I started writing this post at “The Bog”. The Bog is our property out in rural Manitoba. Our Bog has a lot of marsh. As I wrote I could heard the intermittent call of nesting sand hill cranes above the cacophony of the frogs they love to eat. We found this place after a ten year hunt for our dream-come-true place in the country. The Bog is 152 acres of unbroken original parkland habitat. Parkland is the boundary zone between tall grass prairie to the south and boreal forest. Like most boundary zones, it has species from both habitats. My husband said that he didn’t understand the real meaning of “biological diversity” until he began exploring our Bog. It bursts and teems with diversity.
We properly call our property “Silver Bog” ad only use the Bog as an affectionate nickname Silver Bog sits below a large ridge which runs parallel to Lake Manitoba on the western side about six kilometres in from the shore. That ridge once was the shore a few thousand years ago. There are multiple ridges spaced a few kilometres apart right up to the escarpment that is topped by Riding Mountain National Park. The nearest town was called Silver Ridge. These days the town of Silver Ridge consists of a single building that is a combination gas station, post office, movie rental store, lotto centre and grocery as well as housing the family that runs the operation. The Bog part of the name is because we do have a genuine moss bog. When we announced the name, our friend Harry, the Water Conservation officer, told us in his faded Scot’s brogue that “bog” means outhouse in his birthplace. Harry is a bird watcher and moving to the RM of Alonsa to work as the water conservation officer allows him to pursue his real passion every day. Outhouse was also a very apropos name as it turns out.
We bought Silver Bog from a developer who failed to develop it due to uncooperative local government. (We happen to really like that kind of government.) We walked the property while we were considering purchasing it. I’ll never forget my astonishment when I came upon what were clearly sentinel plants of that exquisitely rare habitat, tall grass prairie. The federal maps indicating the range of tall grass prairie shows us as being too far north. Even so, there was just no mistaking Indian grass, chocolate scented sunflowers and small stem blue grass. Maps by the naturalist society agree with our assessment. It was original, native, unbroken, tall grass prairie. The land had some woodland that is mixed aspen and balsam dominated by Manitoba scrub oaks. Some of there oaks appear to settled the land before white folks. We found the trees laden with nests including huge ones on the tree tops occupied by raptors. We saw four species of woodpeckers. The remains of a someone’s dinner of sharp tail grouse were another clear sign that we had found a precious piece of land. The local farmers told us it was swamp, flooded most of the year and pretty much useless. Our Bog is living proof of the old adage ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’. The swamp part is a rare and wonderful habitat that Duck’s Unlimited calls ‘sedge and wet meadow’. Wet meadow next to woodlands makes perfect habitat for ducks such as blue winged teal and hooded mergansers. A later formal survey found six species of orchids including two that are on ‘rare’ lists.
We bought the 152 acres of priceless treasure for an astonishingly low price because it was “just swamp”. We then arranged for a government conservation agreement to be placed on the land. The agreement is like a lien and it goes with the property if we ever sold it. The agreement will protect this precious piece of diversity from foolish descendants. We got half our purchase price back by putting the conservation agreement on the property. For us, the name Silver Bog was also a play on “silver lining”.
We camped in tents our first few weekends. The first task we faced was safe disposal of our droppings. City people tend to take this for granted. You sit, you flush and it’s gone. The most onerous thing most city folk have to cope with is a dirty disposable diaper which is rolled up and tossed out without a thought. When one doesn’t have the conveniences of civilization one has to starting thinking about such things. Our first weekend at the bog, we simply walked away from the campsite with a roll of toilet paper and squatted. By the third weekend it was obvious this was not a solution. Droppings vanish in a few weeks but toilet paper marks the spot for a while as it does so. It was distasteful to start walking past all these proliferating little mounds of toilet paper knowing full well what that meant. We switched to a pail to collect and dispose of it later. I thought a diaper could smell bad. A pail full of two days of adult waste makes a diaper smell like a rosebud with fresh morning dew on it. The outhouse became not only our first but also our most urgent project.
