Perceptions and Discussions of the Term “Wilderness”

August 26, 2016 Liam Harrap

Recently I asked a question on my Facebook page, what does the term wilderness mean to you? It’s a term that’s commonly thrown about in regards to the great outdoors, but what does it actually refer to? Can we drive to it on a weekend trip? Does it involve helicopters, month long trudges, battling bugs, and cans of Spam? Turns out its definition can vary, from person to person, and place to place. Historically, it has changed over time. It was more common in the past to regard it as an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. A place of neglect or abandonment and not profitable. We couldn’t farm it, cut it, shape it, and it had no dollar value. As our perceptions of nature changed over time, so did our views of what was wild and what wasn’t.

The highest peak in Canada - Mount Logan at 5959 meters. It's an hour flight from the closest road, it this isn't wild, I don't know what is | Photo - Liam Harrap
The highest peak in Canada – Mount Logan at 5,959 meters. It’s an hour flight from the closest road, if this isn’t wild, I don’t know what is | Photo – Liam Harrap

Turns out, “Wilderness” is a white mans term. The “uncivilized” and “worthless” land that we call “empty”, is usually far from it. Not only may it have a strong and vibrant ecosystem, but it already belonged to the First Nations. It was their land, their home. The idea of “wild” didn’t exist. It can be argued that it’s a term used to separate ourselves from other animals, thereby taking man out of nature. It’s our attempt to classify something we don’t understand.

If you squint to the valley on the right, you might be able to see Harvey Lake in Jasper National Park. My view of the wildest at home, but even here, was territory to the Snaring First Nation. This wasn't wild at all. It was home  | Photo - Liam Harrap
If you squint to the valley on the right, you might be able to see Harvey Lake in Jasper National Park. My idea of wilderness at home, but even this was territory to the Snaring First Nation. This wasn’t wild at all. It was home | Photo – Liam Harrap

Nevertheless, our perceptions of wilderness persist. Many people on my Facebook page said it was a place untouched and free of human influence. Unfortunately, I would argue that such a place doesn’t exist. We have impacted everything. Even our forests in the national parks are far different from what they were due to fire suppression. And we won’t even get into global climate change.

Northern Alberta, the most undeveloped region of the province. Even hundreds of miles from the nearest town, survey lines still mark the land | Photo - Liam Harrap
Northern Alberta, the most undeveloped region of the province. Even hundreds of miles from the nearest town, survey lines still mark the land | Photo – Liam Harrap
| Photo - Liam Harrap
The forests of Banff National Park are monotonous, being mostly spruce and pine. Before fire suppression they were a mixture of deciduous and coniferous, burning every few decades in the valley bottoms | Photo – Liam Harrap

In the end, I think it’s a place where nature has an upper hand over man, where we forget civilization. It could be a day in the bushes or a month, where you can’t check your Twitter account or play Pokemon Go. A friend once said, that wilderness is a place where you can walk all day and not end it at a pub. Some even got deep and philosophical, saying it’s within all of us. We are the untamed, the chaotic, the uncivilized, the wild. Wilderness is within, where all our hopes, troubles, and loves are found. It’s the place where a man who desires nothing, finds something, and holds on.

We are the wild (even if my large backpack of luxury begs to differ) | Photo - Liam Harrap
We are the wild (even if my large backpack of luxury begs to differ) | Photo – Liam Harrap
| Photo - Dave Silver
One thing that impressed me about the tenure at Last Frontier Heliskiing was the un-interrupted forest. Our ski area is 1/4 of Switzerland, but has very few signs of logging and mining. They either happened so long ago, were quite small operations, or never existed. For me, this is what sets us apart from other operations. It’s just you, the skier, the mountain, and the helicopter. Here, you can forget about the world that exists beyond the horizon | Photo – Dave Silver

I’ll finish with the words of a dear Icelandic friend of mine, “The Wilderness: If you don’t know what it is, you should go there. It might change your life or kill you. Either way, bring something to eat.” If I were you, I’d bring a cheese platter.