Stepping into the Unknown: the Allure and Lessons of Wilderness (Jon Waterman, author & adventurer)

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What is it about wilderness that draws us? And how do you find wilderness wherever you are?

Those are just two of the questions Jon Waterman, an author and adventurer best known for his work around Denali, the highest mountain in North America, tackles within the pages of his gorgeous new table-top book from National Geographic, Atlas of North America.

But this book sparks more than just awe for the wilds across the nation. In this episode Jon takes us on a journey through:

  • The evolving definition of wilderness
  • Why that definition and those places matter
  • How we can experience the true essence of wild places

And yet wilderness isn’t just about physical landscapes, Jon says. Learn why in this fascinating conversation. Listen now!

Some of the good stuff:

[2:26] Jon Waterman’s favorite outdoor space

[3:35] How Jon became someone who likes to go outside

[6:26] Why Alaska is special to Jon

[7:06] Why wilderness matters

[10:36] What is wilderness, anyway?

[14:02] Did he leave anything out of the book?

[16:59] Did he almost skip including anything because it’s just too special to him?

[22:22] Why going to wilderness is important

[28:30] How to get yourself into wilderness

[35:20] Why easy-access places are important, too

[37:22] Jon’s favorite outdoor moment

Connect with this episode:

Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

Amy Bushatz: You know that feeling you get when you spend even a little bit of time outside? No matter how challenging it is to get out there, spending time in nature is always worth it. I’m your host, Amy Bushatz, and this is another episode of Humans Outside. Join me as we hear from fascinating outdoor minded guests and use the Humans Outside 365 Challenge to get us outside daily. Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are, while we work to do the same? Let’s go.

There’s something special about a place that feels really, truly wild. Very little pavement, few if any people around, high stakes on staying safe because there’s little help, extremes in everything. Extreme beauty, extreme remoteness, extreme awe, extreme size. extreme adventure.

In my experience, an ever increasing appreciation for these wild places is a part of a growth into being a human who loves to go outside. When I started my outdoor journey, I had a yeah, sure, seems cool attitude. Today, I seek those places out, find ways to pause and appreciate them, and look for wildness everywhere I go.

Sometimes it is somewhere truly wild in a traditional sense, like I described just a moment ago. And sometimes that wildness is found closer to home in a secluded park, or by a favorite tree next to a rushing river that drowns out traffic noise or down a twisting path.

Writer and adventure seeker John Waterman has spent a lifetime exploring wild places, soaking in their richness and telling others about them. Much of his best known work focuses on exploring Denali, the highest mountain in North America, which is right here in Alaska and within Denali National Park. He has worked as a park ranger in Colorado and Alaska, and his latest book takes us on the subject of wilderness.

The Atlas of Wild America is a hefty and gorgeous book from National Geographic, which means it’s packed with photos, maps and rich narrative. The book arrived at my house recently, and we have all been nerding out about it ever since. Just this morning, my husband hauled it into my office and started telling me some fun, and I have to say, somewhat obscure, yet fascinating facts.

Today, Jon is going to talk to us about his new book, why wilderness means so much to us, and how to inspire ourselves to get out into it.

Jon welcome to Humans Outside.

Jon Waterman: Thanks for having me.

Amy Bushatz: Wow, I so appreciate your time as you’re rolling out this new book. We start all of our conversations with our guests as if we’re hanging out somewhere they love outside. So if we were outside somewhere with you, where would we be having this conversation?

Jon Waterman: Well, let’s go to the northern tip of Canadian arctic it’s Cape Bathurst.

Amy Bushatz: And can you describe it for us a little bit? What does that look like there?

Jon Waterman: Well, it’s, swept by the, Arctic Ocean or the Beaufort Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. And, there are no, signs of humankind there. It’s beautiful sand as far as you can see. There are no trees because it’s the Arctic. And, the weather, comes in at a moment’s notice, whether it’s, right off the ice pack from the north or a warm breeze, blowing out of the south.

Amy Bushatz: So we’re wearing layers and we hope it’s a sunny day. I like it. So can you talk to us first, before we dive into your new book and about wilderness, about your own outdoor story? How did you become somebody who likes to go outside?

