I find it most exhilarating to hike in the fall. Perhaps it’s the crispness in the air or the fact that the forest has opened up, offering views hidden by summer leaves. Or perhaps it’s because the sound of a squirrel scurrying over the dry, crunchy downed leaves is magnified by echoes through the sleeping forest, arousing suspicions of what really is out there. The sights, sounds, and mysteries of fall are truly unrivaled.
It was at this time, when the days were getting shorter, that I decided to venture into the Boreas Ponds Tract. As the last of the birch leaves were falling, I made my way back to First Pond. It wasn’t a walk; it wasn’t a hike. It was a saunter, in the sense that John Muir used the word. I was, indeed, making a pilgrimage to a Holy Land. Reverently, I set off on my journey, in search of answers to questions to which only the wilderness could justly respond. Our increasingly developed world is distancing us from nature, from our roots. Anthropologically speaking, we, as a species, were all born in the wild. Wilderness is in our DNA. The deeper I went into the Boreas tract, the closer I felt to wilderness and my distant ancestors. That may come as a shock to some: how can you feel “wilderness” when there are so many “roads” around? As it turns out, it’s easy to forget roads when you’re too busy having deep, philosophical conversations with yourself, immersed in a wild landscape with only fleeting hints that other creatures are around. Just as unattended roads will eventually disappear from the landscape, my thoughts became progressively wilder as signs of man faded from my brain.
What is wilderness? From a legal perspective, wilderness is primeval. It is untouched by man. It is, above all else, a place where natural forces reign supreme and solitude is more plentiful than combustion engines. When I think of wilderness, I immediately go to remote places, where it’s obvious not many people travel. Rugged terrain, narrow trails with branches seizing your bug repellent soaked skin, leaving behind only red scars and (good?) memories: to me, that is true wilderness. Paradise in the eyes of a curious adventurer.
Reaching far back into our historical memories, the wilderness was a confusing place. In Biblical times you could be tempted by some ill-spirited existence or you could find salvation. The only temptation I faced at Boreas Ponds was the call of the wild itself; I felt compelled to stay for 40 days and 40 nights. Nothing was menacing, except reality, which would eventually summon me back to town. The other option I faced was salvation. Did I find that among the gilded tamaracks? I don’t know, but a refreshing autumn breeze blew something more unambiguous my way: solitude.
In today’s landscape, it’s easy to be consumed by things that ultimately don’t matter: the newest smart phones, social media, negative people, and so on and so forth. What really matters is simple. Getting out and enjoying wild places, all the while discovering our wild roots. I don’t know if there is a God or if we’re all just muddling through life without the guidance of some omnipresent being, but as I sat in repose on the shore of First Pond, I found peace.
By the time I got back to my vehicle, I had bumped into a handful of other people joyfully trekking through the Tract and I had confirmed my suspicion that Boreas Ponds was a special place. Wilderness conjures up images of vast forests but it has taken many forms over the years. There is an undeniable psychology as well as a geography of wilderness, evidenced by the ever-changing perception of its definition. In Biblical times it was a desert wasteland. To John Muir, it was the High Sierra. To me, it’s a revolving place, where I can free myself from thoughts about work or what I can find in the discount aisle at the grocery store and, by the power of my own legs, I can be transported to a different time, where survival was all that really mattered.
The future of the Boreas Ponds Tract remains unclear. On a map, it is one of the most remote places in the Adirondack Park. Here, falling leaves and solitude are more common than the putt-putt of engines. Wilderness is a place to which we can physically and mentally travel, a place where we can rekindle our relationships to each other, to nature, and to ourselves. The ambience of wilderness and wild places is prime for this type of endeavor. And, to me, that’s worth protecting.