WRM010: Why We Need Wild Places – Interview with Ed Cannady

From a kid trying to escape Oklahoma to spending winters alone in Alaska to being a ranger in Idaho to cancer survivor to becoming a voice for the wilderness … Ed Cannady has led a rich and full life. In this interview he shares what he’s learned from a lifetime of interest in wild places.

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Full Transcript

 

This is Doug Greene with What Really Matters Interviews. And today I’m really stoked to be interviewing Ed Cannady. Ed Cannady is a dear friend from 30+ years ago. I met him back when I was married. And I met him in the wilderness, which is perfect because that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about today. 

Ed has been in wilderness all his life. And what we’re going to be talking about today is the power of wild places and why they’re so important – wilderness wild places, getting out there in nature, out in the elements and being in places where you’re not always in control of everything.

Ed has has spent a lifetime out there basically, and today we’re going to go through a lot of different areas. We’re going to start with his trip in British Columbia and Alberta province in Canada, which he did this previous summer. And he intentionally sought out ways to see grizzlies. 

So go figure this, most people are like, “I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to be a part of the food chain.” And he intentionally goes out there alone – which actually pushes up the risk of what happens when you encounter a grizzly – and he sought him out. 

So Ed, first of all, thanks for joining us. And I’m really looking forward to this.

Well, I’m as well Doug, it’s good to hear your voice.

Ed, tell me about going to BC – going out there and wanting to see grizzlies in the wild when you’re hiking by yourself and backpacking by yourself for extended periods of time. What was that like? What inspired you to do that? And just take it away …

You know, Doug, I guess it’s, it’s gonna be hard to explain and if someone doesn’t feel it might be hard for them to understand. But I’ve always been drawn to wild places. My entire life when I was a young child … had a pretty difficult childhood and a lot of chaos and turmoil in the house.  

And mountains were what I escaped to in my mind. And realized that if looking at photos of wild places and wild animals, and thinking about them could bring me the peace and the escape – and it truly was escape at that time then I could only imagine what actually being in those places and experiencing the wildness personally – could do for me. 

So at the earliest opportunity. I did that in 1973 – moved to Idaho, finished high school out here, and immediately set about spending as much time as possible in wilderness.

Let’s go specifically to this trip you were on.  And then we’ll come back and cover the because the formative years …

Grizzly bears are the ultimate expression of wildness in my mind they’re the culmination of the the flow, the evolution, of life through time. Humans can’t claim that mantle because we have these big brains, but we do really, really dumb things with them. Like destroy each other by the millions and destroy the atmosphere and the environment and all the ecosystems that our life depends on –  and we go ahead and just blindly doing it. 

Grizzlies have had such an amazing connection with their environment, and they’re so attuned to everything that goes on around them – the smells, where to find what foods, etc. They just have this connection with the earth and the land that I’m really jealous of. I’ll never be capable of that. 

And to get to be in the presence of an animal who for one thing is so powerful that we are the only creature that can be as formidable as them – and just because of our technological advancements. We developed guns to kill each other with primarily, but also to kill fellow members of the community of life. But a human without a gun is – even a human with a gun –  often is no match for grizzly bear, these amazingly powerful animals.

So let’s go on the trip. Take us into this trip up in British Columbia and talk about your interaction with one. Like I think you described one where you did everything you could to make sure that they were aware of you prior – so that they could move out of the way and do their own thing. 

But there were a couple times when, despite your best efforts, you know being downwind from them and being where there was a lot of background noise, they couldn’t hear you. What was it like when … and describe the situation. Take us right into that moment – what you saw, what you felt. All of that – make it real visceral.

The most startling one, Doug, actually occurred in Glacier National Park before I even made it to Canada. I was hiking up a stream,  had a downslope wind so the bear couldn’t smell me.  I was next to a stream and a little gorge, so it was pretty noisy. The bear couldn’t hear me, because I do make noise.  I hike alone but I invite close contact with bears because they don’t like surprises. 

So I had a downslope wind, the bear couldn’t smell me. It was pretty noisy; he couldn’t hear me. I say “he” … I don’t know if it was a male or female, so I’ll just say “he” for general purposes. And I was hiking a fairly steep trail, stepped over little rise and there’s a bear about 30 yards away. 

And you know, your stomach immediately tightens up. My heart immediately went to full race. I grabbed my bear spray, which I always have ready in hand. And the bear just turned and looked at me.

He saw me right away, turned and looked at me, and went back to digging. He was digging roots. He went back to digging, and obviously didn’t care I was there. It was a great relief for me. 

So I backed down the trail a little ways, got my camera out, and walked up the slope just a little ways where I had a good view of him and took a few photos – with my bear spray hanging in my little finger, of course. So I had it wrapped in hand.

And he just ignored me. And then he turned and walked away and that’s the response you want. It’s not always the response you get. But it’s probably most often what they do if they don’t run away from you at high speed. 

Bears are not as dangerous as they’re made out to be. We hear these horror stories about people that are attacked – and it does happen, and they’re certainly capable of it. But more often than not your encounters with them are going to go like that.  And that was the the most startling one because it was at such close range. 

The other really gripping experience that I had – I was in British Columbia, excuse me, I won’t name the stream – hiking on a trail, going to cross a creek, and I noticed the bear on the other side of the creek. And he saw me right away.  

He stepped out of the willows, saw me right away, and his head came up. He’s fixed in his eyesight. And so I started talking to him right away. AT first I’m sure he couldn’t hear me because of the noise of the stream, but he saw me.  I don’t know if he could smell me or not; I didn’t make note then of what the wind was doing – which is a mistake. You just should always know what the wind is doing when you’re in Grizzly country.

