I’m not talking “take your shoes off at the door” etiquette or knowing which fork to use, but there are manners to be minded in the great outdoors, as well. Think of visiting conservation areas, parks, trails, campgrounds and similar areas as you would a friend’s home. There are lots of things you can do to help take care of these places and have a better experience while you’re there.
As an employee of the Conservation Department, I often visit the areas we manage. The experience of walking through a healthy forest, sitting by a clean stream, or scouting a hunting area is like no other. Did you know that MDC manages more than 988,000 acres throughout the state, including four trout parks, 846 lakes, five coldwater fish hatcheries, five warmwater fish hatcheries, a tree nursery, five Conservation Nature Centers, two Education Centers, five staffed shooting ranges, 70 unstaffed shooting ranges, a central administrative office and eight regional service centers? There are so many opportunities, how do you choose?
A great start is to think about the activity you’d like to pursue, and how far you are willing to travel. Just as you introduce yourself when you meet someone new, you can improve your experience by getting to know an area you are interested in visiting. There are many ways to get information, but one of the best is to go online. If you have Internet access, you can visit www.mdc.mo.gov/node/8911. From there, you can search areas by name, county or region. You can find information on each area including contact information, history of the area, land types, trails, activities, features and facilities. There are also interactive maps with details about boat ramps, species of concern, fish cover and other useful tidbits. You can view the area map and brochure, if one is available. If you can’t make your way to a computer, call or visit your regional MDC office and talk to the staff (phone numbers on Page 3). They can give you maps and information about conservation areas.
Maximize Your Outing
You can use these resources to find the conservation area that is best suited to the activities you want to pursue, or to improve your chances of seeing certain flora and fauna. You can also learn an area’s rules and prepare for your needs based on how long you will be gone and what you will be doing.
Once you do arrive at your chosen spot, try to turn off your cell phone or iPod and look and listen to your surroundings. Even if just for an hour or two, experience the peacefulness of what is around you. Take the time to really look at what you are passing. So many people miss out on the experience of seeing a deer fawn hidden in the leaves, or watching a tiger beetle larvae pull its next victim into its lair. Animal tracks, feathers, hair, nests, burrows and even scat (that’s a biologist’s word for droppings!) might lead you to see some very interesting creatures. Birds, flowers, rocks, fish, lizards, insects, spiders (and spider webs) are all part of the experience and easily missed if you aren’t focused on using all of your senses.
Learning to identify irritating or harmful animals and plants will also help you better enjoy your experience. Poison ivy and ticks are the most common irritants. Learn what they look like and how to avoid them, as well as what to do if you run in to either of them. Gain knowledge of the animals of the region you will visit. Most snakes, for example, are harmless. Out of 46 species of snakes, there are only five that are venomous and one of those is endangered—the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. Fortunately, each has its own distinguishable pattern and can easily be identified if you take a few minutes to learn what they look like and where they live. Did you know that most people bitten by snakes were either handling or trying to kill the snake? You can find more information on these and other species in our online field guide at www.mdc.mo.gov/node/73.
Take a journal or camera to record where you went, what you did and how well the area fit your needs. Use them to remember your trip, rather than taking natural objects as mementos. Encourage children to explore, touch, smell and listen to the world around them. If you show an interest, they will too.
Hunting and Angling for Good Times
If you are planning a hunting trip, become familiar with the laws associated with your hunt. Plan to scout the area ahead of time to learn not only the patterns of the game, but also to get an idea of how heavily others use the area. Knowing where you are going and what to expect will ensure a safer experience and a better chance for a successful hunt. When fishing, know special regulations ahead of time and talk to others about what bait and tackle has been successful so you can plan ahead. You can find hunting and trapping regulations at www.mdc.mo.gov/node/2454 and fishing information at www.mdc.mo.gov/node/3104 and in regulations booklets available at many sporting vendors and Department offices.
If you are new to any activity, or want to try something for the first time, consider taking a class at a nature center, shooting range or other office. You can try your hand at outdoor skills such as orienteering, archery, fishing, hunting, shooting sports, Dutch oven cooking and more. You can also learn more natural history skills, such as bird watching, tracking, wildflower and tree identification, journaling, habitat exploration and natural crafts. Programs, trainings and events can be found online at www.mdc.mo.org/node/91 by clicking on the map in the region you want to visit, or by calling your regional conservation office (see Page 3 for phone numbers).
Caring for Resources
Wherever you go, and whatever you do, remember how you can help us care for the resources you are using. If you have suggestions or comments, or see vandalism or other things that concern you, please take the time to let the area manager or a conservation office know. If you witness any illegal activity, a conservation agent is only a phone call away. Call Operation Game Thief, toll free, at 800-392-1111 to get the information to the right person. This land is yours to use, and abuse of it is stealing from your outdoor experiences.
Manners for a Wild Time
- Check the rules of the area you are going to visit and follow them. If you ever wonder why a rule is in place, please ask!
- Wear appropriate clothing, especially footwear! Avoid discomfort and blisters. Improper shoes can even be dangerous, as the soles may be slick or they may not provide adequate ankle support. Stay on the trail, don’t use cut-offs, switchbacks or paths that aren’t part of the trail. This creates erosion over time and can undermine the original trail. It costs money to repair trails and fight erosion, so help protect what’s there.
- Stay to the right and pass on the left, but always quietly let people know you are coming up behind them. It makes the day brighter when hikers say hello when passing in opposite directions.
- Yield to uphill hikers when you are moving down the hill. They’ve got a much harder task! If they choose to stop, you can then move forward. On trails that allow jogging, bikes and horses, it’s a bit more complicated. Bikes and joggers must yield to walkers, but everyone must yield to horses for safety purposes.
- Bring out what you take in, even food waste such as orange peels, apple cores and peanut shells. These take a long time to degrade and no one wants to see litter destroying an otherwise perfect natural setting. Empty soda cans weigh much less than full ones, and they can be smashed to fit in a pocket. Special rules apply for glass and coolers when on a river or stream. Canoe outfitters are happy to supply you with a mesh litterbag so you can help keep the area clean.
- Cigarette butts are litter too. Filters are not made of cotton and they do not biodegrade. They are made of compressed fibers of cellulose acetate, a plastic, similar to photographic film. Cigarette butt chemicals in our streams, lakes and rivers are a significant threat to aquatic life.
- Don’t collect anything (unless it is specifically permitted). Leave natural items for the next person to see. If you pick a fistful of flowers, they’ll be wilted before you are off the trail and gone for others to enjoy. Wild animals and their homes should be left alone. Never pick up a baby or pursue any animal.
- On trails where pets are allowed, they should be kept on a leash. Even a friendly dog can accidentally injure a child or pursue wild animals, and it can be scary to be eye to eye with a strange canine. Narrow trails do not leave much room for passing so keep your dog on the outside so you are between him and the person you are passing.