If you poop in the woods, does a ranger clean it up?

A recent article in The Guardian (‘Worst work in the world’: US park rangers grapple with tide of human waste) got me thinking. There’s a dirty side to your national park experience and it doesn’t get talked about enough.

The Guardian article is short and worth reading (h/t to blog reader Rebecca F. for alerting me to it). It focuses on Rocky Mountain National Park’s effort to deal with human waste in alpine areas where the volume and lack of decomposition creates health hazards and pollutes water. Along the route to Longs Peak in Rocky, the National Park Service installed new toilets that separate urine from solids and, purportedly, lessen the workload and hazards for rangers. It’s a big and expensive effort to contain something we all do naturally.

While the ranger life is often romanticized in various ways, that friendly park ranger you meet on the trail could very well have been on their way to checking a seldom maintained privy or have just finished cleaning an unpleasant mess from the trailside. Rarely do we give much thought to what happens after we flush a toilet or use an outhouse in a park.  With visitation in many national parks continuing to increase, more and more seemingly remote reaches of parks experience significant human waste issues.

For most of my adult life, I worked as a park ranger at several different national parks. And, if you’re a ranger you are bound to deal with poop at some point, sometimes often. I’ll spare you the details of my dirtiest national park human waste story (pro tip: avoid the handrails in Carlsbad Cavern). Yet, I want to take the opportunity to discuss what a backcountry ranger might deal with during their day on a trail. Take a short journey with me to North Cascades National Park.

view of mountain scenery with craggy peaks and snowfields.

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to work in North Cascades, one of the more rugged national parks in the contiguous 48 states. Once every two weeks, I was assigned a three to five night backpacking route through the park and adjacent national recreation areas to assess trail and campsite conditions, make minor trail repairs, check to see that people complied with park rules, and generally ensure that people were having a good experience. I enjoyed those trips, especially the evenings when work was finished and I could relax at a secluded campsite looking at trees and watching for wildlife.

North Cascades is cherry-stemmed with a well-maintained, extensive trail network and almost every trail is dotted with a few backcountry camps. The luxuries of each camp vary—some are little more than a dirt tent pad—but one thing you can count on is some sort of toilet.  Except at boat-in sites and some high elevation camps, most are simple privies consisting of a box over a hand-dug hole in the ground.

A toilet box in a forest.
A privy box sits above a too large hole at Fireweed Camp in North Cascades National Park. Once filled to capacity a ranger or, more often, the trail crew digs a new hole nearby and moves the box seat over it or replaces it with a new one.

Checking toilets was a frequent duty on the trail. I would glance into every backcountry privy and assess its condition, which meant I looked into a lot of toilets during a typical multi-day trip. Most didn’t need attention, thankfully. Yet I always approached slowly, mentally prepared to encounter unpleasant conditions in need of remedy.

Along Brush Creek at the isolated Graybeal Camp—on the third day of a five day hike that previously included stirring a composting toilet and bagging up human waste deposited inappropriately on the surface of the ground adjacent to a tiny stream—I arrived to find the privy nearly full to the brim. Faced with such situations, there are various tricks one can use to increase a privy’s capacity. For example, a ranger I knew would use using a long, stout branch to knock over the cone of feces and toilet paper deeper into the privy hole at a heavily used site, perhaps prolonging the need to dig a new hole for a couple of weeks. In this case at Graybeal though, there appeared to be no room at the inn.

Graybeal Camp is lightly used compared to more popular destinations like Ross Lake, Cascade Pass, Sahale Arm, and Copper Ridge. Only a few weeks remained in the hiking season when I arrived in late August and many feet of snow would soon bury the camp for the winter. But this camp needed a new privy hole and I couldn’t in good conscience pawn the problem off on another ranger.

I located the trail crew’s cache of tools at a nearby group site and prepared to dig a new hole and move the toilet to it. That is, until I realized there was a risk of disturbing something I shouldn’t.

The places we call national parks were never unpeopled and areas that we consider good campsites today were also likely to have been used by indigenous peoples. I didn’t know if park archeologists had inventoried the campsite for artifacts or even assessed the potential for them. The last thing I wanted to do was disturb an archeological site for a lowly hand-dug privy hole.

After I confirmed with the backcountry office that archeologists did not clear the site for digging, I needed another plan. The tool cache had a roll of fiberglass tape. I carried a re-sealable plastic freezer bag, some paper, and a pencil. So I wrote a note closing the toilet “due to limited capacity,” placed it in the bag, and taped it over the toilet hole.

