Solving Conundrum: U.S. Forest Service efforts to wipe up after party poopers seem to be working
August 16, 2018
It was a dark and stormy night.
The rain had finally let up sometime around 9 and I stopped frantically searching for a bear silhouette against my tent with every lightning strike. I think I was breaking the rules, slumped over and sipping Jack Daniels from a flask I had received as a white elephant gift. Like a true woke man of the wilderness I had packed all my food, trash, sunscreen and Yves Saint Laurent into my bear canister and chucked it somewhere toward the bushes behind my campsite near the Conundrum Hot Springs. Yet this vice I still clutched dearly as the angels bowled overhead and the water droplets slowly seeped through my $25 Walmart tent. "At least it's not honey-flavored whiskey," I reassured myself, grasping my Swiss Army knife and preparing to fend off Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington, Baloo and the rest of their ilk should they come looking to get drunk off me for free.
That morning, I had arisen earlier than I had in years — about 6:45 — and headed toward the Aspen-Sopris District ranger station. Getting up early (before, eh, noon) always makes me feel that I'm in on Mother Nature's secret, like being in the Upside Down on "Stranger Things."
I met Katy Nelson, Wilderness and Trails Program manager, and Tyler Lee, lead wilderness ranger, who were guiding an expedition into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to evaluate the success of a new limited-use permit system that had been rolled out this year that includes notorious backcountry party spot Conundrum Hot Springs in an effort to solve overcrowding, reduce human waste and trash, rehabilitate damaged areas and perform general maintenance to provide a better Lewis and Clark adventure for visitors.
"In our highest visitation weekends, it wouldn't be uncommon to see 200 people up there," Nelson told me before the trip. "From the perspective of someone seeking a wilderness experience, that probably wasn't much of one, and the crazy amount of impacts like tree damage and human poop was just a huge challenge."
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She told stories of prior years' carnage: tent cities in a camping site overflow area, people hiking in beer kegs across the 8.5-mile trek, clogged-up campers taking a crap in the hot springs, sleepers being roused by beasts searching for a midnight snack. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics named Conundrum a "hot spot" for experiencing severe impacts due to outdoor activities, according to its website.
But it seemed like things were getting better thanks to the permit system, educational efforts, enforcement and ranger presence, so the ranger district wanted to "get a finger on the pulse" of the area. We were joined by interns Colleen Flanagan and Ana Kistner, as well as Leave No Trace traveling trainers Matt Schneider and Jessie Johnson. I was pretty sure trying to keep up with the crew would result in me passing out along the trail at some point (the longest walk I've taken all summer was to the post office), but like having a heart attack at a hospital, I felt that I would be in good hands should I falter.
"This permit system was the last tool in the belt to limit the number of people up there," Nelson said. "We can make it more manageable and it has also allowed us to get some more information in people's hands to the benefit of the place and visitors."
Part of that information dissemination effort included ranger district employees at the trailhead chatting with hikers about permits and bear canisters while distributing stickers and WAG bags. For the uninitiated, while defecating in a cat hole of 6 to 8 inches (and burying your TP) in the wilderness is one option, WAG bags are gel-filled pouches that break down and odor-neutralize people's doodoo, allowing them to conveniently haul out turds in their backpack — right next to their food and clothes! — thus leaving no mark on the environment. Why is this important? Say a deer eats a piece of corn out of your caca and contracts whatever nasty bacteria you're toting around. When it dies from your butt bugs and a coyote chows down on its carcass, the coyote gets sick, too, and so on (cue Simba singing "Circle of Life"). If the topic of human waste is uncomfortable, get used to it, because so is doing the green apple two-step 200 yards off the trail, squatting over a sack and hoping you hit the target like a game of human Cow Pie Bingo.
"You're starting to see WAG bags often because more places are recommending or requiring them, especially in canyon areas where you have no other choice," said Johnson, noting digging a cat hole in the high alpine can be difficult.
"The standard practice was to find a crevass and poop in it, but the temperatures down there would just preserve everything," Schneider added.
"That's why they call it a crevASS," I quipped.
"Especially now with the weather warming, they're finding ancient poop trickling out in the water on alpine routes," he said.
And that's how you get giardia, folks. Have a plan for filtering or purifying your drinking water.
