My alarm went off at 4:45am, and every part of my body protested as I dragged my limbs into a sitting position. Boots are pulled on, jumpers packed, hats securely cover ears, and the front door is opened.
It’s not often we get up early - if you’ve followed our project, you might notice how often we mention having a “late start”, to the point where you might wonder if it would be more useful if we instead mentioned the days where we actually managed to have an “early start”. Today however, is not a trail day. It’s a training day, as as we watch the sun rise from our seats on the train I start to get excited.
Back in July we met with Leave No Trace Ireland when we were passing through Westport on the Western Way. We meet at a picnic bench in the camp site we were staying at to drink some coffee and excitedly talk about our project, our future projects, and how much we love the work they do. Since that sunny evening we’ve kept in contact, and it was almost surreal to be thinking about the prospect of working with an organisation that embodied so many of the ethics and values that we try to live by. If you haven’t heard of Leave No Trace Ireland, it’s the Ireland branch of a global organisation working towards teaching everyone the importance of trying to “leave no trace” when doing outdoor activities. They run awareness courses and other workshops for children and adults all around the country.
Coming back to this damp November morning, a few hours and a few transport changes later, we’re walking into the entrance of Tollymore National Outdoor Centre. It’s a large enough centre, but nestled well within the grounds, and the trees surrounding it are a thousand different colours. The Mourne mountains peek out from behind the curve of the roof. What a perfect place. We’re here to do the Leave No Trace Awareness course - a one day course learning the the seven principles of Leave No Trace, and how to be more aware and conscious of the natural environment. The seven principles can be seen as a best practice guide, or ethic standards that we should all be aiming for while in the outdoors, so that it remains as perfect as it was when we leave it.
We meet our trainer Mark and the other people on the course - a mix of college outdoor instructors, instructor trainees from the centre, some people involved in the LNT organisation that wanted a better grounding in the organisations ethos and practices. Going to this course I wasn’t sure what I was going to learn, and how it could change my current relationship with the outdoors. I had arrived excited to spend a day out in the forest. Now I was intrigued what I was going to learn from not only Mark but those taking the course too.
While in the centre we talk about why people go outdoors, writing a list on a flip board. There are countless sports mentioned, jobs and livelihoods, family outings and general recreation. We talk about what different groups might need to bring with them or know about an area, and how they would gain that knowledge. We then consider what would happen if you went out unprepared; hunger, the cold, search and rescue trying to get to you and the damage that can cause to the environment. Living in the country we live in, we of course talked about the weather, and how important it is to be prepared for changing weather conditions. This is all related to the 1st of Leave No Trace’s seven principles: Plan Ahead and Prepare. When everyone is ready we set out for the day - lunches packed and rain gear on in response to the large clouds hanging around above us.
A few minutes into our walk Mark asked us all to stop. We’re all standing at a wider part of the track - there’s some remains of an old drystone wall, trees wrapping their roots around the less movable lumps of earth. Leaves fill dips in the track, moss and lichen grows in patches. Marks asks us to see if we can all stand on different surfaces. We’re then asked to individually evaluate the surfaces we’ve each chosen, looking at how durable it is, and what percentage of what we’re standing on is living. It becomes a conversation of whether mud is more durable than stone, and a tree root might be a sturdy part of the path, but how many feet could pass over it before it started to show signs of wear? Mark has an easy-going style, seemingly effortless weaving the lessons and ethics he wanted to share into the conversations and discussions the group found itself in as we stopped at different parts of the forest. In this conversation we cover important points that are part of the 4th principle: travel and camp on durable ground. To expand on this a little, durable ground includes established tracks and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow. Generally speaking, in popular areas it’s recommended to concentrate use on existing tracks and campsites, and to avoid further erosion, travel in single file in the middle of the track even when wet or muddy. In more remote areas, disperse use to prevent the creation of new tracks and campsites, and avoid places where impacts are just beginning to show.
We continue on further into the forest, crossing a picturesque bridge where Mark tells us how he teaches eddies to school children by throwing a twig into the eddy catchment area, and letting the students watch it spin around and around in it’s little corner. I’ve never really been into water-sports, or on any geography trips to a forest, so I find it really interesting and as he explains the concept I see a leaf get sucked in. To look at the bridge, the water behind the leg of the bridge looks calm and almost unmoving, and yet the leaf is now flowing upstream in the small eddy current.
