Ricketts Glen in Ice

Ricketts Glen in Ice

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Father and Son" Cat Stevens

In the great war of who the biggest nature lover is, there always seems to be some kind of a war between those who favor their wilderness pristine and unspoiled as it was the day before Adam and Eve or whatever first variation of caveman Oog first walked on it and those who want to enjoy it in the more rough and tumble ways that they have come to know (i.e. those people who don’t get listed as politically-correct (hunters, fishers, snowmobilers, people who choose to crap in the woods, and people who can only travel at certain times of the year)). In this, it is true that there seems to be proper bathroom break procedures in case you are forced to defecate in the woods (to carry it out or to bury it). As for me, who am I to stop you from packing out your poop or hiding the products of your humanity beneath dirt and leaves if that’s what you choose to do?

I get that there are guiding principles and ethics for this procedure, but when these philosophies are sponsored by the most "environmentally-conscious" automotive manufacturer in the business, we’re just as non-impressed as we are with a computer manufacturer responsible for so much e-waste (Apple) getting all up in arms about global warming when it comes to sponsoring Al Gore’s tirade on such (and for that matter, we’d like far less pollution in our world, but there seems to be that harsh reality that is called "JOBS," and that’s just a little more complicated than a simple do I believe it or am I buying the pro-business deniers).

Thus, it’s very true for all of us alive today that there’s a problem with the rampant destruction of the pristine beauty of Nature for many things that don’t merit its use (the paper that formed the entire Twilight series and each and every piece of junk mail for starters, but I digress). But if we think about what the principles of Leave No Trace are, we can be pretty realistic and responsible at the same time without embracing the word for word translations of some militant philosophy of being holier than thou (lest we choose to truly and completely STOP our carbon footprint from happening, and for most of us, we aren’t willing to shuffle off this mortal coil or be some back to nature hippie / survivor man type save for saying that we’ve come to embrace the Paleo Diet).

Hence, in looking at the ethical principles that should guide me while I (and those around me) go hiking in Nature, I look at what’s said and I choose to allow you and I to think for ourselves about how we want to be associated with every single principle of Leave No Trace.

The first of their tenets is to plan ahead and prepare. I am advised to "know the regulations and special concerns" for where I’m visiting and to "prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies." If you’re like me, you sit and read travel guides and outdoor magazines endlessly, and you get a sense of what’s out there and what you need for the area as well as to complete the area. Nevertheless, not all of us do, and some of us choose to overlook things that are above our abilities so that we can justify ourselves ready to go off on said adventure.

That said, there are fail safes for these people. In fact, some places even think ahead for you if you might have missed something in all of your travel literature (call it an insurance policy or acting as your mom, either way it works). In addition, some places will build boardwalks over certain areas to minimize wear and tear while others will post signs about cryptobiotic soil. I had never heard of this type of dirt until I arrived at Arches, but I get the sensitivity of it, and I also know that every little bit helps. Thus, it is clear to see that there is more going on in places than we realize. For this, we are encouraged to stay on the trails and not take short cuts. I get that, too, but I will admit to being guilty of wandering through brush in between sections of a switchback to cut out a long un-necessary distance. Usually, when I do, I don’t seem to have been the first person to push through these places these shortcuts, so I don’t feel as bad as being the bull in the china shop who knocked down tons of trees and bushes to knock a few minutes off his ascent.

As for the stuff that they mention about small groups, I don’t think I’ve ever hiked in a group bigger than two people – at least since I left Boy Scouts. I know there are bus trips and field trips to natural places for kids, but these tend to be a lot of places where families and trail runners go anyway. There is nature in them, and they are great starter places, but I don’t think I can name you places that drop off busloads of people save at some of the roadside destinations at the Natural Parks, which usually have a gift shop and a civilized restroom attached to them. Thus, I don’t really see them as super wild or too in need of saving (or even being able to be saved at this time unless we position guards outside the confines of the park, and based on the last time we posted sentries outside the parks, the ready-to-pay public wasn’t having it).

And yes, I do get that large groups require bigger camping areas, but as to how efficient the recommendation of breaking into smaller groups is, I wonder if it’s more about removing some guilty feeling like buying carbon footprint offsets to feel better about what we do in Nature. In this, for $5.95, I can offset 1000 pounds of my life into someone else’s wallet (albeit someone who is trying his or her hardest to be a steward to the natural world). I can cry over the fate of the lobster who is still living before he gets boiled, or I can eat my supper and enjoy it.

