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Leave No Trace

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.

The trail down to Chevelon Lake, Apache Sitegreaves National Forest

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.

Pin Drop post near Chevelon 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.

The mountain of trash left by previous campers at a National Forest campsite near Chevelon Lake.

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.

Tim and Ruth Ellen Elinski beginning the clean up.

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?"

Tim Elinski heading down to the trash site with bags and gloves.

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.