Spiders fled from the outhouse as Craig Dickstein of Caratunk, a trail maintainer for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, sliced through its back wall with a reciprocating saw on a recent Saturday, carving up and around the seat, then over to the side wall, which was covered with graffiti left by Appalachian Trail hikers.
“The stuff of nightmares,” said Carrington Rhodes of Washington, another MATC trail maintainer, as he watched a particularly large arachnid scamper out of the old building. “You’re never going to feel safe in a privy again.”
The small wooden privy had stood by the Appalachian Trail at the base of Pleasant Pond Mountain for 30-some-odd years, its plastic roof filled with holes left by falling tree branches, ice and snow. But three weeks earlier, Dickstein had hiked up to the privy and nailed the door shut.
Its contents had reached as high as the seat.
“Privy closed,” read the sign Dickstein tacked to the door. “This facility has been deemed ‘Code Brown’ and is closed for business.”
Fortunately, the Pleasant Pond privy was next on the list to be replaced by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club as a part of the organization’s privy replacement initiative. Launched in 2013, the plan is to replace all 42 privies the MATC maintains along the AT in Maine with new, more sustainable and environmentally friendly privies.
The reason is simple: they’re filling up and falling apart.
A trail problem solved
Established in 1923, the Appalachian Trail is roughly 2,190 miles and travels through 14 states, starting in Georgia and ending atop Mount Katahdin in Maine. Along the way, 31 clubs work together to maintain the trail. In Maine, this work is conducted, for the most part, by the MATC, which maintains 267 miles out of 282 miles of the AT in the state.
“The club decided in the early 1980s that if we were going to have a campsite [at a location on the AT], we were also going to have a privy,” explained Laura Flight, chairperson for MATC’s campsite committee. “There was this massive effort to build all the privies at that time, so now they’re all falling apart at once.”
Campsite privies aren’t just a luxury for long-distance hikers, they’re a practical solution to an environmental problem. When hikers don’t have the option of using an outhouse, they have to leave their waste in the woods, and this can pollute water sources and even spread disease.
Leave No Trace guidelines for disposing of waste properly in the wilderness involves digging a cathole 6 to 8 inches deep in an inconspicuous site, 200 feet from the nearest water source. But in the Maine woods, where thick tree roots snake over the forest floor and the soil is filled with rocks, hikers often forego this practice and leave their waste above ground, within sight of the trail. And for trail users looking to get out, enjoy the scenery and breathe fresh air, piles of human waste and crumpled toilet-paper — or “white woods lilies,” as Dickstein calls them — can ruin the outdoor experience.
Privies help lessen this problem at campsites, where hikers congregate, eat dinner, pitch tents and unwind after a long day on the trail.
Finding a better solution
Built in the mid ‘80s, the old pit privies along the Maine section of the AT now fill up every 6 to 8 years, explained Flight. MATC then has to send a crew to dig a new pit, move the privy over it, then cover up the old pit.
These new privies, on the other hand, will last an estimated 30 years before filling up. With a large, above-ground, open crib (a wooden base with gaps between the wood), these privies also circulate air better, which fosters the growth of bacteria, which helps decompose the waste.
“They are a lot more environmentally friendly,” said Flight.
This new design, based on privies recently constructed by the Green Mountain Club in Vermont and the U.S. Forest Service, costs about $3,000 in materials and takes about 400 volunteer hours to construct. The structure is made of sturdy, pressure-treated wood, with an aluminum roof that will hold up better against the elements. The design is also wheelchair accessible, with a wooden ramp and building that measures 8 by 8 feet.
“We say it sleeps four,” said Dickstein, smiling at the joke while watching MATC member Dana Humphrey piece together Pleasant Pond privy’s square, wooden crib.
Humphrey, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, has been an integral member of the MATC privy replacement crew. The Pleasant Pond privy is the seventh they’ve constructed along the trail since the initiative launched in 2013, and Humphrey has led the construction of all seven.
