Friday, August 27, 2004

Wild Gift project unlocks secrets

Leadership ethic blossoms with wilderness experiences

Express Staff Writer

Wild Gift recipients and guides convene at one of the Cramer Lakes in the Sawtooth National Forest Wilderness, west of Redfish Lake. From left to right are Drew Sanderford, Aimee Gaines, Andy Munter, Jan Daniels, Seth Friedman, Bob Jonas, Francie St. Onge and Viraj Puri. (No, that?s not a chance wolf sighting, that?s Talisker, a Malamute.) Photo by Sarah Michael

Defining wildness is as elusive as pinning down Mother Nature herself. But, for backcountry adventurer Bob Jonas, who has been chasing through wild country for over 40 years, immersion in wild places is the key to developing a leadership ethic that is influenced by an appreciation of gifts found in the wild, be they fish, wolves or the weather.

Enter The Wild Gift, a not for profit program now in its third year. Jonas? creation is based on a concept that deep wilderness areas serve as excellent classrooms for cultivating leadership qualities.

Young leaders can be transported and challenged by the experience of surviving and even thriving during backcountry travel.

One way to explain wildness is to tell what it is not. It is not about schedules and comfort.

?What day is it?? asked one of this year?s Wild Gift recipients, Viraj Puri. He appeared fully immersed in the 20-day experience as a small re-supply party left the group Saturday to return to Redfish Lake Lodge after a night of dialogue about wildness and leadership beneath Temple Peak.

Fellow porters, naturalist Cathy Bear and retired Air Force test pilot Ted Angle, and I stepped right from our boots into a ferry boat that whisked us across the water in a return trip from a quick journey started the previous day. Backwoods Mountain Sports owner Andy Munter, who also helped carry food and fuel, remained with the group for the final stretch of a 20-day trip through the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains and the Sawtooth National Forest Wilderness that ended Thursday.

In a matter of minutes the outboard motorboat transported Bear, Angle and me from serenity beyond the wilderness trailhead to cold beer and juicy bur-gers at the boisterous lodge. Our one night adventure had been only a brief departure from the world of watches, calendars and ferry schedules. Out of the woods we eased into the civilizing feel of sitting in comfortable chairs by the lake, basking in the evening glow to people watch, listen to the celebrations of a wedding party and reflect on the European flair of our two-day experience.

Dipping tender feet punished from backpacking in the cool water of the lake is a simple pleasure beyond compare.

But, for the five backcountry explorers traveling on with Jonas, and fellow guide and facilitator Francie St. Onge of Sun Valley Trekking, time and space had begun to take on a whole new continuum.

The explorers have enjoyed relaxing moments in camp after swimming in cold alpine lakes. But, in fact the Wild Gift experience requires a high level of focus not only on topographical orientation and clean camping practices, but also on just how each intern can achieve specific leadership goals.

For backcountry travelers out for the long haul, time is measured in quantities of food and fuel. When our porter crew arrived last weekend at Cramer Lakes, west of the Elephant?s Perch and Shangri-La area, the group had run out of food right on schedule.

Sipping beers back at the lodge named for the Idaho?s imperiled sockeye salmon, which have been listed as an endangered species, we ruminated about what wildness means and the importance of what our Wild Gift friends were experiencing. Still high in the mountains facing a storm cycle that resulted in snow, the group was probably reconsidering the value of being cold and wet, living on falafel and hot brews.

The mission of the program is to provide future leaders, ages 18-30, a profound wilderness experience and to support their commitment to a self-designed leadership project that will benefit the human and natural community.

When the trekkers ended their trip Thursday, they planned to ?let their monkey out,? as Wild Gift recipient Aimee Gaines of Columbus, Ohio, put it (a keg of River Bend beer was already on order).

Part of the focus of The Wild Gift is academic--to explore wildness as an essential value.

Part of the immersion is campfire discussions about the value of wilderness, public land management, significance of predators in the food chain, and plans for specific leadership projects.

Gaines? goal is to develop an environmental group similar to the Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum in the city of Chillicothe, Ohio. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti, Gaines plans to travel to different high schools and colleges in Ohio to drum up enthusiasm for outdoor recreation. Her pro-gram includes a seasonal hike to explore an area during each of Ohio?s four distinct seasons.

?I want to help get more people hiking, kayaking and rappelling,? she said. The work also includes environmental education and a recycling program, the goal being a more active, healthier community.

Part of the commitment to the young leaders selected to participate in The Wild Gift is that sponsors and mentors are found to support them in their goals. Craig Barry, director of the Ketchum-based ERC,is Gaines? mentor.

This year?s Wild Gift crew includes two interns pursuing media related projects. Seth Friedman of Missoula, Mont., is making a documentary film about the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, a community-supported agriculture farm at the University of Montana, which he hopes can be used as a resource for other communities around the country interested in starting community farms. Jan Daniels, a freelance journalist from San Diego, Calif., is set-ting up a wilderness-writing project for urban teenagers.

?I?ve created a curriculum that includes sailing and navigation,? Daniels said. ?Teens will do activities to get them out enjoying the wilderness. It also gets them to look at themselves and their lifestyles. The project will foster creative expression using some journalistic skills, some observation techniques.?

The other two participants in the yearlong program have projects that involve sustainable development.

Drew Sanderford, a student at the University of Virginia, will complete a critical assessment of Habitat for Humanity housing projects since the program?s inception 30 years ago. Sanderford asks the question: What is the status of Habitat for Humanity housing as the center of a community? Sanderford hopes his review of the long-term economic deal of volunteer built affordable housing can result in an improved scenario for the future, including more interesting ar-chitecture and ?green? buildings that last longer even if the initial cost is higher.

Viraj Puri of New York, N.Y., with family roots in the passage through the Hindu Kush mountain range called the Kyber Pass that connects the northern frontier of Pakistan with Afghanistan, is planning to return to the Tibetan Buddhist culture of Ladakh in Kashmir India. There he plans to facilitate a small settlement?s efforts to take advantage of the regions high solar potential in the face of a modernization trend, which has not been entirely sensitive to the unique ecological makeup of the mountain region.

?It is a traditional rural agricultural society,? Puri said. ?There is a unique social and ecological balance.?

Puri?s goal is to disseminate available information so locals can make their own choices about what development models will best help them sustain bal-ance in their communities.

Jonas hopes lessons learned from wildness immersion will be the underpinning for these projects and that these leaders will benefit the human and natural community.

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