Savannah Storch graduated in December 2018 with a B.A. in Ecology and minor in Climate Justice. We are grateful for Savannah’s permission to publish this essay about her Summer 2018 internship in Colorado from the Writing & Communications course with Dr. Carol Dickson.
Unexpected Relationships In Wilderness
Over the summer of 2018 I lived in the La Garita Wilderness in southern Colorado working as a wilderness inventory intern for the Gunnison National Forest and Ranger District. I worked alongside one other intern, Nina Loutchko, and together we had the responsibility of performing a baseline assessment for a long-term study on the impacts of recreational sites on the 129,626 acres of land that comprise the La Garita Wilderness. The La Garita Wilderness is a remote public lands area located in the Southern Rocky Mountains with varying and challenging topography and exquisite views from the Continental Divide and other high-elevation peaks. It offers a breathtaking show of wildflowers.
Over the span of the nearly three months that Nina and I lived in the La Garitas Wilderness we saw hardly anyone but each other – only the remainders and signs of past travelers. Nina and I hiked over 230 miles and every trail in the La Garita Wilderness. While assessing and collecting data on the 246 campsites that we found along those trails, I could not help but to wonder what kind of experience people had with the land. What made someone choose a spot to build and light a fire? What made them leave trash in one site and not another? How long has it been since someone has traveled this trail? I spent the summer observing decisions, interactions, locations and reciprocity between people and the environment over a vast and seemingly “untouched” land.
On our first hitch of the season we hiked a total of 20 miles and spent three days and two nights out in the wilderness. This was our first time in the field collecting data on the recreation impacts in the La Garita, and little did I know that the signs we would find on this trip would change the way that I viewed our work for the remainder of our internship. On our second day of the hitch we hiked off trail five miles east along Nutras Creek from a starting elevation of 10,600 feet up to 12,000 feet elevation. About three and a half miles in, the weather began to change for the worse, and so we decided to take a break to set up camp for the night before it began to pour, and finish the remainder of the hike after being sure we would have a dry and warm night’s rest. About two and a half miles east of the headwaters to Nutras Creek there is a small unnamed valley that we decided to hike into to look for campsites because the topography on our map showed ideal campsite characteristics. After weed whacking uphill through sprouting willow shrubs and rocky mountain irises, racing against time and the weather, we entered into an alpine meadow with low-growing grasses and phlox flowers that was surrounded by a plateau-like ridgeline. Our supervisor explained to us that elk tend to move through areas like these and that we might find hunting campsites in areas with such characteristics. Snow began to fall on us just as the clouds darkened the sky and moved into the valley. We scrambled to search for signs of human impact and use and managed to find four campsites, most of which had central fire rings that looked aged and overgrown with clover and tall grasses.
As we began our hurried descent back to camp, I stopped to fill my water bottle from a cold stream that was flowing through the meadow. As I crouched down to the water I noticed a few shards of jasper stone on the bank, and as I stood up hundreds more caught my eye. The jasper appeared to be in the shape of hand worked shavings and reminded me of carved obsidian shards I saw the previous summer at Ireland Lake, a high alpine lake, in Yosemite National Park, while on a natural history field course of the Sierra Nevada. We took a waypoint on our GPS unit and a few photos to share with the archaeologist on the Gunnison Ranger District. We spent the day intently following the minimum recreation site protocol, training our eyes to notice the negative impacts of people on the wilderness, and in doing so we lost the ability to be in tune with alternative human presences on the land.
On the following day, as we hiked out and away from Nutras Creek, I thought to myself how thankful I was that Nina and I had an “itch” for that unnamed valley, and for finding campsites in its high alpine meadow, because it would mean that in five years, when inventory is needed again, two interns following a map of our GPS units would come to this meadow, and they too may or may not notice some jasper stones and wonder about the relationships people had with the location. I do know for certain that they too will touch the ground there in that valley and will feel the unavoidable age old aching of the land, and that, in the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, “if we allow traditions to die and relationships to fade, the land will suffer.” (Braiding Sweetgrass.)
