The woods were quiet except for the hiss of my skis slicing through snow.
The sun, clouded and glum in Spokane, shone bright on the winter backcountry tableau south of Lookout Pass on the Montana-Idaho border.
My two skiing partners and I couldn’t stop commenting on the beauty. The peacefulness.
I felt the smug satisfaction of knowing I’d earned this experience. We were traveling quietly through this landscape. One with nature. Our human-powered ethos a moral shield. Aloof in the righteousness of our activity.
Nothing like those noisy (and smelly) snowmobilers.
Except, maybe not.
There were a thousand disturbances I didn’t notice that day. Talking. Our whoops of enjoyment as we found pockets of fresh powder. The smell of our lunches. Our spindly, teetering two-legged forms cresting the hillside.
Minor, right? Not necessarily.
“I think that someone on foot resembles a predator more than a machine,” said Leo DeGroot, a Canadian biologist who has worked with caribou for nearly two decades.
DeGroot, who is a backcountry skier, doesn’t argue that snowmobiles disturb and disrupt wildlife. They do.
But the impact, he believes, has more to do with the speed and distance they travel, and less the noise. If backcountry skiers could cover the same amount of ground as a snowmobile, he believes they would disturb animals more.
(Of course, snowmobiles burn fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide. As do the cars backcountry skiers drive to the trailhead. But that’s not the focus here.)
“Snowmobilers are always blamed that they’re noisy,” he said. “The noise might be more of an irritant to people than to animals. Most backcountry skiers won’t admit that they might be as a big of an impact.”
Research backs his claim up. Human-powered backcountry travel has been shown to disrupt animal movement and sleep cycles.
In one review of studies examining the subject, it was determined that backcountry skiers “trigger avoidance behaviors” in animals. Put simply, animals don’t want to be anywhere near humans.
A 2018 study in Science magazine found that human activity, including hiking, was altering when animals slept.
“What we found was the magnitude of this increase in nocturnality was pretty consistent across types of human activity. Even activities that we think of as leaving no trace, like hiking, are having a pretty dramatic consequence,” Kaitlyn Gaynor, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, told radio station KUNC.
DeGroot, the Canadian biologist, skis regularly at Kootenay Pass, an area once frequented by caribou. In the past decade or so, he’s seen the number of skiers increase dramatically. During the same time period, the caribou moved.
He’s not positive this is related. There are many other factors that no doubt impacted the caribou’s travel habits, such as predation and industry.
But it seems connected, he said. Other research looking specifically at hikers found that “rapidly or directly approaching humans” causes animals more stress. Humans appearing suddenly on the skyline was more distressing and caused greater avoidance than a human slowly approaching over a flat, open space.
The average skier, obviously, moves much faster than the average hiker.
This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t ski. But it is something to consider.
It’s a discussion that touches on much bigger questions. How (or do) we connect with the natural world? Is a mountain simply a fun affordance? Or does it have some intrinsic value outside of its usefulness to humans?
Spokane’s Travis Nichols, an avid backcountry skier himself, said his connection to the natural world changed dramatically after he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. That sustained, daily connection with the natural world showed him how casually he interacts with nature on a regular basis.
“I realized I had been playing in wildness spaces for a long time,” he said.
Hiking the PCT “really helped me understand every weekend that I go out and recreate, it’s amazing, and it keeps me in touch with the natural world. But it’s not that deep-seated relationship that I experienced while living in nature.”
More casual interactions with nature are fine, and in their own way help develop concern and advocacy for wild spaces. Nichols believes the deeper, more sustained natural interactions teach us something that casual backcountry ski trips can’t.
“If everyone had the opportunity to really get in touch with nature and have a personal relationship with it and feel its effects, the forces of rain and wind and cold and heat, at a level that is really primal, our world would be a very different place,” Nichols said.
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