Thru-Hiking in Response to Ecological Calamity

Back in 2017 I had the rare opportunity to bear witness to the process of extinction. I was part of a documentary film crew tasked with gathering footage of the effort to capture the last remaining vaquita porpoises in the Northern Gulf of California. The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise, and is endemic to the warm, shallow waters in the Northernmost portion of the Gulf of California – right near the delta of the Colorado River. Although it has not yet gone extinct, it is one of the most endangered species on the planet, with likely fewer than 10 individuals remaining.

My good friend and fellow filmmaker Sean Bogle came to me in 2015 with an idea for a documentary about this enigmatic species. Little did I know that by initiating this project, we were taking a deep dive into the underworld of organized crime. As we began talking with local fisherman, biologists, activists and politicians, it became clear that the vaquita’s precipitous decline was caused by the international market for illegal wildlife products. A large endangered fish called the totoaba, also endemic to the Northern Gulf of California, was being harvested illegally for it’s unusually large swim bladder, and the gillnets used to harvest the Totoaba were entangling and killing vaquita. These totoaba swim bladders, we learned, could fetch tens of thousands of dollars in certain parts of China.

The town of San Felipe, Northern Baja California, Mexico. Photo by Sean Bogle.

The small fishing community of San Felipe, which is just a five hour drive from San Diego, had become a hotbed of activity for the Mexican drug cartels, who realized early on that there were vast sums of money to be made from selling Totoaba swim bladders. Just like many other border towns in Mexico, San Felipe is ruled by these powerful cartels, making the Mexican government’s ban on Totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets impossible to enforce.

By the time over 60 marine scientists and wildlife veterinarians descended on San Felipe in 2017 with the goal of capturing the last remaining vaquita, establishing a captive population for the species was universally viewed by the scientific community as the last remaining option for preventing extinction. Our documentary, which had begun as a small independant project, had by this time attracted the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio, who had taken an interest in the vaquita’s plight, allowing us to dramatically expand our crew and the overall scope of the film project.

The vaquita capture effort continued for over a month, as this elusive species proved to be extremely difficult to safely capture. After weeks of fruitless effort, a juvenile vaquita was caught, but released soon after due to high levels of stress. A few weeks later an apparently healthy adult female was captured. This female vaquita initially appeared to be acclimating well to her captive environment, rekindling hope for a successful outcome.

Members of the vaquita capture team with the first vaquita captured in 2017. Photo courtesy of Vaquita CPR.

The vaquita was brought to a floating sea pen, and I arrived soon after with my video camera rolling. Fellow filmmaker Richard Ladkani and I were the only members of the documentary crew on the sea pen, and we watched as the team of vets and biologists assessed the health of the animal and observed her interacting with her new captive environment.

The mood on the sea pen was extremely tense, and we quickly understood that the biologists had grave concerns about the health of this animal. Soon, things soon took a turn for the worse, as the vaquita dove underwater and did not resurface for a worrying amount of time. One of the vets dove in after her, and came back to the surface with a limp, seemling lifeless creature cradled in his arms. Before I even fully understood what was happening, the animal burst back to life and began swimming in tight, rapid circles inside the sea pen.

The entire team of vets and biologists jumped into action, grabbed the severely distressed animal, and performed an emergency release, hoping that restoring the vaquita’s freedom would calm the animal down. Instead, she continued her uncontrollable outburst of energy, spun back around and crashed into the outside of the sea pen, at which point several of the vets dove in after her. Once again, I watched as a member of the capture team surfaced with the seemingly lifeless body of a vaquita in his arms.

Emergency medicine was implemented immediately, and I watched through the tiny LCD display of my camera as a breathing tube was inserted down the vaquita’s throat while one of the vets performed chest compressions. Although they were able to keep her alive for several hours, this beautiful, unique creature ultimately perished, and with her perished much of the remaining hope for the survival of her species.

The author with members of the vaquita capture crew in the Northern Gulf of California. Photo courtesy of Vaquita CPR.

When we began producing this documentary back in 2015, I thought that we were making a film that could help save the vaquita. As I watched this animal die that night on the sea pen, I realized that we were making a film about extinction. The scene in the film that shows the death of that vaquita proved to be a crucial turning point in the story – a moment where the tone shifts from hope to desperation. Although the species persists to this day in extraordinarily low numbers (likely fewer than 10 individuals remain), it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the vaquita population survives this crisis. 

