Seeking Silence? 1

E-6 Prowler over Cherry Point MCAS in NC

Is silence music to your ears? The familiar clamor of leaf blowers, lawn mowers, barking dogs, vehicle exhaust pipes, buses, airplanes, car doors slamming, church bells, trains and sirens is characteristic of living in a dense population.

Common sounds such as these largely go unnoticed because they are the basis of our daily environment. Regardless, most of us need a break from the noise and we expect the wilderness to offer us that opportunity.

Finding Peace

Sound is a signature of our environment. It tells the story of what is happening around us. It indicates what animals inhabit any given area. We escape to the forest to be serenaded by wildlife. And hiking into the wilderness normally provides a path away from all the man-made cacophony, or to what we think as silence: sounds from the natural world; however, this may not be the case. There is the expected noise at the start of the trail, such as the friction of vehicle tires hitting the pavement from nearby traffic, a handful of choppers equipped with extra-loud, after market exhaust pipes puttering down the road, and a few sport bikes screaming through the twisties. Most of this fades out a few miles into the trail, so that is OK; then there is the infrequent ATV or snow mobile blazing down the trail, or the occasional hiking group that insists on chattering loudly to alert nearby bears; this can also be tolerated.

What I don’t like is the seeming increase of overhead air travel. The echo of military jets and commercial airliners, private recreational planes, and helicopters throughout the day and into the night is aggravating. Heli-hiking trips, where tour companies transport hikers from their hotel to remote wilderness areas for a day hike are common in popular national parks and wilderness areas.

Regardless of how isolated you think you are, there seems to be no escape from this invisible pollutant.

Human to human annoyance is one effect. But what about human to wildlife effects?

Wildlife Impacts

The racket from the crowds of visitors showing up in everything from overloaded tour buses to the whirling blade of a helicopter tour means protected wildlife inhabiting many U.S. National Parks are exposed to near constant noise.

Studies show that man-made noise interferes with the way animals communicate and prey on one another, which can impact long-term survival and health. Each species has a range of normal hearing for loudness (amplitude) and pitch (frequency). Animals rely on this combination to communicate and reproduce.  We don’t understand the extent of the impact, but we do know that certain raptors, such as owls, that rely on their hearing to locate prey are affected.

Noise Infographic

Infographic of Noise Pollution courtesy of http://www.marisys.com/

What is Loud

Sound is measured in decibels (dB).  Audible sound starts at 0 dB (near silence). A sound 10 times more powerful is 10 db. Subjected to 45 decibels of noise, the average person cannot sleep. To put 45 dB in perspective, that is equivalent to the sound of a refrigerator running. That is not loud.

At a distance of 2,000 ft (600 m), the noise of a jet takeoff reaches about 110 decibels—approximately the same as an automobile horn only 3 ft (1 m) away. Overhead military jets traveling 500 ft above your head are at least 120 dBs. Considering decibels are logarithmic, and each 10 db represents a doubling of sound, 120 dB is loud. In fact, anything above 85 dB is enough to damage your hearing. From noise pollution

Protection from Noise

My sense of hearing is heightened at night and that makes me a light sleeper. I have experimented with various earplugs over the years and found the hearos foam ear plugs (in the blue color) block enough sound to give me decent rest. These hold up very well and can be washed and air dried to clean. Request a sample of hearos earplugs if you want to try them out. These are also great for dampening the sound of a nearby snorer!

“Did you hear the screech owl?” asks my hiking partner.

No, I replied. I have my ears plugged!

Admittedly, I don’t like having to resort to earplugs in order to sleep among nature. After all, hearing natural sounds is a central element of the experience that I am seeking. It is incredible to fall asleep to the familiar sound of wind, the gusts that bend tree trunks to produce a creak when they rub together, or to be awakened by a late night rainfall, a coyote in the night, the hoot of an owl, and the tweets and peeps of song birds at dawn. On the other hand, I can’t sleep with planes roaring in the sky above my tent. Earplugs are the only solution. It just feels disgraceful to plug up my ears and silence it all.

Our Senses

Everything we experience about the world comes in the form of our 5 external senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. No doubt, our senses provide us a lot of information about the world. We tend to forget how much we rely on our senses until we become sick, or lose one. Likewise, when we meet other people that have a deficit in one of those senses, we are reminded how precious our senses are.  For instance, the extraordinary blind hiker, Mike Hanson, walked 1,700 miles of the AT in 2008. He programmed his GPS to provide precise voice navigation along the trail. When one sense goes awry, it is amazing to see how some people are able to design methods to rely on their remaining senses to pick up the deficit.

What do you think? Do you mind the man-made noise while hiking in remote wilderness?

This article was inspired after Outdoor Herbivore took a hike on the Neusiok Trail, a portion of the Mountains-To-Sea trail in the Croatan Forest near the North Carolina coast. The white sandy beaches, the waves crashing on your toes, the swamps and small lakes, the wooden bridges, and the occasional snake slivering past your feet is not to be missed.  This is just not the place to go to seek quiet solitude.  From 7:30 AM to 9:30 PM every few minutes, there is low traveling military air traffic practicing runs from the nearby Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station.  This would not be a problem if the runway was located further away from the trail so the planes were traveling at a higher elevation, but they were not. They are low in the sky – approximately 500 feet to 2,000 feet above ground.  We didn’t expect to watch planes instead of wildlife, but that is what we got. So we just enjoyed the show.

The U.S. federal government owns 650 million acres or 30% of the land in this country. Much of that land is set aside for public recreation so we can swim, hike, fish and hunt; The land has other purposes as well. Large tracts of land are often divided up to provide joint use for other government agencies – such as the military. This is why you see so many wilderness areas near military bases. I suppose that is just a small price we pay for the freedom to roam.

A short video of some of the aircraft witnessed along the Neusiok Trail

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One comment on “Seeking Silence?

  1. Reply Sofia Jan 18,2015 9:55 AM

    This is so true, and so sad… I use earplugs all the time, and I can’t sleep without them anymore. Right now, it’s the loud screams of my spoiled nephew, that goes literally from morning to late at night. And in the wild, not even in the late evening there’s that amazing peace anymore: humans are everywhere, no matter how far you go to stay away from them.

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