The good, the bad and the ugly of social media and the outdoors

Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus. That’d look good on the ‘Gram.

I’m going to sound part geezer, part hipster when I say that I was in to the outdoors before I got on social media. The love was there long before “like and share” became a thing.

But to be frank, I’ve embraced social media. I’m a storyteller, and social media offers great ways to share those stories, or in the case of Instagram, a medium in itself for its own form of spelling out outdoorsy narratives. I’m not on everything, but you can see my stuff on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and much of the time it’s going to have an outdoors theme.

Well, that’s me and tens of millions of others. There are legions upon legions of hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists and everyone else that does stuff outdoors showing their lives on these platforms and blogs like this one. Taken together, it is an ocean of landscapes, action shots, yoga poses, selfies, stories, panoramas and more. Standing out is tough, so people learn what they can to stand out, or claim a niche as their own.

Given the flood of outdoorsy information being pumped out every day, you gotta wonder: is this really good for the outdoors? The short answer: yes and no.

THE GOOD

Doin’ work at Turkey Mountain in Tulsa. Hard to say if without social media we would have gotten so many people to volunteer at trail work days like this one.

I’ve long believed that learning more about the outdoors will naturally make people care about wild spaces. I’m a conservationist at heart, so this is important to me. To that end, I believe social media has been a relative success.

Think about this: How many of you would have known about the Land and Water Conservation Fund had you not heard about it on social media? The public pressure to permanently reauthorize the bill that funds LWCF made it go from an unseen issue to a front-and-center bipartisan no-brainer that easily passed Congress and even got the stamp of approval from President Trump. Face time in the halls of Congress, letters and calls were huge for sure, but the speed in which the issue became well-known was due much in part to social media campaigns. Getting a conservation win in this political climate in Washington is no small deal.

Here’s something else: Think about all the information we have at our fingertips that might otherwise be difficult to find. Want to know what avalanche conditions are like? It’s probably been shared on Facebook and Twitter, maybe thousands of times. Looking for conditions of a potential hike and climb? There’s probably a Facebook group where beta queries will be answered. I could go on, but you get the point.

Social media has allowed for instant, widespread sharing of information that goes anywhere from useful to life-saving. It can ramp up pressure for causes we feel are important. Even if it’s something as simple as learning something new about a place you didn’t know about, it can be a positive.

THE BAD

I’m sure this looked great on someone’s IG account.

The flip side of the coin is that social media — particularly in the case of Instagram — can make it too easy to love things to death.

People want to see and experience cool things other people do. Shared enough online, their numbers are legion. That’s why you see lines of people waiting to photograph Horseshoe Bend, people manipulating scenery at Hanging Lake and some fool flying a helicopter right on top of the California super bloom. Too many people doin’ it for the ‘Gram are running roughshod over places too delicate to handle the traffic and other pressures people can bring.

It’s bad enough that public land managers are looking at increasing the use of permit-only access to some places. Human traffic — and the trash and abuse that comes with it — threatens to ruin some of the most beautiful places in the world. Leave No Trace ethicists are pushing an add-on to their code, asking people not to geotag places they go so as to slow the onslaught of folks looking for the perfect shot and the bucketloads of likes they hope to earn.

In that respect, all the photos, text posts, videos and whatnot have come at a cost. It’s definitely a bad trend.

THE UGLY

The nature of social media is the ability to instantly share, sometimes to huge audiences. Alongside this is the ability to instantly comment on what’s shared. That can be great, but sometimes it’s terrible.

You’ve seen this at work in politics. It gets nasty. And yeah, that transfers to the outdoors.

If a hiker or climber gets hurt and needs rescue, it doesn’t take long for speculation comments to roll in, sometimes with a derogatory edge. If that person dies, some people back off. Others double down. People will say anything online, and often without the tact and basic morality they would use face-to-face.

