In 1901, the pioneering environmentalist John Muir sat down to write a compendium of America’s wildernesses, places he had learned to love and also helped preserve as the world’s first national parks. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people,” he wrote, “are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity …”
It is perhaps fortunate that John Muir never did get to queue for the toilets in Yellowstone, guzzle popcorn while Old Faithful spouted, or take selfies from his SUV with a buffalo in the background – the buffalo whose progress had been blocked by a line of motor homes. When I first visited America, I did the national parks and I came away with some great memories, but also a lingering feeling of dismay. Where was the wildness? Why did every experience have to be had from behind a low rail with a helpful signboard? Where was the spirit of John Muir?
Now I’m sitting on a boat, heading across Redfish lake in central Idaho, with Sara Lundy of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, who is going to show me, I hope, that the real American wilderness does still exist. “Everything we take in, we will take out,” she says. “We leave no trace.”
Ahead of us is a range of incredible jagged peaks, the appropriately named Sawtooths, part of a 130 sq km wilderness area. “It is not a national park,” Sara states emphatically. “There are no roads into it, no signs, not so many footpaths – and those that do exist are not so well maintained. We will be going off-trail anyway – it’s the only way to reach the Warbonnet, the most remote and untouched part.”
“Can we have a campfire?” I really like the idea of a campfire.
“We won’t,” says Sara. “There are some temporary restrictions at the moment and anyway they leave a mark. Also people tend to camp in the same places and use up all the available dry wood. After a time you see the effects.”
Inwardly I feel annoyed. This is taking it too far. A campfire is part of my idea of a wilderness experience. John Muir had campfires, and what is more I’ll bet he chucked his used toilet paper on the blaze and warmed his hands, rather than slipping the stuff into a sealable plastic bag and carrying it out.
“But what if we catch fish?” I ask. “It’s simpler to cook over a real fire.”
“I reckon we should catch and release.” Damn.
We are dropped off by the boat at the head of the lake. The picnic tables here will be the last signs of civilisation for a while. The first day is spent lugging food and supplies up to a camp in the woods, where we meet Randall, a climbing guide, and narrowly miss seeing a bear (the tracks were fresh). Then we tackle a 200-metre climb on a granite slab. This is a particular type of climbing: the granite is polished by glacial action to a glassy finish and ascent depends a lot on careful balancing and friction. I am totally focused on what is right in front of me for a couple of hours and when we emerge on the top, the panorama hits me like a physical assault. My world is abruptly catapulted into wide angle, my eyeballs stretched around vast spaces and razor-sharp lines. My British English is stretched too, and cannot cope. Randall leaps to the rescue with Big Country American, pointing out other climbs and the route to Warbonnet: “I’m stoked to be here! Pretty bumpin’, hey? Look at that rad route – sick!” It sounds right.
Next morning Sara and I carry on up the valley, picking our way upwards through lodgepole pines that give way to whitebarks – ancient twisted trees, many scarred by fire. The footpath peters out. By late afternoon we have climbed to over 2,500 metres and, with occasional snowflakes blowing around our heads, we pitch our tents by a small lake. It’s September, but this place never really escapes winter and it can snow in any month – although opt for July and August and you’ll probably be fine. The benefits of escaping into the wilderness are quickly revealed when we rig up the fly fishing rod and cast out. There is an immediate bite and we haul in a small, beautiful cutthroat trout, bearing the telltale red streak under its chin. More soon follow, all uniquely marked with constellations of colourful speckles and spots.
My regret at not eating these tasty snacks is soon allayed by Sara’s magical wilderness cooking skills: she somehow conjures up a three-course dinner from a few packets and a single burner. Once the sun has set, the temperature plummets and we both retreat to our tents.
Hours later I’m woken by the cold tent skin touching my face. It’s still dark. I reach up, a little confused and disorientated. The tent is hard and heavy. I push and hear the tinkle of ice breaking and sliding off. I reluctantly emerge from the sleeping bag and find our camp enfolded in thick freezing fog that slides across the lake and dusts everything it touches with feathers of ice. I stomp up and down to keep warm. The tent is already coated again.
Is this what the early settlers called pogonip? The menacing “white death” that killed the character Danny McCan in Jack London’s novel Smoke Bellew (1912). The sun rises and bulldozes great warm avenues through the billowing clouds. An hour later, when we start hiking upwards, we are under a vault of deep blue sky with fluffy clouds below. From Reward Peak at 3,000 metres, all the Sawtooths are spread out before us. There is no sign of any human passing this way and, Sara tells me, only a handful of hikers and climbers make it each year. At last, and for the first time in the US, I feel the spirit of John Muir is with me, looking on approvingly.
