Saturday, 18 January 2020

Reminiscences and Thoughts on Long-Distance Walking and Writing, inspired by a piece by Alex Roddie

Writing notes on the Pacific Northwest Trail

In a thoughtful online feature called The Meaningof Adventure Alex Roddie recalls a tough day on the Haute Route Pyrenees and asks himself the question “If I could never tell anyone about this trip, never publish anything about my experience or share any of my photos, would I still put myself through this?” This is not something I’ve ever thought, and it started me considering the relationship between outdoor activities and communication and the huge difference between when I started out and the present. As I’ve written elsewhere the biggest changes in outdoor activities in the last few decades have not been in equipment but in electronics and digital communications. Alex’s article shows the effect this can have, especially on those for who have grown up with social media.

Back when I began long-distance walking the only means of communicating about outdoor activities was via club journals and a few commercial magazines. When I undertook my first long-distance walks I had no thoughts of writing about them. I simply wanted to see what it was like to walk in nature for days at a time. After a two-week walk (the Pennine Way) I knew I wanted to do something longer. After Land’s End to John O’Groats I knew I wanted to do something wilder. That desire became a round of the Munros in several 200- and 500-mile walks and then the Pacific Crest Trail. 

On the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982 with a ridiculous load.

After my Land’s End to John O’Groats walk I did wonder if anyone might be interested in reading about it. I enjoyed reading about outdoor activities (the walk was inspired by John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain). Maybe others would enjoy reading my stories. I’d always kept a journal, going right back to nature notes on local walks when I was a young boy, and I liked writing. Tentatively I sent off some hand-written articles to outdoor magazines (of which there were very few). Eventually I had a couple of articles published in a long-gone camping magazine. I enjoyed writing them but didn’t think of them as significant. Other writing work came along, mainly gear reviewing, which has been a mainstay ever since. I could, I thought, perhaps make enough money from writing to fund other long walks. And so it turned out. A book contract came along, and then another, which surprised me. 

This is why I walk. In the Colorado Rockies last summer.

The long walks always took primacy though. This is what I wanted to do. I never doubted that if the writing work dried up I would find another way to fund the walks. I never felt under pressure to do walks in order to write about them. I did sometimes feel pressure to stay in and write when I’d rather be outdoors (and still do, deadlines are deadlines!).

Social media didn’t appear until well over twenty years after I’d begun writing. Suddenly there was a new way to communicate, a way that could reach unimaginable numbers of people. I had a small niche audience – books sales in the thousands, magazine readers in the lower tens of thousands. And everything took time. Books appeared a year or so after I finished writing them, magazine articles often after several months. Social media, including blogs, was instant. Communicate to the whole world just like that. Marvellous!

Going back to Alex Roddie’s question I know that I would continue long-distance walking if I suddenly had no audience but I can see that the pressures are different now, the opportunities to tell people what you are doing enormous, as are the opportunities to read about other people’s experiences. The online long-distance walking literature is vast. Alex writes about reading blogs and social media accounts about Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Some became jaded after a couple of months. I can’t imagine that. I’ve never become fed up with any long walk. Of course, there have been times during every walk when I’ve felt bored or exhausted or the weather has been awful or the terrain difficult, but I learnt early on that such times would pass and that the best thing to do was keep going.

This is why I camp. On the Cairngorm Plateau

Alex also wonders if his expectations of his HRP walk had been shaped by reading about ultralight trends online. It’s easy to look at many of these and see a proscriptive approach – this is the right way to do things, everything else is wrong. Alex meets an ‘Instagram influencer’ who typifies that view, criticising others with bigger packs. This reminded me of meeting someone like that on the John Muir Trail. This person really annoyed another hiker, who pointed out to me that he liked his big pack and anyway was walking further each day than his critic. I’m glad when I started out there were no pressures like this. It was difficult enough to find any advice, on or off the trail. There were no traditional, lightweight, or ultralight backpackers.

It's not always sunny.

At the end of his feature Alex Roddie answers his question. He was hiking for itself but sharing the experience was part of it. That’s what I feel too, though I internalised it long ago and hadn’t really thought about it until reading Alex’s feature. Maybe if I’d been able to communicate instantly and easily when I began I’d have had to think this through back then.

Writing notes in the Cairngorms.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

The need to reduce deer numbers in Scotland

Deer are not the problem. We are the problem.

That deer numbers in the Scottish hills are far too high to allow forest regeneration has been known for many decades. The extermination of predators followed by the rise of deer stalking as a leisure pursuit of the wealthy are the causes. Stalking estates require large numbers of deer for their clients. With no predators other than humans it’s up to us to control the deer population. And we’ve failed, with numbers of red deer rising steadily from an estimated 150,000 in 1959 to 400,000 today. In 1955 in his  West Highland Survey the great naturalist Frank Fraser Darling, then official adviser to the Deer Commission, wrote that the optimum number might be 64,000. In the same book he also wrote “The bald unpalatable fact is emphasized that the Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.” 

Overgrazing by red deer is one of the main causes, perhaps the main cause, of this.
Deer didn’t destroy the forests. We did that. But deer are preventing their return because of their numbers. This is no fault of the deer. Red deer are magnificent animals. I love seeing them. But I don’t love seeing the devasted land they create. In Scotland red deer are creatures of the open hills and empty glens, but only because the forests where they would naturally live have gone. A balance is needed. Deer and forests. Deer in forests. There’s currently only one way to achieve this, sadly. Kill more deer. Fencing out deer can let some areas regenerate but not that many. Squeezing the deer into smaller and smaller areas that become increasingly damaged cannot be the answer. Fences are expensive, unsightly, a barrier to access, and damaging to wildlife and habitats. Reintroducing wolves would be the ideal solution but I can’t see this happening for many years. In the meantime it’s up to us. I strongly dislike the idea of shooting deer but I can see no other answer.

