Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a local swimming hole commonly known as “The Blue Hole.” It is a pretty easily accessible system of trails in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge with one moderate creek crossing. The popular “Blue Hole” is only about a 20-minute walk from the trailhead. There’s a couple of great swimming holes throughout the trail, but the Blue Hole features both a moderately sized boulder to jump off of and a larger cliff face for a more daring plunge. The water is clear, deep (most of the time) and refreshing. This is a pretty cool spot, and a lot of people know that. The parking lot is almost always full on weekends and at times you have to fight through a crowd just for a chance to jump.
If you Google “Blue Hole Chattanooga” one of the first articles that pops up is an opinion letter on the Chattanoogan website titled “The Blue Hole Has Been Destroyed by Rednecks.” The article is over 8 years old, the author is unnecessarily harsh, and it is obvious that many complaints in the letter have since been addressed. However, the author brings up an interesting and still relevant point about popular outdoor areas like the Blue Hole. It is an easily accessible swimming hole with breathtaking views. One of my favorite things about the outdoors is that so many of these places are equally accessible for all kinds of people. I don’t ever want to get frustrated just because the people at one of my favorite swimming holes aren’t all Chaco-wearing, backpack carrying, Nalgene bottle drinking outdoor enthusiasts. It’s true; you don’t have to look like you are in an REI catalog to enjoy the great outdoors. So no, “rednecks” are not destroying the Blue Hole. People in general, however, are.
I have no problem with a cool place becoming super popular and even with it becoming crowded. I have no more right to that place than any other person out there, so we should be glad to share it. I do however, see how people really can destroy an awesome outdoor spot, and that is a shame. As I walked through the trails yesterday I was disappointed to see trash scattered throughout the area. Empty beer bottles lay collecting dirt. Cigarette butts, still smoldering, were tucked away in tree roots. Fast food bags were pushed around by the light breeze (seriously, who brings Burger King to a swimming hole?!). Empty candy wrappers abounded, and old rotting food attracted critters of all kinds. Despite the beauty of the trees and the creek and the surrounding mountains, at certain points, the place was disgusting. I want all people to enjoy the outdoors, but I also want the outdoors to remain enjoyable for a long time. So, to help make things easy, here are two simple things you can do to not destroy the great outdoors:
1. Clean up your mess. One of the most basic wilderness principles is Leave No Trace. It is a principle that, if adhered to, would lead to pristine wilderness places. The basic rule for Leave No Trace (besides, of course, not leaving a trace) is to “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” This is a super simple filter for you to run any of your actions through. “Hmm, should I take this home with me? Oh wait, take only pictures.” “Hmm, should I leave this banana peel here? Oh wait, leave only footprints.” An even easier way to think about it is to ask yourself, “Is this supposed to be here?” For example:
- Trail signs clearly put in place by park rangers. Yes.
- That really cool lizard with the crazy looking tail. Yes.
- Toilet paper. No.
- The sock that you used when you realized you forgot toilet paper. No.
- The clearly defined campsite and campfire ring. Yes.
- The wrapper to your Clif bar. No.
- The crumbs of your Clif bar. No.
- The well-established water source. Yes.
- Beer cans. NO!
If it is supposed to be there, leave it. If it’s not, you need to take it out with you. Just like when you are staying at someone’s house, you want to leave the place better than you found out. Oh, and one common misconception that my friends and family have rolled their eyes at when I obnoxiously pester them about it is the idea that as long as something is biodegradable you can just toss it. Just because it is biodegradable does not mean that it belongs in the wilderness. It goes back to the question of “Is this supposed to be here?” If you want to learn more about Leave No Trace ethics, check out their website at https://lnt.org/.
2. Clean up other people’s mess. In a perfect world, everyone would take care of their own stuff, and nothing would get left behind. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As more and more people are introduced into the outdoors, it is likely that more and more people will be spending time in the outdoors that may not be familiar with good outdoor ethics. Rather than huff and puff about all the “rednecks” ruining your favorite spot, why don’t you be thankful that more people are getting outside and do something about the mess. Instead of ranting about all of the litter while carefully stepping between empty, long-forgotten beer cans, why don’t you reach down, pick them up, and take them out with you. This is why, from now on, I have made it a point to bring an extra trash bag with me anytime I go outside, even if it is just for a day hike. If you don’t feel comfortable picking up trash, bring some plastic gloves with you. If I don’t pick up a piece of trash left on the trail, who will? And honestly, aren’t I just as much at fault for leaving the mess for someone else to deal with? And just think, if even a quarter of the people who go outside were willing to pick up their own trash and a few pieces of someone else’s, wouldn’t our trails and swimming holes slowly start to see some improvement? And even better, as you are out and about, showing good stewardship, it might create some wonderful conversations about why you are doing what you are doing, and it just might inspire someone else to do the same. Be an advocate for the wild, because if we aren’t, then who will be? Let’s give Mother Nature a hand here.
We don’t live in a perfect world. It is full of hurting and broken people, who are trying to make their way through a hurting and broken world. It is, however, a beautiful world, and it is full of beautiful places. Our world has a way of bringing joy to hurting and broken people, and I absolutely see God working through it. As a believer, as an outdoor enthusiast, I know that it is on me to help preserve that beauty so that others may find joy in it for years to come. I hope you will join me in this. Clean up your mess. Clean up other people’s mess. And most importantly, get out there.