Jerry Christensen has a job that truly stinks.
In the canyon of the Deschutes River, where the dusty bluffs are dotted with sagebrush, Christensen is scrubbing the plastic toilet seat of an outhouse.
You can probably picture the outhouse: a classic pit-privy made of sun-bleached plywood.
On the door is a faded logo of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that has contracted Christensen to make the weekly rounds he calls the “Poo Patrol.”
Each week, he loads his handmade mahogany drift boat with buckets, bleach, and dozens of rolls of toilet paper. He slips his boat into the river’s current at the town of Warm Springs, and winds his way north through the twisting course of nearly 50 miles to the take-out point near Maupin. The 13 outhouses he cleans along this stretch of the lower Deschutes River aren’t like any other outhouses in Oregon — they are accessible only by boat.
“Any other river it’s pack it in, pack it out,” Christensen said. “It’s the only river in the state that regularly maintains bathrooms along the way.”
The Deschutes River has long been one of Oregon’s most popular recreational rivers, loved by river runners and anglers for generations. With as many as 500 permits available to float the river each day, the volume of human waste can add up to more than a ton a week.
That’s a lot of “poo” that otherwise might pollute campsites and the river itself if not for the presence and regular maintenance of the riverside outhouses.
For those who have to answer the call of nature while boating down the Deschutes, Christensen’s work to clean and maintain the bathroom facilities is much appreciated. He’s even become a bit of a local celebrity for his work, earning the nickname “Two-ply.”
How could someone be so enthusiastic about a job that few people would envy? It has to do with the river that connects him to these outhouses.
The origins of ‘Two-ply’
To earn the contract to clean the outhouses of the Deschutes, you have to be a skilled boater. Christensen is certainly that. He deftly maneuvers the oars of his wooden drift boat. He’s not only been rowing this classic boat down the Deschutes for more than a decade — he also built it with his own hands.
Seasoned river runners know that wooden boats require extra precision in weaving through rocky rapids. Where inflatable rafts may bounce off rocks, wooden boats break, and can even shatter and sink.
One of the notorious rapids of the Deschutes is known as White Horse.
“When we roll into the upper part of White Horse, there’s always a couple of really deep breaths because it’s tight in there and that’s where people have problems. And if they have a problem, that’s not a place to swim,” Christensen said.
One year while on a personal fishing trip, Christensen spotted an upturned boat, stranded in the middle of the churning rapid. On the side of the boat was a sign that read: “BLM Contract.”
“And that’s when I decided that I could give [the BLM] a call because I have a feeling that contract might be open,” he said. “Sure enough, it was!”
With his new appointment, Christensen made a choice. When it came to the selection of toilet paper, the contract only specified a certain percentage of recycled material. As a long time user of the riverside outhouses, he was personally familiar with the standard single-ply rolls stocked in public restrooms across public lands. So instead of purchasing the nearly transparent single-ply he’d had to use far too often on his outdoor adventures, Christensen decided to cut into his own profit margin and splurged on quality two-ply.
Within the first couple months of his contract, he pulled into a campsite where a guided river group had camped for the night. When the rower of the gear boat spotted Christensen, he stood up and yelled: “Two-ply!”
Christensen started laughing, and the people in his boat laughed, too.
“And it stuck,” he said.
Fishing guide Corey Godell of Deschutes River Anglers, who spends dozens of consecutive days on the river, appreciates Christensen’s dedication.
“There’s nobody more known down here than Two-ply,” Godell said. “He makes everybody happy. He kind of keeps the world going round and round down here because of his job. And because of him, it’s a better, cleaner place.”
“All right, here we go….” Christensen says as he hefts his mop over shoulder and picks up his plastic buckets.
He hikes up from the river bank, though the sagebrush, toward a tall wooden structure. This is the first of a specific type of outhouse — a composter. It has steps leading up to a small deck and the door to the privy. Below is a series of chambers for the waste.
