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Code of the woods has changed over the years

February 16, 2011
By JOE HACKETT, News Outdoors Columnist
Similar to the code of the West, there was once a code of the woods. It was an unwritten set of common sense practices and values that were respected by woodsmen, hunters, anglers and hikers alike.

Forest rangers knew their territories and game protectors knew their men. There were honest outlaws and outlaws — one group would gladly have you into their camp for coffee, but you never turned your back on the others. 

The code came from a time when it was still considered safe to leave any item, short of a bottle of whiskey, alone in the woods. Woodsmen generally knew who traveled in their neck of the woods and they tended to look after each other.

Trappers, or ‘long liners’ as they were known, would spend the entire season in the woods, checking traplines for beaver, otter and ‘rats. Some of them would fashion a lean-to into a trapper’s cabin by enclosing it with tarps and adding a small pot-bellied stove in the corner.

Back then, a camp was still camp. It was a place where you could cuss, spit, fart and scratch your butt in public, and nobody cared. It seems that now manners matter more than tradition and country courtesies are no longer considered quaint. It’s now illegal to face off the front of a lean-to, and fires are prohibited in the High Peaks Wilderness.

Sadly, times have changed and the same woods might as well be posted “Welcome to Mamby Pamby Land,” where a long list of regulations is now posted at every trailhead and common courtesies have been tossed out the window.

In today’s woods, it is no longer safe to leave equipment unattended, even at a boat launch. Thieves have found their way into the woods. Maybe they were in the woods in the past, but I expect a few didn’t make it back.

It used to be safe to pitch a tent on state land and leave all your belongings in camp while you climbed the mountains all day. Today, hikers risk returning to find their campsite empty and their gear pilfered.

It seems some folks abide by the adage,  “Even if you didn’t carry it in, you can still carry it out,” as long as you don’t get caught.

There was a time when leaving an old fishing boat by a favorite trout pond was looked upon with a wink and a nod. If someone stumbled upon your boat, it was considered free to use, provided it was returned to the same location.

Often the oars would be hung nearby, so porcupines wouldn’t chew the handles for salt from sweaty hands. 

If the boat’s owner arrived while you were on the water, he’d likely call you in, to ask, “How’r they biting?” 

Times have changed. It is now illegal to leave any personal property unattended on state lands and backcountry anglers now carry little 12-pound solo canoes on their packs.

The unwritten Code of the Woods came with an understanding that occupants of a state lean-to or open camp must share the shelter to its capacity with anyone who asks. Although this long-held practice has never been codified in official regulations, it is still honored.

Regardless of such courtesies, backcountry travelers should be aware that experienced campers are always responsible for themselves and must be properly prepared for all contingencies.

Hiker and camper visitation is unevenly distributed over the course of the year.  Certain seasons tend to be popular, but weekend and holiday use is always high. Whenever possible, visit the backcountry during seasons or days of the week when use is low.

Camp fires and camp noise should remain in camp. Conservative campers stand near and talk in low tones and they sit close to kindle small fires. Noise carries well over water, even normal conversations can be clearly heard across a still pond.

Upon departing, leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. Clean up the fire ring, leave some dry wood and, above all, carry out what you carry in. Don’t leave canned goods behind, or twist ties, or bread, or other crap. If you wouldn’t eat that stuff, why would the next guy?

When you meet other hikers on a trail, move off to one side and stop. Continuing to walk at the edge widens the trail. In most wilderness areas, over half of all use occurs on only about 10 percent of the trail miles.

Hiking parties should avoid climbing in the upper elevations when soils are wet and muddy in the spring thaw or after heavy rains. Hikers should walk single-file, keeping to the main trail and not shortcut the switchbacks.

Camping companions should not pass gas without having their sleeping bag fully zipped. Deodorant should be considered standard equipment whenever temperatures exceed 40 degrees F.

Cooks should not serve chili, curry or other spicy foods if a tent’s capacity is less than six grown men.

Proper disposal of human waste requires use of the outhouse, if one is available.  The alternative is to walk far enough into the woods that you are out of sight, then dispose of waste by burying it thoroughly in a cathole no more than eight inches in depth. Do not pee or poo near water.

Do not adorn the poo’s location with toilet paper, or flag saplings with paper to find your way back to camp. Do not pee in, on or from the lean-to, porcupines love salt.  Never leave land mines behind, even if they’re topped with toilet tissue. Leave the campsite in a condition that you would like to find it.

It is not permissible, under any circumstances, to wake snoring companions.  However, if decibel levels exceed the capacity of your shelter, you might want to try this: zip him fully in his bag, cinch the hood and remove the offender to a location out of hearing range.

Alternatively, by placing cheese doodles in his nostrils and stuffing a sweatsock in his mouth, you may find the necessary relief. Remember, bears do not like competition and I’m a soft sleeper.

If a mouse, chipmunk or squirrel manages to get inside your tent after everyone is in the sack, a grace period of five minutes is granted to whoever decides to get rid of it.  After the appropriate time expires, the critter is considered a welcome guest for the evening and snoring can commence.

When that group of Canadians directly across the pond begins singing around the campfire, it is time for you to begin looking for a much more remote campsite. Very early the next morning, you should politely wake the Canadians and ask them to move to that site. If they refuse, return in the dark of night and sprinkle peanuts into their boots.

Do not hide, stash or conceal Snickers bars or any other candies in your own pack, sleeping bag or stuff sack. Mice, squirrels and a host of other hungry critters will look to the packs first, before attempting to chew through the ropes hanging the food bag.

Above all, when venturing into mountainous terrain, set your tent up on level ground. The sight of four fat, flatulent men all squashed together into one tiny corner of a small tent is enough to make most folks give up camping for good. Or just call the Canadians for help.


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