Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Outdoor Ethics Part 2: Planning, Planning, Planning

In case you didn't know, I'm the CoChair of the Friends of Kananaskis. The Friends is a non-profit organization that exists to assist Alberta Parks in the long term management and protection of Kananaskis Country, a 4,000 square kilometre area of fabulous mountain landscapes and parks in Alberta. I also write the majority of content for the Friends' newsletter.

In 2019, I wrote an 8 part series on Outdoor Ethics. I keep referencing it and wish there was a better way to reference it to others, so decided to reproduce that series here.


Part 1 of this series introduced the concepts of Leave No Trace Canada, and noted the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. The first of these principles is “Plan Ahead and Prepare”.
An obvious question is “How can planning ahead and good preparation be associated with outdoor ethics?” The answer: a combination of unexpected conditions and poor planning can have a deleterious effect on people and cause the degradation of backcountry resources.
One personal example: I’m a fair weather hiker, but rain happens (especially thunderstorms). I was out on a trail once in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, still about 5 km from the car, when a storm blew in and it started to really come down. I put on my rain gear and continued, but within minutes, ran into a group of underprepared hikers. No rain gear (they were soaked), and they wearing just shorts with no extra layers (they were cold). In an effort to try to remedy the problem, they had ripped a pile of branches off some trees, tried to build a makeshift lean-to, which wasn’t working as a rain shelter at all (I find a lot of lean-tos in the woods, like the one pictured below).
And this serves what purpose?
They made a fire ring out of rocks, and were in the process of trying to light a fire inside the lean-to. The wet, green branches wouldn’t light, (thank goodness, or they would have set the lean-to on fire and probably the whole forest, too). When the rain subsided, there was now a total mess in the forest right on the trail, of ripped down branches and damaged trees, plus a rock ring. The funny part was, had they done their proper prep work, or known the area, or even known what to do in this case, there was lots of ready, dry shelter areas less than 100 m away against some rock bands.

Another excellent thing to leave in the forest. Common where I live, sadly
Another personal example where the bad planning was mine: I was canoeing with a group from Banff to Canmore, starting at Bow Falls. The start's pictured below.
The falls themselves are behind me
Not 15 minutes after leaving Bow Falls, sweepers (downed trees in the river) in a section of the river we later found was "notorious" capsized all but 3 of our 10 boats. As an upright boat, we rescued half a dozen people (and a dog) and got them to shore. We had extra layers and warm gear, and started to get everyone warmed up. Not being that clear on exactly where we were, someone built a small fire to start drying people out. Turns out we were just ~200 m from the edge of the Golf Course. An hour later, the Banff Park Wardens came by on a jet boat and encouraged us to put the fire out (and destroy any evidence it was there). Folks in our party had to come back a few days later and remove 2 canoes from the river that were wrapped around trees, becoming both hazards and permanent fixtures on the landscape. Had we understood the route and the hazards better, rather than relying on only the party's lead boat to know, avoiding the hazards or even dealing with the dumped boats would have looked a LOT different. “Bad planning” on our group’s part created a rescue situation even though we were prepared to self-rescue, and prevented us from finding easy ways out.
I ran a 6 part series in the Friends newsletter in 2017 on planning and preparedness from a safety perspective. The Leave No Trace principles on preparedness are not focused so much on safety, as the impact that bad planning can have on backcountry resources. The February 2019 Friends Speaker Series talk in Calgary from Matt Muller of Kananaskis Public Safety talked about how rock rescues can require drilling and installing bolts on un-bolted routes – permanent markers on the landscape. Whether it’s building emergency shelters, or being ill-equipped for what our unforgiving mountains can throw at you, there’s a real impact on the ground from unpreparedness. It’s readily avoidable, and when done right, leaves the wilderness ready for the next people to see it in its original state.
One area the Leave No Trace program focuses on in particular is meal planning. From the use of stoves instead of fires, to minimizing food packaging, to packing out what you pack in, even day hikers can Leave No Trace when they eat by just a bit of better planning.
For instance, just because it’s biodegradable, doesn’t mean it should be left behind. Apple cores, orange peels, and sunflower seed or pistachio hulls take at least 6 months and sometimes years to decompose, aren’t attractive on the landscape, and create habituation behaviours in critters like ground squirrels (who bite and carry pests).
In backpacking, planning meals limits your impact, and one-pot meals is the best way to go. Not only do they minimize pots and pans to carry, everything can be made on one stove (instead of a campfire), and they limit the number of utensils needed, as often you can eat with the ones you cook with.
Not mine, but a good set up
I have found bits of every single type of granola/energy bar wrapper in K-Country, too. One suggestion Leave No Trace Canada has is to remove all packaging (where practical) and repackage EVERYTHING in re-sealable, reusable containers before leaving home. Once empty, put the empty bags or containers inside each other and carry them out. A simple, compact solution to the waste problem.
Even dog waste merits planning. Carrying the waste bags is one thing; how do you plan on taking them out? A Ziploc bag that can take all the poop bags safely and without any mess is an outstanding solution; leaving them on the side of the trail “to pick up on the trip back” is suboptimal at best.
Good planning involves knowing your route. When you know where you are going, most (but not all) rock cairns, unofficial tree blazes and flagging tape become unnecessary; creating new ones is always superfluous. I have no doubt that anyone who has spent time in K-Country has found cairns in the strangest of places that don't add any value whatsoever to route finding. The 6' tall tower on Red Ridge pictured below is just one example of an unnecessary cairn that is clearly not "leaving no trace" and offering no navigation value.
This was in 2010
Adding new cairns because "you" think the next person will need them suggests a lack of planning on your part, given the likely thousands of folks who have been there before you and found their way without them. 

