We’re getting something like a flush toilet soon, in just a couple more weeks or so. And it will cost us not a single penny nor any effort. It’s a natural phenomena that occurs in our outhouse every spring as the snow melts. Water trickles down into the hole, only announcing its presence when the matters plummeting into the depths are suddenly met with splashing resonance.
Now that everything is thawing, a brown tattoo of little ermine feet is sometimes found on the big square of Styrofoam that is our outhouse seat. Southerners may turn up their noses in disgust at their first encounter with one of these grimy-looking foam pads that even when antiseptically clean tend to have a slightly chewed-up appearance. Of course, if they had ever had the misfortune to lower their bared tender parts on to a plastic seat in the wintertime, they would understand the beauty of pink and blue Styrofoam.
While southerners might build bird houses as their first carpentry project, legions of Yukoners have eased themselves into the art of cabin building by trying their hand on an outhouse first. Maybe that is why there is such a bewildering and lovingly created variety of them. In the old days, before the advent of composting and chemical toilets, your choices were a bit more limited: a one-seater versus a two-seater, door or no door. There are claustrophobic affairs out there that are airtight, mosquito-netted and tube-vented, the summertime smell of which could be bottled and sold to the CIA as a weapon of mass destruction.
But in general, outhouses have a much stinkier reputation than they deserve, I feel. When the unnecessary embellishment of a door is done away with so that air can circulate freely and you can admire the view, and when the toilet paper is not thrown down into the hole to soak up and hang on to every smell but burned as you go instead – why then it’s fairly pleasant.
Of course, it still means a trip outside. Which can be a bit of a nuisance during the height of mosquito season, when the bugs will swarm around parts of you that were never meant to be stung, or if you’re struck with a bout of diarrhea on a winter night when it’s forty below. On the other hand, it’s a good way to see northern lights that you might have missed if it hadn’t been for that last trip to the privy.
This icon of the North is so far in no real danger of being abandoned for the modern alternatives, it seems. Those are a lot more expensive and considering how small many cabins are – where would you make space inside for a toilet? Hardly the thing you can keep in your living room and kitchen. And if you add on a little cubicle, there’s the issue of heating it in the winter.
A friend of mine who was taken by the concept of composting toilets but not by the rather outrageous prices ended up designing one herself. When I visited shortly after she had constructed her composting toilet, I was immediately ushered into the bathroom (her luxurious cabin sports more than one room). She marched over to an old bucket, whipped a piece of plywood off it and commanded: “Smell!”
I hesitatingly bent over the bucket, which was equipped with a plastic toilet seat. Sawdust and moss met my eye. Reluctantly, I took a whiff. My friend, still clutching the plywood cover, demanded: “And?”
“Well, it kind of smells like sawdust and … the other things that are in there.”
“But you can’t say that it stinks.”
“No,” I admitted, “airtight outhouses smell a lot worse.”
My friend closed the bucket contentedly and recommended that we convert to the same system. There is a flaw, however: for the contents of the bucket to decompose and to keep them out of canine reach, my friend ends up putting it all down a hole anyway. So would we, knowing the strange proclivities of our dogs. It just adds up to more work, in my view.
No, we’ll stick to our outhouse, the still frozen pinnacle in there, it’s short-lived flush toilet features, the visiting rodents and bugs. But we might get a new piece of Styrofoam for a seat this year.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.