This scenario is familiar to any backcountry enthusiast, regardless of whether they prefer the well-worn trails of a popular area or the trailless expanses that see more moose and black bear than they do people. Surrounded by forest, a multitude of birds singing in the canopy, a frog’s occasional throaty call emerging from a nearby wetland, it is as if there is not another living soul within miles around, and there may not be. Just as this feeling of remoteness engulfs the mind completely, the unnatural color of something on the ground assaults your senses, dispelling any fanciful notion of being in the only person in an unbroken wilderness.
Whether it is a candy bar wrapper, an old glass bottle, or a Mylar balloon, it does not matter. It does not belong here. It is not natural. It is litter. And it just shattered a finely-honed illusion of wilderness.
What is litter anyway? Why does it anger many backcountry enthusiasts so?
Litter is waste disposed of in an improper manner in an inappropriate place. In the Adirondack backcountry, this waste is typically garbage, such as candy wrappers, plastic packaging, cigarette butts and the like, contrasting with other human waste, which is better buried rather than packed out, especially if it is not your own.
Many consider only recently discarded items as litter. Older waste, often found as pits full of rusting cans, broken bottles and/or larger items such as old stoves, like the ones found at Crooked Lake, are considered historical artifacts. This is often a distinction lost on many. It is best to leave these sites alone, lest one finds themselves in trouble with the proper authorities, or an irate historian.
Littering is a human-manufactured concept. The animals calling the Adirondack backcountry home show little concern for the occasionally discarded by-product of a human-created throwaway society. In fact, many of them incorporate our waste into their own homes, as one can often see in a bird or small mammal nest. Apparently, we make great construction materials, regardless of whether they are for our own homes or not.
Only human beings find litter offensive. This appears due to its disposal in an improper place; a place that backcountry enthusiasts hold in high regard, otherwise they would not be out there to find the litter in the first place. Do we despise litterers so because of their lack of respect for the outdoors or because they compel us to pick up their waste? Probably a little of both.
Finding litter often leaves the finder in a quandary. Do you pick it up or leave it be? The answer typically depends on many factors. One is more likely to leave it be if in the beginning stages of a trip, when the pack is heavy with food, fuel and foolhardy ambitions. If near the end, with a lighter pack and plenty of space, the less burdensome load may compel one to bend down and pick some litter up, bringing it home and disposing of it properly.
I have my own rules for picking up waste. I will never pick up anything that resembles toilet paper. The few experiences with carrying my own used toilet paper (the last being while visiting the Sierra Nevada’s several years ago) were distasteful enough that I refuse to actually carry someone else’s. It might be acceptable sticking it in someone else’s backpack, but I would advise against that, mostly as it requires touching the soiled paper, which is best avoided in the first place. Another exception is broken glass, which I also avoid, as I would rather not have my gear shredded during my trip. Otherwise, I typically pick up and take any other litter I find, especially in the remote trailless backcountry, whether it be wrapper, flagging or the always irritating Mylar balloons.
How does this litter find its way into the backcountry in the first place? It is difficult to imagine that the majority of it is deposited intentionally. Why seek out the soothing effects of forest bathing, if that very area is held in such low regard as to merely function as a receptacle for waste. That leaves ignorance, carelessness and accidents as the main culprits for this egregious affront.
Most likely nearly every backcountry enthusiast is guilty of some unintentional littering from time to time. This can be a wrapper that works its way out of a pocket while vigorously hiking, goose down taking flight after escaping the confines of a jacket or sleeping bag, or a piece of gear falling from an over-stuffed backpack. The possible scenarios resulting in some accidental littering appear limitless, reduced only by careful and conscientious behavior, but never completely eliminated.
In the last two years, I contributed to the litter waste stream with the disappearance of a few small pieces of gear in the backcountry. Last year, an instep nylon strap for my Integral Designs Shortie gaiters presumably felt unappreciated, so it untied itself and stayed behind between Crooked Lake and Sitz Pond in the western portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness. Hopefully, it found whatever it was looking for out there.
Just recently, it happened again, this time while participating in the Birdathon in the Pepperbox Wilderness. A titanium tent stake went missing, either on the southern shore of Cropsey Pond or in the southwestern corner of Sunshine Pond. The thought of the desperate stake, alone and away from its 11 siblings for the first time since its manufacturing, just breaks my heart. So much so, that I plan to return to Cropsey Pond (the most probable location) soon, to initiate a rescue mission. As they say, leave no gear behind, or something like that.
Often littering comes from a socially approved, albeit misguided and somewhat selfish, behavior at a great distance from the very scene of the crime. I am not talking about acid rain here, which is certainly a type of littering, but something less insidious, although no less annoying.
Helium balloons are sprouting up all over the backcountry. In my own travels, they turn up along well-known trails, such as the Northville-Placid Trail, to the more obscure ones, like the Sand Lake Trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness. These balloons are not coming from some backcountry birthday celebration though, as they turn up in such remote areas as near Oven Lake, along the outskirts of the carpet spruce swamp near the Middle Branch Oswegatchie River and in central interior of the mostly trailless Pepperbox Wilderness too.
Littering is a problem, not only in the Adirondack backcountry, but also in the areas where we live, work and spend the majority of our time. Education and being extra careful in the backcountry can reduce littering, but will never eliminate the problem completely, as an occasional accident often results in garbage or gear escaping into the wild. Just be sure to pick up a few pieces of litter whenever out in the backcountry, but if it is a titanium stake in the eastern Pepperbox Wilderness, it is not litter, it is mine.
Photos: A Milky Way wrapper and Mylar balloon, both along the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River by Dan Crane.