This works its way into activism, too. Someone says something, or shares information about a certain cause. They get kudos. But others have a stricter ideological purity test that must be passed, and if their standards aren’t met, out come the claws. The next thing you know an honest effort to do good turns into a puritanical food fight in which the original message gets lost. I’d caution these people not to get so woke that they eat their own, but I’d get angrily shouted down. Such is the nature of social media, which magnifies divisions, emotions and hyperbole like a magnifying glass to sunlight, and often we’re the bug frying on the ground as a result.

SO NOW WHAT?

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I’ll stick with my social media use. So will tens of millions of others. With this in mind, what’s the best we can do? Maybe we don’t share images or locations of every place we go. We turn the heat down on areas of debate. We vet articles for veracity, and share more of the good stuff. Social media has always been curated, which means we have a lot of control over the tenor and intent of what we share.

This sounds a lot like all areas of life shared online. The key difference: The way we operate online will have real-life consequences (and hopefully benefits) to the places we care about, the wildlife that lives there, and the future of the outdoors. For my part, I’ll try to do better.

Bob Doucette

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Some thoughts about a master plan for Turkey Mountain

Turkey Mountain, as seen from the east bank of the Arkansas River.

Turning back to my home front, there is some news. Tulsa’s River Parks Authority held the first of several public input meetings to discuss what people would like to see in a master plan for the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, a go-to place for hiking, biking and trail running right in the middle of the city.

The effort also includes an online survey for people to give their views. Between that and the discussions at these meeting, RPA will have an idea of what the public wants to see.

This is a long way from where we were just a few years ago. We had one rich fella tell us that God told him to build an amusement park on the banks of the Arkansas River, and to cut into acreage on Turkey Mountain’s southeastern flanks. That went nowhere, but in 2014, Simon Properties wanted to build an outlet mall on the far west side of Turkey Mountain’s woodlands. That was a closer call, but intense public pressure against the move eventually sent Simon looking for space elsewhere. What followed by a rapid, concerted effort from public and private entities to secure the land and fold it into a unified parcel that now represents a much larger wild green space than what RPA originally managed.

That leads us to the present. It seems from the first meeting, the consensus is to keep Turkey Mountain as wild as possible. At least, that’s what I gathered from reading this story from the Tulsa World.

I figure I have this electronic space for a reason, if nothing else than to spout off on whatever outdoorsy subject suits me at the time. So you can take my opinions how you see fit. But also keep in mind that I’ve been a regular visitor of its trails for the past eight years, have hiked or ran almost all of its trails and invested no small amount of time cleaning up trails, repairing damaged trail sections and generally advocating for Turkey Mountain’s wellbeing. So while these are just my thoughts, they are informed by some depth of experience as a user and stakeholder. So here ya go, my thoughts on what should guide the creation of a Turkey Mountain master plan…

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

Generally speaking, Turkey Mountain should be left alone. What makes the park special are not all the bells, whistles and amenities that other  parks have. It is the lack of these man-made add-ons that attract people to its earthen paths. Where else in the middle of the city can you experience woodlands in their natural state? Nowhere, really. Aside from the trails, some trail blazes and four signs tacked up for safety reasons, Turkey Mountain is devoid of artificial enhancement. You are forced to slow down and take it in at its own pace, or at least at a pace powered by you alone. It’s not climate-controlled, there are no handrails, and if you want to see a specific place, you have to walk/run/bike/ride there yourself. That has an appeal to a lot of people, to the tune of 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a month. If you’re looking for a park with swing sets and ball fields, they exist elsewhere, all over the city. Want a cup of coffee in a lodge setting? Go to Gathering Place. Zip lines? I hear Post Oak Lodge is great. None of that stuff, as great as it is, is needed at Turkey Mountain. It’s a unique place that offers something the rest of the parks cannot – mostly unsullied nature.

Most trails at Turkey Mountain, like this one, are in decent shape. Others plagued by erosion need to be rerouted or closed altogether.