The bear crossed the stream towards me, keeping me fixed in his gaze. And I’m walking backwards, my arms spread out, talking to the bear, and saying “Hey bear, it’s just me, just me.” Not shouting. 

He kept coming across the creek towards me. And he kept coming. And if they keep coming to you, it’s better to stop and hold your ground. Because if you keep backing away and they keep coming, then it could trigger a predator-prey response. 

So I stopped. And at this point, he was within 30 or 40 yards of me. He was across the creek. He was on my side of the creek. I stopped and had my bear spray out and I had my camera out, because actually hike with a 600 millimeter lens slung over my shoulder. And so I’m taking photos.

But at this point, I stopped taking photos and I have my bear spray and I said, “Don’t make me spray you with this shit.”  He stopped, turned around, went back across the creek, went downstream aways, crossed back over to my side, and then went on the way he was going all along.  So he was curious about me, I’m sure. But all he really wanted to do was go on his way. 

In hindsight, I probably should have just moved off the trail. He probably just rocked right on past me on the trail. Hindsight, of course, being 2020 … that’s not what I did. But it worked out great. But it was just an amazing experience for this bear where he was testing me out like “Are you gonna get out of my way or not?” And I was too dumb to get out of his way.  So he went around me.  

You know, an animal that could with one swipe, take me out, just completely incapacitate me – to just just say, “Okay, you’re not going to move. So I’m going to go around you.” After my heart settled down, it was a pretty awesome experience. Those are the experiences I live for.

Good thing you don’t have any heart issues. So that sounds pretty crazy, and that would challenge anybody’s heart. 

When you’re in a situation like that – I know that you have a pretty good capacity to keep cool under pressure – did you feel like you were kind of on the edge of like “Aaahhh” –  like you wanted to run?  Or were you in good enough control of everything – obviously you were – that you didn’t do anything stupid … t least anything that was sort of in a fight-flight response approach. 

I don’t know. When you how do you keep your cool in a situation like that. Not everybody can do that.

Well running never entered my mind. I’m a great believer in visualization So I visualize encounters like that.  Just like I ski in avalanche country a lot. And I will actually visualize being buried an avalanche and slowing my breath. 

I don’t want to happen, and I don’t think it will I think. I use pretty good judgment and the crew I ski with are all pretty solid. But I visualize that, and visualize my myself slowing my breathing and maintaining control. And I really, really believe that helps. 

So I visualize those encounters. I visualize me getting my bear spray out in half a second. Because a bear at 50 yards can be on you in less than three seconds. So you’ve got to be really fast with it. And so I visualize those things so that I’m better prepared to do it when it actually happens. 

I was involved with Search and Rescue for a lot of years and it really helps to just be able to breathe, and not have to think too hard. You just know what to do and you react. And you do that by practice – whether you actually practice going through the motions or just practice it in your mind. So I’m a great believer in that.

That’s good. I agree with you on visualization.  That actually saved my life once when hit an antelope head-on with my motorcycle at 70 mph. 

I had just finished an advanced rider’s training course. And they had programmed this stuff into us, right?  Over and over we braked, and they taught “here’s what you do. If you hit something, you don’t want to change the vectors. You want to go straight. You want to glide. You don’t want to do anything that takes you off the path that you’re already on, because you’re only on two wheels and it’s really easy to go down. 

And I remember when I hit – all of that visualization, you know, having thought it through, prior thinking through – what do you do? What do you do?  It all came up automatically and was amazing, and probably saved my butt. 

Oh, well, I’m glad you’re here. 

Well, me too. 

So let’s go backwards a bit in time. So you grew up in Oklahoma. Not everybody from Oklahoma makes it to the mountains. I’ve driven across Oklahoma a few times. It’s a pretty flat state. So what brought you … what were the conditions, the situation, what’s your story on how you got from Oklahoma into the mountains?

How did you become a ranger?  know you had an experience up in Alaska. Take us on your journey from Oklahoma to the mountains.

Well Doug, as I said earlier, I grew up in a large family. And it was not a peaceful household. And to escape the shouting and hate and vitriol that seemed to be a pretty much a constant in the house when my dad was home. 

I escaped in my mind to the mountains and I don’t know why I chose the mountains. But I did. Pictures, reading books – books like Last of the Mohicans, for example. Which, yeah, it’s probably a pretty cornball book. But for seven or eight year old boy it was an escape to another world. And that’s what I needed to do. 

So the mountains were literally my salvation at that point in time. So when I was able to move to Idaho with my dad and my grandmother in 1973, it was like a dream come true. So all the imagining I had done about being in the mountains … now I finally got to actually be there. And it was even better than I then I imagined, better than I dreamed. 

And as soon as I got out of high school, I decided not to try to play college football. I went to Alaska instead. Going to Alaska was a dream, a literal dream … the biggest wildest place left on earth.

Why Alaska, though? How’d you end up in Alaska?

Well, because it was the biggest lawless place on Earth. Idaho was pretty wild, yeah, but not like Alaska. 

And I had the opportunity. It’s when the pipeline was being built in 1976. And I had the opportunity to go work at a lodge. And so I took it and worked in the bush for two years.  In the summertime It was a private lodge. In the summertime it had fishermen, and then in the fall it had hunters. 

And then in the winter I was alone at the lodge. And was able to span long months at a time alone.  In 1976 batteries weren’t what they are today. So most of the time I didn’t even have music. I had books – not nearly enough books –  but had books and the Northern Lights for my company. And moose and caribou – the bears were hibernating then.

And I was able to get a handle on what I wanted, who I wanted to be, and start asking myself the question “If I was who I wanted to be.“ And all too often the answer was “No.” So then that begs the question, “Then how do I become that person?” So I’ve pretty much spent the rest of my life trying to become that person. 

