Photo Essay: Life as a Wilderness Ranger

An Oregon wilderness ranger reflects on America's wild spaces and shares his best backcountry photos of 2014.

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man..." —Wilderness Act of 1964

The photos above capture some of my experiences living life as a backcountry wilderness ranger for the United States Forest Service helping to protect America's wilderness lands and the people who use them. I patrol Oregon's largest wilderness area, the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and North America's deepest canyon, Hells Canyon. I put together this photo essay during the 2014 backpacking season in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. My hope is that by showing some of what we do protecting America's wilderness lands, I can help broaden people's understanding of why we created that law 50 years ago.

I believe the United States Wilderness Act is one of our nation's greatest accomplishments. I want to share a slice of life for someone who serves as a wilderness ranger, which may help explain why. You don't make much money at this job, but it's the sort of job that makes you realize life is worth so much more than money.

I've always said that the Wilderness Act is the most "Indian” (or "NDN" as we like to say) of our country’s laws. For me, it's also a deeply engrained part of my heritage. I am an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation (Hasinai Tribe), and also a member of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma (Lenni Lenape Tribe). The Lenape have always been an adventurous, exploring, people. Long millennia ago we were the first of the Algonquin peoples to make our home in what is now the Eastern Woodlands of the United States. As such, we are referred to as "The Grandfathers" by the other Algonquin tribes.

My great grandfather's great grandfather was Captain John Conner, a man who truly epitomizes this country's wild spirit. He was the first principle chief of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma (formed after our tribe's final settlement in the "Indian Country" of Oklahoma which ended a 200 year exodus from our homelands in Lenapehoking, which are now the states of NJ, PA, DE, MD and southern NY). Captain Conner (for the Lenape, "captain" is a term given to respected leaders), was descended from a long line of Lenape chieftains and sachems. The Lenni Lenape are historically a sea and water-loving people. After our tribe was exiled from Illinois during the 1820s, John Conner said he was "stirred with a most intense desire to see an ocean." Rather than return east to a land overcrowded with settlers, he set out walking toward the Pacific Ocean. Traveling mainly alone for many months, he reached the mouth of the mighty Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, where it empties into the Pacific near what is now Astoria, Oregon. He befriended the various tribes whose land he traveled through along the way.

Eventually, Connor made his way south to Durango, Mexico, where he lived for some time. Finally, missing his people, he traveled north to Texas, meeting up with a contingent of the Lenape who had been living with the Caddo there. Afterwards he made frequent journeys back to the West Coast as a hunter and scout, but lived with his people through their final exile in Oklahoma, passing away in 1877 three years before my great grandpa was born. Famed frontiersman Richard Dodge once said that Conner "was justly renowned as having a more minute and extensive personal knowledge of the North American continent than any other man ever had or probably will have."

After obsessively exploring America's wilderness from age 6 to the present (33 years), I often wonder if the same genes that carried Captain Conner all those miles aren't part of the reason my feet keep instinctively taking me back to the wild places I can't help but love.

For more photos and video clips of what we wilderness rangers do out there in America's backcountry helping to protect your wilderness, check out the hashtag #WildernessRangerLife on Instagram. If you visit the Hells Canyon and Eagle Cap Wilderness areas, please contact the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and Eagle Cap Ranger District for details on your wilderness areas and important regulations that help us protect these places for your grandchildren's grandchildren to enjoy it as you do today. —Joe Whittle

To see more images, check out the #WildernessRangerLife album on Facebook and Joe's website.