You sit by the fire, draped in sheep’s wool and synthetic insulation. The light and warmth put your mind at ease and you feel comfortable despite the stark black forest just beyond the reaches of your fire’s glow. As the fire dies and the dark creeps closer, you quickly stoke the flames and add more fuel, keeping the unseen horrors of the night at bay and your mind at peace. You stare at the multi-hued flames, appearing to rhythmically dance before you. Moving in unison about the stage, jumping, twirling, and then taking their bow as the embers die. You merely watch, unable to join and unable to break your gaze. How primitive we humans are still.
Night has reached its crescendo and is beginning to fade as you release yourself from your cocoon of goose feathers and excitedly stumble into your frozen, stiff waders and boots. Truck headlights pierce the dawn and the smell of coffee wafting from your thermos slowly kneads your comatose mind to bearing. You find the trailhead empty when you arrive, a pleasant surprise during this time of year. Spurred on by the thought of empty water and the hungry trout within, your pace quickens up the steep trail, enveloped with the morning’s fog. You still cannot match the pace of your four-legged companion however, bounding up the slope before you.
The heavily treed trail proceeds upwards and then opens to a steep, meadowed slope. The valley and river are laid out before you, just awakening from the night, fog slowly lifting as the day makes her presence known. The kind of beauty you’d want to steal. And we humans try, don’t we? Photos, oil paint, clay, watercolor, and even words. No matter the medium, we seem so feeble trying to capture the untamed rawness and splendor of the woods. Maybe that is because this beauty is so much more. The raucous sound of birds awakening to the sun’s rays. The pleasant aroma of cedars and firs, and the damp air that swirls among them. The feel of dew trickling down your hand and spider webs entangled across your face. These things cannot be fully captured by man, regardless of the avenue we choose to take in an attempt to do so. But we still try. Even here, in a place that has come to define wilderness, you find it hard to not feel like we humans are attempting to encroach and loosen the grip of the wild. Well marked signs point the way to named fishing holes by means of worn trails, pocked marked with the boot prints of men.
Your mind is at ease with your surroundings. But should it be? Your dog is stopped, letting out an audible guttural growl. Hackles raised, ears perked, she stands between your legs and stares intently into the fog. You of course see nothing, hear nothing. Your heart begins to beat faster. The hairs on your neck slowly rise. Your eyes dart from shadow to shadow and your breathing is deliberately slowed and quieted to allow your inadequate hearing to detect the slightest hint of the predator. You can almost feel the sage-colored eyes watching, waiting. Irrationally, your mind conjures lurid visions of the unseen in the dark forest, still untouched by the morning sun. How primitive we humans are still. Your confidence is shattered. The ease and comfort you felt communing with your surrounds earlier have been quickly reduced to a primal fear. Turning around, you hastily retreat back down the trail, frequently checking over your shoulder. Your dog gladly follows. You realize that, despite the notion that every inch of wilderness has succumbed to the tendrils of man, it is all a façade. You still are very much a visitor to this place.
Author - Kevin Mahoney is an avid fly fisherman and trail runner. When not teaching high school math and science, Kevin can be found combing the streams and trails of north Idaho with his wife and dog.