Lockbox Honor System

In 2010, the summer after I (finally) finished my undergraduate de­gree, I went on a road trip. In four and a half weeks, I drove over 10,000 miles in my ‘96 Volvo wagon. The trip took me from the Ot­tawa Valley through five provinces, one territory and nine states to the Yukon and Alaska, south to Oregon and back east again.

When I couldn’t crash with family or friends along the way, I pitched my tent at state, provincial and national parks. I would often arrive at the campgrounds long after dark and fill out my name and point of origin on the visitors’ cards at the self-serve fee stations. If I didn’t have exact change for the envelope, I was faced with the moral dilemma of either over- or underpaying. I soon got in the habit of stashing a supply of small bills and coins in the center console of the wagon.

It was nice to see the honor system alive and well across the conti­nent—that cynicism hasn’t completely taken over. But is an iron ranger as effective as a real, live campground attendant? How many people short change or fail to pay altogether? What is it that makes us pay?

This honor system pay method exists all over. A lockbox on the private land of tolerant landowners who allow paddlers to access a put-in from their property. The stands selling farm fresh eggs, ber­ries or honey that dot the countryside, accompanied by a pickle jar for money and a sign; no farmer to confirm payment. Even coffee shops have jars for line jumpers—those who just want to drop in their change and help themselves to a simple coffee, rather than waiting in line at rush hour.

The farmer’s time is better spent tending fields than sitting on a wooden crate by his stand on the side of the road. Likewise, a park ranger is more useful protecting wildlife or maintaining trails than stuck in an outhouse-sized booth waiting for me. Assuming people comply, the honor system is a much better use of resources.

Feeling guilty for being dishonest is one reason why we pay. Fear of getting caught is another. But I think it’s about more than avoiding negative emotions. Something positive comes from the trust shown on behalf of the seller. Not only do I get to buy something—a night’s stay, access or a basket of fresh produce—I also get a good feeling knowing I’ve done the right thing by putting my money in the box.

Scientists say that being honest in situations like this can have a pos­itive physiological effect caused by the release of Oxytocin, a hormone linked to social bonding, anxiety relief and happiness. This explains the warm and fuzzy sensation that comes from abiding the iron ranger.

When I arrive at a put-in in a park and there’s an iron ranger in the parking lot, I have the opportunity to calm my nerves, release stress and increase confidence, all before I even hit the water.

I never would have thought the honor system would make me a better paddler but a few bucks in an envelope leaves me upbeat, free to focus on my strokes, the river and my trip unfurling in front of me.


Michael Mechan is a former Rapid Media editor. He drove about 1,100 miles on that road trip for every year it took him to complete university. Do the math. No, he’s not a doctor. 

This editorial originally appeared in the 2013 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it on your desktop here. 





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