Good manners in the great outdoors

Photo by Johnny Carrol Sain

The little whitetail doe crept to the waters edge as I stood, with fly rod in hand, waist deep in sparkling Piney Creek. I come to the creek for fishing, but I also come for the unexpected magic moments like this.

Suddenly the doe’s head shot up, and she stared hard down the creek. I followed her gaze and saw nothing. Looking back at her, I noticed her cotton-bottomed tail slowly rise before she bounded deeper into the woods. Then I heard frothy pop-country music filtering down the creek channel.

The music was a mood killer for the deer and for me as well.

It wasn’t because I’m not a fan of “new country” (I’m not, but that’s another story). It could have been Hank Sr. or George Jones wailing through the speakers and I’d still have preferred the tinkle of water over rocks, the call of a belted kingfisher, or the wind whispering through sycamore leaves. Catching fish is only one facet of the creek experience. The ambiance created by sights, smells, and sounds while in the water compose the rest. That ambiance was crushed under the weight of thumping bass and twangy guitars.

I said “howdy” to the paddlers as the flotilla bobbed past me. The last guy in line flashed me the “hang loose” hand gesture and cranked the tunes even louder as he swigged down the last of his Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It was another fifteen minutes before they were out of ear shot.

People venture into the woods and onto the waters in pursuit of many activities — hunting, fishing, hiking, floating, solitude or just the illusion of solitude. And with all of these varied interests attracting varied personalities, sometimes it seems that the wilds of Arkansas aren’t so wild. Sometimes it’s like there’s no escape from everyone else so that we can experience natural Arkansas in our own way.

But with a little consideration, we can share and we can even make the experience more enjoyable for others.

Understand that public forests and waters belong to all of us

Arkansas is blessed with an abundance of public lands (nearly four million acres of National Forest alone) and public waters funded by the taxes, permits, and licenses that we all purchase. Though, it’s sometimes easy for me to imagine that I’m the only person “out there,” I’m not. Though I often think my chosen outdoor pursuit takes precedence over other’s ideas of a good time in the woods, it doesn’t.

There are a couple of rules I follow so I won’t ruin someone else’s experience while enjoying my particular flavor of outdoor recreation.

First come first served is my rule for camping spots, small swimming holes, or favorite hunting/fishing areas. If someone else is already where I planned to be, I go somewhere else.

If I can’t completely avoid an already occupied area, I give it the widest berth possible. It’s the same courtesy that I hope will be extended to me.

I also consider how much my chosen activity will affect the activities enjoyed by those in proximity. This was the rule the canoeists on Piney broke. While music can enhance an outdoors excursion for some, not everyone feels the the same way. Loud vehicles, loud conversation, hunting near hikers/campers or fishing in the same hole of water others are swimming in are also something to think about.

Really, there’s just one rule, the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

Leave it like you found it…or even better

Nothing is more frustrating than to drive down miles of dirt road, maybe hike a few hundred yards to that secluded campsite, and find the place trashed. It takes so little effort to pick up after myself and make a place look virtually untouched. It’s become habit for me to stow a few trash bags in my truck to pick up the mess others have left. Sadly, there’s always an opportunity to do this.

Litter is bad for the environment and bad for the critters, but I also pick up the trash to better the outdoor experience for the next visitor. I owe the environment and the wildlife a debt I can never repay. The same can be said for my fellow tax payers and license buyers who help ensure wild places are still there for me to enjoy. I like to think I’m chipping away at that debt, just a little, with some janitor duty.

You don’t live here, but other beings do

We often treat the wild lands and waters like an amusement park, places reserved only for our entertainment. While we should absolutely enjoy these beautiful areas and entertainment opportunities of a more primitive variety, we should also understand that they are so much more than our often anthropocentric thinking realizes.

These places are first and foremost fully functioning ecosystems. They are communities fine tuned, yet, still evolving, with various organisms dependent on the system and on one another. The oaks were planted by squirrels and blue jays and the acorns feed them as well as the black bears, deer, and turkey. The coyotes and rattlesnakes ensure the rodent population is controlled and therefore also help control tick populations. The layers go on and on forever overlapping, and all of those layers have, over eons, created where we go to get away from the civilized world.

Quiet is the default setting out here. Loud noise is a stressor for wildlife. Keep any other disturbances to soil, rocks, wood, living trees/vegetation and animals to a minimum. Stacked rocks on the creek bank may look like art to you, but they were once home to crayfish, salamanders, and multitudes of invertebrates. And if you’ve ever watched the work a crayfish puts into finding the perfect rock and excavating a residence underneath, you’ll never feel the same way about stacked rocks. Extend the Golden Rule beyond your human neighbors.

There’s still a lot of wild left in Arkansas. Thoughtful practices while you’re out in it are essential for other folks to enjoy it and the well-being of those very places, too.