Not long after my Rawah Wilderness essay (The Jewel in Our Backyard) was published in the Coloradoan newspaper, I was patrolling in the Rawahs again, near Twin Crater Lakes, one of the most popular destinations for backpackers in the Rawahs. Because this area is so heavily used, we try our best to spread people out so everyone can enjoy a wilderness experience.
A small creek intersects the trail about a half mile before the final steep ascent to Twin Crater Lakes, and there are plenty of flat areas nearby to camp, which are out-of-sight and well over the required 200 feet from the trail and creek. It is one of my favorite places to camp, because I never fail to see wildlife here and because you can have a fire, which is not allowed at the higher elevation closer to the lakes.
On this weekend, in late August, there were people around, but not many. It was one of those weekends in the Rawahs when there is a good chance you will see more moose than people. Nevertheless, not 50 yards beyond the creek crossing, and not 15 feet off the trail, there were three tents pitched and a large fire ring built, but no one home. The site had obviously seen heavy use over the years. I had personally removed fire rings numerous times from the site in an effort to discourage people from camping there, but without much luck so far. My patrol partner and I camped off in the trees nearby, intending to visit the site again when the campers returned.
I thought about what I might say to the campers as I lay in my tent though the usual afternoon rain. In heavily impacted places like Twin Crater Lakes there is virtue in camping on durable surfaces (a Leave No Trace principle) such as the site the campers had chosen. Keep the damage confined. No reason to go impact an otherwise pristine piece of ground. On the other hand, no one coming up the trail could possible miss this campsite. It was on top of the trail and took something away from everyone’s notion of solitude. It was in clear violation of Wilderness regulations and I couldn’t imagine a Forest Ranger passing by without writing a ticket.
Still, I had mixed feelings about it. As my partner and I walked over, I noticed two of the three men in the camp wearing revolvers on their belts. Not a bad sign, necessarily, but always in the back of your mind on a mission to deliver what might be considered bad news. We said hello and exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes. Eventually, my partner broached the reason for our visit.
“We were surprised to see you camped here, so close to the trail. We find a lot of people move off the trail and into the trees over there. We wondered if you had a reason for picking this site?”
One of the older campers said, “Well, we thought about moving into the trees, but this place looked like it someone had camped here recently and it had a fire pit already built, so we just decided to camp here. I’ve been coming into the Rawahs for 25 years and I’ve camped here many times.”
“Yes,” my partner said, “we have already removed close to 20 illegal or improper fire rings in just the past couple of days. It’s a problem that seems to get worse with the number of people we have coming into the Wilderness.”
“Tell me about it!,” the camper said. “When I first came here you could go a week without seeing someone back here. Now we have some idiot writing articles in the paper encouraging people to come up here!” My partner looked at me. “Uh, yeah,” I said. “I think I’m the idiot you are talking about. I wrote that article.”
Much chagrin, apologies all around, and finally a fruitful discussion about how all parties present loved the Rawahs and wanted to see them preserved for future generations. The campers agreed to find a place in the woods next time they came to the Rawahs and to remove their fire ring when they left, and I agreed (silently) to re-examine my reasons for writing the article in the first place. What was my purpose? I love wilderness. I love solitude. I don’t particularly want the places I love filled with yet more people.
I know people whose opinions I respect who think it is a terrible mistake to write about wilderness and encourage people to go into it. They believe the best way to preserve and protect wilderness is to keep people out of it. There are days I find it hard to disagree. But, on my best days I think we only preserve and protect the things we love. And the only way to love Wilderness is to experience it. People need to be here. They just need to walk softly and take care of the place. In the end, education and experience is the only hope Wilderness has.