Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Building Shay’s Privy

It was early June in 2011 and we were planning our first extended visit to Lost Brook Tract, to take place over most of July. Our plan was to explore part of the land, try to find at least one side of our property lines, evaluate different bushwhack routes in, haul enough gear back to establish a permanent base camp and rebuild the lean-to which was on the verge of collapse, its roof having long ago caved in.

Another part of the plan was to make camp ready for visitors. We expected a couple of my relatives to maybe come up for two or three days. We expected a dinner date on the land with Vinny McClelland. And then we expected Shay.

Amy has a brother, Dan. Shay is his wife. They have two young children, Sofie and Jonah. Dan, Shay and family are not hard core hikers and bushwhackers like we are. With Lost Brook Tract being a bona fide wilderness experience it was incumbent upon us to give some thought about how to best accommodate and provide for the needs of more ordinary campers like them.

To be honest my concern had a narrow focus. Dan is not exactly a wallflower. He is a triathlete and marathon runner who has hiked in the Adirondacks with us before. Three years ago I sent Dan and Amy on a two-day hike from The Garden to the Upper Works via the Great Range. One of Dan’s boots fell apart on the way up Pyramid and he completed the hike with a boot on one foot and a collection of leather and rubber held together with duct tape on the other. Dan’s charitable, warm and loving references to me during his descent of Saddleback have become treasured family lore, although sadly they cannot be repeated here. Meanwhile if I have learned anything over the years of being a parent it is that there is no bipedal creature better equipped to thrive in the Adirondack back country than your average small kid, so Jonah and Sofie were no concern either.

That left Shay. Now I don’t want to mislead anyone. I wasn’t really worried about Shay. She may not be an avid hiker and camper but she has chutzpah. Shay typically tends to doubt herself more than anyone else does, denying that she can or will do something. But more often than not she eventually does it anyhow. Summiting a High Peak was a “No” until she did Giant. Winter camping has always been an unequivocal “No,” accompanied by a whiff of tone that suggests she thinks Amy and I are disturbed. But now I notice a “maybe one night” in her lexicon. There are, however, some hard lines in the sand.

As one gets to know Shay she becomes more and more precious, a primary reason being that she is one of those extremely rare people who is completely authentic. There is never any nonsense or posing with Shay. This is coupled with a lovely, self-effacing verbosity. Shay has a remarkably innocent way of just coming out and saying whatever she is feeling. If there happens to be a line in the sand related to any potential adventure under discussion, Shay will state it succinctly and unquestionably. So for example when Dan and Shay were planning to car camp in the Central Adirondacks not too far from our new property and I was talking to them about spending a couple of nights in the wild with us, Shay’s denial of any interest in using a hole in the ground to take care of her business was laid out in clear terms.

Already having charged myself with considering the welfare and comforts of potential guests of Lost Brook Tract, I reassured Shay – perhaps a little too reflexively – that we would have a lovely, cozy, clean privy with a real seat waiting for her when her family arrived. As I recall this assurance was met with a “heh heh,” but I could be misremembering. In any case I’d said it and so there it was, left in the air, needing to be fulfilled.

Considering that the closest one can get a car to Lost Brook Tract is something over four miles away and two thousand feet down, I had made a non-trivial promise. But I was damned if I was going to break it, so I began to sketch out a design. I wanted to come up with a privy that was light, yet strong enough and private enough to do the job. Amy and I also added a requirement that it be a composting privy.

With Amy’s help I arrived at a design that seemed clever enough. The bottom two feet and the roof would be reasonably canonical but made with light pine waterproofed to within an inch of its life. The whole top of the seat area would hinge off for composting purposes and an opening in the back would facilitate air flow. Between the bottom and the roof there would be nothing but four 2 x 2 posts with screening stapled between them. The door would be a lightly framed screen door. At the top on each side, nestled under the roof, we would have red and blue waterproof tatami-style mats rolled up that could be rolled down between the posts for privacy, creating an ambient purple lighting effect not unlike a fortune telling parlor.

