my dad against the white cliffs along the missouri river. all photos taken by the author.

A bathroom review

- or why I don’t mind a portapotty

Jun 26, 2013 · 6 min read

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 lives. 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 the Missouri River to the Pacific and back. He commissioned two of my uncles, my cousin, and my brother to go with him. After much advice from me about packing (I had, at that 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 brother 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 along the river. Guys have it easy most of the time. Girls do not.

Now, I’ve been on trips where the plumbing hasn’t been the greatest. Numerous times I’ve been in campgrounds where there is an outhouse - a wooden building with a deep hole and a place to plant your butt to do your business. I’ve been in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area 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 I persevered. Little did I know that it could get worse.

This canoe trip was an entirely different bathroom experience. For starters, we didn’t stop at established campsites and rest stops where there might be a building with a hole and a place to sit and all that jazz; we stopped 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 simply a hole in the ground that you dig with your collapsible shovel. You choose a spot that is far enough away and shielded from your campsite so that people don’t have to listen to or watch you, but close enough so that it is easy to get to. You dig a hole maybe a foot and a half deep with a foot diameter. The ousted dirt goes right next to the hole with the shovel stuck in the pile so that once you’re finished doing your thing you can cover it so the next person doesn’t have to look at 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 covered with waist-high yellow mustard weeds that we had to stomp down in order to set up camp. Thankfully it was a beautiful day, so this was easily done, and camp was up in no time. That night, my cousin was in charge of latrine duty.

First night’s campsite.

It was a good latrine. My cousin found a low-lying branch that was perfect for sitting on during bathroom time, 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 definitely the better of the two nights we camped on the river.

The next night was also an island night. After a tiring 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 my brother dug the latrine on the upper part of the island behind the biggest bush (well, the only bush).

This latrine was only a hole in the ground with no convenience of braches or a lot of cover. You had to remember the TP and Purell when it was time to go. Everyone used the latrine before the rain hit that late afternoon; by 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 and underpants, 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, which was no small feat because my sandals were slippery on the slick ground. As I was finishing up my business, I suddenly lost balance and started slipping on the mud toward the latrine. The possibilities flashed before my eyes: On the one hand, my sandaled foot would slide into muddy, poopy, icky latrine, or I could throw myself the opposite way onto my pants, still only half on, 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, my arm was a mess of scratches, 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 area 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. As I lowered myself onto the toilet seat, I think I reached nirvana. Sure, it was stinky. Sure, it was probably dirty and germy as all get out. But it was bliss.

The final leg of the journey

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 spent a half hour in the shower at my aunt and uncle’s house washing away five days of grime that had built up on my skin and hair. Besides a horrendous sunburn on my chin and thighs, I came away relatively happy that I went on the trip, along with a greater appreciation for sunblock.

Despite the scenes 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 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.


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    i'm a big nerd.