On Microtrash, Useful Trail Finds, and Cleaning Up the Earth
Written By: Kathy “OBAL Unbranded” Vaughan
As Ras and I climbed the steep, remote trail in the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho, we could see the creek drainage we’d been following begin to change in character. The rushing waters from the lower elevation had mellowed into a gently flowing mountain stream. But now, it was widening, and as I looked further upstream, I could see that it was hardly flowing at all. Then, I saw a large beaver down below, and another. These two dark brown furred critters were basking in the early evening quiet, half in and half out of the water they had dammed. Ras and I stood bemused for what must have been 30 minutes or more, as time trickled away. We watched these hard-working beavers taking a long break, almost as if they were admiring their hard work and also feeling grateful for the surroundings in which they lived.
Finally, we continued our climb and topped out at a flat, indicated on the GPS to be an historic location called Bellecca. We saw a huge pile of old sawmill off-fall, rusted mining equipment, and the remains of a tumbled down cabin. An established campsite awaited us, but we could see it had not been used for a while. I was distracted by the loads of wild Grouse Whortel berries, and after having my fill, wandered back to the place where we would make our camp. A well-used fire pit had a seating area set up around it, and near the pieced together bench, was a pop of unnatural color. It caught my eye and as I bent to pick it up, I could see it was the tiniest bungee cord I had ever seen. I showed it to Ras and he helped me hook it to my Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 backpack, where it is still situated to this day. I have hiked miles and miles with that bungee.
On this thru-hike, Ras and I were hiking the Wild Idaho Loop, a route we pieced together to get us into the heart of Idaho’s remote wilderness areas, The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness; the Gospel Hump Wilderness; and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. This 600-mile route gave us only a couple of opportunities to hit any kind of town, or public access area. We would carry everything we picked up for a long distance. That is what you do. Leaving the rustic, historic remains YES; Leaving microtrash, accidental gear drops, or unseemly and unsanitary toilet tissue NO.
At this same camp, Ras found a very useful multi-tool that he happily carried out and mailed home at our next resupply. The two of us have found other knives, a possibly illegal flip-knife, found along the Oregon Desert Trail road walk, and a small Swiss Army Knife, the style with the handy scissors like Gossamer Gear carries and I now own. I always carry this lightweight tool with me, as it has a callus file, toothpick, and small, sharp blade.
If we see trash on the side of the trail or road we are walking, it isn’t going to go away. We must take the time and energy to pick it up and carry it. Be prepared with old grocery bags, kitchen-sized garbage bags, large ziplocks, or whatever carrying container makes the most sense in your situation. For a year now, I have dedicated myself to helping clean up the beach along the west coast of Whidbey Island, where Ras and I are currently residing during our off-trail time. Our neighborhood has direct access to the beach. This area of the shore doubles as the Pacific Northwest Trail, and accesses two of the Washington State Parks where I hike and run trails regularly, Ft. Ebey and Ebey’s Landing State Parks. I often do a loop where I combine trail, a bit of road, and beach to my route. I take plastic grocery bags and my Gossamer Gear RipSak and pick up what I find along the way. Most of the garbage is trapped in driftwood up against the high bluff along the beach, but other fresh garbage washes ashore after wind storms. I found a brown plastic tub that I hauled home and use for a recycling bin. I found a football and a basketball on the same day, which our Australian Shepherd, Guthrie, just loves. He now helps me spot stuff, and will approach an unnatural object on the beach, whimpering, until I pick it up. He likely wants me to play with him with the found object (an old wool glove, a tennis ball, plastic, or Styrofoam chunk) but it is helpful (and darling!) nevertheless.
On thru-hikes, it is common to find dropped bandanas (the least cringe-worthy of which have made it into our kits), hats of varying styles, and Ras even found a cool, black camo Idaho hoodie, while we were hiking the Wild Idaho Loop, which he patched with duct tape and now wears almost daily. I have found two green camo trucker caps, one while hiking the 2,600-mile UP North Loop through the Inland Northwest, another route Ras and I put together to experience a long trail of solitude and discovery. We had just left a wonderful community that gifted us breakfast burritos and homemade zucchini bread at their small store, the G & G Riverstop. Several miles from the store, the hat caught my eye in the ditch and it looked brand new. I put it on my head and kept on hiking.
My experience has shown me a few hacks to make picking up litter on a thru-hike, day hike, or run, easy and doable:
- Keep a medium-sized Ziplock bag handy while setting up and breaking down camp. Many camps have bits of “microtrash” (e.g., twisty ties, rubber bands, snack wrappers, packet, etc.). If you have the bag right there as you make and break camp, it will be easier to pick up these bits of litter.
- Keep a similar sized Ziplock bag available while on the trail to pick up these same types of common litter.
- Have a pack set-up that works well for picking up trash during your day hikes and runs. An outer mesh pocket works well for stowing away larger pieces of dirty or awkwardly shaped trash, and full grocery store bags of garbage. The Kumo packs from Gossamer Gear are great for this.
Kathy “OBAL Unbranded” Vaughan is an adventure runner, thru-hiker, and long-distance skier, who is fascinated with pursuing the limits of trail endurance. When not on an adventure, she and her husband Ras use Whidbey Island, Washington, as their base camp. While currently off-trail, she is completing a poetry book inspired by The Wild Idaho Loop, a 650-mile thru-hike she and Ras completed last summer, and working as a gardener. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Facebook, and Team UltraPedestrian on Instagram, Facebook, and their website.