Jon Waterman: Summer camp, twelve years old, I was on a backpacking trip, which I wrote about in this book, in fact. And, it was a formative, trip for me. The idea of being self sufficient, carrying everything you needed in your pack, and then getting to the top of a mountain and seeing this sea of trees beneath us, which happened to be the Pemigwaset Wilderness, one of the areas I’ve written about in the book, In many ways changed my life.

I felt a peace and a, and soulfulness and was looking for wildlife. I’m sure the wildlife was seeing me, but I wasn’t seeing it. and, it set the hook. And, uh, continuing experiences like that continue to enthrall me and draw me back for more.

Amy Bushatz: And how did you translate from going, on backpacking trip at summer camp and in your youth to being so very well known for your work around Denali and here in the highest mountain in North America?

Jon Waterman: Well, none of these things happen overnight, as you know. And it, it takes time and, discipline and training as well. And at first many of my journeys were really centered around the challenge of climbing mountains or, making these traverses or running rivers. And increasingly the more time you spend out, the more you realize that you’re going for deeper reasons.

I mean, of course there are the partnerships and the friendships, the lifelong friendships you forge, on a wilderness journey. But also there’s the sense of connectivity. A different kind of connectivity. Because when you disconnect the phone and leave behind the material things, you connect to nature in an extraordinary way when you’re in wild places. You learn to use your senses again, and refine, what I’ve commonly found, or, repeatedly found. a sixth sense, where you can, for instance, intuit animals, or wildlife, that, that are approaching you. So there’s some profound experiences to be had as, as you know well yourself, I’m sure.

Amy Bushatz: I’ve heard you talk about Alaska, in a different podcast or two and, , and of course, you know, I mentioned that your best work is about Denali and that constitutes how to climb it and not die, what’s happened on it, the history of climbing it. I mean, it is Denali 101. Why does Alaska specifically, as opposed to all of these other wilderness places, which are, which also are special to you, and that’s clear in this book, but why does Alaska hold that special place in your heart?

Jon Waterman: Well, because it is the last frontier in many ways. There’s few roadways in Alaska. You need to be a self sufficient soul to take journeys in Alaska. You need to know how to deal with bears because you’re likely to run into a bear if you do lots of trips in Alaska. But Alaska has more wilderness, than anywhere else in the lower 48.And of course I’m also equally fascinated with Canada, particularly the Canadian Arctic, uh, where I spent a lot of time, for the same reasons, untrammeled wildernesses, plentiful in these places.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. for me, Alaska has shown me the power of wild places to capture imagination. But of course, that’s not just true of the wilderness here. You know, you’ve, you have a whole book of wilderness. What is it about wild places that causes that imagination capture, that expanse, that, or expansion of your imagination? Why do remote wild places cause that?

Jon Waterman: Well, I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that you have the opportunity to listen to your intuition, develop that sixth sense, that part of our brains that we don’t use anymore, that presumably our hunting ancestors used. And I think that you have disconnected from phones and the material world,you have the time to contemplate the universe. You have the time to watch the stars or the northern lights, or the wildlife or the clouds sweeping by. And let’s face it, in a busy world, we lose touch with those things. I had to take great pains to sleep outside a few weeks ago so that I could see the meteor shower rather than just walking outside to watch it for a few minutes.

So I think that we can have these experiences, whether we’re in the wilds of Alaska or here in the woods of the Rockies where I live in Colorado, or even on the eastern seaboard where I’ve identified areas in my book that people can go to.

But I think that we need them. I think that the human spirit depends upon wild places. And I feel that as Americans that we’re privileged to have so much wilderness, since the Wilderness Act was created in 1964, we, have now more than 800 areas that are legislated wilderness. But that doesn’t include the many places, for instance, like Chugach State Park or Wood Tikchik State Park in Alaska.

Those places aren’t legislated wilderness, but they are as wild as anything you’d find in wilderness, legislated wilderness in the lower 48. So, to get back to my point, it’s amazing that we have these places, that we have this legislation that creates these places, as well as state parks and other places that might not be wilderness, but that have wild areas within them, and it’s a model for the rest of the world, the amount of wilderness that we have.

