3 a.m. and wide awake in the wilderness

By Ed Robinson

It’s 3:00 am and I am suddenly awake.

So . . . the question is: a.) Did something wake me?; or b.) Did the memory of the very large, very fresh piles of grizzly scat we saw earlier in the day disturb my sleep?

Bearly a dream. “I ran into a couple  grizzlies about two weeks before on a hike about three miles from where I am laying.”

I listen, but nothing is moving around out there.  I decide option b. is the most likely and, after making sure my pepper spray is right where I left it, I burrow deeper into the sleeping bag and try to nod off again.  It’s just another night on the Extreme Plein Air backpack trip sponsored by the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.

This was my third year and, as usual, it lives up to the term “extreme.” So far, the trip had included howling wolves just above camp the first evening, weathering a wild thunderstorm on an exposed saddle the second night, and finding several piles of the aforementioned grizzly bear sign on the hike earlier today, which will make sleeping for the next several nights more interesting.  As usual, nearly all of the hiking we did was off-trail, which meant some serious bushwhacking. 

Still smiling after a semi-eternity in the alder and devil’s club jungle.

“. . . nearly all of the hiking we did was off-trail, which meant some serious bushwhacking.”

For over ten years, artists, writers and photographers have taken part in this annual multi-day adventure. The idea is to interpret this pristine, wild landscape artistically by doing a full body immersion in it.  As a landscape painter, I never struggle to find something amazing to paint up here. Indeed, the challenge is to decide which amazing thing to paint.  Dynamic compositions lie in every direction. Sometimes we artist look at each other and shrug in defeat because some of the backcountry vistas just cry to be painted, but have “too much information” to capture quickly.  

Ed Robinson prepares his palate for capturing the South Fork of Ross Creek Falls.

It’s maybe 3:15 am now and sleep is still elusive.  I can’t help but feel a little exposed.  I’m lying on the ground in a sleeping bag with only a gossamer-thin, nylon shell of a tent around me.  And, I am in someone else’s world.  The whole “bear thing” is not an abstract concept.  I ran into a couple  grizzlies about two weeks before on a hike about three miles from where I am laying.  And then, there were those piles of very fresh, dark-black-with-hair-in-it, piles we saw earlier today just a mile or so away. 

Objectively, the chances of mayhem are pretty low.  However, it is 3:15 am, so a person tends to dwell on unlikely mayhem.  I have worked and played in the northern Rockies for over 40 years.  I have had many wildlife encounters, and don’t have a tooth or claw mark on me.  Still, it is 3:15 am.

As I lay here, I contemplate if it is worth it – dealing with the whole “bear thing.” I come to paint, and also — mostly — to be in this outrageous, craggy, wild place for a few days.  I am always painfully aware that I am just a visitor, especially in the high country where the hospitable season is oh-so-short.  It’s a magical world and I savor my time there.

“Indeed, the challenge is to decide which amazing thing to paint.  Dynamic compositions lie in every direction.”

But at 3:15 am, I am experiencing just a touch of primal fear.  We humans are used to being the biggest, baddest thing around.  We always get our way. We dominate.  But not here.

And maybe that is exactly the reason to come. Maybe experiencing the humbling feeling that you could — just maybe — be eaten tonight, changes a person in some way.  It’s the price of admission to this spectacular place.  It is part of what makes this place wilderness.

Voices in the Wilderness is written by your neighbors, friends and visitors in the vicinity of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Voices features memorable personal experiences in wild places. If you have an adventure tale based in untamed country (it doesn’t have to be local), write to sandy@scotchmanpeaks.org for guidelines, or just send it along.

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