Let’s go into that period when you’re the spending winters in the lodge – what was that experience like? I mean, a lot of people go bonkers being alone for that much time in a dark, cold place.  It seemed to do the opposite for you. It let you move into an introspective place that basically changed your life.

Yeah, cabin fever is real. If you’re not able to deal with it, you know, the old saying that “if you don’t like being alone, that must mean you don’t like the company.” And I don’t think that’s always true, but it certainly gave me the opportunity to … 

I love to explore the greater landscape around me. But I also love to explore the inner landscape inside me and really deal with the hard questions of who I am and who I should be. It was really quiet. It was utterly quiet, except when the wind blew, and the birds … the few birds that wintered there. And so I was able to focus inward in a way that gives you … it’s also dark 17 hours a day up there where I was. So a lot of time alone in the dark and the quiet.

So how did you spend that time? Take us through the course of a typical day where you’re being introspective you’re dealing with – obviously there’s some things you’ve gotta do: get the fire going, and batteries and all of that. 

But when you were really in that introspective place, doing the introspection, what … were you meditating? Were you journaling? Were you reading and then journaling? What was the process itself?

Yeah, pretty much all the above. I didn’t know to call it meditation at the time. I read. I didn’t have nearly enough books, especially the first winter. And I read a lot of books. I read all of Dostoevsky’s novels and didn’t get the full benefit.  I was the autodidact who was trying to read great literature without any instruction or direction. 

And so I spent a lot of time reading things that I would have benefited from if I’d read them when I went to college later. But a lot of time, yeah, just sitting, thinking, sitting in silence, and just being.  Again, I didn’t know to call it meditation. 

During the day, of course, with the daylight I had, I had lots of chores. Like I had to haul my water up from the lake. And the lake froze solid, so I had to keep a hole open in the water. So I hauled all my water up that I used in the cabin. Cutting firewood, cutting building logs, because I built a couple of structures while I was there.  And go out a snowmobile and on snowshoes and find logs that were suitable for building.  And then go back and saw them down and haul them back. 

So a lot of a lot of good work like that. But a lot of time just pondering – which I still do a lot. And some people think it’s weird. And maybe it is, but I don’t care. But I still do it a lot. And that quiet time is something that I’ve always valued and still seek out.

You know, there is a book called Chop Wood Carry Water that’s a classic on inner – sort of that inner process. So you were actually doing it back in the 70s.

Yeah, I’ve never heard that book, but I’m looking for it now.

So you emerge from this period of time in the cabin, and – you know, let’s call this the dark, well it’s not really the dark night because you really liked the process – but you come out of it. It changes you. How did it change you? What did you learn in there? And how did you apply it?

That’s a good question. Did it change me? 

I don’t know that it changed me so much. Because I think the foundation of who I was, was already there. So I think maybe it – and this is something I’ll think about now that you’ve asked that question – but I think maybe it just cemented what my nature already told me I needed to be.  And the lessons that I learned – to not feel sorry for myself, that no one could be happy for me. 

I have a little saying for myself in how I deal with things and “It’s up to me.” And that’s true for everyone. “It’s up to me.” It’s up to the individual.  If you want to be happy, you can be happy. If you want to be angry, you can be angry. There are all kinds of poisons we can choose in life: self-pity, bitterness, resentment, anger. 

And so you choose the way you want to go. And I chose not to partake in any of the poisons. I chose to be happy, and I chose to try to find the positive in life and focus on what I did have with rather than what I didn’t have. I’ve never worked towards more material things – except I like new skis and a new mountain bike every and then. 

So it just gave me the opportunity to cement those qualities I thought were what I wanted in my life, and to focus on them. I haven’t always been successful at that, certainly. But again, the time now when I can sit quietly – especially in a beautiful place in wild country – and think about “Have I been successful? If not, why not?” And “What do I differently?” I kind of go those things that I chose to focus on when I was living in the bush in Alaska 40 years ago.

Do you ever feel yourself starting to go down into a dark place or down the rabbit hole? And if so, what do you do to stop it? Or maybe you’re just one of those people that doesn’t go there.

You know, Doug, I don’t spend much time in dark places. I mean, I love the night sky. So I love the actual dark. 

But you know … I had cancer a few years ago.  And as soon as I finished my chemo, my wife divorced me. So that was pretty dark time. And I was diagnosed with depression. And I found my way out of that with some good chemical help, and also just focusing on what I had – not what I had lost. 

And I developed a little mechanism for when those dark thoughts would come into my head. Because I did for a while there thinking about suicide.  I couldn’t stop that thought from coming into my head. 

Didn’t ever get close to actually acting on it. But it was a pretty interesting intellectual exercise for me to analyze, “Why am I having these thoughts?”  I don’t want to die. I don’t want to kill myself. 

So I developed a little mechanism that when that thought would come into my head, I would visualize wadding it up like a piece of paper and throwing it right back out. And I was able to make it through that really dark time.

And three months after my divorce, and five months after my last chemo session, I had a gratitude party.  I had a party up in the Boulder foothills a place you know pretty well. And  I invited everyone who wanted to come.  I bought a keg of beer and asked everybody else to bring potluck food. And rented some porta potties, and had a gratitude party. I put signs up on the highway with “Gratitude”, with arrows pointing the way to the place. 

It’s like I’m going to focus on what I’m grateful for. And I have so many things to be grateful for. And so that’s that’s the route I chose.

Let’s go back earlier. So you do the time in the cabin in Alaska. What came next after that?

Well, I really wanted to experience as much as I could of life before I settled down to a career. I wasn’t really thinking in “career terms” at that point, but I knew I would eventually. So I rode trains for the railroad. I worked for the railroad for a while, for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, riding trains as a brakeman. 