Some trails need to be rerouted, and maybe even closed for good. The trail system was created by mountain bikers decades ago, mostly with the idea of what would be fun to ride. Little thought was given to how well these rough-hewn paths would hold up under human usage and weather-induced erosion. All these trails will need to be looked at with an eye toward sustainability, and that will mean altering their path so they don’t wash out. If that’s not possible, some might have to be closed off for good. I know that might chap some folks, but we want these trails to hold up without washing out a chunk of a hillside. That almost happened on the steep portion going up the Yellow Trail. It’s been mitigated for now, but that and other problem areas remain. Expert trail management will need to be consulted here.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain.

Speaking of expertise, it would be a good idea if Turkey Mountain had its own superintendent. RPA has a decent sized inventory of park land outside of Turkey Mountain, and much of its attention is focused on paved trails and festivals at River Parks Festival West. The needs at Turkey Mountain are much more about land management (forestry, wildlife conservation, trail user safety, etc.) than any other park in town. Having someone in charge of the place – a face that stakeholders could interact with – could help with a number of things, such as coordinating races, conservation efforts, public safety and volunteer work. Yeah, it’s an extra expense for RPA. But I think it would be worth it.

A glorious view on lands recently reclaimed from commercial development for natural preservation purposes. Setting aside this acreage for wild green space was a case of Tulsa doing things right.

Thoughts should be given toward potential expansion of the park, or finding similar places in the city and county where wild spaces can be preserved. Turkey Mountain is being hemmed in by development. Thinking of wildlife, those critters need room to move. Their habitats have a range that is a little bigger than most folks realize. When it gets surrounded by development, those creatures can be living in something akin to a slow-burning siege. Likewise, lots of people love Turkey Mountain, and in some ways, it’s being loved to death. Multiple wild green spaces would alleviate some of that crowding, and given the proven community value Turkey Mountain has shown, more would indeed be better. Green spaces are an increasingly important quality of life factor for people and employers looking for a place to put down roots. Economic diversity is sorely needed here; giving people reasons to give us a look needs to include quality of life amenities that are crucial for community development.

Pedal power? Sure. Motorized? Never.

Lastly, no credibility should be given to making any part of Turkey Mountain open to motorcycle or ATV usage. It’s not safe, it’s bad for the trails, harmful to wildlife and would detract from the user experience. Motor sports aren’t allowed there now, and that’s a prohibition that needs to be maintained permanently.

I’m sure I could think of other ideas, and in time, I might jot those down. But I think these make for a good start. I care about this place. In many ways, I wouldn’t be the same person today if not for Turkey Mountain, and there is a large number of people who can say the same thing. Let’s go about this master plan wisely, remembering what makes Turkey Mountain the great place that it is.

Bob Doucette

Confessions of a backslidden trail runner

A scene from the last time I did a trail race. It’s been awhile. (Clint Green photo)

It’s no secret that I like to hit the trails whenever I can. Hiking has been a passion of mine for a while now, and when I moved to Tulsa I found an urban trail area that is built for not just hiking, but trail running.

It didn’t take long for me to dive deep into that. I’d been running some by that point, but trail running was a whole other animal, something that I took to within weeks. I bought trail shoes, joined a trail running group and spent whatever free time I had learning the park’s trail system. Hell, I ran a 25K trail race before I completed by first half marathon. I quickly – and proudly – identified as a trail runner.

Fast forward to the present day. Between those early days of excitement, when getting my dirt on was fresh and new, to now, I’ve put on some miles. Raced a bunch of races. Tripped over who knows how many rocks, roots and stumps while winding my way through the woods. Even repped a manufacturer of trail running shoes for a couple of years.

This brings up the need to confess something. I haven’t been in a trail race in nearly two years.

For that matter, I haven’t run on trails since last summer.

Scandalous, right?

It’s not like I haven’t been running. And it’s not like I haven’t been on the trails. I just haven’t run on the trails. It made me feel like a phony for a while, but then I got busy with other things and didn’t think about it much.

