I've been camping all my life. Summer vacations for my family always meant finding a campground and locating there for a week or two. As a Scout, the frequency went up to monthly campouts whenever weather permitted. In Oregon, weather permitting meant anything but snow--and as rare as snow is in the Willamette Valley, we camped a lot.
At the end of every Scout campout, we rolled up our sleeping bags and tents, loaded them in whatever vehicles we'd come in, then policed the area. This meant criss-crossing our campsite, search-and-rescue style, eyes to the ground, picking up every bit of litter we saw, whether or not it came from one of us. This could be a nasty activity, especially in early 1970s Idaho, where the national forest campgrounds we favored were often carpeted with cigarette butts. I'd gather handfuls of the loathsome things, as well as pull tabs from beer cans and occasionally the cans themselves (no deposit in Idaho).
Fast-forward now to our backpacking trip in the Olympic wilderness. We had a spectacularly lovely campsite, just ten feet from the rushing Dosewallips River, almost free of mosquitos, a wealth of fallen limbs to feed our campfire, conveniently located at the fork in the Dosewallips Trail, yet so isolated that we had the place to ourselves except on our final night, when we had a neighbor we didn't even notice until we were on our way out the next morning. There was a well-established fire circle, a level tent site, a large flat-topped stump for a table, and plenty of conveniently located sitting logs. It was perfect. And here's what most blew me away about it: not a single scrap of litter.
This is amazing for several reasons. Chief among them is the sequester. The Dosewallips Ranger Station, located at the ghost campground where the trail used to begin, is supposed to be seasonal, open only during the summer, but even that had been cut off. We didn't see a ranger the entire time we were in the National Park. Park rangers have many duties. The most odious, and the one that applies here, is cleaning up after campers.
It gets more amazing: traveling 7.7 miles up the trail, passing through three other campgrounds, we still did not see a single energy bar wrapper, tissue, cigarette butt, nothing. Climbing up toward Constance Pass the next day, the trail was again pristine.
Now here's the other factor that renders this amazing:
Amy found this propped up against a tree at our campsite, and gave a little scream. Then she read it, and called me over to look at it. The message to us was clear: we weren't the only ones loving this place. George Edgley loved it so much he wanted his mortal remains to spend eternity here. This is a popular spot among those who know of it, and since it's easily visible from the trail across the river, it's not that hard to find. There must be plenty of hikers sleeping here. Every one of them comes with packets of freeze-dried food, bags of trail mix, boxes of energy bars; and some of them most likely come with cigarettes. And all of them thoroughly cleaned up after themselves.
In fact, the lack of human traces was so amazing that, as we were hiking out on the wide trail that used to be Dosewallips Road, a couple of miles from the end of our adventure, we were shocked to find two cigarette butts in the middle of the trail. We picked them up and carried them out ourselves, as amazed by the audacity of someone grinding out a butt in this holy place, and leaving it, as by the fact that we hadn't seen any until then.
I have camped in paradisiacal places, places where mountains plunged into mirror lakes, where ocean waves crashed against coastal crags, where millennia-old trees brushed the sky; but until now, until I had to hike to my campsite, I had never really camped in a place this clean. I am filled with pride to have joined the company of a class of outdoorspeople who so honor the "Leave No Trace" creed, who come to the wilderness to sweat and breathe and pray and honor it as the sacred space that it is.
The cynic in me says that it's the washout that kept the litter at bay. The picture at the top of this post shows what I'm talking about: the graveled cliff face on the right used to be Dosewallips Road. The trail now begins there, at the washout, climbing up to the top of the cliff, then back down to where the road still exists. Joe Baisch confirmed for us that the traffic up the Dosewallips is a fraction of what it was before the washout, that having to hike an extra 5.5 miles just to get to the original trail keeps many away. It may have been a dayhiker who dropped those butts on the road so close to the trailhead. Joe says he and Joy drive up to the end of the road from time to time to do cleanup there, and the area where people park is often rife with litter. But the addition of sweat equity seems to keep the litterers out of the National Park, at least in this area. I must acknowledge that the one thing all those beautiful, but littered, campsites I policed as a child had in common was the presence of parking spaces. If people can drive to it, filling the mountain air with exhaust fumes, breaking the wild quiet with engine sounds, they seem not to care so much about leaving their refuse behind.
The optimist in me hopes that it's something higher, that coming to this place where the only sounds are those of nature turns a switch in the privileged few who make it up the trail to Dose Forks and beyond. The inconvenience of packing things out shrinks before the rightness of leaving the park as clean as, if not better than, it was found. I know that is how I have felt about litter from childhood, but then I had it pounded into me as a Scout.
Realistically, I know not everyone comes into the wilderness for my reasons. Some come to fish or hunt, others to test their abilities by hiking marathon distances or scaling mountains. Many come in search of the perfect photograph to grace their living room wall.
As for me: I come to have church, to worship the Creator in the heart of Creation. This has become my temple, my cathedral, the place where I commune with my Maker. The sweat I leave behind is my oblation, the aches in my feet and legs and back and shoulders are my discipline, the song of my heart as I behold these wonders, as the river sound fills my ears and the wildflowers grace my nostrils, is my psalm of praise. What am I, that you are mindful of me? And who are we, that you love us so?
I know this: like George Edgley, this is where I belong. When I am gone, I want my ashes scattered in a place like this, so that the one trace left behind by me...is me.