We come off a small uphill trail onto a wider forestry track and group together for a minute. Mark asks one of the guys to take a couple of steps back, and shout “one two three” as loud as he can. The echoes launch themselves through the trees as his voice booms. And then there’s silence. We all stand there listening to the emptiness in the wake of his shout, and then slowly notice the forest come back to life. We then all spread out and tried to walk the next 100 metres as quietly as we could, listening and identifying as many forest noises as we hear. At the top of the hill we stopped once more and talked about the impact that our noise can make - both to the animals who live in the forest and to other forest visitors and users. It happens that where we’ve stopped there’s a hole in the wall between the forest and some farmland, and the farmer has looped some wires across the wide opening. Was the hole made by people trying to access the mountain side near by? How dangerous is this wire to wild animals - a jumping deer might not see it. How many times has the farmer rebuilt the wall, only for it to be knocked down again? All of these questions were brought back to the topic of the 2nd principle: be considerate of others.
This principle asks for outdoor users to; respect the people who live and work in the countryside; take care not to damage property, especially walls, fences and crops; respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience; park appropriately - avoid blocking gateways, forest entrances or narrow roads (farm machinery, local residents and the emergency services need access); and finally, let nature's sounds prevail. Keep noise to a minimum. (In parts of this discussion we also mentioned the third principle: respect farm animals and wild life)
We move on a little to a spot Mark has picked for the principle I’m most interested in learning about - 7: Minimise the Effects of Fire. On our own adventures Carl and I don’t set any fires at all, opting for a pocket rocket stove when we want to cook. We’ve both had bonfires in our gardens growing up, and have had wood burning stoves in our homes. We knew how to set those kinds of fires, but the last thing we wanted to do was go out and scar the land, or risk a fire go beyond our control. There’s also an element of respect involved; because we’ve camped on private land the last thing we want to do is worry the land owner that there’s a fire out there somewhere. I knew I was going to learn a lot during this session.
We started with a general run down of a couple of good ways of building a fire outside: fire pans, fire blankets, rock beds (here’s some specific details, as I’m still not an expert). Mark had brought fire pans - basically a large circular metal pan, like a baking tray from your oven. We were split into two groups and told to pick a location where we would build our fires, that would ensure there was no evidence afterwards. My group gravitated to a pile of rocks between some trees, possibly once part of the old wall we’d just been talking about. We chose some large flat stones to place to the sides, and criss-crossed some larger branches directly under the pan to allow airflow and stop the heat from transferring downwards as easily. We gathered windfall branches, and once Mark approved of our fire set up, we settled in to light our fire.
To be perfectly honest, it took us a few minutes. We had some cotton wool, a tiny bit of Vaseline, and a flint lighter. Once we get our tiny flames flickering, we build it up into a proper little camp fire. It’s fun, and one of the girls toasts marshmallows. We’re also given a couple of baguettes of garlic bread that we toast over the flames. It’s all delicious.
When we’re finished cooking we stop adding fuel, letting the fire burn itself down. When it’s time to start tidying up we flood the pan with water, mixing it into the ashes with a stick. Once the pan is cool to touch we used our fingers to break up any large lumps remaining in the ash, and spread it across the ground with our fingers. It feels slightly warm and crunchy, but also wet as I squish it in my hands. There’s something really enjoyable about getting your hands dirty. Once the fire is dealt with, we move all the rocks back into position and remove all traces of us sitting around for half an hour. Each group then analyses whether or not the others left a trace - linking back in with aspects of the 4th principle: Travel and Camp on Durable Ground. When camping (or lunching), it’s advised to keep campsites small and discreet; protect water quality by staying at least 30m from lakes and streams; aim to leave your campsite as you found it, or better! When we went to nit pick the other groups site, the only real trace was the artful scattering of leaves over where they had sat. We checked the ground to see if it felt warm (it didn’t), and uncovered a couple of tiny bits of ash. However, anyone could walk by and never know.
