Outdoor Recreation Gone Wild – And Why We Need More Friluftsliv

Outdoor Recreation Gone Wild - And Why We Need Friluftsliv

Recently, the girls and I went camping for a couple of nights in a scenic state park, with a 15-mile canoe trip marking the highlight of the weekend. I had envisioned us leisurely paddling down the quiet river, maybe spotting some bald eagles, turtles and other wildlife on the way, but mostly just enjoying the stillness and oneness with nature. What we actually got was anything but.

Granted, it was a Saturday morning in July and the canoe rentals are extremely busy this time of the year. Red flags started going up as soon as we arrived to the canoe place, where the atmosphere was more tailgating party than bird watching. We quickly slipped our canoe into the water at the packed put-in and started paddling to get away from the crowds. But no matter how fast or slow we paddled, the canoes, kayaks and inner tubes kept coming. And with them came the loud music, the coolers full of beer and the cigarette smoke.

Outdoor Recreation Gone Wild - And Why We Need Friluftsliv

Clearly, a majority of the people – and there were twenty-somethings as well as older couples and families with young children – had a much different idea of a good day on the river than I did.

A few miles into the trip the river widened and we finally had some semblance of stillness, but the peace was short-lived. Soon, we were bumping into other canoes and kayaks again, and in the final five miles of the trip we were completely surrounded by tubes, many of which were tied together like big, noisy islands.

“Mom,” my 10-year-old whispered to me, wide-eyed, as we squeezed by another cluster of half a dozen inner tubes, “that guy just shouted ‘I’m drunk!'”

At one point, a particularly bad bottleneck had formed by a bridge where dozens of people were hanging out on the water while watching kids who seemed to be about college age jump off a cliff, into a small opening among the array of canoes, kayaks and tubes. A little bit further down, a couple of middle-aged men dressed up as Captain Underpants and a Mountain Dew can respectively were standing on the river bank on our left, drinking and putting on an impromptu stand-up comedy show for anybody who cared to watch. Right about then, a shirtless guy in an inner tube right behind me started blowing a vuvuzela. Soon, another vuvuzela in the distance answered the call, and so an upbeat back and forth exchange started.

At this point I just about lost it.

It was as if a frat party and a European soccer stadium had a baby, got it drunk and let it loose on a lazy river in the forest. Instead of watching wildlife, I felt like we were trapped in a human zoo. To make matters worse, storm clouds were rolling in and the air filled with thunder and a steady rain. While we were paddling faster to get out, more floaters kept joining in.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’ve floated down a river in an inner tube before, drinking and hanging out with friends. When I was in my early twenties and lived in Montana, this was a popular pastime for college students in the summertime. And yes, it can be a lot of fun. But that day on the river in Indiana made me realize how much my relationship with nature has evolved over time, especially after having children. Or maybe I’m just getting old and grouchy. Either way, it left me reflecting a great deal on the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv versus the English word outdoor recreation.

Outdoor Recreation Gone Wild - And Why We Need Friluftsliv

At first, the two terms may seem equivalent, and they’re are sometimes used interchangeably. Hiking, camping, fishing, wildlife watching and foraging for mushrooms are examples of activities that fit both the definition of friluftsliv and outdoor recreation. But there are some distinct differences between the two as well.

Outdoor recreation is a broad term that can encompass practically any “leisure pursuits engaged in the outdoors, often in natural or semi-natural settings”, including team sports, adventure racing and ATV-riding. Meanwhile, the definition of friluftsliv, which literally translates to “free-air life,” is much narrower. Typical friluftsliv activities are non-motorized, non-competitive and don’t require a lot of money or equipment. Instead, the focus is on developing knowledge of and finding oneness with nature in everyday life. Friluftsliv is more a mindset and lifestyle than a specific set of outdoor activities and in Scandinavia, this outdoor tradition is passed down from generation to generation. Whereas friluftsliv typically is carried out with minimal impact on the environment, outdoor recreation includes activities that are sometimes at odds with it.

But back to our ill-fated canoe trip. Canoeing and kayaking are normally excellent ways of exploring nature in a meaningful, non-invasive way. The problem in this case was partly that the river was way too crowded, and partly that too many people weren’t there for the nature experience, but for the entertainment. Nature just happened to be the scenic backdrop. And without appreciation for nature, there can be no friluftsliv.

I’m not saying there’s no room for entertainment in nature, but I think it’s really important to examine our motives for pursuing outdoor recreation and what the consequences may be. When a river is turned into an adult playground, nature and those of us who are actually there for the nature experience lose.

Amazingly enough, my youngest daughter managed to catch a glimpse of a large snapping turtle amid the chaos, and as we passed through some of the worst congestion, a groundhog watched curiously from the riverbank on our left. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his head as the cigarette smoke and the noise from the vuvuzelas dispersed among the trees.

