Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on wilderness to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
As the fortunate father of four daughters, I’ve tried to give each of them the opportunity to experience wilderness when they were young.
In my last column, I mentioned a few experiences with each child. Now it’s time to tell my favorite wilderness story that goes back to 1977.
My oldest daughter Duana was only six that summer when we hiked the whole San Mateo Mountain Range in central New Mexico. We began our journey from the north end of the mountains. A friend dropped us and our packs at the edge of the wilderness. My old Kelty external frame felt like it weighed 100 pounds but probably weighed only 70.
If I had the right Forest Service map, then I could tell you the name of the mountain we started from, but it doesn’t matter. We were about to say goodbye to our friend when something caught my daughter’s eye. It was a small bird too wet to fly and trapped in a metal stock tank. (Range improvements are allowed in some wilderness areas.)
If the agency wildlife biologist and the rancher had worked together, then this wouldn’t have happened. You simply construct little wooden gang planks hinged to the top edge of the tank. The other end floats at the level of the water inside. Any trapped creature walks the gang plank, not to their death, but to their salvation.
I didn’t think this little wet bird had much of a chance. There was no telling how long it had been trapped, or how much life it had left.
But there are times a parent can kill hope in a child by merely doing nothing.
So I did what I had to do. Rather than picking up the bird, I told Duana, “Be gentle and go slowly. Sit her up on the lip of the tank and ...” before I could finish she worked her magic.
With the instinct of cunning childhood intent she lifted the little bird out of its grave, gently placing her on the edge of the tank. All three of us (the friend had not left yet) backed away to give the wild bird space.
I spend a great deal of time outdoors. Some really good biologists have tried to educate me. But I have yet to learn the songs, much less the names, of the birds that sing them.
It didn’t matter what kind of bird it was but the music we heard was unbelievable. The song celebrated life. It was a song of freedom. At least that’s the way I felt, and still do.
The bird finished its last notes. For all I know, that chorus may have been sung to humans for the first time, perhaps the last time, too.
Then it flew away. All three of us looked at each other. No one said a word.
I think about that bird at times when I’m stuck in traffic in some city or when things aren’t going well. The smile on my 6-year-old’s face is still etched in my heart. It’s a memory that will stay with me until I die. The whole trip rests deep in my soul, those unhurried four days and 40 miles worth of time together in the wilderness.
Things can happen in the wildernesses that don’t seem humanly possible. A small bird that seems close to death flies away. A bond between daughter and dad is forged for life. Who knows what experiences await you on the wilderness trail?
Bill Kight is the public affairs officer for the White River National Forest and has 35 years of experience in federal land management agencies.