Was this a satisfactory solution? Not at all. I had, unfortunately, pawned the work off to other park staff. But, it kept people from pooping on the ground* and the toilet at the group campsite was relatively close, so the risk of human waste proliferating everywhere was minimal.

A toilet box with a note taped over the hole.
*People were, in fact, pooping on the ground. Unbeknownst to me (I had not been to that campsite before), the trail crew later discovered that a flash flood had washed the toilet off its hole and placed it directly on the ground in the forest. What I thought was a mound of human waste extending a few feet into the earth was merely a foot tall mound of human waste sitting on sandy outwash.
late day sun on craggy mountain peak and clouds
Alpenglow on Whatcom Peak as seen from Graybeal Camp.

Privies work well at relatively low elevation, forested sites if use isn’t heavy and moderate levels of decomposition can work its magic. But what to do in places that are too dry, too cold, too rocky, or too well trodden to for a traditional privy to work?

That’s the issue that Rocky Mountain National Park rangers deal with on the route to Longs Peak, and why they chose to utilize a new toilet design. Still, I am aware of no backcountry toilet that doesn’t require some maintenance. When the vaults on the toilets at Longs Peak are full, then the waste must be flown out by helicopter. Many other high-elevation backcountry toilets require more labor.

There are many backcountry sites within North Cascades where a simple privy won’t work, so for many years the park has used a type of above-ground composting toilet.

A vault-like toilet sits in a forest
A compositing toilet at Pelton Basin.

For these to work well, though, the toilet can’t be used too frequently, the contents can’t get too wet with urine or precipitation, the dry-matter to human waste ratio can’t skew too much toward feces, and they should be stirred regularly to promote composting. A full toilet requires someone to shovel the contents into a drum that can be flown out by helicopter.

Dealing with composting toilets was one of the more unpleasant tasks during my time in the backcountry. Excessive moisture often prevented composting, so they were often filled with a festering sludge. After a trial-by-fire experience stirring one for the first time, I found that slow, deliberate movements as well as covering as much of my skin as I could were necessary safety precautions when maintaining this style of toilet. There is a real risk working around a vat of human feces, especially when you are more than a day’s hike away from the trailhead.

N95 mask held by hand in latex glove
Long sleeves? Facemask? Disposable gloves? Some sort of eye protection? Check.
Selfie of ranger wearing NPS hat, black coat, and N95 mask
Ready to stir. Remember the days when N95 masks didn’t need to be rationed? Good times.

I’m not complaining about the toilet work. Because, honestly, looking at a few turds each day isn’t that bad in the scheme of things. I’d do it again without complaint, accepting it as a necessary duty so that less human waste pollutes our parks. People gonna poop and the urge doesn’t always strike us at convenient times or places. However, as visitation continues to increase in many national parks, the burden and hazards of human waste grows too, in both easily accessible places as well as remote backcountry locations.

If you visit a national park (and, really, consider postponing your trip while COVID19 rages), you could personally thank the park staff for the work they do to. However, a more rewarding thank you would be to do your part keep wild areas and parks clean.

North Cascades was long considered a hidden gem of a park; one in which you could go on a summer weekend and find a place to camp fairly easily. Since its establishment in 1968, however, the population of Washington State has more than doubled. Mountaineering, hiking, skiing, and backpacking are more popular than ever. Millions of people live only a two to three hour drive from Washington’s iconic national parks and national forests. These destinations, however, operate with essentially the same number of campsites that they did in the 1970s. The North Cascades park complex (including Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas) is no longer a place where you can expect to easily find a campsite on summer weekends. Finding a campsite is even becoming increasingly difficult on weekdays.

As we approach and exceed the carrying capacity of developed areas of parks,  then increasing numbers of people spill into areas that have been traditionally off the beaten path. We bring our waste and waste issues with us. National parks, forests, and other recreational areas are increasing challenged to meet the demands posed by current levels of visitation. Turds included.

A (Sometimes) Overlooked Significance

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

Honestly, it’s something that I think about regularly when I’m planning a trip to a national park. While people frequently visit parks and other protected areas to experience unique and special landscapes, sometimes we fail to see their forests for the trees, or even see their forests at all.