It was amazing to pack up our stuff and see how you really could have a camp fire, and almost leave no trace at all. The reason we raised our fire pans off of the ground was more than just to avoid scorching it - heat transfers down through the soil, and can permanently damage tree roots, or kill the insects below you. If you bury a fire without fully extinguishing it first, it works like a little sealed oven, roasting away underground causing so much untold damage. The key points to know about minimising the effects of fire are: keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Do not use growing vegetation for use as firewood; where fires are permitted, use the established fire rings or barbecues; avoid burning plastics or other substances (they emit toxic fumes); burn all fires to ash, put out fires completely, and then scatter cool ashes; and finally - fires can cause lasting impacts and be devastating to forests, natural habitats and farmland.
Throughout the day Mark had been encouraging us all to take photos of the beautiful views or interesting things we find along the way. At one point he stops and point out some chestnuts that have clearly been nibbled on by squirrels. He talks about the amazing wall that runs across the Mourne Mountains (35km long passing over fifteen mountains), and also draws in that wall we passed at the very beginning of the day. A key part of Leave No Trace is Leave What You Find - the 5th principle. The forest is an ecosystem, or more simply, a home for thousands of creatures, who don’t walk into our homes and take all our biscuits as souvenirs to hang on their walls. The details of this principle urge everyone to respect property (farming or forestry machinery, fences, stone walls. Leave gates as you find them - open or closed); Preserve the past, examine (without damaging) archaeological structures, old walls and heritage artifacts e.g. holy wells, mine workings, monuments; Conserve the present - leave rocks, flowers, plants, animals and all natural habitats as you find them. Fallen trees are a valuable wildlife habitat; Avoid introducing non-native plants and animals (wash your boots when leaving an area); Do not build rock cairns, structures or shelters.
This last point we chatted about for quite a bit as we walked through a particularly popular section of the forest. Lots of children had come out and built their own forest houses between trees, left their marks upon the landscape. But they had also had happy, positive experiences outside. And people who grow up enjoying and therefore loving the outdoors are going to respect it, and want to maintain it. Which is why it’s important to not see these principles as rules - they’re for reducing the damage caused by outdoor activities. So there’s a really important balance and responsibility to those who use the outdoors. How strict you are with yourself and others is up to you.
Wandering down hill, we take a turn off the larger forestry road onto another small track. Rounding a corner, it’s like we’ve stepped into a green wonderland. The most vibrant mosses coat everything under two feet. The ground is soft underfoot, every way I turn breath-taking. And then I hear someone from the group call out. A little way off the track they’ve found the remains of a messy campfire. It’s like a black crater, and clashes so horrendously with the beauty it’s surrounded by. Whoever had been there had even chucked their camping chairs into the fire, the poles now protruding at weird angles, melted plastic hanging from it in a poor imitation of icicles. I stand stunned for a minute. One of the girls opens her bag and pulls out some large bin liners. Mark warns us all not to pick up anything dangerous, there’s no knowing what these people left. But we also feel like we can’t just leave the place like this, so we clean away the worst of the mess, everyone’s face a mix of disgust and incredulity. Mark reassures us that this wasn’t planned - he had no idea this mess was here, but it was a pretty good time to talk about our 6th principle: Dispose of waste properly.
The official details from Leave No Trace say; "If You Bring It In, Take It Out" - take home all litter and leftover food (including tea bags, fruit peels and other biodegradable foods). To dispose of solid human waste, dig a hole at least 15-20cms deep and at least 30m from water, campsites and tracks. Use a stick to break it up, and then cover and disguise the hole when finished. These holes are often called catholes. Bring home toilet paper and hygiene products. If you have periods, learn about all the different hygiene products available - I wrote a piece a while ago about my experiences of periods and the outdoors so far.
Wash yourself or your dishes 30m away from streams or lakes and if necessary use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Bring home any solid food and scatter strained dishwater.
As part of our discussion on waste, Mark gives us a set of large cards. Some of them have commonly found litter items, the rest all have different amounts of time on them. We lay them out on the ground and try and match up how long we thing things will take to break down, building a time line. It goes from things that will take 2-3 months right through to 450yrs, to 1,000,000, to forever. Because of our climate, it takes fruit peels at least 3 months to decompose, and thats a long time for a wild animal to come along and try to eat it, possibly poisoning it. Did you know it takes at least 450 years for a nappy to break down? And think of how many nappies each baby goes through just in a month.
One of the scary things about where these people had lit their fire was that under all the moss is a thick bed of pine needles, covering the whole forest floor, nice and dry and insulated. That whole section of the forest could have gone up in flames if it had been a particularly warm, dry night.