16 thoughts on “Outdoor Recreation Gone Wild – And Why We Need More Friluftsliv

  1. Miriam says:

    I can totally relate. But it’s not just intentions. A lot of times it has to do with population, size of green spaces and the ratio between the two (and how far they are from the closest city). In areas that the population is growing (which is mostly everywhere in the world right now), even if you have people with great intentions – nature gets ruined. If you want a real nature experience it would be just one person. Once there are more people – even if we are quiet – the bright colours of our clothes or gear are like a colour-pollution to the landscape. And when there are more people – it becomes noisier. And animals move away, even if people won’t be as noisy. And you only need one or two noisy people to ruin the atmosphere for the rest, and then there’s no point in keeping it quiet.
    I live in Canada, and it still has a lot of nature, but most countries aren’t as big as Canada (all except Russia, actually), and do not have huge areas with such harsh conditions for many months of the year. So it’s not just that you’ve become a mother, or are getting older and grumpier (which is what I feel too), there’s just a lot more people.
    If you want to explore real nature you have to be a lot more committed to it. Take vacation in the middle of the week, and/or off-season, travel further away, live further away from city centres (this allows shorter travel time before reaching ‘real’ nature, although living in the suburb, which is often done by people who love nature, is actually causing more harm to the environment than living in a high-rise downtown. People living downtown often do not have cars at all, and if they do – their commute is shorter or in public transportation – or bikes. Larger houses + basements in the suburb mean more space to fill with stuff/junk, which leads to higher consumerism, more land per person means that there’s room for less trees – all this grass is not very helpful), and also try to find nature in the tiniest of places. Make a pollinator friendly garden (even a balcony garden), and instead of killing the spiders – enjoy them. While watching and observing that – we start to notice more animals.
    On the first week of June I took my daughter straight from school for a walk in a local ravine. We’re lucky in Toronto to have those ravines, but on weekends they are terrible. At 3:30 PM, right after school, we were quite alone. There were joggers or other hikers that we saw every few minutes, but we were left alone in between. Saw two groundhogs (or beavers, it was quick and they were swimming, couldn’t see their tails), and lots of nice birds. Just relaxing. Come to the same place later in the evening – people are back from work and there’s a busy traffic of joggers and bikers. Weekend – it’s scary to walk because of all the bikes. But it isn’t easy to go right away, without preparing a snack etc… It demands extra time and attention… And maybe that extra time and attention is what is needed to allow for this friluftsliv to happen. If I understood your correctly…

    Anyways – thanks for sharing, and hoping you’ll have an opportunity later this summer for a more relaxing nature experience!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      I totally agree with everything you’re saying and I thought about discussing the space issue as well. An alternate headline may have been “The US needs more public land, and this is why”, but I figured that would lead to another (albeit much needed) debate. Unfortunately, public nature areas are in short supply in Indiana, and there’s practically no wilderness left to speak of, which makes it hard to find authentic nature experiences. As you point out, even if all of those people had been quietly paddling in their canoes, the river would’ve been too crowded. If I learned one thing from this outing it was that if we ever go back to this river, it probably won’t be on the weekend and definitely not on a Saturday!

      • Miriam says:

        My mom is an expert in finding those gems that are not too far and nobody knows about. And often they are free. But you become an expert by constantly exploring, by foot, by car, by networking with other people who like to walk around. Not by using the internet (more hits on popular places, they appear first – which means you’re going to visit a crowded place).
        The thing about green spaces – if the municipality will make sure they exist – they will need funding, and for that they have to show that people are using them, and for that they need to advertise the place, and that makes any green area in the city – a well known place and too popular. Also many people believe that family activities usually call for grass (picnic, ball games), and that means very few trees. Trees, apart from providing shade, some privacy (by dividing the area) and reducing the noise, provide a lot of opportunities for play (sticks to use as tools or to build things or write/draw in the mud, leaves, pine cones, climbing the trees and more). So even if there are ‘green’ areas, they are mostly just huge areas of green grass, very little shade and very boring for the kids. We need to bring extra toys to keep them busy, because except for picking the grass – there isn’t much left to do…
        Anyhow – hopefully you do find a time to go to this river again on a less busy occasion, because it does look like a very nice river!

  2. Sheri Pacitto says:

    Reminds me of my college days at IU floating down the Apple River. It was definitely about being with friends more than being outside. At this point in my life however, what I remember is how lovely the river was and that it was actually an awesome experience being able to do that in a river. Today, I would much rather serenely paddle and commune with nature just as you were trying to do.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Yes, I think we all seek out the outdoors for different reasons and trying to co-exist is certainly an art form. I’m glad you have those positive memories from your college days and that they’ve contributed to your appreciation for nature today:)

