Dams and Silt, Trash Bags, and Human Waste

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.

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5 Responses to Dams and Silt, Trash Bags, and Human Waste

  1. Hello Desert Explorer!

    I work for Cleanwaste the company that manufactures and sells the Wag Bag. We are always disappointed to hear about when our products are not disposed of properly. We are partners with Leave No Trace and we try to do our part is seeing all trash and human waste get packed out of the “wilderness”.

    You bring up a great conversation, one that is constantly a topic of discussion at Cleanwaste: How do we motivate Wag Bag users to pack out their bags? I truly feel that the majority of our customers are nature lovers. They understand the importance of leaving no trace and do an excellent job of packing out their Wag Bags. However, in situations where (for example) a state park is handing out the Wag Bag to individuals who may not understand the importance of packing out, how do we get them to join the bandwagon? Is it a matter of educating individuals about the product? the environmental impact? the potential human waste has to spread disease?

    As you said, conveying our knowledge to others is a vital part of the leave no trace process. I’d be interested in hearing more ideas from you and your followers.

    What can we do as a company to help individuals understand the importance of packing out waste?

    Reina

    • Hi Reina,
      Thank you for reading my blog and for your comments. I apologise for my ranting at the end- I ususally try to be more even and diplomatic. But the topic of keeping the wilderness as clean and as pristine as possible is one that can irritate me to no end. Your questions about education are constantly on my mind and I try in nearly every blog I write to address the topic- I talk about Wag Bags, about picking up bits of trash that others drop, about always using a fire pan, and mention LNT and link to their website often.

      The main question I was asking was why were people using Wag Bags where they were really unnecessary? And then of course why were they leaving them there? I did not know that parks handed out bags to visitors; this would explain why you might find one along a trail in a tourist destination, or in my case in the Escalante, right near the end of my hike- and close to a road. Again, I found a bag outside Moab- a heavily-visited tourist destination (I would allow that this was likely do to not understanding how to use the product, and possibly even to language barriers).

      I personally have never been in a location that requires, or even suggests, the use of Wag Bags, other than on a river of course. But I am sure that there are locations where this is the case, and I know that some high-use areas have been considered for such a requirement.

      As for educating people, some parks/wilderness areas require that hikers attend an orientation before being issued permits- Navajo National Monument and Grand Gulch for example. Brief videos talk about packing out trash, digging cat holes, and so on. This seems to be the most effective method for educating people about LNT. Grand Gulch sees a lot of use, and is fairly clean nonetheless. They even hand out ziplock bags for hikers to pack out their toilet paper, something that still needs to be stressed to everyone who enters a canyon or walks down a trail.

      I know that one-on-one discussions with people are most effective for educating, and of course most unrealisitc. At Grand Gulch for example, there are usually rangers or volunteers in the office who will gladly talk to you about hikes, wildlife, and so on. This is a good time to bring up LNT. Or maybe around a campfire at a “fireside chat” with a ranger at Natural Bridges for example. Someone verbally conveying the importance of keeping wilderness clean- and explainging why- when an audience is engaged is obviously best. Perhaps trying to get LNT and thereby Wag Bags added to these conversations would help?

      In the Escalante visitor’s center they do of course mention packing out trash and toilet paper, but they seem to be so overworked there that stopping and chatting with visitors, and being able to bring up the subject more indepth is often not an option from my experience. Maybe this is where the t.v. or computer monitor comes into play- data on public lands and their use (numbers of people), LNT principles, and so on can be presented continuously. I am loathe to suggest this, but in our times this is how people get information.

      Unfortunately people who visit these places once a year, or even once every five years for a backpack with old friends are, I think, less likely to understand the impact of visiting wilderness areas today. These folks need to be the focus of our attention.

      I could write pages on my thoughts on this subject, but I won’t. I would be happy to communicate further with you on the subject, and I will post a blog, and tweet, asking for peoples’ ideas on the topic. There was a comment from Doug on this post asking about durability of the bags, and noting that wieght becomes a consideration for backpackers. I will comment soon on his post.

      Feel free to comment here again, or email me directly.
      Gerald

      • Hi Gerald,

        Thanks for your thoughts. You sound pretty passionate about the subject and understandably so. I had forgotten that some state parks require orientation prior to issuing permits…now that I think of it, this was the case when I hiked in Moab 2 summers ago. I think I had to watch a 15 minute video before I could hike in the Fiery Furnace in Arches. I think incorporating some waste education into orientation would be an excellent idea.

        So why do some parks require Wag Bags? Take Mt. Whitney for instance…this is an extremely high use recreational area but because of the terrain digging a hole is not an option. So park rangers hand out Wag Bags for use. I believe at one point they had solar toilets but the upkeep and the expense was just too much for the park to maintain.

        Okay so what about areas where you can dig a hole? Well, think about any campsite you’ve ever stayed at. If you walk 10-15 feet away from the center of the campsite in any direction to “do your business” you’re literally doing your business where hundreds of other people have “dropped their loads”. Can you imagine accidentally digging up someone else’s waste? Several diseases and parasites are spread through contact with human waste.

        I have also read articles that raise the concern of ground water contamination and that waste can change the habits of wildlife. I don’t know much about these issues but I will put them out there as topics to think on.

        In response to Doug’s question on bag durability… this is where the double bagging system comes into play. The outer bag is a strong, thick plastic. It is puncture resistant. Of all the customer service calls I’ve taken over the past 2 years I’ve only had one person call in with an issue with an outer bag. I’d say that’s a pretty good track record.

        I did send some product out to be field tested by another blogger that I follow. He was going to test for durability so I will pass his results on when he posts them.

        Reina

  2. When you are hiking, the weight is not insignificant, as it is for a River Runner. Perhaps equally important is the perceived durability of the containing sack for the bag.

    I personally remember a night of diarrhea in Coyote Wash – not something that was baggable – or waggable (?) and I’m quite sure my emergency night time location was not all that private during the days following.

    I do have to wonder if the construction of very simple pit toilets, relocated every season, might be justified more often than in current practice.

  3. […] a recent post I broached the subject of human waste disposal in the wilderness, as well as in not-so-wilderness […]

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