Knowing how to behave in the wilderness and on the trail is so important! Ambassador Jessica writes about meeting others do obviously do not. She sums it up best by saying, “The best thing any of us can do as hikers is to educate and inform ourselves of best practices when out in nature and on the trail.”

Several weekends ago I was out on the trail routing a hike for my local Hike Like a Woman group at one of my favorite state parks where I live. The day couldn’t have been more perfect. Sunlight bursting forth, bluebird skies, and spring ephemerals everywhere! Spring was about a month behind here in Iowa, and I had been chomping at the bit for a perfect hiking day. I felt like Julie Andrews on the mountain top in the Sound of Music. The morning was glorious, and it seemed I was walking on air. And then I saw it, a bagged up pile of dog poo shoved into a rotted out tree stump. I looked ahead to see if the owner of the purple doggie bag might be in sight. No one, just me and my partner. I decided I would pick the bag up and take it with me if it was still there on our way back. Problem solved, sort of.

As we continued on our hike and the sun warmed the air, we passed others enjoying the beauty of a day outside. I like to say hello to my fellow hikers. There’s just a certain kind of camaraderie that comes from interacting with other human beings out in nature. Most people will respond pleasantly, and it just makes the experience more enjoyable. I completely understand though that communication with a stranger out in the wilderness may at times feel awkward or even uncomfortable, especially if you’re solo hiking, so trust your gut in those circumstances. In general though, saying “hi” to other hikers is courteous, and who knows, if you end up in trouble on the trail, say a slip, or a fall, or getting lost, that hiker you passed earlier, may be a link to getting you help.

One of my favorite areas in the park is called the Devil’s Punchbowl. It’s a cavernous spot with sandstone cliffs, tiny trickles of waterfalls, and this amazing tree whose root system is visible as it clings to the loamy soil and rock. This is a popular spot for hikers to stop and take pictures, and a breather before they head up a steep set of stairs to reach the top of the park. When we arrived at the Punchbowl, we stepped aside, out of the way of others on the trail and snapped a few quick photos. As we marched up the steps that led to the top of the bluff, a group of five began to head down in our direction. We had our momentum going, and then suddenly had to stop and find some way to step aside as the other hikers descended. And, it was apparent they had no plans of stopping to allow us to pass. Not only are they steep, but the steps have wide gaps in between the boards, which could mean a twisted ankle or worse if you’re not careful. We managed to step out of the way to allow the other hikers to come down. Although it may seem like a small thing, knowing who has the right of way on trail, and adhering to it is not only polite, but also helps ensure the safety of all hikers involved.

As we ended the hike with another uphill climb, the trail became busier and we had to be more mindful of those around us. I snapped a few more photos here and there, Dutchman’s breeches, scilla, wild ginger, and my all time favorite spring flower, bloodroot. It’s this amazing star shaped flower, with delicate white petals and a yellow center. They’re a short-lived ephemeral and I am giddy when I’m able to actually see the flower and not just the leaves once the petals have fallen off. There were patches of bloodroot spread around the woodland floor, and as we neared the top of the rise, a single flower, bathed in a ray of light, stood sentinel reaching towards the sun. I had to get one last photo. I waited for two children and their mom to pass us before taking the picture.

The kids ran ahead and the mom stopped to admire the flower. She smiled as if all three of us were acknowledging this beautiful gift at the very same moment. Then she bent over and plucked the flower off the stem. I let out an audible gasp of dismay as she continued ahead on the trail. In most states, including Iowa it is illegal to pick wildflowers. Many times these flowers are short-lived and on the endangered list. They’re also often one of the first sources of food for pollinators. Everyone should have the chance to see nature’s beauty, so when someone decides it’s okay to pick a native flower or plant, they take that opportunity away from someone else. Just imagine if every single person out there decided to pick a flower or a plant, there’d be nothing left for the rest of us to see and admire.

The best thing any of us can do as hikers is to educate and inform ourselves of best practices when out in nature and on the trail. We can also lead by example; staying on trails, packing out what we pack in, respecting wildlife and ecosystems, and looking out for one another.

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