How to be a Sustainable Explorer



In my 21 years on this planet, I have yet to meet someone that didn’t get any joy from exploring the outdoors. Hiking, bird-watching, photography, camping and my all time favorite, sitting in a chair outside just to read a good book. Being outdoors has quite a few impacts on ourselves that we’ve started to notice, but what about the other way around? It’s no surprise that humans are kinda known for our ability to change the ecosystems we enter. News about the environment is filled to the brim with the ways we’re impacting nature on a large scale, but how do we affect the environment on a smaller or even personal scale? And are there ways that we can cut down on how big or how lasting our footprint can be?


We all learn to enjoy the outdoors from people we experience it with, television, movies or wherever we can see somebody outdoors. But something that I can’t say I’ve see enough of (if at all) in videos, movies or even posted pictures is how to enjoy the outdoors while trying to leave it better than how you found it. In this blog, we’re going to go over some of the ways that you can still enjoy the outdoors while ensuring that the area remains healthier for a longer period of time.

This post may be a bit on the longer side, but it will definitely be worth it. I started making a batch of cookies and they should be ready by the time you finish reading!

FIRST THINGS FIRST

“You are a guest in their home, not the other way around”

Sean Washington

We have to come to an understanding on something before we start diving deeper into this subject. Most of this post is going to go back to a word so powerful, Queen Aretha Franklin sang an entire song about it. Respecting the environment is basically what I could have titled this post because all of these are ways to show respect to the natural world you’re just visiting. You wouldn’t want people coming to your home and not treating it with respect, so try not to to that to the homes of every living thing known to man.

RESPECTING WILDLIFE

Among the biggest reasons to be outdoors is just to see or be around wildlife. It’s a seemingly magical feeling not to know what plant, animal or fungus you’ll see when you’re out. But there are a few things that need to be cleared up and removed from our list of things to do when we’re outside with wildlife.

There’s a reason all these movies are animated.
Contrary to whatever your personal belief is, YOU ARE NOT A DISNEY PRINCESS.
I know it’s a shock but you need to have that realization. Wild animals aren’t friends that want to be around you, snuggle and help you do chores in a random cabin you find in the woods. (But that’s none of my business) They have their own issues to worry about like predators, keeping a territory and if this random bipedal thing is something to ignore, run away from or defend themselves against.

FEEDING WILDLIFE

Of all the ways we want interact with wildlife, the most seemingly innocent is probably the urge to feed those poor, helpless and obviously hungry animals that just look at us and need our help. We’re practically raised to believe that when we go to the lake, a spare piece of bread and some trail mix should be in our bag to feed any wildlife we may come across because they just can’t survive without our help. I’ve been guilty of doing this up until last fall when a professor of mine explained the dangers on both sides that come with feeding wildlife. Since hearing about that, I’ve done what I can to discourage deer, birds and squirrels from seeing people as sources of a free meal.

The idea that “they need our help” can’t be farther from the truth and doesn’t take into account that these animals have been thriving in their home ecosystem longer than humans have been harvesting crops. They know what to eat, where to get it and how to find foods that work for their dietary needs without us selfishly changing their behavior.
The issue of feeding animals starts with diet. Many of the things that we feed wildlife isn’t part of their natural diet. Squirrels don’t naturally forage for and eat Cheetos and ducks don’t eat bread or slices of watermelon. A lot of animals have a very specific digestive system that adapted to handle a species or region specific diet that simply isn’t built to handle the foods we may give them. Continually feeding on bread can cause ducks and geese to get ‘angel wing’, a deformity that causes the wing to grow inverted and -if left untreated when young- leaves the bird unable to fly.

click here to learn more about feeding ducks and other waterfowl!

Issues with feeding wildlife continue when you start noticing at how it can negatively influence their behavior around people. Habituated animals (those that are accustomed to humans) are very dangerous in a few respects. If they are normally fed near roads they may be at increased risk for vehicle accidents that can lead to human and animal injury or even death. Animals fed around homes, parks or trails can be especially dangerous and can lead to the animal becoming aggressive if they do not receive the food that they may come to expect from people which may not seem like much when you think about a chipmunk, but remember that those teeth never stop growing and must be kept sharp and strong to open seeds.

An animal that sees people as a snack machine can cause harm to people or itself if the people it approaches aren’t going to feed it or just aren’t calm about wildlife walking up to them.

Another issue with habituated animals is that it can cause an overpopulation of a certain species that has two negative effects:
  1. The increased population can mean more chances for transmission of diseases within a species or even to people as they gather near people to feed in groups larger than normal.
  2. More of a single species can practically throw a wrench in the ecology of the area by extrapolating one variable. Imagine it like making a cookies and all the species are a different ingredient. Say that instead of putting 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract, you put 2 cups because you just love the taste it gives. You did the rest of the recipe as directed and even though you had the best intentions, the cookies are going to taste off.

