The Healing Power of Wilderness

Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness

Up to that point my life had nearly always been intertwined with wilderness.  I first visited as a child with my father and then later on my own, as a college student, realizing the deep and personal attraction and value of wilderness on my own.  Eventually I married a wilderness ranger and together we have continued the adventure.

I’ve had the good fortune to be professionally involved with wilderness for many years, first as a wilderness manager and planner and later as one who helped train other managers in the art of wilderness stewardship.  Before the cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy I had many vivid and personal memories of both the many personal wilderness trips but also the work trips to inventory and monitor visitor use and resource conditions, inform and educate visitors, collect trash left by others, restore abused campsites, maintain trails, and help manage wildfires.  Being in the wilderness had been, for me, an expected and an almost routine part of my life and I felt comfortable there. I didn’t think I took the wilderness experience for granted but as the effects of the chemo ramped up I knew I had.  I began to wonder what life without the ability to directly experience wilderness might be like.  Would it be enough for me to appreciate my own personal values and benefits of wilderness and view it from afar?

When the months of chemotherapy ended the oncologist said “Cancer never just goes away, but for now you’re OK. Enjoy life while you can.”  The effects of the chemo had left me very weak, hairless, and with many memory gaps and I knew I could not immediately resume carrying a heavy pack, hiking a long, steep trail, or portaging a canoe. But after nearly a year of exercise and ever increasing doses of day hiking, biking, and running, and with lots of support from family and friends, it was time to try again.  I had always believed that experiencing wilderness on its’ terms required a degree of planning, physical fitness, and clear thinking to increase the odds of a safe and enjoyable trip.  Wilderness travel is arduous and risky but for me I had always felt capable and being able to do it was a big part of my life. What would it be like if I couldn’t keep up with others, couldn’t choose and follow a good cross-country route, or worse, didn’t enjoy the experience?

We planned our return to the wilderness with two patient and experienced friends, packed our gear, and on a bright sunny morning, headed up the trail. We made camp near a beautiful sub-alpine lake and made plans to explore the next day. Our travels took us off trail and we climbed higher above tree line for spectacular views of towering peaks, increasingly challenging terrain, and dramatic weather events.  The experience was just as I had hoped and it triggered recollections of many previous trips that I had forgotten.  While wilderness travel is rarely easy, it typically brings rewards that are well worth the effort.  For me, this was never more true than during this first trip back.

The National Wilderness Preservation System, created by the 1964 Wilderness Act, is a unique part of the public lands that many people value for both the intrinsic benefits and for the amazing opportunities to visit and directly experience it.  The resource of wilderness provides the direct benefits of clean air and clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, scenery, primitive recreation opportunities, and solitude but many people who never visit wilderness value it just by knowing it exists.  There are ever increasing threats to the existence of what we know as wilderness from politicians and others who seek short term gains from resource extraction over the irreplaceable and long term benefits, both tangible and intangible.  And, the issues of wilderness stewardship in an era of decreased budgets and staffing, continue to test those responsible for administering the areas according the provisions of the Wilderness Act.

But for me, experiencing wilderness is what matters because it restores the mind, nourishes the soul, and, it heals. I have now been back in the wilderness and the wilCopyderness is now back in me.  I know that the wilderness is still there, life is good again, and I am healing.  Each new wilderness adventure will likely include a rigorous physical experience but there will also be many rewards. In the larger scheme of life, the challenges of a wilderness trip are no big deal. I know what a big deal is and how fortunate I am.

Tom Carlson is continuing to recover while volunteering with the Society in Missoula, Montana. Photo courtesy of WTR Outfitters and Northwest Connections.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Scroll to Top

The Society for Wilderness Stewardship is a non-profit, charitable organization under the 501 (c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Code.