Amy Bushatz: You mentioned two of our state parks here in Alaska, and I love these two examples because one of them, Chugach, is literally in people’s backyards in Anchorage. So the largest city in Alaska, your backyard is this massive state park that is a wilderness area. And the second one, Wood Tikchik State Park, is very, very remote, very, very, very remote.

I’ve never been there. I don’t anticipate, have, you know, I have, do not have it slated to go there. It is very remote. Maybe we should define wilderness as you’ve defined in the book. So, so what do you consider, what constitutes wilderness if it’s not, you know, just designated wilderness by the federal government? What is wilderness?

Jon Waterman: Well, it’s a great question, because it’s a slippery concept. It, there is, there’s not a, you know, a boxed in geographical, definition, and it’s different for everyone to an, an Inuit person, wilderness is their village because the polar bears are walking through their village. To a Manhattanite wilderness is very likely to be Central Park, where they can get away from for,or put at a distance anyways, the noise of the city. So wilderness is what we make it, but it, for the purposes of this book, Atlas of Wild America, I came up with a set of parameters, and the parameters included remoteness.

You know, relative lack of accessibility, no roads, or if they were roads, they were only dirt roads, and, no infrastructure. So this cut out, of course, many national parks, and I’d already written a book about national parks, even though national parks have wilderness areas. But the more remote, the better, from my point of view in terms of making places wilderness.

And preferably, the less traveled, the better. Now I didn’t, you know, wilderness as a slippery, thing to grasp. I think that the John Muir Wilderness is an amazing place that includes Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 as well as this amazing bunch of granite peaks and melting glaciers and beautiful, hardwood forests. But it’s also very populated and popular and to get in there, you need a permit, now to go into the John Muir Wilderness. But it is still quite wild, and one can find that wilderness experience within the John Muir Wilderness. If you get off trail or, or take one of the less frequented trails, you’re more likely to have that wilderness experience.

But it has, by definition it has to, wilderness can’t have machines or, vehicles, even drones. In my definition, wilderness shouldn’t have airplanes either, but unfortunately the legislation really can’t prevent, airplanes from wilderness, although airplane landings are prohibited in most wilderness which I think is a great thing.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. So you mentioned many national parks don’t qualify, and mentioned that some wilderness areas adjacent to them do. So, for example, I noticed that you have Grand Canyon in that there is a wilderness area next to the National Park. I also noticed that you don’t include the Land Between the Lakes area of, that’s on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, which, of course, has a scenic highway through it, and does have some sort of wilderness areas that you can traverse intoand such a rich,geography and, topography and history, but is not perhaps as remote as a wilderness area by your definition is. I’m wondering though, I mean you include 40 odd wild places, I’m wondering if that encapsulates All of them? Or if you had to leave any out, because then you would have a book that’s even bigger? How did you cut? How did you cut from the list if you had to?

Jon Waterman: Well, there were the places that had to be included, you know, you couldn’t write about wilderness, for instance, and not include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is really the, you know, the great, one of the greatest wildernesses because it’s huge and because it’s remote.

Amy Bushatz: Right.

Jon Waterman: In my mind, I can’t think of places that I didn’t include. I mean, I didn’t include some national parks because, simply because I included them in my previous book, The Atlas of the National Parks. For instance, Gates of the Arctic is an amazing wilderness because it’s the least visited national park and it’s very remote, it’s the only national park in the Arctic.

So of course it’s a wilderness, it’s all wilderness. What I love about wilderness in Alaska is a little bit different from wilderness stateside because, we have a different construct for wilderness in Alaska, and that is that there’s native,or any, subsistence use that you don’t, doesn’t have to be native. Any remote villager can practice subsistence use and hunt in wilderness and even live for a certain amount of time in wilderness, which is really the way wilderness was before the colonial days. Wilderness, much of the North America was inhabited, and people tend to think of it as an uninhabited wilderness.

But in fact, much of the country was, there were millions, as many as 60 million Native Americans in this country. So lest we think that wilderness has, can’t have people, it, for a millennia it has had people. So I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but the great thing about many of these wilderness areas is that by definition they’re so remote and inaccessible that you find few people in them.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah, I think this is a really important point because the terms like wilderness and the last frontier are sort of fraught in our modern culture because people feel that they imply a lack of historic,you know, being occupied historically by Native people or by anyone. There’s this idea that it’s, you know, quote unquote, untouched.