Other principles feel like common sense, but if you need to have them written out like a job description that you adhere to in your cube farm existence, so be it. I’ll repackage my food and I’ll minimize waste and carry out the trash I bring in. Why wouldn’t I? Looking at litter from sandwich bags (and bags that sandwiches came in) and cigarette butts (whether filled with legal or illegal substances) isn’t exactly what I want to see on my day out. Hell, I don’t even want to smell people’s smoke or think about how people can’t enjoy the woods without being stoned. It’s bad enough that I can’t go to a Phish concert without having to deal with every single person around me being stoned out of his or her goll dang mind, but to think of how I am deliberately going into the woods to breathe in mountain air and now I have to put up with that out here too... simply absurd.

The list of plan ahead ends with a call to not paint on trees with marking paint. This is not the same as the almost universally-scorned graffiti, but rather it stands with rock cairns and flagging as being "wrong." For those of us who go hard in the paint," it requires us to have a map and compass, which is ideal if you have the skills of Bear Grylls, but for the rest of us, it seems a little bit risky – especially in Bear Country (ursine – not British celebrity) or any other extreme environment.

To illustrate the complexity of this, I think about the 2007 visit I made to the Wave. As I was wandering in and out with fellow hikers to maximize my chances of finding said geologic delight, I saw other people matching pictures of the scenery, which are available on a website, to help them get through to the next landmark on the 2.5 mile trail-free desert journey on the Utah / Arizona border. We got to the Wave without too much problem, but the way back was challenging at points. We wandered past cairns, and even with the guy who was leading his wife and me back to the cars at the Wire Pass Trailhead, we were confused as could be as to how we got up the steep embankment we were now trying to find our way down. We could see the trail across the way, but to find the easiest way down in this wilderness area… that took some doing. Oh, yes, we did it, but it took some navigating and conscious movement.

In places like this, people can be as prepared as can be, but what happens in the intense heat of wandering around trying to figure it out? I’m not asking for fluorescent colors everywhere in the middle of the desert, but at the same point, better cairns could have made things a little bit smoother or more people are going to die out there (and it seems like the deaths have already begun).

And there are many places in the desert where it is full of arguments like this. In a slot canyon video that I have, canyoneering experts like Steve Allen debate on whether or not to use geologic picks to put anchors in for descents, and I think of Michael Kelsey’s words that spoke against an out of control Bureau of Land Management quota-ing system trying to keep people off lands that their tax dollars pay for with an extreme lottery system that all but keeps out the well-prepared and diligent visitors as well. For me, I would pay $50 to go into the Wave again. If you ask me, I would pay 10x the price for any national park that I wanted to go in versus what I did pay if it kept the numbers down to people who truly valued the place and the contents of the place away. You can do a lot of cleanup in the parks for that kind of price. Maybe it’s a lot for people without money, but as a former teacher of mine named Professor Harst once stated, "we work to be able to do the things that we want to do."

I agree.

When I’m on the Thousand Steps section of the Standing Stone Trail, it’s just like the gal who was trying to get back in shape who I met the other day while hiking the mountain said:

"Everyone here is friendly."

She was. The 30-something guy running up to Clark’s View was friendly. The old guy listening to his headphones as he ascended was chipper. The guy trying to lose weight was friendly despite being a little bit winder. I’m sure the teenage couple who quit the hike and were pushing down in front of me meant well, but by virtue of what they didn’t accomplish and the questions I never got to ask them, I don’t know if they’re really people for that hike or just people looking to do something on a relatively nice winter day. And yes, there are some of these casual wanderers on every trail, no matter what state, country, national park, or whatever, but for the heights that they can’t achieve, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to see the sights.

That said, the jerks who graffiti up the dinkey house at the top of the trail don’t belong there, and Glenn Taylor and Dave Hall definitely didn’t belong in Goblin Valley State Park either – especially when they knocked the top off of a hoodoo in order to protect someone who might get hurt by it magically falling off after sitting there calmly for 170million or so years. It doesn’t matter if they’re Boy Scout leaders in touch with nature. If there was a bulletin board to past their pictures on to permanently keep them out of the woods, we can all agree that their conscious decision to destroy geology and in that to desecrate history put a damper on my interest in letting them back save some serious penance in the form of roadside trash pickup for many years to come.

