To be whole and harmonious, man must also know the music of the beaches and the woods. He must find the thing of which he is only an infinitesimal part and nurture it and love it, if he is to live. -- William O. Douglas
Wilderness settings, whether they're officially designated Wilderness, with a capital W, or simply wilderness waiting for that capital letter, help us get away and find out how to live. Some wilderness settings truly test our skills and commonsense approach to challenges, others that are tamer allow us to simply marvel in the beauty of nature. And yet, few Americans venture into these settings, either because they don't have the abilities, the thirst for adventure, or the time.
That shouldn't make these settings less available.
At Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the National Park Service should welcome a discussion into a form of backcountry travel that, if properly managed, need not alter the decades-long experience of visiting these two magnificent parks, but rather enhance it for a small number of wilderness travelers.
The topic of packrafting is among the least of issues these parks face. At a time when soundscapes in the parks are obliterated by the guttural rumble of motorcycles, when wildlife issues, invasive species, and climate change are affecting the natural pulse of the parks, when there are issues of how the human footprint is impacting the geothermal plumbing of Yellowstone and the frontcountry, and backcountry, of Grand Teton, and how far cellphone signals will carry, the image of a small, one-person raft rounding a bend in a river shouldn't shake the parks to their foundations.
Self-contained travel along the watery highways of these two parks can be among the least-impacting form of recreation and exploration of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, certainly less than the muck, mess, and erosion that horseback travel exerts on park landscapes. No footprints are left in the water, existing trails and campsites in many, if not all, instances can be utilized, proper management can maintain the wilderness character of the backcountry. Relatively short seasons tied to runoff would lessen any imprint further.
Travel by packraft dates to at least 1929, when Amos Burg used one to float the Bell and Porcupine rivers down to the MacKenzie River in the Northwest Territories. Dick Griffith ran -- illegally, at the time -- the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park in 1991 in a 5-foot-long packraft. Neither gentlemen spurred a landscape-crippling surge in this activity. And with just 900 or so members, we shouldn't expect the American Packrafting Association to overrun either of these two parks or the 20 million acres they fall within, not when there are so many other places in the world to paddle.
Wyoming's congressional delegation didn't help further discussion of packrafting in the two parks. With legislative clumsiness that wasn't well-thought-out or necessary, they took an axe to the Park Service when a phone call or two would have been much better. Instead, the delegation gave us proposed legislation that overlooks the sensitivity of the parks' landscapes, that vastly -- or maybe intentionally -- overlooks the time it takes to negotiate today's bureaucracy and litigators, and which is polarizing.
Of course, the packrafting association also didn't help its cause by creating and publicizing a "river inventory" of more than 615 stream miles in Yellowstone that some of its members appear to already have run, or with a "Packrafting Guide to Yellowstone National Park," two pieces of evidence that perhaps indicate they want access to these corridors regardless of what a Park Service study might conclude.
That said, packrafting deserves an above-board, cards-on-the-table discussion between the Park Service, the congressional delegation, and the packrafters association. If the Park Service truly is concerned about a lack of relevancy with younger generations, this is one small measure that can boost that relevancy and nurture more advocates, and stewards, for the parks in general and backcountry of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem specifically.
While the Park Service should agree to such a discussion, the Wyoming congressional delegation should withdraw its legislation and agree to work with the agency on a realistic approach to this issue, and the packrafting association should be willing to agree to limits on where and when streams can be floated and how and where they can be accessed and exited. The integrity of Yellowstone's high-profile streams -- the Yellowstone River through the Hayden Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Lamar River through its valley -- can be protected by retaining the total ban on paddling currently in place. Use elsewhere in the parks' backcountry can be managed through existing backcountry management plans, quotas, and permit systems.
That the Park Service already uses closures, both permanent and temporary, to manage sensitive backcountry areas and wildlife habitat is evidence that the same can be done with packrafting in the parks. And, as the information already out there indicates, packrafters are going to try to run some of these streams anyway. Hashing out a formal regulatory agreement that manages this activity would be better for all involved.
I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me. -- Wallace Stegner