Thursday, March 13, 2014

BLOG 65. Silly Rules

By Cliff Jacobson

Every national park and wilderness area has some silly rules.  Some apply simple solutions to complex problems.  Others are sound but unworkable because they expect too much or they don’t clarify concerns. And others just don’t make sense at all.  Here are some of my favorites:

1.    Heading the list is the rule to tree your food when bears are around.  This rule applies to every national park and wilderness area, despite the clear fact that bears climb trees.  I’ve addressed this nonsense in blog #8.

2.    This one is from Minnesota’s Boundary Water Canoe Area: “Try to plan your meals so you don’t have left-overs.  If you do, pack them out!” Here’s what happens if you pack out your left-over chili:  By the third day of your canoe trip the chili will be smelling pretty ripe in the July heat. By day five the odor will attract those hungry bears you want to avoid.  If you hoist the chili into a tree at night with your food pack, as recommended by park authorities, the smell will waft much farther.  Best have plenty of pepper spray or a gun on hand!  A better plan is to burn what you can and bury what you can’t!  I think the feds are out-to-lunch on this one.

3.    Here’s another one from the BWCA:  “Food may be packaged in plastic containers that must be packed out with you”.

The rationale is that burning plastic creates hydrocarbons that pollute the environment.  Give me a break: You just drove 200 miles to the BWCA, that’s 400 miles round trip.  Your car gets 30 mpg—it burned 13 gallons of gas. A gallon of gas weighs about six pounds. So, 6 x 13 = 78 pounds of hydrocarbons.  Now, see if I got this right: it’s okay to burn 78 pounds of hydrocarbons in your car but it’s not okay to burn a plastic bag that weighs less than an ounce.  I might add that those empty plastic food bags that will fill your garbage bag contain small amounts of powdered food which, when they absorb moisture, will begin to degrade and smell.  Dinner is served: call in the critters!  It’s safer and wiser to burn plastic bags in your campfire.  Sorry, feds, I don’t buy this one either.

4.    Again from the BWCA:  “Bathe and wash dishes at least 150 feet from lakes and streams”.

Good rule, really.  But 150 feet?  C’mon now, novice campers may get lost in the woods if they wander that far from camp! Besides, the forest service sponsored video, “Leave no trace” shows people washing dishes in camp, not deep in the bush.  I’d re-write the rule to read: “Wash dishes well away from the lake or river.” And I’d leave it at that.

5.    BWCA rule: “If you build a fire, burn only dead wood found lying on the ground.  And, “wood easily broken by hand or cut with a small folding saw eliminates the need for an axe.”
Give me a break! There's plenty of big, downed wood in the BWCA and Quetico. Nobody makes "little stick" fires, not even the Feds!
I’ve canoed all over Canada and parts of Alaska and I can honestly say that the hardest place to make a campfire is in the Boundary Waters. Why?  Because all the good wood has been picked over! To make a reliable blaze one often has to search the woods for a dead downed tree, saw off a limb and split it to get at the dry heartwood.  A Swiss army knife won’t cut it!  An ax will!  Yes, you can make fire in rain with a little folding saw and jack knife, if you know exactly what you’re doing! Most people don’t, so they choke the fire-grate with green cedar boughs and birch bark and hope for the best. Caring campers will later clean out the mess.  Better to bring a full-frame saw and hand-axe and to use the two-handed, SAFE wood- splitting procedure outlined in my books.  That way, you can make a cheery blaze in any weather.

7.    BWCA RULE: “It’s illegal to cut live vegetation for any reason.”
There is no trail maintenance in Canada. We "opened up" this portage along the MacFarland River in Saskatchewan. I think we cut about 1000 trees!
This is a good rule but it doesn’t address an important safety issue. Scenario: The wind is howling and the waves are running wild when you pull into the only unoccupied campsite on the lake. There’s a small clearing, enough for two tents, that’s all. The rest of the site is tightly wooded and rocky.  Overhead, the trees sway violently with the wind. A small, live tree (widow-maker) with a wind-split bole leans precariously over the tent-spot; a strong wind could send it crashing down on you. Should you cut it down?  Yes!  Does the law permit it? No!  I might add that the Forest Service, like other governmental organizations, is strapped for money.  Field maintenance crews, which once dotted the portages, have been reduced. The result is that portage trails and campsites are cleared less often than in the past. You should know that in Crown Land, Canada, there is no trail or campsite maintenance whatsoever. Clearing portages and campsites is up to you—another reason why you should carry the tools to do the job!

