A Little Light Relief
By Tamia Nelson
March 10, 2009
Bet you've heard these before… Visiting the little girl's (or little boy's) room. Using the facility. Finding a comfort station. Going to the bog. Spending a penny. Taking a slash. Powdering your nose. Pumping ship. Doing Number One (or Number Two). Watering the flowers. Making a smoothie… It all adds up to an embarrassment of choice. With the emphasis on "embarrassment." In our attempts to avoid being thought rude or vulgar, we've made it harder to talk about the very practical problem of meeting nature's call under less than ideal conditions. Yet it remains a fact of life. We all have to do it. Several times a day. And Mother Nature isn't always considerate when it comes to making her demands, either.
Canoeists and kayakers know this all too well, but sooner or later we develop coping strategies. Many paddlers try to get The Business out of the way before they launch—and then hold their water, come what may. If they're lucky, there's a restroom at the put-in parking area, though it may lack a few of the customary amenities:
In the Same Boat reader Susan Stone reports that this outhouse in Idaho offered little more than Cold Comfort, even if it did give the occupant a measure of privacy. The bad news? Not all backcountry put-ins are so well appointed. But needs must, as Shakespeare almost said, and pumping ship before launching remains a favorite option. After all, conditions might be even more spartan downriver, and the facilities at streamside pit stops often include such unwanted extras as near-vertical banks of clinging mud, tangles of poison ivy, and clouds of biting flies, not to mention the odd bear or alligator. Unless, that is, you're lucky enough to paddle round a bend in the river and find what reader Bob Angel discovered on Cedar Creek in South Carolina:
Of course, you'd have to be pretty desperate to climb this greasy pole. And you'd be disappointed when you made it to the top. Despite appearances, this room with a view is a gauging station, not an outhouse. It will measure your contribution to the stream's discharge, but it won't give you a ringside seat to assist the process.
OK. Enough silliness. Let's…
Get Down to Business
My earlier column entitled "Wetsuits, Drysuits, and Calls of Nature" drew an enthusiastic response from folks who fully appreciated the importance of fundamental matters. Better yet, these readers-turned-writers were happy to share their insights. So, in the spirit of Web 2.0—or least Web 1.5—I'm handing the narrative over to them, beginning with Penny Harper, who has a tip for those of us who find it difficult to stand and deliver. (Biology is destiny, they say. How true!) I'd mentioned a helpful appliance called the Lady J in my column. But Penny wrote to remind me that the Lady didn't have the market to herself, and that there might be an even better alternative:
Another brand [of useful pissoir prosthesis] to help us women is called the Freshette® Urinary Director. It even comes with a[n extension] tube.
I've never seen a Freshette up close, but the insight behind its design is a good one. The less well-endowed Lady J can make doing the biz a bit difficult if you're wearing much more than a pair of shorts:
Then again, size isn't everything. Whatever a female paddler's choice, practice always makes perfect, and it's best to practice near home—but not in your backyard, unless you have a high fence or no nearby neighbors!—with dry clothes close by. The learning curve is guaranteed to be both steep and soggy.
That's a point which was taken up in another letter, this one from Anna Mallin, who noted (with wonderful tact and great good humor) that my treatment of drysuits had been a touch perfunctory. Anna wrote to flesh out the details:
Your article on the lavatory aspects of paddling is great fun, but there is another aspect which might BARE mentioning.
Recently I contemplated the purchase of a Kokatat® drysuit and wondered if I wanted the female version (with its large rear zip opening) or the male version (with its less bulky front zip). As I can manage the timing of [poop]ing more easily than the timing of peeing, and as I had tried (and not particularly liked) the rear window arrangement, I purchased the male version of the Kokatat dry suit.
I can report that at rest stops I remain toasty warm while using a female peeing device [i.e., the Lady J or Freshette or something similar –Editor] to emulate my male colleagues. The hard part is persuading one's body that one really (yes, really!) wants to pee while standing up. I had to work fairly hard to overcome my bladder's natural reluctance to do what it had been trained from childhood NOT to do.
I have yet to face up to the problem of peeing while on the water and, so far, have been able to rely on planned shore stops to avoid the problem.
Anna's letter highlights another important fact: Cross-dressing isn't just a lifestyle choice. It can offer real, practical advantages. And, like Anna, I've often found that gear intended for men was indeed more functional than that designed for women. Form necessarily follows function here. The dictates of fashion don't carry much weight in the backcountry.
Still, it can't be denied that even with all the help that technology can provide, women continue to labor under a disadvantage in matters micturatory. Men have an easier time on pit stops. No doubt about it. But that doesn't mean they're home and dry under all conditions. David W. of Fairfax, Virginia, is a pilot as well as a paddler, and he has some advice for every boater, male and female alike:
If you think the middle of a lake is [a] bad [place to get caught short], picture two miles up in the clouds at two miles a minute and no reasonable way to come down for two hours. I carry a couple of the TravelJohn™ disposable urinals in my flight bag. The TravelJohn has two levels with an absorbing powder in the lower compartment. Everything turns to gel, and it is spill-proof, even without the seal.
I have a Little John®, but did not use it after the first time. The angle is too low, and it has trouble containing the liquid, even with the cap.
Right on, David! Paddlers have it easy when compared to pilots. And the TravelJohn, a disposable urinal designed to accommodate the needs of both men and women, looks like a winner. With an advertised capacity of 20 ounces, it ought to be good for several uses before reaching saturation point. That's certainly a plus. Moreover, the manufacturer claims that the gellified urine is biodegradable. This can't hurt, can it? (Though it's not a license to litter, of course. Packing out used TravelJohns is still de rigueur.)
