By: Bernie Kuntz, Outdoors, The Jamestown Sun, link to original post
There was a time when no one could have convinced me that backpacking would see a decline in participation among young people. Of course, 25 years ago if you told me that camera film would be replaced by something called digital pixels in cameras that don’t use film, I would not have believed it either. Or that my IBM Selectric III would become even more of a dinosaur than its owner.
The rumblings about backpacking decline have been going on for the last decade or more, but I see nothing written on the subject on The Backpacking Association’s website. However, over the last decade I have seen reports that backpacking participation has dropped between 25 and 40 percent.
I started backpacking 40 years ago when it wasn’t yet the “in” thing to do, but by the late 1970s many thousands of young people had taken up the activity — filling a pack-and-frame with supplies, clothing, food and a sleeping bag, and hitting the trail into the high country. It is a wonderful way to spend the month of August because snowpack is as low as it is going to get, bugs generally are not the problem they are earlier in the summer. (Please note use of the adverb “generally.” A friend just returned from a five-day backpack trip into the Pintler Wilderness in western Montana, and said the mosquitoes were atrocious!)
Thirty years ago backpackers flocked to the Wind River Range in Wyoming in such numbers that I avoided the entire mountain range, preferring to pack in the Washakie Wilderness and the South Absaroka Wilderness areas to the north/northeast. See, the Wind River Range is pocketed by high lakes, which drew hordes of backpack fishermen; the Washakie and the South Absaroka have a dearth of lakes, consequently, far less pressure. Most times I wouldn’t see another human on a three-day “death march,” and that was the way I liked it.
Back to the Pintlers — friend Dave, said his party saw no evidence of any camps, no boot prints, camp fire rings, or other evidence of humans during their trip. “The Pintlers definitely is an underutilized area,” Dave said.
I attribute the decline in backpacking to the faddish nature of Americans. Thirty or 40 years ago you would have had to look long and hard to find a kayak anywhere on western rivers. Today, they are everywhere on western rivers from the southern Rockies all the way to Alaska. A couple months ago I saw a nutty woman rescued along the Mississippi River after she took her kayak onto the flooding river and was marooned, hanging onto a fallen tree in the heavy current. There is even a robust movement in sea kayaking — paddling around in the channels of the Pacific Ocean along the Northwest Coast. Last year I read a story about a few young people who paddled kayaks all the way from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska!
I suspect the increase in mountain biking also has served to lessen participation in backpacking, although if you’ve ever tried it, riding a bicycle on a mountain trail is extremely demanding. I’d rather walk.
My only concern about lowered participation in backpacking is that fewer people will see the backcountry, learn to love it and fight to protect it from road building and other development. Other than that, my feelings are much like Shoe, the cigar-smoking bird in the now-extinct cartoon strip. “When I light a cigar, people leave the room, and that always is nice.” Same with backpacking: It always is a treat to have a piece of country to oneself, without noisy people interrupting the quiet. The sounds are just the wind in the trees and the rush of cold water.
My last real backpack trip was with daughter Katrina in June 2000. We packed 6 1/2 miles up Buffalo Horn Creek to Ram’s Horn Lake in the Gallatin where Ben’s ashes lie, and didn’t see another person during the entire trip. The last 1 1/2 miles of the trail is relentlessly upward, and by the time we got to the lake, I was very tired.
I lay in the shade on the shore of the lake, and sent Katrina to the base of a cliff 100 yards away where I knew of a spring to fill water bottles. Ten minutes later she was back, and exclaimed, “Dad, there’s a bear!” Sure enough, on the other side of the lake, probably 150 yards distant, was a fine spring grizzly bear walking across a snow bank. I still can see it in my mind’s eye, and the experience never would have taken place without carrying a pack up a mountain trail.
Editor’s note: you don’t even have to head west – there’s lots of great backpacking option in NY State, including the Adirondacks, Catskills, and even in Central & Western NY. (“Backpacking Trails in Central & Western NY” available at www.footprintpress.com)