Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.
– Edward Abbey
As a naturalist, I love doing anything in nature. Camping, hiking, backpacking, bird-watching, even just being in a suburban wooded lot is thrilling to me. So when a couple of friends I made in the Florida Keys invited me to go to northern Idaho with them, I jumped right along.
We left from Key West, which is the southernmost point in the continental US, and headed along the Gulf coast into Texas and up along the Rocky Mountains the rest of the way. We spent nights in local parks, national parks, a few backyards, and only one night in a hotel for the entire two-week trip— a total of almost five thousand miles literally crossing the US. Once we arrived in Idaho, we rested for a week and then packed up to work the summer at a Boy Scout camp.
I’ve worked at Boy Scout camps before. I started my career in camp staff at the age of fourteen and moved up the chain into management after nine summers. In Idaho, I went back to the basics as a Nature Instructor, a job I love to do. The camp is nestled in the Idaho range of the Rockies near Lake Coeur D’Alene. Every morning and afternoon, I hiked up a steep slope to get to work, seeing a new bird species or spotting a new flower on my way.
On my days off, I packed a lunch and headed out into the woods beyond the camp. Everything was so different to me. The smell of the coniferous forest surrounded me as I wandered to dense cedar groves in wet nooks between slopes and hiked up to ridges with scenic views of the lake and the mountaintops beyond. As I traveled, I challenged myself to learn the names of all the plants lining the trails. I picked thimbleberries and raspberries and examined animal tracks and scat. I would stop on occasion to listen intently to sounds of rustling in bushes. A hare or ground squirrel, most likely. Every bird was also new and exciting. Magpies and Stellar’s jays danced down from the tops of pines to get a good look at me–the eastern boy who moved west.
One particularly hot summer day, I stopped at a stream that trickled out from a corrugated pipe beneath the service road that I travelled so often. I wetted my hat and face to keep cool and then continued down the trail. I heard a rustle coming from some trees just ahead. This was not a hare and not a ground squirrel. Some smaller trees swayed down and branches snapped. The rustle was loud and I stopped in the middle of the trail.
My imagination flooded with thoughts of grizzly bears, mountain lions, and Sasquatch. All of which are native to the area, though only one is omitted from the Audubon Field Guide of Western Mammals. My heart beat so hard that I shook, though at the moment it seemed as though everything was shaking.
From within the thicket of trees appeared a moose and its calf. At first their eyes hadn’t met mine and they seemed to be crossing the trail. I was frozen in equal share of awe and fear— a mother moose with her calf is equally as dangerous as the beasts from my imagination. Adrenaline pulsing through my veins told me to run, but I knew that was not the best option. I squatted down low, thinking that they may not see me and as I did, the mother moose turned her massive head and spotted me. She must have made a subtle noise because the calf then stared from behind its mother’s skinny legs.
We stared intently at each other, both of us observing the other. Her dark brown coat of fur was the color of moist soil, and her large dark eyes were curious and frightened. Perhaps I stared too long.
I started to stand up slowly, and she snorted and stomped one of her large hooves on the trail with a puff of dust, making a deep thud sound–a warning. The moment turned from one of serene wildlife-watching to one with a potentially harmful outcome. At any moment, she could charge me and those hooves could easily crush my bones.
I remembered what a friend told me to do in this situation and raised my arms slowly and backed away, taking care not to step too hard or move too fast. I watched the mother moose as I backed away. Her eyes seemed to reveal a sense of relief, as though I was welcome to watch only for that moment.
That summer I saw more moose, encountered a black bear, and sat near the cold lake in the dark listening to the howl of a wolf. Within three months, I had experienced the wild in a way that was previously kept within my imagination. Knowing that there is some potentially dangerous beast in the same forest did not keep me from wandering there; in fact, it excited me to walk the trails more and risk an encounter.
I returned home to Pennsylvania after that summer to pursue college. Every now and then I walk through a patch of woods. However, the tame eastern woodlands that I grew up in and know so well seem less wild, less inspiring.