Matt Keenan — Without a trace? You’ve got to be kidding

11/05/2013 4:58 PM

11/05/2013 4:58 PM

Can I get a do-over?

Maybe you heard about the two men who disrupted an intricate rock formation that had been preserved for millions of years at the Goblin State Park in Utah. Posted on Facebook, it prompted a flurry of negative publicity and threats of criminal prosecution. At the time these adults were Boy Scout leaders. No more.

The rule that got them kicked out of Scouts was breaking the ‘no trace’ rule. The scouting website Meritbadge.org describes it this way: “Leave No Trace message encourages people who spend time in the out-of-doors to behave in such a way that they can minimize unavoidable impacts and prevent avoidable impacts. It is often summarized: ‘Take only photos, leave only footprints.’”

The no trace rule has always amused me. Not because of its importance but instead its execution. Boys + clean = fiction. Girls would have no trouble with this — they don’t simply keep outdoor areas intact; they improve them — and then paint the landscape on a canvas to give their mothers. Boys? Forget it. No trace is the equivalent of expecting boys to make their bed, fluff the pillows, empty the trash and load the dishwasher. If you know a boy like this, call me. I have a daughter he needs to meet.

So anyway, in 2005 I took two of the three Keenan boys to Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico as part of an expedition there. Philmont, a national treasure, is a testament to both the importance and success of no trace camping. Joining the crew of eight scouts and four adults with us was Aaron — our assigned ranger who was both earnest and youthful, with a face that will be on the receiving end of “I.D. please” until he’s 50. There was little doubt that Aaron drew the short straw with our assignment. He would accompany us for three days up the mountain, ensure compliance with Philmont and BSA protocols, and then return to base camp.

But this is where things became complicated. You see, the food to be carried in our backpacks on the mountain included Gatorade. Not the liquid. Instead, a powder mix. Brimming with microscopic particles of all things unnatural, this was not only artificial but glow-in-the-dark blue. Giving boys powdered drink packages and then pointing them into the wild with expectations that they’ll leave no trace? Think sending boys out to play in a rainstorm and then usher them into a room of white carpet with this directive: Don’t get anything dirty.

And if you know where this story is going, add perceptive to your skill set.

We began Day One of our 12-day expedition and we reached our first campsite after a couple hours. The boys were thirsty and gravitated to the Gatorade. And one camper, in a rush to hydrate, tore open a bag. What happened next went according to plan. Not really, actually. The precise chain of events remains unclear except this much is not: Blue powder went everywhere.

It wouldn’t fair to say it spilled. A spill sounds benign, capable of a cleanup with a paper towel, perhaps a broom. This was different. Imagine a crop duster doing a fly-by and fertilizing our entire campsite. Blue dots scattered in brush, dirt, between rocks, resting on thorny bushes, with powder circulating in the early evening air. At that moment, the spirit of Lord Baden-Powell stirred, black bears caught a distinct whiff of sugar and Scout leaders everywhere experienced an Obi-Wan-like disturbance in the force.

Those who witnessed it gasped. Everyone else turned to see the landscape acquire a sapphire glow and then understand that we just assaulted the no trace rule in our first four hours on the mountain. We paused for Aaron’s eruption. He obliged. “You have to pick it up! Every bit of it. All of it.” I promptly evacuated the camp site to do something, anything, so long as it was far away from the crime scene. I kept busy studying indigenous plants and unusual brown rocks while Aaron evaluated options to restore a billion years of meticulous preservation.

You know how you retrieve a billion specks of radiant Gatorade in the middle of nowhere? Neither do I.

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