Wilderness at 50: The New Stewards

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion is publishing special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the fourth of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.

This year, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary officially recognized the word Yooper, a term used to identify residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Bordered by Wisconsin and several Great Lakes, the U.P. isn’t exactly on the beaten path. It’s even occasionally omitted from national maps.

The U.P. is a place of harsh winters and thick woods, where the maple stands of the south transition into northern boreal forests. It’s a wild place, with moose and wolves and the occasional cougar slinking eastward to explore. And tucked away in the Ottawa National Forest is one of the U.P.’s most primitive places: the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness.

Designated in 1987, the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness covers 16,728 acres of steep hills and deciduous forest. It boasts the Wild and Scenic Sturgeon River, waterfalls, and a 300-foot-deep gorge. It’s a place of sweeping views and open spaces, the perfect place for a college kid to come into her own.

I moved to the U.P. in August 2009 to begin my freshman year at Michigan Tech, a small but mighty science and engineering university. I visited Sturgeon River Gorge for the first time that September. At eighteen, I didn’t have much experience camping and virtually no experience in wilderness areas, but I was certain I’d be a natural. To say that I was unprepared is an understatement: I showed up to that first trip sporting a hot-pink JanSport book bag, thinking that’s what my new camping friends meant when they said I should “bring a backpack.”

The wilderness area was quick to knock some humbleness into me during that first trip, as it would throughout my undergraduate career. Over the next four years, I returned again and again to Sturgeon River Gorge. I brought boyfriends and sorority sisters and family members. Once or twice, on particularly difficult days, I even showed up alone, looking for solace in open spaces.

My college trips to Sturgeon River Gorge became a way to mark time’s passage, to measure my growth as I ventured out into the world. I was never the same as I’d been on my previous visit. But the Sturgeon River Gorge stood sentinel during those four years of growth. It saw my first love and my first heartache, and it bore testament to failures, to victories, and to that one time I thought it was a great idea to streak my hair pink.

Through it all, the wilderness was stoic. It provided perspective. It showed me that I am a tiny piece in a big world, a world that will continue to spin even if I fail a test or if what’s-his-face never texts back. And sometimes you need a wild place to remind you of that.

My generation functions amid constant stimulus and movement, and through it all, wilderness can help us regain sanity. But wilderness requires stewards. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act this fall, and as we begin conversations about the future of wilderness, it’s important that we welcome voices from the next generation. Because even though the wilderness areas I love don’t seem to change, time does press on—and today’s eighteen-year-old kids are growing up and growing wiser.

So, my Millennial friends, as the Wilderness Act turns fifty years young, it’s your turn. Learn the issues surrounding wilderness, seek out new perspectives—and maybe, just maybe, trade in that awful pink book bag for a real backpack if hiking is your thing. After all, the stewardship of wilderness during the next fifty years is on us.

With a B.S. in wildlife ecology and management, Kasey Rahn has done some seemingly absurd things in the name of science—like waking up at 4:30 a.m. to search for birds’ nests. She’s now a student of journalism at the University of Montana, where she writes stories to connect people to science.


  1. Well said, Kasey!

    Good to know that wilderness is still inspiring and recharging the hearts of young’uns.

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