New Recruits to the Choir

April 22, 2021

New Recruits to the Choir

Outdoors by Joan Young

If you’ve been on social media much, you’ve seen stories. If you’ve been on trails much, maybe you’ve seen it in person. It’s not pretty.

In this strange time where we are supposed to keep our distance from other people, many new hikers have taken to the woods. Many of them don’t know how to sing along with the music. Let me explain.

The premise of this article is that hikers should leave no trace of their passing. The whole “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” thing. And, in modern times, the fewer footprints we leave the better! If you are an aficionado of muscle-powered outdoor experiences you probably already know this. So if I suggest that you pick up after yourselves, be prepared for at least minor emergencies, or know how to solve basic problems in the woods without calling 911, you would feel that I am preaching to the choir.

But what if you are new to the hiking choir? Maybe you’ve recently decided to get outside and explore some parks, trails or waterways. Are you discovering the wonderful outdoor world, as Sigurd Olson called it “the singing wilderness,” for the first time? Although it’s mostly fun and games, you have some responsibility to learn the “tune,” and how to “sing on key.”

Let’s think about some of the horror stories of 2020. There’s the picture that’s gone viral of a stretch of the Appalachian Trail strewn with litter. 

There has been a news article about how the number of backcountry rescues in Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) has soared by 500% (MLive). The ranger interviewed for that article reported that he saw inexperienced hikers heading into the park with grossly overweight packs, inappropriate footwear, lack of advance planning, even failing to check the weather forecast. 

At the end of 2019, the Nepal government reported removing 10 tonnes of garbage and four dead bodies from the upper reaches of Mount Everest. (Phys.org) Some of this was newly revealed by melting glaciers, but the issue is not simply historic. Seven years ago, in an effort to shift the responsibility to those who create the problem, Nepal began requiring a $4,000 litter deposit per team. This would be refunded if the team returned with 18 or more pounds of rubbish. Half of the climbing teams since that time simply forfeit the deposit.

A story (not fully verified) has been making the rounds of a woman hiking in flip-flops who called 911 because her feet were hurting. Possibly untrue; certainly believable.

This past year, there seemed to be more than the usual number of people trying to take pictures with genuinely dangerous wildlife. 

David Snoek, ski patrol member, commented to me that he wasn’t looking forward to this year’s season when all the people who have decided to try skiing, since they can’t go to the theater, etc., will be out in the backcountry with very little idea of the precautions they should take to be safe. He referred to an article in the Denver Post reporting a huge uptick in the sale of cross-country ski equipment, largely to novices. Stores report high sales of boots and skis, but lower-than normal sales of safety equipment.

Anecdotally, those of us who go to the woods a lot have noted that favorite trail places are in some cases being “loved to death.” Trash, unburied feces, toilet paper flowers, diapers, even abandoned tents full of equipment are becoming more and more common problems.

What can each of us do? Those of us who visit wild places regularly want new people to discover and love the outdoors, but at the same time we want to protect its beauty and the surrounding ambiance whether it be mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, or rural settings. We are all too aware that there are no rangers out there checking backpacks for the list of 10 hiking essentials and a brain, or arresting people who litter.

If you are a novice adventurer I invite you to listen for the music.

The number one “rule,” that shouldn’t need to be said, is “if you pack it in, pack it out.” No one is going to pick up your protein bar wrappers, sports drink bottles, or used toilet paper. It’s super easy to take an empty plastic shopping bag for your trash. Simply throw it away when you reach home or an appropriate trash container. 

Potty stops in the woods are bound to happen. Carry a small trowel and bury solid waste. Put that used toilet paper in the trash bag. You can do it!

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics suggests that the “authority of the resource” should guide our actions. Rather than letting your dog run loose in areas where it should be leashed, consider the surrounding resource. Perhaps there are trumpeter swans nesting, and a roaming dog puts extra stress on the swans which may result in the loss of viable nests and native wildlife. Perhaps (and more likely at this time of year) you might be hiking in an area where there is a large porcupine population and it would be safer for your dog to be on leash.

If you are already a lover of wild places, part of your responsibility is to draw the new people into the choir so that the music of the forests and lakes and so many places special to us can continue to be heard.

This does not translate into being confrontational and authoritative when you encounter people recreating who are acting in ways that damage the environment or may be threatening.

Calling upon the “authority of the resource” is a proven method used even by those who have “authority of position,” such as rangers. 

It is also suggested that such conversations take place “shoulder to shoulder,” rather than face to face. Walking with someone and talking is much less confrontational than standing in front of them where the perception is that you are barring their passage.

The long range goal is heightening a novice’s respect for nature rather than simply threatening the person with a fine or a report to law enforcement. 

I’m sure most outdoor lovers will resonate with Olson when he says in The Singing Wilderness, “I have heard it [the music] on misty migration nights when the dark has been alive with the high calling of birds, and in rapids when the air has been full of their rushing thunder. I have caught it at dawn when the mists were moving out of the bays, and on cold winter nights…” 

This year, with so many new potential music lovers sampling outdoor experiences, let’s invite them to the choir rather than threaten them for singing off key.

An excellent resource is found on the Leave No Trace web site at https://lnt.org/research-resources/authority-of-the-resource/

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This story is copyrighted © 2021, all rights reserved by Joan Young, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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