But alas…

The point of my statement here is simply that you can love the outdoors and dissent as to how far to take any code while still coming up with many consensus ideas. I don’t think that anyone who truly loves nature, whether he be a deer hunter or a dreadlocked vegetarian hippie kid, would want people running through their forests with the aim of doing damage. In this, there are yahoos on both sides. Some environmentalists take the militant codes of preserving nature and spike trees to bounce chainsaws back into loggers’ faces. Some people that claim to be outdoor loving hunters go and shoot at things indiscriminately and maliciously. Some other mindless people just litter up places with beer cans and remnants of their parties, which causes the land owners to feel forced to privatize beautiful lands that will now be unseen by many people that would have gawked at their pristine wonder.

I know. I’ve found a couple of spots that I would have liked to have seen that no longer exist.

No matter what love of the mountains these misguided people started out with, they all got lost along the way, and they gave up on common sense (which intersects with the ethics of all of those who use Nature as their playground).

It shouldn’t have to be that way.

We can all listen to the codes and pick good spots to camp as we stay away from water supplies that we might foul up in the same way that farmers have to move their cattle away from stream sides. Here we need to know that we too have to keep our nastiness away from the waters that would take them far, far away.

We can all refrain from taking souvenirs that don’t come home on our cameras. That’s easy enough to just put down rocks, pinecones, and other little bits of woodland "debris."

We can easily look but not touch the petroglyphs that have stood the test of centuries of Nature’s erosive forces and resist the urge to put who we love that day or our initials beside the images of ancestral peoples.

We can rough it as best as possible. We can keep from building campfires on trails if for no reason better than we don’t need to worry if the fires inside of them will spread over to something that we can’t put out.

We won’t be that knucklehead feeding chipmunks at the top of Scout’s Peak in Zion National Park. For that matter, we won’t feed the deer, bear, coyotes, or other animals that we see, and we definitely won’t interfere with their natural cycles – especially mama bears who might try to make our insignificant lives stop if we get too close to their cubs.

We can open up our ears to the sounds of wilderness as we refrain from loud talk and screams about the insignificant and trivial thoughts of our lives while out in Nature (save a victory "Woo hoo" at the peak of the mountain!).

We can do all of these things to be courteous because that’s what life and enjoying nature is all about – sharing and enjoying the mountains with all good people who would want to share it with us in return.

For this, I can say clearly that I do know that the vast majority of hunters, fisherman, and even snowmobilers deserve a share of the woods with the backpackers, hikers, birders, photographers, and other people who go off in search of natural enjoyment. In this, if it wasn’t for my dad and his interests in the great outdoors, I would have probably grown up to be a sofa-inhabiting, video game playing typical middle-aged man that’s more concerned with random meaningless entertainment than kicking a mountain in his spare time. If there wasn’t someone to take me out and try to get me interested in his version of wilderness fun, would I have come to know my own version of wilderness fun?

If we don’t inspire kids with common sense and love of the woods, how will we ever hope to preserve our tracts of forest for something more than getaway communities for those who can afford to choose to live in the gated communities that they will become (if they don’t get used to create more throwaway advertising)?

Granted, I can’t sit still in the cold and the wet and the windy waiting for a deer to come into my field of view, but I respect that there are many people who can and do choose to do this because they believe that hunting is something that defines who they are. Besides, I like venison. In addition, I’ve never had much patience to wait for a fish to bit or not bite at what’s at the end of my line, but to the people who go out there on boats or who stand on shore or brave their way across the ice to pull fish out of a hole that they’ve augured out, let them bring their catch to the container at their side. Let them filet said fish for dinner tonight if that’s what they like.

And if you don’t like either of these things, then don’t have a salmon steak or a big juicy cheeseburger at dinner tonight. Eat your salad or your hummus and dig in and enjoy. That’s your right and privilege as a free American in the same way it’s there to do their thing.

It doesn’t make them any less a lover of Nature if they choose to go out there and enjoy it in this way than you do if you’re so up your own backside with the militant ethics of how far you’ll take your pristine walk in the woods and feel that everyone else should too when they smell their own stench packed out in Ziploc plastic bags that hopefully keep your feces off of your gear. For that matter, there’s nothing wrong with your traipsing barefooted and lightly through the woods if that’s what you choose to do. Once again, that’s your right and privilege as a Free American or citizen of the world.

But if you need to think about it another way, think about it like this: what was your last receipt total at REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, Cabelas, or some other mom and pop outfitter of treks into the wild? Even with 20% off, I still dropped almost $180 on a backpack alone. That doesn’t include my other gear (tents, sleeping bag, trekking poles, and clothing) that goes with it. The same is true for hunting coats, boots, guns, fishing rods, tackle, and the like. People who choose to be in these pursuits for long periods of time generally aren’t po.

