Back to the Wilderness

The narrow trail, bordered on both sides by lowbush blueberries, Labrador tea, leather leaf, snowberry, and peat moss, rambled through an area leveled by fire seventeen years ago. The lush green of the shrubs underscored by white fluffy lichen and red and green peat moss covering the ground provided the perfect contrast that so symbolizes this land. A land that can be 95 degrees in the summer and 50 below zero in the winter. A land that that can hold the majestic beauty of lakes, boreal forest, and wildlife and the remnants of massive forest fire destruction. And a land that seems so peaceful yet the raw and savage reality of survival rests in the genes of every plant and animal that inhabits it.

It was also a land where balsam fir, tamarack, black spruce, and pitch pine had already grown to heights of six feet and more; a sure symbol that this area would become, once again, a dense boreal forest resembling the millions of acres of taiga that surrounded this oasis. The journey along this narrow trail to an old moose stand is the only human made path in the vicinity of the camp that we were staying at on this wilderness lake and after hours and hours of fishing in a small boat with an outboard motor even a short hike was just what the doctor ordered.

The old moose stand.

Maureen, on her second adventure to the far north, led the way. Earlier in the day she had wandered up here by herself to pick some of the wild blueberries; a treat appreciated by all at the camp. My sister, who also joined us in our journey to this wilderness with her husband, wondered if Maureen was at risk by competing for blueberries with the black bear population. Black bears are common where we live so Maureen held no real fear of these large foragers of the forest. As it turned out the only black bear we would see was from the boat on another day while it wandered along a sandy beach not too far from our cabin.


The fireweed, brilliantly pink, was in full bloom and grew in large clusters where there was no shade to be found amongst the recovering conifers of the boreal forest. As Mo and I hiked along we both were silent; taking in the beauty that these wild lands have to offer. Off to the north we could see Lac Wetetnagami, the fourteen mile lake that would be our home for the week. Wide open skies that held white flat topped clouds went on forever and ever. There was no human noise. We could only hear the wind and the songs of a multitude of birds. The distant forest seemed limitless and went on for as far as we could see. Looking east I knew this forest went all the way to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula more than 250 miles away. Millions and millions of acres of forest, and area larger than all of New England, mostly devoid of humans, could be found to the north and east. And to the west and north more of the same except that area is larger the area of the entire area of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Maureen and I live in a very rural region. Our back yard is something like 20,000 acres of woods. It was too rugged to be settled and now is owned by many different owners; only a thousand of which is state owned land. But we can drive to a store in a half an hour and we can get to a hospital in about the same amount of time. And although we have chosen to live a simple life, devoid of some of the modern conveniences like air conditioning and a clothes dryer, we are still very connected to the modern world. Some might think we have the best of two worlds, a place that holds bears, eastern coyotes, fisher, and red tail hawks in a region that also holds farms, villages, and human companionship. I have written before about urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness. And what I have said is that there is as much difference between wilderness and rural areas as there is between urban and rural areas. Of all these environments only wilderness areas are pure. They hold pure water, pure air, pure wildlife, pure ecosystems, and a savage pure survival of the fittest scheme that only true nature lovers find beautiful.

Lichen and lowbush blueberry.

Maureen and I reached our destination. We looked to the north towards Wetetnagami, and to the northeast towards a giant wetland and stream that is one of many stream that feeds the lake. A bald eagle sailed along the edge of the lake looking for fish. A loon could be heard calling; that crazy, cry laugh that only loons can do. The sky is big and blue. The sun shines down on this piece of the far north wilderness and keeps the cold at bay. The world seems clean, awesome in the truest sense of the word, and pure. Maureen and I held each other. And we both realized that this is what the world is supposed to be like. We looked at each other and I put that thought into words. Then we look out back at this beautiful planet and nod our heads.

A strong wind blew from the northwest and we knew it was time to head back to the cabin. As we rambled back along this winding path I thought about the cycles of earth’s geology and life. Our planet is four and a half billion years old. It evolved from a gaseous ball to a place that held water, land, and atmosphere. Several hundred million years ago the planet was dominated by giant allies; ferns and horsetails the size of trees and other plants that reproduced with spores instead of flowers. As these plants perished they formed they large coal and oil deposits that we use today for fuel. The Carboniferous Age was warm at the beginning and cooled rapidly to a glacial period at the end. It was also when the first marine invertebrates evolved, the beginning to much of the fauna on our planet. Before the end of the Carboniferous Age freshwater invertebrates, land invertebrates, fish, and tetrapods had arrived. This long geologic period also held major continental collisions and the formation of our major mountain chains. It was a violent era that knew no end to destruction and rebuilding. This geologic time was followed by the Permian and eventually the Triassic periods. The world captured and held onto life for good. From that point on it survived mass extinctions thought to be caused by possible multiple collisions with gigantic meteorites. Ninety to ninety five percent of all of the living organisms perished and yet only 30 million years later the earth was populated once again with the foundation of our modern plant and animal ecosystems.