This level of thinking began to move the project target from functional-and-not-unbearably-heavy to downright toney; the whole thing evolved into an intentional testament of my love for Shay, a deep and affecting love that has quite frankly grown to immense proportions. So we really went for it. Amy added a Japanese pattern fabric for the bottom half of the door and a neat battery-powered LED light. We rounded it out with various hooks and niceties, candles and a laminated Hebrew prayer about healthy orifices. The final design… well, we’re talking a Taj Mahal of back country privies. All that was left was to get the materials back there and actually build the thing.

Discretion being the better part of valor I decided to pre-build Shay’s privy to see if the design made any sense. I cut the wood, sank a few screws, held the rest together with duct tape and erected most of it. Now, our neighbors have learned to give us a wide berth. For example we design and operate an elaborate haunted house every year for the Green Bay Packers (don’t ask) and we typically build, stage and test new props, devices and scene elements in our driveway starting in late summer. It’s usually quite a mess. I’ll never forget the time our next-door neighbors, desperate to sell their home after months of trying, held an open house on the same afternoon we were perfecting our exploding walking dead effect in a front yard littered with body parts, blood and clown suits. The grateful look in their eyes spoke volumes. But I honestly think that watching a full-sized outhouse go up out in front of our garage was the last straw for a few of them.

The design seemed to work; so far so good. But then came the dis-assembly and as the parts piled up it became evident that my clever weight-saving strategy had left us with only a couple hundred pounds to haul miles into the middle of nowhere. And that was before the waterproofing changed the light pine into not-as-light-pine.

Haul it we did. Including the hand tools and other gear we needed five trips and brought in an estimated six hundred pounds of camping supplies and privy components (thank goodness we had three adult teenage boys to help). My first pack load was close to ninety pounds and left me propped against the lean-to, near death. The second trip was worse. In addition to another fifty pounds of boards on my pack and about the same weight in hardware and tools in Amy’s pack we each took one end of a bundle holding all the seven foot lengths of wood. I hope by now that readers, recognizing my unqualified expertise and sage wisdom, will believe me when I tell them that there is nothing more pleasant than bushwhacking four miles uphill with a thirty-pound collection of seven-foot-long lumber. My affection for a certain young woman to whom I am not related by blood – and who I hope is reading this – was given a proper and thorough test that day.

Tribulations or not, at last we had all the materials back on our land. We found a perfect spot, elevated, in good soil and sheltered by a large rock wall. Amy dug the hole, leveled the ground and we assembled Shay’s palace with hand tools (those of you who possess the latest power drill really need to feel the wonderful sensation of a screw grabbing into wood under the influence of a big, beautiful hand auger). It was a joyful experience and we were very proud of our labors. The second picture you see accompanying this dispatch is our youngest son staring with what I hope is amazement at the result (sans roof).

A few days later Dan, Shay, Jonah and Sofie arrived, hiking in with us on a beautiful day. Our triumph in revealing the privy was somewhat overshadowed by Shay’s discovery that a statement I had apparently made assuring her that the camping area was “open,” perhaps evoking a nice big Wisconsin prairie field in her mind, was patently false. This was an understandable miscommunication on my part; after all I am an Adirondack type and so “open” to me means I found a twenty-square-foot area in the woods for a tent that is actually sort of flat and sort of clear of trees. You can find such openness on Lost Brook Tract if you look very hard. But despite the fact that Dan and Shay spent an afternoon terraforming a tent site, the visit was perfect. The kids had a great time throughout, the weather was spot on and the privy was a star performer – as was Shay, who in all seriousness was wonderful throughout a truly wild back country experience.

I know you are reading this dear… be careful: these kinds of adventures are catching.

Photos: Assembling Shay’s Privy, and the The Finished Product.


Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




4 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    Another great installment. Saturday morning coffee and Lost Brook are becoming a weekly ritual!
    Thanks ever-so-much!

  2. Paul says:

    Pete, what type of permit was required for the privy? I was told by APA inspectors that I may need a special permit to even move an outhouse that I have at a camp that they were reviewing for another project that I had applied for.

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    he privy was allowed under an existing permit allowing the construction of the lean-to. Nothing unusual, just the expected need to set back the proper distance from water (in this case Lost Brook).

  4. Paul says:

    Pete, A general permit for a lean to requires a complete description of the design of any pit privy and exactly where it will be placed on the project site. Did the older permits just say it had to be some distance from the water and that it could have any design? Just curious since I may have to deal with this myself soon.