Where is the most remote spot in the Lower 48? That's the question BACKPACKER asked writer and adventurer Mark Jenkins to answer for the September 2008 feature story "Destination: Nowhere."
Jenkins, whose most recent piece for BACKPACKER, "Panic" (December 2007) focused on the affect of fear in the outdoors, wound up deep in Yellowstone's backcountry, 22 miles from the nearest road. While he eventually found pristine forests, howling wolves, and abundant open (and empty) spaces, he also crossed paths with horses, hunters, and the human influence. Backpacker.com's TED ALVAREZ spoke to Jenkins about the concept of wilderness, how to protect it, and what the middle of nowhere is really like.
Is there such a thing as “real” wilderness, or is it just different than people would like to imagine?
The notion of wilderness first has to be looked at very closely. The word “wilderness” comes from the transcendentalists: Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman. They were looking at these virgin forests believing that no human had ever touched them but, in fact, we know that the northern hemisphere was heavily populated with Native Americans who did alter their landscape. It wasn't as if there were no humans in this wilderness. We have to recognize that the term is more complicated than it appears.
After reporting this story, do you think that original conception of wilderness is dead?
No, but it has evolved. We don't have the huge open spaces that once existed. It's not to say those spaces didn't have humans in them, but the human impact was so much smaller.
I went to the most remote place in the Lower 48 to experience what we have left in terms of being as far away as you can get. It's still there, but it's not as if you can get that far away. At any point, you're never more than 22 miles from a road. It's smaller than we'd imagine.
David Gaillard was your partner on this assignment. How did you hook up?
First, I needed someone who was fit enough to hike 75 to 80 miles in rough terrain and poor conditions. We ended up deciding to go in late October and it'd already snowed over a foot in the high country. It wasn't enough to go ski or use snowshoes, so we knew we'd be post-holing; we knew we'd be walking in mud.
And, I wanted someone who was an expert. David has worked in the wildlife conservation field for almost 20 years. He was instrumental in getting the lynx on the Endangered Species list [and] he's extremely knowledgeable about grizzlies, and wolverines.
The story begins with you encountering horsepackers in your first moments in this supposed-last wilderness. Did you know going in that you would run into that kind of activity?
We had been told that the region was a hunter's heaven, and so there would be guides and pack trains. So we were well prepared, but it was a bit discouraging because there's so much horse traffic, the trails are sometimes three feet wide and three feet deep, or there are three or four or five or ten trails that may parallel each other. Horses cause enormous damage, but then again, it's just a trail. If you get off the trail, there's hundreds of square miles of basically unmolested terrain to hike through. The trail itself is just the smallest ribbon passing through an extraordinarily vast acreage.
This sounds like a pretty daunting trip. What kind of planning went into this?
Outside of logistics with other assignments, backpacking is incredibly simple to plan. This is one of the absolute beauties of it. You need a sleeping bag, a tent, and some food. It doesn't get easier than that.
I've tried to encourage people who want adventure but don't want to leave the country to backpack. We've got gorgeous country right in your backyard.
Speaking of that backyard, are you able to tap into wilderness with other people around, or do you need that sense of isolation?
I prefer to see people in the backcountry — as many as possible, because then I know that they care about it, and it may have some hope of being protected.Wildlands that are left need a constituency — they need somebody who will fight for them. If no one goes there, there won't be enough people who love that country enough to protect it when someone goes and finds gold, or platinum, or oil, or some other resource there.
I've been fortunate enough to go to many places that are considered great wildernesses — Africa, Afghanistan, Central Asia, in Tibet — I've seen some of the most remote places on the planet. But we still have some of the most gorgeous remote places right here in this country.
With the kind of traveling you’ve done, you must have seen quite a bit out there. On this trip, was there something that you expected to see but didn't?
The thing we didn't see that I certainly expected to see the whole time were grizzlies. Every time we turned around we saw signs of them, and the guides kept saying there were grizzlies everywhere, but we never saw a one. A wrangler said he'd seen nine grizzlies in the course of nine hours, so I assumed we'd see a lot.
I expected to see wolves but I felt lucky to have them so close to our camp near Yellowstone River; The wolf we saw must've been 200 pounds— That's a big animal. That's not some little 75-pound German shepherd;.
You’ve seen more of this country’s wild animals and places—what can your average person do to stay engaged, to protect them?
First, go there and get an appreciation — go and have an adventure yourself. Don't just watch it on TV or read my story,. If the number of people going into national parks, national forests, or wilderness areas goes up, there's a stronger constituency to save that from threats.
There are national organizations that do great work, like the Sierra Club, but if there's a part of the country you're particularly engaged with, that you really care about, there's probably some form of conservation organization that's going to protect that. Contribute directly to them. It doesn't have to be money — be an organizer. Be on the email or phone tree if there's a threat to those conservation values.
Is there a misconception we have about wilderness?
What Americans fail to realize is how much precious wildlands we still have and how unusual they are. People tend to think of Africa and the Serengeti .We have some of the most beautiful wildlands in the world. They're incredibly valuable — I'm talking money. Wildlands bring far more money than ranching, cattle, or agriculture. Wildlands have enormous economic value to the states and citizens of this country, and it needs to be recognized that you may find some resource, but you'll drill it out and you'll have ruined something that can't be replaced.
All the things that man has invented still don't compare to the complexity of a functioning ecosystem. It is the most precious thing on Earth, and we need to protect every last bit of what's still out there.