Oct 23

Wilderness: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

by Kate Walker

Marge Porter carefully sidestepped across a one-log bridge, her arms encircling the guardrail. Chuck Webber followed close behind, one hand grasping the rail and the other a cane.

Looking up, we saw a sign posted high on a tree, marking the edge of Welcome Creek Wilderness, part of Lolo National Forest near Missoula.

The hike we were about to embark on would take us farther off the beaten path than any trip Porter, 86, or Webber, 91, had taken in recent memory, including a leaf-peeping tour with Grizzly Peak, the independent living facility in Missoula where they are next-door neighbors.

“People don’t ask us to go with them as much as they used to, thinking, ‘Oh, they wouldn’t be able to make it,’ ” Porter said, her body cloaked in thick fleece and jeans, a bright orange hat concealing her gray hair. Her face was beaming, while Webber, bundled in a blue parka, was moving with great care, his mouth serious and his blue eyes alert.

I had invited the couple to take a hike in Welcome Creek, to explore how accessible Wilderness is for American seniors.  Wilderness areas, established through the Wilderness Act of 1964, preserve land in a state “untrampeled by man.” Any motorized transport is forbidden, although wheelchairs designed for indoor use may be used, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Welcome Creek’s eastern boundary nearly touches a road, but neither Porter nor Webber drives any more. They share several walks a day around Grizzly Peak, in a neighborhood of big box stores to the east and south and housing developments to the north and west.

Neither is particularly outdoorsy, but Webber ran track as a teen and spent 22 years in the military. Together he and his wife raised five children. One of his daughters, Peggy, was disabled. She and another daughter have died, and Webber’s wife of 66 years passed away in 2008. Porter had seven children from her first marriage; her third husband died in October 2011.

I had walked some of the Welcome Creek trail the day before, to gauge whether I thought Porter and Webber would be able to navigate safely. While they eagerly strode forth, the narrow swaths cut through fallen trees took some negotiation. Webber had brought his cane, though he usually can do without it. He has macular degeneration, which is bringing on blindness, and had to drop back several paces from Porter and I, so he could survey the trail and plan his steps.

“It’s when people relax and stop paying attention that they fall,” he said, explaining why he spent most of his time looking at the ground, rather than taking in the scenery. But Webber wasn’t all serious concentration. Porter was there as his seeing-eye dog, he joked.

Porter told me of their lives while she proceeded through the pine forest, pulling her fingers into the palms of her wool gloves. Her pace failed to provide the body warmth that exertion would for someone able to move faster. Frequently she would glance over her shoulder, to ask Webber if he’d like to go ahead of her, but he preferred the distance between us to secure his footing.

After a short cobbled rise, the creek grew fainter in the distance, and decaying pine needles provided a soft foot bed. A relatively recent fire had blackened the lowest eight feet of the tree trunks, occasionally causing enough damage to bring one down altogether. No animals stirred, and we had the forest to ourselves.

Porter and Webber both have complete mobility, something many seniors do not. Near Grant, Colorado, a group called Wilderness on Wheels has built a fully accessible boardwalk sandwiched between Lost Creek and Mount Evans Wildernesses.  Iris Arnick, 85, who’s been working at the site for 26 years, believes people with disabilities need “the sense of being out from the inside of four walls all day long” that only sites designed for accessibility can provide. “Where you and I can go, anybody else can go,” she said.

“The prevailing philosophy has been to, you know, make people work hard to have a wilderness experience,” said Derrick Crandall of the American Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit representing over 100 recreation  interests.

For Peter Landres, an ecologist and Program Leader for the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, providing accessible trails in Wilderness Areas for people with limited mobility is incredibly important. “The impact on Wilderness quality is so small, that to me it’s just a non-brainer,” he said. That doesn’t free Landres from ensuring that wilderness provides solitude and opportunities to learn about humility and self restraint.  So while boardwalks can be built where the land can accommodate them, wheelchairs designed for offroad use are not allowed, nor are ATVs.

Even if people are using these devices to reach more solitude, “we have a whole lot of lands that they can do that on, and the area that we have for wilderness is a lot smaller,” Landres said.

Porter and Webber agreed that some areas should be protected for people who want to walk rather than drive. “If this is something you want, why, you find yourself able to do it,” Webber said. “The more facilities you put in, the further you’re getting away from wilderness.”

“They’re making other places  too commercial-type,” Porter said.  Wilderness can “bring people down to earth, instead of thinking of just Internet and all that.”

After 45 minutes of walking, Porter and Webber took a rest on a log before deciding to head back. We retraced our steps, and as we approached our starting point, Porter gave a little hop on a suspension bridge, the first she’d ever crossed, while Webber grasped the handrails.

All around them, the creek was a Pointillist painting, with cottonwood and aspen leaves fluttering above and stones lining the river’s channel below.

When I gave Webber a call a few weeks later, he brought me up to date on his and Porter’s news: they would be getting married on November 16th.

Kate Walker is a master’s degree candidate in environmental science and natural resource journalism in the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.


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