Treading Lightly


It was after dinner and I went outside to take care of one of our daily chores – emptying the gray water bucket into a 55-gallon drum. Gray water is the water that has rinsed tomato sauce and bacon grease off dirty dishes and pots. Gray water is the water people have used to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Gray water is the water people have sloshed around in their mouths after brushing their teeth, mixed with saliva, soapy toothpaste and food tidbits, then spit out. And gray water was the water I had just spilled all over my Carhart overalls. I was upset. Then I tried to put things in perspective. I hadn’t showered in two weeks and hadn’t done laundry in three. Another stain, some more smells – big deal. It was all part of life in the valleys, part of our efforts to live according to the Dry Valleys Code of Field Conduct.

Gray water system
The gray water system at the F6 camp.
"Gray" water
“Gray” water

The code was one result of a 1995 workshop to discuss environmental management that would protect the Valleys’ wilderness, aesthetic, and scientific values for future generations. The U.S. National Science Foundation sponsored the workshop, which was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thirty-three people from nine different countries participated, including Stream Team head Dr. Diane McKnight. The code was developed as a set of guidelines for those of us who work in the valleys. It asks us to take certain actions - actions that will minimize our environmental impact.

Thus, as much as possible we use established camps so as not to disturb new areas. For the same reason we reuse old tent sites; we walk on set trails when we can; and helicopters take off and land from fixed locations.

At the camps, we make sure to secure our gear so that it won’t blow away. To the greatest extent possible, we use renewable sources of energy. Each of the established camps now has solar panels and one has a wind generator as well. This minimizes the gas and oil that must be transported to the valleys and the possibility of spills.

Diane inside a helicopter
on a flight to Taylor Valley.

The 55-gallon drums holding the oil and gas that we do use are kept inside a containment berm. When we fuel generators or the vehicles that we drive on lake ice we do so over drip pans and with absorbent spill pads in hand.

solar panels
Corey Peterson turns the solar panels
at the Lake Hoare camp.

spill containment berm
Urine barrels, gray water barrels, and fuel
sit inside a spill containment berm
at the F6 camp.

In order not to introduce any foreign bacteria or sources of nutrients, all the water that we use is helicoptered offsite. So we minimize water use in the field. That means no laundry. Showers happen at most once a week and with less than three gallons of water.

shower hut
The blue building is the shower hut
at the Lake Hoare camp.

Inside shower hut
A view inside the shower hut

When we make pasta, we save the water to wash dishes later. Because we have no pipe system for water supply or disposal, the gray water that results is collected in buckets and eventually transferred to 55-gallon drums that are located in the containment berm along with the gas and oil.


In addition to environmental management, we have another reason for minimizing water use. With no running faucets, we have to get all the water we use ourselves. Later in the field season we carry water from the lake moats or from a nearby stream back to camp. But early on, before thawing has progressed, we must chip lake ice and melt it down. At the lake Hoare Camp, we also go to the nearby Canada Glacier, gather glacier berries, and melt those down. These berries lie at the glacier’s base and are formed when fragments of the glacier break off or calve and fracture into smaller ice pieces, the berries. Ice berries are much larger than the fruity kind and to collect them we chip at them with an ice axe or chipper bar. That’s what 2003-4 stream teamer Justin Joslin is doing in this photo.

Berry picking


If we have a lot of equipment, fuel, or waste that needs to be transported or if our equipment is too big or oddly shaped to fit inside the helicopter, helo operations will often move it as a slingload. The first step in putting together a slingload is opening a mesh net that the load will sit inside. A wooden pallet is then placed on top of the net and a large reinforced cardboard box is placed on top of that. We pack our “stuff” inside the box and then use cargo straps to close it. If our stuff consists of, for instance, 55-gallon urine or gray water drums, they can sit on the pallet directly. The mesh is then wrapped around the boxes or drums to create a kind of sack. The mesh is attached to a long cable that is hooked underneath the helicopter. When the helicopter takes off it lifts the cable and attached load with it and carries it away.

Taylor Valley camp manager Rae Spain organized the preparation of several slingloads at the stream team’s main camp F6 towards the end of our season. Assistant camp manager Heidi Hausman, helicopter pilot Mark DeWolf, and stream team members Josh Koch and Shannon Horn helped. See photos here

Heidi did the hooking of this particular load. Then she pulled down on the cable to make sure it was secure and walked away to get out of the slingload’s path. Pilot Mark DeWolf was flying. See photos here

Like the gray water, at many of the camps, including the main stream team camp at F6, all human waste is helicoptered offsite. For transport purposes we must keep our poop and pee separate. First thing in the morning this is a lot harder than it may sound! At camp we poop in a 5-gallon bucket and pee in a coffee can. The buckets eventually get capped and shipped off. The pee is transferred to a urine barrel that is inside the berm as well. If we are hiking around we pee into a one-liter Nalgene bottle and somehow get our poop into a bag. We then carry our waste back to camp. The main Taylor Valley camp at Lake Hoare has “rocket toilets.” It’s a special treat to use these toilets because we can poop and pee into the same receptacle. Instead of being helo’ed offsite, the waste in the toilets gets incinerated.

Human waste
A season’s worth of poop

The outhouse at the F6 camp.


The pee bottles that we carry in the field are one-liter Nalgenes. Our drinking water bottles are one-liter Nalgenes as well.That could lead to some tricky situations.

To avoid any untoward mishaps, most of us have huge P letters marked on the urine bottles.

Pee bottles
Pee bottles

All this may seem like a hassle. We certainly grumble on occasion, complain about the oil in our hair, that we are tired of smelling each other and ourselves, that we would like nothing better than to have a flush toilet, and wouldn’t it be nice to turn on a faucet, have hot water run out, and disappear down a drain. But in the end, these things seem quite small. We get to live in one of the most beautiful, unique, and pristine places in the world. It is a place where biological communities my have taken decades or even thousands of years to develop, where some geological features data back millions of years, where the ecosystem has very little natural ability to recover from human disturbance, and where up until 100 years ago no person had ever set foot.

Rocket toilets
The rocket toilets at the
Lake Hoare camp

The other waste we generate at camp gets separated into one of nine categories for recycling and disposal purposes. These categories include: glass, light metal, cardboard, plastics, burnables, food waste, batteries, lab waste, and construction debris.

Waste sorting
Sorting waste at the Lake Hoare camp

Thinking of pollution prevention and picking up after ourselves seem the least we can do.

- Karen

Sampling algae
Diane and stream team member Josh Koch sample stream algae.