Christensen has arrived at one of the most heavily-used outhouses on the “Poo Patrol” route. As he opens the door, he exhales to blow out the stench that has wafted into his nostrils.
He peers into the outhouse and scans the scene. The last time he was here, he’d restocked 16 rolls of toilet paper; now all that remains are the bare cardboard tubes and a few scraps on the floor.
“I bet the poo’s just right up in there,” he says, shaking his head in dismay. “Only one way to find out!”
He lifts the plastic lid and peers down.
“Oh yeah,” he says, turning his head to the side with a grimace. “That’s super.”
The traditional pit toilets along the “Poo Patrol” route can be emptied every year or two. But farther down the river, deeper into the canyon, there are no roads. The waste has to be treated on site. Composting toilets solve this but require Christensen to get more up close and personal with the poo.
After scrubbing down the stall and restocking the rolls of two-ply, Christensen goes around the backside of the outhouse and opens a hatch.
It reveals the compositing unit, which has three internal levels. The waste drops to the first level, gets turned until it breaks down. Then, it drops to the second level and eventually to the third and lowest level. By that point, the material has composted to the color and texture of garden mulch and can be mixed into the desert soils.
But in the first level, it is all raw — just as stinky and unsightly as you can imagine the contents of an outhouse would be.
Christensen unlatches the hatch and a pungent stench rolls out.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” he says. “Oh man!”
He jams a garden hoe into the hatch, pushing around the pungent heap.
Then, he cranks a ratcheting lever to turn the entire batch, helping it break it down into compost.
“This is where I really start to earn my money,” he says.
‘Poo Patrol’ passengers
The work would be repetitive and even lonely, but Christensen has two seats in the front of his drift boat that he likes to offer to old friends and new. He jokes that if he had to spend up to nine hours alone with himself he’d start talking to himself — then with a chuckle, he adds, “and start believing myself!”
Each year, Christensen will make around 30 trips on the “Poo Patrol” and invite some 40-50 guests to ride with him while he performs his duties.
Nearly all of his passengers are long-time friends for whom joining Christensen has become an annual tradition. Every so often he’ll meet someone new and offer them the coveted opportunity to ride along. One was an older man Christensen met on the river. The man was camping in the upper part of the canyon.
“I see you here a couple times a year,” Christensen told him.
“Yeah,” the man said. “I used to do the whole thing, but my wife won’t let me go past Trout Creek because of White Horse.”
“Well, I can take you through White Horse,” Christensen said.
As Christensen rowed his new passenger down the canyons of the Deschutes and through the famous rapids, the man was reminiscing.
“He was in his 70s, and he had been running the river for some 30 years,” Christensen said. “That was pretty special.”
He recalls with fondness a duo of passengers, Priscilla and Jackie, 79 and 81 years old at the time, who he describes as “two little old ladies just cackling and laughing and having a great time.”
And then he gets teary. Emotion floods up as he thinks about Priscilla and her declining health.
“Dementia has kicked in and it’s just so hard to watch,” Christensen said. While her short-term memory declines, her long-term memory remains intact, and Pricilla remembers her years joining Christensen as his passenger and asks him when they will return to run the river. “And I just can’t take her anymore,” he says.
A river runs through it
By the last outhouse, the sun sinks low in the summer sky, shimmering ribbons of golden reflection on the water. The bathrooms are cleaned and rapids all run. The remaining stretch of river to the take-out feels appropriately slow and reflective. Christensen slowly lifts his oars from the water and lets the boat drift silently, as he looks up at the jagged mesas rising on either side.
“You see the river change,” he muses. “You see people change.”
The corners of his eyes are creased from decades of squinting in the desert sun, and the stubble on his jaw is more flecked with gray hairs than in years past.
“I care about this river. I want it to keep going,” he says, letting his thoughts flow with the current. “And my goal is to keep doing it as long as the contract is there, and it doesn’t get much worse than it is now.”
“I’m all in until I can’t do it anymore, and that’ll be a sad day…”
He pauses, then adds with a chuckle: “for everybody else!”