12/03/2014 08:48 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

Love Letters: Wallowas

Joe Whittle is a freelance editorial photographer, travel writer, wilderness guide, outdoor photography workshop instructor, and seasonal USFS wilderness ranger for the Eagle Cap and Hell's Canyon Wilderness Areas. When not working on a project or wearing one of his various career hats, Joe can usually be found wandering the backcountry of his home in Wallowa County, Oregon, taking photos and soaking up the profound beauty that is Eastern Oregon. You can follow along with Joe's adventures and stories on his Instagram @JoeWhittlePhotography, and check out his photo portfolios and the various guided backcountry adventures his business offers at his website.

Dear Eagle Cap Wilderness,

You have been on my mind. It's been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act protecting your glorious peaks and glistening waters. It's hard to believe we've known each other for 33 years. Although, I suppose it's really been 39, when you consider that I was born in the valley of winding waters that flow from your towering mountains, the Wallowas. (The Nez Perce tribe who lived here for millennia described this special place as the "Land of Winding Waters.")

Knowing your snow-covered summits and deep forested river canyons, it's easy to understand why the beautiful crystal waters they produce inspired the Nez Perce to live here for thousands of years. Today, your waters nourish abundant crops, grass-fed beef, world-class microbrews and the cobalt waves of Wallowa Lake - the shining jewel left behind when you shed your glaciers so long ago.

That last ice age, 10,000 years ago, was the final touch in sculpting the masterpiece you are today. Three hundred and fifty million years of island and inland volcanoes, earthquakes and ice ages carved your every turn. You've grown into the largest wilderness area in Oregon, with 18 peaks higher than 9,000 feet and 31 over 8,000 feet - more than any other mountain range in the state.

We have shared so many memories, you and I. Starting with that fateful backpacking trip, when you and my mother introduced me to the world of wilderness, mountains and outdoor adventure. It was an experience that taught me early the importance of respecting and understanding nature. What an adventure for a six-year-old boy! A real-life survival experience spurred by my 12-year-old brother glissading (sliding on his hiking boots) down a snowfield into an unseen 15-foot drop onto jagged rocks. He sprained his ankle, and my mother knew we could not carry him out alone. My brother and I spent that autumn night at 8,000 feet without a fire while she hiked out many miles to get help.

The group of intrepid local mountain men and dear family friends who jumped out of bed at 2 a.m. and hiked up with flashlights to find us and carry us out inspired me - and continue to inspire me - to strive to be a mountain man myself. That night I learned to face my fears of the dark and of the wild and all its challenges and creatures. I learned to endure discomfort and hardship on that trip, and I came to appreciate the rewards that can stem from doing so. I learned my first lesson in living with, not in opposition to, the wild. I learned to understand that the wild is my friend, not my enemy, but that I must respect it as one respects any friend or family member. On that adventure I began learning not to take foolish risks with beautiful and essential things. For the first time in my life, I was introduced to the joy of raw, powerful and pristine wilderness: the bliss of the wild. And I have been returning to your welcoming arms ever since.

How could I not return to you as often as I can when we have created such unforgettable moments together? I cherish memories of towering ice- and snow-capped peaks looming above me, seemingly as foreign and untouchable as the stars. Alpine winds whistling through pine boughs, haunting yet beautiful - a sound that echoes the power of the mountains, reminding me that they could swallow me up and return me to the dust from which I came. The chatter of ravens and squirrels scolding me from treetops for invading their solitude. The constant song of a trailside river, reminiscent of ocean tides crashing against the shore. The report of a distant avalanche rumbling down some rugged ravine, warning me where not to tread. The glowing orb of the sun as it breaks through mountain shrouds, revealing craggy peaks standing sentinel to the wilderness. Aspen leaves dancing in autumn afternoon breezes, turned into drops of golden starlight by a low-hanging sun and the first frost. These are the things that drive me to lace up my boots and return to you time and again.

The feeling I carry for you (I should really say it carries me) is true love. In fact, the time I've spent in awe of you and trying to fathom you has helped open my soul to understanding what love really is. It has opened my heart to loving the world and all its life, including my own, more fully. You taught me to believe in the sanctity of wilderness and the importance of protecting the wild, which we depend on whether we realize it or not. You offer both what we physically need to survive, such as clean and plentiful water, and what we spiritually need to understand our place in the universe.

It seems fitting that I would write you this love letter on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act - 33 years into our relationship - as I patrol your trails as a seasonal wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. Today, it is my job to protect you and all those who love and enjoy your company as I do. I now understand why laws like the Wilderness Act are so important, and how you illustrate that. I see how much you have recovered since the days of heavy-impact usage, before we had the understanding and foresight as a nation to fully protect our wilderness. To walk your trails now, one would never know that you had once been threatened by commercialization. One might think you had always remained untouched, and find very little to hinder the inspiration and sustenance wilderness provides humankind. For this, I thank you. And I thank those with the wisdom to protect you and so many other majestic wilderness areas, for they have protected our natural heritage and value as a nation, and the future health of our grandchildren's American spirit.

With all the love in my heart and soul, thank you!

Joseph Matthew Whittle