By Myste French
This morning, work begins where I made camp. I arrived after dark last night and didn’t notice the trash strewn about the campsite. I remove all litter from the area and burn trash from the fire ring, then distribute the ashes in the forest before moving on to my real work site for the day.
When I arrive at the Blue Lakes Trailhead, the parking lot is packed and the sun hasn’t risen yet. I open up the San Juan Mountains Association tent and set out maps and brochures. For the next two hours I’ll staff the tent, talking with hikers about their plans and how we can support them in Leaving No Trace. We discuss preparedness, trail etiquette, wildlife safety and fire regulations.
I am in my fifth month as a Forest Ambassador with SJMA. Eleven of us worked for the interpretive partner of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests – this season. Together we covered 40 trails across six million acres of Public Lands, an area roughly the size of the state of New Hampshire.
Today 31 backpackers are planning to spend the night in the Blue Lakes Basin. I ask them about their plans for human waste management. So much surface defecation happens at this site that E. coli bacteria is starting to infect the water. I distribute PACT Lite cat-hole kits, and Waste And Gelling bags to mitigate overnight waste impacts.
After the traffic in the parking lot slows, I hike the trail, making frequent stops. There are hunters with questions about game sightings and the trail needs attention. This is my seventh weekend at Blue Lakes this season. Each time I walk the trail I note the work our team has done: fallen logs cut and hauled off the trail, fresh trail drains installed, and new vegetation growing where a social trail was closed only two months ago.
I’ve conversed with 161 hikers in the time it takes to reach Lower Blue Lake, tipping the total number of Forest Ambassadors’ engagements with recreationists at Blue Lakes over 6,000 and more than 26,000 people throughout our service area for the summer. Enjoying a moment of solitude and appreciating the cerulean beauty of the lake, I head into the nearby camping area where 13 campsites and two illicit fire rings must be cleaned up and naturalized.
Back on the trail, a conversation begins with a group of hikers. I tell them of the impacts we are seeing from social media. A few weeks ago we dismantled an abandoned campsite which contained only photo-shoot props. I share with the group my favorite message: we need to take Leave No Trace ethics one step further as we consider our online footprint and attempt to Leave No Digital Trace.
Looking up, I realize that other hikers have stopped to listen. I count, and there are 18 of us gathered. We have a discussion about wilderness regulations (groups must be fewer than 15 people) and then split into smaller groups to reduce our impact before heading back down the trail.
Walking through the silent wilderness, I contemplate those who’ve walked before me, both literally and metaphorically. The original Stewards of these Lands were the ancestral Ute and Pueblo peoples. The Ute people consider the trails to be an integral part of their Creation Story. Not only the land, but the trails themselves are sacred – as is the work of caring for the land. In my time as a Forest Ambassador I have learned that being a Steward of the Land is a reciprocal relationship. When we take care of the land, the land most certainly takes care of us.
Myste French, MSW, is nearing the end of her first season as a Forest Ambassador with SJMA, she resides in Silverton and in addition to time spent outdoors, Myste is also an Artist Member of the Silverton Powerhouse Collective and the Market Manager for Silverton Farmer’s Market.