I worked on an offshore oil-drilling oil drilling platform in India for awhile. A cousin of mine got me that job. Yeah, I was intelligent and worked hard, and took a lot of initiative. So I usually didn’t have too much trouble finding good employment. 

At that point. I hadn’t gone to college. So it was, you know, the old “strong back, weak mind” kind of jobs, which I was perfectly qualified for. 

But then, let’s see, I worked as an iron worker, worked as a carpenter, knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And then at the age of 31 I went to college.

Where did you go and what did you study?

I went to Boise State studied history, and studied history

Why history?

Because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I thought maybe I wanted to be a professor because I love books so much. And I love history. You know George Santayana famously said, “Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”  And so I want to learn the lessons of history and … it’s an overlooked subject that has more to teach us than just about any other subject we can we can study. 

And I’ve always loved history.  It was intensely gratifying for me and limitlessly interesting. To this day that’s mostly what I read. I read very little fiction. I should read more probably; I’d be a more interesting person if I read more fiction probably. 

But I read a lot of history still. And so much of what I read resonates today. You know, the old saying that “history repeats itself” is not true. We repeat history because we don’t learn the lessons of history. 

So I chose history and worked summers as a wilderness ranger and the Forest Service hired me just as soon as I finished school.  They hired me permanently as a wilderness. 

So you weren’t even concerned about “Oh god, I’m going to have a history degree. What am I going to do with that?” You just went straight into ranger work?

History was what I loved, and the wilderness was what I loved, and I was able to do both. But the Forest Service offered me a permanent position as a wilderness manager. How in the world could I turn that down?!

What was your connection with the Forest Service? Were you working there …

Summers as a seasonal wilderness Ranger. Yes, that’s how started.

How did you get that position? Somebody you knew or …

I had volunteered some in the Sawtooth Wilderness. And so they knew me, and knew my potential, and offered me seasonal rangers position. I was going to college, so that was all I could do. And so just volunteering got my foot in the door.

When was this? Is the early 80s.

No, that was actually 1988.

Wow. So when I met you, I think it was around 84 or 85.

Yes, it was.

What were you doing then?  Was that when you were doing the volunteering and the …

Exactly, yes, I was volunteering then.

So you become a ranger. All of a sudden there’s a responsibility that comes with that – interacting with other people, watching for the interest of  … 

What’s involved with being a ranger? And what were some of the challenges you had? And what did you love about it?  Take us into the life of being a ranger.

Well I started as a full-time field going ranger In the summertime. And of course you spend five to … at that time we do 10 days, which is also 5-10 days at a time in the backcountry with a backpack, Pulaski, and a shovel. And if you’re not familiar with the Pulaski, it’s a tool with a grubbing edge on one side and an axe-chopping tool on the other side. 

And you can do anything with a Pulaski; it’s the greatest tool on Earth. It’s the simplest, but an amazing tool that you can do just about anything with. 

So I’d have a Pulaski and a shovel, and go out and chop trees out of the trail, do erosion-control work, clean up people’s messes in the back country. I had law enforcement authority, so when people misbehaved I could write them tickets. I didn’t like to write tickets; I usually tried persuasion first. If I thought they weren’t convinced, then you’re damn right I’d write them the ticket. 

But I just spent time in the backcountry taking care of the place basically. And spending a lot of time talking to other people. A lot of people I encountered already knew the value of those wild places. But a lot of people were just then being exposed to it. So being able to talk to them about the environment around them, and how the ecosystem worked, and why white pine trees were so important – and just great opportunities to share my love of the place, and how remarkable the place was with other people.

And what were the response from those people that you engaged with? Did you see them kind of light up and take on a deeper newer appreciation for what was going on around them – the nature around them?

Absolutely. I mean it was pretty remarkable with some people.  One of the most gratifying parts of my job was seeing people gain that deeper appreciation for the place. 

And one thing I usually tried to do if I had time, and if they had time … often people were in a hurry to try to get to their destination and didn’t have a whole lot of time. And plus, I didn’t want to bore them to tears . But I try to convince them that you’re here in this amazing place where the beauty and the stillness and the perfection of the place is obvious. 

So the things you learn here – this connection that you start to reestablish here with the natural world – take it home, and think about the stream that runs through your town. Because a lot of towns are built on streams or rivers. Take it home and try to have the same kind of connection with your home and make it a better place too. Because, again, in the wilderness – and especially the Sawtooth Wilderness and the Boulder White Clouds – that beauty and the importance of the environment is so obvious, but we take that for granted at home in town. 

So try to get them to think about what can I do to a) yes, protect this place, keep this place holy and pure. But what can I do when I get home to improve my home place as well? Because I think that’s one of the great human values of wilderness is reestablishing that connection that was severed with – especially with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution – but in a lot of ways with the beginning of the agricultural revolution. 

We’ve severed that connection with the natural world. And I think our salvation – humanity’s long term salvation – is going to be reestablishing that connection and reestablishing the importance of taking care of our home place – which we’re not very good at. 

That’s why I said earlier that I thought grizzlies were the culmination of life, not humans. Because we have these big brains, but all we do is foul our own nest with them.

So given our political situation right now, and this is in 2019 coming out of the end of the year – in fact it’s Christmas Eve day, is that all right? Anyway, it’s Christmas Eve in 2019. 

What’s your advice on this? How do we deal with this polarization that’s going on? 

I want to talk with you too about your encounters with ranchers, sheep herders. You know predators versus that …

But right now, what is your take on what we need to do, and how it can be done in this polarized society we have right now.  We’ve got one side that seems to be pro wilderness, and then we’ve got this president who seems to be anti-wilderness and is bringing a whole – Uhhh, I don’t know what to say. It’s frustrating. 

But anyway, take it away Ed!

