Leave no trace at Northern Tier

Leave No Trace is a set of practices everyone should follow to assure we enjoy our natural spaces in a way that preserves them for others to enjoy in the future as well. I want the generations ahead of me to enjoy the wilderness in the same way that I do today.

When I traveled to the BSA Northern Tier High Adventure in August of 2017 with Venturing Scout Crew 255, Leave No Trace was a big part of our planning, but the real test was the trip itself where we put the principles to practice. I was elected Crew Chief for the trip, but our success was a team effort.

At Northern Tier, we canoed through the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada for 6 days and covered 81 miles. We lived those days deep in the wilderness and it really felt like I was a part of the wild. But, to ensure that we were not hurting the wilderness in the process, we had to plan for and to keep the Leave No Trace principles in mind wherever we went, including the campsite. The seven Leave No Trace principles we used are:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors  

Before our Crew started the trek, we made sure to plan ahead and our planning began with research. Some of the research I did was on the Tread Lightly and the Leave No Trace websites. Additional text and video resources are available from the BSA Outdoor Ethics site. The BSA Leave No Trace Trainer course is for scouts 14 years or older and I am excited to do that sometime this spring. For those in a hurry, a quick 10 minute introduction on Leave No Trace is offered in the National Park Service awareness video that shows you the basics and why we use the principles.

We scheduled our trip for August, which is past the high season, but also past the black fly season. We made multiple gear checks emphasising toiletries and food storage. We identified the special regulations in Minnesota governings camping and campfires, and purchased a Minnesota State fishing license to be prepared and within the rules, although we never actually fished. We also did several shakedowns, where we practiced the routines we’d follow while at Northern Tier.

Once we were on the trek, the challenges of keeping to Leave No Trace principles became more real. When we portaged, we only walked on established portage trails and followed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness rule of no more than 9 people on a portage at once. Sometimes this meant we had to wait a while in our boats on the water at a portage trailhead to let another crew pass by. We always set our campsite at least 200 feet from the lake and only on established sites. We consistently walked single file, often times right through the mud, and sometimes mud up to our knees.

A clean campsite was an essential part of the day. Each morning, before we left the campsite, we did a trash sweep, picking up any trash that we saw as we walked together in a single file line. Our aim was to leave the campsite cleaner than we found it. As for human waste, we used the designated latrines at each campsite and made sure to pack out any hygiene products or toilet paper. When cleaning dishes after a meal, we used biodegradable soap and boiling water and scattered the strained dishwater at least 200 feet away from the lake.

Building a fire every night was a lovely addition to our adventure, but we had to make sure it was safe. We always used the fire rings provided for us and made sure our fires didn’t get out of hand. We did this by using only sticks from the ground that could be broken by hand and always had a bucket of water near the fire in case it got too big. The fire was always watched by at least one person and we never burned any of our trash, as it could cause nasty chemicals to enter the atmosphere. When it came time to put out our fires, we burned them down to nothing but ash and poured water over top the cool ashes.

The saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints” helped inspire us to take lots of pictures of loons, rocks, frogs, spiders, plants, waterfalls, and sunsets.






We stored all our food and other “smellables” in a bear bag that we hung high from a tree every night before bed to keep bears, chipmunks, or other wildlife out of our things. We enjoyed the silence of the night where we were far away from anyone else and could hear the leaves in the wind and the ripples of water against the shore.

I learned a lot from leading our Crew through the research, the trip planning and preparation, and the 6 days on the water at Northern Tier. Each night of the trip we held a round of Thorns, Roses, and Buds. On our last night, everyone cited the same Thorn: we all wished we had spent more days on the water. So, now, we are planning an even more ambitious 10 day trip for next summer in the Sangre de Cristo mountains at Philmont Scout Ranch. Leave No Trace has universal principles, but their application takes different forms in different places, and I’m excited to experience just how this works in the high desert of the southwest.

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