But this weekend, I’m breaking this unfortunate streak. I entered a 10K trail race close to home. I’ve run it before – the 10K and the 25K – and both races kicked my ass. And I’m sure it will again.

I also believe the trail running gods are seeing this as bit of revenge toward me for my lack of fealty. I’m not in great shape, and the weather forecast looks absolutely terrible: low 30s to start, with rain all morning. This, on a course known to hold a lot of water when it rains even the slightest. I predict a lot of slipping, shivering, falling and humiliation on my part. The trail gods’ judgment will be severe for this backslidden acolyte.

So be it. I’ve missed the trail running race scene. Road runners are great, as are their races. But the flavor of a trail race gathering is its own thing – admirable, fun, weird and always a party, even under the most miserable circumstances.

My goals are simple. First, finish the damn thing. And second, try not to finish last. So wish me luck. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced in the dirt. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how.

Bob Doucette

Four things I learned outside of my comfort zone

I consider myself a lucky man. Over the years, I’ve been to some amazing places and experienced indelible moments, small points of light in a life that is otherwise routine. There’s nothing wrong with routine; you have to live your life and do what’s necessary to pay your bills, take care of folks and live. But the sweet spots leave impressions.

I’ve got a strain of wanderlust in my blood. A healthy fear of being too ill or weak to get out anymore. I crave my time outdoors, hitting the road and collecting new stories. I love a physical challenge.

All of this has taught me plenty. Much of it has been through trial and error while the best of it has been dutifully learned through patient instruction by people who know better than me.

Through all of this, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

It’s important to go to new places. It doesn’t matter of it’s a new park, a different part of town, a state you’ve never visited, or a country on the other side of the world. Broader perspectives are gained when you leave the comfortable environs of home. You learn you can be home anywhere, and you might make good friends you otherwise would never have met.

There is no disadvantage to being strong. Making yourself physically stronger will only add years to your life and will make you a more capable person. The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill, be it from illness, accidents or from others who would do you harm. Strength is useful. Build it.

Find a difficult challenge and commit to it. I’m not talking about discovering the secret to world peace or curing cancer, although those are great (if you can do it, please do!). Consider this more of a personal thing. When my oldest brother talked about climbing mountains, I wondered if I could do that. And then I did. It was hard, but worth it. Same deal with running a marathon. It was a huge commitment well out of my comfort zone, but I have no regrets. In both cases, I felt I grew from the experience. What’s your challenge? Find one that sounds awesome but spooks you a little. And then try. You might end up changed for the better.

There is great value in spending time outside. Yes, there is fun to be had at the pub, at the movies, binging Netflix or playing video games. But all of those things – and the growing amount of time we spend hunched over smartphones, laptops and tablets – cannot do for us what an hour or so outside can. We need time outside to unplug from all this tech, to listen to the stirrings of the woods and the wind whipping in the lonely places, if only to remind us that there is a world outside of our big wooden, steel and glass boxes lining endless networks of asphalt. A night in the wild, rising with the sun and moving to the rhythms of nature, is a great balm for all that social media angst we always bitch about but willingly indulge. Make a habit of hiking a trail. It’s medicinal.

I hope to learn more in the years to come, during those times when I leave the house, my hometown, my state, and even my country. I can count the number of runs I’ve regretted on one hand and still have digits left over. I want to eat strange and exotic foods in a nation I’ve never visited, and hopefully enjoy some conversation with the people who made it. I look forward to the challenge of that next big mountain.

Here’s to the next journey outside my comfort zone, and the things learned therein.

Bob Doucette

Public lands can’t afford another shutdown

Rocky Mountain National Park.

During the partial federal government shutdown and in its wake, we were witness to several stories of damage done to public lands facilities, and to the lands themselves.

Overflowing toilets. Truckloads of trash scattered in campgrounds and on trails. Acts of vandalism. And perhaps most troubling, the cutting down of ancient Joshua trees in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Some of these actions may take decades or even longer to mend.

