Book Review: How to Shit in the Woods

September 25th, 2013



Kathleen Meyer’s book How to Shit in the Woods is a classic — a masterpiece — for a reason! I came across this book at my local library and had to give it a read. Although it was never on my specific list of books to read, I instantly knew I had to get it. Written in the 80’s and first printed in 1989, it’s a great resource for anyone who spends time in the woods, on the river, or on the trail.

Meyer takes a pleasantly-irreverent look at our ugliest — and smelliest — of creations. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, she explains how the book had to wait from its first idea until the word shit could be used more easily in print. She explains at length her choice of the word, comparing numerous terms: crap, bowel movement, poop, Number Two, etc.

How to Shit in the Woods is full of excellent information on the need to poop carefully, techniques for sitting and squatting, suggestions on the best locales for relieving oneself, and the dangers of giardia and raw sewage. She discusses water filters, toilet paper alternatives, and importantly, how, where and why to dig a single-use hole.

Although I am no newbie when it comes to living in the wilderness, even I learned several new things about the need to pack it out in many environments. I am most familiar, of course, with the Boreal forest, and had not given much thought to hiking in the desert, rock climbing in soilless areas, or the extreme problem that can arise when too many people use too small an area. I did not know that paddlers using the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon had to pack all human waste out, due to the volume of people using the river and the sensitive environment. I am not sure if this still applies — the book is over 20 years old — but it makes good sense. I can imagine this regulation being applied to parts of Canada, such as the Kilarney Park in Ontario, where campgrounds are full each and every weekend and even reserved a year in advance (it’s hard for me to imagine… true wilderness is so accessible for me). This book is a huge reminder to Leave No Trace, and that includes leave no shit.

I love Meyer’s writing style! She is verbose, descriptive and a phenomenal spinner-of-phrases. Let me quote a small sample, as she explains what to do when there’s no toilet paper:

Before picking be sure to examine leaves carefully; they can sometimes be sticky (as though covered by a thin layer of syrup), scabrous (having a rasp-like surface), annoyingly prickly owing to small bristles and barbs, or, more seriously, hispidulous (covered with sharp hairs stiff enough to penetrate the skin). Stay away from reeds, bamboo, and some grasses — in effect, slicing leaves — that can cause agonizing wounds like paper cuts. With a little care you’ll learn which ones to avoid and be on your way to becoming a connoisseur of fine leaves.
– Kathleen Meyer in How to Shit in the Woods

Humourous stories sprinkled throughout, Meyer has found the perfect balance between levity and instruction. On page 8, she tells the story of one very unlucky hunter.

Coming upon a log beneath a spreading tree, Edwin propped up his rifle and quickly slipped off his poncho, sliding the suspenders from his shoulders. Whistling now, he sat and shat. But when he turned to bury it, not a thing was there. In total disbelief, poor Edwin peered over the log once more but still found nothing. It began to rain, and the pleasant vision of camp beckoned. Preparing to leave, he yanked up his poncho and hefted his gun. To warm his ears, he pulled up his hood. And there it was on top of his head, melting in the rain like so much ice cream left in the sun.
Poor Edwin will not soon forget this day; he walked seven miles before coming across enough water to get cleaned up. Though I fear he was in no humor to be thinking much beyond himself, we can only hope he did not wash directly in the stream. It’s important to use a bucket to haul wash water well above the high water line of spring run off, to keep pollutants from entering waterways. But I digress, and this topic is covered thoroughly in the next chapter. For now, back to techniques.
– Kathleen Meyer in How to Shit in the Woods

In case you never read this book, let me review what I found to be the most pertinent points, especially for river trekkers. As Meyer says, it is essential that you do any of your business, especially the solid type, above the high-water line of the river you are paddling. It is best to go away from paths or trails and dig a hole 6-8″ deep where you will bury your deposit. If you are in a pack-it-out situation, because of a lack of soil, heavily used area, or for winter excursions, you need only go away from camp for privacy and do your pooping in a bag or other container. If it’s cold out, you can even do it in a tent! Make sure to pack out your TP if there is any question whether it will biodegrade properly, even when buried with your waste.

As for techniques, you can sit back over a log, rock, or simply squat. Hold on to a tree for stability as you squat, and in all cases, don’t put your hood up if you don’t see the pile! Peeing is infinitely simpler for men and complicated for women. Suffice it to say, practice makes perfect, and if all else fails, ladies, pee in a container and pour it out.

No matter how remote you may be, you can no longer assume the water you are drinking is clean. Giardia is extremely prevalent in water throughout North America, and indeed around the world. In fact, beavers are not the only culprits for spreading this nasty parasite — humans can be carriers and depositing solid waste too close to a waterway can spread it to that source — another good reason to always shit up high.

