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Sierra Magazine
One Man's Wilderness

If it's big enough for grizzly, it's big enough for bouncer, roughneck, rebel, and wilderness advocate Howie Wolke.

by Joe Kane

It's another day at the office for Howie Wolke. He's 8,000 feet high in the Bitterroots, on a ridge whose name he has made me promise not to reveal ("People should discover specific magical places on their own"), guiding five clients on a bushwhacking expedition across 30 miles of steep mountain terrain that despite the sunny July sky remains covered in a thick crust of snow and ice. Today Wolke must somehow get his people—most of whom have little backpacking experience—down a sharply inclined snowfield, around a frozen lake, and then, somewhere, find a site level enough to pitch tents.

There is no trail. Nobody has an ice axe. Wolke will have to haul a lot of the gear himself. He'll have to haul some of his clients, too. He surveys the glacial valley that spreads below the ridge like a white-carpeted pinball game: Craggy snow-capped peaks rocket up behind forested slopes and knife-edged arÍtes. Then he hits the ground and starts doing push-ups.

Push-ups?

Better question: Backpacking guide?

"I probably knew two hundred hippie backpackers in the seventies who thought, 'Whoa, I could make money taking city people into the wilderness,' " Wolke's friend Dave Foreman says. "Howie's the only one who actually pulled it off." As a guide, Wolke logs something like 500 miles a year in the backcountry, and covers another couple of hundred just for fun. He goes through a pair of Vasque mountaineering boots—the ones that weigh three pounds each and last a lifetime—every two years. He played catcher and linebacker in high school, and at 47 he appears to be as square-jawed, broad-shouldered, wasp-waisted, and bull-headed as he was then. Wolke describes himself as a "Luddite and hopeless misanthrope."

You will not find his company on the Internet. Do not try to correspond with him by fax. ("That's one way we weed out clients," says his wife, Marilyn Olsen. "If someone doesn't have the patience to get info by mail, they'll run up our heels on a trail.") He's still on the fence about fleece. ("There's a lot to be said for a good wool shirt.") Soap is pretty much banned on his trips. Tents—well, some people like them, but basically they're a sissy affectation. In camp, he stalks about with a coiled intensity that suggests, physically and emotionally, James Caan's Sonny Corleone.

"We all talked tough," Mike Roselle once told me. "Howie was tough." To help support himself in the late 1970s, when he inventoried Wyoming roadless areas as a field rep for Friends of the Earth, Wolke moonlighted as a ranch hand, an oil-field roughneck ("My dirty little secret"), and a bouncer at the Cowboy Bar in Jackson. In 1980, Roselle, Foreman, Wolke, and their buddy Bart Koehler founded Earth First! and took their brand of radical activism into the forests, where they went head to head with loggers and miners. By 1986, Wolke was living in public housing. To be specific, he was doing six months in Sublette County Jail in Pinedale, Wyoming, for "de-surveying" a road that Chevron was about to bulldoze into the Grayback Ridge roadless area.

Caught pulling up survey stakes, he pled a felony down to a misdemeanor and drew the maximum sentence, during which he was allowed neither exercise nor daylight. (According to Olsen, the sheriff said he'd allow conjugal visits "only if he could sell tickets.") "They would have let me out after a month if I'd expressed remorse," Wolke says, "but we couldn't let them think jailing me would stop monkey-wrenching." As it happened, the road was re-de-surveyed by a group that identified itself as "Barmaids for Howie."

Unfortunately, if predictably, the media noise surrounding Earth First!'s theatrics overshadowed the real on-the-ground wilderness and conservation experience of its founders. "Howie deserves the title of Mr. Wilderness more than anyone else in my generation," says Foreman. "He was the first to push for an ecological view of wilderness, as opposed to a recreational view, and he published the definitive work [Wilderness on the Rocks, written in jail, with an introduction by Edward Abbey]. But that is entirely overlooked when people talk about the history of Earth First!"

Wolke quit the "disorganization" in 1990. "I found much of it embarrassing," he says. "It had become militant vegan feminist witches for wilderness. People wanted to talk about tree-spiking and bombing, not ecosystems." By then he'd married Olsen, and together with her son and daughter from a previous marriage, they retreated deeper into the Rockies and built a solar homestead on a holding near Darby, Montana, that has gradually expanded to 48 acres. Mellowed only slightly by marriage, parenthood, and—at Olsen's insistence—such therapies as anger-management classes ("I lasted four sessions"), he divides his often ferocious energies between his business, Big Wild Adventures, and his nonprofit group, Big Wild Advocates.

He and Olsen formed the latter to support their lobbying, lecturing, researching, writing, and chain-ourselves-to-the-front-door-of-the-Forest-Service-office campaign to save what they were the first to call the Greater Salmon–Selway Ecosystem: a sprawling wildland complex that begins in their backyard and stretches west to Oregon and north to the Canadian border. It is, says Wolke, "our best kept wilderness secret."

I met Wolke and his clients in Darby on the Fourth of July. "It's our desire to offend all of you before you leave," Wolke said, as we sat on the motel lawn. "Please spare us any discussion of your information-retrieval systems," Olsen added. They promised to arrive hung over for our departure in the morning. They were back at dawn, impossibly cheery. We left town and hit the trail.

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