It’s a shrine you don’t want to see anywhere. At nearly 80 degrees north, you expect unspoiled nature. Yet when Dave Weir saw a pile of rocks adorned with loose toilet paper off the east coast of Ellesmere Island, he knew exactly what it was. And he knew he was partly responsible for it.
Weir, owner of Ice Blink Expeditions, guides clients in the furthest corners of the Arctic. He flies them in by chartered aircraft, often to places even he hasn’t been before, to see dramatic fiords, windswept tundra, and herds of muskox and caribou. Weir’s been giving clients the “toilet talk” for decades, to ensure these vistas stay untainted. But his message about what to do when nature calls has become blunter over the years. He’s been “embarrassed and saddened” by messes his clients have made.
On this day, Weir and his group arrived by kayak to a place he calls Loon Island, for the red-throated loons that nest there. He hadn’t been there for five years or so. Weir was stretching his legs a short distance from camp when he spotted the improperly disguised human waste. He cleaned it up, but the memory still sticks with him like doggy you-know-what to the bottom of a shoe.
Not everyone gets to places as remote as Weir, but most backcountry users can relate to the unpleasant experience of stumbling upon such a site somewhere in the wilderness. I still recall canoe-camping in Hidden Lake Territorial Park outside of Yellowknife with my brother, who was visiting from down south. The little island we found to camp on seemed idyllic and untouched until we came across piles of toilet paper. Gross! Not only that, but it was a crappy reminder that other people (many, by the looks of it) had been to this exact wilderness location before us.
Even in the sparsely populated North, with all of its wide-open spaces, this is a problem—and one that will get worse as more people access popular backcountry areas.
Besides the obvious yuck factor, number twos that aren’t a camper’s first and foremost concern can lead to water contamination and the spreading of disease. Denali National Park in Alaska now requires climbers below 4,200 metres along its West Buttress route to pack their solid waste in a portable, sealable container. With as many as 600 climbers on the route at a given time, the park estimates 70,000 kilograms of human waste have gone into its Kahiltna Glacier since 1951, leading to possible fecal contamination lower in the watershed. (I’m sorry for that mental image.)
Commercial groups have their own protocols. At Icefield Discovery, a fly-in glacier camp near Mount Logan in the Yukon, guests play a role in waste management. The camp provides toilet “infrastructure”—that’s a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat on top, baggies to line the bucket and “poo powder” to solidify liquids. But guests have to fly out their own baggies at the end of their trip (which the company delivers to a transfer station). The average 160-pound person is good for about one pound of poop per day. (Again, I’m very sorry.)
Many people aren’t used to being that well acquainted with their own excrement. “Some people just really think that’s something you should be able to flush away and that it’s somebody else’s problem to deal with,” says Sian Williams, operator of Icefield Discovery. “That’s just part of going up there—dealing with that.”
Below the snowline, there are different guidelines for dealing with human waste. In areas with topsoil, Leave No Trace Canada—a non-profit that promotes responsible outdoor recreation—recommends burying waste in ‘cat holes’ six to eight inches deep, at least 60 metres away from water, trails and camp. Toilet paper should be thoroughly buried too, if not packed out.
In the Arctic, where there’s bedrock and no topsoil, cat holes are not an option. Instead, Dave Weir looks for areas where solids will break down the fastest. On the tundra, the unpleasantries should be spread as thinly as possible on a rock with optimal sun exposure, which will allow them to dry out and blow away.
On kayaking trips, Weir has clients go directly into the ocean, or at least below the high-tide line. This is sometimes referred to as an ‘aqua dump.’ (If that sounds gross, know that several coastal Canadian cities have released raw sewage into the ocean for years.) If toilet paper is used, Weir suggests it be packed out or burned.
Rivers are trickier. Human impacts on the most popular rivers are concentrated because everyone is following the same narrow corridor. Yet, most Northern rivers are largely unregulated beyond instructions from government and tourism bodies to “leave no trace” or “pack out what you pack in.” (The latter usually refers to garbage). The Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon has helped install outhouses in locations where impacts are particularly heavy, like at Taco Bar on the Peel River, where many people fly out by floatplane.
Installing outhouses is one thing; maintaining them is another. The Chilkoot Trail, which sees an average of 2,500 hikers each year, flies out barrels from outhouses in areas with sensitive terrain where pits cannot be dug. Flying out and disposing of waste from the eight-barrel outhouses costs about $20,000 annually, which is why Parks Canada is looking at other options for reducing costs and environmental impacts.
Kalin Pallett, president of the Yukon’s aforementioned wilderness tourism association, says education plays a role in how people behave in the backcountry. Guiding companies are motivated to leave areas as pristine as they found them because they return to the same places over and over again with clients. But it’s harder to reach independent travelers with that information. He thinks it’s therefore important that messaging from government, tourism bodies and First Nations is “consistent and prolific.”
Over the years, Weir has learned that no matter what he tells clients—or what they report back to him—some people will simply lie about what they did on the other side of the knoll. Now he’s very direct in his 20-minute bathroom briefing. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to watch which direction you go.’” Later, he checks to see if they followed protocol. And you can rest assured that if he steps in it, they’re going to hear about it.
How to go:
On the bedrock
-Do your business.
-Grab a stick and spread into thin layer on rock.
-Let it dry.
-Pack out toilet paper.
In the bush
-Dig six- to eight-inch hole.
-Do your business.
-Drop toilet paper in hole.
In the ocean
-Go out past high-tide line.
-Do your business.
-Pack out toilet paper— if you used any.