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The traces we leave

A “fairy house” beside the trail serves as an example of traces people leave in the woods. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

If you live in the Adirondacks, or anywhere with nearby wilderness, hopefully you’ve heard of “Leave No Trace.” If you haven’t, the term refers to the set of 7 Principles created by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. In their language, these “provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.”

If you’ve never seen them written out before, here are the 7 Principles, courtesy of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

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 Impact.

6. Respect Wildlife.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors.

Each one of these guidelines deserves to be unpacked and examined individually, but today’s column is going to focus on the notion of leaving no trace in general. More accurately, this column is going to focus on the notion that these guidelines are just that. How we apply them is up to every person to interpret individually.

If you like to go out into the woods, you’ve probably noticed negative examples of human impact. Tangles of fishing line, bits of trash and the like are, unfortunately, common items to find near the trail. Generally, the most we can do is sigh and put other people’s garbage in our packs to do our little part. But on a well-traveled trail near Inlet this weekend, I came across a slightly different sort of trace.

While walking with a group, we found a rock with a tiny pink door painted on it nestled into a crevice at the base of an old yellow birch. Someone had also built a miniature staircase to it out of twigs. I’d heard about people making these little “fairy houses” and leaving painted rocks on busy trails to bring some joy to other hikers, but this is the first one I’d seen. The effect was as intended: The whole group of us cracked smiles at the innocent cuteness of the thing.

As we continued, I couldn’t ignore the idea that, for others, that fairy house might constitute an unacceptable interruption of their wilderness experience. It certainly was a trace, and this one was left rather deliberately. Sure, it was cute and kind, but what if every person who hiked that trail did the same thing? There would be little splotches of unnatural color and paint all over the place. If I were out hiking in the Sewards instead, and saw one of these little painted rocks, I’d probably pick it up and pack it out so other people wouldn’t be encouraged to leave them there as well. But on a wide, busy trail near the road, it just made me smile.

It was at that point that I passed under a bright yellow trail marker. This is a trace I’m familiar with seeing and normally grateful for. They keep people safe on the trail and help assure hikers that they’ve picked the right path, but it is a trace, nonetheless. Out on some of the unmarked ranges, there’s a whole different feel to the wilderness. Under certain conditions, even trail markers can start to feel like a bit too much humanity. So where is the line? What constitutes an acceptable trace? Can that be universalized?

As I’ve waded deeper into the field of conservation ethics, figuring out how people fit into a wilderness setting properly has become a really vexing question for me. How do we responsibly visit a place we define by our very absence from them? Won’t we always be leaving some sort of impact, even by the simple act of visiting? Further, won’t that impact be cumulative? Even if every person who went for a hike walked through the woods with the upmost care, wouldn’t the packed-down earth and boot prints still be a trace of humanity? It sure makes trails feel like sacrificial corridors, but if there weren’t trails then wouldn’t people just run roughshod over the hills, leaving traces all over the place instead? The answers to these questions obviously involve compromise and flexibility.

At the end of the day, we must understand that theory can only extend so far in the actual, practical, complex world we live in. To spiral out of control with all these thoughts can only do so much good. But to ignore them entirely isn’t an option if we want to keep wild places wild.

By and large, the traces we leave and the experiences we seek exist on a spectrum. There’s no one “rule” for every person, and what’s best can even change for an individual given the circumstances. We have come to accept (and even expect) that certain traces are going to be left by humans in wild places. Trail markers, signs nailed to trees that designate mileage and property boundaries, even the trails themselves are clear traces left by people. The difference is that most of these were left with a purpose. They exist to keep people safe and to prevent them from leaving unintended traces elsewhere. The trouble comes from those who behave as if the world is theirs to use and abuse as they wish and who ignore the impacts that they have on others and the environment around them.

With all that in mind, what should we make of the example of the fairy house? Was leaving this trace right or wrong? That one little gesture had the potential to elicit so many different thoughts and feelings, even though I can say with relative certainty that it was a trace deliberately left with the intention of sharing joy. Ultimately, I think it is a great reminder that the traces we leave always have an impact on the places we visit and the people we share them with and that impact will be seen and felt in many ways.

So before your next hike, keep in mind that your presence in a wild place will leave a trace, however small. It takes time and effort to learn how to see the impacts we leave on the ecosystems we visit and inhabit. Sometimes it can be quite inconvenient and frustrating to question our behaviors, but it’s always worth doing. In many cases, the answers aren’t clear-cut, but more often than not, taking the time to determine your intentions will lead you to reduce your impact.

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