Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Science (MS)

Degree Name

Recreation Management

Department or School/College

College of Forestry and Conservation

Committee Chair

William T. Borrie

Commitee Members

Fletcher Brown, Laurie Yung


canoe, leisure, recreation, spirituality, wilderness


University of Montana


The purpose of this study was to explore, describe, and explain the phenomena of spiritual experiences in wilderness. The motivations for the research included: growing interest in empirical studies on the relationship between spirituality and human health, increasing concern over human’s loss of spiritual relationships with nature, and personal curiosity about the wild and spiritual nature of wilderness experiences. Research was focused on overnight visitors traveling by canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeastern Minnesota. Data from thirty-two semi-structured interviews was used to question, update, and improve understanding of the phenomena. Phenomenological interviews (interviews that situate comments made in the moment within the life-worlds of respondents) were conducted in-situ on a random sample of visitors to six wilderness lakes. The interviews were transcribed and both idiographic (individual level) analyses and nomethetic (overall patterns) analyses were conducted through the process of the hermeneutic circle. The resulting narrative develops the inputs, processes and outcomes of participant’s spiritual experiences in wilderness, and advances the understanding of a) visitors’ perspectives of wilderness as different from the everyday; b) the role of antecedents in spiritual experiences, including mentors, memories, and religious and spiritual perspectives; and c) the growing impact that cultural changes have on spiritual experiences in wilderness. As visitors committed to wilderness experiences filled with novel, primitive, physical, and quiet elements, study participants found the time and space necessary for spiritual practices and processes. They depicted wilderness as a setting where they can manage the information they are required to process and engage in habits and rituals that support contemplation of spiritual themes. This study captured how participants engaged the wild (space free from intentional human control), immersed themselves in primitive and simple ways of being, and escaped information technology and their everyday. In those ways participants kindled, stoked, and/or sustained their relationship with themselves, other humans, powers greater than themselves and the wild landscape. While wilderness managers may feel challenged in their abilities to provide opportunities for spiritual experiences in wilderness, visitors stressed the importance and significance of the experiences, especially as a spiritual antidote to their everyday lives.



© Copyright 2012 Ian Foster