I’ve just finished reading an article on the online magazine of hiking, thetrek.co. In this particular piece, the author bemoans a frequently re-visited foible of the long trail scene: litter and other non-adherence to “Leave No Trace” principles.
First, to the unindoctrinated: Leave No Trace is kind of as simple as it sounds but is more specifically understood to mean: Plan ahead, travel on hard surfaces, dispose of waste properly, take nothing, minimize campfire impacts, etc. On the Appalachian Trail, it’s a mantra you can’t escape, kind of like “Hike Your Own Hike.”
During my first hike through the Smoky Mountains on the Appalachian Trail, I ran into the Director of the Smoky Mountains backcountry and his assistant out for their annual walk-through of the AT within the park. I was a trail neophyte, feeling my way along and trying not to get in trouble for having slept on the ground the night before rather than in an official Smoky Mountains shelter. We had a long talk while taking in a long view of mountain grandeur that got a train of thought moving for me which hasn’t slowed down since.
Jim and George described how devastated trails and campsites had been by the enormous first influx of U.S. recreational hikers during the 1970’s. This had brought about great reforms to the Smokies as well as to the Appalachian Trail itself. A permit system had been instituted and hikers were restricted to certain approved campsites and then simply to shelters when the tent sites became over-used, muddy and erosion-prone. Rules had been instituted to keep people in their place and keep nature safe from us.
That night, I stayed at an official Smoky Mountains trail shelter as the rain poured on the tin roof. Jim and George were there as well as about 8 other hikers who had reservations and 3 who did not. The sleeping arrangement was interesting, to say the least. And overnight, I got to pondering all the talk about the great benefit of official campsites.
I went on to hike into West Virginia that year and came back out in subsequent years to hike the rest of the way to New Brunswick, Canada. I didn’t continue to rely on the tried-and-true Appalachian Trail though; I broadened my horizons and used over 400 different and seldom-seen trails to complete the 4,000 + mile route (the subject matter of The Dying Fish, by the way) And along that very unique route, I saw very little litter and very much green. Few places being destroyed by people and many places that nature had re-claimed or was re-claiming. The places most accessible had little patches of toilet paper between the trees and occasional candy wrappers. But I saw little of such things once I was off the beaten track.
So it all got me thinking as I went along my sylvan way: is the accepted wisdom on this stuff all wrong? Could we be moving in a better direction, thinking about this in a much better, much broader way?
I think that public lands are hurt by the “herding” of people into narrow confines – official trails and official shelters. Yes, by those places approved by government agency or by committee to be able to withstand use. This is how you concentrate impact. We bemoan the impacted areas around official shelters but what did we expect when we sent everyone there for the night? The same goes for the trail itself. When we all stick to one special trail, wouldn’t we expect that trail to show it’s wear along with some litter and mis-used privies, despite our highest hopes.
When I slogged through the Eastern Brook Trout Solo Adventure, I accepted a couple of principles that I think kept me from becoming a part of this problem. First, I hiked trails that best served my purposes whether or not they had been ordained National Scenic Trails or any other lofty christening that government might bestow. They were all dirt paths between the trees and they all facilitated foot travel north.
But secondly, I did not sleep at official sites. Nor did I sleep at the most scenic or compelling or flat or leafy. I slept at random places. I simply moved along with a time in mind at which I would begin to look around for a tent site. On average, I’d say this took 3 minutes. And it gave me a view of the wild east that was mine alone. I slept and woke and cooked breakfast in shady glens that few will ever see and mingled with animals who puzzled over this crouching biped, his dancing gas flame and peculiar smells. And leaving these dispersed alcoves of the forest, I felt sure that there would be no sign of my bivy tent within a week and the forest would not remember me.
Likewise, when we accept the well-worn paths, we implicitly accept signs of human impact, I think. It’s rather utopian to think otherwise. This is where people go and people carry wrappers, hang bear bags in trees (there are no perfect bear-hang branches in Appalachia – I’ve checked) and tread upon soggy places in the trail. In short: Stop whining. You chose to walk a trail that’s “loved to death” when 10,000 miles of alternative trail await.
So, is all this an outright rejection of Leave No Trace? Certainly not. I don’t advise scattering your food wrappers about the forest and I would like to see other hikers dig quality cat holes when they have to go (though I don’t think any of these things worry the earth nearly as much as they worry us). But I feel sure all this is not going to offer the pristine return to Eden we long for so long as we’re all content to follow in the footsteps of others. There are those who would elevate Leave No Trace to a sort of religion, its precepts becoming a dogmatic catechism – expecting only greater and greater conformity to bring about salvation from our sins against the earth.
We should be wary of any religion that asks us to give up reasoning in favor of conformity and protocol. And if we need a mantra we might do better to stick with “Hike Your Own Hike.”