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Editorial: Let’s Talk About Selfies and Nature

Popularity has its price—selfies and geotagging are creating more foot traffic than ever in remote places.

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The natural beauty of Seattle NorthCountry attracts people to it. Even glimpsed through the “window” of social media, our section of the Northwest is undeniably gorgeous. Which is why people come here in droves to hike, paddle and enjoy the beauty.

A few decades ago, visitors may have taken a couple of pictures to develop upon their return to the city. These days, in all likelihood, you’ll want to snap a selfie to share with your circles on your social media feeds.

That is why prime, ultra-photogenic selfie spots are becoming increasing less secluded. Secret spaces don’t stay secret for long anymore. The upside of social sharing? You might not have found that awe-inspiring waterfall in the first place if some other adventurer hadn’t gotten there first and hashtagged the hike. The downside of Instagram-fueled popularity means full parking lots, crowded paths, and even the occasional full-on destruction of our natural treasures.

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Vance Creek Bridge, in a lovely forested area on the Olympic Peninsula, was once called the second highest railway bridge in the US. An engineering marvel in a picturesque location, Instagram fame brought the curious along with hoards of irresponsible visitors, vandals and arsonists. Now the historic bridge is being destroyed in the name of public safety.

And Vance Creek isn’t the only place being impacted by social media foot traffic. In Colorado, sudden fame for a hidden hot-spring ended in a shut-down when rangers had to bring in shovels to deal with the piles of human feces creating a bio-hazard for man and beast alike.

We need to pause and reconsider how we appreciate our natural spaces. There’s a lot of instant-gratification in a flurry of likes for that photo of a field of golden California poppies. Arguably, there’s an even deeper gratification in breathing in the smell of those blooms, listening to the birdsong in the trees and dipping bare toes into the icy cold water of a pristine creek. You can't capture that on a smartphone.

But it’s also the modern day. These photos will happen. They will be liked, and even loved, by friends and family.

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There are a few points in modern etiquette when it comes to snapping pictures in nature.

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s not worth your life. Avoid putting yourself or your friends into dangerous situations to get a better angle.
  2. “This is their home, we just visit it” is good in principle and practice. That field of flowers is a dining room to adorable, furry critters with even more dietary restrictions than your vegan/keto friend. Please don’t step on their only shot at dinner. Trails are there for their protection and yours.
  3. Photo-ops are teaching opportunities. While some do show up with bad intentions (like bonfires on protected land), a lot of folks are simply discovering natural spaces for the first time and don’t know the etiquette. Your photo-stories could be lessons in stewardship. New to nature? The WTA has some great tips on trail smarts here.
  4. Share your skills with a shovel, as well as a smartphone. Our own Washington Trails Association hosts regular work party outings to repair old trails or even build new ones. Join a group and make a few new friends while sharing your love of the wild.
  5. Some secrets are worth keeping. There’s a reason fly-fishers are tight-lipped about the best bends in the river. When you share your new favorite place in the world, consider just how many people you want sitting next to you on that riverbank. You don’t need to give the exact location away. Just tag #SeattleNorthCountry and let your friends do their own legwork.

We would never want to discourage people from getting out and experiencing our natural spaces for themselves. It is objectively beautiful around here and we also love to share that beauty with friends from around the world. Just remember, the forests here are also ideal for enjoying a little digital detox. Walk slowly and don’t forget to breathe in the moment.

Krista Quinby