Kopka River, Ontario
Adirondacks, New York
At the outset, I should make it clear that I am an environmentalist. I taught environmental science at a Minnesota Middle School for many years. I deeply believe that we are stewards of the earth and it’s our job to take care of it and to pass a caring attitude on to the next generation.
This said, I take issue with “selective environmentalism”. Selective environmentalists mean well but they lack the knowledge and/or experience to make smart decisions. Here are some examples:
SAVE TREES: A TRAIL STOVE IS BETTER THAN A CAMPFIRE!
There are, of course, sensitive environments where you shouldn’t make a campfire, and Federal and State authorities have pretty much defined them all. But properly maintained campfires don’t harm the northern forest environment—BWCA/Quetico/Algonquin/Adirondacks. Those that disagree need to have a long talk with a forester. Gathering fallen wood for campfires does not impact the northern coniferous forest. If anything, it benefits the habitat by removing dead wood that builds up and compacts the “litter layer” on the forest floor..
There’s also the argument that campfires produce carbon-dioxide that causes global warming. Evidently, it’s okay to drive 400 miles round trip to the BWCA and burn 340 gallons of gas in a car. Let’s see now; 40 gallons x 6 lbs./gal =240 pounds of hydrocarbons. Compare this with the weight of dead, downed wood you’ll burn in your campfire.
PITCH YOUR TENT AT LEAST 150 FEET FROM WATER
The first edition of my book, “Basic Illustrated: Camping” came under fire because the cover photo showed a tent that was pitched close to a lake. Frankly, I see no problem here unless one urinates into or near the water or throws left-over food or garbage into the lake. The real danger is rising water or a very unlikely “land wind” that could blow the tent into the lake. There are lots of campsites in the wilderness that are close to the water’s edge. Most campers consider them “treasured spots!”
WASH YOUR FACE AND BODY, AND BRUSH YOUR TEETH 150 FEET FROM WATER
The solution to pollution is dilution. One hundred and fifty feet is a long ways from camp. Inexperienced campers who go that far into the woods are likely to get lost! Where did the feds come up with this obscure number? I can’t believe that a quart of soapy water dumped 50 feet from shore is any more problematic than one dumped another 100 feet away. We’re talking about a very small amount of contaminant here. Fifty feet is reasonable as long as you don’t pour the water down a barren rock that slopes to the water. I once knew a whacko backpacker who swallowed his toothpaste—he said that spitting it out would harm the environment. Evidently, it didn’t register that what went in one end of his body came out the other!
LEAVE YOUR AXE AT HOME!
Show up with an axe on a canoe trip and you can expect some unkind looks. But axes don’t damage trees; people do! The best way to protect the environment is to educate, not legislate—use the axe to split dead, downed logs, not cut living trees! An axe is an essential tool on wilderness canoe trips. Every experienced wilderness paddler I know carries one! Folding saws, not axes, are responsible for most of the damage to trees on BWCA campsites. Axes aren’t the problem; unskilled, uneducated people are!
DON’T BURN PLASTIC IN YOUR CAMPFIRE; IT CREATES POISONOUS HYDROCARBONS.
Yeah, and so do campfires and burning gasoline in your car and trail stove. When you compute the amount of hydrocarbons burned by just one jet plane flying from LA to New York, burning a few Zip locks is the tiniest eye of a small potato. Important: empty plastic food bags contain food odors that may attract bears--best not to carry them in a pack on your back when in grizzly country.
DON’T CUT LIVE VEGETATION!
Generally yes, but there are exceptions, most of which depend upon the situation and your location. Some examples:
1. Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan, 1979. I was hoping to get a nice photo of my Old Town canoe set against a spectacular background. So I set the canoe near the edge of a high falls and was about to snap the picture when I observed a tiny seedling blocking the T in Old Town. I snipped it off and took the photo, after which, a man laid into me for cutting that tiny tree. Later that day, a float plane chugged up to our camp. T he pilot said that a survey crew would soon be arriving by helicopter. If we would cut out a landing spot for the plane—about 150 feet by 150 feet—he’d give us all the pork chops we could eat and beer we could drink. We complied. And the man who swung the machete the hardest was the one who chided me for cutting that little seedling.
2. The last three miles of the MacFarlane River (Saskatchewan) are characterized by impassable falls and rapids. The river is very remote; hardly anyone ever canoes it, hence, portages are not marked or maintained. The seldom used portage was choked with trees—there was no way to get canoes across. Good thing we had two full-framed saws and two axes: we had to cut over 1000 trees to clear the three mile trail! Naturally, this practice would be unacceptable in the BWCA. But this was northern Canada and as remote as it gets. The point is that what is acceptable behavior in one environment is often not acceptable in another. Boundary Waters portages are cleared by federal authorities; Canadian ones are not! Blanket statements, like “zero tolerance” are always bad ideas!
3. Steel River, Ontario: A long dead tree leaned precariously over the best tent spot in camp. A good wind could send it crashing down on us. So we cut down that tree and sawed it up for firewood. Yes, this was probably illegal, but it may have been a life-saver.
Federal authorities have a responsibility for human safety when they designate an area as a “campsite”. If there are dead leaning trees that hang over prime tent spots, the feds should cut them down! “Political correctness” is too high a price to pay for human life.
WALK THROUGH MUD-HOLES NOT AROUND THEM
Park yourself along a mucky Boundary Waters portage at the height of the traffic flow in July, then note how many people take this recommendation seriously. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to wade through a foot of mud when I can sneak along the edge of a trail and stay dry. Slopping through mud when you can walk around it is advice that only desk-bound campers take seriously.
*There are full chapters on wilderness ethics in my books, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, CAMPING SECRETS and BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING, 3rd Edition.