How to Wander: The Ethos of a Traveling Photographer
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH DAKOTA – Two nights have passed and the expanse above our heads stretches to the horizon with overcast clouds. Rachel Nicole, a fellow photographer, stands next to me as the harsh wind transforms the light rain into a spray of bullets blasting over the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States. The cold air whips exposed skin as it rushes past and down the 200-foot cliffs, coursing through the ancient ocean floor beneath us and eroding its rocky buttes and hoodoos at a rate of 1 inch per year. A herd of bighorn sheep mantle the cliff nearby and begin to graze. A mother nurses her lamb, seemingly unaffected by the wind, rain, and sheer drop just a few feet to their left. The wind slows, the land rests, and for a moment all is silent. As is so often the case when witnessing nature’s sublimity, we are gracious to be alive.
We haven’t seen many people. It’s October, the off-season, and as a result no overwhelming crowds flood the park. Around 1,000,000 people visit Badlands National Park annually to camp, hike, and backpack; a far cry from Great Smoky Mountains (11,421,200 in 2018), Grand Canyon (6,380,495), Rocky Mountain (4,590,493), Zion (4,320,033), and Yellowstone (4,115,000). The top five most-visited national parks only account for a portion of the over 318 million visitors that attended National Park Service (NPS) properties last year, a number that excludes the millions of people venturing within other federal, state and private properties. These statistics are remarkably high, and many credit social media for the influx of travelers. Everyone wants to be an explorer.
treading lightly and consciously when enjoying the outdoors is more important than ever.
The desire to “be alone in the wild” is becoming more popular and a goal rendered harder and harder to achieve as populations grow larger and the effects from climate change and historical mismanagement of natural resources tighten their hold. Climate change now affects every ecosystem on earth, and the mere fact that we are within a place’s borders means that we are impacting it. Because of this, treading lightly and consciously when enjoying the outdoors is more important than ever. It ensures the survival of the ecosystems, safety of other visitors, and enjoyment by generations to come.
Here, I hope to impart some of the lessons I have learned during my life-long journey as an adventurer. My father, an avid outdoorsman, started me in scouting when I was 7 years old; since then, I’ve gone on to earn a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies with a Concentration in Sustainability and work in many facets of the environmental field, from wildlife to land management to research & archiving. I’ve been surrounded by bears, held field notes written by Alexander von Humboldt, performed research on soils and wildlife and spent countless nights outdoors. All of these experiences introduced me to outstanding individuals that rendered me profoundly impacted, many of whom I am thankful to continue to learn from today. Whether intentionally or not, they sculpted my ethos alongside the natural world. Because of this, I deeply understand the impact that an individual can have on the world around them even if they are just passing through. The impact I am having on a place is on my mind at all times and I constantly think about what the consequences of my actions will be before I choose to do them.
This became increasingly important as I began to pursue photography and share my work. Thanks to social media, we are no longer the only ones on our travels. Entire audiences tag along every time a trip taken is publicized on Instagram, so it is crucial that anyone using the platform is a role model that respects the earth and values the stories it allows them to tell.
What You Can Do
A great way to do this is to ensure that photos are the only thing taken from the ecosystem. To “take only pictures and leave only footprints” is a cliche, but it’s true; imagine if all 11 million yearly visitors at Rocky Mountain National Park brought home a pebble as a token, or left a granola bar wrapper on the ground. Millions of pounds of trash would stockpile over time. Literal tons of rock would be excavated from the park, creating divots in the ground to pool water, loosening the soil and causing erosion, and destroying creatures’ habitats just so a bunch of people have a little rock on their shelf. Leave the park at the park, pack out what you bring in, and immortalize the experience by hanging a photo on the wall instead or posting stories and images online. The world will be that much more beautiful as a result, and you’ll leave feeling more fulfilled knowing you did your part!
Posting, too, can have an impact – specifically, geotagging has the potential to ruin a place. I am always conscious of the way that I tag locations online and try to make them as broad as possible; not doing so results in tragedies like Horseshoe Bend, a famously beautiful canyon carved by the Colorado River that now needs a parking lot, ticket stand, and array of restrooms a short walk away from the canyon’s edge to accommodate the overwhelming number of daily visitors. At the beginning of this decade, it was a local secret; now, hordes of people visit it at a rate of thousands each day, a rise in popularity that mirrors the rise of social media. When geotagging, tag the state. Tag the park. Tag the general region, maybe, but never the exact place. Broader is better, because if people have to put less effort into finding it, more people will – sometimes by the thousand.
These people are not always prepared, either. Horseshoe Bend may just be a short jaunt away from a parking lot, but it is still a massive canyon in a hot, hot desert. It can be dangerous for people who do not regularly venture on steep terrain or left their water in the car, and this leads to medical emergencies. There are a lot of spectacular places that are relatively easy to get to and seem easy enough, especially when the info was gained through a short caption, comment, or casual DM. “Oh, it’s only 2.5 miles away from this little lot, not too bad;” however, 2.5 miles one-way means 5 miles through desert, or along cliffs, or with the potential to encounter wildlife that prefers not to be bothered. In a world where Google Maps will tell you exactly how to get there, geotagging specific locations encourages the unprepared to do it. It is incredibly important to have the gear and training to enjoy the outdoors safely, and telling people how to get to exact locations gives them the impression that they can do it just as easily without the same experience, ensuing danger. Geotag broadly and encourage preparedness!
I would be lying if I said I didn’t do every single one of those things when I was younger. Most people act this way because they are not aware of the negative impact they are having, others out of genuine disregard; either way, it is important to call each other out and make ourselves aware of damaging practices. I’ve had many conversations with people who simply didn’t know that their actions had such relevant implications, and I get it. These concepts were once new to me too. They need to be taught & learned, and the best way is by example. It starts with us. Now get out there and have fun!
Follow me on Instagram @alex.haraus and subscribe to my blog, “Thoughts From The Trail,” on my website, www.alexharaus.com, to keep up with my adventures!
ONE MORE THING: The act of treading consciously is lifelong and applies to every facet of our lives; including what we purchase. When purchasing, remember to ask yourself, “will the person I’m buying this for actually use this for a long time? Do they actually need it? Should I buy several things, or is less enough, even if ‘less’ is nothing?” Just another way to tread lightly on the world we all depend on!
Rachel & I worked with Wayward to create a holiday gift guide filled with apparel and gear (much of it featured in the article’s photos) from brands that give back to the environment. We want to encourage paying this holiday season forward to the planet that gives us so much. Happy holidays!
“Help / FAQ.” Badlands Natural History Association, https://www.badlandsnha.org/38/help-faq.htm
“Visitation Numbers (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/visitation-numbers.htm
Worby, Rebecca. “Lessons from Horseshoe Bend on How to Save Our Parks.” Outside Online, 29 Mar. 2018, https://www.outsideonline.com/2291861/horseshoe-bend-canary-our-park-system