Boy, I wish I had the answer to that, Doug. I think one of the things that we’re suffering from is kind of a tribalism that is inherent to humans. I think that’s how we evolved. 

It’s so easy now, and especially with social media – and especially since Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich and other people – made politics so freaking tribal. 

We view people who have different political views than ours as “the enemy”. And some of them are … I think some of them probably truly are. But most of them are not. 

I grew up in Oklahoma, a very conservative state. And I’ve still in contact with several friends and members of my family – because all the rest of my family is still in Oklahoma. And then I have a lot of conservative friends here in Idaho; Idaho is another very conservative state. 

I don’t view them as bad people because they support Donald Trump. 

Now, I really truly believe Donald Trump is a bad person. I think he is a horrible, despicable morally bankrupt person, and plays on people’s fears, plays on that tribalism to get the response he wants from people. And they fall for it, and it’s unfortunate. And I don’t understand how they can feel the way they do – the people who support him. 

But they don’t understand how I can feel the way I do either. So I stay in touch with them. I don’t demonize them. I don’t make enemies of them. And I don’t wash my hands of them – except when they’re always into name-calling and you know, then I’m probably not gonna … My granddad told me a long time ago to never argue with somebody who’s absolutely convinced. 

So I want to view them as fellow Americans. And I know most of these people are good people in spite of the fact that they support a very bad person for President. 

But I’m going to keep talking to them. And I want them to understand why I do feel the way I do. And I want to understand why they feel the way they do.  And I think from that understanding there can grow more acceptance – and acceptance is going to result in more communication. 

And then the things we agree on, we can work towards. There are going to be some things we won’t agree on – like abortion and gay rights. Another thing my granddad told me was that – if two people always agree – that means one of them is doing all the thinking. And I don’t do their thinking for them, and they don’t do mine for me. But we can disagree and still work towards some good common goals.

So specific to working, you know, to being a voice for wilderness and bringing people that aren’t for wilderness right now over to being pro wilderness … what kind of conversation have you had that’s been successful? Where do you go with a conversation? Where do you not go? 

I mean, like you, I have conservative friends and I’ve not found a way to speak with these people in a way to engage with them to the point where they are willing to kind of move off of the “political company line” of, you know, pro dinosaur fuels, fossil-fuel industry, and taking down environmental regulations, and opening up the wilderness to more drilling and logging and everything else. 

How do you  … what do you do? I’m at a loss for words.

Yeah, you’re not going to commit to everybody, there’s no question about that. But one of the one of the things I do, and it goes back to them understanding why I feel the way I do is, is tell them why wilderness is so important to me. And then hearing them not – not just saying my piece – but letting them say their piece: why it’s so anathema to them. 

And often there are misconceptions of what wilderness actually is. You’ve heard the online wilderness is “Land of no use.” Well, that’s pretty easy to debunk. It’s land of no roads, no motorized vehicles, no logging. But that doesn’t mean it’s “land of no use.” 

And when you really look at the percentage of even just the western states, if you isolate just the western states, the percentage of land that is designated wilderness – I can’t tell you off the top of my head, I should be able to but I can’t. I’m sorry – what percentage of the land base is designated wilderness. But it’s really not much. It’s a pretty darn small percentage of land that is, in their term and their words, “locked up” as wilderness. 

So they have all the rest of the land to log and mine and drill. And when they really have to look at the numbers, then most of them will admit, “yeah, it’s really a pretty small amount.” And of course I always argue that it should be more.  And when it comes down to it, the things that we have to have to continue to exist – is clean air, and clean water and healthy ecosystems.  And, and there is no better way to ensure that then wilderness designation. 

And most people will agree that those things were important. They’ll say, “we don’t have to have wilderness to have those things.” And I agree with that. Wilderness pretty much ensures it. But in non-designated wilderness in areas that are open to mining and logging, that’s where we come together and say, “okay, you can log here but here. But here are the things we’re going to protect when you log.  We’re going to protect water quality, we’re going to protect wildlife habitat, things like that. 

And that’s when that communication becomes so important. And hopefully by that time you’ve established a trust level. And you understand that they understand my goal is not to put them out of business, rather it’s to protect those things that I think are most important. 

And I need to understand that their goal is not to destroy the land, but it’s to have jobs, and feed their kids, and put a roof over their heads. And so that’s when you start understanding that they’re not bad people; you just come from a different place.

So at a theoretical level, this sounds great. How’s it worked out in actual practice?

Well, it can work, Doug, it can. It’s not easy. Democracy’s not easy. 

A good example is the winter recreation agreement we arrived at here in the Wood River Valley. We literally had snowmobilers burning backcountry ski huts. It was that bad.  There was actual arson in the forest. And people coming into blows. 

So we put a group of people together and did exactly what I mentioned earlier. We started just getting to know each other, spending time out on the snow together understanding what it was that snowmobilers loved about being out on their machines. They spent time understanding what was important to skiers. 

And we started building that trust and that understanding. Because the snow machiners often thought that the skier’s only goal was to get rid of them. And the skier thought that the snowmobilers – tthe only thing they were out to do was destroy their experience. 

When they started getting to know each other and realizing that, you know, really, there are things that are important to both groups. And they’re not always mutually exclusive. Then we started working towards a solution, and came up with a solution that – jeez that was over 20 years ago. And it still holds today because of that trust and that understanding that the two groups developed.

Take us through the nuts and bolts of that? What exactly did you do?

We invited a group of the ski community, because the skiers didn’t have an organized club, they didn’t have an actual organization.  But the snowmobilers did. So we contacted some influential skiers and said “Choose three people”.  And then went to the snowmobile club and said, “You guys choose three people.” And we started meeting regularly, and talking through the issues that we had.

