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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

When You Gotta Go…

Straight Poop on Backcountry Sanitation

By Tamia Nelson

July 22, 2003

Ah, the good life on the water trail. The sun has sunk below the horizon, painting the western sky in hues of gold and scarlet. To the east, the tips of the tallest pines are bathed in the glow of the last light. Best of all, the whole scene's reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake. And there you are. You've got a ringside seat for the show. A steaming cup of tea warms your hands, while a comforting sense of fullness tells you that supper was a success. The day's paddling is just a happy memory, the camp chores are finished, and now you're pleasantly weary. As Pop Larkin was wont to say, everything is simply perfick.

Then, just as you're beginning to think about bed, that "comforting sense of fullness" takes on a different quality altogether — nagging, demanding, urgent. There's no ignoring the message, let alone misunderstanding its meaning. When you gotta go, you gotta go. So you stir your reluctant limbs into motion.

You can't pretend to be surprised. As Isak Dinesen — aka Karen Blixen, the Danish aristocrat who left Elsinore to flirt with romance and disaster on a coffee plantation outside Nairobi — once wrote, "What is man but … a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning … the red wine of Shiraz into urine?" Of course Dinesen skipped over half the story. There's more to the human plumbing than waterworks. Yesterday's beef stew may play tortoise to the red wine's hare, but the transformed meat and potatoes will always finish the race in the end. Depend on it.

Tonight, though, you're compelled to put philosophical reflection behind you. It's time for action, time to do what everyone knows that bears do in the woods. And what could be more natural? This doesn't mean we paddlers enjoy the same freedom as the bears, though. Far from it. We're the thinking animals, right?

Location, location, location. Even a bear won't foul his own den. So when you gotta go, hit the road out of camp. If there's a privy nearby, it should be your destination. But be prepared to hold your nose. Few privies near popular campsites are beauty spots, particularly in places like the Adirondacks, where managers place rustic kitsch before function. No soulless (if sanitary) concrete or fiberglass throne set in the open air for them. Oh, no. Instead, you're likely to find a stifling, fly-ridden wooden cell. Open the door — assuming that it hasn't already been broken up for firewood, that is — and you'll be welcomed by a splintery slab with a rough-sawn hole, set so high that even six-footers will find their legs dangling in the air. Don't bother bringing something to read. You won't be staying long, and the rustling of foraging creatures in the pit beneath you will be all the entertainment you'll need. Bring your own bum-wad, though. Toilet paper is not provided. (Special note for men only: spiders like to make their homes in the dark corners of privies, and in warm climates the resident fauna may include the notorious black widow. During the years leading up to the dust-bowl days, nearly half of all reported black-widow bites were, in the staid words of Medicine for Mountaineering, "inflicted on the male genitalia by spiders on the underside of outdoor toilet seats." Don't say I didn't warn you.)

If there's no privy, you're on your own. Your motto? Have trowel, will travel. Dig before you dung, in other words. Of course, you don't have to have a trowel. A sharp stick works, after a fashion. Commandos can use their Ka-Bars. Sometimes you can even make do with the heel of your boot. The important thing is to dig. Where? Any out-of-the way place at least 150 feet from water. (How far is 150 feet? About 30 paces. And don't forget that a pace is two steps. Count each time your left heel strikes the ground. When you get to 30, you're where you want to be.) Use your common sense, too. Avoid animal burrows, ground-nesting birds, wildflower gardens, and poison ivy.

Now dig. But not too deep: six to eight inches is usually plenty. If you find yourself in sterile mineral soil, you've gone too far. How big a hole do you need? That's a hard one to answer. How good's your aim? How large was yesterday's dinner? Experience will teach you how big is big enough.

Toilet technique is also best learned by doing. (It's probably not a good idea to practice in your backyard, though.) Here are a few practical tips. If any clothes get in the way, take 'em off. You may come to appreciate the kilt. If deep knee-bends aren't your thing, bring along a robust paddle to help you get back on your feet, or choose a spot near a handy, sturdy branch. Clean up just like you do at home. In wet climates, small amounts of toilet paper will decompose when buried. Large quantities should be packed out or burned in a fire-pit. (Don't burn soiled paper in place. The risk of starting a forest fire is simply too high.) Whatever brand of toilet paper you usually favor, it's good to buy unscented, single-ply bum-wad for the backcountry — the kind that typically comes in 1000-sheet rolls. The fastidious may also want to bring along a 500-mL plastic laboratory wash-bottle. When filled with clean water, it makes a perfect portable bidet. You'll find that you use a lot less bum-wad, too.

