Finn Ryan was driving home after a whitewater kayaking trip when he was confronted by a troubling thought. He realized that every time he drove eight or 12 hours to some river or skiing destination, some rock-climbing or biking mecca, the long drive was in conflict with his environmental beliefs - indeed, was contributing to the degradation of those very places.
He broached the subject with Pete Witucki. "Pete and I met through Hoofers," Ryan says, "mostly through whitewater kayaking, and we started talking about these long trips." How could they reconcile those long trips with their core values?
Those conversations have given rise to CORgroup, a small but thoughtful alliance that is trying to build an ethical framework for Conscious Outdoor Recreation.
Ryan and Witucki, along with Paul Erickson, are the nucleus of CORgroup. Ryan, 30, is finishing a master's degree in curriculum and instruction at UW-Madison and has extensive experience as an instructor, competitor and coach in paddling, cycling and Nordic skiing. Witucki, 26, has a background in geography, competitive cyclocross and whitewater racing, and is a brand manager at Pemba Serves, the Madison-based sales agency for an array of outdoor-sports brands.
Erickson, 30, is a sustainability specialist for Affiliated Engineers whose résumé reads like an unabridged index for the sporting life. In addition to overlapping the activities of Ryan and Witucki, his interests include bocce, fishing, hunting, sailing and ultimate Frisbee.
CORgroup is still new enough that its ideals remain mutable. "Early on," says Witucki over coffee at Bradbury's, "we had some discussions about buying carbon offsets." But that idea was soon tabled as too abstract. Instead, the trio decided to focus their efforts on trying to change unconscious habits.
This is evident on CORgroup's blog, an evolving mix of thought-provoking ideas, short philosophical essays, illuminating photos and videos, and links to resources ranging from Bike to Work Week and Take a Stake in the Lakes to carbon-footprint calculators and documentaries addressing related themes.
On the site the trio maintains a steady stream of sensible ways for outdoor enthusiasts to seek "a new wilderness ethic that addresses carbon dioxide emissions, manufacturing waste, and the full range of socioenvironmental impacts of our wilderness experiences."
Among the strategies: Engage in activities closer to home, get to wherever you're going under your own power whenever reasonable, organize carpools to competitions and recreational destinations instead of driving solo, and ask your conscience whether purchasing the latest gear is justified.
"I'm not anti-gear," Ryan emphasizes. "I have a ton of gear. But whenever I buy something, I think about what I'm gonna get out of it."
Ryan appreciates the subtle gradations of reasonable behavior. "Pete and I are preparing for a canoe trip to Colorado with 16 people," he notes. "We're discussing whether to take one larger vehicle or two." Calculations involving fuel efficiency and the drag coefficients of roof racks and boat trailers come into play. So do considerations like the relative merits of hauling one's own boat vs. renting one from an outfitter.
If this sounds like splitting hairs, Ryan is quick to say that this is his own exercise. CORgroup's principals don't wish to pick nits, to be exclusive or absolutist. There's no expectation that subscribers to CORgroup's ideals will start emulating Göran Kropp, the Swede who got on his bike in Jönköping in October 1995, pedaled 8,000 miles, soloed Mount Everest, got back on his bike and rode home.
There might be some threshold of "should do," Ryan allows, some ladder of goals, "but we don't want to turn people off. We want people to think about what they're doing." And, if they don't like what they're doing, help them find ways to fine tune their habits.
Such adjustments can be easier and more rewarding than you might imagine, Ryan says. "A few weeks ago, I paddled Badfish Creek, and it's so easy to do a bike shuttle instead of taking two cars," he notes. "It adds another element that's really enjoyable."
Witucki adds that bicycle camping can be quite an attractive alternative to relying on a car. He adds that he has approached Community Car about the possibility of accessorizing at least one of its vehicles with a roof rack that would accommodate kayaks or bikes for trips to nearby rivers and trails. "I'm gonna talk to Thule and Yakima," he says in reference to the roof-rack rivals, "and see if we can get a pilot project going with Community Car."
Ryan cites a winter camping trip on one of Madison's frozen lakes, with eight people in four tents, as another example of the ethics espoused by Conscious Outdoor Recreation.
"We still want to encourage people to continue to recreate," he says. "But we're trying to start a conversation." They are soliciting people to join the conversation through CORgroup's blog, and more ideas regarding ways sympathetic outdoor enthusiasts can reduce their impact on the trails and rivers and other places they use.
"This is not just for silent sports," adds Witucki, who is open to the possibility that ATV and snowmobile enthusiasts might find some degree of inspiration in CORgroup's ethics. "As a community, we need to think about making some lifestyle changes," he explains. The big trip is not out of the question, he suggests, if you think about it and are conscious of ways you can reduce or offset its impact.
"It's easy to get caught up in doing the most difficult river, skiing the most difficult line, climbing the most difficult route," adds Ryan, who has been known to paddle a kayak over a 15-foot waterfall. "I'm not saying people shouldn't challenge themselves. But think about what satisfaction you get out of it."
He pauses for a moment, reflects. "We need to move beyond the just-do-it ethic," Ryan observes, "and start thinking about how we're doing it."