Making new family out in the wilderness

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Being outdoors has always been an integral part of my life, but there is a distinct difference between being outdoors and being in the wilderness.

I’ve learned, forgotten and relearned this difference multiple times. The relearning part is essential.

Over the past decade, I’ve been backpacked many times into the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, each time with a heavy pack full of painting supplies. Filtering a wilderness experience down to a singular moment is as difficult as choosing one thing to paint. Each moment is part of the experience.

On the surface, some of these wilderness moments might seem like misery. Like a barb stuck in your hand from the devil’s club that you grabbed to keep from falling. Or the seemingly endless hours in the alder with branches smacking your face and getting stuck on your pack. Or the three-hour exit that became an eleven-plus-hour exit punctuated by a sleepless night on a small sandbar.

But the wilderness transforms these experiences. They also link to some of the most memorable moments in one’s life.

For example, watching the alpenglow sneak up the side of Sawtooth Peak followed by a surprise full moon rise, later racing to the tents as the rain starts to fall and listening to the pitter-patter of drops on the canvas while being serenaded with an impromptu song on harmonica.

Like being on top and looking at the endless peaks and valleys, wondering how they came to be.

And, after a long, long day, cresting the rise into Melissa Basin for the first time. There are two places I have been that I think about almost every day, wondering what they look like at that moment of thought: Paris and Melissa Basin. The sense of awe that comes with knowing a place this perfect exists never leaves me. I could endlessly paint Melissa Basin and never be bored or satisfied.

Possibly the best thing about my wilderness experience has been the human connections I have made. The relationship created with those who go through the same wilderness travails can’t be made outside of this shared experience. It is more than friendship. We become a wilderness family.

We have family traditions that we do on every hike: Trying to remember what treks we’ve made and in which year we did them. We stare into the dark skies contemplating our existence as a friend recites a poem he memorized or one he just wrote. We wait for that one phrase, the phrase that means we really are on a hike: “Oh, baby!”

And there is the tradition of introducing my children to my wilderness family when they are old enough to heft their own packs.

Mostly, though, I love being miserable in the wilderness.

Aaron Johnson is a professor of art at the University of Idaho and has been on nine Extreme Plein Air expeditions in the past 11 years, traversing the Scotchman Peaks via many alder-choked, devil’s club populated and rock strewn routes. Some of his wilderness art can be viewed online at

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