We went out on skis, and then went out on snowmobiles. And started really understanding what each group – and I worked for the Forest Service, so I was trying to straddle both sides. I wasn’t taking a side even though I’m certainly a skier, not a snowmobiler. But I did not take sides.

And just started getting them to view each other as fellow citizens, fellow members of a great community, not as antagonists who were trying to take something from the other side. 

It took a long time; it took years. But we finally came to an agreement that still holds today.  I’m retired now, but when I was still employed I talked to winter recreation managers all over the West. And I would tell them, how good a compliance that we had with our snowmobile closures. And they were astounded, because nobody else had the same kind of compliance that we did.

Okay, let’s go back into your later years in the wilderness is a ranger. When you look back on that period of time, what were some of the biggest challenges? And what were some of your most rewarding moments? And what are your three biggest takeaways as a ranger?

Let’s see, let’s do those one at a time. 

The challenges were, a) the bureaucracy. We often – we, the Forest Service – often made it harder than it needed to be. You know the old line from Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” And a lot of that came down from the Washington office. 

But fortunately the Forest Service is pretty decentralized organization. And most of the decisions that actually affected things on the ground were made at the local level, like the snowmobile agreement, the winter recreation agreement.  And the challenges are also the people who just didn’t care what the other users of the public land wanted, and just wanted to fight – just wanted to throw rocks. 

Fortunately, they were a distinct minority. But they were often the squawkiest group. But I would approach them – I always say, “If we can’t defend our decisions, we probably shouldn’t be making them.” So I would just go say, “Let’s go out on the ground and look at what you’re talking about.” And take them out get to hear their side of the story. 

A good example is the project we did on Pole Creek where we closed a bunch of illegal two-tracks and roads, and did a lot of habitat restoration. And a lot of people who had been recreating there for 50-plus years were really upset about it.  And so I said “Well, just meet me on the ground. Let me explain to you why we did what we did.” 

And to a person they came away, not angry anymore, understanding what we did. And not necessarily supporting it, maybe wishing we that we had done it differently, but understanding why we did it. 

And so those are the challenges – dealing with the bureaucracy and dealing with the knotheads in the world. And every group has them. It not unique to motorized, it’s not unique to ranchers. It’s not unique to environmentalists. Every group has them. 

The most gratifying, the most satisfying, the most rewarding – that was the second question, Doug? 

Spending time out there, often by myself, but spending that much time in the backcountry was intensely rewarding. 

But probably the most rewarding was hearing from people who went to these wild places, and it changed their lives.  And I heard that a lot over the years. People would write me postcards, write me letters, and sent me books. Because I would often talk to people about backpacking – where to go things like that. 

I’ve talked to hundreds of people over the years.  They would call for backpacking advice, and the folks that answered the phones usually sent them to me. And people would people would call me, or write me letters, and say “That changed my life I I’ll never look at life the same way. I slowed my pace. I was able to … “

… because I would always suggest to them, “don’t just focus on moving all the time. Take time to sit.” Because stillness and silence are both in shortage categories in our lives these days. There’s so much frenetic activity. And you know, there are all these moving parts and – like Barry Lopez said – we move at such a fast pace these days. 

We didn’t evolve that way. We evolved in stillness and quiet. And you know, it wasn’t wasn’t that long ago that going 35 mph was unheard of. Then just two or three generations ago, going 70 or 80 mph was astounding. And now, you know, we travel at 600 mph.  

We didn’t evolve that way. And so when we’re able to go back to that stillness and quiet, we learn lessons. We learn things about ourselves, and learn things about life that’s impossible to learn at that pace.

And if we don’t ever take the time to sit in stillness – and someone said, I forget Blaise Pascal, maybe – said that “all the problems with humanity are because men won’t sit quietly in their chambers.” I paraphrase that I butchered it, I’m sure. 

But I agree with that. People just don’t take the time to stop and think.  Everything’s black and white. The great questions of our existence – a brief glance and think you know enough and move on – and that brief glance is not enough. 

If we don’t think deeply about who we are, where we are, where we’re going, who we want to be – then it’s really hard to really know the answers to those. And so I would encourage people to approach their trips into the wilderness with that in mind. And I would often hear from people that “Yes, I did that.” And “Yeah, it took me a couple three days to actually be able to decompress and really feel the quiet, and feel the stillness.” 

But once they did, it would have a profound effect on people.

In that place of quiet and stillness, which seems to be a place you’re very comfortable with, what are you feeling? What’s the experience like there? Take us inside your experience of that.

Well, if I have something that’s pressing, then it’s an opportunity to focus on that. Like, you know, how did I handle that situation? And how should I have handled it differently? What can I learn from it? 

It’s really good for me to just sit and let things come to me. There is an old poem that I read once, and I don’t remember the whole thing.  I really wish I could. It was actually on an album cover and I can’t remember the name of the album. But it was something to the effect of “Doubt is the prose of the mind. Aspiration is the song of the soul.”  And then there’s another version – I forget what it was – that “Realization is the dance of life.” 

So you have doubt and you have aspiration, and those are the things you think about. And the realization, where you realize these important lessons, is the dance of life. So, when I’m sitting in those quiet places, I’m really trying to dance.

So one of the things I’ve really appreciated about you – your posts on Facebook – is your photography, and also the words that you often accompany them with. Often you’ll lead with a quote that you really like. And then you’ll rift off of that, and take us on a journey with both your words and your images to appreciate the wilderness even more talking.

So maybe you can talk about photography, how’d you get into it? You are obviously very good at it.  How has photography, and also this writing, made you appreciate wilderness even more? How do you look at wilderness differently when you have a camera? How has it maybe altered or changed or deepened or whatever – your experience with nature?

First of all, Doug, I don’t know how good I am at it. You know the old saying that “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.”  I think I’m in places that it’s really hard to take a bad photo. 