I think this is particularly true of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent recreation areas, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake. The region is most famous for its rugged mountain topography, which I must admit is quite pretty, but visiting here solely to see mountains risks missing some of the best, uncut forests left in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not implying that a visit to a park without admiring trees is somehow less worthy than my slow forest strolls. Far from it; national parks mean different things to different people. But, I find myself drawn to trees, no matter where I go, even among some of the Lower 48’s craggiest mountains.

view of forested valley with tall craggy mountains on horizon

The North Cascades are defined by their ruggedness, and the area’s vertical relief is impressively steep. Ridges and mountain peaks frequently rise above 7,000 feet while deep valleys incise the landscape to near sea level in some places. The Skagit River at Newhalem, for example, flows at 500 feet in elevation while several peaks ascend over 5,000 feet within a few miles. In Stehekin, Lake Chelan sits at a modest 1,100 feet above sea level, but within two and half horizontal miles of the lakeshore, Castle Rock reaches above 8,100 feet.

view of snowy mountains rising above lake

Castle Rock rises 7,000 feet above Lake Chelan.

The rugged topography slowed the march of industrial logging into the mountains, so by the time the North Cascades National Park Service Complex was established in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the forest within the newly protected area had never been logged. In the park today, nearly every low elevation valley holds wonderful examples of wild, unmanaged forests.

Some of the most spectacular and significant trees are found along Big Beaver Creek, which flows southeast into Ross Lake. A section of trail about five miles from Ross Lake passes through a grove of thousand year-old western redcedar.  Preservation of these trees was the catalyst that stopped the expansion of Ross Dam.

bole of large tree with two hiking poles leaning against it

Some western redcedar in the Big Beaver valley are over three meters in diameter at chest height.

hiking trail lined by large redcedar trees

Big Beaver Trail

Along their entire length, both the Big Beaver and Little Beaver valleys harbor incredible forests. The same goes for the Chilliwack River valley and Brush Creek area, so if you hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, you’re in for a spectacular forest hike.

trail winding through dense forest with large trees

Little Beaver Trail

person standing next to trunk of large Douglas-fir

Yours truly and a large Douglas-fir at Graybeal Camp in the Brush Creek valley.

Those places are remote, however, requiring most of a day’s hike just to get near them and several days of backpacking to traverse the valleys. Many other old-growth forests are more accessible. The Stetattle Creek Trail, which starts in the Seattle City Light company town Diablo, ends in a classic example of a climax forest on the west side of the Cascades. This trail is often overlooked and rarely busy. What it lacks in mountain vistas it makes up for in trees.

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Forest near the end of Stetattle Creek Trail

Hiking south from the Colonial Creek Campground, an easy four-mile round trip along Thunder Creek brings you through stately Douglas-fir and western redcedar. People often march through this section, barely stopping to look, as they have their sights set on up-valley destinations, but if you go plan some extra time to stop and admire these trees.

tall trees with foot bridge at bottom

The forest along Thunder Creek

Disturbance—whether brought by fire, avalanche, landslides, or people—is a hallmark of this ecosystem as well. Many large trees stand as witnesses to past and current change.

person standing in front of large tree

Englemann spruce, McAlester Lake Trail

person standing next to large tree with smaller trees nearby

Western white pine, Old Wagon Road Trail

person standing next to large deciduous tree

Black cottonwood, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail

Those that didn’t survive allow us to explore how the ecosystem may cope with future disturbance. I find myself pausing frequently in burned areas and avalanche tracks to admire how quickly the landscape can change.

lightly burned forest with standing dead trees and some minor green vegetation on ground

A recently burned forest along the Park Creek Trail

broken trees in foreground with forests and mountain in background

Avalanches can sometimes devastate otherwise healthy stands of trees. This example comes from the upper Brush Creek valley.

Often overlooked and visited far less than the Highway 20 corridor, the Stehekin valley is the most diverse place in the park complex, both in terms of cultural and natural history. In Stehekin, you can find everything from a historic orchard to plants adapted to desert-like climates growing alongside old-growth groves.

trail through forest with bright yellow fall colors

Stehekin River Trail

red maple leaves in forest

Vine maple splashes the Stehekin valley with color each fall.

Trees persist and even thrive despite the forces constantly working against them. They create vertical habitat, greatly increasing the landscape’s capacity to support life. They tell tales survival and struggle, longevity and adaptability. They are living witnesses to history and catalysts for conservation. North Cascades provides a rare opportunity to explore unmanaged, old forests—habitats that are becoming increasingly rare. And, if you can’t get here, just go to your local park or maybe even your back yard where, I bet, there’s a tree worthy of your attention.

Fishers Return to North Cascades

On an uncommonly sunny day in early February, I stood in a tract of old-growth forest not far from the Suiattle River to watch a missing mammal return to the North Cascades. With the return of the fisher, this area is one step closer to whole.

