The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 156 & 157: Keep Me Connected

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 been hiking and seen someone using a cell phone? What about a G-P-S receiver? Are these people really experiencing the wilderness? This edition of The WildeBeat, Keep Me Connected.

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

This is a combined version of program numbers one fifty-six and one fifty-seven.

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 essay about staying connected titled "The Culture of Connectivity."

PAUL MAGNANTI: "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 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, is probably a decision that they wouldn't support.

KATE: Gregg Fauth is the wilderness manager for 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: 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 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, talks about technology and how it's changed how backcountry users utilize the wilderness.

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, you know, 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... I don't want to have a my phone ringing or even the ability to be able to call my girlfriend back at home or my mom; but the fact that I can, you know, take out my small hand-held SPOT, press the "okay" button and, you know, ha- have sent a at least a notification that they know that I'm okay, you know, for me is not impending on my wilderness experience, but allows me to have a almost a more pristine, you know, peace of mind experience being able to persue my passions in the outdoors, knowing that my family back at home is is is not worrying, and I did it with just the push of a button, and I can put it back in my pack and continue on doing what I enjoy doing.

GREGG FAUTH: These devices potentially leading to more folks getting into wilderness, th- there is certainly that possibility that wome folks don't feel safe unless they have some level of connectivity there... Hopefully, though, that they would soon learn that the the safety that those devices afford are faily 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 really take full advantage of a wild land unconnected experience.

DEREK MOORE: A device like SPOT has a a couple different benefits just based due to its... versatility as a product. You know, obviously there is the the ability to notify emergency responders in the worst case scenario... the last resort is, you know, it's a life or death situation; and you know, those things aren't every really planned for

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 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: 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. You know, 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 I -- 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?

KATE: Some of you phoned and emailed in your responses to these questions.

LARRY PATTON: Hi. This is Larry Patton and I live in Fresno, California ...As someone who has led group backpacks since the 1970s, I have seen the changes in technology. I don't doubt the worth of GPS-related gizmos that would help in search and rescue operations. And I also don't doubt they are here to stay and will get smaller and easier to use. But I have two concerns: The first is that high-tech devices may encourage users to ignore learning how to read maps and, even more, read and appreciate the surroundings they are tramping through. The second is choosing not to use a device. Very few back-country emergencies require outside help. Some of the best experiences I've had on hiking trips have been taking care of others or myself in an emergency and making it out on our own. A couple of years ago a friend and I were headed for a trailhead in Yosemite. As we drove, he worked his Blackberry, sending and receiving business-related messages. When he no longer had a signal, he visibly relaxed. That's a small, but real part of what twenty-first century backpacking is about... toss out the tech toys and let the mountains work their gentle magic.

KATE: John Trefethen called us from the far reaches of cell phone reception to tell us about a time he climbed a mountain. At the top, he encountered a guy using a satellite phone.

JOHN TREFETHEN: And he had just been recovering from a heart attack, and he phoned his wife and children to tell them that he had made it to the top.

KATE: John wasn't bothered by this; it actually made him happy to see the guy sharing his wilderness experience.

JOHN TREFETHEN: But to me, the more people that enjoy the wilderness and take care of our wilderness, the greater chance our wilderness has to survive.

KATE: Brian Lewis wrote us to say he agrees that hikers should learn to function in the woods without relying on electronics. He went on to write: "At the same time, I wouldn't like to see an environment where use of electronics is considered to just be inherently bad." He doesn't think carrying around a device forces him to depend on it or filter his wilderness experience through it.

KATE: Gregg Fauth told us about some of the experiences he's had with hikers who have used emergency communication devices.

GREGG FAUTH: In these parks we've had several incidents of the the 9-1-1 button being pushed on the Personal Locator Beacons, and have responded as best we could at some point. Some of them were genuine emergencies, we've certainly extracted somebody who was probably have- having an appendicitis attack and without quick removal would have had extremely severe health consequences if not death; yet, and there was another one where somebody went into the river, the friends pushed the button -- they were able to actually get him out, and were trying to sort of turn it off, but weren't able to do so. So we ended up responding in that case to somebody who no longer needed any assistance, it just was able to self-extract.

GREGG FAUTH: and certainly the idea of taking full personal responsibility for your actions and challenging yourself without some sort of immediate electronic fallback, that's what wilderness is really meant to be; it's a way for us to reconnect with our our sort of natural roots and not have all those electronic devices that serve as some level of crutch back to modern world.

DEREK MOORE: I think it's it's the responsibility of the individual to still prepare themselves and educate themselves on backcountry wilderness skills.

DEREK MOORE: SPOT should not be used in a panic situation, and only the 9-1-1 button should be used as a last resort when it comes down to to life or death and you haven't been able- and you've exhausted all methods for, you know, being able to get out of that situation on your own.

GREGG FAUTH: In a wilderness environment, we would hope that people would exhaust every other means of of trying to remedy their situation before pushing that button

LAUREL BOYERS: you ask somebody to tell you their best wilderness experience; what was the coolest trip you ever took, invariably, they'll tell you a story of surviving something was something that really tested them, and that is so key to why wilderness is important to our heart and soul and spirit, because it provides a place where we're really more at one with nature. We're, you know, now we're living in boxes, we drive around in boxes, we stay in boxes, we're very insulated from the natural world. And the more we use technology to insulate ourselves while we're out there, the more we loose in my opinion.

PAUL MAGNANTI: they're used to being connected in the coffee shop, in the office, at their home, why should the woods be any different? So I think they want a nice perserved area that's beautiful and pretty pristine, but I don't think people want the sense of wildness.

DEREK MOORE: It's up to each person to decide on their own how they want to enjoy that experience.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your thoughts on how communications technologies affect the wilderness experience, and we always want to hear any other comments or suggestion you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can download a combined version of both parts of this show, and listen to a complete archive of all of our shows, on our web site.

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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? Just 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, combined program numbers one-fifty-six and one-fifty-seven. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- testers talk.

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