And what you’re saying is that’s historically untrue, and that’s a sort of a modern definition that we’ve given it, and that true wilderness has been peopled for, as you said, millennia by Indigenous or Native peoples who, are the traditional landholders.

Jon Waterman: Right. As long as it’s, you know, quote unquote untrammeled by man, you know, of course people can be in wilderness and not desecrate it. And that was the ideal of many Native Americans, was to, to not abuse or wantedly waist wildlife.

Amy Bushatz: Right. Right. Desecration being a colonial concept, I am sorry to report.

Jon Waterman: Yeah. Yeah.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Yeah. you, said that you didn’t necessarily have to keep any off the list. I wonder if we could flip that question a little bit though. And I’m wondering if there were any spaces that you had kind of hesitated to include, but then maybe ultimately did because they’re special to you and you just didn’t want to broadcast them.

Jon Waterman: Yeah but, I did worry about that, but I think that, um, it’s a great question because I’m hesitating to answer. Well, I trust that by the nature of what wilderness is, this is the bottom line, that when I started this book, that the people, the kind of people that are drawn to these places, are going to be drawn by, to the values of wilderness.

And those values of wilderness, you know, the idea that you’re going to connect with nature and get away from it all, are the same sort of values that mean that people are generally going to be taking care of these places. Also, at the same time, you know, by including such places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Noatak National Preserve or Kalani National Park in Canada, people are not going to go to those places in droves.

I mean, let’s face it, The weather, you know, the snowstorms in Kloane National Park are epic. I’ve been on several expeditions in there. And I’m not worried about, about hordes of people going there because of my book, because they’re gonna, they’re gonna suffer. You have to suffer in many of these places. And that keeps the riffraff out.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah, you know, it’s this idea of, it’s sort of, on the one hand, it’s unfortunate that getting to some of these places and being able to see some of these places is a matter of privilege, that you have to be able to afford it and be, in so many instances, very able bodied because the terrain is so rough and the conditions are so harsh and if you are you know, have any sort of disability, like you’re just physically being blocked by the terrain itself. On the one hand, that’s unfortunate. On the other hand,and very sad. On the other hand, there is a self selection going on there that you have to work hard to overcome those things from both a financial standpoint and from a equipment standpoint to be able to even experience that those spots like you have to have a very strong willpower and desire to go and frankly suffer

Jon Waterman: yeah.

Amy Bushatz: To, to be in these wild spaces and it is self, it is, you are self selecting by being there and it keeps, as you said, it keeps out the, you know, the riffraff, the people who aren’t going to appreciate it or really what we mean by that, I think, and you correct me if I’m wrong is, if I’m wrong is take care of itthat it’s not going to draw people who are going to flippantly trash the joint, if you will. And instead, by virtue of the fact that you have to work really hard to be there, you’re going to take care of it once you arrive.

Jon Waterman: Yeah. Well, in those interests, I included a,the seven leave no trace principles in my book and made sure that it was a double spread and

Amy Bushatz: Bold print!

Jon Waterman: Yeah, those are important and they’ve been embraced by all of our federal agencies, whether it’s a national park or a bureau of land management area, wildlife refuge. And many state parks embrace these too, so I included those writ large, in, in those interests. And I also had a human, I have a human impact section in the book that details, climate change and other exploitations adjacent to wilderness areas. You need to be always on guard for it, because let’s face it, it’s a burgeoning world, full of industry and exploitative interests.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. I want to circle back before we get too into weeds on intuition that you talked about earlier. You mentioned that you believe spending time in these wilderness areas that we’re discussing can help you improve that sixth sense. And it reminded me of a podcast episode I recorded with a woman named Nicole Snell, who does, single women in the wilderness defense courses. Okay. So she teaches women to have the courage to, and be equipped to participate solo in wild places outside in instances where they may feel vulnerable due to other people who are there. And so one of her comments is that humans are the only quote unquote animal that blatantly purposefully actively ignores intuition. That when we feel something we have a habit of saying Nah, that must not be right. So when our gut says XYZ and dangerous, we’re like, is it really? I think I’ll keep going. Or when our gut says there’s something watching me from the bushes, we say, probably not. What is it about humans that we have taught ourselves to ignore those things? Why is going in the wilderness to find that again even necessary? Why can’t we just do that now?

