What is a true wilderness experience? Is it going to the mountains hiking, mountain biking or camping? I believe it is something different for everyone. The wilderness is a place where everyone can let go of stress, jobs, bills, and politics. The wilderness lets you hear the sounds of nature: The wind blowing through the pines, the birds chirping, a wolf howling, a babbling brook, or a water fall created by freshly melted snow flowing down the mountain side.
My most recent trip was close to home. I located an old logging road just east of our house. It is a beautiful winter day with several inches of new snow as my family and I head up the trail, in the Payette National Forest. As we trek through the snow I realize how lucky we are to be crossing hills where no other human tracks exist. I look forward to experiencing this every time we strap on our snowshoes. My children love to be part of our snowshoe adventures, (even if they don’t always manage to stay awake for the whole trip). I drive my wife crazy with all the maps I have. I spend hours looking for a trail or a road in a non-motorized area that will allow our family to be alone in the wilderness.
The hours passed quickly and the children were letting us know it was time for lunch. We found a nice overlook where we could see several mountain tops and ridges. The sun was shining through the trees glistening on the untouched snow. It felt warm on our faces. We sat quietly enjoying the solitude; I found it hard to believe that civilization sat just a few miles below us.
As we packed up to continue on our journey we discovered a trail left by a mountain lion. The tracks were fresh with clear edges and no trace of new snow in them. We could see where the lion had tracked several unsuspecting rabbits before stopping to rest just a few feet from where we had been sitting. The lion had walked around a large rock, along an old fallen tree and to the edge of the road.
Following the tracks we could see the lion had a well worn trail leading off the hill and down to the creek. This was a perfect spot for the lion to get a drink; the water ran swiftly cutting through the ice near the bank. We crossed several other trails the lion had created as it made large loops in and out of this draw. Not far off we found the lion had ventured into a rugged canyon filled with rocky cliffs and steep terrain. There was no doubt why the lion had chosen this area as its winter home; it provided all the essentials for the animal (meeting the needs for water, food, shelter, and seclusion).
My mind begins to wander reflecting on the years before I began snowshoeing. I have enjoyed the wilderness all of my life experiencing everything from ATV riding, to fly fishing, hiking, and on multiple occasions, packing deep into the woods with a pack string. I remember a trip I took into the Mable Lakes in the Frank Church Wilderness area. I had a nice camp set along the bank of the upper lake. Plenty of room for the horses to graze, nice tent spot, fire ring and close enough to the lake to watch the fish rise. It had been a long few days in the saddle and the warmth from the fire’s glow relaxed me as I had a small cup of coffee. As I prepared to turn in I took some time to admire the vast night sky, the stars seemed to surround me.
I was awakened by the fish jumping on the lake and a wood pecker hammering on an old lodgepole pine. I left the warmth of my tent and stepped into the brisk mountain air. I put a log on the hot coals that still smoldered from the night before. Then set a pot of coffee on a rock next to the fire. Giving the coffee time to warm I ventured a short distance out of camp. I wanted to look around and take in the beauty of the early morning.
There seemed to be an eerie silence surrounding the area. Even the horses, the small fire, and the light breeze that had been blowing seemed to fall silent as I moved through the tall dew covered grass. It was as if everything around me was listening for something. I walked to the edge of the bluff and could see several small mountain meadows below me. I glassed with my binoculars looking at the high rocky ridges hoping to catch a glimpse of a mountain goat. As I lowered the binoculars, I began to scan the meadows below searching for any wildlife that might be grazing. There was nothing; even the sound of the wood-pecker had disappeared.
Then I heard a sound that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I had never been lucky enough to hear the sound that was now echoing through the valley below. A lone wolf howled as he sat hidden beneath the cover of trees. I searched for any sign of him even a small movement in the grass could have revealed his location. As I listened to his howls grow distant I realized just how illusive the wolves are. This brief encounter had been so amazing I was certain it was what a true wilderness experience should be.
As I headed home, I spent most of the ride pondering how many others had heard the wolf howl from that bluff. I thought a lot about the campsite with a fire ring already in place and the well traveled trail I had rode in on. I knew there had been people there before me and I was certain there would be others after I left.
My son’s voice pulls my mind back to the beauty that currently surrounds me; he has spotted another lion trail headed up the mountain side. We venture over to get a closer look at it. These are the last of the lion tracks we will see on this outing. His excitement about being the first person to see them makes me realize: Snowshoeing is my true wilderness experience. With the signs of previous travelers and their adventures buried under the snow, I’m sharing a moment with my family that I know is completely ours. Soon another snow storm will arrive and the tracks we have left will be buried with the lions, but the memories we make while snowshoeing will last forever.
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