Chief Seattle’s wisdom with ‘memories’

Souvenirs from a recent hike.

As I hike familiar trails, and trails that are new to me, this season, the naturalist’s creed has been on my mind. The version I recall learning as a teen, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” I was told that was the caver’s motto. When I looked into it online, the version I found attributed to the Baltimore Grotto, a caving society, stated it as, “Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” The Baltimore Grotto was founded in 1952.

The earliest version of the creed dates to 1854, when Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe said, “Take only memories. Leave nothing but footprints.” The wisdom of his statement is timeless. I like that it originates with a Native American, and that it has become the philosophy of naturalists all over the world.

Why are my thoughts dwelling on this as I traipse about in solitude? Although I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed hikes where I have passed not a single other person, I have yet to hike without seeing evidence of hikers before me. I’m not referring to the well trod paths through the wild woods. No. Sadly, I am referring to trash left behind.

Trash draws the eye. Winking in the sunlight, off the edge of the trail, a bit of plastic.

A wrapper to something, what? A cigarette box maybe? Or a round bit of blue or orange, catches attention. A bottle cap. Cigarette butts, McDonald’s drink covers, a spark plug, some broken glass. Mentally sighing at the sight, I hike on, vowing to pick some of the things up on my return.

Then I see a plastic cup. The incongruity of it strikes me. A plastic fast food cup?

Two miles deep into the woods. Who hikes with a cup of, what, coffee, soda, a smoothie? For two miles the hiker apparently carried their drink, then upon finishing, dropped the cup for all future hikers to see. For 200 to 450 years, that’s how long future hikers would keep seeing that cup, so casually cast aside there on that trail. Unless…

“Unless,” I thought, bending over, “I pick it up.” And I did. Now I had a container I could put other trash in that I might see littering the trail and marring my natural experience along the trail. On that hike I found only a few things.

Something I haven’t picked up is kleenex. I had figured they’d break apart soon enough with a rain shower. Turns out, toilet paper can take five weeks or more to decompose. Kleenex are thicker and take longer. Wet wipes take 100 years to decompose. 100 YEARS.

A few weeks back, I hiked up Baker, not far along on the trail I spotted a green dog poop bag. Kudos to the dog owner who bagged their pet’s droppings so others wouldn’t step in it. Thinking the best of people, I assumed the dog’s person intended to pick it up as they returned from the summit. Though I now anticipated seeing a dog, as I hiked on to the summit and back, no one I saw had a dog with them. Sure enough, as I neared the end of the trail, that green bag still sat there waiting patiently to be picked up and removed from the trail. And there it would stay on the side of the path, for 10 to 20 years, unless someone picks it up. A dog poop bag takes 10 to 20 years to decompose.

Of course, it still takes that long to decompose even if removed from the trail, but that is a whole other conversation. Today it’s about Leaving no trace.

It’s not just trash that affronts true wild areas. Rock cairns have become something of a “thing”. Not so much on trails I’ve recently been on, but they are evidence of someone else’s passing. Unless they are specifically marking a trail, they too do not belong, and disrupt the experience.

The same for drawing messages in the sand or soil on the trail. No one is going into the forest hoping to see your cairn or message on their walk.

It’s not enough anymore to just leave no trace of your own, to leave nothing but footprints.

It’s not enough to take nothing but time. It’s not enough to take nothing but memories. Shouldn’t we consider what we are walking past and leaving for others to see on their journeys through our Adirondacks? I don’t want to leave my memory of seeing plastic, broken glass, paper bits, for the next traveller.

Now I include in my pocket or backpack, a bag to put the litter of the careless in. Not everyone ascribes to the, “Pack it in, Pack it out” concept, but I do. Especially the Pack it out part. Take pictures, but also take away trash. Leave footprints, but not messages or trash.

Rather than thinking stormy thoughts of careless tourists, I prefer instead to think of the joy, the sheer unconscious joy, of the next hiker NOT having to see any trash as they hike along on a gorgeous blue sky Adirondack day. Erase traces of your passing.

Leave it pristine for the next hiker.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today