Yuk! Gross! Disgusting!

By Scott Richmond

Just a few generations ago, most Americans lived on a farm. Several times a day, each family member would travel a well-worn path to a little building out back, a slightly odorous structure with a half-moon in the door and a Sears catalog next to the seat. But those days are gone. Now we've got high-tech indoor ceramic thrones with handy little levers. One push, and gaflooosh! All gone.

But very few of those symbols of modern hygiene have been installed along our rivers and in the woods. Many places that anglers go have outhouses, and most folks can make the transition to using one. That's only going back a few generations. The problem comes when they have to move a little further into the past, back to the days of hunting, gathering, and living in caves. That seems to leave a lot of people at a loss for what to do when it comes to natural bodily functions.

You don't have to spend much time on our more popular rivers to know that this is a problem. There are places on the Deschutes that should be renamed "Defecation Flat." I've found human waste in the middle of trails, in camps, under trees. This is not a healthy encounter, nor does it add to anyone's enjoyment of the outdoors. It's a subject that need to be addressed--plainly and directly.

Number One

Urine is acidic and odorous, but for healthy people it is pretty much sterile. On larger rivers, the best plan is usually to just pee in the water, preferably at a spot where there's current. That isn't as bad as it sounds. The river dilutes the urine, and it's a better strategy than piddling around the edges of a well-used camp, which concentrates the odor and acidifies the soil.

If you don't want to go in the river, or if you're fishing a small stream, then go in the bushes about 50 feet from the edge of the water and well outside a heavily-used camping area. This is generally the best plan for lady anglers, where anatomy and modesty combine to make the river a less desirable toilet.

One thing to think about if you use the river: will fish smell the urine and be put off? It's not an idle question, since trout, steelhead, and salmon are very sensitive to odors, and some human scents will definitely put them off the bite. Until someone proves to me that it doesn't matter, I'm not going unzip upstream from water I'm about to cast a line to.

If you're in a boat on a small lake, think about carrying a plastic bottle with a leakproof lid. You can dispose of the contents at a shoreside lavatory. One thing: label the bottle clearly so it doesn't get used for some other purpose.

Number Two

First, use the outhouse when one is available. For one thing, it's illegal to "improperly" dispose of human waste. Do you really want a policeman to give you an "illegal pooping" ticket when you're in the bushes with your pants around your ankles?

If you're camping on a river or lake, note the locations of the outhouses before the sun goes down. Keep a flashlight and shoes handy in case you need to make a midnight run. In desert areas, check around the outhouse for rattlesnakes, then look under the ring to make sure there are no spiders (not to put too fine a point on it, but black widow spiders like to hide under the ring). When you're done, close the lid; that helps the waste compost faster and with less odor. And if it isn't tissue or it didn't come out of your body, don't put it down the outhouse. As a classic piece of understatement puts it: "Trash is extremely difficult to remove from toilets."

But sometimes you gotta go and there's no little house around. If that happens, pick a place at least 50 feet (preferably 200 feet) from the river and well outside any camping areas. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep; dig with a stick, a rock, a tent stake, or one of those handy little folding shovels the outdoor stores carry. And let's be frank: if you're new at this, your aim might be off; so until you're in practice, make the hole a little wide. When you're done, put the dirt back in the hole.

Tissue disposal is a matter of debate. Some people say you shouldn't put it in the hole, that it will decompose faster if left out. I disagree, especially in arid climates such as the Deschutes. I say put it in the hole and cover it up. We don't need any more (partly) white streamers blowing around near the river and getting caught in the sage brush.

On some rivers, boaters are required to carry portable toilets and pack out all solid human waste. Most rafting stores sell a variety of small portable potties. A good system to use in camp is to put the toilet in an out-of-the-way place (or bring a canvas shelter made especially for the purpose; most canvas tent makers have them), then put a life jacket on the trail. When someone heads to the privy, they take the life jacket with them. This acts as a "key" so other campers in the group know the toilet is being used. When the great issues of life have been contemplated and the mission is accomplished, return the life jacket to its place on the trail.

Feminine hygiene

Keep a zip-lock bag handy to carry out used tissue and other paraphernalia. Then toss the contents (not the bag) in an outhouse, or dispose of it when you get home.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).