Here’s a short story about trashy folks…. The Jack Creek Criminals
As a regular hiker I’ve noticed my human friends’ nasty habit of leaving their trash on the trail, along waterways, and generally making a mess of the woods. I really don’t understand this since I’m a “leave no trace” hiker myself. I always take care of my personal business off the trail in a discrete location. I never carry my chew toys into the woods because it would be easy to leave them there by accident. I always finish every last bit of my food. “Leave nothing but footprints,” that’s my motto!
The motto for human folks seems to be, “Prove you were here by leaving lots of trash or building structures for no reason!” They carry plastic bottles or aluminum cans filled with water, soda pops, beer, and all sorts of concoctions. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a nice cold beverage, but some humans leave their empties right where they had their last sip. They don’t mind carrying a full bottle into the woods but an empty bottle is too heavy for their pitiful, exhausted human selves to carry out. They deserve an ankle bit for that!
Sometimes they build huge fire rings when a small one would work much better. They stack rocks behind waterfalls as if they’re going to make a shelter there. They cut trees and stack limbs, living out some type of pioneer fantasy. They carve their initials in trees or bridges as if others are going to want to see this. Humans have developed better ways to share information than carving on trees and rock, yet some persist in doing this.
Sometimes they leave half-eaten food and trash in their half-burnt fire rings. Oh, that’s a beautiful sight for the next campers who come along. Just the other day I was walking along a trail and found sliced potatoes buried right beside a fire ring. My master was none-too-happy with me and it took a lot of encouragement on his part to get me moving down the trail again. Those potatoes smelled really good, especially cooked in all that butter.
Some humans want to put up big ugly signs saying, “Don’t bury food…Don’t throw trash on the trail…Don’t chop on healthy trees….Don’t build a house here….Don’t take a crap on the trail or by the water…don’t, don’t, don’t.” Only problem is that many humans who can read don’t and, those most likely to leave a mess think signs don’t apply to them.
One pack of humans got together and called themselves, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. They have some tips for leaving the woods in good shape. Of course, I can’t resist a few clarifying barks, too.
1. Plan ahead and prepare. “This is my weak area. I’m mostly thinking about my next meal but humans should plan so they don’t damage things.” – Hiker
2. Travel and camp on safe, durable surfaces.
3. Dispose of waste properly. “Please!” – Hiker
4. Leave what you find. “My master likes to look at old stuff in the woods so if it’s rusty, leave it. He’s wondering about the history behind the artifact. I don’t concern myself with such things. I just want to know when we eat.” – Hiker
5. Minimize campfire impact.
6. Respect wildlife. “Especially dogs.” – Hiker
8. Be considerate of other visitors. “This includes controlling pets which applies to me. Master tries to keep me on a leash when others are on the trail but if I get away from him and come running up, my only goal is to lick you all over and find a new friend. I mean no harm but do apologize for wetting you down.” – Hiker
I’m impressed that the human race has done as well as it has, especially when I see examples of our thoughtlessness… or stupidity. Who is it that walks to a beautiful waterfall and tosses a plastic bottle in the creek bed rather than carry it out? I wonder if any psychologists have done a study to determine a rationale for humankind’s tendency to trash their spaces, even their beautiful natural spaces.
As I hiked east from Dockery Gap to check my section of trail a dad and his four sons approached from the opposite direction. They had a haggard and disheveled look as they lumbered up the trail loaded down with one-gallon plastic milk jugs filled with cloudy water and overloaded backpacks. One of the sons carried a rifle presumably for protection from wild bears.
The gun made me nervous, but I relaxed when the dad spoke. He explained that they had camped at Jack Creek with plans to hike to White Rock Mountain, but now they were wondering how to hike out and where they might get cell phone service to call mom to come get them. I took my map out and showed them the road they were approaching and how to walk toward civilization. They explained that their water filter wasn’t working correctly, hence the murky water jugs. They’d not slept well, were overheated and exhausted. As I continued down the trail, I thought they’d made the right decision in exiting the forest.
Approaching Jack Creek less than a mile later, I saw smoke and a burning campfire. There was a hammock tied between two trees next to the creek and trash everywhere. Thinking someone must still be occupying the site I called out, but there was no response. It gradually dawned on me that this was the camp left by my exhausted friends who’d just asked for directions. I extinguished the fire, kicking a large aerosol can of insect spray out of the coals and then collected the trash.
I continued down the trail picking up more trash at each creek crossing. It appeared that these young men and their dad deposited trash at every rest stop. After doing a little maintenance I returned to the trashy camp, scattered the now cooled fire ring, and bagged the trash I’d collected earlier. Then I noticed scaring on a tree next to the creek where they had chopped it with an ax for no apparent reason. This began to feel like a crime scene.
I had visions of driving up on these fellows as they walked along the road and what I would like to say but then considered the rifle and thought a more diplomatic approach might be best. As I hiked up the trail away from the scene of the crime, I rehearsed the discussion I would have about the beauty of the Ozark National Forest and how important it is that we care for it and pass it on to our children. I wished for words to help these men discover a better way to treat the wilderness but, in reality, it seemed futile to try to convert remorseless criminals who enter the forest for recreation and harm it by their very presence.
As it turned out, by the time I arrived at the trailhead to throw my bag of trash in the Jeep, the father and his sons were nowhere to be seen. I do wish I could have that conversation, but I take comfort in the knowledge that I probably witnessed the conclusion of their first and last backpacking trip on the Ozark Highlands Trail. If I just had some assurance that they don’t have access to four-wheelers I’d feel a whole lot better.
Recently I encountered a dad, mom, and their three children, younger than 7 years old, hiking the Lake Alma Trail. It was a warm afternoon and we were close to mile 2 on the 3.6-mile trail. The dad asked how much farther it was around the loop. Seeing no evidence that they were carrying water I offered an extra bottle I carry just for such occasions along with a banana I had in my pack.
I later saw them wearily crossing the dam and was relieved that they would make it back to their car. As we passed I thought it strange that I didn’t see the water bottle but figured it was in the dad’s pocket. After they passed I wished I’d asked for it so I could use it again.
Most of my walks around the lake are early mornings with a flashlight but later during that same week I was hiking during the daylight hours while picking up trash. Most of the trash had obviously been there for years. No “new” trash was to be found along the trail, showing that our hikers are being considerate of this area.
Then I saw it. The same water bottle I’d given that dad earlier in the week. I was sure it was the same bottle because of the unusual shape and the location being just a little farther down the trail from where I’d met them the week before. I wondered what my reaction might have been if I’d asked for the bottle and he’d told me he dropped it on the trail. As it was I had the luxury of making a few comments to myself as I picked up the bottle.
This experience reminded me of “Leave No Trace” principles, one of which is that preparation is an essential part of protecting nature. Hikers who are unprepared end up in bad situations (like having a thirsty family). They make mistakes and demonstrate poor judgment. Still, I wonder what the thought process is when a person takes a bottle of water given by a fellow hiker and then tosses it on the trail after using the much-needed water.