Leave No Trace

(This is an essay I wrote for a writing course I took in college; it seemed appropriate to post it here)

“Leave No Trace is not just a slogan or a training program – it’s an ethic,
and a way of life.  Integrating Leave No Trace ethics into how we
live today positively affects the life we lead tomorrow.”


This is the description of the Leave No Trace concept on the homepage of www.lnt.org.  I came across the Leave No Trace slogan, which apparently isn’t a slogan, when I began hiking in the Spring of 2010.  On my adventures, I saw signs that said things like “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” or “give a hoot, don’t pollute.”  I found such mantras appealing and began keeping the concepts in the far reaches of my mind while hiking and camping.  Further than that, I never really knew much about the Leave No Trace ethic or gave it much thought.  I figured it meant simply don’t litter, put out your campfire before leaving, and other common sense actions.  And later, through a flyer posted outside a ranger station, I learned about another aspect of Leave No Trace.  “Burn it where you buy it” tells campers and backpackers to burn their firewood where they purchase it to prevent the spread of invasive species not native to the area.  I always felt a slight pang of guilt and a twinge of frustration when my boyfriend and I didn't always do such things.  I'm a rule follower through and through, but flash me a handsome smile and the promise of reckless abandon in the woods, and at that young stage in my life, I'd easily neglect my inherently obedient nature to avoid "rocking the boat" so to speak.  Lo and behold, we eventually broke up.

Once my ex, who had first introduced me to the wilderness--a debt to him I can never repay--was out of my life for good, I threw myself unabashedly into the quiet mystery of the woods.  I retreated into a green wonderland where I was free of harsh judgments from a world by which I felt misunderstood and for which I felt utter confusion.  The danger intrigued me, and the serenity called to me.  Being out-of-doors became my rebound relationship.  When I’m passionate about a thing, I immerse myself in it; thus, I decided I had to do some research on hiking and the great outdoors. 
I began my research by reading books about the Appalachian Trail, a pilgrimage I long to take some day.  I eventually made it a goal to go on at least one hike a week.  After finding myself hopelessly lost on a ten-mile trail in the seemingly vast Pinelands of New Jersey—after dark, no less—I realized perhaps going it alone may not be such a wise idea for a novice woodswoman like myself.  And so I considered joining an outdoors club.  After my ten-mile mishap, I began spending sleepless nights before solo hiking trips worrying about bears, hunters with poor aim, and rapists.  I signed up for my first hike with a club and decided I would not let fear prevent me from journeys I still felt compelled to take.
Although a lovely sunset over the NJ Pinelands, it wasn't exactly welcomed.
Joining “Adventures for Women” was my first step on the trail that would reintroduce me to the Leave No Trace idea.  On this first hike our guide, a grey-haired, hearty woman with an endearing sense of humor, drew a map of New Jersey with a stick in the dirt.  She was explaining how, after an ice age, falling glaciers formed the mountains of New England, the Adirondacks and Catskills of New York, and the more humble peaks of Northern New Jersey.  She mentioned that the glacial landslide stopped somewhere above central New Jersey, which is why South Jersey, where I live, is more or less flat, and it also explains why I have to travel at the very least two hours to get in any hiking.  When she was done explaining this phenomenon, which I wouldn't have known about had I not joined this band of like-minded women, she brushed her foot over the map drawn in the dirt so as to cover it up.  As she was doing so, she smiled and muttered to the group, “Leave no trace.”
Adventures for Women atop West Mountain at Harriman State Park, NY
It was then that it occurred to me—Leave No Trace must be more than just a “don’t litter” policy.  But why on this enchanting earth would the act of covering up a few otherwise unintelligible lines drawn in the dirt matter to the ecology of the forest?  We were, after all, on a man-made trail, by a man-made reservoir, that stood beyond a man-made wildlife center.  How could a little map of our oft-underrated state disrupt the fine balance of the woods?  I was determined to find out.

I decided to look up the concept in a day-hiking book I’d checked out from the library but had never gotten around to actually reading (or returning).  I’d become immersed in an array of books about hikers like Earl Shaffer, the first man in history to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  I read his account, Walking with Spring, in just one day and then moved on to A Walk in the Woods, the downright hilarious account of the mishaps Bill Bryson encountered during his thru-hike attempt.  In a matter of days, I’d read four books about various experiences of outdoors people.  Weeks prior, however, I had checked out the Day Hiker’s Handbook, and it lay on my nightstand untouched.  It seems I’m more drawn to tales of the trail than the actual how-to of the matter. 

