Saturday, December 14, 2019

Leaving No Trace: Ignorance and Recklessness

I've been thinking a lot about outdoor ethics recently. And a couple of specific incidents have brought the topic to front of mind. 

The Uninformed:

I camped in the NPS campground a few nights ago. The campground host on duty gave me a sweetheart deal, even though the facility was fully booked. He jammed me and a few other late arrivals on a larger group site. A young couple from Las Vegas showed up well after dark. After unsealing the box their tent came in (clearly using it for the first time), and futzing around trying to set it up for about an hour, they finally got everything in order. And then proceeded to build a fire, not in the designated firepits (the site had two of them) but just on the ground in the middle of the campsite. I wandered over and, very nicely, asked them to let the fire die and not add more wood - campfire ash is a terrible polluter, is highly acidic, and kills grass. They replied that yes, of course, and sorry, they didn't think about that.

I don't fault them much. They were clearly new to the game and were trying to do the right thing (they saw ash in that spot on the ground already and figured it was ok). When confronted, they were agreeable. Not perfect, but nice and conscientious. I'll take that.

The Willfully Reckless:

When I got my permit for the Narrows, the ranger on duty was adamant - she would not issue me a permit unless I had a full drysuit (they can be rented at several places in town). The water was 46 degrees, and the river would include several sections where swimming was necessary. She furthermore stressed that Thou Shalt Not Walk On The Banks Of The River, or walk on existing social trails on said riverbanks. The only permitted place to hike was directly in the rivercourse. She went through all the regulations - use of wag bags was required, no campfires, etc.

Fast forward a couple days. I was packing up my stuff at my designated campsite, when three young men came crashing through my site. None of them were wearing dry suits - as a matter of fact, two of them were wearing sandals. They were weaving and bobbing from riverbank to riverbank, walking on all the social trails, creating trails where none existed, in an attempt to avoid the cold river water.

I saw them again, a few hours later, and they were continuing to erode the banks of the river with their path. I said something to them. One of them, the self-appointed spokesman, said that they weren't prepared, like I was, and didn't want to get their feet cold. They'd keep doing exactly what they were doing, thank you very much.

I've never been one to tattle. But their actions and attitudes incensed me enough that I filed a complaint with the Wilderness desk when I got back to the Visitors Center. The ranger on duty noted to me that they had claimed they planned to rent dry suits and all the rest.

In summary:
  • The were warned by the ranger about the conditions they'd face in the hike and the necessary equipment
  • They lied to the ranger about their level of preparation and their willingness to comply with regulations
  • When confronted by one of their peers, me, they were brazen and unapologetic
These kind of people are who ruin it for the rest of us.

What can we take away from this?

The ignorant need to be educated, and the informed need to be held accountable. Ignorance isn't a problem - we can change that with a little education. But those who know better and simply don't care? It only takes a few of those to undo the good done by hundreds of other people following the rules. That's why I took a (nasty, grainy, zoomed-in) photo. And that's why I'm publishing it. The picture is poor enough that they can't reasonably be identified. There's no room for doxing or bullying here. But I do hope that if they ever visit this blog, they recognize themselves and realize their error.

Our words must be seasoned with salt. I used a couple of unkind words with addressing our three willfully reckless gentlemen. If I'm going to call other people to account, I need to first pry that speck out of my own eye. I should have communicated the same message, but using kinder language. That's a sin. I repent of that. 

There is no middle ground. Each of us, whenever we're in the outdoors, are either making things better, or worse. There's no neutral position. Either we avoid those social trails and let the land heal, or we use those social trails and damage the land. So with no middle ground, every day we have a decision to make - am I going to make things better, or worse?

These lands belong to all of us. These are public lands. All taxpayers and citizens own these lands. When we abuse these lands, we aren't harming The Government, we're harming our neighbors. And for those of us who spend a lot of time on public lands, who care deeply for creation - those lands are home for us. Gentlemen, you're trampling our home. My home.


  1. Love this! Being mindful of our actions and our words in regards to protecting our public lands is so important and spills into other facets of life. We are wishing you well on your trek and crossing our fingers for minor ankle pain and big views at the Winds!

    1. And because I've been so rudely assigned username "Unknown," it's Amber and Taylor!

  2. Great post, LB! I spoke about how we met in two of my blog posts. Check them out.

    Merry Christmas from Gretty and John.

  3. Merry Christmas Gretty! Great menories... thanks!