The rubbish collected, the group carries it down to the forestry road and Mark contacts the park management to let them know where the rubbish is. One of the group raises a personal battle he has with collecting other people’s rubbish when outside: if we collect it, and then the forest is lovely and clean for when they want to come back and mess it up again, how are the learning? Are we making any difference? It’s an understandable mental battle, and I don’t know what the answer would be, but the answer that was most accurate for me was to think of the animals. We’re walking on a more regularly used path, and pass some dog walkers. Earlier we’d heard the birds singing, and there’s apparently 250+ deer roaming between these trees. The people who made that mess might not deserve us cleaning up after them, but the animals did. And so our conversation starts to cover the final principle - 3: Respect Farm Animals and Wildlife. We’d already touched on the topic of wildlife in many of our discussions that day, but for a while we stood and talked specifically about respecting them and their space. Dogs should be kept under close control and should only be brought onto hills or farmland with the landowner's permission. In Ireland so many trails cross farmland with the explicit rule dogs are not allowed, and some public areas say that dogs must be kept on a lead at all times. Observe wild animals and birds from a distance. Avoid disturbing them, particularly at sensitive times: mating, nesting and raising young (mostly between spring and early summer). A general rule is the “rule of thumb”. If you’re looking at a wild animal, close one eye, extend your arm, and try to cover the animal’s body with your thumb. In the case of a bug that’s pretty easy, so you can peer and stare at it as long as you like. But in the case of a deer, you’ll need to try and stay much further away than just a couple of feet. Keep wildlife wild, don't feed wild animals or birds - our foods damage their health and leave them vulnerable to predators (ie. banana skins). Farm animals are not pets; remain at a safe distance!
We round the final few bends, and somehow we’re right back where we started, standing in the car park of the centre. We go inside and round up the things we went through throughout the day, asking and answering any questions that have come about from all our discussions. Carl and I get our awareness certificates, and get a lift back into Newry to take our train home.
As you might have noticed, we didn’t go through the principles one by one, speaking about hard facts or learning off lists. Throughout the day we discussed the points of each principle at relevant moments, so that the idea becomes real, you see how you impact the environment around you, hear other people’s points of view, and then reappraise your own. What I really liked was how no ones opinion was ever classed as “wrong”, but rather other options were raised to question it. And the importance of allowing everyone to have fun and fall in love with the outdoors was at the foreground.
It’s only a few days later when we find ourselves waking up to the same alarm, grabbing slightly heavier packed bags, and rushing for the same train again. We’re on our way back up to Tollymore, this time to do the trainers course. It’s a weekend trip this time, where we and the other trainers give all the presentations on the different principles, each drawing on our own love for the outdoors to generate new ways of teaching these fundamental principles. It’s really interesting to watch everyone teach these topics, and see how you might try and teach a different group of people about these ideas. Some of my favourite moments were; cupping my hands around my ears and then moving my hands to change the direction of what I was hearing (like a deer); learning about the similarities and differences of leave no trace problems between Ireland and Greece; playing hide and seek; being blindfolded and walking across different grounds; camping in a beautiful forest. It was an intense two days, and as we boarded the train home that Sunday night I planned on writing down the hundreds of notes and ideas that were filling my head. I lasted about 4 minutes before falling asleep.
Thanks so much to Leave No Trace Ireland for providing us with all this training. We’ve learnt so much, and can’t wait to start passing on the importance of understanding the outdoors! With so many people realising how amazing the outdoors is, I think it’s vital that the education is there for everyone to understand how they impact the environment around them.
An unexpected side note of my experience is about the forest itself. A lot of the trails we walk go through forestry, and the very vast majority of the time it’s an evergreen forest, densely planted and in uniform rows only visible if you stand the right way.
This means that I’ve never really understood other people’s love of Autumn. For me it marks the end of the summer, my season of adventures. If you have to like an in-between season, surely spring is better because everything is coming back to life, and the weather starts to get milder again. But even just in the taxi out from Newry to the centre, the views took my breath away. The Mourne mountains were beautiful, but forests that hugged their valleys was a fire of colours, the brightest of greens contrasting off reds, yellows, oranges, browns. It was fascinating, and I will admit to falling in love with it a bit.