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Into the Wilderness

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Inian Islands Institute welcomes Erin Bumpus, a junior at Earlham College in Indiana, as this month’s guest author!

Never in my life had I seen waters so turquoise.  Our little boat drifted towards the Inian Islands over a forest of kelp, vibrant with life.  The above-water scenery looked like a landscape painting, something I’d seen only in pictures, or wildlife documentaries narrated by invisible men with British accents.  In the distance lay a panorama of snow-capped mountains. In the foreground, rocky shores decorated with three green houses and the smiling faces of Zach Brown and Annika Ord, our instructors for the week.

We crossed a small bridge to a little garden and the buildings that make up the property, where Jane Button, the most lovely individual and as we would all soon learn, the most amazing cook in all of the Inian Islands, gave us a tour.  Not two hundred yards from the Hobbit Hole, we found ourselves standing at the edge of the Tongass National Forest.  We were surrounded by Wilderness.

We students had the option of sleeping upstairs in the warehouse or outside in one of the tents.  I eagerly set my things inside a wall tent and felt ready to learn what was in store for us.

Into the Wilderness

Earlham College student Miyoshi Gonzalez works with instructor Quinn Smith to identify intertidal life on the Inian Islands.

Earlham College student Miyoshi Gonzalez works with instructor Quinn Smith to identify intertidal life on the Inian Islands.

Over the next few days we went on hikes along the nearby beaches and through the surrounding woods, and had a series of engaging, interactive lectures.  However, my favorite aspect of our learning was the reflective assignments.  In one of these, we were given time to go off by ourselves and reflect on the meaning of wilderness.

I went into the woods and sat on the ground and looked around me.  I began to write down words that came to mind when I thought of wilderness.  This time in the woods lit a spark in my mind.  My thoughts were like wildfire.  What is wilderness?  Why am I passionate about it?  One question led to another and one excited thought led to the next.  I thought of my love for nature and why I think it’s important to preserve it.  I also thought about what makes wilderness, wilderness.  All sorts of words came to my mind.  Words such as: beauty, chaos, untouched, danger.  I was exploring the paths of my mind.  Searching for my own answers.

Earlham College student Liyuan Gao shares her reflection on the meaning of wilderness: a detailed white-board drawing.

Earlham College student Liyuan Gao shares her reflection on the meaning of wilderness: a detailed white-board drawing.

This reflection was followed up by enlightening group discussion that opened up my mind to a broad variety of thought surrounding the topic.  For example, one of my peers had never been on a hike before coming to Alaska, and another was from an impoverished area of Mexico; both individuals associate wilderness with privilege.  Their contribution of this viewpoint added a new dimension to our discussion on wilderness, and thus enlivened it.  It is so important to learn from what other people have to say about topics as important as wilderness.  Having open discussion is the first step to solving the environmental problems we face today.  Learning how other people view the world we live in, allowing their ideas to plant seeds in the soil of your own mind, will unite us in the fight for a better tomorrow.  You need more than one individual to create a community, and a community to make a change together; united as one.

In an attempt to piece my thoughts together I wrote a poem about wilderness:

I am the open space
I am tangible but untouched
The ground on which I stand has been here for as long as I can remember
The air is always new and has plenty of time to grow old
I am the house where the wild things live
Inside I can be beautiful but dangerous
I know chaos and chaos knows me
Guided by the path of nature’s intent
I do not exist at your convenience
I do not follow the rules of man
For I am an untouched land

Zach Brown diagrams the sun, moon, and earth on Magic Beach, showing how they interact to create the daily tides.

Zach Brown diagrams the sun, moon, and earth on Magic Beach, showing how they interact to create the daily tides.

This poem expresses my thoughts on how nature needs to be conserved and protected from human-inflicted damage.  However, when we sat down as a group to talk about wilderness and the topic of privilege became part of the discussion, the idea of wilderness being a privilege shocked me.  The fact that some people go most of their lives never experiencing any sort of nature firsthand blew me away.  I have always considered spending time in nature to be vital to one’s happiness.  I had never taken the time to think about how there are people who don’t live anywhere near nature.  After realizing this, I recognized there was another problem at hand.  Not only does wilderness need to be protected; everyone needs to have the opportunity to spend time in nature.  In order to connect with nature, you need to spend time getting to know the untouched land.  You need to exist within nature.

Classroom in the Woods
The location of Inian Islands Institute is ideal for hands-on learning; it is a first hand experience.  It was a relief to not be limited by the walls of a classroom.  I found myself learning concepts from real-life examples that I could see with my own eyes.  For example, when learning what causes the tides to ebb and flow we stood on a beach and Zach drew a diagram in the sand of the sun the moon and earth to explain how the tides change.  Throughout our time there we saw the tides coming in and out on the beaches around the Islands and understood what was happening right before our eyes.

At the top of Inian Island, overlooking the Fairweather Mountain range, Zach speaks about glacial cycles.

At the top of Inian Island, overlooking the Fairweather Mountain range, Zach speaks about glacial cycles.

At the Institute we had three teachers: the Wilderness, and Zach and Annika who helped us to interpret it.  In addition to the benefits of the hands-on learning present in the wilderness, Zach is an amazing teacher.  He is clearly very passionate about sustainable living and working towards making changes for a healthier environment.  He and Annika make a great team, and their enthusiasm is inspiring.  Zach and Annika not only want their students to learn, they also want to know their students on a one-on-one level.

The Earlham College group enjoys their last day on the Inian Islands.  Thanks y'all -- it was a blast!

The Earlham College group enjoys their last day on the Inian Islands. Thanks y’all — it was a blast!

At Inian Islands Institute you are not simply a student sitting at a desk in a classroom.  Instead, you are part of a learning community.  Here you are not limited to the exploration of your textbook.  Instead, you are a wilderness explorer – not just of the physical, wild land around you, but also of the expanses of your own mind and heart.  Thanks to my time at the Hobbit Hole, I returned home with even more passion for the wilderness, new knowledge about the environment of the Inian Islands and Southeast Alaska, and wisdom gained from a life experience that I will never forget.

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