Leave No Trace (LNT) has been a part of backwoods, wilderness, outdoor travel for a few decades now, but until the first half of the 20th century, wilderness was the enemy, the “out there” that needed to be subdued by cutting trees, draining wetlands, building roads to lakes, later flying into them, making the outdoors accessible and safe for people.

About a century ago, outdoorsmen like Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Bob Marshall, and Sig Olson, among many others, challenged the notion of subduing wild lands, stating the opposite, that we need wilderness.  As a species, we are not far removed from wilderness, they wrote, and periodically need to get away to the “back of beyond,” far from steel, asphalt, cars and towns, where a person could be alone, on his or her own, and by being such, might reclaim some of the sanity, some of the humanness that had been lost.

In the early 1950s, I spent summers at a cabin by Ontario’s Crow Lake, a beautiful place with few people and motors.  We didn’t worry about trash.  We burned what we could and daily took the cans out to the center of the lake and sank them.  Everybody did it, but everybody back then was a small number.

A decade later, as a camper and then member of the Camp Pathfinder canoe tripping staff, we traveled in wood and canvas canoes, with keels.  Pathfinder today, 102 years after its founding, still uses red Old Towns. Our heavy canvas tents leaked if one touched the inside of them when they were wet.  The mosquito netting had holes, and every night, campers were told to ‘hold their breath” as bug repellent was sprayed into the tent.  I have no idea what I inhaled.

Author at Camp Pathfinder 100th year reunion, 2013, back in a red canoe for the first time in 47 years.

Author at Camp Pathfinder 100th year reunion, 2013, back in a red canoe for the first time in 47 years.

Day trip to Little Island Lake, Pathfinder reunion.  I camped on this very site fifty years prior.

Day trip to Little Island Lake, Pathfinder reunion. I camped on this very site fifty years prior.

We cut down small trees, usually balsam firs, to use their trunks as tent stringers, to which we tied the front and the back of the tent.  We used the boughs as mattresses.  Our food was cooked over an open fire, requiring large amounts of wood, for there were no camp stoves.  An axe was a necessity; every campsite had a can pit, a considerable amount of rusted junk, which attracted bears.  We made our own fire pits and camped wherever we wished.  Meal time, we soaped the pots and pans to make removing the blackness easier, later cleaning our dishes in the lake, leaving many visible food particles.  We used sand to scrub, moss to remove grease, thinking ourselves woodsmen of the first order.  Maybe we should have known better, but nobody I knew did. Sunscreen was unknown and we had no water filters.  Small wonder we often became ill.

Having learned to camp this way, the idea of complete LNT has been slow for me to adopt and for many others my age, some of whom haven’t adopted it at all.  I began using camp stoves about 25 years ago, never did cut green trees for firewood, or strip birch bark from a live tree.  That part was easy.  I’m still able to camp where water is drinkable, but even in the Boundary Waters, I’ve become ill on two occasions.  I take water from the middle of the lake and usually boil it now.  I use a small saw to get wood, although I do have issues with the suggestion that wood be gathered more than 150 feet from the shoreline of a lake.  Better wood, not degraded, is present along the shore, and walking deep in the woods risks injury, getting lost and hurting plants.

I hadn’t made the final step until recently.  I stopped burning trash. In Alaska, people still do on trips, but it is illegal in Minnesota to do so, and burning plastics releases toxic gases.  Many food containers used have aluminum foil present, the bane of litter in the woods.  Contrary to many beliefs, aluminum foil does not melt, but it does fragment, so even burning the pouch and carefully collecting aluminum left some behind.  All trash was packed out, including dental floss, and when I brush my teeth, I spit into the fire pit, not spray it on leaves, many of which on campsites are white from others’ doing this.  Cleaning pots means getting the soap off, but away from the lake, scrubbing with scouring pads and not rinsing them in the lake.  It seems so tempting just to do it in the lake.  A little soap won’t hurt.  But yes, it will.

In 1992, when I volunteered for the Forest Service in the Boundary Waters (BW), I saw first hand how LNT was being implemented. The BW has designated campsites, where one must stay.  This concentrates the impact to a few places, rather than many.

We need to regulate, because people don’t self-regulate well enough:

  • We must enter on a specific date and place.  The length of time one may stay and exit may not be regulated.  We want to disperse people throughout the wilderness, not overwhelm designated campsites.
  • Campsites all have a fire grate, the only place a fire is allowed.  The fire must be out, dead out, tested by using one’s hands in the ashes, when one leaves the campsite, be it for good or for a day trip.  I’ve seen experienced people leave burning fires when they day tripped.
  • It is illegal to cut, deface a tree or pick flowers.  The days of tent stringers are long gone; new tents are easier to pitch and leakproof.  Despite Thermarests, people still cut pine boughs, but it is rare.  Still, many trees are defaced by having nails driven into them to hang packs off the ground or for clotheslines, neither of which is necessary.
  • Only 9 people and 4 watercraft may be at the same place at the same time.  This removes crowds.  On busy portages, crowding may be a problem, but with 250,000 visitors annually to the border lakes, rules are needed.
  • No cans or bottles are allowed in the BW except for medications, fuel, and toilet articles, one of the first rules and one of the best. Can pits are long gone.
  • The latrine at each campsite concentrates human waste in one area. Nothing should be thrown into it, although I’ve seen fish, books, clothing, fuel bottles, and liquor.  Latrines may last a few years before being re-dug.  I have dug sixteen in the rocky soil, a difficult, nasty job, especially removing the old one and covering the prior area.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy must come to grips with human waste with hikers passing through, because many don’t bother to bury their waste,  More and more LNT is requiring packing out human waste  We did it on Grand Canyon raft trips 35 years ago. If I live long enough and remain healthy, I see a day when will routinely I pack out my waste.

I have found these changes to be difficult to adopt, but with time, they become easier.  The idea is to leave a site better than it was when one arrives.  For the current generation, this should all be easy.  For my generation, it has required a lot of changes. It isn’t 1950 any more, we aren’t making new wilderness, and many would like to destroy the little we have.

We need wilderness for our sanity.  Some of us have long known it.  Others have yet to learn.

View from campsite in Boundary Waters, 2015.

View from campsite in Boundary Waters, 2015.


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