The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 156: Keep Me Connected, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Have you ever gone deep into the backcountry, only to see someone using a wireless phone? What about a G-P-S receiver? Are these things part of a real wilderness experience? This week on The WildeBeat, Keep Me Connected, part one.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one fifty-six.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: In our edition number one twenty-two, titled Calling for Help, we explored some of the ways you might be able to call for help from the wilderness. It seems like technology is making that call easier and easier. Our assistant producer Kate Taylor prepared this piece about connecting in the backcountry.

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KATE: The wilderness is a place where hikers and backpackers can experience nature in its purest form. But is that sense of nature maintained when they carry and use high-tech communication devices in the backcountry?

KATE: Paul Magnanti is a triple crown hiker, experienced outdoorsman, and author of the blogsite P-Mags-dot-com. He wrote an blog about staying connected titled "The Culture of Connectivity."

PAUL MAGNANTI: "In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis in what I call 'the culture of connectivity.' ..."As a society, we're beginning to expect that we can be on the grid at all times. And this expectation is starting to become an expectation for everyone. We can be reached at all times and should be reached at all times. This attitude is starting to seep into the back country. Personal Locator Beacons and such devices thus far are touted as must-have items by various outdoor publications. No longer should you just have a map, a compass, and other standard gear -- no -- you must have a device that will let you be tracked and be in communication at all times.... On a local open-space website, I found the following blurb: 'Carry a cell phone. Always a good tip whenever you're enjoying an a county open-space park. However, realize that reception may not be available in all areas.' ..."Our frequent bulletin boards and mailing lists dedicate the long hikes and national scenic trails. People will post about their upsoming trips that will last months in the back country. The questions most often asked now is not about gear, or resupply, or impressions with a particular area. Rather the question's usually 'How do I stay connected while on the trail?'..."The subtle, or perhaps not-so-subtle implication for devices like SPOT, that only fools go into the wilderness without these magical devices.... "I'm afraid this expected twenty-four-seven activity becoming increasingly common in the years to come. Not just on a technological level, but on a cultural level, too. We are getting to the point where it is no longer your preference to stay connected, but it is the expectation that everyone will be connected."

KATE: The devices Paul is talking about in this essay are satellite phones, cell phones, and G-P-S locators. We spoke with Derek Moore, the manager of marketing and public relations at SPOT L-L-C to get a better sense of what how these devices are used.

DEREK MOORE: SPOT is a seven-point-three ounce, small, hand-held, consumer satellite communications product; and it's water-proof, it floats, it's rugged, and it's meant to be used in the outdoors where the user has a line of sight with the sky; and SPOT enables the user to send an "okay" message to family and friends, letting them know on their cell phones and or emails where they are and that they're okay. There's also a "help" button to notify for non-emergency assistance, and a "9-1-1" button, which is an emergency response notifictation in case need help quick ...SPOT has a fourth function which is a a G-P-S tracking update, which you can either go back and reference your own tracks on GoogleMaps ...and you can also share that tracking information with family and friends back at home.

GREGG FAUTH: Carrying these devices is certainly a personal decision, but from the viewpoint of the founders of the Wilderness Act, it's probably a decision that they wouldn't support.

KATE: Gregg Fauth is the wilderness manager at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. He questions whether using these devices allowed hikers and backpackers to connect with the wilderness or kept them tied to civilization.

GREGG FAUTH: When the Wilderness Act was written, it talked about wilderness should be a place that is untrammeled, that is a place sort of free from the modern restraints of society. It should be a place that is primeval; a place where one can seek solitude and primitive recreation, and those are specific words right out of the Wilderness Act, with a summation that wilderness is a place where you disconnect from the normal aspects of modern life and its technology. As far as the electronic devices and being connected to the modern world while in the wilderness goes flies in the face of the purpose of the act; and the founders of the act, when they worked it up, you know, they meant ...or wilderness to be a respite from the modern world, not some distant connection ...So by carrying around iPods, walkie-talkies, SPOT devices, Personal Locator Beacon-type devices, you're actually sort of decreasing the value that wilderness might have for you in your personal life.

LAUREL BOYERS: I think the experience has changed in the past thirty years. Fairly dramatically due to increases in the technological world of both high-tech backpacking equipment, but also the gizmos that tend to, in my opinion, separate people a little bit more from the wilderness experience.

KATE: Laurel Boyers, the wilderness manager for Yosemite National Park, she worries about technology and how it's changed backcountry use.

LAUREL BOYERS: That if they're ...charting their way on a hand-held GPS, rather than looking around at the mountains around them for route finding, I'm sorry, but I think that's a loss of a connection with the mountains that is part of the wilderness experience. ...With that said, I also fully admit that I do that myself, and have done it and carry a hand-held radio to keep in touch for my work, and you know, use maps that are certainly much more technologically advanced than people had only fifty, eighty years ago, and so we're all a creature of our era I suppose, but I do mourn that a bit.

DEREK MOORE: I know for myself personally, I do a lot overnight, multi-day backcountry trips both in the winter and in the summer, and of course where I go there's no cell phone service, and that's okay with me and that's what I prefer.

GREGG FAUTH: ...Some folks don't feel safe unless they have some level of connectivity there ...Hopefully, ...they would soon learn that the the safety that those devices afford are fairly limited and that their ability to go out and be personally responsible for their own safety through good decisions would allow them to release that connectivity and and really take full advantage of a wild land unconnected experience.

DEREK MOORE: The ultimate driver to what brings people into the outdoors into challenging themselves with with adventures like Alpineering and and backpacking and just pushing your limits, that's why we all do it ...

DEREK MOORE: what we've been hearing from search and resuce is, hey, SPOT takes the search out of search and rescue. Where before they might have to spend, you know, two days and fifty responders, you know, out in the field spending time using- utilizing the resources. You know, with SPOT it brings your, you know, your G-P-S message tells them exactly where you are and often times that can be the li- the the matter of saving somebody's life or death.

GREGG FAUTH: It does provide us some some good coordinates so we know exactly where the incident is, but it doesn't really provide us some of the other information that's pretty valuable when we go out to address a situation and try to remedy it... Is it, you know, is it a law enforcement situation where someone has been assaulted; is it an emergency medical situation where someone has fallen off a rock, and broken a leg. So we kind of go in there not really knowing what it is other than it's some level of emergency; and if they're able to somehow able to get word out via another party member to a ranger to give real information, that's certainly better.

GREGG FAUTH: I think people, especially from the emergency standpoint they have a stronger expectation that that service is back there. Folks bring their cell phones and if they can get coverage they may dial nine one one for some relatively minor problems, and they tend to want that assistance, so , you know, this is somewhat just my personal feeling, but twenty five years ago folks tended to be a little more ready to assist themselves in getting out of the wilderness if there was a problem.

KATE: Do communication devices act as a safety net for risk-takers? Should they even be a part of wilderness adventures? And what's the difference between and challenging oneself and an actual emergency? I'll bring you answers from some of our experts next week on part two of Keep Me Connected.

STEVE: We'd love to include your thoughts on Kate's questions in next week's edition of the show, and we always want to hear any other comments you have about our shows. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Please click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham and Kate Taylor, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one-fifty-six. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- part two of Keep Me Connected.

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