Dams and Silt, Trash Bags, and Human Waste

8 October 2011

As the nation’s biggest dam removal project gets underway in Washington I have finally finished cleaning the silt from my boats and gear after my recent San Juan River trip. It took a while to do, but the boats are cleaned out for the winter.The remnants of Chinle Creek and Oljato Wash are now staining my driveway and nourishing the plants in my front yard. It is amazing how much silt can get trapped in the floor of a self-bailing inflatable boat. And now, with the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams coming down, the 100 plus years of silt behind them will make its way to where it should have gone long ago. I can’t help but wonder about the impact of 100 years of silt moving down river in a couple of years.

But more importantly to me, I’d like to start wondering about our own silt trap on the Colorado and when Glen Canyon might return. It only takes a second of thought on the subject and the answer always comes: probably not in my lifetime. Even if the dam was completely silted up and stopped producing power, the revenue generated would still be a huge argument for keeping the “lake” (a lake is a naturally occurring body of water, a reservoir is a man-made pool of standing water, just to clarify) in place, no matter how much water or the condition of power generation at the dam. And think about how many writers have benefited from the dam, or at least filled newspaper editorial columns and pages of free magazines ranting over the subject through the years. I’ll leave it at that and move on to …trash.

Sea To Summit Trash Dry Sack
On our recent San Juan trip I took along a few new pieces of gear, including a dry bag specifically designed to carry trash. I had been thinking about it for a couple of years. REI used to carry it, and I went there with it on my list last summer I think. But as is so often the case with items I try to get at REI, they no longer had it. Lucky for me that Sea To Summit is here in Boulder; it took a couple of days to order it in at the Boulder Army Store. I paid about 35 dollars for the 20 liter bag. The 10 liter is about 30 dollars. Both sizes are available, although many outfitters seem to carry only the 10 liter size.

The Sea To Summit Trash Dry Bag. It made packing out our trash easier than ever on our recent San Juan float.

I only plan to use this on the river- I wouldn’t want the extra weight on my back while packing. And after a 9 day trial on the San Juan I am completely satisfied with it. The bag is pretty simple- it is a silcoth drybag with a roll-top closure, no different from other Sea To Summit bag designs. But this one also has daisy chain loops up both sides and added strips at the top edges to hold a trash bag liner in place. In the first few days we had it about a third full of trash (remember, this is the San Juan and we took along a cooler). We dumped that bag at Mexican Hat and had another about half full by reaching clay hills. There were no problems at all with it. The high points of the item are the trash bag liner inside making it easy to empty, and the loops down both sides. The loops allow for easy attachment anywhere on the boat you may have room for it.

Speaking of Waste…
A topic I have been meaning to write about all summer is that of human waste and its disposal. I know that many people think that when they go into the bush, their bathroom can be just about anywhere they choose. They feel that they are out there in the wilderness and it is just natural to squat behind a bush and do their business. Unfortunately some people think this way when they are on the river, walking down a busy trail, or in a well-used camp outside of Moab. Obviously there are a few problems with this notion.

First, “wilderness” is a subjective term. When we visit Moab for example, we camp about 20 minutes from town. To those who make one or two weekend camping trips a year, this may qualify as camping in the wilds. To me this is the suburbs of Moab, used by hundreds of campers a month. It is not a few days walk from nowhere- it is a place where someone else will camp in a day or two. Unfortunately camps like this are being trashed with human waste, diapers, beer cans, and every other type of trash you can imagine scattered through the desert (especially around Moab). Granted, this is not the case with most people who visit the area. But there are enough who consider these parts of the desert, or wherever it is they are found, a place to tear up, burn up, and leave trash. And this summer while in the Escalante I began finding the same situation along the river. As I made my way down the river from Moody Canyon I found countless places where people had defecated directly on the ground, possibly the same person/group of people, based on various tracks and sign. I found locations where groups of people had gone to the bathroom,waste on the ground, toilet paper blowing in the breeze. This is a river, with the usual river rules- pack out trash, human waste, no fires (on the Escalante), and common river runner courtesy. I wondered, in the parlance of our times, WTF?

Used Wag Bag outside of Moab. I found it as you see it, lying on the ground surface. Someone got the first part of it right- they used the bag. But then they left it here in the desert.

 And then it gets even  stranger. River runners all know about Wag Bags. Visitors to Moab are introduced to them at the visitor’s center in the middle of town. I am wondering if a little more education is in order regarding their use? Maybe something about the disposal part- the concept being to use the bag, take it back to town with you, and place it in a trash can. The bags are not meant to be left on the ground where they are used. Granted, I would expect to find something like this around Moab, based on the number of people who visit there, language barriers, and so on. But I found the same thing in the Escalante.

On my last day of walking on my recent trip there I found a slight trail down a steep wash, then some recently carved moki steps, and a cairn on the other side of the main wash while crossing Middle Moody canyon. There aren’t a lot of places to get across it and I was happy when I found this crossing after about an hour of searching, just as night was falling. As I climbed out the other side, right there in front of me, eye level next to the cairn, were a couple of used wag bags with a rock on top of them. Again, I felt a little disgusted at the site for various, obvious reasons. And the logic of those who left them is lost on me- first,why are people using Wag Bags in the middle of nowhere in the Escalante when a hole in the ground is all that is needed? And why are they leaving the bags at a cairn along a “trail”? 

So what do you do in a situation like this? I could collect them and pack them out (which I did not), I could call the Escalante visitor’s center and let them know that there are stupid people in the world (not much use in that), and then I could write about it here. Of course writing about it here is just “preaching to the choir” as they say. I am fairly certain that most of the people reading this blog don’t need a lesson on the use and disposal of a Wag Bag, or when it’s okay to dig a hole. In the end I guess it is up to us to convey our knowledge to others less enlightened than ourselves. Be sure to tell them to wash their hands when they are done.

For more about the Utah desert and our adventures there visit the Desert Explorer website.