And when it all comes down to it, these guys and gals have a vested interest in preserving the places that they love to play, and they will support organizations that protect and conserve flora and fauna in the same way that many hikers choose to support environmental organizations. You can’t hunt without a lot of room. There’s no point fishing without a clean lake to provide fish to eat. Snowmobiling down the snow-covered dirt roads and back to the cabins of backwoods Pennsylvania (and other states) affords families the opportunity to do and to be together – like ours was back in the early 1980s.

I think about that trip that my sister and I took with my parents when I was about twelve and she would have been about eight. My parents had two snowmobiles, and I rode on the back of one that my mom drove while my sister rode on the back of my dad’s snowmobile. While driving back the then snow-covered dirt road to his cabin, the only way to get into the cabin, my dad’s snowmobile got loose and started to veer toward the side of the road, eventually slipping from the main surface of the trail.

With the mind of a NASCAR driver trained to react to an out of control car that was about to hit the wall, he quickly sent my sister off of the snowmobile before he went over the edge with said snowmobile to make sure it didn’t hit a tree and explode like a scene from some action movie from my childhood. As I think about this now, I remember how my dad drove back up the embankment that his snowmobile slid down, and like
Billy Idol might sing, with a "Rebel Yell" and a fist pump, he caught air while he still managed to put the machine back on its proper path! I don’t remember my mom being impressed with him catching air as much as he was, but when it was all said and done and he was safe and sound, it became a story for the ages.

Sometimes, a man has to do what he knows is right and will get the job done regardless of what those people who think everything is safe and sanitized feel is "ideal." My sister would have been far more hurt had the snowmobile crashed into a creek or a tree. Instead, she landed on the snow, and she has a story to tell.

That’s what real life is about.

In the end, whether we agree with every tenet of Leave No Trace or not, we still share a similar love for seeing herds of deer grazing off on the side of the road or the feeling of having spooked wild turkeys into flight or watching a coyote run across the trail with a bird in his mouth or jumping back when a snake slithers out from in front of us.

John Muir had the right to challenge Teddy Roosevelt’s desire to just shoot things for sport. In the end, he did it in a way that allowed them to work together to preserve nature, and isn’t that so cool and so American? We work together and we compromise and we overcome negative stuff to build positive stuff. When you teach people, they learn. When you preach to people in militant fashion, they rest it and fight back. And when you speak with your head up your backside, you just upset people needlessly and they hate you forever.

That’s not good.

And for that realization, we’ve left a lot of our ways behind.
We’ve outgrown the values of the past when it comes to how we see other people, and that’s a good thing, but to forget that we were ever that way or to assume that something inside of man doesn’t still see that difference would be equally lost to who we are as people. In addition, to lose some of our roughness has left us to be a well-manicured, but incapable people who aren’t able to struggle through emotional and physical challenges, and that’s something I’m not so sure about (be it some of the stuff Jon Krakauer was trying to say at the end of Where Men Win Glory or the message in the satire of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club). To this end, there’s a sense of ruggedness that’s gone, and when we embrace Nature, to me, we get that stuff back.

In that, it’s just that some of us want to challenge ourselves in square rings against a bag full of rattlesnakes that need to be re-sacked (not me, but I do appreciate that people still might want that opportunity in the same way that they want to run with the bulls or to compete in
Tough Mudder competitions). It may not be my cup of tea or it just might be up my alley, but to think back on all of it, I can say that I remember growing up watching those snake-sacking dudes go mano a mano with big thick rattlers bent on taking a chunk out of some dude’s hand and thinking, "Wow! Now that’s tough!"

I think equally of that rattler at 
Ives Run, which is part of Tioga Hammond, in northern PA and hearing him rattle viciously from inside his glass cage, and I think to the rattler my co-worker and I saw on the way back from the Pinnacle at the end of last summer. The respect for the ferocity of said snake was still there in every case, and with that, it was a different level of introduction into wilderness and the ways of the wild that I experienced each time.

For that, I’ll stand side by side with the hunter and the tree hugger and appreciate all of the things that they offer to bringing a shared compromise to our National Park System and all that it offers all of the young boys and girls growing up in finding a way to make more sense of their lives in the greater scope of what’s outside of their house than what’s inside of it.

And if you look back on all of that, I have my father to thank for that.

In that, I am his son.

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