Saturday, June 29, 2013

without a trace.

Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness

Recently I voted in a one-question online survey for a chance to win a pair of sunglasses. The question was: Do You Leave No Trace?

I really wanted to win the sunglasses, so I checked the box marked "Yes, mostly." I mean, I consider that a fairly accurate response, but I also thought that if I was more truthful and checked ones of the boxes marked "Um, I take a rock every now and then," or "Don't camp within 200 feet of water? Really?", I might jeopardize my chances of winning the sunglasses. And did I mention the sunglasses were really sweet?

The author of the survey, who comes across as a strong Leave No Trace proponent, wrote that "LNT has done a fantastic job of getting the message out, and, incredibly, without coming across like a nag. Too many wilderness proponents are shrill, annoying, and self-righteous... but Leave No Trace principles are clearly grounded in our own best self-interest. And they aren’t so difficult to follow.

"But," he concluded, as if with one eyebrow raised, staring right at me, "Do you?"

LNT as a concept is easy enough, but the seven LNT principles (memorized by anyone who wants a wilderness job) are pretty rigid. I clearly remember my first night camping on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River (a Wild and Scenic River as revered as the holy grail) and asking my group innocently if I should toss the stubby carrot-ends from our dinner into the churning, silty river.

My friend Chris looked at me aghast. "Do you know," he asked, his voice dripping with italics, "where we ARE?"

Fair enough. But fair, too, that the sediment in the river would likely have ground those three carrot stubs into shreds that soon would have joined the bits of leaves and other biomass in that turbulent, dynamic ecosystem.

There are diehard LNT proponents (like my friend Chris) who will never build a fire in the backcountry, who eat their apple cores, wipe their ass with pinecones, and practice the endearing habit known as self-sumping: wherein, after cooking and eating a meal, one sloshes an inch of precious water into the pot, uses one's grubby fingers to scrub off all remaining grease, bits of food, burned tidbits, etc., then drinks the resulting dirty dishwater to avoid leaving any bits of food behind. Though self-sumping was born in environments where water is precious or food smells might attract grizzlies, it's now practiced nonchalantly even in environments where it's completely unnecessary. Some people actually claim to enjoy the taste of dirty dishwater.

The alternative to self-sumping is to dig a hole far from where you'll be sleeping, place a piece of mesh or a hash of twigs over it, pour the dishwater into the hole, fling the bits of food caught in your sieve into a trash bag, then cover the hole. Is this a pain in the ass? Maybe. If you're not in bear country, can you simply fling the water into the bushes? I say, why not?

In parts of Alaska, Leave No Trace is almost laughable. There are places so rarely visited by humans, where the land is so fecund and so resilient that it erodes, eats up, grows over, and washes away any prints left by a lonely camper within a matter of days. There are places where the rivers are so enormous and silty and filled with hungry organisms that they immediately devour last night's leftover spaghetti. Should campers in such places be ashamed into not carrying out a rock as a memento when miners a few hundred miles away are blasting into watersheds with TNT?

I believe that Leave No Trace is a worthy principle to teach anyone new to backcountry travel, or anyone who believes that burying toilet paper or tossing orange peels off the trail are acceptable practices. But after a while, you (hopefully) learn that LNT is just that: a principle, not a set of unbendable rules. Obviously, respecting fire bans and leaving cultural artifacts are important, but there's a lot to be said for having a campfire: not only when it's necessary for warmth or to dry out, but to help ensure that kids or even wilderness newbies have a positive experience in a place that can otherwise be cold and scary. There's a lot to be said for being hands-on: for picking flowers and edible plants, for catching frogs, for being the kind of kid who has a rock collection. There's a lot to be said for leaving the hard-packed trail behind and venturing into the unknown.

There are places to rejoice in these small vagrancies, and places not to. It's more important to practice LNT on highly used lands that receive a lot of impact, or in sensitive environments like alpine or desert areas. And while I often walk off trail, choose a waterfront camp or take home a porcupine quill, I always pick up others' trash and carry out my own. It's all a matter of judgement.

For information's sake, the seven Leave No Trace principles:

Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts
Respect wildlife
Be considerate of other visitors
Waterfront camping on the Stikine River, British Columbia

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