Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dan Crane On Backcountry Litter

Milky Way wrapper near Middle Branch Oswegatchie RiverThis 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.

Mylar balloon north of Middle Branch Oswegatchie RiverHow 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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

11 Responses

  1. Bill Ott says:

    High fives on an article that hits home with me. Your writing seems to have improved since the AE experience, and I always read every word (sometimes too many words) of your posts several times. That is what brings me back to this sentence:

    “And it just shattered a finely-honed illusion of wilderness.”

    And I think, is that all we have up here, make believe? Somebody twists their ankle going up some peak and gets taken out by rangers. I (2012) lose track of time in the “wilderness” and a ranger finds me just as I pull my canoe out of the OZ a day late. Or perhaps you getting pulled out of the Ponds in the 1995 blowdown. If this were Alaska or the Yukon, we’d all be dead.

    Then I think of the F-106 that crashed in 1974 in the town of Hopkinton. The plane was found quickly, but Capt Rumburg’s body was not found for nearly three weeks despite hundreds, if not thousands of searchers (including Green Beret). Rumburg was found 3-1/2 miles from the crash site. And how abut Wilbur Weyland, who died in his Piper Cub on the Robinson River, not more than 5 miles from Wanekena, and was not found for 25 years?

    Perhaps this is not Alaska, but there is wilderness here, even if it has trails and shelters. This is a unique area, very thick, sometimes hard to navigate, and it can suck you up forever. There is no illusion here: be prepared, be careful, and since you are already where you want to be, there is no need to hurry. And bring out some litter. (If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.)

    Thanks again for your writing, Dan.

    • Dan Crane says:


      And thank you for the complements. I consider myself a student of writing, so it is nice to hear that people think I’m improving. I have a hard time telling, given I am too close and can’t see the forest for the trees.

      When I stated the “illusion of wilderness,” I was referring to the illusion of being the only person to ever travel in a certain area. I often get that feeling out there until I see some litter, an old garbage pit or an ancient campsite. I don’t think I was very clear on that, so I guess I still have a way to go with my writing.

      • Bill Ott says:

        Believe me, this is all in fun.

        Since I did not really add anything to your article, you must have meant to thank me for my “COMPLIMENTS”, dear student of writing. My freshman English prof would have given an F for such a faux pas. But to be fair, our local rag, The Plain Dealer, often earns an F also.

        And you think I have nothing better to do than this? I’d rather be COMPLEMENTING the compost in the 5 Ponds than being stuck here. But I am stuck here, so watch out!!

        • Dan Crane says:


          That is the last time I try to fire off a comment as I am running out the door to go on a backcountry trip.

          How embarrassing.

  2. Tim says:

    Litter is disturbing and I make it a point to carry a little out on every hike. But the emphasis is on little. Given the number of people who hike the trails, there is surprisingly little compared to years ago. I remember hiking in the Sierras in the seventies, and carrying out 2 full packs at the end of our week long trip.

    • Dan Crane says:


      I agree that there does seem to be less litter along the trails these day, but since I’m on the trails less than I used to be, I am probably not the best person to judge.

      I imagine the amount of litter depends on the use of the area. The lack of garbage might just be due to less people using the trails, which seems to be the case in parts of the Five Ponds Wilderness. When the Cranberry Lake 50 first started to be promoted, I did notice more litter along the trail, most likely due to increased use and carelessness.

      Keep picking up a little litter. That’s all anyone can ask!

  3. Hawthorn says:

    The reason for less litter in the woods is there are less hunters, and IMHO they contribute more litter than most. Fishermen are better–especially the backcountry sorts–but I see lots of crap around popular fishing spots. No, hikers, bikers, and paddlers are not perfect in their backcountry habits, but I believe in general they are much, much better than they used to be. Go hiking with a group of young people and without a thought they pick up everything and would never dream of leaving trash deliberately. Much better than my generation that you can sometimes track for miles by the constant stream of litter.

  4. Neil Geminder says:

    What are your thoughts about cleaning up after dogs? I always cleaned up after my dogs down in the “flatlands” and now that I’m living up here I can’t seem to leave it where it lies. It’s just as easy to clean up after them here as it was down there. Being new, I certainly don’t want to preach to long time Adirondackers.

    • Bill Ott says:

      Hello Neil:

      I do not understand your comment.

      1) I always cleaned up after my dogs down in the “flatlands”

      2) “I can’t seem to leave it where it lies.”

      The first three sentences do not make sense, no matter how hard I try. But then the last sentence “preach to long time Adirondackers.” (Should I leave the period in or not, Dan) is just a plain insult.

      Bill Ott

      • Paul says:

        That comment makes perfect sense to me. I am not insulted.

        I don’t think we need to pack it out but I do appreciate it when folks toss it out of the trail. Nothing can ruin a morning hike like stepping in a big pile of it in the trail.

        • Bill Ott says:

          I was wrong – the comment makes sense to me now. I must have hit my head on something.

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