This is it. One of the most awkward conversations of our adult boating life. Far too often, we, as otherwise mature, responsible grown-ups, dance around the topic of Leave No Trace with the dexterity of a Russian ballerina avoiding Legos on a spiral staircase.
But how do you talk to your boating buddies about Human Impact Disease, or HID, and how to prevent it?
Sometimes, the moment to initiate ‘the talk’ is pretty blatant. Like when a self-styled ‘30 year guide’ tosses half a pot of uneaten ravioli into the crystal clear waters of the Upper Colorado River and calls it fish food. But often, the call to action is a bit more subtle.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You and the crew pull into a beautiful camp after a long day with a nasty headwind. It’s taco night, and someone says, ‘I don’t want to get my mess kit dirty, so I’ll just palm it.’ Perhaps a few looks are exchanged, but no one wants to be ‘that guy,’ especially not when everyone’s just starting to relax, and it would totally kill the mood. Instead, ground beef and shredded cheese lightly sprinkle the sand near the kitchen and the culprits simply proceed with beer and bocce.
It may only be a tiny bit of food, but it wasn’t there before, and it won’t be there in the morning after the local rodent population gets involved. And when you wake up to mouse turds in your camp chair, you know it’s time to have ‘the talk.’
The concern is that if one speaks up for these practices on a river trip, it might ruin the moment and one will be permanently labeled the ‘fun-police,’ ‘smartass,’ or ‘Captain Bossy-Pants McGee.’ But the reality is the health of our river ecosystems is more important, and you needed a new nickname anyway.
So here we go.
First of all, no one should be ashamed to open this topic of discussion. We’ve all been in this situation. Anyone recreating in the outdoors is a part of the very real impact we messy humans have wherever we go. And every single one of us is responsible for the things we leave behind.
Some impacts are small and unintentional, like the aforementioned taco bits, and often occur because of a genuine lack of awareness. Other instances, however, can come from the egos which are often attached to boaters of all age and experience level.
While the only sure-fire way to avoid impacting the outdoors is to abstain from them completely, there are a lot of ways to effectively prevent the transmission of HID.
Most experts suggest practicing the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. As river-runners, we often find ourselves in high-risk situations for HID involving heavily used campsites in extremely sensitive environments. We must, therefore, learn how, and proudly encourage our peers, to tread lightly.
The progression of HID can be very rapid, or it can be mitigated into remission for a lifetime. Early onset symptoms look like braided trails, small pieces of litter, food scraps, rodent scat or the occasional bullet casing. And while the first indicators can be easily remedied, their very serious implications are all too often downplayed with the favorite denial line, ‘It’s only an orange peel.’
If left untreated, late-term symptoms include campsites infested with ants, mice and snakes, water contaminated with human fecal matter, and deadly wildlife interactions. Once an outdoor area reaches this point in the disease, the treatments generally include either quarantining it from human use completely or paving it over with concrete.
If we do not talk openly about the very real, very attainable actions we all need to take to practice safe recreating and prevent the transmission of HID, we will lose the innocence and joy of healthy adventures in these beautiful places.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Read all current river use guidelines accompanying a permitted area, even if you’re not the trip leader. Find out if there’s a fire ban, fishing restrictions, or other regulations unique to the state such as boat registration.
- Research the weather. If you launch in the morning expecting 95 and sunny, but a cold front moves in with wind and rain and you are lacking the proper warm gear or tent, the resulting exposure can jeopardize the safety of your group.
- Assume nothing about your fellow boaters. Clearly and openly discuss the details and logistical expectations for the trip with everyone BEFOREHAND.
The idea behind this principle is that if you end up in a bad situation because you weren’t ready for the challenges you could have reasonably discovered, then the resulting rescue or aid puts a much higher impact on the land, and the rescuers, than would have occurred otherwise.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- On overnight trips, only camp on established sites.
- Do not flatten down grass for a new, cozy tent spot.
- Do not side hike across cryptobiotic soil, wildflowers or other living things.
- On day floats, limit your lunch spots to rocks and beaches or developed areas, and only use the approved boat ramps for access points.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
- If the flow is more than 1000 cfs and silty, or it’s impossible to get more than 200 feet from the river’s edge, pee in the river. Many areas of popular rivers are semi-arid environments. This means that if you pee on the bank or in the sand NEAR the water, then the liquid will quickly evaporate from your urine, leaving a nasty smear of minerals and salts which will stay there for months until the next good rain.
- Solid waste must be packed out. No excuses, no emergencies. Keep a small wag bag in your day cooler for those ‘gotta go’ moments, and use a fully sealable toilet system for everything else.