But I do work pretty hard at it, actually. And in a lot of ways it’s like hunting. I haven’t hunted in many, many years; I’m not anti-hunting. But it’s like hunting with a camera; you’re hunting for light. 

And, you know when I first got into photography, it was right out of high school. When I went to Alaska, I bought a camera – a little single lens reflex camera with a 50 millimeter lens. I had no instruction, didn’t know what I was doing. 

It’s pretty interesting how much photography has changed. Because, where I was in the bush in Alaska, I would take a lot of rolls of film. But I might not be able to send them out on a plane to get developed – because the only access to the lodge was by bush plane – I might not be able to send them out to get developed for two or three months. 

And then I wouldn’t get the film back for another two or three months. So it might be four to six months before I could see what I did wrong. And in the meantime I’d take it over a lot more photos, you know, probably doing those things wrong. But even then I got some nice photos.

But you contrast that with today where you take a photo and get instant feedback. Immediately you can look at the monitor on your camera and say, “Oh, I need to open up more, or don’t have enough depth of field, what have you. So you get that instant feedback. And it’s kind of how much technology has changed in in so many areas over the years. 

But it’s kind of like hiking in grizzly country that, you know, that heightens your senses and makes you more aware of what the winds doing, where the noise is coming from. The presence of no other animal on the landscape changes your relationship with the land like the presence of grizzly bears. 

Having a camera in your hand gives you that same relationship with light.  Where’s the sun going to set? Where’s it going to rise? Where’s the moon going to set? And so you start thinking about where do I need to be to get the effect that I want with light. 

So, being a photographer is all about a relationship with light on the land. And some days you sit there thinking everything is perfectly positioned for an amazing sunset. And then clouds come up in the west and block the sun, and you just sit there in awe that you get to be there even without the perfect sunset. 

But it does make me more aware of what’s going on around me. I like to think that there are times when I’m happy to just say “Wow.” Like during the eclipse – we had a total solar eclipse here three years ago, two and a half years ago – and the period of totality was about two and a half minutes. I didn’t take a single photo of that. Because I knew it was going to be so awesome, I didn’t want to have to worry about my exposure, my composition. I wanted to just experience the moment.

So there are times when I just experience the moment and put my camera aside. Because that’s what’s truly important to me – is having that experience in nature. If I’m lucky enough to get good photos of it, that’s a bonus. 

But I do love photography. And I love sharing, because I believe I know what spending time in these beautiful wild places did for me. It literally saved my life, Doug. And if I can help any other people have a similar experience, then I want to do that. And if I can do that through photography and through words – because I love to read I read a lot. I don’t watch television. It’s a mind sucking pit. But I love good books and I love words. 

So if I can show people what wilderness and beauty has to offer, then photography is a really good way to do that.

Speaking of books, what are some of your favorite books? And maybe we could break that down into two genres. One would be books about wilderness, or wilderness related. Maybe your top three books on that. And then also your top three books on just in general?

Boy, my top three on wilderness … I guess the ones that come immediately to mind is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. If you haven’t read it, I definitely recommend it. It’s an amazing book. The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder. And Sand County Almanac, by Alva Leopold.  

And there are a few others that could easily be in that top three. So I would probably have more like a top 15 or 20. But those are the first three that come to mind. 

And then just books in general again, I don’t read much fiction. But one of the best books I’ve ever read is Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Keyse.  I think it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read.  And I love Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Conrad is such a great writer. It’s just a just a terrific story about the exploitation of Africa and native peoples. And also about the dark that lurks in the heart of men who lose contact with what’s Important. 

And then Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard Devoto. It’s a historical account of the fur trade. It’s one of the books that I read at a very early age, and one of the primary reasons I wanted to major in history. It just really connected me to the great, wild Western landscape. And so that was a book that really had a profound effect on me. 

And there are so many others, Doug, because I do read so much. So those are just a few that come to mind right off the bat.

Something else you just said prior to this is that wilderness saved your life – literally. Can you expand on that?

Yeah, I think I was headed for – because of my family situation and no guidance and my family blew up in a really bad way. And I think I could very easily have gone down a very wrong path. 

But that time when I could – even when I was still lived in Oklahoma when, I could just imagine being in a calm, peaceful place – allowed me to become calm and peaceful and not flee to anger, not flee to drugs and alcohol. Although I did my share of drugs and alcohol, but it was more recreational and a learning experience for me.  But I never became dependent on them or addicted to them. 

So it allowed me to center myself in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. So then when I actually got to be in wilderness, it cemented that certainty – what became a certainty of who I wanted to be.   I did not want to be a bad person. It would have been very easy for me to become a bad person, but I didn’t want to. 

So being out in the wilderness – out in the back country in that calm, peaceful place in the presence of amazing beauty – just allowed me to gather myself in a way that I wouldn’t have if I’d been in the inner city, or at least I don’t think I could have in the inner city. 

Emerson said, and I’ll butcher this, Emerson said something to the effect of “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd can enjoy the sweetness of solitude.” Well, I’m not a great man. So in the midst of a crowd, I wasn’t able to do it. I needed to go away from the crowds and into the wilderness and enjoy the sweetness of solitude. And again, gather myself and become at least some semblance of the person I wanted to be. 

And, you know, I’m always falling short of it. But I try to always look at that and why did I fall short? And how can I do better next time?

One of the things you’ve said that’s really curious here is – you were actually retreating into the mountain, so to speak, in your mind before you were even there. Is that what I heard you say?

Absolutely. Yeah, just looking at pictures of the Maroon Bells, of the Grand Tetons, of the Sawtooths – just looking at pictures and imagining being there, placing myself there. And I guess that’s when I really started visualizing and understanding the power of visualization – of putting myself in a situation and learning from it. 

