The wilderness. The backcountry. The out-of-doors. It has long been an American notion that we need to go back to nature at least occasionally to renew ourselves, to restore health or even sanity. Some of our very best literature reflects this idea. Thoreau's Walden is a classic, and the expression of one of the ethics Thoreau lived by—"In Wildness is the preservation of the World"—is among the most often quoted lines in American literature. Implicit in Huckleberry Finn, thought by many scholars to be the finest American novel, is the idea that while man may often be evil, nature is always good. Hemingway restates that theme in one of his most admired stories. Big Two-Hearted River. In it Nick Adams finds peace by returning alone to the wilderness of the northern Michigan woods to camp and fish. Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac—a book probably more widely read than Walden these days—presents outdoor experiences as necessary contrasts to civilization, contrasts that have become more beneficial as technology removes us from the land.
But this retreat to nature, whatever the reason, is becoming very difficult to accomplish. At Walden Pond, where Thoreau lived in solitude for two years, 11,000 tourists may now be found on a hot summer afternoon. Huck Finn's Mississippi River is horribly polluted. We are told in Big Two-Hearted River that "Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it." He would have an exceedingly difficult time finding an acceptable place to fish today. And Leopold would be the first to agree that the idea of contrast he espoused is not served by camping vehicles the size of railroad cars or by the trail bikes and snowmobiles that sometimes seem to overrun the countryside.
We are running out of room. Spokesmen for timber companies, mining interests and the like proclaim that there is more than enough wilderness in America. But those who speak on behalf of wilderness point out that while we have 263 designated wilderness areas totaling-about 80 million acres, this acreage is roughly equal to the amount of land we have already paved over.
The dilemma of increasing population and decreasing room is compounded by the fact that the most attractive natural places in our country—the wilderness areas, the national parks, the wild and scenic rivers—are deluged with visitors. Ironically, the designations meant to protect these precious areas are responsible in large degree for the pressures these preserves are experiencing: camping by reservation only, traffic jams, littered streams and meadows and steadily mounting crime. The national parks—particularly Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and the Great Smoky Mountains—have been overcrowded for years. But the real backcountry is relatively crowded these days, too.
Colin Fletcher, author of The Thousand-Mile Summer, The Man Who Walked Through Time and The Complete Walker, says, "Normally I backpack where I know I can remain alone, like the Sierra in the late fall. But I remember one time in the Sierra when I was off the trail, going cross-country, and ran into a young couple. They began to say how nice and peaceful it was off the trail; how back on the trail they'd met 10 people a day; that it was dreadfully crowded. And suddenly I realized that they just kept walking with me, chattering away. Here they were, following me along, talking constantly about how they wanted solitude."
I know the feeling. And it isn't always necessary to run into people to have an experience marred. A couple of years ago I backpacked into some rough and remote country with a friend and my son. Not long after I had joyfully concluded that in all likelihood no humans had been where we were in years, we came across a doe that had been shot and left to rot. A little farther, near a small creek, was a heap of empty cans and shattered whiskey bottles left by the hunting party that had apparently shot the doe. Experiences such as this have become the rule.
Is there a solution? Fletcher says, "Sometimes I think it might be best not to maintain trails...if trees fall across the trail, leave them. Don't make it easier for people, because visitors to the wilderness should pay in the coin of the realm—which is knowing how to do it. When the Yosemite Plan [to deal with overcrowding] was being revised, I wrote and said this. I never got any reply."
It isn't at all surprising that Fletcher's letter wasn't answered. Those in charge of what we might broadly call our outdoor recreation areas—the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management—certainly don't want to be accused of catering to so-called elitists. In fact, they measure their success largely by the number of users attracted to their facilities and to the sections of the country they administer. Crowds are their tangible proof that they're doing their jobs well.
Therefore, it's generally considered a good thing that America's "wild and scenic" rivers are so popular with rafters and kayakers that permit systems have been instituted to control the hordes. It's necessary to apply months in advance to get clearance to float down a well-known stream like Oregon's Rogue River. Commercial river-running outfits own a majority of the "starts" on the most popular portion of the Rogue, and there is something of a black market in buying, selling and trading them reminiscent of ticket scalping for the Super Bowl.
Permit system or not, on any reasonably pleasant day from spring through fall, on any floatable stream, from the Colorado River to a nameless mountain tributary with just a few inches of water sliding over gravel, there will be crowds of rafts, inner tubes, canoes or kayaks drifting along. There will be fishermen, too, and the conflicts between river runners and fishermen have become increasingly hostile over the past few years. Shouting matches are common, and fistfights have occurred. The fishermen don't always get along among themselves, either. During salmon runs on the West Coast, bank fishermen and boat fishermen have been known to resort to firearms to resolve their differences. What would Nick Adams think of this?