JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Hikers in Alaska's wilderness at certain times may encounter a federal government operation involving a helicopter and two ground crews.
But rather than the sort of clandestine scene found in spy thrillers, the U.S. Forest Service airlift in Tongass National Forest is a facilities management project to remove material left behind when campers answer the call of nature.
The agency maintains trails and public cabin facilities, including outhouses for dwellings that are rented year-round, KTOO-FM reported Saturday.
Brad Orr, supervisor of the Juneau Ranger District, said the forest service oversees a group of cabins in Juneau that receive numerous visitors who leave behind more than footprints.
The agency hires contractors to pump sewage into barrels to be hauled away. But the outhouse along the popular Windfall Lake Trail is several miles from the road and cannot be reached by septic trucks.
Instead, the agency hires a helicopter to fly the waste away, with the ground crews providing support.
“They have it down to a pretty good science,” Orr said. “But there is aircraft in the air. And, you know, we like to alert the public that that’s going on — not that there’s any particular hazard associated with it.”
The ground crews remain in the area for about two weeks, assisting with the outhouse operation while also cleaning and conducting necessary maintenance. Every forest service cabin is serviced at least once a year, weather permitting, the agency said.
Cabin user fees cover the cost of helicopter operations, propane for heat, renovation materials and payments to work crews, Orr said.
People entering the area are warned on a trail sign about the operation, which Roald Simonson encountered earlier this month while hiking Windfall Lake Trail.
Simonson said he came across an orange traffic cone supporting a stick with a laminated sheet of paper telling saying there was pumping occurring with an advisory that said: “Hike at your own risk.”
"The sign had a warning, and nothing to tell you exactly what is going on,” Simonson said.
Recreation Programs Manager Ed Grossman said there was a good reason the warning placard focused on waste pumping rather than the presence of an aircraft.
“It didn’t mention helicopters because people are attracted to the show,” Grossman said. “If it’s a pumping-human-waste event, that usually doesn’t draw a crowd.”