A trail runner defends his right to public lands

 

One September morning, with huckleberry bushes burning a fierce red against a dusting of snow on the banks of the upper Nisqually River, I left Mount Rainier National Park headquarters on a pilgrimage.

Twenty-seven hours later, depleted but filled with a near-religious sense of reverence and elation I've rarely felt since, I arrived back where I'd begun. I'd completely circumnavigated Washington's great mountain on foot, running the entire Wonderland Trail. This route is something of a crown jewel to backpackers, who typically plan on taking 5-to-10 days to cover its 93 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation gain.

Perhaps understandably, the idea of running the length of that trail in a single day can be baffling to people. How could anyone, they ask, possibly appreciate such a majestic environment while running? Was I simply, as Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff put it recently in an opinion piece for Writers on the Range, an "extreme (athlete) seeking ultimate bragging rights?" I'll argue that I'm not, and that trail running is about far more than physical achievement.

I have been a backpacker and day hiker all my life, and in my day job as a biologist I cherish the particular variety of experiences that moving slowly or staying in one place provide. There's the opportunity to allow wildlife to come to you, and the meditative way layers of meaning unravel the longer you stare at something from a particular vantage point. But trail running provides unique rewards. As a way of experiencing nature and landscapes, it has as much depth and resonance as hiking.

As I ran around Mount Rainier, hour following hour, I found myself focused on the changing intricacies of topography and geology. I found myself better able to understand the mountain's majestic scale, and the broad patterning of different habitats splayed across its flanks. And because I spent an entire night moving in complete solitude, I experienced things I never experienced as a hiker. I saw the gleam of the mountain's great icecap growing and then receding as a full moon tracked across the sky, and was treated to the indescribably eerie sound of elk bugling on both sides of me as I moved quietly through a herd.

During the run, I packed out the remains of all the food I brought with me. This should not be surprising as it has been the norm in all the outdoor communities I've been a part of, but as the sport has grown, some hikers have expressed concern new runners fail to follow leave-no-trace principles. Unfortunately, this is not restricted to trail running. Not far from Mount Rainier, in the Enchantments Wilderness, backpackers have left alpine lakeshores strewn with toilet paper, candy bar wrappers, and trampled vegetation. Here, as in the Grand Canyon and other overused areas, education and smart policy – rather than vilification against trail runners – is surely a better approach.

I can't help but think that some of the recent outflow of animosity towards trail runners reflects the latest iteration of misunderstanding between different recreational user groups. This is a conflict as old as our system of public lands itself. To backpackers and horsepackers in wilderness areas, trail runners are a strange new constituency to encounter. Ironically, the idea of fast-paced backcountry travel as a modern novelty is itself a fallacy. Some of the biggest icons of public land preservation were avid endurance athletes: Bob Marshall regularly went on 50-mile day hikes, for example, and John Muir was an ultra-light peakbagger.

I'm not suggesting that running is a better way to travel through wild landscapes than any other non-motorized method. And I don't doubt that those who criticize trail running have their own meaningful experiences in nature. But as I prepare to lead a group of college students to study how climate change is affecting Mount Rainier's forests this weekend, I'm excited to introduce them to a place I've come to know intimately by running through the night, and in turn hear what it means to them.

I certainly don't want to dictate how they visit the natural world, as long as they tread lightly and respectfully. I believe that a diversity of perspectives about the value and enjoyment of our wild places is crucial to building a coalition strong enough to ensure they outlast us. Ultimately, that allegiance to public land – not whether we recreate fast or slow – is what matters.

Ethan Linck is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives and runs in Seattle, Washington, and is a Ph.D. student in biology at the University of Washington.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -