Salmon River Canyons

By Derek Farr

Inspiring words are often written by men and women in poems, lyrics, books and stories. But how often does inspirational language come from legislation? In my experiences, not very often. Yet the Wilderness Act of 1964 is different. The Act contains these 44 words that beautifully sum up the significance of our wild spaces:

“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.”


This is particularly important for our Main Salmon River trips here in Idaho. During those trips, we float 80 miles through a complex of three large wilderness areas. The largest is the Frank Church Wilderness (2.36 million acres) followed by the Selway-Bitteroot (1.3 million acres) and the Gospel Hump (206,000 acres). All together, they comprise the largest intact wild lands in the lower 48 states – the Frank Church alone is larger than Yellowstone National Park.


But what exactly does the designation “wilderness” mean?

In short, the designation forbids machinery. In other words, the crews that clear out downed trees from wilderness trails each spring must use hand saws, not chainsaws. Two years ago, after a heavy rain saturated the ground and a powerful windstorm swept through the forest, one trail crew in the Gospel Hump encountered 50 downed trees per mile. They cleared six miles of trail in seven days (last year they cleared 70 miles in four days).

“It keeps us in shape,” the head sawyer told me.

Salmon River Wilderness

Another big difference is roads. Wildernesses don’t have them. That’s a huge difference from national parks where visitors use scenic routes to view wild lands without leaving the comfort and confines of their cars. In wildernesses, if you want to experience the wild, you’ve got to get in it.

But perhaps the most demonstrative answer to the wilderness question comes from 20,000 feet above the earth. There, it is possible to see the difference between a “working forest” and a wilderness. While both are administered by the United States Forest Service, the working forest appears as a patchwork of similarly aged trees, which is evidence of timber sales and road building. In the wilderness area, where there are neither timber sales nor roads, the trees live their lives without human interference and no patchwork is visible. That may mean older trees, due to a lack of timbering, but it also may mean younger trees because historically the Forest Service has allowed wildfires to burn free in wilderness areas.

Either way, it equals a primordial landscape that is essential to the human experience. It’s a landscape that lives in us no matter how far we are from it. From time to time, we must escape to it. We are humbled and challenged by it. It’s fundamental. It’s necessary. It’s essential. It calls.


Derek started guiding rivers in 1996. He lives in Idaho where he and his wife use every opportunity to experience the natural wonders of that great state.