Off-trail excursions: The Ethics of Venturing Beyond

                                                               By Doug Olthof

Standing at the top of Sunset Peak, the Queen Elizabeth and Colin ranges pouring out in front of us and bathed in the soft, orange light of a summer sunset, I had no doubt that our decision to walk off the trail near Snow Bowl campground had been a good one.

The mosquitos in camp were nuclear and there wasn’t a restaurant table in the world as nice as the scree-covered plateau where we were about to hunker down for dinner. My only misgiving was that we’d had to veer off the trail and bash our way up the slope to get there, no doubt crushing some sensitive vegetation in the process. What would John Muir say?

It was a concern that had crossed my mind earlier and one which would continue to crop up as my friend and I drew a series of wide arcs around Jasper National Park’s much-extolled Skyline Trail. In our efforts to venture beyond the iconic trail system I had no doubt we damaged lichens and crushed mosses as we tromped down the Jeffrey Creek drainage and scrambled up a couloir on the east side of Mount Tekarra. Would our diversions had an appreciably negative impact on those ecosystems? Obviously there is a point at which off-trail hiking begins to damage the very things that draw us to these special places.

Considering that the vast majority of visitors never entertain the thought of bushwhacking their way toward some distant height of land, most areas of Jasper National Park are probably pretty safe from being trampled underfoot. But seemingly obscure backcountry pursuits have a funny way of become widely popular activities (see: rock climbing and ski touring). Withthe recent publication of books like A Peakbagger’s Guide to the Rockies (reviewed quite favourably in these pages), who’s to say moss mashing and flower flattening isn’t going to become the next big thing?

Parks Canada has a clear set of regulations when it comes to random camping (e.g. no fires, no more than two nights in one place, etc.) and takes a proactive approach topreventing trail “braiding,” but on the subject of off-trail hiking, the agency offers only a few guidelines. One of these is to spread out while walking in alpine areas where there is no path, while other ground rules for bushwhacking and off-trail hiking can be extrapolated from the principle of “leave notrace.” Don’t build cairns for no particular reason, don’t carve your name in trees, don’t start fires, pack out what you pack in, etc. Ultimately, though, the only way that off-trail hiking can avoid damaging pristine areas is if relatively few people are doing it and they’re not all doing it in the same place.

Looking around at the people we encountered during those three dayson the Skyline Trail, the problem of heavy off-trail traffic didn’t

seem particularly pressing. Most of our fellow backcountry travellers fell into o

ne of two categories: the ultra-runners traversingthe trail in a single day, and the groups of casual hikers held back by at least one exhausted over-packer. Each group was fixated on their respective goals of finishing the trail in good time, and not being finished off by the trail. Neither seemed likely candidates for an impromptu amble up the peaks and cols surrounding them. Luckily for of us who are interested in such improvised excursions, most people aren’t. For that reason, there are opportunities to enjoy delicious pasta dinners on seemingly untouched slopes

just an hour’s walk from a popular backcountry campground, or to forge your own route up a well-known mountain just a few hundred meters from one of the most famous trails in the park. If we’re creative with our choices, those plants and lichens that are inevitably crushed beneath our boots will have plenty of time to recover before the next walker ventures beyond in that particular direction.


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