Only one pile of steaming surface dung was discovered during the weekend along with just a few squares of unburied toilet paper — a wet, juicy far cry from the mine field that was the Conundrum area in summers prior.
The rangers spoke with every group we encountered along the route, making sure permits were secured and proper food storage was brought. They asked how hikers had learned about the permit system and what their waste-disposal plans were. Much to my amusement, nobody said, "I was just gonna hold it" or "I didn't have to go."
Most groups were compliant and carried the requisite equipment, but not all. Sometimes you could tell when they knew were in trouble by the way they tried to run past, headphones blaring, not making eye contact. Handing out tickets is at the discretion of the ranger. Lee said they hadn't written any violations so far this year, but that doesn't mean none were deserved. They generally try to educate and discuss the rules with offenders rather than taking punitive measures.
"It's kind of a tough role because sometimes we're out there writing tickets and it's not because we like it, but because it's our job to be stewards," Nelson said. "There are a lot of people who want to do the right thing, and having a positive interaction with us steers them in a right direction, and I try to focus on that with our crews. We're out there to enforce the laws but also to provide educational tools."
A dog hauling her own pack wagged her tail as we crossed the bridge leading into the permit zone. A man proudly carrying a bag of alcohol bottles and soiled toilet paper identified her as "Leah." Kistner greeted him and requested his permit.
"I camped, uh, not too far up that way. Not at the springs," he said nervously.
"Do you have a bear canister, by chance?"
"Ahh, no, I have a bag."
"Is it an Ursack?"
"Can you show me?"
"I left it up there with my friend. He has it now. I don't have it with me anymore, sorry." He continued on his way after being reminded to put Leah on a leash.
The rangers acknowledge that many people don't want to see uniformed government agents while in the wilderness. And with a district that spans 500 miles of trails from the top of Independence Pass to the Thompson Divide, it's likely you won't run into one of the dozen or so of them. Nonetheless, their presence at popular zones like Conundrum has been instrumental in reducing usage back to a more manageable level.
"We want to get this to a point where it's just like any other place we patrol that's a high-use area, where we're hitting it every other week or so," Lee said. "We patroled this area frequently anyway, because one year we packed out 500 pounds of trash from the hot springs. Usually now we take out 10 at most per trip."
Other custodial tasks were undertaken along the way, as well: sawing a tree that had fallen across the trail after a recent storm, shoveling drainage ditches, removing illegal campfire rings and evaluating signage. Designated campsite areas near the hot springs were observed for impacts, too. One site remained closed due to a giant hazard tree threatening to fall at any time between 30 seconds and the next 50 years. Others were blocked off in an effort to rehabilitate vegetation after being loved to death (maybe "love" isn't the right word, as a number of trees were clearly hacked at by some Paul Bunyan wannabe with a hatchet).
We made a move to take a dip in the hot springs before the deluge hit, passing miner's cabins that once belonged to a valley pioneer who probably didn't even have toothpaste or internet. A trio of young adults rested near the trail, one man in a sweat-soaked pink shirt bent over, struggled to breathe in the thin, high-altitude air while a woman sucked at her inhaler. With neither permit nor bear canister and a storm moving in, the rangers didn't want to send them back down the trail toward Silver Dollar Pond, which would have been like Frodo and Sam trying to hike back out of Mordor. Instead they borrowed a canister from Nelson, and bunked in the same spot as the Leave No Trace crew, but not before receiving a ticket.
"If they didn't have the one guy with his wits about him, they were done," Schneider said. "They were ill-prepared, they were fatigued. That's how people get in trouble out here."
About 15 people were in the hot springs with me as a light drizzle began. Most sipped wine from boxes; one man complained to his friends about the poor quality of the hallucinogenic mushrooms he ingested. An early-20s couple who had just gotten engaged stripped butt-ass nekkid and strode into the water.
As Nelson and Lee crested the plateau where the springs sit, a cheer rang out among the revelers. It's not a response they often get, but people are recognizing their efforts now that the secluded area no longer resembles a pre-death "Cabin in the Woods" party scene.
"Most of the people who have permits are the hardcore Conundrumis," Lee said. "They're people who come up and pull me off to the side trail and say, 'This is amazing. I've never seen it this great.' Or people who say, 'We used to come up here but in the past five to 10 years it hasn't been worth it. Now we're going to come back.'"
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