Au Naturel

What I’ve found about my adventures in the Arctic is that they make the most amusing party stories. People are endlessly interested in Alaska, full of questions and curiosity. But, there is one subject, despite their interest, I refuse to talk about: the bathroom ritual.

It just so happened that on one particular occasion, it came up, at the dinner table, of all places. An effusive woman in her 60s said that she would gladly give up material comforts and live in the wilderness if it weren’t for the “bathroom situation”. Then, she leaned across the table, and asked, “Now tell me, what was the bathroom situation like? Did your little tushy simply freeze? Was there indoor plumbing or an outhouse? Or did you go au naturel?”

I almost choked on my pasta, struggling not to laugh. I tried to imagine this woman with her diamonds and pearl necklace and bright red lipstick, squatting in the snow to do her business.

Then I remembered what it was really like: crouching to pee in the woods behind the cabin at 2:00 A.M. while the wolves howled in the distance; baring my butt at 35 below and trying to balance it between two spruce poles, shaped like an inverted triangle, hanging over a 4-foot hole of human excrement. “Au naturel…” the woman called it. What I wanted to say was, “Does a bear sh*t in the woods!?”

But, that is not how a young woman at a dinner party responds. So, instead I laughed and put on my most ladylike smile. “The bathroom situation,” I say.  “It’s what you could call…” I thought for a second. “Rustic. Yes, very rustic.”

The Bathroom Ritual


Keeping my sense of humor.
Keeping my sense of humor.

Before I left the bush, and returned to the world of niceties, I had a little discussion with my father. I made him promise, regarding the bathroom ritual, that what happened in the Arctic, stayed in the Arctic. I would much rather have left the memory buried away in the tundra, but, somehow, my mother convinced me that this is the kind of thing people wonder about, but are too polite to ask. So I’ve decided to put aside my dignity and bare all.

First – peeing. If were a guy, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But, as a girl, peeing involved exposing my backside to hoards of hungry mosquitoes that, by the final tinkle, left it red and spotted. There was also my secret terror. I lived in fear that a bear would come charging out of the bushes when both my guard and my pants were down.

Now (let’s be blunt here) – pooping.  At Camp Coleen River there was a special screen tent with a 5-gallon honey bucket inside that my uncle set up for Job #2. The tent was just twenty feet from the campsite, where my dad and Heimo discussed dinner plans – baked, broiled or fried grayling — and even closer to my uncle’s tent, so that when he got the urge, which he often did, he didn’t have to walk far. I would’ve preferred to have slipped discreetly into the woods, but Heimo explained that the woods was his backyard. So, when it was my turn, I’d have to surrender my pride, and announce to my dad and uncle that I had to “go” and that they would have to politely turn their heads.

Sitting on a 5-gallon pale, within spitting distance of the fire pit, was anything but comfortable. No bathroom door, no cushioned seat, and hardly an ounce of privacy. Just a mosquito screen, a roll of toilet paper, and an all-purpose bucket. My goal was to get in and get out as fast as I could.

Once I was finished, I’d pull up my pants and haul my business through the buggy brush to a hole, 50 yards away. After delicately dumping it, so as to avoid the splash, I’d make my way back to camp, the empty bucket swinging from my hand. Then, I’d buckle on my hip waders, trudge to the river and wash out the pale, downriver of Heimo’s drinking hole, for the next honey bucket sitter.

I came to dread the call of nature, but on a diet of berries and fish, I realized that there was no refusing it.  As Heimo often said, “When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.”