Wilderness: Reservoirs of Freedom

by Mike Beagle


August, 1995- Along a stream in Idaho's Frank Church- River of No Return Wilderness. Karin, my wife of two years backpacked with me into this pristine watershed when she was four months pregnant with our first child. Being the patient one, she relaxed as I flogged the water with a #14 Adams in the hope of hooking a westslope cutthroat trout. I found a log jam that formed a pool and laid down a sloppy cast. Surprisingly, I hooked and landed a nice trout, then begged my wife to take a photo. This went on for hours. Despite this ― and to her credit – we're still married.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is owned by all Americans and is protected under the Wilderness Act, a law approved by a unanimous vote of Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Despite ample recreational opportunities, there are misconceptions about freedom and use in Wilderness, primarily browbeaten into people by foes who have never stepped foot on such extraordinary ground.

What may hunters and anglers do in designated Wilderness areas? Everything we can outside of designated regions but without motorized assistance. Want to challenge yourself and hunt elk or mule deer in solitude? Hike into a Wilderness area. Want an "old west" experience dating back before the days of Jedediah Smith or Jim Bridger? Pack in on horseback.

While hunters and anglers gaze at catalogs advertising expensive gadgets to give them an edge, there's a secret out there that's free: The best hunting and angling opportunities lie in America's roadless areas and designated Wilderness areas. In Idaho, Trout Unlimited has documented that the largest bull elk and mule deer bucks live in roadless areas, where the longest and most liberal hunting seasons also exist. Elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, bear and mountain goat all thrive in Wilderness.

Benefits pour out of Wilderness Areas, in the form of clean water. Salmon and steelhead use pure waters in Wilderness as nurseries. Bull trout and westlope cutthroat trout need the mountain-chilled waters of Wilderness.

Yet there remains unfinished business. As our nation's population skyrockets to more than 296 million, we must match this growth and development with protection of our traditional heritage. Great hunting and fishing locations, such as Washington's Wild Skykomish, Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, California's North Coast and Oregon's Mt. Hood deserve full protection as Wilderness. They could be permanently lost if we sit back and wait for others to do our work.

If we value the freedom to hunt and fish in peaceful and challenging settings away from the hectic, mechanized and technological world that's overwhelmed much of America, then sportsmen must take the lead and ask our members of Congress, our governors and our President to have the courage and foresight to protect these lands exactly as they are.

There is strength in numbers. Sportsmen can join such conservation groups as Trout Unlimited or Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who are working hard to protect our heritage. Politicians will listen to sportsmen if we articulate our values and show them that Wilderness is not there just to look at ― it is a way of life. Wilderness is the land of opportunity for families ― literal reservoirs of freedom.

July, 2005-the same log jam and stream in the Frank Church- River of No Return Wilderness. This time we watched our 9-year-old daughter and 6- year-old son fish amidst log jams, brush and other streamside impediments such as their father. Ultimately, with panicked and animated yelps, they hooked fish. My daughter landed a 17-inch cutthroat trout and reveled in the experience. My son's face lit up with the unforgettable thrill of the second fish of his young life. What impact will Wilderness have upon their lives when they stalk their first deer, elk or upland birds? I can only thank the previous generations who protected this Wilderness: a gift from the past for the future of all children.

About Caitlin Thompson