HANDLING/POSING WITH WILDLIFE

Let’s just let the trend of selfies with animals large, toxic or aggressive enough to injure you go the way of the Dodo, okay?
Wild animals aren’t props.
Wild animals aren’t toys.
I wish I could just leave it there and not have to say anymore about the topic. But all I can think of is the poor unfortunate soul that is at this very trying to take a selfie with a rattlesnakebison or bear to get a few more likes on their next post… How about we just stick to not taking selfies with wild animals. It’s really interesting to see photos where you’re safe and behind the camera rather than trying to get too close and potentially get injured.

Unless you have a permit or are trained in the handling of specific species, you probably just shouldn’t pick it up. In my opinion the extent to touching or handling wildlife is the VERY rare occasion when helping a turtle cross a road.

Most importantly, WASH YOUR HANDS AFTERWARDS!
Excessive handling of wildlife can be stressful for wildlife. Imagine if a giant came and just picked you up and was keeping you from returning home. You wouldn’t be happy about that so you can’t get mad when a wild animal lashes out in the only way it knows because it doesn’t know if you’re planning on preying upon it.

RESPECTING NATURE

Apart from just respecting the wildlife that live where you are exploring, try not to forget about respecting the home that they share! The main point of being a sustainable explorer is doing your part to keep an area in great quality, so others can have as great an experience as you did!

STAY ON THE TRAIL

I’m not going to lie, I am currently working toward getting better at this one. I understand that the bird you really want to see just flew deeper into the forest, but It is better to stay on the trail than travel off trail to find a mystery species that’s probably already stressed out. It’s simply not good for the soil and plant communities that are the foundation of the area you’re exploring. These communities can take a long time to grow back and can be completely destroyed with a single step.
Take Biological Soil Crusts for example. They are the foundation for a large number of arid ecosystems, are biologically diverse, hold water, transform nitrogen to be used by plants, keep the soil from blowing or washing away and can be thousands of years old! These foundation communities are under threat from people driving and walking on them. They may be old, but they can be instantly killed by the pressure of a step and in the best conditions may take 50 years to recover, as the lichens and mosses that exist with them may take hundreds.

For the sake of all the Moss beds, Soil crusts and Lichen covered logs in the world, promise to stay on the trail.

DON’T TAKE TRINKETS. ESPECIALLY LIVING ONES!

There are so many beautiful things I see on a hike. Cardinal Feathers, Wild Bergamot and some very cool looking fungi are all part of the daily walks in around the neighborhood. I feel truly blessed to live in a place that is such a pocket of wilderness in the middle of the city, but I always remember a very important thing.

I am not the only one who lives here, and not the only one who enjoys the area.
It would be selfish of me to go and pick the Bergamot from the creek across the street and illegal for me to take the feather home. What I prefer to do is either sketch the items or take photos that way I don’t get in trouble for taking something illegally and other people and wildlife around can enjoy those Pink Firework looking flowers.

“Take nothing but memories, Leave nothing but footprints.”

~Chief Seattle~

CLEANUP!

I can’t think of anything more deterring to people and species than a park littered with plastic bags, tires, straws, cigarette filters, candy wrappers, dog poop (PLEASE click here for info on why you shouldn’t just leave Fido’s poop in the park) or the occasional toilet seat. 

Yeah, I said it.

I once found a Toilet seat on a walk. 

The goal of all of this is to make the spaces we explore available and inviting for people who come after us to those areas. So please pick up the waste you see. Not just the waste you leave.
Sadly, not everyone picks up their waste and if all we did was cleanup just our own waste, there would be an overwhelming amount of pollutants in the water, trash on the ground and old balloons in trees. So even if you didn’t make the mess, you cant be sure that someone coming after you will have the courage to clean it up and that can snowball into a never-ending cycle of people allowing litter to dirty up an area they love.

I normally just hike with a reusable bag that I’ll put waste into until I reach a trash can or Recycle bin to dispose of it properly

“Only if we understand, will we care.
Only if we care, we will help.
Only if we help, shall all be saved.”

~Jane Goodall~

Please don’t let the things I’ve said in this post overwhelm you out of wanting to be outside. It’s amazing to spend time in an environment unlike the four walls we normally happen to be in. Among all the things I really want you all to do, enjoy your trip!
Make memories that you and your friends will have forever without putting an unnecessary burden on the ecosystem you visit. Natural areas and parks are beautiful and could use someone to come check them out and raise awareness for just how amazing, relaxing and intriguing the outdoors can be without causing harm to the natural world.

In the comments, let me know a story from your favorite hike, camping trip or however you enjoy the outdoors, or let me know if you think I left out a tip! I had to cut a few things because it was too long (I know, THIS is the edited version!) Safe travels! Send pictures and I will talk with you all later!
I would like to thank the two amazing Photographers and artist that have been featured in this post. Thank you Field Peterson (WebsiteInstagram) and Sam Woodward (Instagram) for not only being great artists, but better friends that will allow someone to use your art in an unnecessarily long blog post! I highly encourage you all to check out the art they have on their pages.

I ate the cookies. They were delicious 😁
Maybe a little bit too much vanilla.

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