We knew before starting down the hiking trail that we’d have to cross three streams. No big deal, the young ranger cheerfully told us at the visitors’ center, just hop from rock to rock.
The trail was lovely, dappled, cool and not too steep. But the first two stream crossings felt, well, tricky.
It had rained a lot, and the streams splashed almost to the top of the rocks. With encouragement and a helping hand from my companion, I minced across, slowly and deliberately. You’d have thought I’d crossed the Grand Canyon on a wire the way I panted with relief both times when I made it.
At the third and largest crossing near scenic waterfalls, though, the stream cascaded over some of the crossing rocks and covered them. All was quiet except for the rushing water, which sounded to me like an alarm. Cross there? Are you crazy? What if…? We admired the view, turned around and started back, retracing our steps.
Soon, four seasoned hikers blitzed up the trail behind us. They’d crossed the cascading stream from the other side, using hiking poles – and gumption. As the first hiker passed us, I commented on the high water.
“I just get my boots wet,” he said and grinned.
Cue the light bulb. Just get your boots wet. I hadn’t been thinking of the state of my footwear, but what are hiking boots for, if not for getting from here to there?
We kept walking and this time I crossed the streams quickly, without help. I didn’t hop, but I did step with sure feet. On the trail as in life, I need to remind myself that doing is far easier than imagining the worst and then doing. “Just do it,” indeed. That day, I got my boots wet and muddy, and it was exhilarating.
Crossing a couple of minor streams in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is hardly a milestone in mountaineering. I tell you the story because we never know what we might learn when we push back from the computer, get outside and challenge ourselves.
This is the perfect year to explore federal wilderness areas, and we explored some of Shenandoah’s officially designated wilderness. In 1964, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, preserving primitive places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In the 50 years since, about 110 million acres have received federal wilderness status, the strongest level of protection. This sounds huge, but it’s less than 5 percent of the country.
Every year about 12 million people camp, hike, hunt, ride horses, fish and enjoy nature in other ways at wilderness areas. Mining and drilling are prohibited, and visitors must leave their motorized and mechanical devices behind. Even the volunteers who help maintain the trails use hand tools.
Shenandoah’s wilderness is sometimes called “recycled” because none of the parkland qualified for wilderness status in 1964. The law requires that the land have “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation.”
Generations of families had lived, built, farmed, mined and logged in the area before they were relocated to make way for the park, established in 1936. By 1976, though, about 79,000 forested acres in three areas -- 40 percent of the park -- had recuperated from man’s intervention and were designated wilderness. It’s one of the largest wilderness areas in the eastern United States.
The president can protect some federal lands by executive action, but only Congress can pass wilderness designations. Until our rancorous age, almost every session of Congress added acreage to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Since 2009, though, only one new wilderness area has been designated. Congress finally passed in March and President Barrack Obama signed the designation for Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness, more than 32,500 acres with 21 inland lakes in Michigan. Dozens of other bills naming wilderness areas are pending in Congress and might yet make it.
During the 50th anniversary year, there are plenty of hikes and other events planned to celebrate wilderness.
Go, and don’t be afraid to get your boots wet.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.