Penner: We are loving the outdoors to death

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“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  – Baba Dioum 

We thought we’d beat the rush. We were wrong. At 8:30 a.m., when we reached the shuttle station to go to the trailhead, an unruly herd of humans was stewing about, jockeying for position to board the buses. There were, by my guesstimation, a couple thousand people milling around, many searching for the end of the queue. Once we finally reached the trailhead to the legendary Angel’s Landing hike (it’s the most popular hike in Utah’s Zion National Park), it was a congested, single-file, human-on-human hoof to the summit … and it changed my perspective on what recreating in the great outdoors should look like.  

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Call it the social media “look at me!” effect. Herd mentality. A post-COVID conundrum. Or, simply, the fact that there’s a whole bunch of us that love the great outdoors. Regardless, our parks, our trails, and our precious outdoor spaces where we recreate are under attack – mostly from us. Preserving and protecting natural spaces has never been more important than now. 

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A bison walks past a large crowd near Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. Files, Getty Images Photo by George Frey /Getty Images

And, of course, the problem isn’t just isolated to North America’s most popular national parks. Simply put, the entire planet, really, is feeling the effects of 8.1 billion people traipsing around. Not surprisingly, Zion NP has recently adopted a “by permit only” solution to the overcrowding issue at Angel’s Landing. In case you’re wondering, it is a phenomenal hike, albeit with plenty of exposure, chain sections, and super-steep pitches over jumbled rock. It’s not for the faint of heart. Sadly, approximately 20 people have fallen to their death on this trail since 2000.While crowded trails – where damage, to some degree, is inevitable – is, perhaps, the most obvious “issue,” there are many other ways that we can, without realizing it, harm the environment with our noble (mostly) recreational pursuits. 

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But, before we go further, let’s first state this: the majority of outdoor lovers have a high degree of sensitivity around environmental issues. They value these special places and do remarkably well in terms of doing their part to protect them. And, in my opinion, there should be many more people out there recreating. The alternative – say sitting in your La-Z-Boy watching Dukes of Hazzard reruns and scrolling through social media channels – ain’t gonna get ‘er done from a mental and physical health standpoint. So the issue, of course, isn’t that we bombard pristine outdoor spaces in mass numbers, it’s how we do it. And, ultimately, what is left behind after we do it.

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Leave no trace that you’ve been there when enjoying the great outdoors. Courtesy, Marina Hankinson cal

Not surprisingly, education on the matter is key. One of the best resources I’ve come across is the “Leave No Trace” campaign (check it out at www.leavenotrace.ca  and take their pledge). This non-profit organization was founded by a handful of businesses and organizations – such as MEC and Parks Canada – that, like you, have a vested interest in the overall health of our natural spaces.  

“Leave No Trace,” which works closely with their U.S. counterpart, utilizes seven principles that reflect their lofty vision: “That everyone enjoys the outdoors in a way that values and protects our environment now and for generations to come.” The principles are: 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 impacts, 6. Respect wildlife, and 7. Be considerate of others. 

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While the seven principles, at first glance, seem fairly straightforward, a closer examination of the subpoints can expose some “issues” that even seasoned outdoorsmen and women can overlook. For example, under “Plan and prepare,” do you always make it a point to know the rules, access rights, restrictions in effect, and specifics of the site you’re heading into? Do you plan trips during low-traffic periods and go to less-frequented areas? (Ie: Angel’s Landing in July isn’t ideal. Larch Valley in Banff National Park on a Saturday in late September? Also not a good call.) 

As our climate changes and droughts and fires persist, the “Minimize campfire impacts” principle is critically important. Perhaps the most imperative subpoint there is: Do you allow wood and embers to reduce to ash? Do you completely extinguish fires and check that the ashes are cool before leaving the area? Doing so could not only save a forest, it could save lives. 

Unfortunately, the implications of infractions that could easily be perceived as “minor,” can have a significant negative impact. For example, falling under the “Leave what you find” principle, that beautiful little stone you picked up at the summit could be part of a sacred rock cairn placed hundreds of years ago. (Protection of culture, heritage, and sacred Indigenous sites is a key element in conservation.) And, certainly, under “Be considerate of others,” your social media posts – especially if you’re posting pictures that show little regard for nature or the health of outdoor spaces – can, especially if you have a strong and loyal following, have a negative, long-term effect. 

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Like the famous naturalist John Muir once said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” That part isn’t negotiable. What is, however, is what we leave behind in our wake.

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Founder and lead guide Heather Davis of Uplift Adventures teaches conservation to clients on a hike in the Crowsnest Pass. Courtesy, KarlLee Photography cal

Learn how to be conscientious outdoors

Perhaps the best way to learn “leave no trace” techniques and skills is to hike with an expert in this area. Uplift Adventures, based in the Crowsnest Pass, offers many hiking and backpacking programs that will help you “up” your conservation skills. Lead guide and owner, Heather Davis, has years of experience working as an professional agrologist. Her vision is to operate a company that focuses solely on conservation tourism. Check out their various guided trips and programs – including their popular “Intro Into Backpacking” – at www.upliftadventures.ca 

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