Good planning results in minimizing impact on the landscape, whether through reduction of your harm, or reduction of the risk that you’ll need help or run into trouble. We certainly can’t plan for every contingency, and can’t carry everything we need for every potential risk every day. But a good plan can take us a long way, and nature (and the next folks along the trail) will thank us for it.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Outdoor Ethics Part 1: Leave No Trace

In case you didn't know, I'm the CoChair of the Friends of Kananaskis. The Friends is a non-profit organization that exists to assist Alberta Parks in the long term management and protection of Kananaskis Country, a 4,000 square kilometre area of fabulous mountain landscapes and parks in Alberta. I also write the majority of content for the Friends' newsletter.

In 2019, I wrote an 8 part series on Outdoor Ethics. I keep referencing it and wish there was a better way to reference it to others, so decided to reproduce that series here.


Growing up in Ontario over 50 years ago, I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, and some time volunteering with the Bruce Trail Association. The majority of the volunteering I did as a teenager was repairing the damage done by trail users, which included cleaning up the campsites and shelters that were along the trail then (they’re all gone now), fixing broken stiles and gates that crossed fences, collecting garbage, repainting damaged blazes and repairing trees that had initials carved in them. I guess that was the start for me of the concept of Leave No Trace.

I never understood why people couldn’t leave things the way they found them. I got the concept of accidentally dropping a bit of paper, but couldn’t understand folks who neatly collected their trash in plastic bags -- only to leave the bags on the trail (much like dog poop bags today, which is a plague not just in K-Country but around the world as any Google search will show you). The whole idea that “if I carried it in, I could carry it out” seemed pretty intuitive to me.

I wasn’t even a personal fan of fires in the wilderness, even when I went camping or backpacking. Ignoring the fact that it made my clothes smell, it always left ash or charred wood or blackened rocks, which was clear evidence that I had been there. SO many people have random fires in K-Country, especially up the creeks, and leave them as scars on the landscape. The mess below was one of THREE (illegal) fire pits within 50' of this location.
There are ways to build low-impact fires, and that's not it
I used to think: “take only pictures, leave only footprints”. But I now understand that there are a lot of places where even leaving footprints is creating permanent scars on the landscape. And don't get me started on graffiti.

As more and more people recreate in our wild spaces, the concept of the ethics of being in the wilderness is more and more important. Enter the Leave No Trace global movement, and specifically in Canada, Leave No Trace Canada. To quote their website:

Leave No Trace Canada is a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships. Leave No Trace builds awareness, appreciation and respect for our wildlands.

Many of us have taken a pine cone or rock, veered off the trail to dodge mud puddles, gotten too close to wildlife or tossed an apple core into the woods. While these actions may seem harmless at the time, until we learn to reduce our impact, the quality of our outdoor experiences and the recreational resources we enjoy are at critical risk. Also at risk is our continued access to wildlands as land management agencies sometimes take restrictive action to protect the resources they manage. Unless, of course, education catches up with behavior, and we all learn to leave the outdoors as unchanged as possible by our presence.

I have experienced land managers clawing back access first hand. As just one example, it is an annual occurence for Bruce Trail private landowners to get tired of the mess users make (and I was cleaning up regularly back in the 1970's), and revoke permission for the trail to cross their land, necessitating major trail re-routes. As I noted above, there are no longer shelters or campsites along the Bruce Trail; all were removed because they were being abused.

And if you spend time in Kananaskis, you have experienced it, too. As one example, Mt. Indefatigable’s east ridge used to be an incredibly popular official hike complete with memorial benches. Now there’s this sign posted at the trailhead, and you can't go up the trail without passing it.
I would have thought this was a clear message
Research and collar data clearly shows that grizzlies forage in the summer, and head up there in the fall to den (and later in this series, I'll provide more data on this particular problem area). For the sake of the grizzlies, the trail was decommissioned, and land mangers asked people to respect the trail closure. Has that stopped people going up there? Nope, not at all. Making arguments like “if the grizzlies were there, they would put an area closure in place” or “I’ll make sure we don’t disturb them” or “you could run into bears anywhere”, sadly many, many folks ignore the request and still use that trail.

Another example was the closure of several sections of trail (including a newly built trail) last summer in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park on the east bank of Cougar Creek in an area referred to as the Horseshoe Loop. The Friends has been heavily involved since 2015 working in partnership with various land managers and user groups (including CAMBA, who is quoted in the linked article) to reduce trail density on the land in that area. Everyone agrees that the trail density is too high. Research (that I help with) clearly shows the deleterious effect that trail density has had, and is having, on wildlife. In the end, the land managers have the final say, and sometimes, actions to protect the land they manage will be taken.

Many places in K-Country are under such pressures, and I don’t see the trend of potentially increasing restrictive actions ending any time soon. Since the Friends is in the education business, enhancing education regarding treading lightly in the wilderness is part of what we need to do.

In this 8 part series, I’m going to use Leave No Trace Canada’s 7 Principles of Leave No Trace to explore ways to minimize our impact as users of K-Country, and how we can keep “A Kananaskis Country of exquisite natural and cultural landscapes enjoyed by present and future generations” – which just happens to be the Friends vision.