The outsider might have thought that the US had preserved all its wildernesses in national parks long ago, but it was during the 1950s that concern about damming of the Colorado river highlighted the threat to many pristine and unprotected areas. These places, in the words of the 1964 Wilderness Act, were “…untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. That definition helped shape what these areas would be: no visitor centres or motor roads, nothing much to encourage anyone to enter, unless prepared to walk and be self-sufficient. Now there are 765 such areas, the most recent addition being Idaho’s White Cloud mountains, making a total of 109 million acres of wilderness – enough to absorb the entire British Isles and still have room for Iceland.
“And is it truly wild?” I ask Sara. “Could we die?”
“As guides we carry a radio,” says Sara, “but most people just leave word about when to be expected back. If they don’t appear, a search will begin.”
“By which time they could be dead?”
In other words you need to know your capabilities and have the right equipment. I am already feeling rather glad that Sara had inspected my kit beforehand and added a thicker thermarest mat, waterproof overtrousers, and a warmer hat and gloves. Her trick of filling water bottles with hot water at night, first to warm up sleeping bags and then provide a non-frozen drink in the morning, is also much appreciated.
That day we pick our way down scree into a valley where we find fresh wolverine tracks in the mud by a stream that we follow down to an idyllic lake. There I swim for a while in the sun and then fish for more trout. In one place nearby we find a massive boulder hiding a perfect little sheltered campsite and there are ancient signs of smoke: a Shoshone hunting camp perhaps? Arrowheads found near Redfish lake suggest a Native American presence going back 10,000 years. Or maybe the site had been a resting place for some intrepid fur trapper? Those mountain men were the first outsiders to experience the American wilderness, trapping beavers, intermarrying with local tribes and providing Hollywood with an enduring source of inspiration (from 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson to The Revenant in 2015). It was men of this ilk who first scouted around the jagged Sawtooth peaks in the mid-1800s.
By the time we make it to our third campsite, at Feather Lakes, right under the impressively jagged Warbonnet ridge, the temperature is falling fast. I set my tent up on the glassy surface of a granite boulder and watch the last warmth of the sun touch the crags, all lined up and staring down at us like some parliament of owls, startled by this unusual human presence.
At dawn I am woken by snow touching my face. I’ve left the tent door partially open and it’s drifting in. Three or four inches have fallen, making our climb back up to the ridge a slow and delicate process, each footstep tested before any real weight applied. We both know that any slip could be extremely costly in terms of time, and pain.
Eventually we drop lower and the snow becomes rain. After that, it’s simply a steady yomp back to our original camp. We meet a couple of fishermen en route – our first people for a while – then jump on the last scheduled boat across Redfish lake. That night, on Sara’s advice, I check into the Sawtooth Hotel (doubles from $70 room-only), the kind of weatherboard, pioneer cabin that Mr Muir would have appreciated. With its cosy homespun charm, this is the perfect spot to finish the trek, but in the morning I have one more treat in store. “If you drive out on Highway 21,” Sara had told me, “there are several hot springs right next to the river.”
So it is that my wilderness experience finishes with the luxury of a hot soak in a natural pool right beside the Salmon river. There are no coach parties or signboards, just me and an osprey who sits in the trees watching. Occasionally I hear the splash as he crashes into the river though I never see him catch any of the massive salmon that are visible.
At last, and after several visits to the US, I have discovered the land that inspired John Muir.
My top 5 US wilderness areas
Chosen by Sawtooth guide Sara Lundy
Frank Church Wilderness, Idaho
The largest wilderness in the lower 48 states and my personal favourite. The Middle Fork section of the Salmon river is a legend among rafters.
Wrangell St Elias Wilderness, Alaska
If all wildernesses require a degree of knowledge and experience, this one needs rather more to venture into its vast 15,000 square miles of almost trackless mountain and tundra.
Breadloaf Mountains Vermont
Not all wilderness is in the western states; the Breadloaf has forests filled with black bear and moose, and rivers full of trout. In summer walk or in winter show-shoe the two-mile long Norske Trail.
Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
A real challenge to your outdoors skills. “The Bob” is tough – and has the highest density of grizzlies outside Alaska.
Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
This became the first American wilderness area back in 1924. Permits are needed for camping and fishing and there are no roads. There are lots of mountains above 3,000 metres and a tiny population of the endangered Mexican gray wolf.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Visit the USA. An all-inclusive four-day trek like the writer’s with Sawtooth Mountain Guides starts at $1,000pp. Day trips start at $145. Flights from Heathrow to Boise with one change from around £700 return with American, United or Delta. Further info at visittheUSA.com and visitidaho.org. Airport accommodation and lounge access was provided by Holiday Extras