As we continue to isolate ourselves to protect those fragile and near and dear to us, we have been indulging in some local and appropriately distanced camping in Arizona. As avid campers, the wilderness and remote destinations act as therapy for us in so many ways, and are always a way to reflect and a way to recharge, especially in these challenging times.
The week after Memorial Day weekend 2020, we decided it was a good time to explore new territory and take our kiddos to cooler mountain air. We left the Pin Drop factory in Miami, Arizona on Friday afternoon, temperatures still rising even at 95 degrees, and headed up the Salt River Canyon via highway 60 with no real plan, but a lake destination on our minds.
We weren't sure where we would end up, but in looking at one of our many topographic maps of the area, Chevelon Lake, in Apache Sitegreaves National Forest looked like a possibility. Given its remote location and accessibility only by foot, we thought a camp near there would provide an opportunity for cool sleeping in the pines, quiet mid-day naps, and quite possibly a float in one of our kayaks on the lake.
We anticipated the actual campground would be closed due to the health concerns related to COVID-19, and we were right. We arrived in the afternoon, and found a camp just shy of the official campground that was surrounded by pine, oak, and lots of juniper, the smells that, for us, bring immediate calm and a sense of relief. There were no close neighbors, and plenty of room to spread out.
Excited at our arrival, we quickly unbuckled, unhitched, opened adult beverages (for the adults), and explored the immediate surroundings. There seemed to be a separate camp, deeper in the forest, further beyond where we had planted the Pin Drop. What we found there at that camp, literally took our breath away.
Our excitement and our calm quickly turned to frustration and disbelief. Like so many other stories we had heard over the last weeks, we were experiencing the same disheartening feeling ourselves. A beautiful campsite tucked away in our public lands had been left and abandoned with a mountain of trash. It was more than a few plastic cups and paper plates, it was literally a mountain of waste, food wrappers, cardboard boxes, clothing, Styrofoam, plastic bottles, soda cans and even the evidence of a campfire, which are banned due to the current influx of campers and the dry weather. The trash had already been scavenged by birds and wildlife that had spread the remains across 100 square feet of the forest, if not more.
And there we were with our two young daughters staring at the core of irresponsibility, selfishness and disrespect. It was not how we had intended the start of a recharge in the wilderness experience. It was so reckless and unexpected. Certainly, we had come upon many camps in our lifetime of remote camping that were trashy. We have shoveled out a number (too many to count) of fire pits across this state and beyond that were full of glass and aluminum and tin and nails and bottle caps and other refuse. We have done our part in cleaning up camps left littered with toilet paper (Dig a Hole People) Yet, this site was unlike anything we have ever seen.
The before and after.
It feels funny to try and educate those that likely will never read this blog or any similar publication related to the care and upkeep of public lands and our National Forests. I suppose if I do for some reason have their attention, "There is no trash pick-up here," would be my first diplomatic, reserved, and acceptable-for-all-ages, carefully calculated statement. It's a Pack it in and Pack it out situation, as noted on the Apache Sitegreaves National Forest website under General Notes, as well as common knowledge. Our Forest Service friends and rangers are already overwhelmed with conservation efforts, fire safety, and wildlife preservation. Though I know they face this all the time, I am appalled that they have to. In a slightly more sarcastic tone, I might say, "Exactly WHO do you think will be picking up this trash?"
Well, in this case, it was us. We picked it up. Every last tissue. Channeling my dear friend and trash pick-up champion Helene Tack, we scrounged our supplies for as many bags as we could find, even pawning one off of another camper, put on gloves, and spent our Sunday morning collecting and gathering the waste of strangers before our departure. With curses and judgments that never solve problems, we angrily packed out at least 6 bags of trash and waste that had been left behind by unthoughtful users. I can't even call them campers.
Company Core Values
In line with our company core values, we encourage the #LeaveNoTrace philosophy (Read all 7 Principles of Leave No Trace, a framework of minimum impact principles) and of course the care and protection of our public lands and shared spaces. This is important to us, but doesn't make facing this scenario easier or less troublesome. How do we share best practices and good principles with those that never had example in their own lives? The most tragic part of this story were the child-sized footprints left behind in the sand across the camp. It was the realization that a child or children, just like ours, ran around in those woods, maybe experienced a starry-night sky or smelled the calming mix of pine, oak and juniper combined for the very first time. Those children likely left their campsite believing their trash belonged in the wild.
The one nugget of good, certainly, was the ability to demonstrate stewardship and social and public responsibility to our own kids, which we take very seriously. As mad as we were for coming upon this unnecessary and unbelievably irresponsible act, it created some very necessary and thoughtful conversation for our ride home and even now, weeks later, which I am grateful for.
Many of us have heard of or experienced this same situation in our own travels, and especially in recent weeks as more people are turning to remote destinations to isolate and social distance. Acts like this are personal. We feel them deeply. We must look at them with compassion, leadership, and opportunity, recognizing that many adventure seekers right now are simply users and not necessarily conscious campers. What is our role? We all have a responsibility to kindly educate and push social responsibility of our forests and lands and the special destinations that give us all a place to reflect and recharge.
If you were thinking of escaping the issues we are all facing each day, especially right now in social equity, social justice, and health. Think again. Your advocacy and leadership are needed everywhere, even in the wild.
For more information on the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace, visit Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics. We all play a role in the protection of public lands.