One other short-but-important point, from Meyer: “… we are capable of spreading odd, new diseases as fast as we take vacations. What animal other than Homo sapiens can swallow rogani gosht in India or Kalya e Khass in South Africa and shit it into the Colorado countryside?” When the customs people ask you if you’ve been to or will be visiting a farm, this is what they are concerned about — passing dirt from one place to another on your shoes and infecting the Canadian countryside. For this reason, it’s good practice to clean your shoes (and other gear) thoroughly when you travel and go to/from a rural area or the wilderness.

How to Shit in the Woods is a great book, and it has inspired me — maybe my next book will be Strange and Unusual Places I Have Peed. I could tell a story or two, which I do in York Boat Captain, but there are lots of other tales to tell! 🙂

Book Review — Dangerous River

February 5th, 2013


I finished Dangerous River by R.M. Patterson less than half an hour ago. As I read the last twenty pages or so, I savoured every word, wishing it could be a little longer, but feeling the end approaching with every paragraph. Spring was descending on the Nahanni River, which would bring the story full circle. It will be difficult to summarize Patterson’s incredible 270-page adventure, but I will try.

R. M. Patterson weaves a beautiful tapestry as he tells the story of his two excursions into the Nahanni country of the Northwest Territories. He went the first time in the summer of 1927, as a man with minimal wilderness experience but more than enough heart. He knew little of the country, but as he travelled North, through Fort Smith and Fort Resolution, he heard more and more legends about the First Nations people of the area — he called them “Indians” — and tales of lost prospectors, unsolvable mysteries, hidden gold mines, betrayal and murder. In the book, he recounts these legends at length, which gives a great background for the adventures to come.

And what adventures he has! His journey starts in northern Alberta, but he picks it up as he poles upstream on the Liard River, headed for the mouth of the South Nahanni river and the Nahanni Butte. He meets up with Albert Faille (pronounced “fay-lee,” a legend unto himself), and ends up travelling with him. The two of them make it up the South Nahanni river to the Flat River confluence, where Faille and he part ways. Patterson continues, working ingenious and risky methods upstream against the current, until he gets all the way to the base of Virginia Falls where he plays in the ripples and eddies, in the mist. It is incredible how well he travels completely on his own, and he isn’t exactly spartan about it:

“I defy anybody to better that breakfast menu, or to bring to it a better appetite: porridge, sheep liver and bacon, bannock, butter, marmalade and tea, topped off with a bowl of raspberries and cream. And the porridge, let me explain, was no invalid dish, nor would it ever figure on the diet sheet of a slimming movie star: porridge as developed by me on the Nahanni consisted of a mixture of rolled oats and whole wheat, and into this was thrown a little salt, a large pat of butter and a handful of seedless raisins. The finished product was served in a large bowl: on top of the porridge a thin slice of cheese was spread, and the dish was topped with a pouring of dried milk to the consistency of cream and a liberal sprinkling of brown sugar. It will be easily understood that this porridge lays a good foundation for a good breakfast to follow.” (page 69)

As you can see, Patterson’s writing style is descriptive and poetic, and I enjoyed the early 1900’s tone of the book. He manages to capture the magnificence of the scenery and breath-taking moments. In reading Dangerous River, I was reminded what it means to be alive, to explore, and to thrive in those incredible moments you experience when you are alone in the wilderness with the sun beating down on you, with only the birds for company… when you round the curve in a river to see cliffs you’ve never seen before… when you see an amazing sunrise or sunset, and you’re the only human around to witness it…

“I was heading east into the sun which was climbing into the sky above the Lower Canyon: as it rose it touched with fire and lit, one by one, the cottonwoods along the river and the clumps and belts of golden aspen poplar on the benches and the mountain slopes, till the valley shone with the flaring magnificence of the trees. The air was clear and keen like a fine dry wine, and the deep blue shadows of early morning filled the clefts and canyons of the hills…” (page 149)

In May of the following year, 1928, he returns to the Nahanni country with his friend, Gordon Matthews and a team of dogs. Through record-breaking flood levels, they work a three-canoe rig with small kicker upstream, although on the very first day going up the Nahanni, the kicker falls to disaster (a submerged deadhead). They continue on manually, ferrying above churning rapids, tracking in waist-high water, and surviving more than a few close calls. The author, however, knows when to call it quits and wait for the river to fall a little, or when to change techniques or simply accept that the risk is too high and a portage is necessary. He and Gordon make it up to Deadmen Valley where they establish a camp, complete with cabin, cache, traplines and hunting grounds.

