This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.Text and photos by Amy Gulick, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.
Fifty years ago, The Beatles made their debut in the United States along with Pop-Tarts, G.I. Joe, and the television series Bewitched. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law. Cassius Clay won his first world heavyweight title and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. And the most powerful earthquake in U.S. history rocked south central Alaska.
But two events in particular that occurred in 1964 have had profound impacts on my life: 1) on May 14, I was born; and 2) on September 3, the Wilderness Act became law. Both of us turned 50 this year. Milestone anniversaries cause us to pause and reflect on the past, and while I’ve never been one to look back for long, I can’t stop thinking about this monumental piece of legislation that shares my birth year.
As the last of the baby boom generation, I am too young to have come of age in the tumultuous and history-making 1960s and early 1970s. I contributed nothing to the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, or the National Environmental Policy Act. When Howard Zahniser and others began drafting the Wilderness Act and applying endless pressure endlessly for its passage, I didn’t yet exist. And yet, I am the direct beneficiary of their dogged efforts and success. What would my life be without this act?
In my 20s, during a week-long backpack trip in the Olympic Wilderness in Olympic National Park, I walked among ancient forests, alpine meadows, and craggy peaks. I learned that bears would prefer to avoid conflicts with us, and that everything I really needed I could carry on my back. The wilderness bug bit hard and I was hooked, making annual treks into wilderness areas in my home state of Washington. In my 30s, I ventured to Alaska, home of wilderness on a mind-boggling scale. Rafting rivers in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I felt transported back to a time when wildlife dominated the landscape. Thousands and thousands of caribou traversed the Brooks Range and river valleys on their way to their calving grounds. Muskoxen dotted the tundra and grizzly bears swaggered with confidence. A wolverine loped by our tent and a lynx stared at us from an icy river bank. Here, I learned that the difference between life and death could come down to a paddle stroke or the quality of my footwear. Every day, I dined on a big piece of humble pie. In my 40s, my forays into wilderness became more frequent and longer. I spent 30 days canoeing in the Kobuk Valley Wilderness and surrounding areas in Kobuk Valley National Park. Wolf pups trotted out of the willows across the river from our camp and gave us a good howl and scowl ceremony. I’m pretty confident we hiked up ridges where few, if any, humans had stood. It was on this trip that I learned to ditch the clock and live by the rhythms of the river, the wind, and my body. We traveled when the weather was good. We ate when we felt like it. We slept when we needed to. I returned home with a different outlook on life. Things that used to seem insurmountable were now trivial. Things I took for granted, like potable water, heat, and a mattress, were now luxuries.
Today, at 50, my long-term relationship with wilderness has deepened. I no longer just view these lands as places created for my own self-indulgent adventures or as refuges for wildlife. Wilderness, I have come to learn, is the great teacher. To live is to pay attention, and in wilderness, this is not only possible, it’s palpable. These sacred grounds ground me. Wilderness teaches us what it means to be human. What it means to be a part of the world. What it means to be. I can’t think of a better gift to have received by those visionaries who came before me. And for those who aren’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye yet, I promise I will work doggedly for the next half century to preserve and expand this great American legacy.
Fifty years. What a ride.
Amy Gulick is a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She lives near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. She is the author of Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest. www.salmoninthetrees.org. For more of her work: www.amygulick.com.