Paddling Responsibly

Rivers and lakes are amazing ecosystems. Dynamic, powerful, and wild, these waterways provide unparalleled opportunities for recreation and connection to nature. But they’re not simply places where humans go for some weekend fun. Rivers and lakes support diverse communities of wildlife that are both fragile and resilient, and they exist in a world that’s changing because of our actions, purchases, and attitudes.

I was paddling on Georgetown Lake early one morning when I saw two moose off the bank. From a safe distance, with a telephoto lens, I gleefully snapped photos as one of them came to the lake for a long drink. It was sooooo cool.

There’s a hard reality to recreation. Nearly all the gear we use to safely enjoy paddling is petroleum-based. Your board, paddle, life jacket, helmet, pads, shoes, and more all contain some petroleum-based product. We drive to put-ins, shuttle to takeouts, and then we drive home, adding a bit of carbon each time we venture out.

The Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley on a smoky September.
Rivers are incredible ecosystems that deserve respect, appreciation, and stewardship.

I think the trade off is worth it. But I also think we can all take actions that help us reduce our impact and preserve the places we paddle. I’m not perfect, that’s for sure…I have piles of gear, I drive a pickup truck to the put-in, I water my lawn during the hot Missoula summer… But over the years, I’ve tried to reduce my impact, even if my actions feel small. The following tips are meant to inspire, not to scold.

Reduce shuttling…Consider riding your bike to shuttle instead of taking two (or more rigs). Adding a bike to your float isn’t hard, it’s fun. Check out this piece I wrote for NRS that shares some tips on how to use a bike to shuttle. I’ve also trail run, hitch-hiked, and am more than happy to pay someone to shuttle my car on longer floats (or floats like the Missouri where driving two cars long distances is just dumb).

My bike shuttling setup…I also have a cheap kid trailer that works great (it was a hand me down from a relative…we didn’t buy it). A bit of planning goes a long way to making a successful bike shuttle. I’ve done some rad adventures where I’ve biked and paddled over a few days leaving and returning from my house. Montana is GREAT for this type of adventure. Grab a map and make a plan! Photo: Brian Chaszar.

Don’t litter and pick up after others…This one is obvious. Pack out what you pack in. Don’t bring glass on water, especially rivers. Keep track of your empties. Most outdoor stores provide mesh bags for trash. Grab one and fill it the next time you’re out floating.

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure….Photo: Adam Liljeblad.

Donate or volunteer to a river organization…There are a ton of great river groups out there, from national groups like American Rivers and American Whitewater to local groups like the Clark Fork Coalition or the Flathead Rivers Alliance. Sign up for a river clean up, make a monthly donation, or just learn more and find your own way to contribute.

Buy less stuff and take care of the stuff you have… I love gear. I have lots of it. But, I probably don’t need that second pair of neoprene booties I’ve been eyeing. Mine still work fine (though they smell pretty gnarly). Buying less is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce one’s impact. Buying used is another good (and money-saving) option. Obviously, key pieces of safety gear like a PFD or helmet should be in good working order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a broken buckle should trigger a new PFD purchase. Try to see if you can replace worn elements of your gear before you buy a replacement. Taking good care of the gear you have will extend its life and functionality, so take the time to dry things out, maintain them, and fix any small issues that crop up. You’ll save money, feel better, and reduce your footprint a bit.

Be kind…This won’t reduce your carbon footprint, but it will make you a happier person. Montana’s waterways are experiencing more and more pressure (writes the guy who just published a guidebook…). It can get frustrating when parking lots are full, when people take a long time at the boat ramp, or when that “secret” camping spot you know about is full. Be polite, be kind, be forgiving…especially to land management officials, park rangers, and others tasked with keeping our waterways safe and clean. They’re just doing their jobs.

Be fire wise…Having a campfire is one of the great pleasures of camping. But camping is still pretty rad without a fire. Be sure to follow all fire restrictions, whether for a particular body of water, or state or regional red flag warnings. For example, fire pans are required on all of the Blackfoot River float-in campsites. Drown, stir, and feel for coals when you’re leaving your campsite. Don’t be the person who causes a wildfire! Also, don’t put trash like cans or aluminum foil in fires; they don’t burn.

Warming feet by the fire at a backcountry campsite in Grand Teton National Park. We made sure it was completely out before we went to bed…even though it was spitting rain.

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