There were other losses, too. Deferred maintenance got kicked down the road even further. Scientific studies carried out by federally employed researchers were delayed, and in many cases, possibly hopelessly compromised.

And all of this on top of the fact that thousands of employees went more than a month between paychecks, creating that much more strain on the caretakers of the lands that we treasure. While government employees will get back pay, thousands of private sector contractors are getting stiffed.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It was a relief to see the shutdown end. It’s been said, numerous times, that forcing government shutdowns is a losing political tactic, as the one who makes that move invariably gets blamed.

That said, another deadline is looming in about a week. There’s no telling where this winds up – a deal on border security, another shutdown, or a raising of the white flag by whoever. But the threat of another stoppage still exists, and if that happens, we all end up being losers.

Now might be a good time to make a few phone calls, send a few emails and write some letters to your congressional representatives and to the White House. Enough of this foolishness. There are far too many lives affected by a shutdown, and far too much potential harm to the places we value so highly in this country.

It’s been said that the national park system is America’s greatest idea, and I’d extend that to the rest of our public lands. It’s about time those who govern us acted like they believe it.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Bob Doucette

A pursuit of excellence: My biggest takeaway from Alex Honnold and ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold was the subject of what many consider one of the best climbing films ever, “Free Solo.”

When I went in to see “Free Solo” on the big screen, I had high expectations. Alex Honnold’s feats in big-wall rock climbing are incomparable. Given the filmmakers involved, including pro adventurer Jimmy Chin, I figured the production quality would be somewhere on a “Meru” scale, which is in my eyes, pretty damn good.

We all knew Honnold succeeded in becoming the first person to free-solo El Capitan. That’s news from awhile back. But seeing it unfold on the big screen? That’s a whole other thing.

The film delivered. I got sweaty palms watching it unfold. I was given his backstory. All of it was beautifully filmed, expertly told and compellingly arranged. You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy “Free Solo.”

But there is something else I got from “Free Solo” that I wasn’t expecting, and in my eyes, it was probably the most revealing part of the movie: Honnold is driven by a desire for excellence.

I think it’s forgotten by most of us just how much preparation, practice and study it takes to do what he does. “Free Solo” makes sure you know.

There is a montage about midway through the film in which Honnold is shown reading from one of his climbing journals. Every entry is about a specific part of the Freerider route he planned to climb, sans rope, from base to summit. It’s loaded with climber jargon, route locations and descriptions of specific obstacles he’d have to work though to finish the route. Each step is detailed, complete with what sort of technique and move he’d apply. There’s nothing colorful or emotive about his writings. It’s all business.

His meticulous attention to detail is matched by the hours he spent “practicing,” or in other words, time spent climbing the route over and over again. He climbed Freerider a number of times in the traditional roped style while also climbing big walls elsewhere and hitting the climbing gym often.

Pro athletes are seen spending hours in the gym or on the practice field, and hours more in film rooms, and hours more still hitting the weights. It’s no different for Honnold, except when it’s game time for him, the price of losing is fatal. To succeed – which is to live through it – is to be as close to perfect as a human can get. Getting yourself ready to be perfect is an exercise in discipline and work ethic that’s hard to fathom.

I left the theater wowed, just like everyone else. But more than that, I walked out hoping that in some fashion, I’d reach a level of excellence in something – anything – that Honnold achieved when he topped out on Freerider in the spring of 2017. It won’t happen in climbing for me, and in reality, it probably won’t happen in anything I do. But if it did, we’re talking about Hall of Fame/Pulitzer/Nobel-level stuff. Maybe climbing doesn’t have the gravitas of all that, but if you want to see what being the best at something looks like, watch the film.

As it turns out, the dirtbag climber community has more to offer than high stoke, big views and an adrenaline rush. The best of them can show us what it takes to be great. Or in Honnold’s case, the greatest.

Bob Doucette

Pics or it didn’t happen: Would you climb a mountain without posting pictures?

