Taking the Measure of Solitude in the Wilderness

Jul 27, 2017

People are drawn to wilderness areas for many reasons, hiking, bird watching, or camping, but another attraction is solitude.  

On a hike in southwest Virginia’s Mountain Lake Robbie Harris met a ranger who was actually measuring the amount of solitude out there.  

David Seisel, who goes by the name ‘Skip’ is a ranger on the eastern divide ranger district of the George Washington National Forest.  “I partner with the Forest Service. I work for a nonprofit. It’s called SAWS and it stands for "Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards.”

We hadn’t come across anyone for hours until we met Seisel on the trail. He was carrying a shovel and a garbage bag, not very full.

“Part of what I’m doing today with this trash bag and shovel in my hand, is going out and trying to hike user trash out of the trail and disperse fire rings that have been established too close to the trail.”

With a grant from the "National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance," his main mission for the U.S. Forest Service is a project to measure a quality best appreciated by a lack of something else.

“There’s a rule, more or less, that you’re only allowed 10 people within a designated wilderness to make sure that we don’t have high amounts of users or that these larger groups aren’t disturbing the solitude for others on the wilderness areas.”

It’s actually a performance management system like you’d find at many companies. Only it tracks a set of 20 different wilderness metrics like air quality, fish and wildlife, and other conditions that confirm its wild nature.

Skip Seisel walks a trail in the Mountain Lake Wilderness of south western Virginia to gauge the amount of solitude that's available. It's part of a performance management initiative to insure wilderness areas meet standards set for them by congress.
Credit Kurt Holtz

“One of that is solitude. So how it works is my partner and I, we go out and we monitor these sections of the trail, 4 hour sessions and we count people along the way. And when we encounter people we’re also doing outreach and education, but we’re counting to see how many people are actually using these wilderness areas.”

On on a Saturday in early July, Seisel saw about a dozen, not counting us. We met outside the time window and could not be included in the sample.

“So, when I first came up, saw 2 user groups and one was all ‘through hikers’ and one was all ‘day hikers.’  And then I came across another group of 5 individuals that were all through hikers.

I didn’t see any dogs today, on or off the leash.  I removed 2 fire rings today and I would say, roughly, 5 pounds of trash.

You’re allowed to make a fire ring in a designated wilderness area, but you’re supposed to remove them when you’re through.

“People come out to experience the wilderness they don’t’ want to see these man-made structures next to the trail. People come out here to experience nature in its truest form.  And usually, a small fire ring just gets larger and larger as the year goes on. Trash accumulates, so we’re trying to remove that trash and those fire rings and it’s funny because you see one fire ring and there’s all these ‘satellite’ fire rings nearby.

I think people just kind of come in, they identify an area as a campfire area and it just becomes a social gathering place and it’s a stigma to people. So my goal is to try to remove that stigmas and help preserve that wilderness area for users that try to come out here an enjoy it.”

It’s all part of a mission to uphold a designation made by Congress in 1964, and which still reflects not only the spirit, but also the grammar of the time.  The law requires that these lands be preserved "for the sole purpose of unconfined recreation, untrammeled by man, and where man himself is a visitor and does not remain."