. Two Montana wilderness bills, passed just after Metcalf died, established the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the Great Bear Wilderness, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. True to his legacy, Metcalf had worked hard on both bills right up until his death in 1978. Five years later four units of wilderness were combined and renamed the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in his honor.

On the trail: The four units in the Madison Range that make up the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area include some of the best hiking trails in Montana. One of particular note is the 26-mile loop hike through the 78,000-acre Spanish Peaks unit. The hike takes you along the South Fork of Spanish Creek, through the shadows of many 10,000-foot peaks, and within striking distance of a whole collection of high-country lakes, if you don't mind going off trail. For a different experience, try the 7-mile jaunt through the Bear Trap Canyon unit, the nation's first Bureau of Land Management wilderness. Don't forget your fishing pole since the trail follows the Madison River, an internationally known trout stream.

Contact: Gallatin National Forest, Bozeman Ranger District, 3710 Fallon St., Suite C, Bozeman, MT 59718; (406) 587-6920.

Trail guide: Hiking Montana, by Bill Schneider. Falcon Press, P.O. Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624; (800) 582-2665; $14.95.




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