Hiking and photography go together. But will you hike without posting pics?

I asked a question on Twitter and got some interesting answers to this: “Would you climb a mountain if you couldn’t take or post pictures?”

The question itself was rhetorical. But people answered.

“Absolutely. My camera is my least important piece of equipment. If I did not carry my phone for navigation I would likely take even fewer pictures than I do,” one responder said.

Another: “Definitely, though I think I’d still want some way of recording the experience to remember it later, probably some scribbled notes.”

And another: “Do it all the time.”

I believe these folks, as well as the others who more or less said the same thing. Based on what they’ve posted, many of them are pretty serious about their outdoor undertakings. They hike and climb for the sake of the activity, not because they want to be able to say that they’ve done it.

But I also know that there are those who probably would not climb mountains if they couldn’t take photos, or share the experience on a blog or via social media. In fact, many of them are trying to get new images for the sake of keeping those platforms stocked with new things for people to look at, comment on, or hit “like” or whatever.

I also know the nature of the question (and the responses that followed) probably discouraged these folks from answering that no, they wouldn’t climb if they couldn’t share. To admit it would seem shallow.

That’s the part I want to break down, because I think there are a couple of reasons that push people toward this side of the outdoor world.

For some, it really is a question of meeting demand. Many hikers, climbers, mountaineers or whatever have websites that need new posts. They’ve got social media channels that need fresh photos and videos. Sponsorships might be part of the deal, or perhaps a larger prize down the road that will pay off if all these online efforts showcasing their adventures hit some sort of critical mass. So yeah, that’s pressure to get out there more, push harder and provide new stories to tell online audiences.

For others, it’s simpler. They’ll hike a mountain, or climb a pitch, get a dramatic photo, and post it. Soon thereafter, folks are double-tapping that image like crazy and their phone is blowing up with likes and comments from enthralled followers. It’s a symbiotic stimulus-response reaction between the person and their audience. For the followers, it’s a matter of expressed appreciation. For the poster, it’s validation. And validation is a powerful drug. A numbers game follows where the tally of likes and followers drives these folks to see what image will garner even greater numbers.

Most of the time, this is pretty harmless. If it floats your boat, you do you, man. While there are examples of people trying things in places where they get in over their heads (sometimes with deadly consequences), those are rare exceptions.

I asked the question following a trip to Colorado for a family wedding. I had a day after the ceremony where I could head up into the mountains and maybe hike a trail and bag a peak. Might as well, right?

But it had snowed pretty hard in the high country, and I’d left my ice axe at home. I read a report that a hiker had a near-miss with an avalanche in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. And someone else lost control of their car at Loveland Pass, with icy conditions sending them down the mountainside. I took a pass.

And yet, part of me regretted not going up, especially after seeing some friends’ pics in the hills at the same time I’d planned to go. Was it fear of missing out? Or fear of missing the opportunity to take a bunch of photos of snowy alpine scenes, writing a trip report, and posting fresh images on the IG?

And that brought up a deeper question: What’s my overriding motive?

I’m a storyteller by nature, be it with words or pictures. I enjoy it. But I’d hate to get to the point where every outing has to be justified by fresh content for all the interwebz to consume. Worse yet, I’d hate if it turned into something where I planned all my trips on the basis of what new thing I can publish.

In other words, I needed to check myself. Hence the question.

I can say yeah, I’d climb a mountain if I couldn’t take pics or post about it. I have before, and I enjoyed the experience just fine. I’ve done plenty of hikes without snapping a single shot. Those were good, too. And so were the ascents and hikes where I took dozens of photos.

But I don’t want to get to the point where I’m hiking for the approval of others. I never want to make the hike akin to a job, where it must be done and documented or it’s not worth my time. That would signal a loss of the love for the outdoors, and that would be far more tragic than not seeing a bunch of affirming notifications pop up on a hand-held screen.

My next hike ought to have no photos taken. Or at least I should give myself that option.

Bob Doucette