An REI catalog showed up in the mail, crammed with clothing and outdoor gear. As I scanned the photos, one item aroused an ironic chuckle: Goal Zero Guide 10 Adventure Kit Solar Charger with Solo Flashlight. The description said, “Charges iPad and other tablet computers, cell phones, GPS and rechargeable batteries. Solar panels fit on a backpack for on-the-go charging. The included 5-LED Solo flashlight recharges from solar panel built into its aluminum body. $120.”
My chuckle was generated because I can’t quite fathom why a person would want to lug a “tablet” and a cell phone into the relative wilderness. (I say relative because, in fact, we humans have trudged over almost every speck of the earth as it is.) For me, getting outdoors to walk, camp, and backpack are all about getting away from that stuff. How can you “get away from it all” when you took it all with you?
I can imagine someone wanting to keep a journal on an extended backcountry outing, so maybe taking an iPad or similar device would be useful, and being able to keep it powered up would be necessary. Taking a GPS makes some sense in terms of orienting yourself in rugged terrain, but a cell phone assumes you’re going to be in range of a cell tower and lots of times we’re not…even in the relatively populated areas of our rural counties. When you actually might need a GPS, there probably isn’t an Internet connection to help you get out of a jam. What this Goal Zero Adventure kit really does is promote the notion that we could (or should) keep plugged in wherever we are—at a rest stop on I-5 or while hiking in the Hoh Rain Forest.
My own habits have shifted over the years to less and less instead of more and more contraptions accompanying me on an outdoors “adventure.” I put that in quotes because part of the adventure for me is living with quiet, and living with the dark. Our gear has “deteriorated” from Coleman lanterns (light that’s too intense, creating glare and darker shadows, which actually make it more difficult to navigate in the dark, not less), to kerosene lanterns (a softer light but stinky fuel), to a candle lantern made from a votive candle in a canning jar. Sometimes we only use headlamps and go to bed as soon as it’s dark.
I no longer routinely carry a camera either. I noticed that when I did, I became so focused on composing my shots that I forgot to look at the bigger picture or didn’t notice what was peripheral to my intended subject. An experience was remembered not in my imagination with my five senses, but as a series of relatively cold images. “Be here now” has become my motto whether in my backyard or the outback.
But there’s an insidious side of all the “connectivity” that’s being promoted with the Guide 10 Adventure Kit besides its interfering with a high quality outdoor experience: It’s contributing to the ongoing destruction of salmon runs. While the iPad or cell phone may be solar powered, the gigantic data centers that handle email, Twitter and Facebook traffic are not. A lengthy Oregonian article on November 20 last fall described “the cloud” as it “rolls into Oregon.” Data centers need a dry, mild climate and lots of cheap electricity. That electricity is provided by the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydroelectric system, the same dams that many of us blame for the severe decline of salmon runs in the last 60 years. Luckily the newest data center, created in Prineville, Oregon by Facebook, uses a relatively efficient (and old-fashioned) technology to cool the facility: swamp coolers. But all the same, every bit and byte through this data center uses electricity…and so does every click on your smart phone, every Twitter feed, and every email from your computer, including the one I’m using to post my columns.
All this reminds me of a conversation nearly 20 years ago. We were shooting the breeze at Dockside Cannery at the Port of Ilwaco with Sean and Bear, both experienced commercial fishermen. We got to talking about electricity, dams, and energy conservation. My husband and I were trying to use as little electricity as possible. Sometimes far-sighted wisdom (or is it cynicism) comes from an unlikely source. Bear made a comment I’ve never forgotten: “No matter how much we save, they’ll just sell it to someone else, somewhere else.”
(This essay was previously published in the Chinook Observer, based in Long Beach, Washington.)