Friday, October 23, 2015

PA: Nixon County Park, York Co. - I'd Rather Walk

Autumn hillside, Nixon County Park, York County, PA.

I used to drive the lead Jeep in long caravans of 4WDs full of tourists visiting the South Carolina coast. We rolled over dunes, roared up barren beaches, and snaked through jungle-like lowcountry forests bedecked in curtains of Spanish moss. The sea island park I worked for made almost all of its money on these tours, so they were important if we wanted to take home a paycheck. As one of my first professional jobs in my early twenties, it's when I really began to dislike tourism. I still do.

Ruby-crowned kinglet, female.

I understand that many natural areas around the world wouldn't be what they are today without the money tourism generates. But the kinds of people who paid a hundred dollars or more for a Jeep tour to look for 'gators weren't the kinds of people I felt any connection to. And they certainly didn't spend enough time to develop any relationship to the landscape. There are different kinds of tourism of course, but I have my particular 'beef' with ecotourism. But after a recent trip to Acadia National Park with its packed tour buses with camera-wielding out-of-towners clogging roads and parking lots, I had to re-examine my dislike for all thing touristy in nature.

UK birders on a morning hike, York County, PA.

Near where I live there is a large Amish Market placed just off a busy interstate. Like in Acadia National Park, the buses can quickly clog the parking area and the sheer numbers of people can overwhelm the vendors and the space inside. I shop here frequently and have often wondered how the Amish bakers, butchers, cheese-makers, and produce sellers handle it.  I asked Susan at the bakery about the tourist hoards. She said "Yes, sometimes I feel like the attraction, and they don't necessarily buy much of what we sell. We rely on our local folks like yourself to sustain our business."

Savannah Sparrow.

I make a terrible tourist. I am not into resorts and I don't enjoy manufactured or fake landscapes. I don't feel the need to be entertained by guides or hired locals, and sure as heck wouldn't pay money for a tour when there is a perfectly good trail system nearby!  I just get out of the car and walk. There's something about the earth underfoot that can tell you more about a place than any guide. Having the freedom to stop along the trail and simply listen or look speaks volumes about the forest, farms, neighborhoods, waters, and people you meet along the way.  But my distaste for tourism runs deep and I credit those first few years on that beautiful sea island in South Carolina with stoking it. 

Overgrown farm road in York County, PA.

The people who paid over a hundred dollars to explore our remote sea island for a two hour Jeep tour had the money to do so, and this leaves travelers without such means to find places and experiences that are affordable and accessible. More affordable or free and accessible places tend to be better patrolled and policed: a good thing for the benefit of those environments. But those out-of-the-way places that cost a lot of money to visit? They are probably out of range of local natural resource authorities as well.  I used to collect those funds. Off-road enthusiasts paid the park hundreds of dollars in back country fees and private tour groups with their own 4WD expedition vans paid three times as much. Tour guides walked out with pamphlets that explained back country rules after they signed a piece of paper to promise they wouldn't harass wildlife.

Monkshood in October.

As leaders of our own tours, we were expected to demonstrate proper back-country travel protocol but I frequently observed permit holders busting over dunes for some 'air time' and once watched an expedition van loaded with "nature" photographers racing a flock of black skimmers up the beach - straight through a nesting area! There was nothing I could do except radio our HQ and hope the one back country ranger (usually on another island) could come by to investigate.  When a region depends on ecotourism to expose rare and fragile environments as economic privilege, the ecosystems suffers first and foremost. Additionally, the influx of ecotourism dollars rarely stems profitable  illegal activities such as poaching, logging, fishing, and resource extraction.   

A healthy young crop of chestnut oak forms a colorful understory.

Before I left my position as rookie ranger in South Carolina I asked permission to walk the island rather than drive it. My supervisor was intrigued. "Walk it?" he asked. "That's eighteen miles up and eighteen miles back." It took me three days. After working on the island for several years, I had never known the island as I did that week hiking it. What I experienced would fill a book. Two hours by Jeep failed to reveal the dozens alligator nests, osprey, eagles, owls, red-bellied mudsnakes, and glass lizards that lived just yards from the vehicle trail. I counted fifty sea turtle nests in places we hadn't even considered good nesting sand, far from the egg poacher's trails. I added ten new birds to  my life list. I watched dolphins cooperatively herd schools of small fish into mud cuts on the back island edge and sat for an hour counting clapper and king rails in a low tide marsh. I caught sight of my first American bittern staring at me from only yards away. I learned to "see" hawks and owls by the chatter of other birds. I began to understand landscape as an immersive experience. 

Nixon Park, York County, PA.

Shortly after my island walk we moved to Maryland where I began my teaching career and continued to work in natural resource education and law enforcement. I made it a point to never spend a full day in the classroom, taking classes outside for hikes in the woods or just around campus. With my park assignments I left the truck and patrol car parked and did most of my shifts on foot, though I worked with rangers who never left their vehicles unless they were writing a ticket or answering nature's call. I hiked with my young children on the AT or local park trails, fly-fished, rode bikes, bird-watched, camped. I never felt the need to travel to resorts or vacation-lands when there was so much to explore close to home.  And when I travel for work now, attending this conference or that meeting, I still make time to walk the landscape and to get to know it from the ground up. I'm a bit feral when it comes to striking out to the woods, mountains, rivers, and  I could easily go completely wild.

An October morning over the foothills of central York County, PA.

I often wonder how much more scientifically and culturally literate we could become as a society of pedestrians who chose to walk or hike compared to touring from inside a tour bus or SUV. I know that freedom from extravagant costs of exclusive resorts and access to privileged locations opens me up to actually putting my money thoughtfully into the pockets of those who work and live in the landscapes I want to explore. My guides are often the folks I meet along the way. Today while hiking at a local park in York County I met up with two nice folks from the UK who had just visited the busy Amish Market and were doing a little birding. I was happy to serve as their 'local guide' and direct them to a nearby hawk watch, the AT, and some great local eateries. (We friended each other on Facebook so that when I get to the UK they can return the local favor!)  "How beautiful to just spend this time and walk," Bryan said as he and his wife Kim topped a ridge trail to look over the view. "We find that in America you imagine more sightings of wild beasts and tend not to see the real ones." 

Bug and Annie hike with their noses.

The idea of being a tourist places me immediately outside an intimate experience of the land and the people who live on it. It's a temporary experience I need only endure for the scheduled time slot. Walking instead unhitches me from an agenda framed by the constraints of the short-term visitor and frees me to look for those things I would otherwise miss. Better yet, walking with my coonhounds engages a whole new world of scent and track that I would have missed completely had not they strained against their harnesses to follow some trail or sniff some sign. 


Debates over the pros and cons of ecotourism are held at all levels of conservation, biological science, economic development, and cultural preservation. But I think that a walk in the woods (not a movie about a walk in the woods) even and especially close to home can certainly be a personal trek well-grounded to the wilds of our own perception. Beyond the itinerary of a highly structured day or week as a visitor with limited time in a new place, pretending (even for just an hour or two) that your feet are striding on home ground can make all the difference, and for that experience alone I'd rather walk.

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