If I pause for a moment or two, take a few deep breaths and cast my mind back, I can find myself there again. In the tent, perched on a grassy ledge on a tiny island in southern Johnstone Strait, with orca traveling past the shoreline in the dark. I can hear the clicks and whistles, the whale conversations happening right outside my nylon wall, and I still feel the deep explosions of each exhalation and the visceral connection that seems to be a part of any whale encounter. It is a wilderness memory of mine that will never fade; it may even get stronger with time.
If you are a paddler, then you know. There is a strong desire for these kinds of experiences, and the magic of the wild moments goes a long way toward explaining why we paddle in the first place: that sunrise on a glassy backcountry lake, birdsong in the forest and fat trout rising to the morning hatch; the sound of the surf on an empty beach, gulls calling out to their brethren, clusters of sandpipers chasing the water up and down the sand; bobbing in your kayak, deep in a sea cave with just enough light to make out the incoming swell but not nearly enough to see the dozens of snorting sea lions somewhere farther in.
You cannot immerse yourself in nature and come away unmoved. These moments that continue with us for years afterward become part of who we are, whether we immediately know how to articulate it or not. Experiences from years ago can come back in an instant, triggered by the smell of pancakes or split cedar, the sound of the wind in the trees or the feel of sand between the toes. It is all still there, the portion of our lives that has been shaped in the wild, and we depend on these memories for more than we realize.
As it happens, wilderness itself may depend on these connections as well. These individual events are snapshots in time that serve to tie us to our environment, and with that familiarity comes a sense of the value of these areas, both in an individual sense and as something larger. This realization that a particular place has gotten under our skin and into our soul makes it that much more important to us, and more likely that we will do what we can to protect it. As we move through nature, nature also moves in us.
The power of these moments can be seen all over. When the government began to explore the idea of opening offshore leases for oil drilling along the Atlantic coast, people stood up to oppose the plan in huge numbers. Much of their opposition was based on personal connections with the coastal environment, time spent on and near the water that had shaped who they had become.
With 80 percent of all the plastic in the ocean coming from sources on land, it is important to make an effort to clean up our rivers. In 2014, the National River Cleanup program saw more than 87,000 volunteers work to collect 4.3 million pounds of debris. Similarly, there are several large, coordinated shoreline cleanups every year that bring hundreds of thousands of people out to their beaches around the world. Every participant has a connection of some kind that makes each of them want to be there, a memory of something that brings them back.
“The past,” said writer William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” When it comes to our accumulated experiences in these unique watery environments, the past is something that continues to grow in importance rather than fade away. The extent to which we can effectively preserve the places that mean the most to us will depend on how deeply these areas have become ingrained in who we are.
It is incumbent on us then, if we care about the environment, to get out in it, to go and make more memories.
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Ken Campbell is a noted paddler, filmmaker and conservationist. Last year, he completed a 150-mile journey up the Washington coast in a a kayak that was constructed out of discarded single-use plastic bottles.