Nobility not required, but courtesy is nice

winding-trackI ran into the Queen of England on the Green Circle recently.

At least I think it was The Queen.  Y’know, the one with the little corgi dogs who have the run of the kingdom, because they’re Royal with a capital “R” and I’m definitely not.

That’s “not” with a lower-case “not on your piddly little life, peasant.”

But there were two corgis, right on the groomed cross-country skiing trail, being walked by The Queen Her Own Self.

Some readers may think, “Hey.  You’re so dumb you’re probably a Cowboys fan.  The Queen doesn’t even like cheese curds, so why would she be dere, unless she was waiting for an audience with Aaron Rodgers, huh?”

It’s true that there were no Queen’s Guards with her.  There weren’t even any members of the Bill Cook Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, and it was right by the league’s property, so maybe I’m a little off base.

In fact, the woman didn’t appear to understand the Queen’s English.  A sign, not 20 yards away, clearly pointed out that no foot traffic, including pets, was permitted on groomed trails.

When I informed Her Royal Highness that she and her corgis needed skis, she told me she thought the sign applied only to another obviously ungroomed track a few yards away, rather than the pristine, perfectly flat, deeply and evenly grooved trail she traipsed with her Lordly Little Ones.

Fair enough, m’lady; you are merely an all-too common, individualistic sort, happy to draw conclusions supporting your desires but not particularly willing to think about what signs might mean.  But I am here to tell you that I do not think those words mean what you think they mean.

Because of that, this week’s column is about who “owns” public lands, in addition to a brief recounting of my first skiing outing of the season, which was still a fine one.

SAD?  Mad?  Or something else?

Hitting our local cross-country trails is a true joy of winter, right up there with any kind of Christmas lights, real hot cocoa after a hard session of shoveling, and seeing snow-covered Wisconsin hills and farms roll past on a festive holiday trip.

So it was with great anticipation that I finally broke out my skis, well into January, after a too-busy holiday season with poorly timed absences from our best snow. After last week’s big storm and excellent powder, I finally headed over to the Highway 66 parking lot for the Plover River Trail on a brilliantly sunny but not snow-melting day.

Several cars were in the lot, but the only person I saw for the first hour was the aforementioned dog-walker, just finishing her impolite trek on the ski trail.

Trail portions nearest the parking lot had plenty of evidence of the dogs and their owner mucking about and occasionally marring the track – the woman left many deep bootprints within ski grooves, while the dogs clearly had run back and forth across the path.

Still, the trail seemed newly groomed, with little other evidence of walkers and snowshoers, as there often is.  Trail trash, the twigs and leaves that can slow one’s course, were also minimal.

Normally I do the ski trail in less than an hour, but because I decided to take pictures, it lasted twice as long. I was on the backstretch of the blue loop – the last of five on the 10-kilometer round trip from the parking lot – before I saw another skier.

There was plenty of quiet time to explore the sharp lighting that highlighted white snow, piercing blue sky and rich evergreen, along with lots of rough brown oak and pine bark.

With time to think, I found myself regretting the straightforward and near-brusque way I had addressed the dogwalker.  I hadn’t been aggressive or rude, but neither had I been subtle or conciliatory.

I wanted to blame my approach on not spending enough time outdoors, or perhaps on seasonal affective disorder (was there ever a more apt acronym for a problem than SAD?).   But it wasn’t that.

I realized it was more that I was mad, and that’s just bad.  More accurately, I probably have a severe case of PAD – political affective disorder, a post-election malady brought on by fear, pessimism, horror and a number of other reactions.

I’d like to say I coined the term myself, but I suspect lots of others have come up with that name to explain a widespread current phenomenon.

Plenty of evidence exists that we who love the outdoors should have real concerns – everything from anti-science, anti-environmental types being given key leadership positions to U.S. legislators opening their year by making it easier to sell off federal lands.

In Wisconsin, we again are considering increased state-park usage fees that could have profound negative impacts on access and use, continued efforts to expand dirty-energy pipelines across wide swaths of our open spaces, and other issues.

Still, I was supposed to have fun.  I reminded myself that there’s only so much anyone can do. Regardless of how bad things might be, it might make sense to try to enjoy myself.

Bright side to a bright day 

After a slew of pictures, including one of my favorite spots in Portage County – a bench overlooking the Plover River, on a bend in the Green Circle Trail not far from the 66 parking lot – I returned to the lot about the same time as two snowshoers coming off a spur that goes to Walton League land.

The couple responded to my greeting with their own, then asked whether I knew if it was OK not only to snowshoe where they had, but also whether it was acceptable to go alongside the groomed trail.

Their concern was refreshing after my earlier brush with the privileged class, and I found them far more noble.

I told them that as far as I know, “no foot traffic on groomed trails” has been interpreted as “stay to the side and maybe nobody complains.”  I told them skiers would appreciate their efforts to keep trails skiable.

I’ve come to realize that we’re all in this together.  We all want to protect our privileges, whether large or small. Some distinctions need to be maintained; some winter trail uses, for instance, may simply be incompatible.

But dogwalkers and skiers, Democrats and Republicans, and public-sector employees and private businesses can still find common ground.  I was heartened this week by an open letter started by the leadership of the 16 million-member recreational co-op REI, signed by 100 chief executives of outdoor-related businesses large and small which contribute $650 billion annually to the U.S. economy, generate $80 billion in tax revenue and employ more than 6 million people.

With signatories from L.L. Bean, Columbia, and many other widely known and well loved American businesses, the letter, directed to all elected officials, includes these words:

“It is an American right to roam in our public lands. The people of the United States, today and tomorrow, share equally in the ownership of these majestic places. This powerful idea transcends party lines and sets our country apart from the rest of the world. That is why we strongly oppose any proposal, current or future, that devalues or compromises the integrity of our national public lands.

… This is not a red or blue issue. It is an issue that affects our shared freedoms. Public lands should remain in public hands.”

Those are words by which we can live, ski, and probably even walk our royal majesties.

(originally published in Jan. 18, 2017, Portage County Gazette)

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