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9 December, 1999

The "Toilet Situation"- (For kids only!)

Many students have been interested in what Chelsea from Le Bons Bay, New Zealand was curious about. She asked, "What do you have for a toilet out in all of that snow and ice?

Well, here's your answer, Chelsea. I've lived in two different field camps in the Dry Valleys, and have experienced a few variations on the toilet theme. At Lake Bonney, we have a black outhouse-type building with a door and lock. Unlike outhouses you may have used on camping trips where the waste drops into a deep hole, here we use five-gallon buckets. The bucket is set into a wooden board and lined with a white plastic bag. On top of that sits a light blue styrofoam seat. You can only put solid waste (poop) and toilet paper in there. When the bucket gets full, you have to tie a knot in the plastic bag, put it in another one, and place it in a barrel that gets shipped back to McMurdo. If you're female, there's another seat next to the poop seat, for urine. When you're finished peeing, it's collected in a can below you, and you've got to empty the can into a funnel, which attaches to the big 55 gallon urine barrel outside. Men can stand and pee right into the funnel.

Where I'm now living at Lake Hoare, there are two types of toilets. There's the outhouse version that's similar to the one at Bonney, except you have to hold on to the metal can to pee because there's no place to sit. Then you have to carry the can and dump it into the urine collecting barrel ("U") barrel outside. Men have the option of peeing right into a funnel that sits on top of the barrel.

The more popular toilet is called a "Rocket Toilet". Everything's the same except there's only one hole where solids and liquids both go. When it fills up about 2/3rds of the way, there's a propane powered heater that fires up the mix until it gets so hot it all disintegrates. Pretty amazing to think you can burn wet stuff like that! While it's burning, a black flag hangs from the door to let you know the toilet won't be available until the process is complete. It takes almost five hours. (It's always a little disappointing to see that black flag hanging there.) I heard stories of rocket toilets that have blown up! Hopefully no one was in them at the time!

And finally, there is the ubiquitous pee bottle. They are everywhere! There are very strict environmental rules at play in the Dry Valleys. Any time you are out hiking or working on the ice, you always carry these bottles with you. If you wake up in the middle of the night and don't want to get completely dressed to walk all the way to the outhouse, there's another time you'd want to have a pee bottle handy. Everyone uses them at some point. They are identical to our water bottles so you've got to mark them very carefully so no liquid mistakes are ever made!

This is the outhouse at Lake Bonney. It's often extremely windy here, so it's important to get a good hold on the door when coming in and out. You don't want it to smash back into the exterior wall. Why do you think it's painted black?

The light blue styrofoam seats are likely to be found on toilets all over the continent. When it's freezing out, you don't want to have to sit on a surface that gets cold. Styrofoam does the trick!

The outhouse at Lake Hoare is shaped a bit differently than the one at Bonney. If you look carefully at the side, you'll see a note that says, "Just pee on the rock". It means the rock in the funnel, as you'll see in the next photo. Unfortunately, I misunderstood what that meant for over a week, and carefully removed the rock with my bare hands (yuck!) each time I emptied a can or bottle into the funnel.

The black "U" barrel holds fifty-five gallons of urine. With camp averaging eight to ten people a day, it doesn't take long to fill one up. The infamous rock is set into the plastic funnel to keep it from blowing away. The plastic bucket in the front of the photo is the disposal for solid waste and toilet paper.

This rocket toilet has a chimney to send the incinerated waste out of the building. Some people think emitting the leftover parcticulate matter into the clean Dry Valley air is bad for the environment. Others counter that to haul all the waste out of the Valleys uses too much fuel flying the helicopters needed to sling load it out. What do you think?

The interior space is quite comfortable. Someone has added some homey touches, like a magazine rack, a shelf and editorial cartoons on the walls. Even so, you wouldn't want to have to hang out in there too long.

OKů You already know that everyone carries pee bottles with them wherever they go. Because it can get awfully cold in Antarctica, women are issued what we call "Lady Janes". Basically, it's a pee funnel, and it enables women to pee standing up into their bottles if they want to. This is a handy invention for those freezing days when you don't want to risk exposing much skin to the elements. Some women even use them to pee right into the funnel on the "U" barrel!

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