Tell me what you know about Wilderness! What words come to mind? Forests, the outdoors, trees, the unknown? For me, one word that comes to mind is space. I’m not talking about outer space, although that certainly is interesting and could be considered wilderness in itself. I’m talking about wide-open spaces! Places where man is a visitor and is not necessarily meant to be. Wide open sagebrush flats, high towering granite peaks, snow covered plateaus, and lush forests of pine and cedar. Places you see from a plane or from miles away, wondering why and how someone would be there. This is what I mean by space.
I grew up in what I call a ‘normal suburban town.’ Houses are roughly 10-15 meters apart, commercial areas and business plazas dominate areas outside of neighborhoods, and roads connect vast areas to make commute time to any place of necessity under 15 minutes. Here, there is no real appreciation of empty space. Space is something to be used and developed for business, growth, comfort, and convenience.
Outside of these congested areas we find the contrasting situation. Roads begin to lessen like roots converging to the stem of a plant. Smaller towns begin to consolidate in central locations rather than over vast areas of space. Vegetation, trees, mountains, and life exist and begin to increase in areas that roads and development do not touch or cross. The American West is one example, even more so Alaska, the last frontier. Here in Alaska on the Juneau Icefield, exists a place with a great amount of space, filled with snow, ice, and rock. It is wilderness.
Camp 10 is one of JIRP’s many camps across the Juneau Icefield. It is in the center of the icefield on a nunatak, an outcrop of rocks overlooking the Taku Glacier and an array of mountains that have poked through the ice. From miles away, Camp 10 is simply a bump on the horizon, disguised by the sheer distance of snow and ice.
In Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, he rants about space and Industrial Tourism and the National Parks. To paraphrase his words, motorized vehicles, when not at rest, require a volume of space far out of proportion to their size. To illustrate; imagine a lake approximately ten miles long and one mile wide (a glacial lake!). A single motorboat could easily circumnavigate the lake; ten motorboats would begin to crowd it; twenty or thirty all in operation would dominate the lake; and fifty would create the hazards of confusion and turmoil that make pleasure impossible. Suppose we banned motorboats and allowed only canoes and rowboats; we would see at once that the lake seemed ten or perhaps a hundred times bigger. The same thing holds true, to an even greater degree, for the automobile. Distance and space are a function of time and speed.
We arrived at Camp 10 by ski, traversing across 20 miles of snow and ice. It is in isolation, where no automobiles or paved roads exist. Human impact is minimal. The only unnatural life that exists within our space is a backpack-carried succulent desert plant named Norris. To watch a group of skiers in the middle of the Taku Glacier ski for two hours, see their progress, and still be able to distinguish the group, is something surreal. We live in a barren rainforest of snow, rock, and ice. If not for helicopters that bring us fuel and food, life on the icefield would not be sustainable for more than a few days. The space between Camp 10 and the civilization of Juneau is what isolates us.
Wilderness’ leading multiplier in its made up equation is space. Untouched, undeveloped, unaltered space. Space where man and our machines are visitors, visitors that travel on skis, take pictures, learn, and share their findings with everyone around them. In a world of perpetual growth from our population, economy, and development, conservation is at direct conflict. Land conservation is one of the last hopes for preserving these wild places from ourselves. Alaska is the last frontier. One of the last states to unionize and one of the last places to protect. We as a society need to start collaborating about our space, protecting areas of ecological importance like the Pacific Coast Temperate Rainforest. Efforts like these start with an idea and live and die with action. Through actions from locals, advocates, and influential people, we can find a balance between protecting the environment, sustaining our economy, and preserving human culture.