Once you've done your biz, cover it up and go on your way. This is easiest if you've saved the sod intact, a job that's much simpler with a trowel than a stick. Finished with your cover-up? Good. Piece of cake, wasn't it? Of course. So why are there so many crap cairns along backcountry waterways? Beats me. It's too bad, though, and it's one reason why the water under your boat is often fouler than the stuff that comes out of a city tap.

Deserts and seacoasts impose special requirements. In truly remote desert, you can let the dung beetles do the work for you, though they'll turn up their noses at toilet paper. In most desert parks, however, you'll have to carry your waste out. Plan ahead. Sea-kayakers often use the intertidal zone as a toilet, relying on the incoming tide to remove the evidence of their passage. It's a sloppy solution at best, and it certainly won't win over the hearts and minds of nearby beachfront homeowners. In any case, it's not for me. I prefer to trek inland. When that's not possible, I use a pot or a zip-lock bag as a temporary holding tank, emptying it later in a toilet or cat-hole well away from the water's edge

Back to the red wine of Shiraz for a minute. Urine isn't as much of a public nuisance as "Admiral Brown," but it pays to be careful where you pump ship, nonetheless, particularly if you'll be occupying the same campsite for more than a day. The 150-foot rule is still a good one. If this is too far to walk, however, just improvise a urinal and dump it only when full. Any wide-mouth bottle works fine, and there are several commercial alternatives, as well. (We've used one called the "Little John" from time to time. Be sure to check that all the molding seams are sanded flat, though. Sometimes they come from the factory with razor-sharp edges in all the wrong places. Ouch!)

And if dodging sharp seams isn't enough, women attempting the bottle trick for the first time will probably find that their anatomy doesn't lend itself to the necessary pinpoint accuracy. Fortunately, this needn't be a problem. With the help of the "Lady J" and similar aftermarket prostheses, women no longer have to answer all of nature's calls sitting down. We, too, can stand and deliver with élan and precision. Liberating, ain't it?

Whether your stay in camp is long or short, however, if you're traveling with a large group you'll have big problems. The reason is obvious. As Colin Fletcher once observed, "A big party camping in any kind of country … automatically imposes a dense population on a limited area." The best solution is probably a smaller group. The second-best solution is a dug latrine — see older camping texts and military handbooks for details — or a portable toilet. An increasing number of popular waterways now mandate the latter alternative, requiring paddlers to carry all solid waste out with them. Here do-it-yourselfers will find yet another use for the venerable ammo can. Well-heeled paddlers, on the other hand, need only pick up a catalog and make their choice. The sky's the limit. "Portable self-contained toilet systems" now abound. Many even have privacy cabanas.

Still, even the best-prepared paddler can get caught with his pants up now and again. That's when you have to improvise. Farwell, in the grip of an unrelenting dysentery, once paddled a long stretch on the lower Moose dressed only in chaps and a loin-cloth. He wedged a large cooking pot under the stern seat, where he could twitch it out at a moment's notice, even in the middle of a drop. I've had my share of embarrassing days, too, including an endless afternoon in a Québec marsh when I made frequent recourse to our bailer. Desperate conditions demand disparate remedies.


The bottom line: bears do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. And so will you, sooner or later, even if you limit yourself to day trips from your camp dock. You might as well do it in style. Don't neglect ordinary everyday hygiene, either. Be sure to wash your hands after taking care of business. This is particularly important for anyone handling food, of course, but it makes good sense for everyone. If it seems hopelessly fussy, imagine yourself in Farwell's place on the lower Moose, running a rapids seated on a cooking pot, wondering what sort of bug had made itself at home in his gut.

But what if the whole business sounds like too much trouble? Are you tempted to leave your trowel at home and join the bears? Before you do, listen to what my grandad had to say. He wasn't a great talker, but he loved the woods and waters around his Adirondack cabin. Whenever he caught me making a mess, he'd shake his head in disappointment, pause, and then say, "What in hell you think you're doin', girl? You keep my mountains clean, hear? You're gonna want ta come back someday, you know."

You were right, Grandad. We'll all want to come back someday. And that's the straight poop.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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