Loved to death
14 years ago I took a trip down the Catawba River for the first time, paddling the 7 miles from the Lake Wylie Dam to River Park. This was before River Park had the new bridge across Manchester creek, before there was a picnic shelter or a proper kayak put in, back when the police had to patrol it often due to “public acts of lewdness”. It was uncommon to see other people on that stretch of river, with only a few visitors at either end fishing along the banks. Now with the development of River Walk and the surge of interest, every time you cross the Catawba you see at least one kayaker or tuber enjoying themselves. Pettiness in me hates that my solitude on the river will never be the same, but I am glad that so many people are experiencing the outdoors and learning to love it like I do.
I tend to write more about the outdoors in my own backyard than actually being in them; when I venture forth, it’s usually further afield. Shame on me, I know, but I’m always trying to find the next great place to write about and share. More adventurous friends of mine, who paddle our local waters on a weekly basis, have been sharing some disturbing news though about some of the places I love. So many people are enjoying the river it’s slowly being loved to death. Love comes in both healthy and unhealthy forms, and when it comes to nature both can leave permanent scars.
Litter and trash has always been a problem on the Catawba with the largest majority coming down Sugar Creek out of Charlotte and Fort Mill, being pushed into the river above Landsford Canal State Park. A common sight is the flotsam of bottles and balls that accumulate at the upstream points of the islands until a surge of water finally flushes it downstream to Fishing Creek Reservoir. Recently even places above Sugar Creek are starting to have trash accumulate and even more damage that isn’t merely an accident: fire rings, abandoned camp chairs, beaten down vegetation, and other signs of abuse are becoming a more common sight. Whether ignorance, malice, or simple laziness causes people to mar the landscape this way, I’m not sure I’ll ever understand it.
This issue isn’t something unique to our area; with the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service this year a record number of visitors are expected to visit our parks. “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” is inscribed above the arch leading into Yellowstone National Park, and to be fair it’s hard to benefit and enjoy anything you don’t actually experience. While there is a small warm feeling in the back of my head knowing about Denali National Park in Alaska, until I go and see it I can’t say I’m actually enjoying it. A place closer to home though, the Great Smokey Mountains for example, was experienced by 10 million people in 2015. Despite only being a quarter of the size of Yellowstone, it had nearly 3x as many people hiking trails, staying in campgrounds, and sitting in traffic jams when wildlife gets to close the road. Even if they weren’t malicious or lazy, the sheer number of people going through the same small patch of nature can damage the land irreparably.
As more people venture into our wild places, good habits from programs like Leave No Trace become very important. Leave No Trace is a system created with the simple thought that as you go through the woods, the next person behind you will never know you were there; a way of preserving that wildness that we love even when enjoyed by many people. www.LNT.org is full of great information on everything from proper distances to camp from a water source to the best ways to build a low impact fire. “Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but foot prints” is an oft repeated phrase and it’s true. If every visitor picked a flower, kept a pretty rock, or had a campfire wherever they wanted, what made that place special would be lost.
If you’re reading this article, I doubt that you are a hardened litterbug who hates this Earth (but if you are, hopefully this article has changed your mind and now you will mend your ways). More likely is you’ve always been careful in packing out your trash, not stomping on wildflowers, or burning down forests and are wondering what else you can do. There’s a lot actually. The Catawba River Keepers is having a cleanup on a local waterway every weekend through the middle of October, so you can join up with them to help remove trash from the same waters you enjoy paddling on. The River Keepers is a great organization that is a protective watchdog against small things like trash and debris but also big things like coal ash run off, so if picking up bottles is less interesting than petitioning local governments for stricter environmental regulations you have plenty of options on how to help.
If you’re willing to organize your own clean up, you can team up with existing programs like Palmetto Pride which is a SC based organization for cleaning up everything from the side of highways to trails and waterways. If you give them notice of an event you have scheduled, they’ll even send you gloves and trash bags. In addition, they also have resources to connect you with people over the national forests and parks to help with that as well. Several facilities in Sumter National Forest are so overrun with garbage that they’ve actually been closed until everything is cleaned up. Go to www.palmettopride.org for links on how to help.
I can’t get angry for more and more people wanting to go into the beautiful places that we have and make memories. But what wildness we have can’t be ruined by poor treatment and abuse, and even if we are not the offenders we can’t just sit by and watch it happen either. That means picking up trash, lobbying for better environmental regulations, or supporting wide sweeping legislation that gives protective status to our lands and funding to keep it protected. America is unique that unfathomable hugeness of land and beauty is we the people’s property; and even if it’s property way up in Alaska that I’ll never visit, I can at least enjoy that warm and fuzzy feeling knowing it’s there and properly loved.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
― Wallace Stegner