As our world gets seemingly smaller, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find places that seem "untouched" by man—those places where we can see up close how wind, water and ice have created piles of rocks or carved riverbanks. Making matter worse, our pristine wilderness is becoming more and more impacted by our need to touch and experience it.
I've been a wilderness guide for 30 years, and I’ve had many experiences of following in the wake of people who just don't get it. On one raft trip I led, we arrived at a spot I dearly love for its wild and pristine character. As we pulled into the eddy, I noticed right away evidence of the group that had been here ahead of us: Names were written in stones, as though this was a roadside cutback on the Alcan Highway, and rock pedestals were stacked all over the gravel bar. At every tent site was a ring of stones left behind. I’m glad to say that when we left that site, there were no more names, rock art or tent rings.
Why do people disturb the wilderness? Maybe it’s because people are just naïve— they think no one else will come here—or that they just don't care. Either way, I am a proponent of "Leave No Trace," rather than the old adage of "Leave Only Footprints.” I think the latter can be a cop-out, making it okay to leave a rock ring where your tent was, which is not much different than leaving footprints.
We should all strive to be better stewards of the wild places we cherish, so that they can remain for future generations.
Here are Some Simple Ways to Keep Your Impact to a Minimum
- Don’t even leave footprints. Take the extra effort to walk around mud along riverbanks—often it just means stepping on stones.
- Put rocks back where you found them. Always replace stones that you use to anchor your tent stakes.
- Clean up after your fire pit. Haul the ashes to the river and dump them in the current. If there is an eddy and a beach, take the ashes in a bucket out into the current, and then dump them.
- Collect your firewood away from camp. That especially means not cutting trees around a campsite, leaving an ugly stump behind. Try to use downed dead wood instead.
- Don't leave a big bundle of firewood sitting at a campsite. Instead, discreetly set it behind a bush, so that it isn't so visible, or scatter it a little. Others will find and use it even if it’s out of sight.
- Never leave "art" at a camp. If you find antlers, don't set them up for display—leave them in their naturally occurring place.
- Don’t blaze shortcuts. Try not to make a trail up a steep cutback to a tent site, causing a deep trench and obvious footprints. Walk the extra distance to where the cutback is small enough to step up onto it.
- Set your campsite kitchen below the high-water line. The periodic flooding will clean the site and remove smells during high water events. A tundra beach camp is the hardest to not impact.
- Remove the airline tags from your bags before heading into the backcountry. They always come off, usually with your name and phone number on them. I find them a lot!
- Do a good final sweep of your site. Look for micro-trash such as dental floss or tent stakes—I find both of those a lot. Not only do you want to leave the site clean, but you sure don’t want to get to your next camp and realize you left those poles behind.