Is the backcountry no longer wild?

Last week, I hiked about 70 miles through the lower Colorado Rockies. And I was very much surprised to see a sow with three cubs on the first day out! The encounter was a close one and only within the first 5 miles or so of the trip! 

I was hiking ahead of my partner when I smelled something extremely foul. It smelled like death, a rotting carcass. And sure enough, I walked into a disheveled mat of deer hide and fur. Just to the left of me about 40 feet or so, I spotted a bear cub, then another! Then, I spotted the mother… One cub was straddling a tree’s trunk, the other was sniffing about below. Surprisingly, the sow had her back towards us. When we came upon them, the cubs got startled a bit but didn’t run and the mama bear paid no attention. We stopped, frozen and stunned by the sight! Maybe she didn’t hear us, or maybe she just thought our steps were just noises her cubs were making. So the cubs settled in figuring perhaps, “well, mom doesn’t sense any danger. We must be okay.” I was thrilled, as several swift thoughts crossed my mind. “There’s freakin’ bears in front of me.” I snapped a quick photo, then my next immediate thought was “Okay, we need to slowly continue onward… how stupid would it be to get mauled while taking photos.” So I made eye contact with my partner, we smiled both agreeing without any verbal communication that we must leave. And just after we began to move, the mama bear turned, spotted us and bolted off. As she bolted away, we noticed yet, another cub emerge from the brush! We watched as two cubs ran ahead, in the valley just below, while mama bear stops behind them waiting for her third cub; who was spooked higher into the tree at the excitement. The cub soon realized what was happening, climbed down and bolted away to catch up with its family. 

This was a total surprise for me and somewhat of a dream come true. It was something I had always wanted to experience. And of course, I thought of all of the scenarios. This was one smooth encounter. Things could have been a lot different had the cubs been on either side of us. Mama would have certainly behaved a bit differently.

I’ve done a lot of backpacking, primarily in the West and have hiked around 4,000 miles in the backcountry. Though I’ve seen many bear signs (both black and grizzly), this was my first real bear encounter. I say it was the first “real” bear encounter because it was truly in the backcountry and not near a heavily populated campground (or a town’s dumpster), or the heavily populated Appalachians for that matter, where black bear encounters are super common. There had been only two times previously where I had seen or heard of a bear in the woods nearby, but they didn’t count! Why? Because both were not truly wild experiences. The first, was a rummaging bear in Yosemite (2014) in what I perceived as an extremely overly populated recreation area and campground. And the second was seen while I was making my way through Glacier National Park (2016), at yet another populated campground.

It was a great start to my trip. I was so excited at the experience. It led me to contemplate all of my journeys before and the various animal encounters I have had. Throughout the remaining 65 or so miles, despite traversing through several valleys, mountain ridges and passes I saw maybe three deer, heard only one coyote, saw some Black-hawks and a curious Osprey within the first couple of days. After that, all of the life I saw were obese Marmots (a human-induced and climate-related condition, explained here), Golden mantled squirrels, chipmunks, Pikas and…. grazing cattle. Albeit, seeing Pikas does make me happy especially since they are considered endangered. But basically, the life that we saw were primarily rodents and cows. And the occasional grey and stellar jays. No signs or sights of elk, coyotes, foxes, or more bears… It was of course, a depressing sight, to see cattle grazing the wilderness, yet again. And they were in the wilderness, a designated wilderness area along this route. 

Elk herds are now replaced by cows. How majestic! I can’t even imagine elk wanting to be around such polluting animals. I’m sure they keep their distance from them [cows] as they would from us. Which brings me to my next point. Wildlife are extremely smart and can surely avoid encountering us using their incredible senses. Usually bear, mountain lion, foxes, bobcat and other wildlife hear us coming long before we can even cross paths. So generally, wildlife encounters are indeed rare, even in the wildest places. Though, I do see the startling trend in wildlife decline in the backcountry. It IS apparent. I’ve even spoken with hunters who have come to the same realization, commenting on how now they can see elk being largely displaced by cows in some of their favorite hunting grounds. In fact, just after this trip we met two hunters who spoke to us about this. One hunter shared a quote: “Save the wilderness, poach a cow!” which added some light to the conversation. 

Clearly, in some sections of this route, the landscape showed scars left behind by cattle. The distressing signs of erosion near trails and waterways in the otherwise stunning valleys, lends feelings of violation and our experience out there, left somewhat less exotic-in-nature. The landscape, compromised, less wild… to be used and abused, all to make a profit in order to satiate the public’s demand. The forest’s sounds too, seemed tamed, made up annoyingly, of the sounds of aircraft flying above. At times, I felt so irritated as though the sounds were following me.

Though the overall trip was an adventurous one, for both my partner and I, it is always disappointing to see the wild being degraded in this way. When I plan adventures like these, it is the wild that I seek. Not cattle country, nor community, even. I seek, the wild. I wish to hear howls of wolves, see and smell signs of bear, watch coyotes and foxes traverse the landscape. The domestication of the U.S. national forests is always a point of frustration for me. And it’s a complex issue not only pointing blame towards the cattle industry but to the recreation industry as well. Trails have become too groomed and tailored, to get as many people out there as possible. Why? So that REI, Patagonia and other recreation-focused businesses can well, make millions selling their products along with their massive carbon footprints. I often feel like trail systems are created to be safe, more passable afoot to be able to give as many people as possible the “backcountry” experience without actually giving them that. 

The wild itself is endangered. Christopher Ketcham explains the many reasons how this is true in his latest book This Land. For example, in the majority of national forests or wilderness areas, at any given point, even if you think you are deep within the wilderness boundaries, it is very likely you are within only 20 miles to the nearest road. Though it still might be a remote forest service dirt road, it’s still a place you can reach within a day’s hike if need be. Which you can then follow out to a small town or more active highway for help. As for actual life-threatening dangers in the woods, most dangers come from accidental injuries, dehydration or even weather exposure, not from wildlife. On top of that, humans and wildlife services have killed off so much of our wildlife because of irrational fears of unlikely attacks. I have hiked the entire state of Colorado but during this trip, my thoughts turned to how the Colorado Rockies were once considered home to Gray wolves. I was really wrapping  my head around this fact. Around how massive the Colorado Rockies truly are and how we [humans] could wipe out each and every last one! Mind-blowing! It really hit me, how truly massive an impact that was. The last of Colorado’s Gray Wolves were killed in the 1940’s. Though there is a possibility they have returned. I sure hope so… I would have loved to {have been able to} hear their songs, howling throughout these now disturbed places. Or any-where, they once called home. But alas, you need not worry about those big bad wolves… they are, no longer [in Colorado]. 

It is now a safe walk in the woods, and that is boring…

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Thanks for visiting. 

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