- Micro-trash is trash. Crumbs from your garlic bread or pita pocket bring in ants and mice. If a campsite is used every night, as many are, then larger predators such as snakes will also follow. Do not drop fruit cores and peels claiming it is ‘biodegradable’ unless you literally just picked it off the plant that grew it. There are no native banana trees in the US and that peel will not decompose on its own for over a year.
- Rig to flip, and that means lock up your trash. Whether you use an empty cooler, a rocket box, or a screw on lid bucket, whatever holds your trash MUST remain intact even when fully submerged and surfing in that hole you didn’t think was really all that big.
4. Leave What You Find
- Just leave it. Drop it right there. Yes, I mean that flower/rock/pottery fragment. The number of users accessing our most popular rivers today would completely drain the beautiful details of the world if everyone took ‘just one.’
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
- No fires on the sand. None. Don’t give in to the temptation of that romantic Insta-shot. Burning driftwood on the beach sounds and looks lovely in the moment, but it leaves a very real scar. Even if it is all scooped into the water, what you created and pushed downstream was not there before.
- Bring an elevated firepan and ash container even when it is not required, and use them every time.
6. Respect Wildlife
- No shooting turkeys from the rafts.
- But more importantly, keep a clean camp, and do not make it an attractive nuisance to the local animal population.
- This means putting away all food and washing dishes EVERY NIGHT before sleeping so that critters don’t learn that after 1 AM is a great time to raid the beach. Tidy up and lock it down, or the wild animals who come to investigate are invariably the ones paying the price just because everyone passed out before cleaning up after themselves.
- And of course, sweep the campsite thoroughly to find any lost tent stakes and or food scraps before launching every morning.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Share the ramp. Please see Audubon Field Guide to Native Ramp Life for reference.
- Communicate pleasantly with other groups about camp sites you plan to reach because it’s a good idea to know who is on the water with you, and you might even make some friends.
- Do not use speakers in a natural environment where other groups can hear you. They didn’t come to the desert or the mountains to listen to your Milky Chance station on Pandora.
- Always bring safety gear and be prepared to aid in rescues.
NEW Social Media Guidelines
HID has evolved in recent years, and transmission no longer needs physical contact. The pictures and ideas we pass along on our various social media channels can cause tremendous impact to vulnerable places. It’s with this in mind that the experts at LNT have recently created their social media guidelines.
Do not tag (or Geo-tag) specific locations.
- Hashtags should be handled with care and can be solely responsible for a tremendous increase in activity in some remote areas. The top ten hidden wilderness canyons do not dream about ‘Going viral.’
- On permitted river sections—tag at your own risk, because you already have a snowball’s chance in hell at getting your dream trips anyway these days, and why increase the odds.
- Hush hush on the side hikes and rock art. You used to have to earn access to those kinds of finds by actually exploring on your own, or gaining the trust of a few salty types who knew them all from before we were born. So let everyone find their own adventure.
Be mindful of what your images portray
- PFDs missing? Fire burning on the open sand? Ropes in the water?
You and your favorite idiots took the picture knowing it was obviously a farce, an exception, or just a momentary lapse in judgment, but recognize that public photos of outdoor recreation gone wild get shared quickly. Each image is one tiny crumb of the culture and norms being created every day. If you were being a jackass, that’s fine, we’ve all been there. Just don’t laud it up on Instagram.
Give back to the places you love
- YES! If you feel deeply that our land and rivers are precious, but don’t have the money to drop some dimes with American Whitewater, then use social media to connect with like-minded people by giving back to the areas we adore. Work with local non-profits to pick up trash, plant vegetation or otherwise mitigate the symptoms of HID.
Encourage and inspire Leave No Trace practices with social media posts
- This is the beautiful thing about social media. It’s the culture maker of our age. Which means that every single person has a hand in creating our reality with every post, picture and ‘like.’ Our outdoor places will greet more and more people every year, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if those people were drawn there with a common understanding of the value and vulnerability of those places. What if river rafters became known as the elite preventers of HID, and it was unheard of to pour unstrained dishwater into the river? Speak up out of love for these wild places.
So the next time you find yourself with the unexpected opportunity to protect the rivers we love, brush off the awkwardness with a dirty joke or a bad pun, and speak up for Leave No Trace. You can prevent the transmission and progression of Human Impact Disease. Be the one to draw a line in the sand through your own actions and through the positive encouragement of others. You don’t need to preach, or berate, humiliate or patronize. Just believe it, live it, and encourage others to do the same.