On a recent backpacking trip to Sawtooth Lake, a friend and I encountered dozens of other hikers, several other backpackers and a couple of trail runners.
When we got to Sawtooth Lake right around noon on a Saturday, there were so many people there, it more resembled a state park campground in McCall than a backcountry destination in a designated wilderness area.
Just like other backcountry destinations in Idaho, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area seems to be getting more popular, not only because of Idaho’s growing population, but also because more Idahoans seem to be discovering its beautiful scenery, fantastic trails and gorgeous mountain lakes.
This summer, the Idaho Statesman is marking the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a 756,000-acre expanse in Central Idaho that includes the Sawtooth Wilderness, Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness and the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness areas.
I have to say I don’t begrudge all the others who were at the lake that day. After all, my friend and I contributed to the crowd, and Sawtooth Lake is a moderate hike, making it popular.
But with growing popularity, it’s more important than ever that we all do our part to minimize our impact on the land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy Idaho’s public lands just as much as we do today.
Unfortunately, we saw evidence of too many people not doing their part, spoiling the wilderness, spoiling the experience for others and jeopardizing future enjoyment of the land.
In addition to the rules set by the U.S. Forest Service to protect the Sawtooths and the wilderness areas within, everyone should be practicing “Leave No Trace” principles.
Rules of the trail
Here’s a rundown of the top rules of the trail when it comes to recreating in the Sawtooths:
Control your dog. On our hike to Sawtooth Lake, we saw way too much evidence of dog poop along the side of the trail and in camping areas. Pick up after your dog and pack it out. No, don’t bury it; carry it out.
And packing it out doesn’t mean putting it in a bag and then leaving the bag on the trail to pick up later. First, you might forget it or can’t find it later. Second, no one wants to look at it on the trail while it’s sitting there waiting for you to come back to claim it.
I love dogs, especially my dog, Buddy, a 17-year-old black Lab. I love seeing dogs on the trail, but campers don’t like hearing them barking all evening and night. If your dog barks at everything that moves, maybe leave them at home.
Finally, keep your dog on a leash. That’s the rule in a wilderness area, July 1 through Labor Day.
On our hike to Sawtooth Lake, we had stopped to talk to another hiker, when someone’s dog came flying up the trail and jumped on the hiker, nipping at his hand. The dog’s owner cavalierly said the dog must not have liked the man’s trekking poles. Well, in that case …
No, control your dog.
“I really stress … the fact that yelling, ‘He or she is friendly,’ is not a leash,” Evan Worthington, wilderness ranger for the Bureau of Land Management and Leave No Trace advocate, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. “The owners have to take responsibility for their pet.”
Pack it out. Pack out all your trash, including food scraps. Don’t throw your apple core or orange peels out into the woods. Don’t burn your trash, either. If you packed it in, pack it out.
Pack out your toilet paper. We saw toilet paper lying on the ground in several places. It takes a long time for toilet paper to degrade. Many people don’t dig a hole deep enough to sufficiently bury it, and critters will dig up the toilet paper and scatter it. Get a roll of dog-poop bags, and pack out your toilet paper. It’s easier than you think, and once you do it, you’ll never go back to burying it. While we’re on the subject, bury your waste in a hole 6-8 inches deep at least 100 feet from water sources.
Stay on the trail. We saw too many people taking shortcuts on the switchbacks. Stay on the already established trail. Taking shortcuts or going off-trail can cause erosion and damage plant life that serves as food for wildlife.
Camp in the right place. Camp at least 100 feet from trails, lakes and streams, and camp on durable surfaces, ideally on a site where someone else has camped before.
Be fire-safe. If a campfire is allowed at all, they must be on a fire pan or fire blanket, according to Sawtooth Wilderness rules. Fires damage vegetation, sterilize soil and scar the land. Use of gas stoves is highly recommended, but if you must build a fire, use only dead and downed wood.
Many folks might not know this, but according to the Forest Service, campfires are not allowed more than a quarter of a mile off-trail from July 1 through Labor Day, and are not allowed in the following drainages: Alice/Twin Lakes, Toxaway/Farley Lakes, Goat Creek (tributary of the South Fork of the Payette River), or Alpine Creek. And campfires are not allowed within 200 yards of Sawtooth Lake, Goat Lake or Alpine Lake near Iron Creek, Alpine and Saddleback Lakes in the Redfish drainage, and Scenic Lakes.
Keep it clean. Wash 150 feet away from lakes and streams, according to Forest Service rules for the Sawtooth Wilderness. The lake is not a bathtub. Even “biodegradable” soap pollutes.
The general idea is to leave it better than you found it. If you see trash, pick it up and pack it out. You want the next person to not even know you were there.
It’s getting harder and harder to find those remote backpacking spots in Idaho, but if we all do our part, we can still maintain that sense of being out in nature.
“If you look at the characteristics of wilderness, one of those strongest ideas is solitude,” Worthington said. “But when they become overrun, that experience changes, and it’s just a detriment to not only the resource, but to how people feel about those resources.”
Leave No Trace
The seven principles of “Leave No Trace”:
Plan Ahead & Prepare
Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Be Considerate of Others