Backwoods Ethics AUTHORS: Laura and Guy Waterman PAGES: 280 COPYRIGHT: 1993
View similar articles:
By Location:
Central AdirondacksCranberry LakeCroghanDuaneEssexEssex CountyFish CreekFranklin CountyKeene/Keene ValleyLake GeorgeLake PlacidRay BrookSaranac Lake
By Category:

Before hikers and campers had heard of leave-no-trace principals, Guy and Laura Waterman were preaching in their their 1979 book "Backwoods Ethics"that users of the backcountry should have a limited impact when adventuring through the backcountry.

The tome puts forward environmental issues that hikers and campers should be aware of before they venture into the woods.

Backwoods Ethics, which was updated with a foreword by Bill McKibben in 1993, teaches the kind of ethics that are sometimes forgotten in the joy of hiking and camping.

The book discusses every decision a hiker can make, from tent color to the type of soles hiking boots should have and everything in between. All of it is geared toward preserving the wild nature of the mountains. While written in Vermont, the book is universally applicable to any wilderness setting.

The Watermans lived in an off-grid cabin in the Green Mountain State, and before his death in 2000, the pair had spent the better part of three decades climbing and writing about the mountains of the Northeast. Guy Waterman lived a life of extremes, going from professional jazz pianist (he had a piano hauled about a mile into the woods to their cabin) to presidential speech writer to wilderness ethicist. Even his death was extreme. Guy ended his own life at the age of 67 by intentionally dying from hypothermia at the summit of a New Hampshire mountain. He wasn't sick, he just didn't want to get old and not be able to hike anymore.

Backwoods Ethics takes those extremes and puts them into a form that, while certainly opinionated, were far from preachy. The Watermans' goal wasn't to prevent people from enjoying the outdoors, but to ensure that hikers and campers left the land in such a state that those coming behind would get the same amount of enjoyment as those who came before. As McKibben says in the foreword, "The difficult task is blending in, and here the Watermans provide great insight throughout their fine book. Take it to heart and not only will you leave the woods in better shape, you will leave the woods with better memories."

The book starts out with an examination of who the hiking world consists of, and shows that whether you are a peakbagger or a wanderer, there are bits of wisdom to be shared by all who venture into the woods, for whatever reason.

In the next section of the book, entitled "The New Ethic," the Watermans talk about the ways backcountry users can limit their impact. This is where they highlight that it's best to get your boots dirty by walking through mud rather than widening the trail by moving to the side. They discuss the low impact advantages of using a stove over an open fire, and sleeping in a hammock instead of a tent. Keep in mind that the hammock camping craze has taken off in the last few years, and the Watermans were on the forefront of this effort decades ago.

There is also a chapter on the Adirondack 46ers, which the Watermans highlight as a beacon of stewardship for the mountains. The Watermans go through a plan the 46ers developed to reduce hiker impact on trails, while still encouraging people to bag all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks.

The plan included promoting wilderness stewardship for those aspiring to the 46er title through limiting litter, a trowel project, trail maintenance, alpine restoration and wilderness leadership.

The litter project coincides with the state Department of Environmental Conservation's own "Carry it in, carry it out" program. This chapter also describes the then-growing issue of human waste in the Adirondacks. The club issued small trowels to its members with the idea that more people would bury their waste in an appropriate manner, but that particular project came to an unglorified end when it was realized that the 5,000 trowels themselves were becoming a bit of a litter issue at lean-tos and campsites.

More successful was the trail maintenance initiative, which is still going strong to this day. Another positive enterprise the Watermans highlight is the alpine restoration effort, which induced hikers to carry rocks, seeds, lime and fertilizer to the summits of the high peaks.

Section three of the book discusses the need for community in preserving wild places, while the final section talks about unresolved issues, such as whether dogs are welcome hiking companions and the impacts bushwhacking can have.

Backwoods Ethics may seem like it's full of common-sense advice for hikers and campers, but when originally published, it was on the forefront of a movement to preserve the nature that is open to everyone. While the leave-no-trace movement has continued to pass along the Watermans message, this is the bible of backcountry stewardship.