September 2014 is a time to celebrate wild country and take pride in the fact that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act back in 1964.

A number of events are planned to mark the anniversary of the Wilderness Act all over Montana in the days and weeks to come. Judging from what I heard about the Montana Wilderness Association-sponsored “Wild 50th Fest” in Seeley Lake last weekend, many folks out there are celebrating this historic event. I wish I could have been in Seeley to listen to the Mission Mountain Wood Band under that great big moon last Saturday night, but I was otherwise engaged in celebrating wilderness.

I was doing it the old-fashioned way. I was walking the last few miles of a long day on the trail with friends. Despite that big moon, we still needed to use our headlamps to find the trail that threaded a dark and ancient cedar grove near the end of the line. A few hours earlier, and almost 6,000 feet higher, we had stood in thin air and looked off at wilderness lands in all directions.

I will save the rest of that story for another day. What I really want to talk about today is how wilderness gets under a person’s skin and stays there forever.

My first real backpack trip was in the Swan Range with my dad and brother Sandy when I was ten years old. We hiked to a lake near the top of the range and camped out under the stars. If the weather had occasioned it, my dad had brought along an old canvas shelter-half to protect us. We saw a black bear along the way in. Mountain goats moved around in the cliffs above the lake where we camped. We could hear them knocking rocks down off the cliffs all night long. It was a tough hike for a chubby little kid like me, and it could have soured me on the whole outdoor deal, but it didn’t.  Instead, it was a magical experience that I have never forgotten. Ever since I have had a yearning to get back to wild places.

This summer, while the Missoulian has been celebrating wilderness with its 50 Wild Places series, I have been indulging in a continuing series of hikes to wild places old and new.  Some I have done alone. Others I have done with friends. On a couple of occasions, I have joined in hikes sponsored jointly by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Montana Wilderness Association on Reservation lands.

The first was a walk into Finley Creek and the lower Finley Lake on the northwest side of the Rattlesnake Wilderness boundary, which I shared in an earlier column. Although the weather was not cooperative, our rain-soaked, but happy crowd listened fat the end of that walk as Germaine White, Information and Education Manager for the CSKT Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Division explained Tribal policy for management of the 93,000-acre Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness. That wilderness, by the way, was the first tribally designated wilderness in the country, and underscores the deep-rooted physical and spiritual connections between the Native Peoples and the land. This represents a huge and permanent commitment by the Tribe, something the Tribe is justifiably proud of. The Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness celebrates its own 32nd anniversary this year,

Fast forward to another hike a few weeks later, up a steep little trail in the Mission Range to Lost Sheep Lake, this time in the Tribal Wilderness. Pablo Espinosa, CSKT Fish and Game Conservation Manager, led the way and provided the interpretive talking during the hike. It was a smaller group than the first hike, so lots more informal chitchat occurred when we stopped to catch our breath, take in the view, and sit down for lunch on the shores of the beautiful Lost Sheep Lake.

Pablo pointed out faint trails that branched off from the one we followed and told stories of his adventures out there towards the end of those tracks. He led us in sampling the huckleberries that hung along that trail like grapes waiting to be plucked. He was clearly happy to be out in the wild.  The talk ranged so far and wide that I felt comfortable asking about how he came to love wild country as was so evident.

“You know, I wasn’t all that exited about this stuff when I was a kid. Kids are into lots of other stuff. But not long after high school, an older friend, a Tribal member, took me on a hike. We crossed the whole range, from east to west. We went bushwhacked to some of the highest peaks and through some of the roughest country. We wandered to places I had seen on maps and heard about. We ended up on top of the Garden Wall looking down at the whole Mission Valley and St. Ignatius. It was hard, real hard, and scary in some of those places, too. I had never done anything that physically demanding before.  But I loved it, and I have never been the same since. I love this wild country.”

I think that everyone whose life has been enriched by the idea and experience of wilderness could tell a similar story. And that, my friends, is something worth celebrating.

There is no such thing as too much wilderness in our world today. The idea of wilderness will never get old. And I will never tire of reminding you of that.

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