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‘Leave No Trace’ in the wilderness

(Photo provided)

“Leave No Trace” is an ancient concept that our ancestors lived by thousands of years ago. Any group of people living in close contact with the forest and waterways had to care for their environment in order to make it sustainable.

In our country, Native Americans are best known for living in harmony with the earth. They were taught as children how to travel lightly as to leave no trace of their presence. Their success as hunters and fishermen depended on walking lightly on the earth. The idea of “Leave No Trace” was formalized in the 1970s, when outdoor recreation became popular. As more and more people visited national and state parks, there became a need to educate people to plan ahead, carry out trash, camp and travel on durable surfaces, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be mindful of others. These concepts became widely known to any serious outdoors person. Most avid hikers and paddlers are familiar with and subscribe to the principles of “Leave No Trace.”

I grew up in the Philippines in the 1960s-70s, spending most of my time outdoors experiencing that sense of freedom you can only feel outdoors. As a Girl Scout, the ideas of leaving no trace in nature, respecting nature and embracing it joyfully were fully ingrained in me as a child. At one point I participated in a Girl Scout camping expedition on Corregidor Island with Girl Scouts from the Air Force and Naval bases. Corregidor Island played a major role in the invasion and liberation of the Philippines from the Japanese forces during World War II. In the 1960s-70s, the ruins from the war remained largely untouched. It was easy enough to conjure up images of the lives lost and damage done from the war because the ruins were still relatively untouched. During our Girl Scout expedition we camped in old military tents and cooked over a wood fire. We spent much of our time doing projects to improve the environment, including planting trees and cleaning up the area. We were careful to maintain a respectful distance from the wildlife, including snakes, lizards, monkeys and bugs. We brought nothing with us that was not necessary for the camping trip. We left the place cleaner than we found it. We felt a sense of pride that we had not only enjoyed our wilderness adventure, but we contributed to the care of the earth. I got the message deep down inside of me as to how important it was to give back to nature in the same way it gave to me.

These childhood experiences had a huge impact on me as an adult. My outdoor experiences as a child connected me so deeply to nature that it became an inseperable part of my identity. As an adult I enjoy hiking, kayaking and canoeing, swimming and bicycling. The outdoors is a source of immense joy and peace. I care for the outdoors the same way I care for my home. Every spring I get outdoors to clear the trails near our home from fallen trees and branches to help others who follow behind me stay on the trail. When I paddle or hike, I go prepared with a first-aid kit, drinking water (water pump if overnight), appropriate clothing for the weather, map and compass. I carry a bag of toilet paper and an extra bag for trash that I bring home. If I camp, I camp only in designated areas with a durable surface. Walking on trails, I walk through the mud puddles to avoid damaging the trail and delicate plant growth on the sides of the trails. If I am starting a fire, I pick up sticks and branches on the ground rather than cut down trees. I stand in awe at the beautiful wildflowers and animal tracks. If I see others out in the wilderness, I duly show respect. I love listening to the joyful sounds of wildlife. For me, being outdoors is all about taking in the beauty that surrounds me, so it is only natural that I would want to preserve it for the future.

During this COVID transition into reopening, people will be seeking out nature to restore balance to their lives after being restricted at home. After missing that feeling of being free in nature, they will be longing to restore that connction. They will seek to be isolated and remote in the wilderness, as far away as possible from the noise of civilization. Most of the people who seek to be in the outdoors will understand the idea of caring and respecting nature. They will take the time to go prepared, clean up after themselves, stay away from crowded areas, and leave what they find in as good a condition or better than they found it. They will respect the fact that others may use the same campsite in the wilderness. There will be the occassional person who is disconnected from what it is all about and forgets to give back to nature what he/she got out of it. This person will be the exception, as it always is. For those who follow, bring extra antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer and a trash bag to carry out anything you want to dispose of. Nature is a gift that we can all work to love and preserve. Please come with respect, and you will leave with awe.

Rivka Cilley is an outdoor guide and mental health therapist in Saranac Lake.

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