Wilderness Running Project

Adventure begins at the Wilderness boundary - Welcome Creek Wilderness
In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act to provide protection for some of our nation's most spectacular places. I'm celebrating the 50th anniversary of this landmark conservation effort by going on a series of adventure runs in Montana's Wilderness areas. I call it the Wilderness Running Project.

The view from the Great Bear Wilderness
Sure, it’s a lot of fun to run through pretty places. But wilderness is a whole lot more. Bob Marshall, the namesake for Montana's great Wilderness complex, argued that “the harsh environment of untrammeled expanses” inherent in wilderness nourishes us both physically and mentally. “Breaking into unpenetrated ground, venturing beyond the boundary of normal aptitude, extending oneself to the limit of capacity, courageously facing peril” are all part of the wilderness experience. The physical benefits of wilderness, Marshall explained, go beyond “pure air and quiet … But toting a 50-pound pack over abominable trail, snowshoeing across a blizzard-swept plateau, or scaling some jagged pinnacle which juts far above timber all develop a body distinguished by soundness, stamina, and elan unknown amid normal surroundings.”

The wilderness endurance athletes Marshall had in mind in 1930 would today undoubtedly include mountain runners. And, given Marshall’s own well-documented feats of wilderness endurance, I suspect that if he were alive today, he'd also run freely in the wild. “One of the greatest advantages of the wilderness is its incentive to independent cognition," Marshall argued, "This is partly a reflection of physical stimulation, but more inherently due to the fact that original ideas require an objectivity and perspective."

Bob Marshall was right. Run a bunch of Montana Wilderness areas and you’ll be glad you did come September when you toe the line at The Rut 50K. But the wilderness experience also provides a healthy dose of reflection and solitude, which happens to be one of the very best things about being a runner. Put running and wilderness together and you'll find an experience unlike any other.
Running with Erma - Gates of the Mountains Wilderness
The Wilderness Running Project is about experiencing the physical and mental benefits of wilderness. It's about seeing new places and overcoming challenges along the way. It's also about celebrating the best of Montana. We have 15 federally designated Wilderness areas and one tribally designated Wilderness. Of these 16 Wilderness areas, three are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the Montana Wilderness areas are huge. The smallest and, most likely, the only area I'll skip is the Medicine Lake Wilderness, which is a marsh-filled prairie in the state's far northeast corner. I’ll run the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness in addition to the Mission Mountains Wilderness and I hope to run both Glacier and Yellowstone for good measure! 

Montana Wilderness Map - Credit: Montana Wilderness Association
To make the Wilderness Running Project a reality, logistics are an important consideration. I've intentionally kept my race calendar relatively sparse since there is a lot of ground to cover. The fact is, summer in Montana is short and our Wilderness areas are mostly high, rugged places. The winter of 2013-2014 hasn't made things any easier. It was one of the all-time deepest on record (think urban avalanche). As I write this, high elevation trails in nearly every western Montana Wilderness area are still hidden beneath snow. So I decided to start low and work my way up.

A month ago, Chris Kollar joined me for the first Wilderness Running Project run in the Welcome Creek Wilderness. His account of the adventure says it all:
“45 min of hypothermic Jeep ride followed by 4 hrs of flesh ripping pricker bushes, blown out creeks, unmaintained trail and bone bruising rocks all for 15 miles of Welcome Creek wilderness running. We did get to see the old Carron cabin and a fresh bear track in the snow. No gold though. Bonus - 45 min of hypothermic Jeep ride home in the rain!
Chris Kollar negotiating typical Welcome Creek Wilderness terrain
It became apparent on this initial outing that running in the Wilderness rarely goes as planned and Chris Kollar is a really good sport. Since then, I've run Great Bear, Gates of the Mountains, and Cabinet Mountains. I've recruited some hearty companions to join on some of these adventures, none of which has gone as planned. Route descriptions and some of the more colorful details will be fodder for future posts, but what I can say is that wilderness areas—whether federally designated or otherwise—retain a common characteristic: the unknown. The unknown, of course, is at the heart of any adventure and is the Wilderness Running Project at its core.
A peak at Wanless Lake - Cabinet Mountains Wilderness
So this summer, consider heading out the door to experience a Wilderness area and take some time to reflect on the valuable resource that it is. As Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act's chief architect, explained:
"Wilderness in all its wildness is important to us, and we have determined to preserve it as a resource of health and inspiration, of knowledge and understanding. We have come to realize that we ourselves are creatures of the wild, that in the wilderness we are at home."

Interested in running the Wilderness? According to the University of Montana's Wilderness Institute, there are currently 758 Wilderness units located in 44 states in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Share your experience on our Facebook page and check out Twitter and Instagram where I'll be posting some images from the trail at #wildernessrunningproject. 


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