this is a reprint! for his birthday, my dad requested “presentations” from everyone, and this is what i chose (probably much to his dismay). i have made a couple edits since my first print of this, and i have added a postscript!
Some people are very particular about where they do their business. I know people who wouldn’t do doo-doo in a portapotty to save their lives. But when it comes down to it, everybody poos, and the end result is always the same: a pile of crap you gotta put somewhere.
During the summer of 2003, my dad planned a canoe trip to commemorate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark floating up the Missouri river and then back down the Missouri river. He commissioned my uncles Jon and Greg, cousin Karl, and my brother (Charlie) to go with him. After sticking my nose in his canoe planning one too many times (I had, at the point, been on one canoe trip in my life), he relented and let me come too. Yes!
Looking back, it wasn’t a bad trip, but it wasn’t the greatest. There was a profound lack of estrogen in the company, my bro was a whiny little bugger, and the whole thing kind of seemed haphazardly thrown together (my dad didn’t pack any bowls… or spoons…and the menu for night two was stew). There was a lot more that happened on this trip, like the weird canoe and a Delorean, but that’s not what this story is about. This is a bathroom review. Back to the task at hand.
What was most inconvenient for me during this trip was the lack of bathroom facilities. Guys have it easy most of the time. Girls do not have it as easy.Now, I’d been on trips where the plumbing hasn’t been the greatest. Numerous times I’ve been in campgrounds where there is a vault toilet – a wooden building with a deep hole and a place to plant your butt to do your business. I’ve been out in the boundary waters where the facilities are much more open – no building whatsoever around the deep hole in the ground, but there was a place to sit. And sure, I’ve popped a squat behind a tree and visited plenty of portajohns (holding my breath, of course). At the times of these trips to the restroom, they didn’t seem like the best facilities in which to do a necessary deed. I didn’t know what was to come.
This canoe trip was entirely different than any other “roughing it” outing I’d been on. For starters, we didn’t stop at pre-assigned stops where there might be a building with a hole and a place to sit and all that jazz. We decided to stop at random spots. This, I learned much later in life, was my uncle Jon’s mojo, and I guess no one thought to question it. So, for the most part, I held it as best I could. But inevitably, ya gotta pee.
So, let me tell you about a latrine. It is literally a hole in the ground that you dig with your collapsible shovel. You choose a spot that is far enough away and shielded so that people don’t have to listen to you or watch you, but close enough so that it is easy to get to. You dig maybe a foot and a half down, and a foot diameter hole. The ousted dirt goes right next to the hole and the shovel stuck in the pile of dirt so that once you’ve finished doing your thing, you can cover it up with dirt so the next person doesn’t have to look at it or smell it.
When you head to the latrine site, you bring a roll of TP and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Then, after finishing your business, you throw dirt in the hole. Of course, this isn’t the easiest thing to do because you’d have to dump a lot of dirt in to cover it up, and you want enough dirt to last the stay. So it’s not uncommon to smell or see past duties/doodies when your turn finally comes around. Once you’re done with your camping site, you shovel the rest of the dirt in the hole and pack it all down. Latrine!
The first night of our float was on an island with waist-high yellow mustard weeds all over that we had to stomp down to set up camp. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, so this was easily done, and camp was set up rather quickly. That night, my cousin Karl was in charge of latrine duty.It was a quaint little latrine hole, and good start for the first night. Karl found a low-lying branch that was perfect for sitting on during your time in the latrine, and there was even a handy little jutted out branch that the TP roll fit perfectly. That night was a learning experience as I tried sitting on a bumply branchy woody piece of log to do my business. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but it was the better of the two nights we camped on the river.
The next night was also an island night. After a long day of canoeing into the gusty wind, a sudden storm popped up and we had to find a place to camp – fast. A little island with no trees was the choice. We camped on the lower, beachy part of the island, and the latrine for that night was on the upper, grassy part of the island, behind the biggest bush (well, the only bush). (Don’t think that this was some superlong hike up a hill to get to the bathbush – the elevation climb was maybe 6 feet.) Charlie was on latrine duty that night, and he made it quite clear that he’d found the best spot for the latrine and thank goodness he got it dug before the storm whipped through.
