Got such an e-mail the other day from Chris Jenkins of Tracy, who had an unpleasant experience with some anglers who just moved right in on him at his favorite fishing riffle and basically drove him out. Chris suggested that maybe a column on outdoor ethics might be in order. (Knowing full well that, if you’re reading this, it’s already clear that you have impeccably good taste.)
I once heard ethics defined as how you conduct yourself when you think no one is watching. For as long as I can recall, it seemed to me that the wild places I frequented were really pretty civilized. The vast majority of fishermen and hunters seemed to hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct than ordinary people.
When I was a youngster just learning how to fish, one of our goals was to be able to fish all day without seeing another angler. To achieve that goal, we would plan our fishing trips where we thought there would be no one else. Oftentimes, we succeeded and fished all day in peaceful concentration. Sometimes, though, when we got to our favorite stretch of stream, we’d find someone else had beaten us to it.
As soon as we encountered other anglers, we’d say a polite “Hello” and vanish back into the woods away from the stream. Then we’d walk at least a half mile away before we began to fish again.
I once recall Dad saying that the only way the other guys should know we were here at all was if they spotted our footprints in a sandbar.
We perceived it as our duty to respect the privacy of anglers who happened to get to the stream before us. A similar code of ethics applied to your campsite. You could drive off and leave your stove, lantern and ice chest out in plain sight in your camp, with the reasonable assurance that they would still be there when you returned. You didn’t fool with anyone else’s camp, and they didn’t mess with yours.
The same sort of courtesy applied to all sorts of activities in the outdoors. It doesn’t matter if you’re fly-fishing, hunting, scuba diving or skiing — a little courtesy for others and respect for their space goes a long way.
Unfortunately, as our population has grown, so have the demands we place on our public lands. We now have more than 300 million of us here in the U.S., and less than 5 percent of our public lands are in some sort of wilderness.
I suspect that we need to adjust our activities to accommodate the increased demand we all place on our woods and waters. More than anything else, I think we need to readjust our mindset, sort of like how we readjust our thermostats to deal with rising energy costs.
Years ago, I used to avoid crowded places, like national parks and state parks, because I felt claustrophobic in all the crowds of people. I avoided such places as though they were infested with the black plague. When I began to have children, however, it slowly dawned on me that I couldn’t have wilderness solitude all the time. The days of Jim Bridger and the mountain men are long gone.
I began to readjust my mental thermostat to deal with more civilized conditions. When we took the kids to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, or old historic ghost towns like Bodie, we would adapt to the crowds and make it fun. One of our favorite games was to see how many different languages we could identify being spoken by our fellow tourists. Another great game was having the kids count license plates from as many states and countries as possible.
I actually began to enjoy Yosemite again rather than hate it. The difference was my attitude. The key was in how I reacted to the situation. Instead of boiling over from the pressure, I readjusted and began to actually enjoy watching all the weird and varied human denizens of the woods.
Heck, oftentimes, they are just as entertaining as feeding chipmunks or watching deer browse in a meadow. We even have a new term for wild, outrageously attired people found in public places. They’re called “Walmartians.” If you don’t believe me, stroll through a Walmart or other large retail store some Saturday and see if you can spot some dandies. It’s great fun.
Still, there is a place in my soul that calls for solitude and reflection. When I am there, I think my better side takes over, and I am more courteous and respectful of others. I’m still working on keeping that attitude no matter where I am. I’m still a work in progress.
Perhaps it was all summed up a few thousand years ago as the golden rule. Meanwhile, I’m heading back outdoors.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer, outdoors columnist for the Tracy Press, has been writing Tight Lines for more than three decades and is the author of “Tight Lines: Observations of an Outdoor Philosopher.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.