So far, these new privies have been funded by Grants to Clubs, underwritten by L.L.Bean, and an anonymous matching donor.
“We’re replacing two a year, and it’s not actually going to meet the demand,” said Flight. “We can’t keep up.”
The current rate at replacing two privies a year is based on funds and skilled volunteers available, but it means that the initiative will take at least 20 years to complete, with the last privy being replaced in 2033. In the meantime, MATC crews will have to continue digging pits and moving the old privies — or closing them for “business” altogether.
In recent years, a rapid increase in the number of hikers using the Appalachian Trail has only exacerbated the problem. Since the 1980s, the number of thru-hikers on the trail has increased sevenfold. Nowadays, the AT sees about 3 million visitors annually, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and more than 3,000 people set out to hike the entire trail each year, though only about 25 percent of those hikers are successful.
Those numbers are only continuing to climb.
“This year there seems to be an increase of 10 to 12 percent [of hikers on the AT],” said Flight. “That’s 10 to 12 percent more privy use.”
Flight keeps what she calls a “Privy Matrix,” a spreadsheet that ranks old privies from worst to best, based on how full they are, how well the structure is holding up, and if there are any environmental issues at the site.
Once they choose the next outhouse that needs replacing, Flight then works to acquire the necessary state and federal permits, with usually takes about a year and has delayed privy replacements twice so far. And once the permits are successfully acquired, a crew of skilled volunteers gather to pre-build and bundle the structure at a MATC member’s house. Then comes with main operation.
“Access is probably the biggest challenge we face,” said Flight. “How to get material there efficiently as you can.”
The idea is to find the nearest access point to the site so volunteers only have to carry materials a short distance on the trail. So far, the MATC has come up with some pretty inventive ways to do this, including shuttling materials by boat across Nahmakanta Lake and working with Oquossoc ATV Club to shuttle materials by ATV.
“It’s really a team effort,” said Flight. “It wouldn’t happen without all this help.”
Volunteers for the privy replacement trips have been easy to come by so far, Flight said, but the MATC can always use more volunteers for this project and others.
Sometimes, these volunteers are found right on the trail.
AT thru-hiker Tomio Yamada, 30, of Japan, was sleeping beside the AT on Sept. 17, not far from Pleasant Pond lean-to, when he woke to MATC volunteers hiking past, carrying 2-by-4’s and 4-by-4’s. Once he realized what they were doing, he got up, packing his gear, tucked it to the side of the trail and offered his help.
“I want to volunteer because I think Appalachian Trail history is very great,” said Yamada in halting English, a language he’s been learning as he hikes the trail. “I want to make AT history. Volunteering is a great experience.”
Yamada had hiked all the way from Georgia that summer, earning the trail name “Bandana” along the way for always wearing a bandana on his head. In Maine, he was nearing the end of his long trek.
After helping carry materials — 0.2 mile from the road to the new privy location — Yamada helped dismantle the old privy, carrying pieces of the rotting structure back to the vehicles.
“These things usually come apart in pieces — many pieces,” Dickstein said to Yamada as he pried hardware cloth off the bottom of the privy, a feature to keep porcupines and other critters from gnawing on the wood. “As long as I don’t find any live animals in here, I’m OK.”
Dickstein said that thru-hikers offering their help during MATC projects is common. In fact, hikers have offered their help at each privy replacement project so far, and as a former thru-hiker himself, he understands their motivation to give back.
After hiking the AT in 2005 at 56 years old, Dickstein joined MATC and became the Kennebec District Overseer, responsible for maintaining 54 miles of the trail from New Portland to Monson with a group of section maintainers.
“It was the best six months of my life,” said Dickstein. “You just can’t have that experience without getting the feeling to give back somehow, and that’s no doubt what that kid is feeling.”
Yamada worked with the MATC crew all day, then joined them for a homecooked meal at an MATC member’s house that evening on Pleasant Pond. The next day, he’d continue on his long trek north to Katahdin, and the crew would finish building the new privy.
Seven down, 35 to go.