Although the word wilderness is seemingly simple to define, anyone who studies the environment and the relationships humans develop with the outside world, understands how complex a notion it is to define and protect that which is naturally wild without engaging in the changing of that wildness.
Students who participate in the University of Idaho’s Semester in the Wild program grapple with the notion of wilderness while studying in the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48-states in the USA. Students who enroll in this program spend 11 weeks studying in the remote River of No Return (also referred to as Frank Church) Wilderness in Central Idaho. True to its name, the University of Idaho’s Taylor Ranch, where students live during their stay, is surrounded by nearly four million acres of wilderness, and it is only accessible by bush plane or by hiking nearly 35 miles on foot.
While many college students save money to participate in study abroad trips where they can experience the urban landscapes of Paris or Madrid, Semester in the Wild students live in yurts and have limited WIFI access. Similar to a study abroad experience though, students are emerged in what they are studying because they are living it. The instructors who teach these students typically fly in on the weekly mail plane, and they often hold class outdoors near the rushing Big Creek River. Students can earn up to 17 credits while in the wild, and their classes include ecocriticism, ecology and management, and outdoor leadership, among other subjects.
While I was a graduate student at the University of Idaho, I was able to spend a week in this astounding wilderness area on a writing fellowship. Although not typical of their writers, I requested to join the students on their backpacking trip that also acted as part of their outdoor leadership course. While on the trip, I noticed that being in the wild was as much about engaging in the outdoors as it was about learning to communicate with others. At one point, we found ourselves “lost” on top of a peak. The jagged cliffs surrounding us formed a sea of layers like rows of sharp teeth. Some of the students were frustrated, but the instructor leading the group took it as an opportunity to teach triangularization and waited while a couple students used the topographic map to guide us to our stop for the night. Along the way, I took moments to gaze at the vastness before us. Much of the hiking those few days was spent blazing our own trails and climbing over fallen logs. At night, we read together by lamplight and discussed environmental literature. As we read one night, we heard wolves howl in the distance. We shut off our headlamps, closed our books, and listened. The sound their howls made us felt deeply connected to the land surrounding us. We listened in silence until the howling stopped then said little as we made our way to our tents to sleep.
Once I left the Frank Church Wilderness, I realized that it was often the silence in that area that made it so beautiful. This solitude is something the U.S. Forest Service includes in their description of wilderness. They also describe it as a place where you are without an outlet for your phone or laptop. A place where “nature calls the shots.” Although I can’t deny that these students had a shared cabin to cook in and a mail plane that also delivered their food, they also drank water straight from Pioneer Creek, which runs through Taylor Ranch, they often saw bear scat littered beneath the few apple trees, and one group of students built an outside “classroom” by cutting fallen trees. Although pure, unadulterated wilderness may be nearly impossible to come by, students who experience the Semester in the Wild can find pockets of solitude and adventure that create a meaningful and lasting reminder of the importance of engaging with and appreciating nature and how we relate to it.
Would you spend 11 weeks studying in a remote wilderness area?
How do you define wilderness?
How do you find solitude in nature?