For the eight students who journeyed to some of the most remote reaches of the southern hemisphere, the adventure began simply enough. They read my call for a few hardy souls willing to travel thousands of miles and pare down creature comforts in order to rethink their place in the world.
I knew students would be interested, and I knew that I had instructors and the blessing of Leave No Trace (LNT) and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and great colleagues to guide me through the red tape. All that was left was to plan an adventure that safely took students to the most remote places in the world and back again under the rubric of environmental archaeology training, outdoor ethics, and a healthy dose of boot camp.
NOLS lists Leave No Trace Masters training as a selection in their professional programming. NOLS partners with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colorado to offer courses internationally. LNT courses are based on seven principles that, at first read, with the exception of number four, recall something akin to what your parents told you before you left on those family camping trips at the beach. By that I mean that they make perfect sense when you stop to think about them. They are as follows: 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.
There is still that contentious principle number four to contend with, however. Quite frankly, it flies in the face of all things human—who hasn’t skipped stones and had one find its way into your pocket, or picked wildflowers on a sunny spring day, or searched for that perfect sea shell to remember a summer walk on the beach? As an archaeologist I could see the logic, but what about the rest of the folks? Ours is a consumer culture; we are taught from birth to hunt and gather, all the way from Target to Tiffany’s. I could see that number four was bound for trouble ahead.
We traveled from Baltimore to Miami, then on to Santiago, and finally to Balmaceda, in the Aisen district of Chile, where we were met by our instructors, Jim Ferguson and John Hauf of Patagonia Frontiers, both senior NOLS field instructors, Master LNT educators, avid mountain climbers, guides and fly fishermen. The trick now was to combine the physical backcountry challenges of the Leave No Trace program with the intellectual experience of a stunning landscape and remarkable culture.
Slowly, we made our way through all seven principles. We learned to pack and prepare ahead. We learned the hard way why you travel and camp on durable surfaces and why one doesn’t stop to rest on the path. We also learned how to dispose of waste properly—pack it in, pack it out. We learned that the trowel was not for archaeological purposes or even for digging plants; it was the preferred tool for digging cat-holes to dispose of human waste in designated areas. We learned how to walk a path so as not to damage a pristine area and how to spread out on a wide glacier floor to minimize impact. Perhaps our most difficult lesson in a world of extraordinary treasures, we even learned to leave what we found.
When we returned from the field, the lone horseman we met on the trail, now known to us as a neighboring rancher, Mancho, slaughtered a lamb and barbequed it for our celebratory feast. After days of trail mix, pasta, and cocoa, a real dinner was a welcome treat. The next morning we made our way up the highway to Coyhaique where we would depart for the next leg of our journey. The bright lights, music, and traffic of Santiago, not to mention hot showers, beds, real toilets, and clean tropical clothes, oriented us for the next leg of our trip, the six-hour flight to Easter Island where our newly acquired skills would be put to the test.
The tiny island of Rapa Nui, approximately 3,000 miles from any large land mass in any direction, was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1995. Most people know Easter Island for its large heads (moai) that ring the island on platforms (ahus). On a landscape strewn with basalt, obsidian, and scoria, we used our LNT training to remove ourselves from current obsessions with geometrically-plowed agricultural fields to understand how a society used their most abundant resource, rocks, to make gardens to cultivate food and architecture to provide shelter against prevailing ocean winds.
We learned firsthand how environmental archaeology can move out of the dusty past and into the future by “paying it forward” from the standpoint of ecological innovation for the next generation, something next year’s Leave No Trace students and summer interns will do over winter break in 2008 on Easter Island.
In the end, as suspected, principle number four turned out to be an unnatural paradox. While we resisted the temptation to bring home beautiful pieces of obsidian found on our walks, to hunt and gather memorabilia, ultimately we were not able to leave what we found. We left Baltimore a diverse group of people ready for an unusual adventure and found that we came home as a family tightly bound together by profound shared experiences, environmental resolve, and the humility that comes from realizing human scale in a vast and spectacular world.