Midway through June, Nina and I planned a four day and three night hitch that would include a day of off-trail backpacking to a plateau just under 11,000 feet elevation, and a campsite that would forever remind me that we do not all foster in our minds or show in practice the same nourishment of wilderness. The off-trail location was pointed out to us by a forest ranger who knew of a ranch just downhill of the plateau that was situated along the perimeter of the wilderness, suggesting that people may ride and or herd cattle up to the plateau’s flat top. On the day of our off-trail trek, we followed and meandered through an extremely steep and dried-out creek with thousands of dead and fallen interlocking spruce trees to the top of the plateau. When we finally reached the flat contour of the plateau, I was out of breath and halfway through the water in my liter bottle that I was hoping to refill in the now visibly barren and drought-stricken pond on the southwest end of the plateau. I swear my lips cracked when I saw the arid and scorched scenery in front of us. It was noon and the sun was above our heads. With my hand clenched to what was left of my water we began to proceed with scanning the land for signs of campsites.
As we walked over dried and stiff golden grasses we came across the pale chalk-white bones of cattle hips, rib cages and skulls, and the few times that I looked down to hide the sun from my face I noticed that the ground was covered in bright warm-colored spearleaf stonecrop succulents. As we approached the eastern edge of the plateau, just as I was considering giving up, we came across a stand of quaking aspen trees, the first sight of shade and the first and only evidence of human impacts that we would come across all day. Under the canopy of the quaking aspen, chewing tobacco cans were nailed into the trees, along with hand carvings of people’s initials and dates marking their presence. The ground beneath our feet was bare and thoroughly compacted and throughout the site candy wrappers, Halloween decorations and fire scars were scattered all around. In between a pair of trees a hitch rail was raised, indicating that at the least a horse outfitter guide or rancher had stopped at this site. This was by far the site with the greatest impact, damage and amount of trash of all the sites we came across during the summer.
When I first started my position I remember picking out a sticker from the Gunnison ranger district office that had a forget-me-not flower design and the slogan “National Forests, It’s All Yours!” The phrase on the sticker was part of a 2015 USFS and National Forest Foundation campaign to encourage environmental stewardship of our national forests and to highlight their recreational opportunities. The people who trashed the recreation site we came across on that scorching hot and parched June day were certainly not considering the “Leave No Trace” principles that are posted at every trailhead sign in the section on stewardship – though they may have had a sense of the land being “all theirs”. They were not respecting the idea of legal definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (Wilderness Act 1964).
In the middle of July, Nina and I planned a three day and two-night hitch that our minds, spirits and bodies would never forget. It was the beginning of the summer storm season in Colorado which means that in the high mountains, above 11,000 feet elevation, you could have clear bright-blue skies in the morning and inescapably monstrous dark and heavy thunderstorms by the afternoon that roll well into the evening. Knowing the weather patterns common for the time of year, on our second day out on trail we woke up as soon as the morning sun had tapped on our eyelids, around 6:00 am, to begin our seven mile trek west across Palmer Mesa, a high-elevation plateau within the La Garita Mountains, to avoid hiking in the weather that was bound to come. It was quite the ordeal to get to the top of the mesa that morning; we had camped on the north facing side of the plateau and so it was cold and glistening frost had clung on to the tall grasses that chilled my knuckles as we gained 1,500 feet in elevation in just one mile. When we got to the top of the east side of Palmer Mesa at 12,400 feet elevation it was about 8:30 a.m. Below our feet grey and iron colored bare mineral soil was present, as was stunted grasses and some rosette growing shrubs characteristic of high alpine ecosystems; we were the tallest things on that plateau where we could see out to countless mountain peaks that resembled jagged sharks teeth, and down 4,000 feet into the distance tens of miles to the Rio Grande Valley and River.
