What is wilderness?
The thought hovered last week as I rafted a 100-kilometre stretch of the Wapiti River from remote northeastern B.C. to northwestern Alberta. Other than the launch and take-out points there'd been no sign of humanity. Just original forest and a wild, at times unnavigable, river. The wilderness of deep time was also represented in this unexplored stretch - 95 million-year-old dinosaur footprints graced the sandstone shelves lining the riverbank, and fossil dino bones eroded regularly from the surrounding strata to cascade down to river level. Yet despite the decidedly removed feel, I knew that above the soaring canyon walls, unseen from river level, were the Peace District's myriad oil, gas and coal leases, and many forestry clear-cuts. The trip, then, joined other recent assignments that have left me contemplating wilderness.
The notion had also plagued me the previous summer while descending the northern Yukon's Snake River, a 300-kilometre watercourse widely considered to be pristine - no roads, no residents, no development. By the standards of those who purport to want to "protect" watersheds - governments, industry, NGOs, individuals - this was wilderness personified. Or was it? Everyone from canoe and hunting outfitters to mining interests seemed to think they could have a piece of this untrammeled area without altering its fundamental nature. "Wilderness" suddenly had a lot of stakeholders.
The definition I'd been mulling that trip, I realized, was a matter of degree: not this, but that; some, but not all; us, but not them. As many variants as special interests concerned with it. The problem was that all of these constructs were ours - relative and contextual. Perhaps real wilderness simply defined itself by functionality: the natural intertwining of landforms and waterways; the presence of indigenous, co-evolved plant and animal life; intact ecosystems operating the way they have since they arose.
There's room for humanity in this, of course, if we remain a part and not apart, which may demarcate the difference between our "over there" concept of wilderness and the participatory wilderness of First Nations. A couple of years ago, I asked Guujaaw, a renowned artist and president of the Haida Council, about the relationship between the cultural depth of his people and the natural/biological depth of Haida Gwaii. "Our rich culture reflects the richness of both the land and marine wilderness," he replied.
It's hard to argue that a sustainable existence that doesn't destroy an ecosystem might preserve something akin to wilderness, but there are other more facile ideas. I'd learned that years ago, while investigating the widespread counterintuitive belief in monsters like Lake Okanagan's celebrated Ogopogo.
"Humans love mystery and discovery," mused someone whose parents claimed to have seen the creature. "Life would be horrifically dull if we knew everything there was to know. We want to believe there are things out there that can't be explained."
Of course. Our need to believe in the unexplained seems inherent in the fabric of the self-consciousness it co-evolved with. In fact, it might be argued that nature would lose much of its identity if it was fully circumscribed - and so would we. Consider the famous Sasquatch aficionado, a professor who'd spent enormous amounts of time and money searching for that mythical creature, who, in a moment of startling candor, told an interviewer: "It would actually be a shame if we found one. Without Bigfoot out there, there's no such thing as wilderness left."
Which begs, in no uncertain terms, the interesting question of which is worse for humanity - the failure of investigation, or the failure of imagination?
In the end we're back to the beginning: is wilderness no human footprint or very little? Does long use and transient habitation by First Nations qualify or disqualify? Without consensus, do we simply look to nature for answers about how and what to preserve? Or do we require a new definition in this age of reclamation, where the historically (and currently) logged territory of something like massive Algonquin Provincial Park represents the largest preserved "wilderness" in Ontario. And what of piecemeal protection, such as allowing a land-scarring mine that may benefit society - but only as long as the resource or changing economics of demand last - when we know that true wilderness, the type that the Earth doesn't make anymore, offers the wealth of connection in perpetuity?
I've confronted this wilderness conundrum from nature-addled kid through a professional life as biologist, teacher, explorer, and writer. From searching for new species in the lost forests of Vietnam only to find the bulk of them in the most heinously altered landscapes, to arguing the merits of bringing people into the winter mountains by mechanized means that seem anathema to the received view of wilderness, the question of, "What is wilderness?" lingers on.
But it's one we need to keep asking, even here in Whistler, before the answer is "nothing."