The story continues as autumn descends and they work through the transition to frozen winter. They travel extensively around the valley — by canoe until there is too much ice running, on foot and later using dog sleds. There are many stories within this book, but I will just mention one: in late December, Gordon makes a trip to Fort Simpson with the dogs. He has to turn back once due to open water, so back at the cabin, they rig up a nested sled to hold a canoe, which then holds the smaller dog sled, and he switches to the canoe where the open water is. Suddenly, a wind comes up, the dogs get scared and all go to one side so the canoe capsizes! Luckily, they are near shore and he manages to save most of his gear; all the dogs swim to shore and he lights a huge bonfire from driftwood nearby to fend off hypothermia. He eventually arrives in Fort Simpson but is held up there due to major blizzards. When he doesn’t return on time, Patterson goes looking for him on foot, and through countless trials — which I won’t go into… I don’t want to give away all the suspense of the book! — he walks all the way to Fort Simpson where they are happily reunited. They return to their cabin later and continue to thrive through the winter and spring in the beautiful Deadmen Valley.

I’m afraid this review simply cannot do justice to the journey that Patterson was on! Although it was full of struggles and trials, much of it was borne happily, it seemed, and only in the truly miserable circumstances did he complain. As in all our lives, times of ease and joy balanced out the challenges and hardships; he truly seemed to know how to thrive in any circumstance. Patterson’s experiences in Dangerous River cover it all — hunting, trapping, wilderness living, dogsledding, canoeing and survival. I highly recommend this book!

On | On

Book Review – The Last River

January 25th, 2013


I find it hard to blog about summer things when I’m caught in winter’s icy grip, however, I thought I might do a couple of book reviews. I recently read Todd Balf’s book The Last River — the Tragic Race for Shangri-La.

The book tells the tale of four men (plus their support team) bent on paddling, or at least seeing and portaging, the most remote parts of the Yarlung Tsangpo river in the remotest parts of Tibetan China. It is among the Himalayas, in that part of the world where the borders of India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet all meet. Like Everest, which is in the neighbourhood, the physical challenges the Tsangpo presents are beyond what one will find in other parts of the world: the steepest gorges in the world, the wildest rapids. The Tsangpo is a big volume river in one of the most difficult-to-access places on the planet.

Balf starts out giving a great historical overview of British explorers who began their attempts to chart the river in the 1860’s – 1920’s, when India was a long, unwieldy arm of the British empire where men campaigned for money to go on African safaris and it was normal to bring exotic species back to your sponsors or country as samples. One explorer, Francis Kingdon-Ward was even moderately successful in the Tsangpo gorge, but a gap of at least five miles of river remained completely unknown to the western world, and it was that section in particular that this modern group of intrepid explorers wanted to see, and if possible, paddle. There were early rumours of a 150-foot waterfall in the area — not hard to imagine on a river that drops 10,000 feet in a hundred-plus miles, although the rumour turned out to be caused by an error in translation. The area is mountainous, to say the least, and those early explorers believed that Shangri-La — a paradise of indescribable beauty — was hidden among its valleys and lush vegetation.

Jump forward to 1998. Months of planning and fundraising go by and the team’s logistical expert even gets his hands on satellite pictures of the area. A massive hydraulic (waterfall) is visible, perhaps a 100-foot fall after all, and at least two other significant drops are crammed into a paperclip-shaped bend. The guys will definitely be portaging at times, but the team hopes to paddle as much water as they can. Portaging in this gorge isn’t just picking up your canoe and walking; it is intense hiking and even full-blown rope-assisted rock climbing. When the team finally gets to the river, they see a writhing beast, well overflowing its banks in high flood stage. Their first dip in nearly ends in tragedy, as one paddler gets dislodged from his kayak and almost can’t perform the essential and, for these guys, easy, roll manoeuvre. Ultimately, the group’s intense risk-taking on the turbulent river take one man’s life, and the remainder of the book is about decisions, big-signature-funded expeditions and a discussion of the legacy of that man. (I’ll keep the man’s identity a secret, in accordance with the back cover write-up of the book.)

On the whole, the book is a comprehensive look at the expedition, covering every angle and many details, including a significant look at the sport and culture of whitewater kayaking. Why do people take risks? Is it acceptable to take such risks when you have a wife to widow and children to orphan? On the other hand, should one have to give up one’s passions for safety and security? Must you climb “the Everest” before you? What affects a paddler’s decisions, as he or she scouts and paddles the water, or chooses to portage? Is there undue pressure put on paddlers by their funders to “make it happen?” Todd Balf’s treatment and discussion of these issues is sensitive and multi-faceted — making for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

You can find The Last River on Amazon here: |