A Wilder calling
For a man whose life is neatly diced into 20-year increments, Bob Jonas is unpredictable, his whereabouts suspect. For 35 years, he referred to the Wood River Valley as his base camp. He bounced between Alaska, Yellowstone and the Sawtooths, often at times of year when no one else would go to these places. The Brooks Range in April was minus 40 Fahrenheit. It snowed sideways on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in March. A self-proclaimed hobo, his grail the essence of North American wilderness, Jonas managed to remain not quite homeless in Sun Valley. He raised a daughter here, built a business and, later, an organization.
At 66, Jonas is limber and strong. His head is pitched forward at the neck, his blue-gray eyes warm and keen. Eight years ago he sold Sun Valley Trekking to fully devote himself to his outdoor leadership program.
"Wild Gift," he said, "is not Outward Bound." The
application process is rigorous, and recipients are leaders of proven
merit. "Leaders," Jonas said, "can exact the most impact." Wild Gift’s
purpose is to foster what Jonas terms "wildlands preservation" and
"sustainable human communities." To those ends, applicants need solid
proposals for a yearlong project. Upon acceptance, the annual class of
five is briefed for a wilderness trek: three weeks in August covering
ground in Idaho wildernesses such as the Sawtooths, the White Clouds and
the "Frank" (the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness). After the
trip, recipients part ways and head home, funds in hand, to work on
their projects. A year later, they return to Idaho to summarize their
On the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in 2007, two ’06 Wild Gift recipients returned to Idaho to report on their projects. Jonas pulled together two board members, three alums and me to complete the trip. It was September, cool and damp, the termination of a severe fire season that had closed the river a month before.
Gift recipient Emily Owen was unfazed by the weather. The 24-year-old had come from southern Chile and a relentlessly wet austral winter. In Chile, the young Oregonian is a mapping engineer for the World Wildlife Fund and moonlights as a freelance translator. With Wild Gift’s help, she created Conservation Initiative Consulting to help a network of rural landowners form a cluster of private protected areas. Through the smoke of our wood fire, Owen was animated as she flung colorful maps at us and reeled off the results of her project. Her consulting firm had developed a replicable, community-based, private conservation model. It was a step toward her long-range goal of establishing conservation legislation.
Lauren Baumann, 27, dubbed her Wild Gift project "Lighten the Load." Its mission was to increase environmental performance and reduce the operating costs of affordable housing while improving the health of low-income residents. Intensely focused and articulate, Baumann cited the nexus between urban sustainability and wildlands preservation. As vice president of New Ecology Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts, nonprofit that promotes sustainable development in low-income communities, she continues to develop the program.
Last winter Jonas turned over the directorship of Wild Gift, passing the torch—and the paperwork—to the next generation. Wild Gift alum Jenna Ringelheim, 27, left a position with the Trust for Public Land in Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to the Wood River Valley to assume the Wild Gift helm last fall. Tech-savvy and energetic, she directs the nonprofit show, allowing Jonas more time to roam.
Liberated from files of longhand script, the records of a lifelong search for turf and meaning, Jonas returned to the wilderness, escorting board members or potential donors down the flood-stage upper reaches of some unknown fork of the Owyhee River, walking and talking with recipients through the Frank in August as it blazes away, and howling at the moon over the Middle Fork’s Impassable Canyon.
"Everyone seems to agree," said Pete Land. "Bob has a certain wisdom born of his vast experience in the wilds." Land, 30, was the Wild Gift prototype. After graduating from Dartmouth, he took a job as educational director at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in Minnesota. It was there, through serendipity and a shared affinity for bears, that he met Jonas, who was drawn to the young man’s energy and asked Land if he’d been to Alaska. Land said no. They exchanged cards and parted ways. Several months later, when he was in graduate school at Yale, Land received a call from Idaho.
The next summer, Land was on the Yukon River with Andy Bassich, one of Jonas’ iconoclastic friends living alone in the Alaskan bush. The hermit from New Jersey lived in a tiny cabin beside the wide river with his dogs, deeply ensconced in a distinctly antisocial subsistence lifestyle. Jonas had homesteaded in Alaska and considered it an essential wilderness experience for a youngster like Land. Somehow, he convinced Bassich to take the grad student in and put the boy to work. Wild Gift was still a malleable concept then, and Land was the guinea pig.
Land described Bassich as a terrifying but wonderful teacher and, while he valued the experience, he told Jonas that such survival training was an unmanageable liability. The Wild Gift vision, Land counseled, needed to be refined. Jonas listened. From its inception, the program has been like this: an interactive experience, a floating, roving think tank bent on its own evolution for the sake of a better world.
Thanks to Land, Wild Gift’s Web site was recently overhauled. In recent updates, Jonas places ever more emphasis on network building as a core part of Wild Gift’s mission. Educated and inspired by his youthful beneficiaries, the elder hobo and guide is speaking in terms he would not have used five years ago. "As you age," Jonas said, "there’s a desire to give back. Wilderness has been capital in that regard to me."
Jonas is not your typical Sun Valley philanthropist, and the capital he refers to is another type of commodity, one increasingly rare and precious. By offering it up to a select few, he’s tapped a network of young people who share his passions for the wild gifts of this world, each knowing that on these wooded paths, that which is given is sustained through time.