Jon Waterman: Well, why is it’s because we’re surrounded by the wonders of technology and we can pick up our iPhone, the trusty iPhone and rather than a map now, because we have such tools as Gaia that show where we are, with very little intuition needed. And so I, you know, I hate to sound like a Luddite, but, and I have used things like Gaia and find it invaluable, but hesitate to, I don’t want my iPhone on, it takes good pictures, but I still don’t want it on, I’d rather just use a camera.

I go to the wilderness. because I don’t want a sat phone. I have taken many trips without a sat phone or without a, you know, communication device. And I know that they’re invaluable. You can save your own life or someone else’s life if you have such a communication device. But I think some of the best wilderness experiences that I’ve had are without that technology because it’s allowed me to really tune in to connect, because I go to wilderness to connect. Whether it’s climbing a peak or, sailing a boat or paddling or skiing. I want to be there with all senses engaged.

Amy Bushatz: What do you want people to take away from this collection that you’ve put together? Inspiration to go to these places or, you know, appreciation like my husband had when he was hauling the book around today. He whips it open, he says, starts telling me fascinating fun facts about Grand Staircase Escalante, including why it was named that, you know, so he’s appreciating it from home. Is that what you’re looking for? What are you looking for?

Jon Waterman: Yeah, it, well, it’s not a guidebook. it, you know,

Amy Bushatz: No, it is certainly not sized as a guidebook. When I say hauling and huge, I mean, guys, this is a big, this is a tabletop, gorgeous, get it as a gift for someone or yourself book. It is not a guidebook.

Jon Waterman: You know, I did, I have written one guidebook in my life. And it’s kind, it’s big, not nearly as big as this. But I was surprised to find, it’s a guidebook to Denali and Hunter and Foraker, and I was surprised to find nearly 30 years after I wrote it that people were actually carrying it up the mountain. I never expected that. But this book is not that. And to answer your question, my real interest, I’ve always been an environmentalist. I was weaned on Ed Abbey. My real interest is in preserving these places, and I think that by appreciating them and celebrating them, that we can not only preserve them, but we can create more wilderness areas.

And so that has sort of been at the, for me, my inspiration. The center of the book is to, celebrate wilderness.

Amy Bushatz: Hey, it’s me, your host Amy, and this is just a little break to remind you that the Humans Outside 365 Challenge has all the getting outside inspiration you need. Make a daily outdoor habit a part of your life with exclusive help, custom tracking sheets, finisher decal, and swag. Learn more about the challenge at Okay, back to our guest.

How can people build attachments and appreciation for wild spaces wherever they are? And I mean the ones that you referred to earlier as sort of a sliding scale, so they’re not areas that you’ve highlighted and beautifully documented in this book. But they are wild areas nonetheless. What’s the key to fueling a drive of lifetime appreciation and adventure seeking in those areas?

Jon Waterman: I’m not really sure I’m going to answer your question, but I think that as I’ve evolved, as I’ve grown older, and I know it’s a natural process as you age, you tend to slow down and become more appreciative and watch a lot more, be perhaps more tuned in. But I think it’s really valuable that to have that draw as a young person, to have that challenge of, you know, running the river or climbing the peak.

Because inherent in those things, challenging oneself, you then are able to find the other, values of these wild places, whether it’s the actual sanctity of the, you know, spaces, just the beauty of open space, wildlife, or getting in touch with your intuition. You find those things. So I think that initially that challenge is so important. You know, we need to, get hungry and tired and cold and suffer. I only half facetiously use that word suffer, because I think it’s important. I think it gets you in touch with your body and, you know, we, our bodies, we are the wilderness in many ways, you know, we go there to connect with itand we use our intuition. It’s making us a part of the wilderness by using our intuition.

There’s a magnificent quote from Terry Tempest Williams that go, I happen to have my book open to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Amy Bushatz: A recently appreciated page in this house, I have to repeat again.

Jon Waterman: Well, I took the open, I did a lot of the photography in this book and the opening photo is my, one of my photographs that I really like, from an airplane. But Terry, wrote that wildness remind us, reminds us what it is to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.