When I opened the handbook, I expected to find Leave No Trace either absent from the book or somewhere in a small paragraph at the end.  To my surprise Leave No Trace was the subject of the entire introduction to the book.  What’s more, not just a paragraph but quite a few pages were dedicated to the subject.  The author of the book, Michael Lanza, gives a brief history of Leave No Trace and its origins with the National Outdoor Leadership School.  Then he so aptly states, “To keep our most-cherished places beautiful, we must all contribute to the responsible stewardship of the land.  The LNT principles set general guidelines for minimizing our physical impact on the fragile environments where we hike.”
Fragile environments?  I thought the outdoors were rugged and rough.  Weren’t black bears known, especially in Northern New Jersey, to rip open a tent simply because someone had the scent of food left on their clothes or because, God forbid, a woman was menstruating?  What about the harsh weather on mountain tops and forest fires and flashfloods?  Weren’t we the fragile ones?
No.  I would soon learn that the natural world, while extremely powerful, is also extremely vulnerable.  Mother Nature can thank us humans for disregarding Her fragility.  Worse than flash floods is acid rain.  Black bears don’t instinctively tear apart tents to get to food; they have come to associate humans with food as we bring into the woods items like Snickers bars and hamburgers, to which they wouldn’t have access if not for us.  Not that I’ve seen it, but I’m sure the sight of a bear devouring a Snickers bar is just about the saddest display of a complete loss of dignity for an extremely dignified animal.  I cringe at trailside cigarette butts.  Who are these ego-driven fools rambling around (I imagine in flip-flops or tennis shoes) smoking cigarettes in places where most reasonable people might come to get a breath of fresh air?  I digress.  We've exploited much of nature’s vulnerability, sometimes unknowingly but often uncaringly.  Once I learned about Leave No Trace, I realized not littering is just the beginning.
Lanza lays out the concept’s simple principles: (1) plan ahead and prepare, (2) travel and camp on durable surfaces, (3) dispose of waste properly, (4) leave what you find, (5) minimize campfire impacts, (6) respect wildlife, and (7) be considerate of other visitors.  Hardly sexy and rather vague, Leave No Trace at first appeared to me as a way to take out some of the adventure in adventuring. 
Plan ahead?  Wasn’t it the great American naturalist, John Muir, who often found himself having the urge to “throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence”?  Planning ahead seemed to take the spontaneity out of the equation.  I pondered whether or not I should plan more.  I recalled my 10-mile pilgrimage in the Pinelands.  The morning of, I downloaded the trail map on my iPhone.  Then, about halfway into the hike, my iPhone died.  I was left with 5 miles to go and no map.  Certainly, planning ahead would have helped me, but what’s that got to do with the environment?
I read on.  When people are lost or stranded in the wilderness, it’s often due to a lack of planning and/or preparation.  Helicopters that land on green pastures, rescue crews that have to bushwhack through backcountry, and rescue flares that could potentially start a fire or injure animals, all pose threats to the environment.  What’s more, an unprepared person tends to wind up relying on the resources of nature should he require them.  Without bringing food and water, for instance, one might attempt to take advantage of the provisions supplied by nature, such as edible plants and fresh water streams, which appear to be so freely available.  However, none of it’s really free.  Taking something from nature, simply because you came unprepared, defies the fourth principal, “leave what you find.”
After thinking about how my inclination to take unplanned, unprepared trips might pose a threat to the wilderness I so cherish, I decided there was even more to learn than I realized.  And as I continue to learn about the concept, I’ve come to know that many of the precautionary lessons I already knew are less for my protection and more for the protection of the woods.  For instance, camping with “bear canisters” (containers that keep bears from food) isn’t to protect my food or my safety, but rather it’s to ensure that bears, who are natural foragers, don’t come to rely on that furless, two-legged, clothed creature for food.  The woods, I feel, are nature’s greatest source of imparting humility upon our naturally arrogant species, and I’ve grown to have a healthy respect for the “fragile environments” I’ve come to treasure.

“Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something,
 perhaps when you are least expecting it.  I never heard of anyone ever
stumbling on something sitting down.”
--Charles F. Kettering

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