John Davis is a wildways scout, editor, and writer and co-founded the Wildlands Network 20 years ago. In 2011 John completed TrekEast, a 7,500-mile human powered exploration of the wilder parts of the eastern North America to promote the restoration and protection of an Eastern Wildway. This year John set out to do the same thing out west. TrekWest was an ambitious journey across the west, hugging the Spine of the Continent from Mexico to British Columbia to promote a Western Wildway. En route John collected data for a number of ASC projects including wildlife, ptarmigan, pika and roadkill observations.
When my San Juan Mountains hiking buddy, Paul, quietly signaled for me to stop and pointed quickly to a large shy bird sheltering from the storm in a small rock alcove, my shivering stopped. Following a wildlife observation protocol established by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) Paul and I had recorded sightings of an extensive list of animals during that thunder and smoke filled week in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwest Colorado – American marten, black bear, cougar, moose, elk, mule deer, yellow-bellied marmot, American pika, golden eagle, American pipit and now white-tailed ptarmigan.
The pika and ptarmigan were particularly gratifying sights not just for their beauty, but because these species are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, and are indicator species of particular interest to researchers. Not surprisingly, I saw more marmots and pikas in the Colorado Rockies – the most extensive area of alpine habitat in the lower 48 – than anywhere else in my journey dubbed TrekWest from northern Sonora, Mexico to southern British Columbia, Canada. Our most dramatic ptarmigan sighting was above 13,000 feet, as Paul and I climbed Sunshine and Redcloud. While we admired a distant herd of bighorn sheep, a ptarmigan walked from behind a boulder and suddenly launched out over the steep talus slope. We might have seen more that day had we not needed to run down from the 14,000-foot summits to stay ahead of the approaching lightning.
ASC was among the groups piecing together TrekWest, a conservation journey to promote protection of wildlife corridors and creation of a Western Wildway which would span the Sierra Madre through the Rocky Mountains and north through the Mackenzie Mountains and Brooks Range. ASC founder and National Geographic Explorer Gregg Treinish was on the mapping team that charted the route I followed, totaling about 5000 miles from the western foothills of the Sierra Madre north along the Spine of the Continent into the Flathead Valley in northern Montana and southern British Columbia.
Our goal with this journey was to provide ground-truth and promote specific wildlife corridors from Mexico to Canada; push for safe wildlife crossings on major roads; champion recovery of missing species especially keystone species like jaguar, wolf, bison, prairie dogs, and beaver; and help reconnect people with wild places, in part through adventure stories that would draw them in—or rather, out.
By the end of TrekWest, I’d hiked with scores of fellow naturalists, looked across countless mountain vistas, recorded thousands of wildlife observations, and become convinced that a Western Wildway is urgently needed and eminently possible. Wildway explorers are scouts and ambassadors for the vibrant conservation community we must cultivate to protect and restore North America’s great natural heritage.
Fittingly, the last wildlife I recorded for ASC was a pair of Tundra Swans on a wind-whipped and rain-spattered pond in Glacier National Park just south of the Canadian border. They were the very picture of strength, beauty and endurance. On a day when my film-maker friend Ed George and I almost felt like declaring the journey done a cold wet week and a hundred miles short of our destination to return to warmer climes, the swans seemed to signal persevere. We must persevere for the lives of many of earth’s most graceful travelers may depend on the courage and conviction of people who care enough to face adversity.
Learn more about TrekWest at the Wildlands Network. Keep up with all things ASC on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.