A Rant Designed to Provoke Thought and Discussion

Sandy Briggs
January 2005

First we need a definition of wilderness, and it turns out that the Vancouver Island’s 1993 Strathcona Park Master Plan provides a good one in its description of a Wilderness Conservation Zone: “The objective of this zone is to protect a remote, undisturbed natural landscape and to provide unassisted recreation opportunities dependent on a pristine environment where no motorized vehicles will be allowed. Development is nonexistent … In short, areas designated as Wilderness Conservation are large natural areas free of any evidence of modern human activity, with very low use and without facilities.” [Emphasis mine.] Approximately 75% of Strathcona Park is zoned as Wilderness Conservation.

I am mourning the death of wilderness. Perhaps this is a little premature, but I think not. As Kojak (Telly Savalas) once said, “Light a candle baby. A get well card won’t do.”

Wilderness is dead because we are selfish, because we have forgotten the meaning of the word ‘wilderness’, and because we seem to be incapable of ignoring the specious issue of translating unvisited wilderness into an economic bottom line.

Wilderness has been murdered by selfish convenience in the form of technologies such as cell phones, satellite phones, gps, and GoogleEarth. Or it has been sacrificed to the pernicious allure of helicopters, planes, snowmobiles and ATVs.

Wilderness has been made to appear to be less than it really is, namely a place where one must be strong and alert, where one must take responsibility for one’s actions, and where decisions may have consequences.

I am moved to quote H. W. Tilman who, in his book Two Mountains and a River, wrote: “I have quoted elsewhere the Bengali proverb that ‘the sight of a horse makes the traveller lame’, and I have some fear that the sight of an aeroplane might make the mountaineer think. To see an aeroplane accomplishing in four hours a journey which will take him nearly three weeks of toil and sweat is bound to give rise to thought --some of it subversive;… The farther away from mountains we can keep aeroplanes the better; a sentiment with which even pilots will not quarrel, and which, I hope, even those mountaineers whose pleasure it is to keep abreast or well ahead of the times will echo.”

To be more succinct let me quote the poignantly sarcastic Chinese proverb “He saw the flowers, from a galloping horse.”

Maybe we need to ponder whether we would like our children’s children’s children to be able to experience something of the exhilaration we have felt when we have worked hard to contort our way through dense bush, traverse snowy hills, and climb steep pathless mountainsides to arrive on a clean untouched plane where Nature prevails and the signs of man are only subtle: the occasional jet trail, the acidity of the lake, the too-red hazy sunset, the points of light rushing across the night sky. It is already too late to ask for more.

I suppose there may be those of you who will accuse me of pointing a finger, but I want to assure you that I have ski-planed to Mt Vancouver and Mt Logan and Devon Island. I have helicoptered myself and food caches into the mountains. I carry a satellite phone in the arctic and I even own a gps unit. But somebody has to start casting some metaphorical stones, for if we wait for him who is without sin to begin the process then we may wait quite a while. I am a participant in the murder of wilderness.

But I am hoping, and wrestling almost daily with the issue, that as I am overtaken by the natural course of time’s passing -- which is to say, by deliquium of the spirit and/or physical decline -- I will have the dignity to recognize that I have had my turn, and that the wilderness (if there is any left alive) will do just fine without my technologically assisted visits.

I have mentioned some of the ways by which we are killing wilderness, but there are many more. Every piece of flagging tape I put up and do not later remove is another stab in the death of a thousand cuts. So also is, in some sense, every new summit or route cairn I build, every new summit register I place. These latter intrusions have a long and somewhat useful and engaging tradition in the human context, and so far only the very unacquisitive and strong-willed have been able to abstain.

But now when we go to summits we are increasingly likely to find not only that someone has left a note, but also that someone has decided, generally unilaterally, to make that summit a memorial for a deceased friend or relative, even if the deceased didn’t die on that mountain ? even if the deceased had nothing in particular to do with that mountain.

A memorial plaque has recently appeared on the summit of the Golden Hinde. Like the wooden cross that appeared there about 1985 it is unauthorized, and moreover it contravenes the BC Parks Policy on Memorial Markers. This policy states, among other things, that anyone wishing to place a plaque must apply in writing to BC Parks and that “free standing memorial plaques or markers will not be permitted unless by previous agreement.” Almost certainly permission to place such a plaque on the summit of the Golden Hinde would be denied because it contravenes the Wilderness Conservation zoning that was defined at the beginning of this article. There is an unauthorized memorial plaque on the summit of Elkhorn, and there is a more modest memorial installation outside Strathcona Park on the summit of Conuma Peak.

Such memorials are certainly not restricted to summits. Memorial cairns and/or plaques not authorized by BC Parks have appeared in recent years at Schjelderup Lake outlet, at Owens Lake (perhaps ?) (west of the Golden Hinde) , and at the recently named MacIntyre Lake SE of Mt DeVoe (perhaps ?). All of these contravene the Wilderness Conservation zoning for those parts of Strathcona Park.

Other Island locations where there are, or are reputed to be, memorial plaques and/or cairns, some of which may have been officially authorized, in the wilderness are (A * means it is in Strathcona Park.): Douglas Lake*, Century Sam Lake*, Capes Lake, Idiens Lake, Gem Lake*, Mt Argus*, Mt Clifton, Mt Chief Frank, Greig Ridge*, and Wheaton Memorial Hut*. There may be more that I have not heard of.

Let me be clear. This particular rant is not about the naming of geographical features, though one does wonder what our successors will do in three hundred years to honour their heroes, after all the geographical features have been named. This rant is about sullying the wilderness so that it isn’t wilderness any more. It is about rendering the wilderness no longer “free of any evidence of modern human activity.”

An even more modern technology-supported threat to the integrity of wilderness is the sport of geocaching. One can go to and zoom in on geocaches already appearing in Strathcona Park and many other places on Vancouver Island -- heck, even on Baffin Island. While such caches themselves, placed and sought by hikers, represent a contravention of the definition of wilderness accepted for the purpose of this article, it is the idea that such caches in this worldwide game might be placed and sought by those using helicopters or snowmobiles that disturbs me most.

Well OK, maybe not the most. After all, I haven’t even mentioned mining, logging, roads, radio towers, micro-hydro dams, pipelines, or Survivor wannabes.

So Wilderness is dead -- on Earth. But the cosmos is full of wilderness where there are, so far, few signs of man. I think it’s chimerical to think of getting to those new worlds any time soon, so we’d better think a little more about this one and how it’s going to look in 50, 100, 500 years. Will there be any wilderness? I doubt it. Sorry kids, we blew the family fortune.

Sandy Briggs

(All that and I didn’t say a thing about bolts. Hmmm. Suffice to say for the moment that stuff such as the Great Canadian Knife is a great climbing tragedy.)