The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the largest North American weasels. Adult females weigh four to six pounds and measure about 30 to 36 inches long, including tail, when fully grown. Males are about 20% larger, growing upwards of 13 pounds and nearly four feet long. Despite the name, fish are not a primary prey. Instead, fishers are wolverines of the forest. Highly arboreal, cylindrical in shape, and agile in motion, they are formidable predators of rodents, rabbits, hares, grouse, and other small to medium-sized animals.

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

One of the first fishers to be released on February 6. The common name, fisher, is probably a modern English language corruption of “fitch,” a Middle English term for the pelt of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), also known as the common ferret. Not coincidentally, the colonial Dutch fisse and visse as well as the French fiche and fichet, all words for the polecat, sound quite similar to fisher. (NPS Photo)

Fishers were functionally extirpated from Washington by the mid 20th century due to habitat fragmentation and, especially, unregulated trapping. Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find evidence of any viable fisher populations. As a first step to recover the species in the state, a coalition of public agencies, tribes, and private organizations released fishers in Olympic National Park from 2008-2010. This was followed by similar efforts in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park from 2015-2017. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest began to host the fisher’s return last fall, which is how I found myself standing in the woods with about twenty other people on February 6.

Fishers prefer mature forests with a high canopy, relatively large diameter trees, and an abundance of downed trees. Dead standing trees are particularly important to fishers, as they den exclusively in tree cavities. The release site for the fishers this day seemed particularly well suited to their needs.

forest and stream

Fortunately and conveniently, healthy populations of fishers remain in British Columbia and Alberta and they serve as the source for the restoration effort. Fishers from western Canada are also genetically similar to those that used to inhabit Washington. Canadian trappers were paid to capture live, healthy animals. The Calgary Zoo temporarily housed the fishers while veterinarians evaluated their health and surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters to assist biologists in tracking them.

Twelve hours before release, these particular animals were still in Calgary. At 1 a.m., the fishers were flown to Abbotsford, British Columbia where they were picked up by biologists and driven into Washington. By early afternoon, a gang of biologists and a few interested souls like me were unloading the cargo and carrying the fishers a short distance to the release site.

Fisher release, Buck Creek Campground, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest_02062019_4

Fishers were transported in specially designed crates. Two fishers, separated by a partition, are in each crate.

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

Our group formed a semi-circle around the crates to watch the release. Conversations quieted to a whisper or died in anticipation as the crates were opened one at a time. To coax them out, a screened vent was opened at the top and a volunteer blew a puff of air into the container. I’m unsure if this was as annoying as someone blowing air into my ear, but the trick worked. The fishers shot out like a flash and bolted into the forest.

Six fishers were released that day bringing the total number currently released in the area to 24. The release efforts will continue until about 80 fishers are reintroduced to the area. Biologists will track, monitor, and study the animals to assess survival rates, identify where they go after release and where they establish home ranges, the types of foods they eat, and the diseases and parasites they suffer from.

The effort has a high chance of success. Reintroductions, however, are rarely so simple. Fishers, although not well known among the general public, are relatively non-controversial animals. They don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in people as grizzly bears or wolves, for example.

More than that, however, the forested habitats along the core and margins of the North Cascades are largely intact. Land managers needn’t take extreme, expensive, time-consuming measures to restore the ecosystem to a point where it could support fishers again. It could always support them. We just didn’t allow fishers to survive here.

Because prior generations had the foresight to protect places like North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness, we have the opportunity to restore fishers to land they once knew as home. Situations like these are becoming increasingly uncommon. People have fundamentally altered so much of the Earth to preclude the reintroduction of many extirpated species into their historic ranges. (There’s no substantial habitat available for bison in Iowa, for example.)

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Potential future fisher habitat along Stetattle Creek in North Cascades National Park.

As humanity’s footprint grows, undeveloped landscapes are increasingly valuable, not for the resources we can exploit within them (including supposedly non-consumptive uses like solitude), but as repositories of biodiversity and ecosystem health. To adapt an idea from Thoreau, future generations, I believe, will measure our legacy not by what we invented and consumed, not by our material wealth, but by what we can afford to let alone.

I’ll probably never see any of these fishers ever again. Even if the population increases to hundreds of individuals, they’ll remain reclusive neighbors. If I’m lucky, I may find a track in fresh snow or its scat on a log. But even that doesn’t matter. I’ll know they are there and I’ll know the landscape is healthier because of it. The return of the fisher represents, at least in one small way, the success of our ability to let one place—North Cascades—alone.