A Lesson Learned in Wilderness
by Kim Waites, Wild South Alabama Wilderness Volunteer Coordinator
On a late Friday afternoon, a volunteer and I were emerging from the woods after an eight mile bushwhacking adventure in the Sipsey Wilderness. We were sporting sunburned faces, scratched up arms, and our clothes were covered in black soot from climbing over and under downed trees and sometimes post holing in deep cavernous holes left from burned stumps. We were not ones to complain though. It was a beautiful day and in spite of the responsibility, it was a nice chance to see parts of our wilderness that we had not seen before, including a few unnamed waterfalls.
A 2,000 acre wildfire had burned in our beloved wilderness last fall and Wild South is now “ground truthing” the perimeter to assist the Forest Service. It is just one example of how our program extends the capacity and ability of the Forest Service where they are lacking necessary funding and resources. Using GPS and maps, the object is to walk the perimeter of the fire and visually notate the many twists and turns the fire took. The project has paid off as we were finding many discrepancies between the aerial map and the truth on the ground. The finished product will no doubt be of great use historically, but to also inform possible future monitoring of the impacts of the fire, especially vegetative responses.
Our exit point for this project was the Braziel trailhead, one of the lesser used trailheads in the northeast corner of the Wilderness. As we were on the last leg of the hike out with about half a mile to go, coming towards us were two young boys, maybe college-aged. In perfect Volunteer Wilderness Ranger fashion, I immediately made a quick assessment.
No backpack. No water. Flip flops. Swinging a flashlight. Hmmmm.
Considering my main duty was done for the day, I could have easily let them pass us by and hoped for the best, but I immediately shifted gears into Volunteer Wilderness Ranger mode.
“Howdy guys, how’s it going?” I asked in a style as if I were on a fresh pair of legs and had just clocked in.
They both grinned. I could tell they had sized us up as well. Touché! We were donning two-way radios, GPS units, and hard hats, all signs of official duty. I could sense their relief as one of them asked “so where are the campsites and the waterfalls?”
Knowing there were neither within any reasonable distance and would involve a relocation by car to suit their needs, I held onto patience and seized the moment to educate.
“How many are in your group?” I asked.
“Well, there’s us and we sent another guy down a trail we passed to scout it out. And then there are, well, ummm, two girls waiting at the car so that makes five.”
“Well boys, this is your lucky day. Follow us out. We will guide you to the right trailhead where you will find campsites and waterfalls.”
Our group, which now included my volunteer and the boys, headed towards the trailhead. With a half a mile to go, I knew I should seize this time and turn it into a learning moment. Without overwhelming them with history and facts, I explained to them the concept of wilderness designation, which they knew nothing about. Their only preparation for this trip was a quick Google search that led them to an inappropriate trailhead. I talked about the qualities of wilderness character and drove it home with a lesson on early spring flora. I pointed out a redbud tree that was sporting their early spring buds. My volunteer pointed out mountain mint that was growing along the trail and we encouraged them to sample a bit to satisfy their taste buds’ curiosity.
Being able to ascribe a value to the land heightened their experience and broadened their knowledge. With the outdoors so easily accessible and directions just a Google search away, many visitors come to wilderness not knowing that it’s not just about recreation and a spring break destination.
Wilderness is an idea that transcends a mere walk in the woods. We left this group of boys and girls with a deeper knowledge – and we hope – appreciation for the Sipsey Wilderness.
The Wild South Volunteer Wilderness Ranger Program is made possible by funding provided by The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation, National Forest Foundation, the Community Fund of the Walker Area Community Foundation and generous contributions from supporters like you. If you have not yet, please consider making a donation to help continue this critical work.