Before we hit the trail back towards civilization on the final morning of our camping trip in the Big South Fork backcountry, I told my son and his friends to take a look around and be sure that we hadn’t left anything behind.
“It’s not perfect,” I said of our campsite along the river, “But it’s way better than when we got here.”
I’m convinced that should always be the goal for those of us who love nature: Leave it a little better than we found it. I might not have the capacity to carry all the litter I find along the trail back to a trash bin in the frontcountry, but I want to pick up what I can.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of it to pick up these days, and that’s what we encountered at our campsite for the weekend. It was a disastrous mess: Food items that had been dumped and left to spoil, including an entire rack of pork ribs and a dozen and a half eggs; kids’ toys that were abandoned, presumably because they were deemed too burdensome to haul back to the trailhead; enough cardboard and other trash from spent fireworks to fill an entire trashbag; a used toddler training potty.
The list went on and on. All of the trash had been left by a single family who had spent the 4th of July weekend camping along the river. And the trash at the campsite was just the start of it. The family had literally left debris strewn along the hiking trail from the campsite all the way back to the trailhead.
I actually passed the family along the trail after they had broken camp the previous Sunday afternoon. I saw all their trash and the things they had left behind, but gave them the benefit of the doubt — an assumption that they would return to retrieve all the things they had left behind.
They did not.
As I have been out and about in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area this spring and summer, one constant has emerged: I have never seen the national park as trashed-up as it is right now. Folks I know who’ve visited other parks say they’ve encountered the same conditions in those places, so maybe there’s a bit of comfort in knowing that it isn’t just Scott Countians who trash their back yard — but it’s a tiny bit.
Because here’s the truth: the Big South Fork has always been relatively trashy, compared to other national parks. It’s the fault of a wide variety of folks — guests and locals alike. But, generally speaking, those who travel to backpack, paddle and pedal America’s scenic wildernesses consider themselves naturalists who wouldn’t dare trash up the backcountry. The lion’s share of the trash is being deposited by locals, and if you doubt that you only need to look where the bulk of the trash is being found: in the places where locals are most likely to congregate within the BSF.
This is our back yard. If we don’t care enough about it to treat it with respect and clean up after ourselves, who will?
No one who has traveled Scott County’s roadways would expect much more from us. If we can’t be bothered to avoid throwing trash out our car window, we certainly aren’t going to go to the trouble to pack it home with us if we’re out in the woods.
But it begs the question: Why do we head outside in the first place? Isn’t it to enjoy nature and the peaceful solitude of the great outdoors? Is there any among us who would ever consider pitching a tent on the edge of the county landfill? If not, why are we turning the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area into a landfill?
The place where the BSF litterbugs camped is one of the prettiest backcountry campsites in the entire national park. Presumably, they took the time and effort to hike that far in — rather than pitch their tents somewhere that’s closer to a developed trailhead — because they wanted to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. But once a place like that has been trashed up — especially to the magnitude that they trashed it up — it can never again be enjoyed unless someone takes the time to clean it up.
Fortunately, there are still people left who care about our protected outdoor spaces. By the time we made the hike in nearly a week later, unknown hikers had cleaned up all the trash that was left along the trail. We spent the first few hours of our trip cleaning up around the campsite and making the hike back to the trailhead to carry bags of trash to the dumpster. And, to end the weekend, local hiking enthusiasts Sarah Dunlap and Nichole Newport — whose nature photos are helping to define the Big South Fork backcountry for all those who never venture out into it — made a hike along the trail and did another cleanup.
By the time we left our campsite, there were still plenty of signs of human use. There was the plastic packaging of the spoiled food items, strewn across the hillside, presumably after a bear got into them (a rack of ribs is a bit much for a raccoon to carry off). There was a huge pile of toilet paper, human waste and other garbage partially buried beneath some leaves behind a boulder. There was a large pile of kids’ water toys still left; we didn’t have the capacity to carry them out and hoped someone with kids might venture along the trail and decide to carry them home to keep. But, overall, the campsite was in much better shape than we found it.
Unfortunately, there’s always someone else waiting their turn to litter. We made a return trip to the same trail this past weekend — one week after Dunlap and Newport cleaned it up — and found a cardboard beer carton, along with unopened cans of beer, soda and kids’ juice drinks, scattered along the trail. It didn’t take long.
The Big South Fork is experiencing an influx of new visitors this summer. As the coronavirus pandemic has redefined the way Americans vacation — at least temporarily — the BSF is seeing guests from near and far flock to its streams and wilderness areas to enjoy some downtime.
But for those who can’t be bothered to carry out the trash that they carry in, please do the rest of us a favor and just stay home. And for all those who are picking up trash they find along the trails even though it doesn’t belong to them and isn’t their mess to clean up — thank you.