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Backpacker Magazine – May 1998

Go Now! The Wilderness Life List

The 10 once-in-a-lifetime adventures any backwoods fanatic should have under his hipbelt before hanging up the ol' pack.

by: Robert Rubin


Where Else To Get Your Fix Tracking big game requires patience and caution. That means no blundering down the trail in mad pursuit of Yogi and his cohorts. Stay attuned to your surroundings and give any wild animal the space and respect it deserves. You're almost guaranteed to encounter a large carnivore in one of the following locations.

Glacier National Park, Montana: Few wilderness areas in the Lower 48 boast such a concentration of brown bears. Contact: Glacier National Park, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936; (406) 888-5441; http://www.nps.gov/glac.

Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario: Your heart may skip five beats when this park's wolves sing to you across the still waters of a small lake on a clear, cool, moonlit night. Contact: Algonquin Provincial Park, Ministry of Natural Resources, Box 219, Whitney, ON K0J 2M0; (705) 633-5572; http://nrserv.mnr.gov.on.ca/MNR/parks/algo.htm.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta: Cougars regularly make their presence known in this rugged Canadian park, leaving tracks and sign near several popular trailheads, but these furtive, elusive felines are rarely encountered. Contact: Waterton Lakes National Park, Waterton Park, AL T0K 2M0; (403) 859-2224; http://www.worldweb.com/parkscanada-waterton/.

I'm wet and shivering, trying to recall why I wanted to visit this canyon alone, to travel from its waterless top through its claustrophobic narrows down to its gushing bottom. Another deep, dark pool, permanently shaded by towering orange rock, is at my feet. How many more? I fantasize about scrambling out of the impossibly steep canyon onto the parched mesa above. Then a swimming beaver beckons me, and I remember why I came here to Wet Beaver Creek, Arizona.

Rock. Water. Sun (or the lack of it). Size. This has been my world for I don't know how many days. I feel small down here, always aware that I'm a hypothermia-prone biped, constantly in awe of what the sheer force of rushing water has created. The water is what makes this place so inviting, a rich bottomland that flows, drips, sparkles, and gushes while the desert far above bakes.

Pulling myself from the shaded home of the beaver, I break through a tangle of tamarisk and step into Eden. Sun is pouring into this section of canyon and water spills over a fern-covered red rock lip into a glittery plunge pool. I drop my dripping pack and jump in, indulging a frivolous urge to swim with a million dancing minnows. Now I am floating on my back, the sun warming my face, while my eyes climb the red and white highrise of slickrock and notice a hawk soaring above the canyon. Life is good at the bottom.

Contact: USGS 7.5-minute topos Casner Butte and Apache Maid Mountain cover the area. Coconino National Forest, Beaver Creek Ranger District, HC 64, Box 240, Rimrock, AZ 86335; (520) 567-4501; http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/stat es/az.html.

Where Else To Get Your Fix Slot canyons can be deceptively hazardous. Never camp in the bottom of a slot canyon, regardless of weather conditions. At least a dozen hikers were swept to their deaths last summer by flashfloods. Always check with land managers about weather conditions before entering a canyon.

Buckskin Gulch: The 20-mile trek from Wire Pass to White House Campground is only 3 feet wide in spots and requires serious scrambling down pour-offs. A permit is required and the waiting list is long. Contact: Bureau of Land Management Kanab District, 318 North 100 East, Kanab, UT 84741; (435) 644-2672.

Little Death Hollow/Wolverine Canyon Loop: This 20-mile, multicanyon hike to the Escalante River and back offers great Southwest slot trekking without the crowds. The route in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument takes you through narrow slots and under sandstone arches. Contact: Escalante Interagency Office, P.O. Box 246, Escalante, UT 84726; (801) 826-5499.

Virgin River Narrows: You'll do plenty of wading on this 16-mile (one way) trek, but the water is rarely more than 6 inches deep. Lush groves of sycamore trees squeeze in between water and 2,000-foot-tall red rock walls. The waiting list for overnight permits is long. Contact: Zion National Park, Springdale, UT 84767; (435) 772-3256; http://www.nps.gov/zion.

Annette McGivney lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where floating her pack through the many red rock canyons is a primary source of entertainment. She is searching for an air mattress that won't leak.

Gurgling, bubbling, hissing, splashing-the sounds of the Earth coming to a boil surround me. No colorful crowds to cheer on the eruptions. No park naturalists to tell me when the next one might occur. I have to be patient, alert, and watchful, making careful notes as water levels rise and fall, as the steam increases and subsides. I measure time by these shifts and continue to stretch and sit and wait.

