Last week’s column on trail etiquette provoked quite a range of reactions. Setting aside the number of you who decided from the column’s sarcasm that you knew me well enough not to ever want to meet me on the trail (a remarkable feat of judgmental sleuthing, that there is), there were quite a variety of strong opinions registered. I must say this intensity caught me by surprise. Coupled with the heated exchanges about dogs on the trail from previous columns, I sensed a pattern.
What struck me is that for some reason trail etiquette clearly intersects with questions of humanity, culture and self esteem in a different way than, say, campground etiquette (where the rules are better understood and apparently tolerated as a matter of course, there being accepted norms for standard campground functions and behaviors).
I think I understand the reason for this, or one of them anyhow: people clearly are sensitive to how they are casually met and evaluated. Indeed being on a trail involves intentional behavior (to get somewhere) that results in meetings that are unplanned. I think there’s some interesting psychology to be delved into here; it’s beyond my expertise, perhaps someone out there can write a paper. In any case it seems to me that on the trail we see ourselves clothed in our appearance and behavior, revealing our human nature, social status and cultural background; thus we are vulnerable, we are open to question or judgment by these unplanned but forced casual encounters.
This got me thinking that the idea of trail etiquette could be broadened to the benefit of the park, its visitors and the people who live here, by examining etiquette and conduct from a broader social and cultural standpoint instead of just from sets of rules intended to protect the environment. I considered that perhaps we ought to be talking about a set of Adirondack visitor guidelines. By that I don’t mean a bunch of stringent rules and threats, but rather a set of values that compliment this special place and give voice to a way of thinking about park visits and activities that connects with peoples’ humanity instead of leaving interactions in the psychological realm of the unplanned, as in a chance trail meeting.
That may sound grandiose, but these idylls began after my friend Dave Mason sent me an email this week and I think they may be right. I think we have something to learn from Chile.
Here’s Dave’s description:
“I went to a remote park in southern Chile last winter. The use the term ‘wilderness’ to describe areas that are off-limits except for special permits. But inside the ‘wilderness’ there are trail corridors – called ‘human use corridors”. These are similar to high use trails here, but you are not permitted to go off wandering in the wilderness.
Camping areas are restricted… …the number of overnight visitors is limited this way… …there are also fairly large areas when you are only permitted to go with guides who arrange the trip.
They have had terrible fires, and that is what brought about the current rules… …they also hand visitors a ‘how to behave here’ guide, that I’ll send Pete.”
Rather than try to explain my idea is for Adirondack guidelines, let me give you the Chilean one, which will do a better job than I could. Read it and I think you’ll see what I mean. The following was translated into English (not by me). I present it verbatim, save for minor spelling and grammatical corrections I made for readability:
Code of Conduct for Responsible Tourism
Help the Local Economy
When arranging your visit, use guides and tour operators that live in the areas you will be visit. Local guides can add a lot of value to your experiences here.
Buy locally produced items that contribute to our economy on a small scale. Avoid products that are obviously false copies made elsewhere.
Treat vendors and artisans with respect and friendliness and these will be fully returned to you.
Value Local Traditions and Customs
Before your visit, research local events and shows. These things will help you better connect to our special communities.
Respect and protect everything that makes an area different. It might be local history, architecture, food, religion or a special hidden spot in nature to fish, swim enjoy the quiet or a special vista.
Understand our Park is different than most – it is not entirely public land. If private land is ‘posted’ do not violate the landowners request for privacy.
Be Careful When Visiting Back Country Areas, Heritage Sites and Fragile Zones
Collect and return with any garbage generated during your visit, including organics. Littering the landscape affects the visitors coming after you. We use the phrase “leave no trace”.
Choose footsteps that cause the least impact on the landscape. Stay on existing trails. Take guided tours and walks – you will learn more and contribute to local jobs.
Do not feed wildlife.
Do not participate in environmental crimes. Know the rules and regulations for things like camping, pets, proper food storage and firewood. These rules were created to preserve the environment you came to visit.
Do not bring invasive plants, insects or aquatic species into our region. Wash boats on trailers when moving between lakes. Do not bring firewood from more than 50 miles away.
Contribute to the maintenance of the infrastructure and equipment by paying any solicited fees. Find out how to donate to local supporting organizations.
Be aware that weather conditions can change rapidly, especially in the mountains.
When hiking alone or in groups, be sure to register your trip in the books at all the trail heads. This can be critical information to search and rescue operations.
Minimize Your Waste and Carbon Emissions
Reduce, reuse and recycle solid waste during your visit. Use refillable water bottles and coffee mugs. Bring reusable bags to markets and don’t accept plastic bags – use other means to carry purchases. Avoid products with excess packaging.
Reduce consumption of water and electricity in local establishments. Don’t have your sheets and towels changed every day. Turn off lights and adjust heating/cooling when you leave your room.
Show a preference for group transportation and tourism that saves money and reduces carbon emissions.
Be an Informed and Respectful Traveler
Take account of local laws and regulations on public lands
Be aware that our Park is half private land and each landowner’s rules must be observed. If signs say “no trespassing” do not go there.
Find out how you can receive medical attention in an emergency. It may be some distance away.
As you can see, this is a broader and more holistic sense of what conduct is than anything we’re used to – at least in print – and it embraces a deep notion of etiquette. It invites people to see themselves in a richer context of the park that includes its culture, history and people. Most notably it broadens the idea of the welfare of the park from matters of where one’s feet fall to things like supporting the local economy and seeking out native expertise and knowledge in order to learn about that culture and history. It is positive, inclusive and immersive and it makes positive assumptions about people in a way that establishes them as part of the region’s community, not just as visitors.
I can imagine an effort being undertaken to fashion a similar code of conduct for the Adirondacks. I could become a ubiquitous resident of the region – at trail heads, motels, village kiosks and so on. Because “code of conduct” sounds like something out of a boarding school for delinquents I would call it something else. But it could have the same positive impact that the Chilean version does. It would help to create a sense of park identity, a need many have pointed out (what to an outsider constitutes the Adirondack Park? Lake Placid? Lake George? Just the woods? How do you know you’re in a park besides brown and yellow signs?).
I think it is obvious that a more enlightened and holistic sense of the park, helping visitors behave in ways and make choices that embrace its unique history and culture, would mean that the environment was better treated as well. Perhaps thinking about etiquette and conduct – what we want to say about it, to whom and why – isn’t such a bad thing to do after all.