Summer solstice is the day when the sun takes the highest arc across the sky and lingers just a bit longer before kissing the horizon. It ushers in Maine’s short season of humid days and firefly nights.
Standing on the banks of Abol Pond on June 20, we observed the threshold. Orange and pink bled across the sky and reflected off the still water as the sun sank below the mountains of Baxter State Park.
All of us — five students and two instructors — stood there for the same reason, to become better stewards of the wilderness. We had spent an 85-degree day learning and practicing the ins and outs of “Leave No Trace,” and as the longest day of the year drew to an end, we were ready to climb in our tents and call it a night.
“Leave No Trace.” You’ve seen the phrase at trailheads and park ranger stations; in outdoor newsletters, pamphlets and maps; on bumper stickers and Nalgene bottles. It is the most widely accepted outdoor ethics program used on public lands. But what does it really mean?
Upon being invited to participate in a two-day Leave No Trace trainer course in Baxter State Park, I decided it was a good time to find out.
On a stifling hot Wednesday morning, I walked into Baxter State Park Headquarters in Millinocket to be greeted by Marcia and Gabe Williamson, both certified LNT Master Educators.
I had read over the material they had sent me in the mail and no longer thought the gist of LNT was picking up your trash when you’re in the woods. LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with alliances to the National Park Services, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And I knew there was a lot more to it.
“I think first and foremost, a lot of it is common sense, even though it’s based on science,” said Marcia Williamson. “I also think it’s easy to practice. You can learn the principles just by carrying a reference tag.”
The seven LNT principles are:
• Plan ahead and prepare.
• Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
• Dispose of waste properly.
• Leave what you find.
• Minimize campfire impacts.
• Respect wildlife.
• Be considerate of other visitors.
In fact, I already had practiced the first principle by packing everything they suggested on their course equipment list, including a cook stove, headlamp, compass, whistle, sleeping bag and bug repellent — plus a few extras items: a book for bedtime, beef jerky, a camera.
Through a few icebreaker activities I quickly became acquainted with my fellow students: Sara Caldwell, an environmental educator at Bigelow Preserve; Carol Corkran, a teacher at River School in Belfast; and Baxter State Park wilderness educators Kelsey Johnson and Acadia Tripp.
After a video, lecture and lunch, we headed into Baxter State Park to set up camp at Abol Narrows Campground, where we erected small tents in lean-tos to minimize our impact on the ground.
That evening, we sauteed green peppers, eggplant and onions over a tiny gas cookstove. On another stove, we boiled water for rice and beans. On a picnic table, the rest of the crew cubed cheese, sliced tomatoes and gutted avocado.
Following LNT principles doesn’t mean the end of all fun, games and good eating.
“You just have to think about what’s going to create the least impact on the land,” Marcia Williamson said.
For instance, we used water instead of oil to cook the vegetables, and we draped a tarp over the picnic table for easier cleanup. We washed our dishes 200 feet (about 70 adult steps) from our tents to prevent nuisance animals from swarming our sleeping area that night.
“It requires a lot of thought and self discipline to pull this off — to ensure you will remain safe and they will remain safe from our food,” Gabe Williamson said.
The Williamsons remember teaching a LNT course in Smoky Mountains National Park, where bears had become such a problem that park staff set up cameras in campsites to observe their habits.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, when a bear came into a campsite, it went directly to the fire pits,” Gabe Williamson said.
That’s why food shouldn’t been thrown in campfires, even burnt marshmallows (which I confess I’ve done many times).
As traveling trainers for three years, 2002-’04, the Williamsons drove more than 150,000 miles to deliver LNT workshops, establishing more than a million contacts in 48 states. During that time, they trained staff and visitors at the Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
In 2007, they returned to Baxter State Park, where they previously had worked together as rangers at Daicey Pond for 11 years. (The park is also where they became engaged and spent their honeymoon.) Today, Marcia Williamson is the park’s interpretive specialist and Gabe Williamson is campground ranger at South Branch Pond. And as Maine advocates for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, they continue to lead LNT trainer courses and awareness workshops throughout the state.
About 60,000 people visit Baxter State Park each year, a number that is only increasing. And as more people visit parks, land trusts and wildlife refuges, their impact has a cummulative effect on the wildlife of those areas. That’s why LNT is important.
“The most common misconception about Leave No Trace is that it means they can’t do this or can’t do that,” said Marcia Williamson. “A lot of people think Leave No Trace is saying not to have a campfire, which isn’t the case. It’s saying to consider the regulations of the place you’re staying and try to minimize the campfire’s impact on the land — to build a smaller campfire rather than a bonfire.”
As people who have spent much of their lives hiking, biking and skiing in the wilderness, the Williamsons had a lot of stories to illustrate the impact people can have on the wilderness.
One incident they remembered was of a man who was walking on the Appalachian Trail toward Daicey Pond when he flicked a cigarette toward Nesowadnehunk Stream — only it didn’t quite make it. Flames were engulfing a tree and underbrush by the time another hiker saw the fire and ran to the campground to get help. Gabe Williamson remembers fighting the fire down — and the anger he felt towards the careless hiker.
As a key component of the trainer course, each student had to present one of the seven principles. I chose “respect wildlife.”
Though I’m a lousy actor, I decided to teach my principle through a humorous skit called “The Worst Guest Ever,” during which I compared being a guest in someone’s home to being a guest in an animal’s habitat. My fellow students and the two instructors participated in this skit. Some of them acted as animals while others acted as home owners. I, of course, was the rude guest in both scenarios. About the time I decided to sleep in their kitchen, the “homeowners” asked if I was on drugs. The “animals” fled when I let my imaginary dog loose in the woods. Who says you can’t have a good time teaching wilderness ethics?
By the end of the second day of activities, presentations and difficult (yet often humorous) role-play scenarios, I was handed a certificate as an LNT trainer, of which there are 10,000 in the U.S. (and just 2,000 LNT master educators). As a trainer, it’s important I practice LNT principles when I’m out hiking or even in my backyard, and that I try to share LNT with others.
But those seven principles are just words without ethical thinking to put them into action; and ethical thinking is largely based in emotion, conscience, the eerie feeling someone gets when they know something is simply wrong.
To best explain, I’ll go back to Abol Pond on the summer solstice, and I’ll bring you with me.
Your feet sink into a springy bed of pine needles as a warm breeze ruffles the water. Dragonflies zigzag over lilypads. A loon calls in the distance.
Now imagine the initials “AJ” carved into a white pine to your right, a cigarette snubbed out by the trunk. Picture a soda bottle floating along the bank. Noisy campers drowning out the call of the loon.
Now, ask yourself if any of that bothers you.