Friday, December 30, 2005

Wilderness = ? - A discussion with Lou Dawson

Lou Dawson, eminent BC skier, recently blogged on the phenomenon of more skiers using snowmachines to access backcountry lines here. The operative part of his comments is reproduced below:

Tired of ski lifts, can’t afford a helicopter — but you’re still a
motorhead? It’s been happening for a long time, but the
seems to be paying more attention
to the fact that many backcountry
skiers are also snowmobilers. I’ve always been amused by the “conflict” that
some backcountry skiing advocates seem to relish portraying between skiers and
sledders, when in reality many people combine both activities or simply know how
to go places where they won’t see snowmobilers (or if they’re a sledder, not see
pedestrians). With more people seeing how useful snowmobiles are for backcountry
skiing support, it’ll be interesting to watch the 50-something grainola
crunchers try to figure out how to deal with 20-something Red Bull quafers.
Hint, it’s spelled W-I-L-D-E-R-N-E-S-S.

While taking some liberties with the ages of the two user groups (up here in AK, there seem to be pleny of 50-something machiners and plenty of 20-something BC skiers), Lou makes an interesting observation that it will be more and more difficult to parse out the two groups (skiers and sledders).

I personally think the distinction is an easy one - you either have a motor or you don't. This is siginifcant to me because the most important aspect of being in the backcountry (more than safety or even (gulp) powder) is the wilderness characteristic of the place.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness thusly: A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Besides being among the best poetry Congress has produced, this language presumes not only a temporary visit by man, but a light touch during that visit. Not all land we use in the backcountry has the legal definition of wilderness but in my humble opinion, it is our duty to treat it as if it did. Loud engines, fast speeds, pollution, and countless tracks (more countless than skiers) seem in direct contrast to this. I will admit my position is highly subjective and Lou I think would differ (text of our correspondence is below) but I think we both agree that as snowmachines (indeed, helis as well) become more of a fixture in the backcountry - we as backcountry users need to take a hard look at what wilderness means to each of us.

Text of discussion on

AKBC Says: December 30th, 2005 at 4:49 am
... for the record, I really don’t see how snowmachines are “useful for backcountry skiing support”…what exactly needs supporting? More snowmachiners than skiers die in avalanches every year by about 2x (and generally don’t get avy education), they pollute the air, the are loud and they destroy the wilderness characteristics of our wild places. Sledders should have a place to play but please don’t lump them in the same group as BC skiers just because they like snow too. And plenty of 20 something red-bull quaffers just happen to skin up mountains Lou…we’re not all motoheads (and there seem to be alot of 50-something flabalanches out there on sleds)

Lou Says: December 30th, 2005 at 7:41 pm
Thanks for the comment AKBC (Alaska, per chance?)
Of course I know various age groups do both activities (categorizing was done to make a point) — my field observation is that the snowmobile skiers tend to be the younger set, while the anti snowmobile activists tend to be baby boomers. Just a generalization for sure.
So when I ride a snowmobile to access a backcountry ski area, am I a sledder or a skier? My point is that I’m both, and so are a lot of other people, and that when the two activities are mixed it becomes harder to make value judgments and segregate uses.
As for who dies where and why, what’s your point? That snowmobilers are inferior to backcountry skiers because more of them die in avalanches? Perhaps there are just more of them and they go bigger. Or too much Red Bull?

AKBC Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation. December 31st, 2005 at 12:57 am
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Lou
Admittedly, the “who dies where and why” comment is a bit of a value judgment. I don’t think wild places should be reserved only for those who recreate responsibly (keeping themselves and other safe) but I do think it is the responsibility of each BC adventurer to be as safe as possible. It is frustrating that the safety line seems to segregate so cleanly between sledders and skiers (at least according to accident literature and avy class enrollment). But it is not fair to lump all sledders into the irresponsible pile.
More to the point, if you are riding a snowmachine, you are a snowmachiner - regardless of what else you are doing (skiing, hunting, checking traplines, etc.). A major issue in this discussion, at least in terms of land use, is what kind of wilderness we are talking about. No matter how you slice it, snowmachines have a greater impact on the wilderness characteristics of our wild places (they are loud, can access more remote terrain, pollute, scare animals, here in AK they mess up tundra, etc.). These are fungible qualities of the machines, not the riders (and it doesn’t matter how much Red Bull they drink). I think the value judgment is easy when you look at it that way - how much noise, wild life disruption and pollution will we tolerate in the hills? I say it shouldn’t be much. These are slippery slopes for sure, and there are major questions involved a person’s right to be in the wilderness but I think a very hard line can be drawn (and indeed has been) between motor/no motor - it just doesn’t seem that complicated.


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