As my VetsWork internship progresses I am offered amazing experience building opportunities that develop myself as an inspiring Forest Service employee. One of my most recent training opportunities has been to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) for a week with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) for a Leave No Trace Master Educator certification. This certification is one of a few courses available with material and curriculum provided by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The ATC is a certified proctor for Master Educator courses through the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and holds several courses each year. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend one of their courses with the help of the Forest Service. As an AmeriCorps member, I am always striving to serve my community, and with my new certification as a Leave No Trace Master Educator I am now equipped with knowledge that will enhance every visitors experience in the forest. Knowledge is power and I have the power to make small changes that will preserve our public lands. My goal is to educate as many visitors as I can to not only preserve, but to also improve the forests we all love to enjoy by leaving no trace.
Leave no trace ethics is organized and run by the nonprofit organization Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. This nonprofit organization was established in 1994 to educated the public on how to enjoy the outdoors while maintaining minimal impact on the environment. Their mission is to, “sustain healthy, vibrant natural lands for all people to enjoy, now and into the future. Every person who ventures outside puts leave no trace practices into action.” There are seven principles for Leave No Trace that are taught through three training levels. The three different levels are an hour to a day Awareness Workshop, a two-day Trainer Course, and a five-day backpacking Master Educator Course. Each principle that is taught through the different courses has been researched and identified as the best practice for minimizing human impact while enjoying the outdoors. To be a master of the outdoors is to be a master at leaving no trace. (All information is credited to Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, www.LNT.org)
The Seven Principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The buildup and preparation for the course gave me the, “night before the first day of school” excitement and anxiousness that every student endures. I reviewed my gear checklist a hundred times just to make sure I didn’t forget anything. As a novice to the backcountry, I didn’t want to be the one who forgets something. The last thing you want to do is step off on your hike and realize you forgot toilet paper. After packing up (2 days before I needed to leave) all that was left was to wait for the day to travel to Sugar Grove, VA where my course was being held. The drive was about 5 hours, so I left the day before the course began so I could have a good night’s sleep before the first day. A few of the other students also had a long drive so I was not alone in my decision to arrive a day early.
The first day consisted of forced, awkward interaction in an effort to get to know one another and find out how interesting our 4 days in the backcountry was going to be together. Not only was I a novice, but the most inexperienced student of the group when it came to backpacking. Out of the five students in the course, two had thru-hiked the AT- 2,168.1 miles long! Compared to my experience of one overnight in the backcountry hiking 5 miles, and plenty of day hikes throughout my district, I was a little intimidated to say the least. The initial intimidation quickly went away because everyone was extremely nice, welcoming, and willing to help me in any way they could to make sure I had a great experience. They succeeded in their efforts, because I had an amazing backcountry experience during the entire course.
The overall goal of the course is to discuss the 7 principles of Leave No Trace and train students to be able to teach others on the trail, in a classroom setting for Awareness and Trainer courses, and co-instruct other Master Educator courses. The entire course is taught while hiking and camping in the backcountry. The focus during the Master Educator course is on the educational material and training of students, versus hiking for mile gain like many thru-hikers strive to achieve. I was very thankful for this, being an inexperienced backpacker with 40 lbs on my back; long distances would have been a struggle. Don’t get me wrong; this course was a challenge for me. The AT is a trail that can test you and push you to your limits at times. I did not at any time feel that I was being pushed beyond my limits, but it was my own personal goal to push myself while on this course. Mentally and physically, I accomplished what always seemed to be a daunting undertaking for me. A multi-day hike, carrying everything you need on your back for the entire trip, is an endeavor any “Average Jane” would deem a feat.
Our trip took us 13.2 miles around the Mt. Rogers area, which is the highest point in Virginia. We got to hike through alpine meadows, high tree top forest areas, and experience the wild ponies that roam Mt. Rogers. Our route was a loop so we did not stay on the AT the entire time, but as a first timer on the AT I was excited I got to hike even a small section. Each of the students had a teaching topic assigned to them from one of the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. My topic was Dispose of waste properly; food, trash, and gray water. Disposing of waste properly is such an expansive topic it was split into 2 parts. Each 20-minute lesson we taught had a presentation element and an interactive element with our target audience. My target audience was day hikers because I interact with that user group more often than any other group that recreates in the forest. Thankfully, we only had to do one presentation while our instructors lead the rest of the discussions throughout the week. The experience I gained from learning to be a Leave No Trace Master Educator while in the backcountry is just amazing. The people who I was fortunate enough to share the experience with made it even more enjoyable.
My overall goal when I decided to pursue my Leave No Trace Master Educator Certification was to broaden my knowledge and skill set to be able to interact with the public, and to be a steward of the wilderness. I believe Charles Darwin said it best, “as soon as a virtue is honored and practiced by some few men and women, it spreads through instruction and example to the young and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.” Preserving our wilderness takes time, hard work, and persistence. I am determined to do as much as I can as a wilderness steward to enact change for the better of our public lands.