Designated wilderness makes for special hikes

Antelope bitterbrush

Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is a shrub important to wildlife. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 13, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Solitude found off-road.”

2014 Update: Designated roadless areas continue to be protected. Someday, some might grow up to be wilderness areas.

By Barb Gorges

We know from experience the primitive two-track we’re following along a ridge top in the Medicine Bow National Forest will soon deteriorate and dead end at an unofficial scenic overlook.

To avoid unnecessary wear and tear on our vehicle we stop half a mile short, still getting a view of the snowy Sierra Madres.

The rule of thumb for travel in our family is that drive time must be matched or exceeded by time spent “being there.”

Being there this time means loading up the day packs and heading off the road. From looking at the topo map we know we only have to follow the steep little valley for about a mile to our destination, the North Gate Canyon on the North Platte River in the Platte River Wilderness.

Either by plan or accident, the sagebrush on the south-facing slope we are walking has burned, and the charcoal stumps mark our pant legs.

The antelope bitterbrush is blooming and so are all the colors of the Roy G. Biv rainbow: red/orange of a kind of penstemon and a paintbrush; yellow of wild buckwheats and varieties of DYC’s (sunflower types known to some botanists as darn yellow composites); green in a thousand shades of leaves and buds; blue through indigo and violet in more penstemons, harebell, bluebells, larkspur and loosestrife.

In the hot pink zone is the bitteroot, with its blossoms barely visible above the red gravel, and thickets of wild roses. White is represented too, yarrow, wild geranium and rosettes of evening primrose.

Signs of moose and elk are everywhere as we negotiate the hillside.

Finally we are walking in a little alley between willows and sagebrush, just across the creek from a north-facing hillside in deep green of fir and spruce.

The creek itself is one long series of beaver ponds. Where one dam has blown out we can see beaver tracks in the silt left behind.

We catch glimpses of snakes and chipmunks, find crickets and dragonflies and watch fish flop, but the birds are easiest to notice.

Mark points out rock wrens singing from the edges of lichen-encrusted boulders. Otherwise, to me most of the bird songs are like hearing meaningful language on a New York subway that is not only indecipherable to me, but I can’t even tell if it’s Latvian or Estonian.

While we debate the identity of a bird in a tree, another bursts from the grass behind us and disappears into the willows. The size, shape and color remind me of a meadowlark, but the location is unlikely.

When a second hurtles itself into the brush, Mark decides it’s a young grouse, a theory soon validated by an adult blue grouse lifting off. Four more young follow, one by one.

The sky has been gloomy all afternoon, a boon to hiking the treeless side of the canyon. We want to spend more time at the river, but rain feels imminent. Five hundred feet of elevation to climb back will be arduous enough without worrying about slipping on wet rocks and grass or being struck by lightning.

We intercept the road near its end and follow it back to our vehicle.

Sometimes it’s relaxing not having to plan every footstep, but our boots crunch too loudly on the gravel. Roads are great. Roadless is even better. When I get too old to climb down to the river, I’ll still be able to sit on the ridge and remember what it is like to find my own way without motor noise.

I plan to write a letter asking the U.S. Forest Service to protect its roadless areas from road construction (as proposed in the Roadless Conservation Initiative Draft Environmental Statement), as well as from harmful commercial and recreational activities.

Official roadless areas have been left alone this long. We can continue doing without their meager possible contributions to industry and protect their enormous contributions to healthy wildlife and low-impact recreation.