Why I Like Wilderness

By Pete Mickelson

I grew up in two places: first on a farm on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest in northwest Penn’s Woods and then on the edge of the Cabinets in Libby.

As a boy, from age 6 to 12, I fished for brook trout on a stream with no houses or visible skid trails for its length until it reached the Allegheny River. Although there probably were old logging trails and selective logging along the stream, to me it was wilderness.

I moved to Montana to attend Forestry school, but finished with a degree in Wildlife Biology. Uncle Carl Schmiedel introduced me to fishing in Lincoln County at Burke Lake, close the BC border and no trail for the near-mile hike from the end of Pete Creek road. The lake was a pearl set in a fairly open forest with rocky slopes extending above the tree line. The 24” brook trout there (stocked by a friend of Carl’s) were more than twice as long as the largest brookie I ever caught back East. To me, this was true wilderness — beyond the end of the road, a beautiful untouched lake with no trail to it, and no signs of humans.

Finally, my uncle took me to the Cabinets — first to Cedar Lakes, and then to my favorite, Wanless, accessed via Libby Creek. Trails led to the crest of the Cabine,ts but we bushwhacked to reach Wanless and its fine cutthroat fishing.

I liked being alone, except for the companionship of and wisdom imparted by my uncle. During grouse season, my favorite hunting area was Flatiron, accessed from Pipe Creek road or from a grown-over cat trail, but no regular foot or ski trails like there are now. Now trails allow travel, meaning more people and more competition for game (and fish).

Foresters Russ Hudson and Mel Parker instructed me regarding timber cruising, and I got to see a diversity of timbered country owned by St. Regis Paper Company. Often we had to hike a few miles beyond the end of the road to reach our plots in fairly wild country.

Now I split my time between the northern limit of the Pacific coastal rainforest and the Libby area. Home in Alaska is on a beach ridge with 100-foot-tall western hemlocks and Sitka spruce and a view of the Copper River estuary, barrier islands, open Pacific, and the 3,000-foot mountains of Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound. My house is built around and anchored by a 3-foot diameter spruce with a crow’s nest 65 feet up. It provides an even better view of surrounding wild country. It’s not unsullied. I can see a cell phone tower and wind generator six miles away on a 1000-foot hill on Hinchinbrook, a former White Alice communications site similar to most Dew Line sites built in the mid-1950s around the perimeter of Alaska.

My best wilderness experience in Alaska is hiking on a barrier island along the Pacific on a rainless day in May or June, cruising the waters of Prince William Sound, or, better yet, a bird’s eye view at 700 feet from a Super Cub of the wild coast or nearby Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. I hunt deer on Hawkins Island four miles away from home with a view of the Mummy Islands and Egg Islands in outer Orca Inlet. I don’t cross over the top of the island because once I saw an oil tanker headed for the oil port of Valdez (Cordovans call it Vile Disease). I treasure the unsullied view of the wild country to the east with the occasional glimpse of Kayak Island. It’s 60 miles to the southeast, where Stellar became the first Caucasian (with Bering in 1741) to set foot in Alaska and for whom a jay and a sea lion amongst other fauna and flora are named.

If I get to Libby early in October, I hike into the Cabinets, perhaps to Leigh Lake or up Scenery Mountain trail. Now that I’m in my 60s, hiking a trail instead of balancing on downed trees and stepping over windfall makes it a bit easier. I spend more time looking for Clark’s nutcrackers and blue grouse, or perhaps looking for elk tracks, beds and other signs of this species that favor mostly roadless, mountainous country here in Lincoln County — at least in late summer and early fall.

I envy bowhunters who go after elk, goats and bighorns in the Cabinets or at help spot and then pack out meat as does Don Clark every fall. I have to be content with hunting grouse or a quick trip over to Freezeout Lake to hunt pheasants with a backdrop of the Bob Marshall country in the Rockies.

I still prefer to hunt, fish and photograph alone, to enjoy the scenery and wildlife and to know that I’m either in wilderness or at least close to it. Although I still harvest timber, mostly for firewood, I’m strongly in favor of setting aside wilderness, certainly in the high country like the Cabinets, parts of the Yaak, and Scotchman Peaks.

Pete Mickelson lives in Alaska in the summer and winters in the balmy confines of Lincoln County.

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