Live rough and know the real world

By Jacob Richards

Guides in the outdoor industry inevitably come up with collective nicknames for customers. On horseback they’re “dudes,” on the river they’re “mers” — short for customers — and they’re “sticks” if you’re trying to trick a trout. Sometimes the terms trend a little negative — “flatlander” comes to mind, and there’s another name I’ve come to use but need to explain it.

It comes out of what I do: For the last decade, I’ve guided multi-day whitewater fly-fishing trips through western Colorado’s Gunnison Gorge during the summer. Then I spend the fall guiding horseback hunting outfits in wilderness. It adds up to around 100 nights a year sleeping rough.

I’ve met a lot of people from all over the country, and, sad to say, too many seem oblivious to how scarce clean water is in the outback and also how much work it takes to make water safe for drinking. That’s why I sometimes call them “water poopers.”

Spill a big batch of filtered water, treat a horse like a car rather than a living being, or behave in some other entitled way, and you might get saddled with this moniker. If a client takes offense, I explain that a water-pooper assumes that a flush toilet is necessary to life, and they usually agree: “Yep, that’s me. Never thought about it that way.”

On the river, and in hunting camp, water is precious: We filter every drop of water that we drink. We haul the water from the river or the creek to camp and then let gravity filters purify it, one drop at a time. 

On overnight river trips we use a portable toilet setup with a great view, but some clients never get over their distaste of having to use it. At trip’s end, our portable toilet gets packed out, leaving nothing behind.

On the mountain every fall, we usually have to dig two 5-foot-deep outhouse holes at least 40 paces from the main tents. After a stalagmite of poop and toilet paper inevitably forms, the “camp-jack” has the unlucky job of knocking over the tower. We fill in the hole when it’s three-quarters full and then dig a new one.

Wilderness guides love saying things like “misery makes memories,” or “embrace the suck.” It’s good for a laugh when rain, mud or a sudden freeze moves in, but it helps make living deep in the wilderness an experience to learn from and remember. It also breaks the water-pooper spell we fall into in the “real world.” Being responsible for our personal needs connects us to the realities of life that modern civilization hides.

Our elk camp is located in an aspen forest licking down into Gambel oak brush, and every year I notice that the land is drier and hotter. Aspens are not doing well. The mature trees are dead or dying and only saplings seem to have any vigor. A little creek used to run cool enough to hold some fingerling trout, but vegetation is moving higher up the mountain and the creek is warm. The elk rut also happens later in the fall each year.

At some point every season after six weeks in the wild, I drive home, and as I crest the ridge and see the lights of Grand Junction, it hits me: Some 150,000-plus people live in the area, and they all defecate in purified water without a second thought. 

For those first few days back in civilization, the absurdity is overwhelming. But I also can see the bigger picture of our careless lives. Living in a wild place separates us from what is essential: Shelter. Energy. Food. Clean water. Waste removal. We’re forced to take individual responsibility for all of those things in the backcountry.

Of course, I’m a water-pooper, too. No one is immune. No matter how you wipe it, we all clean ourselves with dead trees, even protestors sitting in old growth forests.

I might just be a river rat and mule skinner, but I know that many of our most pressing environmental and social issues stem from this water-pooper line of thinking.

Stepping out of the system to take responsibility for ourselves, even for a few days in the wild, can be eye-opening. It’s amazing to realize how fragile our luxuries are, from toilets that whisk waste away to having clean water pour out of a tap.

It is unwise to take these luxuries for granted.

Jacob Richards is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. He is an outdoor guide and writer and lives in Fruita, Colorado.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

11/20/2023 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
11/20/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
11/21/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
11/21/2023 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
11/22/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
11/22/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
11/22/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
11/22/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
11/22/2023 Taos News Taos NM
11/21/2023 Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman Wasilla AK
11/22/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
11/22/2023 Newport Miner Newport WA
11/22/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
11/23/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
11/21/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
11/26/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
11/25/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
11/25/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
11/25/2023 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
11/22/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
11/21/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
11/30/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
11/22/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
11/24/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
12/01/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
12/01/2023 suislaw News Florence OR
12/01/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
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Cathy Lady
6 months ago

Thank you for the reminder that we walk a delicate line using finite resources.

R. M.
6 months ago

A well-written piece that makes you ponder how humanity has come this far, but also how we neglect to remember the mechanisms of daily life from before.

6 months ago

Just redefining the word luxury here was worth the read. So much to unlearn…

Sally jJobes
5 months ago

Great article I forwarded to about 50 peopke as a Thanksgiving gift.

Robin landini
5 months ago

Very good down to earth article,I have lived that life in younger years, I would like to express my opinions on some local issues mainly north fruita desert goings on , but I’m in need of we’re a how to start and would welcome any ideas

Nicki Marie
5 months ago

I see a similar changes while I am out conducting fieldwork. We observe many changes to the environment now. And water is never as important to us as it is on days when we have miscalculated how much we need!

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