Enjoying the wilderness


Only five days left. Amidst the turmoil of final preparations – checking and re-checking gear, packing, food-shopping – I’m engaging in a little psychological battle with myself regarding the object of all this activity: a 19 day, 16 person, DIY rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. For those of us who are “private” boaters (i.e. we use our own boats and equipment and don’t hire professional guides) as well as for those who go on trips with commercial outfitters , “The Grand” is the apex of all U.S. river trips, the longest, most difficult to secure, most challenging and most beautiful adventure of them all. This will be my third private “Grand,” each trip nearly a decade apart (yes, permits are that difficult to get), and the two previous experiences together with hundreds of trips on other western rivers have made me pretty confident that all the logistics involving supplies, safety, and comfort – my role in them, anyway – are well accounted for. So, why the psychological battle?

Well, I’ll admit it, I’m scared. Those rapids are big. Those hikes are steep. Experience and preparation are important, but they’re a double-edged sword; nasty accidents can still happen and I’ve seen them firsthand. Those memories, though rare, undercut the confidence borne of (thankfully) more routine successful, fun encounters with waves and terrain. This time around I’m older, fatter, more ache-y, and more conscious of my weaknesses and mortality.   Yet still, I’m loading up rocket boxes and reviewing maps and trying to be realistic but positive.

That’s the deal with western wilderness: going there can be dangerous (for another Grand Canyon-related example, see this recent HCNcolumn about risks to “rim-to-rimmers”). You can die or be maimed rather easily. Those things can happen in civilization also (there are lots of truisms among the rafting community about the vehicle shuttle being the most dangerous part of any river trip), but the difference is that  you have to choose to go into the wilderness and get permission and take vacation time and prepare extensively. Ed Abbey and other naturalists and writers before him argued that we need wilderness both for recreation and to remind us that we’re not always in control. The latter view leads some people to romanticize wilderness as a sort of libertarian utopia, but I don’t go that far. First of all, public lands have lots of rules.

This annoys many libertarians (and me too sometimes), but I’m completely on board with regulations about (for example) keeping magnificent sites like Elves’ Chasm free of micro- trash, urine, and other eyesores and hazards. Secondly, I may be free to confront danger, but the consequences of that choice don’t only affect me. If I injure myself, my companions and everyone else who comes by must witness my suffering or render aid, and otherwise interrupt their own wilderness experience. That’s why our taxes and fees contribute to the salaries of rangers and other skilled folks who can intervene and often (but not always) save the day.

Those of us who take an active interest in the Western environment can be proud and grateful that we’ve fought to preserve so many places like the Grand Canyon. Many more places deserve such protection, even if we never get to visit them. Sure, those are soothing, rather cliché words, but as I write them the prickling anxiety in my gut reminds me that preservation is a complicated value. I admit that a luxury hotel near a southern California beach is sounding like a pretty appealing alternative to loading heavy, dirty gear into an inflated raft every morning and unloading it every night. Still, big risks – and fears, and efforts -- are the price of big rewards, both personal and societal. See you downstream!

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image of Grand Canyon rafting courtesy Flickr user Jennifer.

Image of Elves' Chasm courtesy Flickr user Al_HikesAZ

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