Posts Tagged ‘Outdoors’

Getting lost in the Maine woods is not difficult. Trails twist crazily through gullies and over hills while tangled underbrush makes walking off-trail tortuous. The high ridges from which you might orient yourself are typically wrapped in dense thickets of trees.

Thousands of feet up in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s a lot harder to lose your way. The landscape is so wide open and the scale so expansive, that you could walk for half a day and still be in sight of the pass you’d hiked over that morning.

Yet, during a backpacking trip in the high Sierra years ago, I found it oddly uncomfortable to venture off the trail. My friends, with a lifetime of experience hiking thereabouts, simply laughed. They pointed out that there were no trees to obscure our view. They showed me the many peaks we could climb to find out where we were.

I could see that they were right. I knew the trail we were leaving offered little in the way of security given how lightly travelled it was. I knew we had a good map and compass, and I knew we’d be on rock surfaces the entire time (thereby eliminating any worries about stomping on fragile alpine plants).

But stepping off the trail, irrational as it clearly was, felt like cutting my ties to the rest of civilization. The trail, the only sign that other humans had been here before, offered me a measure of comfort in that omnipotent wilderness. It granted me safe passage through a potentially hostile landscape.

Most of us would say we love being out in nature. But what we really mean is that we love nature unfanged and declawed. We like to get as close as possible while still feeling comfortable and without feeling threatened: wild, but not too wild.

Many issues in managing our natural places stem from this dichotomy: the wilder the wilds, the fewer people can enjoy them. But conversely, the fewer concessions made for people, the more the animals and plants are likely to thrive.

We struggle with questions such as what to do with potentially dangerous critters (such as bears), whether to put in more campsites and trails, how much to publicize natural areas, whether to limit access, and how much parking to provide.

I pondered these issues during a recent annual family reunion in Acadia National Park. Most of the time I love Acadia. It mixes wildness and comfort in a way that is unique unto itself. At a relatively small 40,000 acres, the park is densely laced with hiking trails and carriage roads.

The latter are 16-foot wide gently graded gravel trails built for horse-drawn carriages and now limited to walkers, bicyclists, and horses. Stream crossings and gorges are spanned by glorious stone bridges. These roads and bridges were funded (and largely designed) by John D. Rockefeller in the early 1900’s. Rockefeller’s express purpose in building them was to provide the public access to the grandeur of Mt. Desert Island without the disruption of car traffic.

The carriage roads were laid out with the twin goals of fitting seamlessly into the landscape and of affording the best views of ocean, lakes, waterfalls, and ridges. These goals were brilliantly met. Traveling through the park on a Rockefeller carriage road is like wandering through a painting — not because of the park’s spectacular natural beauty, but because this beauty has been captured and framed by the roads.

Acadia is the embodiment of nature defanged. Although it is one of the most visited national parks, it’s still remarkably easy to get away from the crowds. (There must be some formula relating distance from parking to number of people about).

On a gray day with a threat of rain, the carriage trail up Day’s Mountain, for example, is almost always deserted, even in mid-summer. Of the many times I’ve been at the summit, I’m usually the only soul up there. There is exhilarating natural beauty all about, side by side with comfort and civilization built into the very experience of arriving there, in the way the views are calculated to appear and disappear with curves of the road. The park is entertaining more than it is truly wild.

Sometimes, I’m conflicted about Acadia. Was it a good decision to have carved up the wilderness to build this giant playground? At the same time I love to see the ease with which this park allows a larger variety of people into the woods and up the ridges than can usually engage in such a setting. These experiences are typically reserved for those fit enough to hike for hours into the backcountry.

My kids and I recently found a small pond near our house, tucked away in part of a new development. The edges of the pond are landscaped with native plants: Joe-Pye weed, wild blueberry, Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, willow. Although the buffer is only a few feet wide, in it is a thriving ecosystem teeming with frogs and insects.

At this pond, I can sit in civilization, on a lawn, in a chair, reading my book, while just a few feet away my kids disappear (literally) into the tall grass jungle to catch frogs and collect cicada skins. Surely the easy access to such natural richness is nurturing my children’s fascination with the wild just as Acadia’s wide open welcome nurtures everyone who visits.

I’d be hard pressed to advocate for carving up another pristine wilderness to make another Acadia; I admit I’m biased toward protecting what’s left as best we can. However, Acadia reminds me that there should be places where every type of person can step away from the traffic, catch a frog, walk along a ridge over the ocean, and see, as I did coming around a bend in Acadia with my daughters last month, a quiet lake with a turtle on every rock.

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