The outhouse stinks. We lined it so fluid collects, not drains, for environmental reasons. Once a year we hire a man with a “honey wagon” to come and take the smelly stuff away for proper treatment. We keep a bucket of ash next to the toilet seat. A bucket of fresh ash dumped on top of you-know-what really cuts the odour. It’s not fun, but it works. One of my favourite bog memories was when we had some young people visiting and a child came out, holding his nose, and asked where was the handle to flush.
When we bought our RV, we had to learn a whole lot more about disposing of our droppings safely. RVs have a dual system for waste water disposal. At the Bog we collected rainwater and we threw the grey dishwater water out over the ground. We showered outdoors, water from the rain barrel falling off us onto the grass. In the RV, we collect the waste water into two separate holding tanks. The toilet drains into a tank that is euphemistically referred to as “black water”. The other drains collect the “grey water” that comes from showering and dishwashing. RVs typically have two three inch valves on either side of a single drain pipe connected to the holding tanks. Pull one valve and all the black water comes gushing out with considerable force from that three inch hose. Pull the other valve and the grey water flushes. RVs come with little sensors in the water tanks so you can monitor the water level. These work very well for about a month or so before gunking up. I found we didn’t need them anyway. A glance down the toilet will let us know if the black water tank is full. The grey water backs up into the bathtub if not drained in a timely fashion and, with experience, you just kind of know it’s time.
Normally, the drain pipe is first connected to a long flexible hose and the other end of that hose fits into a specified septic dumping place. If you want to find out everything that can go wrong with the dumping procedure, check out any RV group’s “funny stories” section. Everyone who has ever been in an RV has made mistakes dumping, once. After making this mistake, you never open anything without triple checking. When in doubt, I always open the grey water first to check because grey water is so much less foul. If that starts draining appropriately, I close the grey water valve and then open the black. Another thing one never does is dump all the grey water first and then dump the black water. Black water usually comes out like sludge with chunks for reasons that are better not to think too much about. Once you are certain all is secure, you dump black water first while standing well back and breathing through your mouth. Then you close the black water tank valve and flush the drain and hose out with the grey water afterward. Grey water works especially well if you shower right before dumping. The water is warm and dilute soapy.
At a private campgrounds there is generally one electric plug, one sewer opening and one water tap per trailer. This is a “full hookup”. Some places add in cable TV as well. We pull in, hook up our hoses and extension cord, open our valves and once that’s done we’re as good to go as a city person in a stick house. A lot of places, like state parks, have one communal dump station. We drive in, fill up our fresh water tank, turn on our pump to create water pressure since we have no tap connection, and we park. On our way out, we dump the waste water. You can tell a lot about a person by watching them dump. The fastidious approach it wearing nothing less than a full hazmat suit. Some just don special gloves. I prefer to just use bare hands but I wash throughly afterward. I found out the hard way that gloves can interfere with sensing how well connected the hose is so I would rather take my chacne on the good seal of my skin compared to the seal of hose. A conscientious nice RVer, like me, carefully hoses down the dump site with the clean water after finishing. The one you don’t want to share a campground with leaves a mess for you to have to kneel in to reach under and pull the valves. I always carry hand sanitizer just in case we stop at a place where there is no water for cleanup. I keep a drop sheet and a small bottle of bleach handy for spills, mine or someone else’s.
There are many laws about where you can and cannot dump. For obvious reasons dumping into a rainwater drain is illegal but a surprising number of environmental thugs do try it. Dumping into a lake is illegal as well. Dumping into creeks, streams, and other freshwater places also tends to be frowned upon with many states handing out enormous fines. Campgrounds and many gas stations and highway rest stops have designated RV dump stations where the stuff dumped eventually ends up in the same kind of treatment facility as the stuff that gets flushed in the city stick houses. Most city and town treatment centres have a place you dump directly into their system if you can find them. There are on line RVer groups that share this critical information.
Water, with or without waste, is incredibly heavy and carrying it means eating up a lot more gas in a big vehicle that is already a gas guzzler. We try not to travel any distance without emptying our grey and black water tanks. We usually only leave enough fresh water in the tank to flush the toilet a few of times on the trip. Where to get fresh water and where to dump the waste water is one of the big limits to “boondocking”. