It is astonishing what Canadians do in the woods. Canadians love the landscape and the landscape helps define us. The Group of Seven and other celebrated artists showed the world a country of pristine lakes and glorious forests. Canadians are proud of the country’s soaring mountains and powerful rivers, the unspoiled wilderness a treasure even to those who do not regularly explore it.
But all over this country, people will toss almost anything almost anywhere when they think no one is watching.
This isn't mindless littering. This is deliberate trashing of the landscape, the dumping of vast amounts of household garbage, construction waste and much, much more.
What struck me, as I began investigating this widespread practice for CBC’s The National, is that this isn't simply illegal.
This kind of dumping is also an offence against what we like to think is part of our core values. It is an enormous contradiction. How can Canadians value the unspoiled wilderness, yet spoil it daily by illegally dumping junk all over the landscape?
Spoiling the wilderness
It's hard to quantify - the midnight dumper on some dark back road is hardly going to stop by the weigh scale. He's trying to avoid tipping fees and the local dump by ditching his pickup truck load of garbage out of sight.
One activist I spoke with says there are thousands of sites fouling the landscape just within driving distance of his home in British Columbia. He is part of a network of some 300 activists trying to clean up his area, an enthusiastic but badly outnumbered group.
I still can't believe what I found as I worked on this topic. Next to rural roads I spotted worn-out couches, piles of diapers and all sorts of household goods. And, of course, tires. There were also things that could have been reused or recycled — or, in the case of the many, many beer bottles — returned for money.
I still can't decide what was the worst thing I saw discarded in the woods. Perhaps it was the shattered toilet tossed out beside a glistening creek. Or the hundreds of animal bones scattered in the bush (hunting party, butcher shop or massive barbeque, I don't know).
Or it might have been the perfectly useable items. A kids backpack. Rope. Expensive ski boots. Pots and pans. Flawless glassware. A volleyball net still in its original box. It occurred to me that many of the items left in the woods could have been given away or even sold at a garage sale.
Illegal dumping appears to be getting worse, as our population grows. It has become an election issue in Sudbury, a municipality with a huge rural area. There is a proposal there to eliminate all tipping fees at local dumps and keep them open seven days a week, the hope being that making legal dumping easier might reduce the illegal kind.
Local governments all over the country are battling this problem and no one appears able to claim victory. I found frustrated landowners everywhere. And whether it was Alberta or Nova Scotia, the problem was the same, with no satisfactory solution in sight.
I learned about tip lines, fines and attempts to track and shame dumpers into stopping. (It turns out the particularly thoughtless dumpers don't realize that discarding mail or courier packages gives authorities and neighbours clues as to where stuff might have come from.)
I even learned of a trick used by dumpers who are anxious about being spotted. Some line their pickup trucks with old tarps, piling the unwanted stuff on top and creating a kind of huge garbage bag. Then, the driver finds an isolated spot and ties the tarp to a tree.
If anyone comes along, there is nothing to see except a stopped truck with a covered load. When the coast is clear, all it takes is a quick tap on the gas pedal and the truck takes off while the tarp and the junk stay behind, leaving a pile of stuff for someone else to clean up.
It's fast, efficient and an awful thing to do, because what takes five seconds to drop can take hours to pick up, remove, sort and dispose.
Sheer volume is discouraging
When I was in the woods working on this story with my CBC News crew, the sheer volume of what we saw was so overwhelming, I couldn't bring myself to pick up anything.
That's not like me. On a backcountry canoe trip this summer, I instinctively grabbed an empty whiskey bottle. It was lying on a pristine beach on an isolated lake and I simply could not walk on by. When I go paddling anywhere, even on an urban river, I tend to pick up bottle caps or other bits of garbage. I do the same while hiking because it bothers me to see trash in the wild or on the water.
This time I picked up many things and put them all back down. The good, the bad and the disgusting.
I was busy working, but that wasn’t the only reason. I was also discouraged by all the garbage we saw, so much that I realized taking out a handful of things would accomplish almost nothing.
As one frustrated landowner told me, no matter how much she cleans up and picks up, there is always more on the way.