8.    “Latrines are not garbage cans and should be used for the intended purpose only”. 

This important rule should be followed by everyone. In the days when wooden “thrones” ruled Boundary Waters campsites, the inside lid of each box was stamped  FOR TOILET USE ONLY. Still, people threw garbage into the hole, thinking a bear wouldn’t look there. Truth is a hungry bear would tear the box apart and dig in the hole to get those left-overs. Education, not legislation would have been a better answer.  I’d change the words to read:  IF YOU WANT TO ATTRACT BEARS, THROW GARBAGE HERE! The FOR TOILET USE ONLY stamp reminds me of a sign that was popular a few decades ago.  It read: “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!”  Tell me, please, how do I do that?  What action do you want me to  take?  Again, education trumps legislation!

9.    Here’s one from the BWCA that hardly anyone follows:  “Dispose of fecal matter (from your dog) 150 feet from water sources, capsites, portages, or deposit in a latrine.”

Granted, it’s no fun to step in dog poo while hiking down a portage trail, but bear, coyote and fox scat is just as bad, and they don’t clean up their mess. Dogs are relatively rare in the Boundary Waters and fortunately, the ones I’ve met have been well-behaved and, like their human masters, are having a good time without hurting anything. So why address a problem that largely doesn’t exist—and make a rule that dog owners won’t follow?

10. Here’s a good rule all should follow:   “Dispose of fish remains well away from shorelines, campsites, trails and portages”.  This rule is well-written, simple, easy to understand and to the point.  Now, if they’d just write ‘em all this way, I would be a happy camper!

11. This is a “recommendation” not a rule: “Other campers will enjoy a more remote experience if your gear is a drab color that blends into the forest”.

Perhaps. But there are important down-sides: Safety heads the list.  If you have to be rescued, a float plane WILL NOT see a green canoe, olive-drab tarp and brown tent.  And if you’re portaging down a little used trail and set your marine green pack off to the side in the bush, you may never find it again. This happened to me on an unrefined portage in Saskatchewan, I lost the portage trail and set down my green Old Town Tripper to go exploring.  It took me more than an hour to find it!  I vowed then that I would never own another green canoe!
Bright colors are a safety feature.  And, they add interest to your photos.
A camouflaged camp is hard to see so canoeists who are looking for a campsite will paddle very close to yours to determine if it’s occupied. Color will keep them away.

13.  “Camp on durable ground”.  This applies to Alaska’s Noatak River, which I canoed in 2010.
Durable ground is  that green hill 300 yards away. This is a gravel bar along the Noatak River, Alaska
You obtain your permit from the National Park Service, after which you are required to see a “leave-no-trace” film before you begin your trip.  The announcer says to CAMP ON DURABLE GROUND.  The camera pans to a rocky beach about 50 yards from the river.  But a rocky beach IS NOT durable ground. Durable ground is at the top of a hill some 200 yards away. Carrying your canoe up that steep hill will be quite a feat.  Few will do it. The film goes on to show a crew making a campfire on this “durable” beach.  They lay out a plastic tarp then shovel sand and gravel on top. They build their fire over this.  Next morning when the fire is dead and cold, they are shown pouring the ashes into the river. Evidently, they pack the plastic sheet for “fire use” at the next campsite.

How absurd! A gravel beach is not a durable surface. Rains will wash the campfire remains into the river and the beach will flood several times a season. So why the plastic?  Better to toss the cold, burned wood into the river, shovel gravel over the fire place to leave-no-trace and be gone.  Using a plastic tarp under a fire on a surface that floods frequently is among the silliest rules I’ve encountered in my travels. I can’t imagine anyone will do it.

Cliff Jacobson

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