Immature black spruce cones.

As all these strange thoughts passed through my mind the earth’s present set of circumstances acts as a back drop in my thought processes. Humans seem to be mostly responsible for our present global warming. We may be at the beginning of dramatic biologic change. I wouldn’t mind so much if we were just eliminating ourselves. I wouldn’t mind so much if we were simply removing the evidence of our existence; even that which we hold dear-our music, our art, our beautiful architecture. But the idea that we could impact what stood before me, the untouched beauty of what this world was meant to be, is simply devastating. I wondered. If everyone could see what I saw would it change our behavior? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

A turbulent storm is forming in the northwest. The skies are dark. The wind takes on a savage attitude. The black clouds bury the sunshine as the storm approaches.

Maureen and I stood watching the weather blow in. We felt helpless and incapable of thwarting this storm. We retreated to the cover of the cabin and watched to see what would happen next.

Written for in July of 2012.

  • Lynn Day

    Your moving account brings memories of moments past.  The phogotgraphs, while excellent in every way, pale to your words. Blessings.

  • Montucky

    “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” I wonder about this a lot, but if everyone could see what you see and know even a little of what you know I think there would be a big change.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Lynn, your compliments are much appreciated and your words help me to keep writing.  The wilderness brings out the best in some of us, and it sounds like you are one of those.

  • Wild_Bill

     I keep thinking that if we taught our children about the history of the earth, not its people, from elementary school on it would make a large difference in how we view this planet; the cycles, the fragility, the geologic and biologic evolution, and the fragile balance that holds the key to continuation. 

  • Sandy

    I think that in the future we will be forced to deal with the mess we made. It doesn’t look we will be able to blast off to a new planet any time soon, so  Even my mom refused to believe that we are not just going through a cycle. Most of her generation still believe that the earth can heal itself.  

    It is nice that you had another opportunity to go into the wilderness. That must mean your surgery went well this year. Enjoy! The truth is that most people don’t even realize what they are in danger of losing.

  • Wild_Bill

     The earth can heal itself as soon as we quit altering all of her foundations.  Until we quit wreaking havoc without any measure of control we’ll continue into a negative spin.  The idea of a forever expanding economy is part of the problem, sustainability and regeneration seem to be the answer.  This isn’t complicated but greed keeps making us look away from the obvious.

    I’m feeling good enough to get around to where I need and want to go.  That’s what is important.

  • Barbara

    While I haven’t been into the kind of wilderness you describe in a long while Bill, my recent excursion around part of the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia also reminded me of how much “civilization” or rather humankind has affected this beautiful world. Fortunately in that part of the rugged Canadian coastline, it’s only along the coast that a few small villages are located, and most people who live there, appreciate and respect their environment. Travelling around the edge of primeval forest also gave me similar thoughts to yours. 

    Your piece is so evocative of all the beauty of this planet, its potential, its potential loss, I envy you all for this adventure, and share your concerns. Perhaps/perhaps not indeed. 

    As always a thoughtful essay. Particularly liked the idea of teaching the youngsters in the world about how the planet evolved rather than what humans have done, might help them care for it better. Power and greed are the two most devastating and destructive forces in the world today – too bad for all of us they are so strong and prevalent. It would be wonderful if all those who are working hard against this destruction banded together making loud voices, wouldn’t it?

  • Wild_Bill

     Cape Breton Island-now there is one beautiful place!  Some of the preserved federal lands that are in the inland areas are a good reminder of how desolate a place that was at one time.  I haven’t been there in nearly 40 years but I’m guessing its pretty well preserved.

    Yes. Perhaps, perhaps not. 

    The one loud voice idea keeps getting drowned out by the corporate and governmental control of the media.  I never thought they’d have so final and authorative control but they do.

