When I first arrived at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northern Minnesota as a Wilderness Fellow last summer, I acknowledge I was shocked by the remoteness. Although I had studied the environment as an undergraduate and graduate student, I was raised in cities and my classroom learning could take me only so far. I had been prepared intellectually for thinking about wilderness concepts and issues, but not for the ontheground reality.
I wasnt ready for the bugs. Or the bobcats, bears and other critters lurking in the woods. The halfhour drive (one way) for groceries was a jolt. The stark nighttime darkness left me stumbling into things on occasion.
My assignment, as one of 10 National Wildlife Refuge System Wilderness Fellows in 2011, was to spend six months at two refuges and help jumpstart the process of wilderness character assessment on lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because it was the programs pilot year, our objective was to complete a baseline assessment at each assigned refuge.
The monitoring framework was designed to begin to quantify the oftenintangible concept of wilderness. Specific measures of wilderness character were created for each refuge. Data records of the measures were entered into a national database that may help inform future adaptive wilderness management practices.
My problem in those early days was that I had not realized that, to obtain information for monitoring wilderness, a land manageror a fellowmust trek through hell and high water to get it.
When I was told that Agassiz Refuges remoteness was nothing compared to that of Seney Refuge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (my next destination), I realized that I had to adjust to this new lifestyle as quickly as possible. I tried to do so in a straightforward manner. By fully recognizing the amazing opportunity I was being given to live amid such raw beauty and solitude, I learned to find entertainment all around me. From a sauntering bull moose and a howling pack of wolves to the reach of the Milky Way and the vibrancy of the Northern Lights, I was truly blessed to see sights that many people only dream of.
I suppose it is no surprise to those accustomed to the wilderness and wildlife of the Great Lakes states that there is a mysterious intensity in these northern bounds of American civilization, emanating from a strange juxtaposition of beauty and struggle.
There is an enticing conflict between the majesty of the natural world and its harsh reality.
You may observe a scenic forest from a distance, but up close you may not always be able to see past the cloud of mosquitoes and horse flies, and the groinpulling mud holding your boots.
In the end, though, the difficulties pursuant to Agassizs swamp or Seneys bog are what make them so beautiful.
Wilderness can mean different things to different people.
For me, the Agassiz 4,000acre wilderness is a bog, where the only audible sounds are produced by birds and insects, and footsteps are absorbed in the mosscovered ground. In Seneys 25,100acre wilderness, the ground hardens with frost and the trees put forth a colorful protest before relinquishing their leaves to a silent winter.
Wilderness in the Northland is a place where the conditions are so rugged that one must actually become a little bit wild in order to embrace them. It is a place where even a short foray can make you feel stronger, and perhaps even a bit wiser, than you were before.
Rachael Carnes recently received a master's degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.