Skip to content

Confessions of a summer hiker: What I learned on my summer vacation

Mark Milke on the downside (and downslope) on suddenly more popular – and populous – mountain trails.
Crowded at the top. And the way to the top. (Francisco Blanco /

Back when I was a kid, it was routine to write an essay upon return to school about what we did on our summer vacation. As a minor twist, let me offer an amended adult version: What I learned or observed on my summer vacation.

First, some people read far too much into regularly occurring events such as forest fires; second; the Covid pandemic sent more Canadians into the mountains. As along-time hiker, I see that as both positive for them but overflow crowds can be annoying for regulars and newbies alike. Thus, some basic tips are in order.

On forest fires, if the past 18 months since the Covid pandemic began are viewed through the lens of western North America (where I live), much of 2020 and 2021 has thus far been somewhat “Old Testament” in feeling. By that, I mean we’ve had a plague (Covid 19) and intense fires. In non-fire years, depending on one’s locale, floods show up as well.

Perhaps locusts are next, though I’ve seen a few too many grasshoppers this summer so perhaps those are the North American equivalent.

Some of the local events, forest fires, as a key ongoing example, can wrongly be extrapolated to fit agendas, most notably the belief we are nearing the end of the world due to human influence on the environment. (That end-of-the-world belief is another parallel to the religious tradition of the Old Testament.) To wit, one can acknowledge such influence without being hysterical or magical about fixes to the same.

Forest fires and facts

As Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg recently summarized with data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the worst heat wave, at least in the United States, was in 1936.

That was the worst-ever year in the 105 years between 1895 and 2020. And 2021, bad as it has been, looks unlikely to even come near to matching 1936 and also some other extreme heat years, defined as multi-day extreme heat events, over the past 125 years.

And then there’s the inconvenient fact that at least some forest fires in the west this year, as with all years, are a result of lousy forest management policy over decades, and just as bad, pyromaniacs or accidentally-set fires by humans.

Also, as Lomborg noted, deaths from severe cold have long been higher than deaths from severe heat (six-to-one, on average) with deaths from cold trending upward while heat deaths have flatlined.

That’s U.S. data and I am unaware of a similar series for Canada. I’d be surprised if the statistics if available would be much different. If anything. Deaths from cold are likely to be more of a danger in Canada than the United States given our regular, severe winter cold snaps almost everywhere except Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

Noise and smoke pollution: The human kind

Regardless, musings about summer weather aside, let’s now ponder the other major development and which also involves forests and mountainsides: the effect of COVID-19 on our natural environment, the almost-plague of inattentive (new?) hikers.

I live in Alberta and hike as much as possible. Here, as with elsewhere in the North American west, the parks have been flooded with many more people walking, hiking, and scrambling in the mountains. Plenty of people saw their schedules free up over the past 18 months, or just couldn’t go on a foreign trip, and thus ended up on local hiking trails.

Be it the Banff-Lake Louise corridor in Alberta, North Vancouver’s Grouse Grind, or every trail in between, plenty more automobiles stuffed with hikers headed out to the hills recently.

Initially, I thought this was a good thing. The parks we have in Canada, be they local, provincial, or national, are jewels. I’m happy to see more people in the great outdoors.

In theory.

A confession though: I’m baffled and annoyed by the treatment of parks by some hikers. A few weeks back, I was zooming up one trail in Alberta’s Kananaskis country, only to hit the lingering smell of marijuana. It seemed to “stick” to the trees and trail for the next 10 minutes. I have no idea which group of hikers I soon overtook were responsible, but I’ve never understood people who smoke (tobacco or cannabis) in the great outdoors.

A rhetorical query: Isn’t the point of coming to the mountains to breathe ostensibly better, fresher air?

That’s Irritation One with the packed trails. Irritation Two is similar: People who bring and blast their music on trails.

Without fail, every time I hike, I run into people who happily and seemingly unaware, share their favourite music with the rest of the world, i.e., all other hikers on the same trail.

This summer, I’ve heard everything from what sounds like Indo-rap to Neil Diamond (no, really) and everything in between.

As with hiking dope-smokers, I confess to not grasping the point of music on a hiking trail.

Remember fresh air and singing birds?

Sure, to keep away the bears, bring a bell or sing, but is it really necessary to offer up your playlist to others enjoying the panorama and birds? I used to think it was just millennials who brought their music. But on one recent hike, I crossed paths with someone who looked 50. He was happily hiking and humming to his favourite tunes broadcast to all of us in the great outdoors.

I had no desire to play park warden. I gritted my teeth and said nothing. But I made a mental note to write a column about such noise pollution in the woods.

The oddness of the cannabis or music crowd in the great outdoors is not just that the parks system was created to help people escape urban life for an hour, day, or week, but that we live in one of the most self-professed environmental eras ever. This is mostly positive; I rarely see trash or beer cans on trails.

But precisely because of the environmental ethos, I’m gobsmacked every time I smell dope or hear someone blasting music. I lean to the Ansel Adams and Walt Whitman school of thought on parks when I explore them: Give me nature in its raw, rugged form, as unspoilt as possible.

I mean, nuts, especially in a smoke-filled year of forest fires, when we all get the occasional chance to breathe outside in the great outdoors, leave your joints and tunes at home.

Enjoy nature on its own terms, not yours.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.