So it wasn’t visualizing encountering a grizzly at close range, you’re reacting to a grizzly charge, or are being buried on avalanche – but visualizing being in a place that was completely different from the place I actually was in. And it brought me a piece that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. 

Wow, that’s a great skill set. 

Okay, so let’s move on now to … more recently you were diagnosed with cancer, is that correct? When you’re facing a life-threatening situation like that, it brings death right to the forefront. And, in my experience, it brings life right to the forefront. You know, all of a sudden it’s not unlimited. 

Anyway, can you talk about how that has changed you, what the impact of that’s been on you – and specifically towards wilderness, but also in life.

Well, I think I’ve always tried to enjoy the time I have on Earth. I’ve always tried to realize that my time is limited, and nobody gets out of this alive. But being diagnosed with cancer puts a fine point on that. 

I mean, coming face-to-face with your mortality. My cancer was very treatable, as it turned out.  10 years earlier, I probably would have died from it. But fortunately there are some great new wonder drugs, and so my cancer was very treatable.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience; I don’t recommend it. But, you know, we’re not given a choice in those matters. 

But it really put a fine point on what Warren’s Yvonne said. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon who died from mesothelioma. And he was asked, when he was near death, if he’d learned any great lessons from this experience of dying. And he thought about it for a moment said “Enjoy every sandwich.” Which I just love, because it’s not just skiing off the top of a peak, or a great steep powder run – not those highlight moments. But even the little things; enjoy the little things. 

Appreciate every breath that you get to take. Appreciate every time you see a smile on a friend’s face. Appreciate every sunrise even if it’s not blazing with color. So enjoy every moment as much as you can.  And you’re not going to be able to enjoy every moment, but try your best.

And it also It was a good opportunity to really think about, “Am I afraid to die?” And, you know, I truly believe at this point – because I actually came pretty close to death – I really believe at this point I’m not. Because I don’t have a choice. 

You know, everybody’s gonna face that. So, if I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve had an amazing life. And so if I could die tomorrow and have no complaints. I don’t want to, don’t plan to, but I would have no complaints. 

But it also makes me appreciate modern medicine. Pretty amazing what 21st century medicine can do.

So your biggest life lessons that you would pass on to others … 

Let’s say you’re going out tomorrow and you could put on your epitaph three key three lessons, learned, three things that maybe you send back to yourself when you were a kid, or you would give to your grandkids, or whatever?

Well, it’d be pretty tempting to – like the old King Crimson song – it’d be pretty tempting to say that “Confusion” would be my epitaph. But that’s not completely true. 

The first thing would be gratitude. Focus on what you have, and be grateful for what you have. And if there are things that you really need to be happy that you don’t have, then work towards them. But be grateful for what you have. Gratitude, for me, is the single most important thing that I try to focus on. 

And another would be able to distinguish between needs and wants. Because we are absolutely bombarded with wants. In American society we’re supposed to want all these material things. But why do you actually need?

Someone said once that half of life’s problems could be solved by just knowing what we can live without. So simplicity is a great path to happiness. If all you focus on is wanting more, then you’re never gonna have enough. And so, being able to say “this is what I need, this is what I need to be happy,” as opposed to “I’m being told by society that I’m supposed to want these things, but do they make me happy?”

Does that new iPhone 11 Pro, which I kind of want, is that going make me any happier than the old iPhone I have now? No. So, I mean, I didn’t even want an iPhone until a former girlfriend convinced me to get one. And now I’m glad she did. But being able to distinguish between needs and wants – what do you truly need to be happy? As opposed to what society is telling you, you should want. 

And then the third, I guess, would just be the importance of friends. I have a saying – I used to make note cards that I would sell in town or give to friends.  And on the back of it I always had a little thing that “The majesty of nature is equaled only by the beauty of true friends.” And so appreciating my friends, and wanting to be worthy of my friends – because I have some pretty amazing people in my life. You included Doug, I include you in this – because I have the utmost respect for you. 

I want to be worthy of my friends. And so I want to be a true friend – not just a fair-weather friend, and to be there when they need me, because my friends are there when I need them. I found that out when I went through my cancer and divorce. 

So I guess those three things are the first that come to mind as far as what I would … I don’t like to give advice, but what I would say would be things worth considering.

Wow, this has been great. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered? And I also want to get your website URL, so people can see your photography and read some of the things you’ve written to accompany those photos.

Well on my actual photography website I haven’t written anything.  They’re just photos. But that’s just www.EdCannadyPhotography.com.  And then of course where I have the photos with with words accompanying is on Facebook.

And Facebook was going to be my lone concession to the 21st century. When I got divorced I didn’t know how to be single in the 21st century.  I was – you know, “geez I guess I better get a Facebook page” – but of course that has nothing to do with it. I didn’t know that.

Turned out instead to just be a great way to connect with people, and to share those thoughts and photos of beautiful wild places

So yeah, my photography website, and then Facebook,  are the exposures I have to the greater world

Are you on Instagram at all? 

I am not. And I don’t want to try.

Well, I might try to encourage you otherwise, but we’ll see ..

You wouldn’t be the only one. But the last thing I need is to spend more time on a keyboard or on a screen. 

Yeah, we’ll have that conversation next summer over a beer.

Okay, sounds good. I’m buying this time.

Ed, thank you so much for taking some time out to share all this. It’s been quite a journey for you.

Well, Doug, it’s always it’s always fun for me to talk to you. I’ve known you for a long time, like you said earlier. And I always really enjoy the time I get to spend with you.

Thanks for listening to this episode of What Really Matters Interviews. You can listen to other episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and WhatReallyMattersInterviews.com.  And be sure to subscribe to us so you can hear the latest interviews.

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