GCRG logo - waves above name with sheep
  In Memoriam, Polyethylene
  The News ~ fall 1992

n respect to river running now a days, we as a collective group cumulatively finish the season with a pocketful of memories, tips, experence and tons of human feces. It isn't anything new. Humans and their predecessors have been defecating and excreting since time immemorial, whence they swam up and onto boats from the primordial soup of life. Sometimes I find it very perplexing, wondering just how much do we annually generate and transport out along the river. Admittedly, many factors come into play which influence an accurate estimation of fecal weight. These factors are anywhere from substantial will power to pride, constipation to propulsive acts, steak dinners to mex-out, anorexia to sport eating gluttony. In the process of pounding on this keyboard, I have selected arbitrarily an average of 1/2 lb. as a weight per golden nugget. The 1991 calendar year had 213,000 total user days. And as an estimate of weight it comes out to total of 53 tons per annum. Now that’s some crap.

   The disposal process has been memorable, if not priceless, the telling of stories, countless stories, from dead-dog holes, sewage lagoons, to the Ponce de Leon search for the most God-inspiring landfill. And there have been those other sites. Ones which have consisted of the most deplorable conditions imaginable. It makes you really wonder what is the true definition of sanitation (mentality of out-of-sight out-of-mind). We are now at a juncture in time, where we must actively respond to a new method, becoming acquainted first hand with unknown fecal disposal problems. Oh boy, more stories! As a historical perspective I thought I might reacquaint those of us either whose memories have intentionally failed, or for some, for what ever reasons, have been deprived of our scatological heritage. Fecal disposal as we know it today consists of a wealth of stories and myths which would furnish countless volumes and, unfortunately, is beyond the intent of this story. Therefore, for space, I will only summarize.

   First generation, or Archaic period, utilized an approach that is best characterized by the motto “like a bear in the woods.” Even today, for what ever reasons, this mode appears to be preferred by some individuals; often to our own dismay upon discovery. Though a fairly universal technique, on the Colorado River numerous problems became apparent. There were two factors responsible for this; 1) the annual sanitation cycle had been disrupted with the presence of Glen Canyon Dam (1963), removing the annual cleansing effect of torrential floods; and 2) the exponential increase in use by river-runners. It didn't take a rocket scientist too long to figure this one out. Mind you this is a generalized portrayal of disposal events, therefore, don't take offense if through omission certain progressive individuals or companies are not given credit for initiating alternative approaches.

   By the early ‘70s, with the encroachment of regulations we entered into a new era. Heavily used beaches became engulfed with the cleansing fires containing toilet paper and fecal desiccant, welcoming in the “modern” approach. This time period, though short-lived, was referred to as liquid goo (i.e. “Jensen blue” named by trademark and not persona). The system was simple to use, though the method of disposal became increasingly difficult with time. The practice was to pour effluent into an excavated hole of some depth in porous sand and above the high water line. The problems encountered were many from rocks, mass wasting, splashes and mouthwashes, to baptisms. Substantial footing was required. The effects were quite noticeable and of some permanence. It was a job for youth, and quick of foot (holes functioned similar to an ant-lion’s crater). Available sites were quickly lost either to beach erosion or prior occupation. Multiple site locations were common and the tell-tale signs were ever apparent with the tinge of blue sand. The Grand Canyon was a huge kitty litter box, bulging from use and neglect. Sometimes human kind just needs to wallow around ankle deep before it resolves the proper course of action.

  Since the late seventies, effluent has been transported out of the canyon by way of plastic bag, the greatest invention since sliced bread. During its infancy we learned a lot about chemical reactions, some of which rivaled military arms development. Incredible concoctions were formulated by combining formalin with either chlorine or semi-warm charcoal. These were literally breathtaking. Engineering achievements were numerous from testing expansive qualities of methane production to the development of liquid propulsives that created a barrage of lethal slurry. Others have been, in part, due to cavalier mishaps. The broadcasting of liquified dung onto and within the personal effects and boat interstices. Ah, olfaction extraordinaire. Leaky bags, undesirable proportions of urine, and lime burn treatments represent a few of our innumerable accomplishments along the learning curve. Over time with subtle refinements this method has been test proven and developed into a workable and efficient system.

   And here we stand today with great hesitancy, with change imminent upon us. A new era of fecal disposal, one which I consider fourth generation, is upon us. To date, there are numerous unsung heroes, charting these new waters and quickly sharing their experience with this new method (watch out for the tapered bung). However, this new system is almost a step back into the past. Are we reinventing the wheel, replacing it with a less desirable method? It is too reminiscent of the second generation, blue goo. We should have suspected the good-times wouldn't last. And maybe it is just as well.

   Presently, the focus is directed specifically at the use of plastic bags. However, if the problem is really plastic, are we not approaching this from a back-assward direction? Logic would appear to suggest that this is the case. Should we attempt to curtail use patterns? Then again, what would America do without its packaging effect? Are feces really the problem? No!!! It is the floating fecal-bergs in an undegradable form that impedes the processing for an archaic system in its sanitary disposal of human waste. We are a disposable society with a concept of indispensable resources at hand. This unfortunately prevents the development of recyclable attitudes. The disposal of energy confined in the form of inorganic (glass, aluminum) and organic material is an incredible waste. Also, the loss of organics rich in nutrients which are often substituted by other less desirable synthetically derived compounds (artificial fertilizer) further compound the problem. No wonder it is referred to as waste disposal. In addition, we are influenced by a cultural stigma associated with feces. Word association quickly brings to mind paranoid thoughts of hepatitis, nematodes, tapeworms and a slow, agonizing death. Fortunately, these fears and loathing are unfounded.

   In this world we (boatman) like to think of ourselves as well informed within an ecological context; however, by our example we are far from that point with our use of plastics, glues, synthetic rubber, epoxy, paint, et cetera. It becomes ever more critical that we think and develop better disposal and recycling practices. At present, from a sanitation point of view, we have both the knowledge and technology to disrupt the life cycles of all these pathogens. And yet, we continue to separate out human waste, not for use, but from other waste material that has equal if not potentially greater toxicity. Let alone the negative effects from the over use of chlorination processes. These landfills are creating both air and water quality problems on both a regional and national level.

  So, it is inevitable that a new toilet method is sure to replace this transitional mode of today. In this interim period, I hope we are all encouraged to find other viable alternatives, whether in the form of dehydrators, cloth diapers, biodegradable bags, floating commodes, imported dung-rolling scarab beetles, or scatophagovores. And let us hope that in what ever form it arrives, it is something more ecologically efficient. Otherwise once again, euphemistically, we will be left holding the bag; all because of human waste.

Mike Yard

big horn sheep