The Enduring Quiet of the Wilderness

Screen Capture from Enduring Wilderness

Screen Capture from Enduring Wilderness

This is the second in a series of articles on Ernest Reid’s 1963 film, Enduring Wilderness, written by contributors to the forthcoming A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, (University of Calgary Press).

Watching Ernest Reid’s visually stunning film,The Enduring Wilderness, has a calming effect (particularly when viewed in the middle of a busy work day). A celebration of Canada’s national parks, the film contrasts the quiet and solitude of the wilderness with the noise and bustle of the city. Long sections of the film have no narration, but simply pan from one spectacular landscape to the next, or concentrate on the wonder of tiny plants and animals, in an effort to catalogue the beauty of Canada’s wilderness from coast to coast. The tone and feel of the film confirm its basic argument: it is important to “get away from man’s noise and pattern” to find the solitude and quietness that are embodied in the “tonic of wildness.”

“Nature and solitude” may “go well together,” as the film suggests, but as a historian of Canada’s national parks, a former park interpreter, and a frequent visitor, I am not convinced that the quiet of the wilderness is what many visitors seek when they travel to the national parks. This summer, my family camped for a week in the Malady Head campground at Terra Nova National Park. Arriving on a Wednesday, we were the only campers in a popular loop where all campsites face a large grassy area and playground. The attraction of the site was obvious: my spouse Yolanda and I could chill out at the campsite while still watching our two boys (six year old William and two year old Xavier) run around in a safe and contained area. Other people were attracted to the site as well, and as the week wore on toward Labour Day weekend, campers slowly started to fill up our loop.

In keeping with Newfoundland tradition, however, none of these campers were sleeping in tents, but instead hauled hulking trailers into the campground behind very large pickup trucks. It sometimes took families nearly 45 minutes to back their ‘rig’ into the narrow campsites; the sound of branches breaking off overhanging trees reverberated through the campground. Then came the unloading: bikes for the kids, barbecues, lawn chairs, sports equipment, and radios. Almost inevitably the sound of one generator—the bane of any front country camper’s existence—then two, then three, then eight, brought “man’s noise and pattern” to the campground. At night, as I lay in my tent reading (ironically John Krakauer’s Into the Wild), the steady drone of engines invaded the thin covering of our tent, combined with the sound of campsite parties and a melee of children throwing glow bracelets to each other on the big lawn. It would be quieter, I thought, to camp in my backyard back in St. John’s.

We may valorize the lonely wilderness in film and in print, but most visitors to national parks prefer the bustle and noise of a busy campground or resort town, complete with as many amenities and sources of entertainment as possible. I don’t pretend to be aloof from this. While I have taken many long trips into a much quieter backcountry, my first questions now when packing for family vacations are whether we have enough beach toys and some good car tunes. As much as the generator culture is annoying, I must admit at times to eyeing with considerable envy the comfortable bedding and very cold beer that goes along with it. Not a few times I have wondered how much it would cost to buy one of those big rigs, anyway (our MEC tent put a big enough hole in the pocketbook). At least I could go inside and get away from the noise of the generators.

I love the vision of national parks that is presented in The Enduring Wilderness; one would likely find something akin to it in the very remote parks of northern Canada or a well managed backcountry of a larger southern park. Released a year before the passage of the Wilderness Act in the United States, one year after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and three years before Bill Mason began making his distinguished wilderness films for the NFB, The Enduring Wilderness also represents the heightened North American anxiety about wilderness and environmental issues that had emerged by the early 1960s. But the film never really captures what has always been (and still remains in many regions) the main purpose of the national parks: to promote mass tourism and create regional backyard playgrounds for Canada’s urban dwellers. Let’s face it, though, even busy playgrounds can still be fun. Just don’t forget your earplugs, or your trailer, preferably stocked with a DVD of The Enduring Wilderness so you can have some quiet moments to yourself.

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Ronald Rudin, author of six books and numerous articles and producer of two documentary films, carries out research that touches upon the economic, social, intellectual and cultural history of French Canada. He is a professor of history at Concordia University.

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