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Tasting the wild life

Congress ensured Americans would have unspoiled lands to roam through, reflect on

Bruce Pingle wants to get something off his chest after a horseback ride to Island Lake, deep in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

I'm not an environmentalist, the Butte Falls resident stresses as he hunkers near the picturesque lake for lunch.

But I do love the environment.

— Pingle, 66, is differentiating between environmental politics and the passion he feels for wild areas like the 113,590-acre Sky Lakes Wilderness in the Rogue River and Winema national forests.

A former logger reared on a ranch in Butte Falls, Pingle is one of 7,000 people the U.S. Forest Service estimates visit the wilderness each year.

Some are avid backpackers; others prefer riding a horse. Some hunt. Some fish. Some just seek the peace and quiet of a natural setting.

Although the Sky Lakes Wilderness was officially created by Congress in 1984, it was the Wilderness Act of 1964 that blazed the trail for its authorization. Sept. — will mark its 40th anniversary.

In terms of congressional wilderness, that was the very beginning, says Jeff LaLande, wilderness coordinator for the Rogue River and Siskiyou national forests. He is also a historian and archaeologist.

The 1964 act created eight wilderness areas in Oregon, including the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, now covering 180,000 acres of rugged mountains in the Siskiyou forest.

It also established the nearly 23,000-acre Mountain Lakes Wilderness in the Winema forest.

Pingle, a 1957 graduate of Butte Falls High School, first began coming to Sky Lakes half a century ago. He now volunteers to lend a hand with the Forest Service pack horses. After working in the logging woods and as a welder and mechanic, he retired as a maintenance man for the Butte Falls School District.

I like to stay as close as I can to the wilderness, says Pingle, who also works as a ranch hand locally.

He was accompanied on this trip by Chris Bishop, 23, an Oregon State University senior majoring in forest recreation who graduated from Eagle Point High School in 1999. Bishop is in his third summer as a forestry technician working in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

Bishop's job includes leading wilderness trail crews that employ crosscut saws known as misery whips and Pulaskis to keep trails clear. No power tools can be used in the wilderness.

Each time you come out here, you see something you didn't see before, Bishop says. The light changes. It's never the same place.

I think a lot about being here in the 1800s, what it must have been like then, he adds. I guess it would have been pretty much like it is today. They would have looked at the same stars, the same natural formations.

Protection of the nation's wild areas began before Congress took action in 1964, thanks to the efforts of conservationists and Forest Service employees such as Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall in the 1920s and '30s, LaLande says.

Indeed, Forest Service Chief William B. Greeley wrote in his 1923 annual report that wilderness preservation is an admirable conception of the value of the forest frontier to the physical and social health of the American people. It is a wholesome reaction (to) the multiplication of improved roads and automobiles.

But the wilderness movement within the agency took root at the forest supervisor level, LaLande says.

They were generally called primitive areas or wild areas at first, he says. Sky Lakes was referred to as a high country preserve.

Under the 1964 act, national forest sites originally earmarked as wild, including the original core of the Kalmiopsis created in 1946 and present-day Mountain Lakes, were automatically included, LaLande says.

Echoing sentiments of Greeley, the act calls for preserving areas where the ... community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Today, most visitors ' men and women alike ' practice leave-no-trace camping to ensure the wilderness characteristics remain intact.

For instance, during a trip into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness this summer, Pingle glanced down to see an arrowhead in the gravel along a stream. He left it where he spotted it, as required both by federal law and wilderness etiquette.

Leaving a wilderness area untrammeled is important for the future, says LaLande.

It keeps that feeling of remoteness where people had to ride horses or hike 100 years ago to get there, where they still do, he says. There is still that same sense of original America out there.

He'll get no argument from Carrie Wittmer, the wilderness guard and packer for the Butte Falls Ranger District.

Her job, which includes packing in supplies for trail crews as well as keeping an eye on the wild areas, periodically takes her into the Sky Lakes, the Kalmiopsis and the 16,000-acre Red Buttes Wilderness south of Applegate Lake near the state line. The Red Buttes was created in 1984.

I've traveled pretty extensively in other countries but one of the things that keeps me here is the fact we do have wilderness areas, places we don't put roads in, says Wittmer, a former wilderness guide who has a master's degree in environmental education. There are a lot of countries that don't do that.

That appreciation appears to be shared by wilderness visitors, she says, noting most adhere closely to the leave-no-trace ethic.

A lot of it is a personal ethic in how you live in the world, she says. They know if they have an impact on a site and other people do, too, then it will be a continual process.

Such a process would eventually destroy a wilderness area, she says.

Whenever I'm out there, I never lose that appreciation for the solitude of the wilderness, she says, noting she reflects the view of most visitors.

Rene Casteran, wilderness ranger for the Kalmiopsis for 19 years, agrees.

Most people know a wilderness environment is fragile, he says. It only takes a few folks to do a wrong thing to stand out. You can still run into a campsite where people built a new fire ring, cut down a tree or left equipment. But in general, you find they are leaving no trace.

Although he says it's difficult to get a good handle on the number of annual visitors to the Kalmiopsis because of its various points of entry and volunteer registry system, he figures use is relatively low.

But it appears to be drawing an increasing number of spring visitors, probably because higher elevation areas are still snowed in at that point, he says.

Folks get that spring wanderlust and want to be able to go for a hike, he says.

One visitor with a wanderlust was the 2002 Biscuit fire, a half-million-acre blaze that burned through most of the Kalmiopsis, albeit in a mosaic pattern.

People need to remember all sorts of natural events created the pre-Biscuit area, he says. This new environment is just as natural. There will be different habitat created, but natural changes is what wilderness is about.

Back in the Sky Lakes, Pingle plans to continue to keep tabs on any changes in that wilderness.

First came back here in '48 or '49, he says of a family trip. I was probably about 12 when I first came in here.

For a moment, he talks about those distant summer days among places such as Devil's Peak and a rocky point called Lucifer.

He figured he was in a heaven with few people, beautiful scenery and lakes offering eastern brook trout for camp meat.

You'd very rarely see any people in here, he says. We'd come in when there was still snow on the ground. We'd pack the brookies (trout) in the snow.

The snowpack kept the trout fresh, ready to be eaten for breakfast. We're talking pan-size fish, eight to 14 inches.

There used to be a couple of old log rafts you could pole out there and then cast out, he says. Bacon and fish ' that's what we ate. We'd swim, fish, go horseback riding. It was a holiday for a young kid.

It was one of his favorite spots on the planet, he says.

Still is today, he says. You can go up to Devil's Peak and look into infinity. You can look into the Klamath Basin side or ride up the trail a little bit and look into the Butte Falls area, see the ranch where I lived.

You feel like an eagle on top of the world.

Sky Lakes Wilderness: Goodbye city life

Sky Lakes Wilderness straddles Southern Oregon's Cascade Range from Crater Lake National Park southward to Highway 140.

It's about six miles wide and 27 miles long, with elevations ranging from 3,800 feet in the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Rogue River to 9,495 feet at the top of Mount McLoughlin.

More than 200 pools of water, from ponds to lakes of 30 to 40 acres, dot the landscape.

Visit:

' U.S. Forest Service

A dragonfly rests on a blade of grass on the shore of Island Lake in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven