I have never considered myself much of an environmentalist. I don’t own a hybrid car. In fact, I enjoy using gasoline to get me somewhere to save the calories in my legs for when I really need them. I don’t recycle everything I should. Actually looking over at my trash can now, it contains a power bar box, a blue ridge mountain sports paper bag, and chemistry test papers and note that I finally got around to throwing away. I used to respond simply with the word “entropy” to my brother when he would pick environmental preservation fights with me. Entropy is generally speaking the tendency of the universe to attain a lower state of order. Ice melts, tree’s fall, wood burns, people die. And while I fight entropy with my body, I never have really worried too much about the ground I stand on.
In actuality, I guess I enjoy civilization. But my urge to leave it all for the back country is there. And while I am not very environmentally conscious within city limits, I cannot carry that attitude to the woods.
On my first solo camping adventure, I slept on the banks of a stream one night, then on a bed of fragile plants another night. I defecated a mere yard or so from the stream. I had never heard of the word cathole, or of the philosophy of leave no trace. I was uneducated, ignorant, and leaving the forest a lot nastier than when I came. I had no hesitation pulling up a tiny tree to give me the perfect campsite or dropping a load in smelling distance of a campsite. My steps were hard and my footprints deep.
When I began doing my research for my trip, the only commonality every book had was a page or more on the principles of Leave No Trace. Even some of my maps have a section on this teaching on the back. My initial reaction to this philosophy was that I was reading books by a bunch of pansy hypocrites that don’t mind cutting down thousands of trees to publish their books but can’t stand to just drop a dump in the woods the way we’ve done it forever.
Finally after skimming through these sections quickly and lightly, I decided to actually study the argument in one of my books behind Leave No Trace. The first thing I read is that since 1982, the number of backpackers in the back country has nearly doubled. Secondly, the number of national parks visits each year exceeds 300 million. So I pulled the mental cob webs off my brain, revved it up and did some mental calculations. Back county + a lot of people + practices we bring from civilization = not so back country anymore. I don’t really want to go looking for that great wilderness experience and find that everywhere I go it looks like a school bus pulled up and let kids run rampant. And I definitely don’t want to have to pick my campsite around dump and T.P. scattered everywhere.
Then after learning about the effect of human waste on local water sources and how the parasite giardia fuels on our fecal matter, I realized that relieving myself next to that stream probably wasn’t such a good idea. Actually, that was extremely dumb of me. Really it is dumb to defecate anywhere but into a six inch deep “cathole”. Burying waste is the only safe way to leave it in the back country and be confident in the sanity of your drinking water. And water better way for nature to kick back than to give the offender giardia and ensure the next few days he’ll be digging quite a few catholes.
But other things I did on that trip were equally destructive. That tree that I pulled up could have grown to a giant. The banks of the stream were covered in sensitive plants, at least before I showed up, that fuel off and in turn, filter the water. Additionally, people would have no trouble finding my campsite. The problem is not necessarily that I left it different from when I came. The problem comes in full force when other people see my perfect campsite and pitch their tent in the same spot. Soon the place becomes a full blown clearing with a fire ring and other amenities. What would the forest be if there were a clearing every corner you turn and every valley and ridge you reach?
And while this may sound foreign to you, just as it did me, a fire has become an outdated method for warmth and cooking. While this may excessively progressive if not downright picky, it shocked me just as much as it may you. The truth is, that downed wood that we burn is what bring nutrients to the soil for other trees and plants to grow. It is a cycle with dead trees helping other plants, bugs and trees grow. This is not to detract from the ugly fact that fire rings and charcoal make a pristine forest disgusting. Once again my incredibly rusty but still existent analytical skills can still recognize that a lot of people plus a lot of fires equals no wood, lots of fire rings and charcoal, and trees with no lower branches. The alternative to heat is simple, just use your own. That’s what clothes and sleeping bags are for. The alternative to cooking is something everyone is using, a simple stove.
There is more to the Leave No Trace philosophy than I have described. But mostly it means just being able to turn around at any point of your trip and not see any evidence you were ever there. While my first reaction towards Leave No Trace was excessively negative and harsh, I am a true follower now. I am still a skeptic about some of the methods but I realize that I don’t want to go on my Appalachian trail hike only to discover that I have not strayed very far from civilization at all. It is my responsibility to leave no trace to ensure that the next guy can “get away from it all” too.