    I’d love to see planet history become a core requirement for K-12th grades.  There is so much to teach and so much to learn.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    A great post. I found your comments about how what many people would see semi rural areas as wilderness while the true wilderness is totally different quite striking. I would imagine that many people myself included have rarely if ever seen a true wilderness. We have all the animals included become increasingly adapted the the margins the transition areas between the city, rural areas and the ever declining amount of true wilderness we have left.


  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Guy.  Yes, to venture back through our various human settings, urban, suburban, rural, semi-wilderness, and wilderness is quite a journey, and a striking display of human impact on ecological systems.  Semi-wilderness are remote wild areas that have seen human impact in recent times, such as logging.  Some of the Wetetnagami area that we recently visited would fall into this category, as would much of the boreal forest because of pulp logging.  It doesn’t seem to bother the wildlife, and in fact creates excellent moose habitat, but it is a human alteration non the less. The logging cycles may be as much as 100 years apart.

  • craftygreenpoet

    You’re so right, wilderness a a whole other thing to rural. Wonderful that you are so close to such wilderness.

    I hate thinking about the effect we’re having as a species on the other species on earth. So many tropical forests are functionally empty of wildlife, we’re hunting elephants, rhinos and tigers so close to extinction that they may be extinct in the wild within our lifetimes.  It’s scary, even though there are hopeful stories to be found too, it seems that the human instinct to destruction knows no bounds

  • Emily B

    Beautiful and sad and true. The closest I’ve gotten to this kind of wilderness was in the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, but even there we could see the occasional cabin or boat. I hope to have just this kind of experience in the near future: moments that put all other moments into perspective. Great post, Bill.

  • Emily B

    Beautiful and sad and true. The closest I’ve gotten to this kind of wilderness was in the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, but even there we could see the occasional cabin or boat. I hope to have just this kind of experience in the near future: moments that put all other moments into perspective. Great post, Bill.

  • Emily B

    Beautiful and sad and true. The closest I’ve gotten to this kind of wilderness was in the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, but even there we could see the occasional cabin or boat. I hope to have just this kind of experience in the near future: moments that put all other moments into perspective. Great post, Bill.

  • Wild_Bill

     I would love to read what you would have to write about a wilderness experience.  Their are parts of northern interior Minnesota that have few roads and a lot of lakes and woods.  I would image, like Maine, if you look around you’ll find some real wild areas.  If not, just head north into Canada.  The boreal forest is nearly boundless and certainly overpowering. Thanks for the compliment. 

  • Wild_Bill

     Yes, scary.  In fact way beyond scary.  I keep hoping that there is a collective consciousness that kick in and reverse our course before it is too late.  The planet’s resources are finite.  Therefore this silly notion of ever expanding economies, especially without human population control is very foolish.  We need to think about sustainability and regeneration.  And we need to start the process soon!  Thanks for reading, it was great to hear from you!

  • Hudson Howl

    ‘I wondered. If everyone could see what I saw would it change our behaviour?’ Well it influenced me. I was not raised in the north, but rather in the southern Ontario where growing cities, expanding urban suburbs was and still is the norm. Then, starting at age 8 with may parents I got chances every summer in the North to see wild places -did not at the time understand what I saw, but it captivated me, captured my imagination, an influenced to this day how see things. Best of all, in my teens I spent entire summers living with my older brother who worked for Inco Mining -it was teenage years that gave me the most memories of nature, wild places and the importance it holds. So no it might not change everyone but it does change some, And from that comes passionate people such as yourself……as I said in a comment to post by our mutual blog friend Debra at Find An Outlet, people who are passionate about cause they care deeply for do it not because they want to but they do what they do because they have no alternative but to do it. I believe seeing what you saw would change some and I believe you writing and informing and weaving how the natural world is very much important to our existence and our being. Look at the photos you posted – those alone have to be motivation to ignite interest into visiting such places. If you can some one there, I think most would be changed in someway -a profound way be optimal.

  • Wild_Bill

    There are so many urbanites and suburbanites who are almost impossibly disconnected from wild Earth. I recently heard someone say they hated the outdoors and wondered what anyone saw in it. She went on to say to her friend “you tell me what is better a fun filled mall or a mosquito ridden park?”!!!! Yikes, I couldn’t even believe she said this.

    But others, with a little introduction, might easily learn the mystery of the wilds! I’m hoping there are still enough to care. That is our best hope!

  • Hudson Howl

    As for what ‘she’ said and to quote Daffy Duck, “dethpicable”.

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