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A Wilderness Win

By Carter Collins

Wilderness Win’ – an action or inaction that improves or attributes to the preservation of wilderness character. For example, take an iconic mountainous wilderness in which a storm has washed out a section of tread and blown down 100+ trees. A sense of urgency to provide access leads some to think about making an exception for chainsaw use in wilderness. Instead, we send a SAWS trail crew out to repair the tread and clear the trees, restoring access and preserving wilderness character… boom, a Wilderness Win! Another prime example would be data collection to help guide future management decisions. Over the past summer, Wambaw Creek Wilderness experienced what is described above as a wilderness win.

Solitude Monitoring was completed over the course of the past three months to provide baseline visitor use numbers to, over time, track changes in a key aspect of wilderness character: the opportunity for solitude. By collecting data and calculating trends, managers can be provided with information that allows them to make informed wilderness management decisions. As the population increases in cities and towns surrounding our wilderness areas, solitude is becoming harder for some individuals to find. It is comforting to know that Wambaw Creek Wilderness will be managed to provide a space and opportunity for those who seek to escape from the ever-expanding development and mechanization of civilization.

While performing the monitoring, I spent time watching birds, learning where the monster gators hang out, and getting stuck in the low tide mud. Wambaw Creek encompasses an area defined as a creek-swamp. Being only 15 miles from the Atlantic shore and 5 miles from the Santee River, the Wilderness provides a breeding haven for an abundance of avian life. Several showy Swallow Tail Kites would often make an appearance along the creek. Smaller warblers such as the Prothonotary Warbler and the Northern Parula filled the mid-summer months with their peppy songs and calls. My tide-reading skills, or lack thereof, got me in deep mud one day. The creek dropped particularly low exposing a fallen cypress that was usually underwater. With the cypress blocking passage, the only way around was by means of a portage through knee-deep mud. However great the swamp mud felt in-between my toes, a desire was sparked to begin taking notes on the tide. The tide and rainfall play a tough game with paddlers, causing the flow to change based on the time of the Santee River tide pushing water up into the Wilderness as well as how much rain-water is flowing into the creeks from the surrounding swamps. I can’t say I ever read the tide perfectly, but I was able to refine my skills as the season progressed.

On several occasions, I convinced a few Forest Service staff and volunteers to join me on these monitoring periods, but for most of the sessions, I was alone, deep in the swamp. Paddling solo through the rain, low-country heat, and walls of bugs the size of fighter jets, the slow-moving creek and the life it houses instilled a sense of solitude I have not experienced in other wilderness areas in the region. The knock of my paddle against the side of my boat was enough to send night herons to their watchful perches and sunbathing alligators into the murky water.

Monitoring opportunities for solitude is one important step in making sure our wilderness areas continue to provide experiences like I’ve had in Wambaw Creek. Have you enjoyed the solitude provided by wilderness before? If you have, the odds are good that your experience was made possible in part by careful decisions based on information provided by monitoring efforts like this. SAWS, in partnership with the US Forest Service, is working to ensure that happens in over 70 wilderness areas throughout the southeastern United States. Preserving opportunities for solitude, now that’s a Wilderness Win!

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