In September, a gang of us hiked up to Lake Lovelywater, one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited near my house in the Tantalus Mountains of BC. Getting there was a satisfying effort, it entailed crossing the Squamish River to access the trailhead, and then hauling huge packs up 1,170m, as the trail climbs alongside a giant waterfall. The old-school, nostalgic person in me loved the simplicity of travelling up there on foot, just as the first explorers might have (although we definitely had more cheesecake, and champagne).
Getting to the lake for the first time made us realize how many people fly in to the lake, either by helicopter or float plane. On that trip, there was one party of two guys who had also hiked up, but all other groups at the lake had taken a helicopter, or a float plane. One group had even packed such that they could not move their own belongings 500 meters without the helicopter. (They had packed giant coolers, and didn’t realize the camp spot was a bit of a walk. They made multiple trips to eventually haul the cooler around the lake.) My first reaction was that I really didn’t like the concept of using helicopters to get to the lake. It felt unfortunate to skip the beautiful trail, and to neglect our abilities to simply walk forever. Given the availability of a nice trail to get there, it seemed wasteful. For some reason, I took personal offence to it, it bothered me. The fly-in people were the enemy.
Later that evening, we went to the hut to borrow canoes. These hut people had all flown in, so I wasn’t sure what to make of them. The second I arrive outside the hut, someone waves. The hut people are our friends from Vancouver! That moment turned everything on its head for me, suddenly my enemies were my friends, and my friends, enemies. Seeing the helicopter use in the context of my friends sort of changed everything. Even though I still personally disagreed with it, I felt more open to understanding, because I liked these people.
Since that trip, I’ve thought more about the ethics of travelling in the mountains with support from fossil fuels. In the past I thought about it mostly in terms of helicopters and flights into the mountains, and I wanted to avoid those. So far I had avoided any helicopter use, so I felt innocent. But when I dug a bit deeper, I realized that I do have my own versions, they’re just different.
I don’t fly into mountains, but I fly to big international airports. I fly to Portugal, or Italy, or Mongolia, jumping off points for exotic mountains. Then I started realizing, really, what’s the difference? For some reason I had categorized my international flights as relatively benign, and these mountain helicopter trips as evil, but it doesn’t add up. In fact, those international trips are far more wasteful than the local helicopter trips. When I dug into it, I realized that I was perceiving the two types of trips as benign or wasteful based on whether I could get there by foot, or not. If I could get to the destination by foot in a reasonable time, taking a heli to get there was wasteful. International travel, meanwhile, was rarely ever wasteful in this mindset, because it’s very rare that I could get to an international destination by foot in reasonable time. Maybe that makes sense as one outlook, but it was self-serving, allowing me to become negligent about the impact of my international trips. Who cares about one 20-minute helicopter / float plane trip if I take five long-haul international flights? And what about the person who takes only one single trip per year, and it’s a short helicopter trip, instead of travelling internationally? Then there are the volunteer trail builders who take helicopters to load tons of heavy gear, so that we can enjoy the trails.
The helicopters at Lake Lovelywater do have an impact, and perhaps when there’s one of the most beautiful trails instead, we should walk. But the situation is less straightforward than my primal urge to think, heli = bad. Our impact on the environment is more about looking at the big picture of what we do in a year.