Deep in Yellowstone's backcountry I'm far from the crowds, alone with the sounds and smells of sulfurous thermal basins that testify to the park's volcanic past. This is the stuff of legends and yearning, of mysticism and pilgrimage. My boots have followed trails that were shaped by the feet of ancient people who once traveled to the hot springs. From the roads most visitors travel, I can walk 3 miles to a riverside camp near a beautiful geyser; climb the divide and descend to a lake with its own thermal basin; or pick my way along little-used trails to hot springs that are mere blue dots within the green of a topo map.

When I emerge from such trips I often stop at Old Faithful. I park among the sea of cars, walk straight to the semi-circle of benches surrounding the geyser, and wonder who I'll sit near; perhaps an elderly couple from China, students from France, or newlyweds from Texas. We always chat about the park but I seldom speak of the places I hike, where I experience the Earth's moods as few do, where I'm alone and in the heart of this place called Yellowstone.

Contact: Backcountry Office, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-2160; http://www.nps.gov/yell.

Where Else To Get Your Fix Here are a few gems that display their unique charms only to people who are willing to use their muscles:

Olympic National Park: More than 600 miles of trail access 60 miles of wild Pacific coast, as well as glacier-capped peaks. Contact: Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362; (206) 452-4501; http://www.nps.gov/olym.htm.

Big Bend National Park: Explore the Chihuahuan Desert or the Chisos Mountains, landscapes central to Big Bend. Bring lots of water, your binoculars, and check in with rangers when you arrive. Contact: Big Bend National Park, P.O. Box 129, Bend National Park, TX 79834; (915) 477-2251; http://www.nps.gov/bibe.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: This park protects the heart of the Appalachians. You can easily escape the crowds by simply hiking down a trail. Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738; (423) 436-1297; http://www.nps.gov/grsm.

The four of us take turns breaking trail through the deep snow. In the subzero air the landscape is still and silent. The only motion is the swing of our poles, the only sound the swish of our skis.

The trail snakes through a mixed evergreen forest. Here and there we cross the great plunging tracks of moose-tales written in the snow for us to read and ponder. Chickadees flit cheerily among the white birch. Ahead, through the branches and the blue shadows, I see the sawtooth ramparts of Mt. Katahdin-"greatest mountain" of the Penobscot-rising above the forest into the flawless sky. The sight thrills me and with renewed purpose I kick and glide toward the distant peak.

The throngs of summer-human and insect alike-leave with the first signs of frost, and the wilderness expands. Frozen lakes and rivers make perfect highways for fast and easy travel. The land is transformed magically by the sparkling blues and crisp whites of winter.

The next day the snow is bright white as we crunch across the ridge to the summit cairn. And then we are there, atop the world, looking out across millions of acres of empty, snowy Maine woods stretching beyond the horizon deep into Canada. Bundled in our down parkas, we share mugs of hot cocoa and savor the view unobstructed by leaves or summer haze. A thousand feet below, our tents are bright spots of color on a pristine canvas. It's the best time of year.

Contact: Baxter State Park Authority, 64 Balsam Dr., Millinocket, ME 04462; (207) 723-5140.

Where Else To Get Your Fix There may be a great winter camping trip waiting right out your door, or try one of these three top destinations:

Voyageurs National Park: Features the great Northwoods, reliable snow, and myriad frozen lakes. Contact: Voyageurs National Park, 3131 Highway 53, International Falls, MN 56649; (218) 283-9821; http://www.nps.gov/voya.

Grand Teton National Park: Some of the most spectacular high mountain scenery in the West in any season. Contact: Grand Teton National Park, P.O. Box 170, Moose, WY 83012; (307) 739-3300; http://www.nps.gov/grte.

Sierra Crest: More than 200 miles of unbroken mountain wilderness along the crest of the Sierra Nevada with perfect snow and lots of bright sunshine. Contact: Information Center, Eldorado National Forest, 3070 Camino Heights Dr., Camino, CA 95709; (916) 644-6048; http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/states/ca.html.

One minute the Alaskan sky was dark, a black quilt beaded with late summer stars; the next minute, it was on fire.

As I sat on a nameless ridge in Gates of the Arctic National Park, it took long moments for my mind to register the sight: northern lights. I had waited all my life, staring for hours into blank backcountry night skies. And now, right above me, curtains of jade-green, flickers of flame-orange, streaks of white. The colors swirled and rippled from horizon to horizon like wind-blown ribbons.

To the Chippewa they were the "ghost fires," the shimmer of heavenly campfires where the souls of dead hunters danced. To scientists, they are the product of electrons spewed from the sun in solar winds, colliding with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere. To a hiker they are a glimpse of the divine. Watching a luminous patch of sky 600 miles high shimmer like ripples on water awes us and humbles us to silence. To stare up at the northern lights is to stare directly into the wondrous.

I watched for a long time, alone, before I ran back down the ridge to camp to wake the others. "Hey," I whispered in their sleeping ears, "wake up, the sky is dancing."

Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 74680, Fairbanks, AK 99707; (907) 456-0281; http://www.nps.gov/gaar.




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