Wilderness slobs staining Baldy Lake’s beauty

By By Jayson Jacoby September 21, 2012 10:19 am

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

I like wilderness but I wouldn’t want to live there.

It’s not enough like my family room, for one thing.

Sitting on an old log in a camp a dozen miles from the nearest road, and watching the rays of the westering sun transform a slope of drab granite into ivory sculpture, is memorable indeed.

But it’s not college football in HD.

Also, horseflies hardly ever trespass in my house and make a nuisance of themselves while I’m trying to read.

Still and all, when I come across the detritus left by a slob of the wildlands I feel almost as aggrieved as if such a cretin had barged through my front door, spilled soda all over my sofa and carved his initials in one of my kitchen cabinets.

Fortunately this has been for me an exceedingly rare experience.

(Finding trash in the wilderness, that is — as for my hypothetical intruder he is just that; the only person who’s ever actually spilled soda on my sofa is me. Although there is a toddler on the premises who would spray pop all over the place, and with a gleeful grin, if only he could get his chubby hands on a can.)

And so I was not merely disgusted, but also surprised, by the mess some anonymous people had made of the shore of beautiful Baldy Lake, where I camped one night recently with my father-in-law, Howard Britton, and my nephew, Levi Britton.

Baldy Lake is among the more scenic spots in the Elkhorn Mountains — no faint praise in a range that’s hardly deficient in such places.

The lake lies at the base of the cliffs that form the northern ramparts of Mount Ireland. The lake’s namesake creek bisects a section of the North Fork John Day Wilderness, which was designated by Congress in 1984. On the Forest Service map this section, sometimes called the “Baldy Addition” to the wilderness, looks rather like the blade of a dagger, with its tip pointing at Mount Ireland’s summit.

To be clear, I’m far from a paragon of wilderness ethics virtue.

I like campfires.

(Although we didn’t light one at Baldy because they were banned due to wildfire danger.)

I have cut an occasional switchback.

I have no aversion to people bringing radios or cell phones or other electronic devices into the backcountry.

And I think it verges on silliness that horses are allowed on wilderness trails but bicycles are not.

Yet, though I’m basically lazy, I have found that the effort needed to honor at least the spirit of the “leave no trace” concept, if not its literal definition, is so meager that to do otherwise requires an act of willfulness which might actually be more taxing.

As an example, dealing with the particularly disposable accouterments of backpacking is a task that any five-year-old could accomplish without excessive prodding.

Paper, for instance, quickly turns into ephemeral ashes when tossed into a fire.

And if you abhor adding another ebony layer to the stones of a fire ring, you can stash paper in a plastic sack, forgo the flames, and haul your trash back to the trailhead.

Even the most zealous ultralight backpacker — the sort who removes superfluous bristles from his toothbrush to pare precious micrograms — isn’t likely to balk at the featherweight of, say, instant oatmeal packages.

I don’t know what sorts of zealots were camping at Baldy Lake this summer, but I doubt they were counting ounces (except maybe fluid ounces, the common measuring stick for malt beverages). Here’s a brief but unpleasant sampling of what they left:

• Tufts of toilet paper, some of them soiled (forgive my descent into euphemism), strewn beside the trail in four or five places, including one of the choice campsites.

• Thick shards of glass both in, and outside of, the fire ring at our camp at the lake’s northeast corner (a site which we chose in part for its absence of toilet paper, soiled or otherwise).

• Charred shells of aluminum beer cans — all those with still-legible labels were, predictably, Keystone Lights — in each of the half dozen or so fire rings we walked past.

Now my knowledge of chemistry barely extends beyond understanding that the periodic table is not in alphabetical order. But I feel confident in saying that the temperature required to immolate aluminum cannot be achieved by igniting chunks of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce, the two main fuels available at Baldy Lake.

Curiously, it seems that the Keystone drinkers were capable of lugging in full cans but they balked at carrying the empties — I say curious because the beer, after all, is the real burden, weight-wise, in a beer can.

Stranger still was the collection of four Keystone cans, unopened, that were standing, in vaguely Stonehenge fashion, on a fire ring rock when we got to the lake. The cans, still unmolested and still enigmatic, remained when we hiked past the next morning.

(We might have popped one open, but it wasn’t yet 9 a.m.)

The most likely explanation for these various defacements, it seems to me, is that Baldy Lake is much closer to a road than most wilderness lakes are.

One of the two trailheads is barely a mile from the lake’s shore — an easy stroll with only minor ups and downs.

Most of the lakes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, by contrast, lie several miles from — and a couple thousand feet of altitude above — the closest road.

And although I acknowledge the utter lack of scientific validity in what follows, I noticed, during a four-day backpacking trip through the Eagle Cap that took place a week after my visit to Baldy Lake, a distinct difference in the human spoor in the two places.

Howard again accompanied me on the 44-mile loop, along with his son, Dave, and Dave’s 9-year-old son, Tyler.

(Tyler, by the way, proved himself to be one of the tougher hikers I’ve been around — and certainly the toughest who still needs but one digit for his age.)

Although our route included some pretty lonely parts of the wilderness (in particular Polaris Pass, which is spectacular but so precipitous on its western side that I understand well why so few people go there), we also hiked through the heart of the Eagle Cap’s most popular place, the Lake Basin.

After seeing not a soul in the dozen or so miles between Aneroid Lake and the West Fork of the Wallowa River, the next day we passed at least 30 hikers between Moccasin Lake and the summit of Eagle Cap.

Yet the nearest thing to litter I saw was a romance novel propped on a granite cairn that holds up a trail sign at Moccasin Lake. The person who left the book — no doubt intending to brighten the day of some sorry backpacker who forgot to cram any reading material into his pack — was kind enough to put the volume in a plastic bag in case of rain, and to print the word “Free” on the bag in black marker.

Say what you will about the literary value of bodice-rippers.

But in my view a book — any book, almost — is a damn sight less of a stain on the backcountry than blackened beer cans and clumps of used toilet paper.