I originally published this in 2007
Some people are very particular about where they do their business. I know people who wouldn’t do doodoo in a portapotty to save their life. But when it comes down to it, poo is poo, and the end result is always the same: a pile of crap you’ve gotta put somewhere.
For summer 2003, my dad planned a canoe trip to commemorate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark floating up the Missouri river and back down the Missouri river. He commissioned my uncles Jon and Greg, cousin Karl, and my brother, Charlie, to go with him. After much advice from me about packing (I had, at the point, been on one canoe trip in my life, which was one more than he) and cajoling from my mom, he gave in and let me come too.
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). What was most inconvenient for me, however, was the lack of bathroom facilities. Guys have it easy most of the time. Girls do not.
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 portapotty type 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. At the times of these trips, they didn’t seem like the best facilities in which to do a necessary deed.
But this canoe trip was entirely different. 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. For the most part, I held it as best I could. But inevitably, ya gotta pee.
First, 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’re 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. 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, so it’s not to uncommon to smell or see past duties/doodies when your turn finally comes around. Also at the latrine site is a roll of TP and very large bottle of Purell. Once you’re done with your camping site, you shovel the rest of the dirt in the hole and pack it all down.
The first night we stopped 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. That night, my cousin Karl was in charge of latrine duty.
It was a good latrine 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 sat on a bumply branchy woody piece of log to do my business. Not the most pleasant experience, but the better of the two nights we camped on the river.
The next night was also an island night. After a windy day of canoeing into the 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 part of the island, and the latrine for that night was on the upper part of the island, behind the biggest bush (well, the only bush). Charlie was on duty that night, and he was very proud of the fact that he found the bush.
Except…. this was literally only a hole in the ground with no convenience of braches. You had to remember the TP and Purell when it was time to go. Everyone peed before the rain hit that late afternoon, but the next morning the latrine was a soggy, muddy mess. And I almost fell in.
There I was, in the best position I found for latrine business: one leg out of shorts, squatting as best as possible, legs as far from the edges of the latrine as possible. In the mud, it was even worse. I had to keep my pants out of the mud and keep me out of the mud. As I finished my business, I suddenly lost balance and started slipping on the mud toward the latrine. I could see my possibilities flash before my eyes. On the one hand, I could fall into muddy, poopy, icky latrine, or throw myself 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, and I lost my shoe for a moment, but I was unpoop-scathed.
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 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. 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 place of commerce to buy junk food. The next night I spend 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. Besides a horrendous sunburn on my chin and thighs, I came away relatively happy that I went on the trip and with a greater understanding of the uses of sunblock.
Despite the scenes I witnessed, despite the ongoing bets of when my brother would give up and start crying and throw himself into the river, and despite my awesome blistering chin, when people asked me about the trip, the one story I inevitably told was how I averted the disaster of falling in the latrine. Then I explained that I will never, ever fear a portapotty.