The spunky little 20-something facilitator of the workshop asked us all to think about something we all do every day, perhaps even several times a day. In fact, she encouraged us to review in our minds a typical day and count how many times we do it.
Once upon waking, once after breakfast. Again before lunch, and once before supper. Once before bed and that makes at least five for me.
Next, she instructed us to take marking flags - one for each time we do it, yellow flags for No. 1, oranges ones for No. 2 - and "plant" them in the surrounding woods.
There were probably 20 of us at the Leave-No-Trace (LNT) workshop - by now all giggling, some slightly embarrassed. When we returned to the teaching circle, we were surrounded by over 100 yellow and orange marking flags - a visual representation of the impact we might have on an area just doing what we all have to do.
As with any human activity, there are ways to do even this while having less impact on the environment, which, of course, was the whole point of this part of the LNT training.
What prompted me to write about this topic? I recently took a nice long hike along trails in Allegany State Park and found three little piles of toilet paper on top of the fresh blanket of autumn leaves. One was right next to, almost right in, the trail. One was within 3 feet of a creek. And the third - of the orange flag variety - was behind the lean-to where campers eat and sleep. Really, people?
What makes someone do that? Is it a disregard for other people's experience? "I'll be gone in a few minutes, what do I care if someone has to come upon my excrement while hiking?" Is it a fear of our own bodily functions? "Ew! I don't want to touch that any more than I have to!" I hope it's just that they've never been taught the proper way. So let me teach you.
The Leave-No-Trace guidelines instruct us to use facilities if they exist. This seems like a no brainer, but I've camped at several lean-to areas where others have not used the outhouse. If no facilities exist, and you are camping together with several others, you are best to designate a potty area at least 200 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources, and dig your own mini-latrine. If you are hiking, walk 200 feet away from trails, campsites and water sources. Deposit human solid waste in a "cat hole" 6-8 inches deep, then cover and disguise the hole. Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products. Read it again: Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
Some of my hiking companions are "grossed out" by this last guideline. It's not that hard to do. It just takes a little planning. One of the pockets on each of my packs is the potty pocket. In one Ziploc bag is clean toilet paper; in another is the dirty stuff that I'll throw away when I get home.
You may be surprised to learn that there are some heavily visited natural areas that require you to also pack out the human solid waste. Oh, I can hear you screaming, "That's so gross!" But think about it. Is it less gross to pull your canoe up onto a sandy beach to setup camp only to find that every place you dig brings up someone else's deposit? That's what was happening along the Colorado River as rafting became more and more popular. And that's what prompted organizations to recommend "pack it in, pack it out" - and to have that principle apply to everything you bring in. There are products to facilitate the packing out of your own waste.
Next time you are online, do a search for "how to poop in the woods" and see what comes up. In addition to products and advice, you will find a lot of conversation and disagreement about whether it is necessary to cart ours out. Isn't ours just as natural as that of the animals? Won't ours disintegrate just as the animals' does?
Sadly, given our diet and medications, ours is not as natural as the animals. And yes, ours will disintegrate over time, just as the animals' does (or doesn't depending on the weather and climate) ... but as it breaks down (if it breaks down), our pathogens and medications are passed along.
One of the websites I read encouraged people who will be hiking or camping together to have "The Potty Talk" before venturing out. Don't make assumptions about what your friends know and don't know about the proper way to dispose of human waste. Talk about it. Laugh about it. Make rules about it. But for all our sakes, please be responsible about it. The natural world is full beauty and wonder. Let's not mar it with bad habits.
The Audubon Center and Sanctuary is now on winter hours. Trails remain open from dawn until dusk daily, but the building is closed Tuesday through Friday, except when there are special programs, or by appointment. Monday and Saturday the building opens from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Sundays the building is open from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. Even though the building is not open, if we are inside during business hours, we will hang a sign and unlock the door that leads to our restrooms. If you are hiking or skiing, feel free to stop inside to make your deposits, if you know what I mean.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon.