December 16, 2012

Head North This Summer.

Many people often dream about going to exotic places where they might walk down dusty streets and crowded bazaars to smell the pungent aromas of foreign spices and feel the texture of newly sewn fine silks.

These places hold their own extraordinary value, but I enjoy dreaming about vast wildernesses where a pack of wolves running silently through the trees is more valuable of an experience than any material thing I could possibly imagine. If, at some point you feel like you need to go into the wilderness and you live in the North America, then you are positioned for a great adventure.

From Yellowstone National Park in northern Wyoming to the tip of Alaska lies one of the largest, most protected wildlife passageways in the world. Though there are towns with people who might look like you and speak like you, there are also tens of millions of acres of land where you could quite literally lose yourself in something large and deep.

Grizzly bears, grey and red wolves, mountain lions, big horned sheep, elk, moose, caribou, wolverine, glaciers, rainforest, prairie, aspen groves and mountain thundershowers line the way northward.

Arriving in Great Falls, Montana isn’t a special experience, unless you are an avid Lewis and Clark fan. The two explorers famously spotted the Rocky Mountains from here and said, “Oh shit, were not in Kansas anymore.” (That’s not a direct quote, but that’s what I probably would have thought in May 1805, if a row of mountains lay in my path.)

After getting in the car and heading west for about two hours, we arrive at Lewis and Clark National Forest, right on the edge of the Bob Marshall wilderness. The park is part of the broader six million acre Rocky Mountain Front eco-system, which includes the two parks above as well as Glacier and Waterton National Parks some sixty miles to the north. The days are warm, the nights are cold, the air is exceptional and the sunsets are awe-inspiring (they don’t call Montana “Big Sky country” for nothing—on top of that, the amount of Grizzly bears, moose, raptors and elk I’ve seen here is ridiculous.)

And what is so amazing about this place is that no one is here, no one. They are all up in Glacier Park and I am thankful for it. Here is a quick insert from one of my great wildlife encounters in this region about four years ago:

As I stepped away from the trail for a moment during a small break, I looked up to see this large, elegant white dog staring down at me about 100 feet away. We locked eyes and I said to myself, “Oh shit!” and stared right back at him/her for a few seconds before he/she trotted off into the trees. The big dog that was with us just cowered and whimpered at our feet and we knew there were more of them nearby.

When I ran back to my buddy, we cold hear rustling in the woods nearby and finally we just howled. To our surprise, delight and the coolest moment of my life and power, the entire pack of wolves howled back to us. Their calls rippled out and echoed across the mountains. It was an ancient, primordial sound—something we don’t hear on our iPhones. We did this in a call and response fashion three more times, the echo of their howls still reverberate in my ears today.

From the Bob Marshall Wilderness, head north to Glacier/Waterton Park, which is considered by most to be the crown jewel of our American National Parks, and then head further north until you run into Banff National Park, Glacier Park (BC), Kootenay Park, Jasper Park and literally hundreds of small, barely visited state parks throughout British Columbia and Alberta (for a comparison, you could fit about five California’s into this area and about a quarter of the population).

The national parks are breathtaking and spectacular, but there are adjacent wildernesses as well that are empty and inviting. And this doesn’t even include Yukon and Alaska, the ultimate destination for those wilderness seekers who are nuts/psyches (in a good way).

Speaking of Alaska, one of my favorite parks in up here is Denali National Park, about a 10-hour drive north of Anchorage. Everything is just bigger up here: the storms, the sky, the forests, the mountains, the glaciers and the moose (one more note about British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska is that what we might think of as some of the biggest rivers we could imagine, they call small creeks. You will encounter a few of these gigantic “creeks” on your way.) Mt. Denali, or what we used to call Mt. McKinley, is actually the tallest mountain in the world when you measure it from its base to its peak.

Though it is only 20,300 feet tall, Denali begins at only 2,000 feet. But that small fact is not that important. What is important is the abundance of wildlife, the profundity of the northern lights, massive glaciers, sweeping views, crimson tundra and close calls with bears. The park itself is a little larger than Connecticut—just a little scale to imagine. It actually feels like that once you head in, “here’s a slightly unique version of Connecticut, have fun!”

“Ok, thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

It’s fun to go to interesting, exotic places to learn new things about past historical events. But in this increasingly squeezed, technologically advanced modern life of ours, it is just as, if not more important to go back to our fundamental roots—the wilderness we used to inhabit in the not so distant past.

Head north this summer, drink it in and take some time to question the human reality we are creating on earth today—the one that prizes consumption and neglects the natural.

Happiness, what we really want in this short life of ours, could be in the other direction—sitting quietly in nature.



Ed: Bryonie Wise

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