thats_wild (2006-40)

Some secrets are OK to tell, sometimes

Backpacker Creed

by Rikki Hall

My dear friend Zane challenged me the other day about whether Hellbender Press should be publishing articles about remote backpacking spots few people know about. He wondered aloud whether such places might best be kept secret for fear they might become popular and lose their charm.

Fishermen are well acquainted with the notion. Favorite pools or coves are rarely mentioned, and the risk of overfishing is quite real. No one wants to trek to a reliable spot only to find the fish no longer bite. Many fishermen enjoy the solitude of the experience as much or more than the catch, and seeing a strange boat in your favorite secluded cove can be distressing.

When you were a kid, you probably had a favorite place you could disappear to when you wanted to be alone—up a tree, behind a hedge, off in a patch of woods. It wasn’t as special if your mom or brother found out about it. A discarded beer can could instantly transform your place of refuge into a place of danger.

Backpackers have similar sensibilities. We consider car camping a pale imitation of the real thing. If you did not carry everything you need in on your back, if your rain plan is to get back in the car and leave, you are not really camping. Backpackers are heavily invested in the experience and want a lot out of it.

No one expects to be alone at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail. Likewise, certain backcountry sites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park require not just a permit, but reservations. In national forests, state parks, and the more remote camps in the national park, you stand a fair chance of being alone. At a truly secluded campsite, gathering firewood is trivial, and you never run into someone else’s trash.

You know a campsite has been compromised if you find carelessly discarded trash or branches hacked off live trees. These are signs of not just human presence, but dumbasses. Hacking up a live tree is poor form because it hurts the tree and provides nothing but green wood you’ll have a hell of a time burning. Zane doesn’t want fools too inconsiderate or lazy to pack out their garbage or incapable of building a fire out in the wilderness, and neither do I.

We both know, however, that people have to value wilderness for it to be preserved. First-hand experience in wild places affords the deepest love and appreciation, and Zane may be right that novice backpackers need to be initiated not through trail guidebooks and magazines, but by learning directly from someone who can teach no-trace camping, map reading, mountaineering, trail cooking, safety,  and all the things you need to know to be comfortable deep in the wilderness.

Strapping 20 pounds onto your back and wandering into the woods is a self-selecting act. It implies a level of commitment and planning that normally precludes dumbasses. As disappointing as it might be to arrive at camp after hiking five miles and find another group has already pitched their tents, my experience has been that you meet fine folks in those circumstances. They hiked five miles in as well and had the good taste to pick the same spot you did.

That’s the reality that I think justifies writing about remote campsites. Mentioning a place in a brief article might inspire some people to visit, but they will still need to acquire the right topographic map and trail guide, do some planning, and make the effort to get there. Many people will read the article and take from it not the courage to hike miles into the forest, but an appreciation for the forest and what it means to people that like strenuous adventures, self-sufficiency and solitude.

The human soul was forged in wilderness, and wild tales resonate with us all. Edward Abbey probably hasn’t inspired many people to actually disappear into the desert for a month with a heavy iron cauldron and a 50-lb sack of beans, but he planted the fantasy in my head. If we treat wilderness as a secret, we risk forgetting why it ever mattered.

I have a favorite campsite in North Carolina where I have taken several good friends. Getting there is a little too easy and a lot too odd to share. At least one private property owner would never forgive me if I published directions. I still want everyone to know that a spotted skunk might be the most beautiful and delightful four-footed creature you could ever hope to have wander through your camp. There are few places where that can happen, and I don’t want them to grow fewer.

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.