And that is, you know, one of the values of wilderness. That’s one of the driving goals. I think what I want people to get out of this is that we need this wilderness as much as we need technology.

Amy Bushatz: It strikes me that all of this comes back to a willingness to make an effort, a desire to explore, a making that a core principle, and then having those experiences, whether they are fast because you are young or slow and appreciative because you’ve been doing it for a while. I heard you say on a, in a different interview that you personally find starting out to be difficult the biggest challenge of any adventure. So, you know, just like that first step. I’m wondering if you have any advice for people facing that roadblock, which can look like a roadblock of, I’m having trouble just building time into my schedule for getting outside to find a wild place to something so much bigger.

How do you overcome that challenge?

Jon Waterman: Well, there are a lot of ways.Going with friends and, you know, I took a camera, a video camera around and on many of the wilderness areas that I’ve visited more recently in the last several years and asked people repeatedly: why, what wilderness meant to them. And they repeatedly, it’s interesting, I got the answer was to be with friends, and

Amy Bushatz: That’s so counterintuitive,

Jon Waterman: Yeah. But I mean, I, to, to me, one of my great dreams was a solo trip. I’ve done a several solo trips, but,there you go. That’s a great way to get started is to go with a group of friends because. It’s, you know, let’s face it, it’s a value of wilderness is that we’re able to actually not only commune with nature, but we can get to know our friends in a way that we might not have the opportunity to or the time or the depth. And we’re challenged or stressed out,I’ve had friends who’ve saved my life, I’ve saved people’s lives, and they’ve become, we’ve become closer through it, through the stress and the danger and the challenge of what we’ve done together. And so to to get back to your question, in a long winded way, that’s a great way to get started- hey, let’s go have fun together. And then, then the other values come roaring in and you go for other reasons, but I think many people always go for that. It’s a big part of the wilderness experience teamwork.

Amy Bushatz: Teamwork- it’s almost like you have to find some sort of way to leapfrog from curiosity, like, I wonder, I wonder what that’s like, in the comfort of your home and in front of Netflix or whatever, to I’m now making an effort, you know, to like jumping over that hurdle. And maybe friends and, and companionship is one of the bridges.

Are there any other bridges that you’ve found?

Jon Waterman: There are a lot of bridges. I mean, to go, because you want to bring something back you want to bring back, of course, the memory.

Amy Bushatz: Mm hmm. Mm

Jon Waterman: I often went, because I wanted to capture pictures, images, so that I could then share the wilderness. So that was a huge personal enticement. I’m also a writer, and I know that writers go to these places because they want to have that experience so they can write about it, so they actually, they’re bringing, you’re bringing something back.

I mean, I don’t like, I’m not advocating that we bring back minerals or pieces of the wilderness, petrified wood or what have you, which is contrary to wellness, but we can bring back spiritual things or take only pictures and leave only footprints.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah, we joke in our modern society that we do things for the gram, for the Instagram or for social media broadly. But there is something to be said for documenting and then sharing the experiences and as a motivator, hopefully as an, as a, not as a motivator to do something very stupid, which of course we have also seen, people do things, I’m thinking of, you know, getting in a gorilla cage or climbing down the side of the Grand Canyon off the trail, just really dumb stuff that is a great way to die. But you can also be motivated to bring back things that are, experiential and, but also not very bad ideas. I don’t know. I’m just sort of flooded right now with all these stories of ridiculousness, I guess.

Jon Waterman: You know, sort of on this subject. I had a, I posted about this book on social media recently, and I got a comment from an Alaskan,a friend, I think on Facebook, who I don’t really know that well. And she was really, upset that I was sharing my favorite wilderness areas in this article that I did for Outside Magazine.

And it really brought up a good point, you know, and she cited Richard Nelson, the great Alaskan anthropologist who recently died, who never told about where he’d been to. And I know this is a particularly Alaskan, ethic to, to keep places to yourself and not share them. So as not to despoil them, and I’m good with that.

I kind of admire that. But we live in a well traveled world and that’s just not my ballywick. I believe in sharing what I’ve seen. I’m a writer and a photographer after all. But I also believe in the goodness of human nature and the kind of people that are drawn to wilderness are just the kind of people who can take care of it.

