Sunday, July 11, 2010

This Week's Adventures

This week I went backpacking with my uncle and sixteen-year-old wonder-cousin.  She'd read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and wanted to see what it was about, pre-cursor to her new dream of hiking the Appalachain Trail.  After she gets back from her junior year in Germany, and before she sets off to her ivy league college.

Yeah, I'm related to her.

My uncle, recalling backpacking of the old days, had a heavy and large external frame pack.  He brought a lot of cotton clothes, a lot of heavy, older gear.  I recall those days myself:  why buy all this newfangled technology when the way I've been doing it is just fine, thank you?  In that case you have to learn for yourself, and decide for yourself if the lesson is worth giving up what you are used to.

We set off on a wilderness trail--meaning unmarked and only minimally maintained--that I hadn't been on before.  That wasn't the smartest decision I've ever made, it's true, and not because I'm not a great wilderness navigator, because I am.  But the trails are rougher, and my uncle with his huge pack had to duck under short rhododendrons constantly and ended up slipping on an area of eroded traction and rolling his ankle.

Backpacking important fact:  Your feet are hugely important.

I ended up sort of guiding our group (because that's the kind of leader that I am, a guider, not a dictator, as I've told tons of people in job interviews) to the notion of re-routing.  Getting out of the wilderness and into the regular national forest, where we'd take a trail that was relatively close to the road the whole time.  In a moment of not-so-great forest navigation on my part, I underestimated the length of this new route, so we didn't make it to our revised destination either.  I ended up calling my dad covertly when I randomly found cell service and asking him to pick us up on our third day at a new location, pretty darn far from the car we were supposed to loop back to in that time.  Not sure how my companions felt about that, but, like I said, feet are a big deal, and hiking with an injured foot, especially in nationally designated wilderness, just isn't cool.  They were relieved to not have to spend extra days out to loop back around, compounding the injury all the while.

I think it was a good trip, though it goes to teach my wonder-cousin that in backpacking, the best-laid, and especially, over-ambitously-laid plans of mice and men are fairly often necessary to re-evaluate.  And in my mind, in the face of a foot injury, that's fine.  That's man and nature for you.  The forest terrain is what it is, and yet, we've got that useful pre-frontal cortex to help make the best of it.


We ended up, on my new route, passing through a very nice waterfall/swimming hole area, which used to be a little-known secret.  Since it's only a short distance from a main road, it was destined to not be a secret for long, but still, I was surprised, on a Wednesday afternoon, how quickly a nice little swimming spot (if you like 58 degree water) filled up with boy scouts and their lifeguards, young couples and their dogs, gaggles of middle-aged folks, smokers, and wailing (once they felt the water) two-year-olds.

This is a perfect lead-in for my waterfall rant.

People die every year, all over this area, by falling off of the top of waterfalls.   Hanging around at the top of a waterfall is a ridiculously dangerous thing to do, and warning signs and informational pamphlets to that effect are posted all over the national forest.  (In the wilderness, You're On Your Own Jack, and don't think they're going to send the helicopter in after you).   Yet at all the waterfall swimming holes I've visited--which, absent a real job, I've done a lot of this summer--there are people climbing up next to and near the top of waterfalls.   Children, you ask?  Well, some.  But mostly it's adults.  And the adults with the kids doing it are certainly not protesting.

Have you every heard of Sliding Rock?  Family fun for all, right?  Also known as Bloodbath For The Ridiculously Stupid. 

The state's respose to so many people dying annually in their forestland is to consider a blanket ban on waterfall swimming.

Like that is going to work.

But it would make doing so more aduous for the rest of us, (now having to avoid the enforcement) the ones who know how to be safe about it: to swim only at the bottom, and not to just go jumping in to water whose depth one cannot determine.   And from the perspective of someone who understands and follows these guidelines, being penalized for the stupidity of some people is highly outrageous. 

Yes, I can appreciate the position the state it in.  It is unfortunate but true that in my experience as an outdoor guide and high ropes facilitator, I have observed that adults especially are ridiculously terrible at following safety rules.

But I say, if people want to be stupid even after being warned, that is their business.  If it taxes the state then the ones making the stupid choices can foot the wilderness rescue bill.


  1. Holy crap I love your waterfall rant! I was discussing that exact topic with a friend of mine. Over the weekend she and I had a girls vacation to the finger lakes in NY for kayaking, hiking, wine, beer and good food. Today, before we came back, we stopped by the Watkin's Glen State park and walked around the gorges and saw all of the pretty waterfalls. It was pretty tourist friendly so I wouldn't call it a hike as their were railings and stairs all along the way, but we did manage to find a little trail to take us back down once we had made it to the top. I noticed that all along the trail was a roughly ten foot tall chain link fence that was totally killing the ambiance. After complaining for a little bit it occurred to us that it was there so that stupid people wouldn't walk over to the gorge and fall off. Once again stupid people screw things up for the rest of us. Now obviously our situation was different because were in a tourist area and not the wilderness, but it did get me thinking about all of the effort that we, as a society, put in to saving people from their own stupidity. We also sacrifice a lot in the process. It's interesting to think about how life would be different if we just listened to Darwin and let stupid people be for thought! :)

    Once again I enjoyed reading your post. I don't think I say that enough! :)

  2. I would like to find ways for stupid behavior to be curbed however, because everyone makes dumb mistakes at some point or other. My naive self just wishes everyone would undergo, or care to undergo, self-education on a variety of dangers. Like, why can't a sign saying "x people die every year climbing on waterfalls", which some places (not wilderness) have, be enough? It's not.