By the time it was 11:00 o’clock we still had two miles left to hike before we could descend the plateau via Half Moon Pass to a safe elevation for camping. We knew we were crunched for time when thunderous clouds seemed to appear out of nowhere wisping towards us from the south carrying scents of charred wood from a 12-day old wildfire 120 miles away in Durango, Colorado. In what seemed liked seconds, the storm had domineered over us and from it penny sized hail fell on our bodies leaving pink and painful imprints in our skin. As I hastily tore my rain jacket out from my pack the metallic and mechanical booming sounds being orchestrated just above my hair overtook my attention, and then suddenly, in sink with the rhythm of the thunder, an electric blue flash of lightning dotted across the sky and nearly every muscles in my body gave out causing me to fall helplessly to the ground.
Ironically, the day before we took off for this life altering hitch our supervisor warned us of the danger and probability of lightning strikes above tree line, and explained to us that “when you’re above 10,000 feet in elevation your chances of being hit go from being one in-a-million to one-in-ten-thousand”. Luckily neither I or Nina were that one-in-ten-thousand, but never have I felt so clearly my own diminutive nature in the face and scale of Mother Earth. It was the first time in my life that I had ever spoken out loud and begged of the Earth and universe to keep me alive; up on Palmer Mesa in this storm I felt as though Nina and I could die and no one would ever know or find us, there would be no sign of our presence to find. From this experience I gained a new relationship with nature; one that would forever impact me and remind me of what it truly means to be present.
During our first few hitches, when the flowers were not yet in bloom and we had little clue as to which green stalk and stem would produce which wildflower, I recognized the short growing ovate and tooth-margined leaves characteristic of wild strawberries. I excitedly wondered if we would get to enjoy their fruit before the end of the season, but as time passed on, and more than 200 miles were behind us, the fruiting bodies of strawberries never appeared and it seemed as though our chances were becoming unlikely.
On the last hitch of our internship in the La Garita Wilderness we took inventory on just a handful of various recreation sites, but gratefully took several handfuls of an unexpected gift. At this point in the internship we were hiking at elevations of 11,000 feet or lower and under the canopy of tall and mostly dead standing spruce trees. The paths that we took were narrow and overgrown with now wilting mountain bluebells and other wildflowers. The weather was much hotter and so we took it upon ourselves to take as many of our lunch breaks near streams flowing with cold water from their high alpine headwaters hoping to sneak in a few swims.
On our second to last day out on trail we were assessing the impacts of a site near the bank of a stream when we noticed the sweet aroma of the tiny blushing red wild strawberries that were hiding in the fireweed flowers and grasses below our feet. After collecting data for the site we put our packs down, got on our knees, and started picking for strawberries. The small heart shaped bodies of the strawberries heated by the sun were warm in my hands as I brought them to my mouth to taste their outrageously sweet and delicious flavor. For the rest of the day as we hiked we noticed many clusters of wild strawberries that dotted the landscape and sometimes caved to fill our hands with their juicy goodness once again.
The timing of the ripening of the wild strawberries couldn’t have been more perfect, and that is why I cannot help but to think of them as a gift. As Kimmerer describes, “Gifts from the earth … establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate” (Braiding Sweetgrass, page 25). For three months in the summer of 2018 I was able to give the La Garita Wilderness a long overdue check-up on the various impacts that it had been receiving and had no idea that in doing so I would also be building a relationship of reciprocity with the wilderness.
The work that my internship partner and I were able to accomplish in the La Garita Wilderness in the summer of 2018 will help wilderness land managers better understand the impact trends occurring in the wilderness overtime, has helped to identify recreation sites and trails that are in need of rehabilitation, and has also allowed for stories, such as the ones I have shared in this paper, of the stewardship and relationships only found in wilderness, to be experienced and told again.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2015.
“1964 Wilderness Act.” Wilderness.net, www.wilderness.net/nwps/legisact