This issue has come to the fore now because of a report, Managing Deer for Climate, Communities and Conservation, compiled by eighteen conservation and recreation organisations* and published by Scottish Environment LINK that calls for major changes to the way deer are managed. The report gives ten reasons why change is needed. Apart from more trees these include healthier peatlands (trampling and grazing dry the peat), more rural jobs (landowning environmental NGOs employ five times more FTE staff per square kilometre than the commercial deer stalking estate), fewer ticks (it’s highly likely the rise in tick numbers is connected to the rise in deer numbers), and a cut in greenhouse gases (a 20 per cent reduction in deer numbers would save the carbon equivalent of around 15 million car miles on Scotland’s roads each year).

*Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, Cairngorms Campaign, Froglife, John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Nourish Scotland, Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Badgers, Scottish Raptor Study Group, Scottish Wild Land Group, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trees for Life, Woodland Trust Scotland. Plus support from non Link members Forest Policy Group, North Harris Trust, Reforesting Scotland.

I’m a member of seven of these groups, and a Trustee of the John Muir Trust.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Colorado Rockies: More Pictures

Stuck inside with a bad cold for the last week and tired of doing my accounts (late as usual) I've been looking through my photos from last year's long walk on the Continental Divide Trail in the Colorado Rockies. Reliving a walk this way is always relaxing.I've also been reminded of the variety scenery and the changes in the weather. I'm surprised now that I stopped to take photos of some huge storms instead of racing for the nearest cover!

Here's a few more photos that caught my eye.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

35 years ago I was planning my Continental Divide Trail thru-hike

Thirety-five years ago I was preparing for the longest walk I've ever undertaken, the 3,100 mile (5,000km) Continental Divide Trail that runs from Canada to Mexico down the Rocky Mountains. In 1985 this trail was in its infancy. There was no official route, virtually no waymarking, in many places no actual trail. Although there were guidebooks to a suggested route for the first 2,000 miles (3,200km) USGS topo maps were essential for navigation and I amassed dozens of these. Of course there were no GPS units, no mapping apps, no websites, no smartphones. No digital anything.

The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Northern Montana

At the time I was writing regularly for a long-gone outdoor magazine called Footloose and I arranged to send reports, hand-written of course, during my walk, along with rolls of  transparency films, whenever I reached a town. As the publishing schedule of the monthly magazine meant contents were decided well in advance it took a while for anything to appear. I began the walk in June, the first report appeared in the September issue. I finished in November, the final report was in the February 1986 issue. A long way from updating online blogs and social media as you go along!


I can't imagine now setting out on such a walk with so little information. Or on one where I was completely out of touch for weeks at a time. The world has changed. I'm glad I had the opportunity to do walks like this before electronic digital technology came along. Of course you can still choose to do walks in this way but it's different when you don't have to. In 1985 there was no choice.

Desert camp in New Mexico

One aspect of backpacking and long-distance walking that hasn't changed is an interest in gear. I'd forgotten I also sent back reports on how my gear was performing until I looked through old copies of Footloose for this piece. From the piece to the left I see that my Rohan clothing, Svea 123 stove, Field & Trek sleeping bag, Therm-A-Rest mat, huge 125-litre Karrimor pack and New Balance shoes were all doing well. Not so my Wintergear tent whose poles were breaking - perhaps after the 70mph winds I mention! - or my Meindl boots, whose soles were coming off. I see too that I was very impressed with a Rock & Run Hipsac. Using a front pack like this has only recently come back into favour. Maybe I was ahead of my time!

Later in the year I'll be posting more photos from the trip. I just have to get round to scanning them. Until then here's one from the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, one of the toughest sections.

Friday, 10 January 2020

A New Year, A New Decade: the challenge for nature

A few trees cling to the sides of a burn, out of reach of deer. There should be a forest here.

Last year saw a sudden upsurge in concern about the intertwined problems of climate change and wildlife extinction. This is heartening but only if it leads to action. Nature is being depleted rapidly world wide. Here in Britain each State of Nature report shows a steadily worsening situation, one that has been going on for many decades. Something has to be done and we should all be involved.

I've written many pieces on conservation and rewilding over the years (links here). I think I should write more. I'll also continue to support many organisations doing what they can (another list here) and write letters and emails to politicians and businesses. It's not much but if everyone does a little ...

I'm reading Mark Cocker's excellent but rather discouraging Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? In it the author tells the story of nature and landscape conservation since it began in the nineteenth century. All those organisations, all those dedicated people, all those government bodies, reports, councils, acts of Parliament. And still nature declines. Was it all for nothing? Surely not, surely, sadly, it would be even worse without all that work. But clearly it was not enough.

The reasons why this is so are complex. But I think in part it lies in duplication, in the plethora of organisations and designations. And also in what Mark Cocker calls the 'great divide' between landscape protection and wildlife conservation. A healthy environment needs both. Simplifying appoaches and goals, working together on big landscape and wildlife projects, involving local people, avoiding mystification. These are all needed. And they are starting to happen. There are great opportunities.

The 2020s are before us. Let's work to make the world a better place for nature, which means a better place for us.