The Trail Not Taken

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” Directly in front of me, a single set of shoeprints was stamped into the mud. The water-logged molds served as a warning to fellow hikers that the path would try to steal their shoe. On my right, a narrower, unofficial, path wove around several trees, and the forest underbrush was matted down on the edges. The compacted dirt showed no evidence of suction cupped boots or soaked shoes, but instead trampled fragile undergrowth. Before I made my decision, I imagined the 100,000 hikers who faced the same choice – wet boots or dry boots. Cringing, I placed my boot on the hard, dry ground. My feet remained comfy and dry, but I felt a twinge of shame. I knew my actions contributed to trail widening, a form of environmental degradation that occurs when hikers repeatedly diverge from the set path in order to avoid some sort of obstacle on the trail.

When I returned from my hike, dry boots tucked away in my closet, I asked myself whether environmentally damaging hiking is unavoidable? Certainly with 100,000 hikers a year, all with various land ethics and experience levels, initial carved trees and toilet paper wads sprinkled along the trail seems inevitable. Would it be best if we left nature as untouched as possible?

As someone who selfishly wants access to the natural world, my mind firmly and quickly settled on no.  Looking beyond myself, I recognized the 132,000 year round residents that are part of the Adirondack Park ecosystem serve as a much better reason for permitting hiking. A shutdown of hiking trails would shut down the Adirondack economy, which relies heavily on tourism.

Since the eradication of hiking is not an option, I questioned the limits of sustainable (economic, environment, and social) recreation in the Park. I felt really environmental about hiking while participating in the activity. I wasn’t racing around on a motorized vehicle. I wasn’t shooting animals. Instead, I was exploring nature in a quiet, poetic way. During my post hike, hot chocolate-sipping reflection, I realized this feeling of moral superiority was largely unfounded and definitely pretentious. I had no idea (and at this point, still don’t have any idea) how the environmental damage of hiking compares to that of any other recreational activity. I have no idea how much money each form of recreation brings to the residents of the park, or whether there are differences between the recreation tourists partake in versus locals. Such questions can only be answered in future interviews with knowledgeable locals.

As the articles on trail overuse and land damage during recreation stream in from local newspapers and blogs, it feels as though we are at a junction. Do we face the muck head on and start implementing policies and programs to limit and control recreation, or do we skirt around and keep our feet dry?