Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On where the backcountry begins

In the past week in Canada, newspapers have carried the story of a married couple who skied out of bounds at a resort in the Rockies, quickly got lost and were on their own for 10 days in the backcountry. The woman died; the man was eventually spotted by a passing helicopter and is now being treated for frostbite. It is currently being asked in the media is why no one came to their rescue. The man tramped "SOS" in the snow in various places, and this was spotted on at least a couple occasions by passing aircraft. No search was undertaken because no one had reported the couple missing. In hindsight, the local RCMP detachment now wishes that it had sent someone out to look. But does the presence of the letters SOS in the snow in the backcountry, with no visible presence nearby, create an obligation for the authorities to organize a search-and-rescue mission? To what extent should the survivor's evidently foolhardy, spontaneous decision to ski into the backcountry without the slightest preparations influence our interpretation of this event? What was he thinking in the first place?

There is something undeniably alluring about the "backcountry". There are few things I personally enjoy more than to stand at that spot where the pavement ends, where the last visible evidence of human modification of the landscape disappears, where every step takes you farther and farther away from the invisible support network that surrounds human society. Whenever I enter the backcountry I feel I am somehow reconnecting with the aboriginal. William Cronon in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness suggests that many others are spiritually transported even farther back in time, to the garden of Eden - a place and time that predates the aboriginal. I tend not to go quite so far back, but to each his/her own.

Of course, though my spirit may seek communion with the aboriginal (or perhaps it's the ancestral - I can't quite find the right word) in the backcountry, in reality I rarely enter remote places anymore (too little time and too many competing responsibilities). And on the few occasions when I do, it is rarely without appropriate clothing, compass, matches, and so forth: that is, I carry a portable form of contemporary society's protective layers with me.  And of course, I never truly disappear into the wild, as did the protagonist in Jon Krakauer's story by the same title; someone always knows where I've gone and when to expect me back.

Still, sometimes you don't know you're in the backcountry until it's too late. Last summer I was driving along some lonely range roads in southeastern Alberta, looking for long-abandoned farm buildings to photograph. Late in the day I came across a well-preserved but long-deserted farm house, but for whatever reason decided to pass it by. A few hundred meters on I looked in the rear-view and saw the house looked far more beautiful than I had first thought. I shut off the car, grabbed my camera and walked back to the house. When I got within 30 meters of the house, a large coyote charged forward, hesitated and then dashed behind the building. I then saw her pups, playing in front of the house; she evidently had a den underneath.

Doing my best not to run, I made my way back to the car, all the time hoping that this coyote stayed true to the behaviour typical of coyotes: when given a choice, they do not confront humans. This mother coyote thankfully stayed true to form; had she wanted to take me down, I could not have stopped her. I could not have called for help, I had no phone. When I got back to the car, I drove back down closer to the house and stopped again to observe the pups playing. They paid me no heed. The mother did not show herself, though she was no doubt nearby. A few minutes later two large mule deer ambled past the house, again paying me & my car no notice. 

I have since realized that the backcountry at that time and place began the second I closed my car door and took a few steps forward. The abandoned house was simply a relic of a past human presence on the landscape; the wild had already reclaimed that place, and I had unknowingly stepped into it, unprepared. Had a different animal reclaimed that abandoned building for its home, the outcome for me might have been different. And newspaper readers later that week might have been wondering, "What was he thinking?"

No comments: