The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has decided 70 fat-tire cyclists and runners set to hit the Iditarod Trail in February pose a risk to the outhouse outside the iconic, one-room Rohn Roadhouse cabin in the heart of the Alaska Range.
Because of this, they want Iditarod Invitational organizer Bill Merchant to use buckets to collect all the excrement generated by these human-powered crappers and fly their deposits several hundred miles back to Alaska’s largest city for disposal.
There is no road to Rohn.
Merchant said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he’s baffled by the decision and added that it appears to be just the beginning.
BLM officials told him they plan an “assessment” of the droppings of competitors in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Iron Dog snowmachine race, and are likely to order those events to prohibit competitors from making deposits in the Rohn outhouse next year.
No word on whether the mushers will also be required to pick up all the dog crap left along the BLM managed historic trail.
Merchant said the new requirement was offered to him as a “compromise” after the number of entrants in the Invitational, the most internationally popular of Iditarod events, grew from 50 people to 70 this year.
Down the BLM rabbit hole
The compromise arose after BLM this month reneged on an agreement to allow Merchant to grow the historic Alaska event blossoming on the national and international scene along with a global boom in wide-tired “fat bikes” and adventure-sport growth, particularly in Europe.
“In a phone conversation (in August),” Merchant emailed, “I was told there was no problem with an additional 20 racers by either field office superintendent Alan Bittner or assistant superintendent Doug Ballou. I spoke by phone with them both.”
At that time, he said, the BLM expressed the opinion “that you’ve got the least impact out there.”
Merchant heard no more and presumed everything was fine. He filled the field for the race with a couple dozen Europeans, a half-dozen Canadians, more than two dozen adventurers from the lower 48, and the usual gaggle of crazy Alaskans.
Only this month did he get around to asking BLM for an update on the formal paperwork for his permit.
That was when word came that “I can have no more than 50,” he said.
An upset Merchant called the BLM and left what he describes as a “detailed message” asking what was going on.
“Hours later,” he said, “the phone rings.” On the other end was the BLM area manager and a good bunch of his staff.
“They said, ‘We think we’ve come up with a compromise,” Merchant said. “You can have the extra racers, but you need to haul all the waste out.”
Does a bear…?
“I told them that if that was the case, I’d tell everyone to just shit in the woods,” Merchant said. “They said, ‘You can’t do that.'”
The conversation, he said, went back and forth, back and forth from there and the BLM eventually offered a compromise of the compromise. They said they’d relax the requirement Merchant “bring your own buckets and bags” and fly in breakdown port-a-potties for Rohn, an outpost accessible only by small plane.
But it would still be Merchant’s responsibility to fly out the human waste. He countered with the request the race be allowed to let 50 racers use the outhouse per the original permit, and the Invitational would bag the waste for the other 20. The BLM wasn’t bending.
“I can’t believe it,” Merchant said. “It’s so bizarre.”
Invitational competitors aren’t big users of the Rohn outhouse. It is rare for anyone to stay in the checkpoint for more than 6 or 8 hours. Most rest for only a few hours, grab something to eat and move on.
Figure that at a half-pound a dump, they might leave 30 pounds of excrement – if that – behind in the outhouse pit.
As of last March, the outhouse looked to have plenty of room for more deposits. (The author has visited it annually for years while covering various Iditarod Trail events.) Merchant confessed he just doesn’t understand what BLM thinks the problem.
“If they’d asked me, we would have just gone out there and dug a new hole and moved the outhouse,” he said.
Outhouses, the oldest form of human waste disposal, are still common all over Alaska. The Week reported 12 percent of Alaska households were still using the facilities in 2015. In areas with small populations, outhouses cause no environmental problems.
The Rohn outhouse, a drafty structure in a stand of spruce behind the Rohn cabin, is little used. That’s because the BLM-managed Rohn cabin just off an airstrip deep in a valley between the Terra Cotta and Teocalli mountains, is deserted for large parts of the year.
About the only time the outhouse gets much use is during hunting season in the fall and when the Iditarod races go north to McGrath and Nome in February and March.
Despite the limited use, the BLM has, in recent years, moved steadily to enforce its vision of environmental responsibility at Rohn. Garbage that was burned there in the past was ordered flown out. So too leftover dog and human food that was once hauled up the Tatina River and left for the ravens and other scavengers.
Federal officials have never estimated the environmental carbon contribution caused by flying garbage nor has there been any environmental assessment of the practice of burning garbage in Rohn the way it is burned in many rural parts of Alaska.
Wild scavengers in the past voted with their feet in favor of the dumping of unused food. But times change.
Merchant said he’s not opposed to change, but the timing of this affair has sent his stomach to churning.
“I was up until 3 o’clock this morning worrying,” he said, “until I decided I should just laugh at the insanity of it all.
“I’ve got 16 years of compliance with BLM rules. I’ve got a stellar safety record. I’ve always had a good relationship with the BLM. For them to pull me on this now…when I’ve already got 75 entrants?”
The race field is traditionally overfilled. People get on a waiting list knowing that there will be dropouts given the demands of training for Alaska’s toughest Iditarod.
The shorter version of the Invitational goes 350 miles from Knik, an old port just north of Anchorage, up and over the Alaska Range to McGrath. The longer versions goes 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome.
Hundreds of hours of training are required just to get in shape for the shorter event. Some people get injured in training. Others decide they are under trained and bail out. And some have second thoughts about undertaking an ultramarathon bike ride or run through some of the wildest wilderness left in North America.
From Knik north, the race just moves farther and farther from the Alaska road system, and there is almost no one out there. The total population of the communities between the start line and McGrath is 133. There are another dozen or so people living in wilderness lodges along the route.
The total population living in communities scattered along the 1,000 miles of trail to Nome numbers less than 3,000. Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast is the big city. It is home to about 712. The Covenant Bible Camp there boasts “it is blessed by well lit outhouses with stable floors.”