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Back to the Future

by Dan Lewis

Sea kayaking is, as Vancouver paddler John Deakins wrote, "a culture in the making". But what sort of culture are we creating?

Kayaking tends to attract individualists, and we see ourselves as unique, the only ones having these experiences. But there are lots of kayakers, boaters, and others out there. And we need to develop a sense of etiquette with respect to both the people and the land.

This spring I had a spooky experience. I time-travelled twenty years into the past, to the time when I had just begun ocean kayaking. Our group was visiting a section of the coast not often paddled. There were few other paddlers around. No whale watchers, no water taxis, no fish farm barges. Very little traffic at all, except a few locals.

As we camped on the beaches, debates began which sounded familiar to me. "What is the possible harm of leaving just one apple core?" "Why not have a bigger fire-look at all this wood!" Why do we have to be so fussy about where we take a crap-no one's around!"

I clearly remember having these debates with friends back in the eighties. People then could not imagine a world which would be crowded with kayakers. Today, as I hike up and down beaches scoured clean of any burnable scraps of firewood, I think back to those debates. As legions of mice scurry over my bivvy bag each night, I ponder the sheer number of visitors to wild areas, and the inevitable crumbs of food as well as the thoughtless ditching of leftovers which have resulted in a multiplying mouse population.

Five years ago I swore that if I couldn't drink the water out of local creeks, I wouldn't paddle anymore. I scoffed at people who insisted on boiling or treating the water before drinking. Now I've witnessed enough questionable, even shoddy, practices disposing of human waste that I'm leery of sipping water from pristine-looking waterways.

Is there a solution to all these woes? There certainly is. When you find a little cove that looks as if no one else has ever been there, assume that someone has, and try to leave it looking the same way for the next group to enjoy. We need to perfect a Leave No Trace (LNT) ethic for visiting wild places. The big three: shit, fires, and garbage.

We need to get much better at disposing of human waste in ways that don't harm the environment. The big issue is keeping it away from sources of fresh water. Your best bet is to use an outhouse, if one is provided. I fear we will be seeing more of these appear in formerly wild places, yet I can see the need at certain high-use campsites. Where no outhouse exists, I think it's best to bury the waste down near the low tide line, where it will spend as much time as possible underwater. Others suggest packing everything out. And when you pee, do so directly into the salt water-especially during dry summers, to avoid odours.

As for fires, they are no longer considered essential to the camping experience. You'll cook more quickly and cleanly over most any portable stove these days. As night falls, try gathering around a candle lantern to watch the sunset fade and the stars come out one by one. If you must have a fire, keep it small. The idea is to burn it right down to white ash.

There are two reasons people are failing to do this:
1) they start with wet wood (dry cedar may look wet on the outside, but if it's light, it's dry inside!), and
2) they try to burn pieces that are too big.

If you create a fire pit on the beach, don't ring it with rocks-they just get charred and ugly (Ed. some rocks explode when they get hot). Leave no trace of your fire-pit when you leave. But don't just bury a fire in beach sand! If someone before you has already left a fire pit, then use it. Don't build another nearby to suit your particular needs.

Garbage is pretty simple. You pack it in, you pack it out. Try to leave as much packaging as possible at home. You can burn paper and compost in the field, but don't burn plastic, as it releases toxic chemicals.

One of the attributes we seek while voyaging in Nature is solitude, to escape from the madding crowd. We tend to seek out privacy when camping, and I've seen people get quite annoyed when others arrive at "their" camp-spot for the night. Better to set up your camp so that late arrivals can easily find a place to settle in for the night.

My hope for the future is that people will use kayaking as a platform for reflection, as a tool for exploration. I hope that people have life-changing experiences, that they come to re-assess their place in the world, and their relationship with Nature.

One of the main strengths of paddling is its ability to connect us with the past. This will only become more important in the future. By leaving behind the conveniences and distractions of post-industrial society, we have an opportunity to value the truly important things in life, such as food, warmth, shelter, companionship, peace, and beauty. We are then empowered to distinguish between these vital "needs", and manufactured consumer "wants".

First published in WaveLength Magazine, Oct/Nov 2001.