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Hiking the Wind Rivers: The Wilderness Paradox 16 August 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel.
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There was everything I thought I knew about Wyoming. And then there were the Wind Rivers. This isn’t, though—or won’t be—the glowing trip report you’re thinking those first two sentences might suggest. The Winds defied my expectations in a good way, yes: they offered unmatched beauty. But I can’t help but call the north end of this range anything other than “overrun.” Even as a Coloradan, I can say that.

These mountains offer glacially-carved bliss an an almost inconceivable scale. Only the Alps present a superior demonstration of the interplay between rock and ice. Each peak, arete, col and horn evinces a glacial past. How else to explain a tower of rock soaring 3,000′, straight up, from the valley below? What else could scatter these thousand tarns? The rolling mounds of Colorado’s Sawatch look positively benign by comparison. And yet, naturally, it is these features which draw so many to the range. The Winds may well be the Times Square of the American backpacking world, lack of lounge chairs notwithstanding.

So I’m just not sure what to make of that, particularly as a Coloradan who has grown used to, if not accepting of, crowds in the backcountry. On the one hand, greater use most likely leads to greater and wider appreciation of wilderness in the legal sense. In the Winds, three federally-designated wilderness areas—the Bridger, Fitzpatrick and Popo Agie—preserve the range’s remote qualities by banning mechanical travel, and each comes with its own trail-side sign to remind visitors that they’ve entered a wilder place.

Whether that reminder translates into support of continued or expanded federal protection once hikers return home, I’m not sure, but I suspect it does. Let’s say it does. So these crowds are a mixed blessing of sorts: necessary as constituents making the case for wilderness, but painful as traffic jams pile up on the trail. That’s what national parks are for. You can find solitude elsewhere.

But I guess the lack of solitude’s more our problem, really, and not a black mark on the Winds’ reputation for incomparable grandeur. Except that it is. Although the 1964 Wilderness Act takes care to define wilderness in a particular way to preserve its original character, it was written at a time when fewer Americans followed in the steps of men like Jim Bridger. Critically, I think,  it came into being because of a few great men, not a mass movement. Car camping existed then, certainly. But only recently has backpacking gear become sufficiently light and the American population sufficiently enamored of the outdoors, to create the sort of challenge facing the Winds and other popular wilderness areas today.The presence of each additional group detracts from the wilderness experience, particularly when the other parties comprise adventuring church youth groups, not a few rough and tumble mountain men like Bridger.

So therein lies the “wilderness paradox.” Places like the Winds inspire people to take up arms and cry, “Protect this place!” They have that effect on people, and we need the Winds—or more specifically, lots of people visiting them—for that very reason. But the number of visitors needed for support runs counter to the numbers needed to keep a place “wild.” Too many visitors, and the Jolly Rancher wrappers, fire rings, and even the trails, multiply. Where we’ve arrived is a sort of equilibrium in which a few wild places like the Winds, or the wilderness areas in Colorado, receive an outsized proportion of backcountry enthusiasts, while the others remain more less pristine. It’s a balance that seems to be working, but boy, how amazing it would be to explore the Winds alone.

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