And again, I’m not worried about hordes of people going to, to the wilds of Klawanee National Park or, or to deal with bears on Inulavik National Park on the northern tip of Banks Island. It’s just not going to happen as, as much beauty as I paint it with. It’s not going to draw more people. In fact, the statistics over the last several decades have shown,with the exception of the pandemic years, have shown a real decrease in usage in, going to wild places.

For instance, on Denali, it’s kind of the decline of Western civilization, I think, in that,the hordes that continue to go to the West Buttress, the common, the most commonly easiest route to climb on the mountain, versus the decline of numbers in the adventure routes like the South Buttress or the Northwest Buttress or the Mulderall, just since I first started climbing there in the 1980s, is really kind of phenomenal.

It’s like people are just, they just want to go and tag the top and not have an adventure and not be in the wilderness. And I know that’s true in many other places too. So I’m not worried, just because I’ve done a big, beautiful National Geographic book that I am going to, cause an upsurge, an uptick of people in these places because I believe, that the places are going to keep the riffraff out, as I mentioned earlier, and, some of these places are just difficult and dangerous, let’s face it.

Amy Bushatz: Right. Right. It’s almost as if we’ve married a desire for adventure with a desire for convenience. And so, in our modern world, and so we do the adventure in the most convenient way possible. And that means the most well traveled routes, or the places with the most infrastructure, or the national park with the best bathrooms, or whatever, right?

And there’s nothing wrong with going to a place that has a bathroom. But if you’re doing that in lieu of also chasing more wild spots, you’re probably missing out on something greater.

Jon Waterman: Well, it reminds me of the value of national parks, you know, to introduce people to wilderness because national parks have some magnificent wilderness. The value of national parks as I see it, is that they have these entry areas where 99 percent of the people go like Yosemite Valley, the central part of Yosemite National Park is where the roadway is.

And that’s where all the people stay for the most part. They hike maybe a mile or two up the trail. So it concentrates all the traffic there. Or Glacier Bay National Park. If we took those tens of thousands of people every year that were on those cruise ships and took them on a kayak tour, the damage we’d cause to the wilderness is incredible.

But by nature of the infrastructure, the roads and the cruise ships, in these national parks, we kind of, they’re able to focus the people in one area and really work on taking care of that one area. And the rest of the place remains intact for the resource, for the wildlife, and for the sanctity of the cliffs and the nesting animals and the, biosphere itself.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. As a final thing in our conversation, which we could continue to have all day, I think, because we both love this topic so much. I’m hoping that you would share perhaps a favorite outdoor moment you have. some moment outside or in an adventure that you really just love to reimagine and recall fondly? Can you share that with us?

Jon Waterman: Well, you asked me to start with Cape Bathurst. Cape Bathurst, And you asked me for a favorite place, so I’ll just come back to Cape Bathurst, because it reminded me. I was stuck there for three days by myself, utterly alone. It’s not one of the wilderness areas I’ve written about. I’m not worried about anyone going there and sharing this story.

But through my binoculars out on the tip of this remote beach swept by waves, it’s too windy and surfy to continue in my kayak on my journey, I watched a wolf chase a caribou two miles distant. And the, the caribou outran the wolf as they usually do. And then the wolf must have caught my scent and I watched it come running out onto this long cape where I was at the very end on the, on the sandy beach. So this wolf came all the way out to me. And like you said earlier, most of us aren’t afraid of wolves that have been wilderness. I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I had a gun with me. I’d pushed the gun away as the wolf came to me, to, to solidify this feeling that I was not afraid of it and to show curiosity and brotherhood with a wild animal.

And it worked. the wolf just kind of circled around me and sniffed me and just said hello essentially and then ran away. And it was one of the most magnificent wilderness experiences I’ve had. I’ve had other like it, but it’s one of the things that continues to draw me back again and again.

Amy Bushatz: John, thank you so much for sharing these takeaways on wilderness and your book with us today on Humans Outside. We sure appreciate your time. Thank you.

Jon Waterman: Thanks for having me.

Amy Bushatz: That’s a wrap on this episode of Humans Outside. But hey, I need your help. Enjoy this show? Leave a five star rating or review or both wherever you get your podcasts. It makes me feel good. But it also helps others find the show too. Now, go get outside. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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