David's criticism of the Little John—that's the companion urinal to the Lady J—rings true, too. Molded along the lines of the classic hospital urinal, the angle of the neck makes it awkward to use when seated in the cramped confines of a kayak cockpit. You need the vigilance of a playground monitor coupled with the agility of an acrobat to avoid being nailed by a mini-tsunami, and the threat doesn't end when you tuck the Little John away. As David has pointed out, the seal on the threaded cap is less than bombproof. Moreover, our Little John came with a sharp flange along the mold line on the inside of the neck, something that got Farwell's undivided attention the very first time he used it. A little work with the file on a Swiss Army knife took care of the problem, but it has to be said that this episode put the phrase "caught short" in a whole new light.
So far, so good. But what happens if nature calls when you're completely unprepared: no Lady J, no Freshette, no TravelJohn, and no handy pit stop? What then? Well… There's one obvious answer. Relax and go with flow. No one's looking, are they? And a little more liquid in the bilge won't send you to the bottom. Are you feeling house-proud? Tant pis, as the French say. A few minutes with bailer or sponge will restore your boat (though not your dignity) to its former unsullied state. Or you could do as Naftali Kidron does, and make your boat self-cleaning:
Here in Israel, in my open-water rowing shell I have a suction Elvstrøm-style bailer. This small device mounted flush with the hull takes care of excess fluids in the bilge.
Good idea, Naftali! Self-bailers have long been used in sailing dinghies and rowing shells, but there's no reason why they can't be mounted in canoes and kayaks, too—and they sometimes are. That said, there's just no such thing as a free lunch, afloat or ashore. Self-bailers of this type only work when you're moving along at a pretty good clip. Rowing shells and sailing dinghies are the maritime equivalent of racing thoroughbreds. Most canoes and kayaks are—how can I put this?—more pedestrian. So be prepared to sweat a bit if you want to avoid the nuisance of mopping up. And there's another thing to consider: Self-bailers also require cutting a hole in your boat's keel line, and the non-return flap valves are prone to damage from impacts and the ordinary wear-and-tear of beach landings. Worst-case scenario? Your self-bailer becomes a geyser. That isn't so good.
Let's return for a minute to the scenario I invoked earlier. You're caught short away from shore, and you decide to let nature take its course. This may go against some of our earliest training, but as John in Austin, Texas, rightly observes, wetsuits are called wetsuits for a reason:
I'm surprised that you did not mention that a wetsuit is called a wetsuit because it functions best with a small amount of trapped liquid between the neoprene and your skin. If you are not predisposed to jumping into the water to provide the liquid, then let go of the morning's coffee after donning the suit, and you'll be warm and comfy for the day ahead.
Fair point. I'll concede the "warm" without so much as a quibble, but "comfy" might be a bit of a stretch. Still, I have referred to the wetsuit option in a recent column, at least in passing. I'm not entirely surprised that John missed that offhand comment in the million-plus words of the In the Same Boat archives, however. In any case, I rounded out my earlier remarks on what could be called the paddle-and-pee approach with this observation: "It's an unpleasant throwback to our days in diapers, but…"
"At least it's warm"
And so it is. When I subsequently introduced the subject of adult diapers—in my first "Light Relief" piece—it was only for the sake of completeness. It seemed a logical extension of the paddle-and-pee strategy. But it's something about which I have exactly zero experience.
That can't be said of Ken Anderson. Now in his mid-70s, Ken is proof positive that there are invigorating alternatives to what I've sometimes branded the La-Z-Boy® lifestyle. (There's nothing wrong with La-Z-Boy chairs, by the way. They're extremely comfortable. Maybe they're too comfortable, in fact.) Ken took up kayaking a bit over a decade ago, and he jumped in at the deep end, joining a group of like-minded souls on a little outing along the east coast of Greenland. Now that he's back home, he frequents the waters on New Hampshire's Atlantic shore, a somewhat more densely populated part of the planet than Greenland, and one where there are few places to pull ashore for a pit stop. Rather than tailoring his paddling excursions to the limits set by his bladder, however, Ken opted to wear adult diapers. Here's his rationale:
Diapers are especially useful in inhabited or rocky areas where it's not easy to get out and pee. They are ideal for the local several-hour paddles which I do on the seacoast of New Hampshire. These diapers, which fit like a pair of briefs, are not bulky and are quite comfortable as they offer a bit of padding. They never feel wet when used for peeing which is all I've ever used them for. The brand I use are a drugstore brand from Brooks, but there are many brands available. The ones I use look and fit just like a pair of underpants. They have elastic on the left and right sides, and are very comfortable to wear under a wet suit. There are also diapers with various straps available, but I've never used those.
As a grandfather, I got used to changing diapers on one grandson. When he'd just peed, I noticed that the diapers felt dry. A polymer in the diapers takes up liquid so the diaper never feels wet. [Probably the same stuff used in TravelJohns, or something very like it. –Editor] Many people don't know that. They think that wearing a wet diaper is like wearing wet underwear. It's not. An interesting experiment is to rip apart a baby diaper and put the urine-absorbing polymer—it looks like sand—into a glass and add water. The water turns solid. So you see where my idea of using diapers comes from.
I do, indeed. And it's good to have the straight poop on adult diapers from a fellow paddler. Thanks for the timely heads-up on this very important bottom line, Ken!
Many thanks, too, to everyone else who contributed tips and pics to this column. When nature calls, you can't say you're otherwise engaged. But you can make the inevitable much easier to bear. Depend on it.
However much (or little) we paddlers eat and drink, it all comes out in the end. That's a fact of life. But nature doesn't always call at convenient times, and few canoes or kayaks boast marine toilets. So it's a good thing there are better ways of coping than grinning and baring it. Don't laugh, please. These are indeed fundamental issues, and it pays to take them seriously. Luckily, our readers did. Now we've passed their hints and tips along to you. Bottoms up!
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