Except…. This latrine was literally only a hole in the ground with no convenience of branches or ANY support. Everyone peed before the rain hit that late afternoon, but the next morning the latrine was a soggy, muddy mess. A recipe for disaster, especially for a not-morning person such as myself.
There I was, in the best position I found for latrine business: one leg out of pants, squatting as best as possible, feet as far from the edges of the latrine as possible. The mud just made everything 100 times more difficult. I tried to keep my pants out of the mud and keep me out of the mud at the same time. The TP went on the bush, but there was always the possibility that IT could’ve fallen into the mud as well. As I finished my business, I suddenly lost balance. I could see my possibilities flash before my eyes. On the one hand, I could take my chances with adjusting my footing, possibly slipping feet-first into the muddy, poopy, icky latrine, or go with the sure thing and throw my exposed self the opposite way onto my pants and into the large prickly bush covering me from peering eyes. So little time, such a harrowing decision. I chose the bush.
My pants were all wet, I had prickly bush scratches all over my legs and bum, and I lost my shoe for a moment, but I was unpoop-scathed. And the TP survived.
Later that day as we floated down the final leg of our journey, we stopped for lunch at a designated rest stop on the river. And I have NEVER EVER been so thrilled to see a vault-style, hole-in-the-ground poop-station. There were walls. There was a door. There was…. an elevated place to sit. There was even a roll of toilet paper on a holder. For that moment in time, I think I reached nirvana. I at least reached civilization. Sure, it was stinky. Sure, it was probably dirty as all get out. But it was bliss.
That night, we reached the end of our river journey with flush toilets and a comfortable place to sleep, not to mention other people and a little store where you could buy junk food and other essentials you’ve missed in the wilderness. The next night, I spent a half hour in the shower at my aunt and uncle’s house washing away the five days of grime that had built up on my skin and in my hair.
Besides a horrendous sunburn on my chin and thighs, I came away relatively pleased that I went on the trip and with a greater understanding of the uses of sunblock.
Despite the scenery I witnessed, despite the ongoing bets of when my brother would give up, start crying, and throw himself into the river, and despite my awesome blistering chin, when people ask me about the trip down the Missouri River, the one story I inevitably tell is how I averted the disaster of falling into the latrine. Then I explain that I will never, ever fear a portapotty.
Since this trip, I’ve experience quite the array of different bathroom offerings. A few highlights on the facilities, as it were:
- MN State parks have quite the system with their vault toilets, and I recommend them to anyone. They are clean! If you keep the lid down, they don’t stink! They’re in every park, and I’ve actually stopped at a park just to use the vault toilet.
- I learned a couple summers ago that cousin Lori apparently doesn’t do vault toilets, but has a goal to pee in the woods in every state park.
- When in Mexico… you don’t flush toilet paper! Paper products in general aren’t great for water treatment, so much of Mexico has gone fully out-of-toilet with their paper. When you’re done, just drop your used paper in a handy wastebasket next to the toilet. It was a little weird at first, but after a while, you got used to it, and it’s better for the environment.
- I’ve since gone back to the boundary waters for another canoe trip, and while you may think that you don’t need that extra roll of TP to take up space in your pack, it’s probably good form to bring it just in case. By the end of the trip, we were all drip drying. Thank goodness my bowels were in discord the night BEFORE we got on the water.
- The portapotty status at Ragnar is definitely dependent on when they get cleaned out. Sometimes you’re lucky, and they have just unloaded the rows of portajohns and pumped in a “clean” scent, which does absolutely nothing except cover the smell of portapoos with disinfectant flowers. Or you get not so lucky and note that if you decide to use this portaloo, your bum will touch something that’s not the seat, and no thank you. I do not go THAT far. The good news is that I have noticed that the farther away the bank of johnnyonthespots, the less frequently used they are, generally, and I’m definitely willing to walk another 50’ to get to a better place to plant my bum.
- EXCEPT WHEN IT’S 37º OUTSIDE HOLY CRAP NO ONE WANTS TO SIT ON AN ALMOST-FREEZING TOILET SEAT, EVEN IF IT’S CLEAN, SAAADD FACE. My poor, frozen bum didn’t get warm til I got home and took a bath.