The film that emerged from these events is called Sea of Shadows – it won the audience award at Sundance in 2019, one of the most coveted prizes in the film world. Many surely expected Sean and I to follow up this successful project with another documentary about wildlife crime and endangered species, but in reality this was the last thing on Earth that we wanted to do. Our work on this film had crushed our spirit, sending us both down a spiraling path of hopelessness for our planet’s future. Viewed through a certain lens, this documentary had achieved success well beyond any of our initial expectations; but the vaquita, and the struggling communities of the Northern Gulf of California did not share in that success.

Our crew and special guests at the Sundance premiere for Sea of Shadows. I’m the one holding the life-size vaquita cut-out…

What pulled me from the depths of this hopelessness was the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I understood the power of a long distance hike, having experienced the transformative nature of such an experience when I hiked the Long Trail with my mom soon after the death of my father. I felt a strong urge to once again experience the meditative state that comes from walking long distances, continuing to put one foot in front of the other while watching the scenery slowly change.

We live in a fractious time. The ecosystems that sustain us are changing at an unprecedented rate, threatening the delicate balance of our human society. Now, more than at any other time in human history, we need to explore radical ideas for how humans can live in harmony with the natural world. I am eager to be a part of the unique, ephemeral, (and dare I say, radical) trail community that emerges each year as thousands of people attempt to walk over 2,000 miles through the largest patch of temperate deciduous forest on the planet.

It is this unique combination of meditative solitude and transitory community that draws me to the Appalachian Trail. I’m aware, of course, that the Appalachian Trail faces its own challenges. The landscape of the trail is changing as the climate rapidly warms, threatening ecological communities as well as human communities. 

Then there is the overcrowding issue… The author of an article in the Washington Post this past August claimed that, “the pandemic has transformed the world’s longest hiking-only footpath from a bucolic refuge to a linear version of Costco on a Saturday.” I haven’t experienced the post-pandemic surge on the AT in person yet, but I think it’s fair to say that this portrayal of the overcrowding situation strays into the realm of absurdity.  No matter how crowded, the AT will never resemble a Cosco, and to make this comparison is to discredit the transformational power of spending more time outdoors and connecting with the ecosystems that sustain us.  

Crowds at the peak of Mt. Mansfield in Vermont during my end-to-end hike of the Long Trail in 2013. The ridge-line of Mansfield is accessible by road.

I would argue that overcrowding on outdoor trail systems is a good problem. Sure, it has caused some minor ecological disturbances (very minor when compared to the effects of extractive industries controlled by transnational corporations that value monetary profit above all else) and plenty of frustration for veteran hikers and backpackers, but think about the education that all these newbie outdoor explorers are getting! Think about the benefits to society that come along with more of that society’s inhabitants establishing a robust connection with natural spaces. Overcrowding on outdoor trail systems certainly presents a significant challenge for the agencies and organizations responsible for managing these places, but this should be a challenge that is embraced with whole-hearted enthusiasm (I know that many of the folks responsible for management of the trail certainly share this attitude).

2022 may end up seeing a record number of thru-hiking attempts on the Appalachian Trail. Will there be trash? Yes. Will there be crowded campsites? Yes. Will there be moments of extreme frustration during which I question the inherent good of humanity? Surely. But every betrayal of the trail’s Leave No Trace policy is an opportunity to share knowledge and connect with a fellow AT community member.

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Climate change has and will continue to transform once familiar landscapes. High alpine ecosystems will continue to shrink until they disappear, like the many low-lying islands doomed to be submerged by rising oceans. Entire ecosystems will shift as temperatures continue to rise and precipitation patterns change. Many species will disappear, while others will take advantage of new ecological niches and thrive. The trail that we experience as thru-hikers in 2022 will not look the same when we come back to visit the following year.  After 20 years, it will be completely transformed.

For these reasons it is even more important to be good stewards of these ecosystems as we pass through them on foot – but this also means that it is even more important to be kind to each other and understanding of the different perspectives that each of us bring to the trail.  We must understand that we are NOT hiking through a pristine wilderness, but a landscape that has been shaped by human presence for well over 10,000 years. It is a human landscape as well as a natural landscape – and these two things are not mutually exclusive.  

So what happens when the uniquely transitory community of long distance hikers on the AT surges in size, while the surrounding landscapes and human communities experience rapid ecological and cultural change?  I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Comments 3

  • pearwood : Jan 9th

    Fascinating, Matthew.
    I am starting NOBO on February 1 and not setting any speed records. Chances are you will pass me on the way.
    Steve / pearwood

  • Mike : Jan 13th

    You spelt bear wrong

  • Unmai : Jan 29th

    Brilliant post. I look forward to hearing your perspective throughout your AT journey. I hope it’s an amazing experience for both you and your mom! Happy trails 🙂


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