It goes without saying that our public trails and pathways here in the Mad River Valley are some of our most prized treasures for folks of all ages. Protecting these points of access to the outdoors is at least as important as keeping them well maintained, and it really is a community effort to keep them in great shape. As the managing organization of more than 11 miles (and growing) of popular and easily accessible trails and pathways in the Mad River Valley, the Mad River Path (MRP) keeps a close eye on needed repairs like erosion, fallen trees and branches and aging bridges and boardwalks. Another type of maintenance that helps protect trails for years to come requires the help and cooperation from dog-loving trail users – picking up after pups when nature calls.
This fall, Kaitlyn Wimble, preschool teacher at Waitsfield Elementary School (WES) had an unfortunate run-in with some dog waste. Kaitlyn’s class participates in Forest Fridays, a weekly, nature-based learning program that happens at WES where the students learn, play and explore along Wait’s Way, a section of the path behind the school. On this particular day, the children were eating snacks and listening to an oral story from Lindsey Vandal, the founder of Forest Fridays. One student realized that he sat in a pile of dog poop and it was smeared on his mittens and all down his pant leg and into one of his boots.
“I felt sad when I sat in the dog poop,” said Kyler, the unlucky yet incredibly good-natured youngster who got dirty from the poop that had been left behind. During a discussion with the class afterward, one student shared, “We don't want dogs to poop in the middle of the path where we run into the grass and fall over. We don't want dogs to poop on the way in the path to the castle tree." Another chimed in, “It makes me mad when people don't clean up dog poop.”
Kaitlyn added that it is “disheartening to see how dog poop has impacted our play outside.” Kaitlyn also wants people to realize that since the Mad River Path and our trails are “spaces that are shared within the whole community, we kindly ask that you consider others who are using the space.”
KIDS CLEANED UP POOP
Lindsey Vandal explained that students started finding dog waste along the trail in mid-September when the class started their weekly outings. “The dog messes that we found along the trail became mini lessons, in a way. A few children noticed the dog poop and warned their friends not to step in them. We got really good at differentiating between dog waste and coyote scat. One week, children suggested using the dog waste bags from the trailhead to then throw the waste away. This continued for a few weeks and it got to be the only focus of our mornings, which detracted from the planned curriculum. It was helpful of these kids to do, but it’s not these preschoolers’ job to pick up other people’s dog waste.”
When the MRP heard about this from the class, it became obvious that we need to do a little more work to get the attention of the remaining few people who do not pick up after their dogs. The good news is that most people do pick up their dog’s poop when out on a public trail. But all it takes is one or two people who don’t scoop the poop to create a disastrous situation.
Our trails and pathways are shared by the entire community for all kinds of uses, which includes kiddos digging through the leaves, exploring wooded areas and learning about the natural history of the Mad River Valley. These simple activities have the power to inspire a growing child to become a leader in protecting our natural world. All these spots where kids play “off the beaten path” are exactly where one might think is out of the way and OK for a dog to poop and leave it, but, really, these spots are where kids are playing. And since the path is near the river and many streams, any dog poop left might end up in our favorite swimming holes in the next rainstorm or when the snow melts.
FREE DOG WASTE BAGS
The MRP makes it super easy to leave the path as poopless as possible. You’ll find free dog waste bags at six trailhead stations that we keep full. The Valley’s pathways and trails, including those maintained by Mad River Riders, are “pack in, pack out,” so you do need to bring these bags of dog waste with you. Let’s be sure to not leave bags full of dog poop along the side of the trails. We know a bag of poop isn’t the most pleasant thing to have in your car, so keeping a plastic bag or container in your trunk for temporary storage can help. Another important habit is to keep your pup on a leash, even if well trained – it’s the policy of the MRP and the towns. You’ll see exactly where your dog does his or her business and can pick it up right away.
It’s absolutely essential to follow the policies and rules of our public trails so that we can reliably build new connections and keep those sections we love so much. People who own land need to know that we take great care for our pathways and trails, and it’s imperative they see that trail users are respectful of the property that they generously open up for public enjoyment. We cannot let a few instances of carelessness risk the future of our trail systems. Please follow the request of Milo – one of Kaitlyn’s young naturalists: "Clean it up in a bag because we could accidentally sit on it."
Saxton is the director of the Mad River Path Association. Vandal is an educator who started Forest Fridays with the preschoolers.