  3. Vesselina says:

    Haha, yes, definitely grouchy. This is how I have felt about this issue since I can remember, probably inheriting my parents’ view and stance. On the other hand, who knows, I tend to be very sensitive to noise, so that might be it.
    When I was growing up in my native Bulgaria, few people had cars and going for a walk in the mountain was only for the most determined. It was clean and quiet. Now everyone has a car, you go up to the mountains and it’s basically a parking lot. People have brought their music with them, and they are not listening to it quietly… you know, to themselves…. They are cooking there and there is very little interaction with nature, apart from littering. And it is beautiful, you know…
    But these are the consequences of a growing population, I feel. And sometimes access to technology. People just bring it with them everywhere they go. Squatting on Pokemon eggs around parks… turning into a curiosity themselves 🙂
    On the other hand, we are part of nature! It might sound like sacrilege, but complaining about beer-inspired adolescents is like complaining about blood-sucking mosquitoes. Like it or not, this is Earth. She hosts many species, not all of them are going to be to our liking. It’s up to us to figure out how to avoid them. I try not to leave the house with romantic expectations about how it is going to be, because we live in a pretty populated area, and I have learnt from previous experience that there will be busloads of people when we get there 😀 This helps me maybe be closer to the spirit of the human party, too. And my kids are small, so they wave and talk at everyone, I couldn’t stay judgmental around that sort of energy.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Yes, it’s definitely getting harder to find those truly quiet and wild places, which is hard for me because like you I’m extremely sensitive to noise. In hindsight, going on a Sunday morning probably would’ve made for a much more pleasurable and less crowded outing, so that was my mistake…The other problem is that there simply aren’t many public nature areas in Indiana, so the ones that we do have are getting loved to death. I really wish we had more state parks and forests, but unfortunately, I think changing that will be very difficult:(

  4. Doug D says:

    There really should be a corral to keep the drunken revelers in so they don’t wreck it for everyone else.
    I’d suggest enforcement of the rules around drunken boating, lifejackets, and paddles would help clean things up a bit.

  5. Raelynn Cameron says:

    I am a Missoula Montana resident. We actually live on a portion of the Clark Fork River that is a popular float. Any given day at any time of the day in the summer I can look out my window and see one or two or ten floaters. Some are quiet couples some are rafting crews some are loud college kids or just loud drunk adults. Really anyone and everyone is in the river. We float often and when we float this stretch of river it’s not for the same reasons as when we kayak on a mountain lake or when we wake up early to paddle board on a different stretch of river. It is a relief from the heat in a very accesible way. I think that the majority of people who do this float understand that it won’t be that peaceful connection to nature. But there are still times when it quiets down or when you see an Osprey catch a fish right in front of you that bring you closer to the beauty of the place we live. Most nights when the floaters have quieted down we sit down by the water and listen to the river. We get friluftsliv. There are also some nights after work that we load up the tubes and the kids and the cooler and the music and spend an hour enjoying our river community, swimming and splashing and cooling off. I think that if you do it right you can have both and both are ok.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Sounds like you live in an amazing place:) And yes, I think you’re right that there can be both if done right. I think it’s fine to have some drinks on the river if that’s what you want, but in our case, I think the biggest problem was the overcrowding. When there are so many people on the river and most of them have a completely different goal with the day than you do, the conflict of interest is inevitable. I never experienced crowding like that when I lived in Montana, but public lands are vast and people’s access to rivers much better there. In Indiana we’re all having to share just a few very popular public greenspaces, so it’s not surprising that they get loved to death.

  6. Monika says:

    I don’t know, I’d take drunk students rather than dogs on the loose in all the nature areas in Germany. They’re even even running free in children’s playgrounds which is illegal but noone seems to mind, as Germans seem to be nuts about their dogs. It’s quite different from what I’ve witnessed in Sweden. However after I got attacked by an dog a year ago, on a hike with my 4-month-old in a carrier, outings in the nature ceased to be my lifestyle..

    • Linda McGurk says:

      That’s just awful:( So sorry you had that experience…In the US I used to encounter a lot of loose-running dogs on my runs. I never got attacked but started carrying pepper spray just in case.

  7. nichole says:

    What river was this, if you don’t mind me asking? I live in southern Indiana and haven’t run into this problem, although I’ve heard of it happening.

  8. Robert says:

    Great post. We too live in Indiana, and Turkey Run is a beautiful place. But it can be jam-packed with disruptive crowds who take away from the experience of getting out in nature. We’ve also become adherents to the idea of friluftsliv – we have Norwegian relatives for whom it is a Really Big Thing. As to canoeing, getting away from the weekends helps, and we’ve also discovered that fall is a *marvelous* time to go. (Not only is fall one of the most beautiful seasons in Indiana, but everyone seems to forget all about any activity involving water as soon as you get past Labor Day!) There are also some very wild-feeling rivers to explore in Indiana once you get away from the few routes that are dominated by the commercial canoe outfitters. We’ve only recently found you blog (and ordered your book!), but we’re looking forward to reading more!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Thank you, Robert! I think you’re right – timing is everything if you want more elbow room on the river:) I would love to explore some wilder parts of Indiana as well, I guess it’s just a matter of knowing where to go. I hope you enjoy my book!

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