In Praise of Bushwhacking
Much has been written on SP and elsewhere about the need to protect the planet’s ever diminishing wilderness resources from the evils of civilisation. And yet many of the same authors who advocate protection of the wilderness seem to have no problems about the inclusion of man-made trails in their own wilderness experiences. Let’s be honest. Once that first trace of the presence of man appears it’s thin-end-of-the-wedge time. A use-trail becomes an engineered trail and leads to the accelerated presence of more and more human visitors. Soon alternate routes appear and, in no time at all, the appellation “wilderness” becomes moot.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no holier-than-thou hypocrite. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” as the old biblical saying goes and I’m as guilty at the next man when it comes to using decommissioned logging roads to drive as high as I can on my chosen objective before hefting that damned 50 lb pack full of food, camping gear, and, of course, climbing paraphernalia.
Our need for wilderness is as well documented as the need to protect it. Who does not feel the need to get as far away as possible from modern society with its jaded and trivial values? It only takes a couple of weeks of self-serving politicians, newscasts from Afghanistan/Zimbabwe/Iran or wherever else yet another thug is busy brutalising millions for the sake of personal enrichment, or just simply a single trip to the mall, before I need to pack my gear and get the hell out of Dodge.
In his recent article In Defense of the Wild SP member magicdufflepud informs us eloquently that if “Civilization ….. is the presence of noise and light…….wilderness is the absence of both”. Well put indeed. But where do we go to find those places where noise and light are absent and which are so essential to the spiritual nourishment we crave? Trails might mean the presence of others. Gondolas, airplanes, huts and the like most certainly do. I urge you to dispense with all such artificiality. Eschew trails. Refuse mechanised assistance. Scoff at gondola access.
Take to the bush.
The dictionary definitions of the verb “Bushwhack” are twofold. Webster’s and the Oxford are, for once, in agreement on this. You’re either ambushing someone or you’re hacking your way through dense undergrowth. The origins of the word are less clear. The term has long been in use since the colonisation of Australia and the westward spread of Europeans from the east coast of North America. I rather think that the original meaning in the US was to ambush someone whereas the other usage applied in Oz but am happy to be corrected by those more knowledgeable than me. Whatever the origin, we’re obviously dealing with the second definition of the term. This is important to all of you SP-ers out there who include such expressions as “we couldn’t find the trail so we bushwhacked directly across open slopes” in your TRs. If there’s no greenery involved, by definition, it ain’t bushwhacking. However, such a mode of travel is a worthy start to true bushwhacking. As a British High Court judge once so famously said of a case in the 1960's in which a gay (not the term used in those days of course) man was accused of molesting a woman, (and I kid you not here), it’s “A step in the right direction”.
My home turf is Vancouver Island where tangled and dangerous logging slash leading into dense west coast bush is a simple fact of everyday alpine life. In fact it’s so commonplace that, rather as Inuit have many names for snow, we have “bush grades”. For the dedicated Island aficionado there’s bush and then there’s bush. The grades were originally proposed in a tongue-in-cheek manner by Phillip Stone in his excellent guide Island Alpine. Nowadays they serve as a useful scale when providing approach beta to someone contemplating a new Island objective. So, before you rush out there, imbued with the new spirit of purity that this article is bound to instill in you, consider what you’re in for.
Bush Grade B0
This is for all those folks referred to above who consider simple off-trail travel as bushwhacking. Good on yer mates. It’s a great start. Hopefully you’ve left the hoi polloi behind on the trail and you’re already improving your navigational skills as well as your ability to recognize and profit from advantageous features of the terrain around you. You’re on open ground, can see your feet at all times and, except for the need to stop and take a GPS/compass reading every so often, you’re moving at trail speed. The only plant life around having influence on the outcome of the day is the lettuce on your sandwiches.
Bush Grade B1
Travel in B1 bush is an absolute delight. On the Island this means open old growth forest and the definition can, I’m sure, be readily extrapolated elsewhere on the planet. Any vegetation is knee height or less. There are no meaningful impediments such as deadfall and certainly no noxious species (see below) to deal with. You can see your feet almost all of the time. Travel remains at trail speed or only slightly below it.
Bush Grade B2
Vegetation is still light but is now chest high. There is significant deadfall but, in the main, it can simply be stepped over. On occasion you can’t see your foot placements and do so by feel. Travel is not impeded but now definitely slower. The first noxious plants begin to appear: slide-alder, huckleberry bush and thorned species such as Devils Club. However, at B2, they are easily avoided or passages through are short and problem free. Early in the day expect a heavy dew bath.
Bush Grade B3
You are now in dense, head height vegetation meaning that the feet cannot be seen a lot of the time. Deadfall is now very significant and frequently you find yourself climbing over or crawling under it. Travel is definitely impeded and constant route finding becomes essential. Frequent entanglements in huckleberry, regular discoveries that slide-alder always points downhill as your feet shoot out from under you for the umpteenth time and occasional scratches and skewerings from hidden thorns are now the order of the day. However, on occasion, you find that hauling on the vegetation has actually become necessary in order to make forward progress.
Bush grade B4
Just when you think it can’t get any worse you run into thick, entangled vegetation such that the feet can't be seen most of the time. In fact, you’re wondering if you still have feet. You’re now “thrashing” (and being thrashed) in the truest sense of the word. You’re fighting for every inch of forward progress, hauling yourself over the almost contant succession of fallen logs etc using the very vegetation that’s trying to resist your passage. You don’t care (or even notice) that you’re wrapped up in huckleberry, whether the alder has you on your arse or your elbow and, boy, are those Devil’s Club impalements going to get infected later on. And did I mention that you’re doing all this on a 50° slope?
Islanders also tend to include negotiation of the industrial cousin of bush, namely logging slash, in categories 3 and 4.
Bush grade B5
This is it! A higher plane of existence. Negotiation of B5 bush requires you to actually meld with the biomass. And I don’t mean just mind-meld à la Spock. You must become one with the plant world in order to communicate and negotiate passage. Bio-supremacy between plant and animal is not at issue here. You must concede supremacy in order to progress. Be proud in recording the first co-species ascent of your objective. Don’t forget to pollinate the summit register.
So that’s it. You’ve read all the arguments and you must agree. No more trails, no more helicopter assists and especially no more gondolas.
Revel in the solitude. Discover complete self-reliance. Hone those navigational skills to new heights. Above all, see the mountains in the way that First Nations and early explorers saw them. Virgin, unsullied, pristine, unspeakably lovely.
This is how we will succeed in protecting our last wild places. By going there on their terms.
Enjoy also the attached "Bushwacks" album and do feel free to add your own images. The uglier the bush, the better I'll score your photos!