Early in the summer I decided that I was ready to unplug a little more. I committed myself to a beautiful manual camera [Olympus OM-1 SLR] and deleted instagram and Facebook messenger from my phone (heck, I deleted my Facebook account entirely and created an alias account for community organizing). For a few weeks the kid and I rolled around Vancouver Island and we even made it to Washington. We camped, we hiked, we swam and I took pictures. Lots of pictures. When I got back to town I dropped the film off to get developed and discovered that my new-to-me camera wasn’t winding the film at all. Like, the film wasn’t catching the winding mechanism and I returned from my trip with empty rolls of film, the pictures I took trying to hold fast in my waning memory.
Even without discovering that my photos were bare, not taking pictures with my phone was instantly gratifying. For me, not holding a phone to take a picture meant I had to literally focus the shot I was taking which made me focus too. Breathe slower so you don’t shake the camera sort of thing. While news cycles and hiking forums chastise “millennials” for prioritizing instagram photos on the trails [example here], I found that within a few days of not using my insta-camera I stopped worrying about how many likes my photo would get, what kind of hashtags I would have to use to get enough exposure and if the photo was instagram-worthy. I remembered what it was like to think about a picture long term and how to carry its story to development.
If you and I were in a group of people, casual/social like and someone felt comfortable enough to gripe about a millennial you must know in your heart of hearts that I would be the first one to pipe up and give that asshole a talking to. First, people can make decisions about how they want to be in the world and how they want to represent themselves in that world. Second, young people are allowed to have a collective outdoors culture without needing to defend why they want to be outside, even if it appears to be just for an instagram photo. They still managed to get their ass up to that summit and they’re basically giving outdoor retailers and tourism-agencies free advertising. #yerwelcome
Instead my gripe is about the renewed lack of commitment to conservation. I was most recently reminded of the intense lack of land stewardship on our slalom of a drive between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew. The newly paved road is a significant game changer for the region because it opened up 2WD and touring bike travel to the south west side of Vancouver Island. Not just a road for getting over the Seymour Range, the ride itself is incredibly beautiful. The road is so windy and scenic that you might even not notice that every vista, every valley and every roadside view point includes gigantic clear cuts. Even the drive from Port Renfrew to Sooke has been made more beautiful because of panoramic views of the Olympic peninsuala brought to you by fresh slash action on a hillside cut block. Like much of B.C., Vancouver Island has a long history of damaging logging practices and local conservationists continue to organize against active logging in Carmanah Walbran and the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni.
Even though North America’s modern day settler hikers set out on a mission of conservation to “save” the landscape from resource extraction, the recent expansion of outdoor culture that we see on instagram has been much more commercial and neoliberal. For all of the filtered pictures of someone out on that log in Joffre’s middle lake [EXAMPLE] there are no mentions of unceded territories, no discussion of the lack of funding in the BC Parks system, no pictures of people picking up garbage and no call for increased conservation of these lands and territories. Basically, popular hiking has lost its political edge and intent of stewardship.
I spent most of my childhood outside and as I grew up and learned more about the role of hiking and outdoor culture in colonizing the lands around me, well, I stopped hiking. I stopped camping. I stopped swimming in lakes. I struggled to reconcile how shitty I felt for using lands that were taken for my own recreation. Between then and now I worked hard to understand my role in appreciating the land, acknowledging the stolen nature of it and figuring out how to spend time on it carefully and respectfully. For me, taking less pictures of myself winded on a summit or sharing fewer of the places I go, especially those off the beaten path, is important. Giving money to anti-pipeline land defenders, too, has also been an important part of my reconciliation and accomplice action.
In Stephen Hui’s best selling hiking guide, 105 Hikes in and around Southwestern British Columbia, he writes about the responsibility of hikers and those outside to follow a kind of outdoors code. Pack out what you pack in, stay on the trail, don’t harvest anything, no drone shots, please, and actively acknowledge that you’re likely on unceded Indigenous territories. I want to add to this to his list for future editions: leave your selfie-stick at home. Pictures of you outside can be a great way to commemorate the accomplishment of peak bagging or long strolling, but leaving your camera behind may just give you the space to recognize ways you can contribute back to the land and give you some breathing room to share with those around you your intentions and how they, too, can help.