On a recent hike in South Fork (Eagle River) I apparently wasn’t paying attention and walked right up on a bull moose that was standing about 40 yards away.
I immediately began a wide detour and started talking to the animal as I routed around it. And when it appeared he wasn’t concerned by my presence, I quickly snapped a few photos, using a bit of telephoto. I then moved on.
During this and many other Alaska hiking adventures over the years, I’ve observed quite a range of wild creatures; from small furbearers such as ermines to large hairy creatures such as Grizzly bears–and many critters of sizes in between.
But I don’t classify most of the places that I’ve roamed as “wilderness.” I realize people attach varying definitions to the term. Naturalists and ecologists agree that wilderness is “an area untouched by humans in which natural ecological processes are allowed to exist in perpetuity.” The phrase “untrammeled by humans” is often used in this regard.
Very rarely have I hiked to places where I believe no one has stood before. For example, while many locations within the vast, 495,000-acre Chugach State Park appear “wild” and untouched by humans, most watersheds and mountains have been thoroughly explored over many decades. Yet, since some of those areas are very infrequently visited by humans, I consider them “wilderness.”
And reaching wilderness is not always simply about geography or distance from civilization. It’s also temporal – the time one spends in a particular area.
With a prolonged visitation, the “wilderness,” by way of wild critters, will sometimes come to you.
Even on fly-in trips to remote locations, I’ve sometimes felt I wasn’t entering true “wilderness.” It was apparent that hunters had been there before and I believe that every incursion, whether a hunting trip or simply a hiking venture, leaves a subtle impact upon the natural order. It might be invisible and untraceable, but it could be reflected in the behavior of the wildlife or a slight change in the area’s habitat.
Spooky critters: One autumn when hunting ptarmigan off of the Denali Highway, for instance, I could tell immediately by the birds’ spooky behavior that hunters had been there recently. The birds were unusually skittish, and I learned that hunters had been using falcons. I’ve observed that moose appear quite nervous and “spooky” during hunting season in areas that are easily accessible. Dall sheep and mountain goats are quite wary of humans, and rightfully so, considering how heavily they’ve been hunted in Southcentral Alaska.
But in this vast and relatively sparsely populated state, we have the opportunity to reach the “edge” of wilderness relatively easy.
In fact, I would estimate that about 90 percent of all my hikes in the Kenai, Chugach and Talkeetna mountains–as well as the Alaska Range– have been to that edge, where wilderness sometimes overlaps with civilization.
For example, on a hike, you might not see coyotes or Great Horned owls, but you will hear them. You observe beavers swimming in a lake, but you don’t see their key activities such as lodge and dam building. From a distance, you might see Dall sheep on a mountainside, but you’ve never observed their mating rituals and behaviors, or how ewes train lambs to negotiate steep terrain.
This is what I call experiencing the outdoors from the “edge,” and I feel extremely fortunate every time I reach it. As I mentioned above, sometimes wildlife crosses that boundary and journeys into our territory: A wolverine we watched playing in the snow in Ship Creek Valley; a wolf I walked up to within 50 feet in Eklutna Valley; a Golden eagle that dive bombed me in the Chugach Mountains; a full-curl ram on a ridge near Harp Mountain, a popular hiking area; a Grizzly bear with cubs that falsely charged me in Thunderbird Valley.
I recently drove the road through Hatcher Pass and witnessed the onslaught of moose hunters. With large motorhomes parked in every available pullout; endless campers, trailers, tents, four wheelers, Argo all-terrain vehicles, this area, in my opinion, is about as far from the wilderness as New York’s Central Park. To reach the “edge,” one would have to hike a few miles and climb up and over one of the ridges in the pass; which I doubt anyone in this enclave would even consider.
Going off trail and bushwhacking is probably the surest way to reach the edge, albeit the most challenging.
We have a plentitude of trails, however, that can take us most of the way there. And if we pause and look up at the nearby mountain ridge, we might see an eagle catching the updrafts. If we listen, we might hear Sandhill cranes or Canada geese high above, forming up for their long southward migration. Or, off in the distance (and distance is certainly preferable), we might see a black bear enjoying the season’s crop of berries.
The farther we hike, the harder we look and listen, the closer we get to the edge. And what’s truly special: we can define that “edge” for ourselves.
I recently hiked to an alpine lake near Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park and spent the better part of an hour looking and listening. A beaver splashed the water several times, perhaps in defiance of my presence. His splashing disturbed several ducks, and they quickly took off for other parts of the lake. I looked far across the tundra to where a bear or moose might be lurking.
“That’s wilderness way out there,” I thought. “I’m not in wilderness, but I can see it from here.”
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher.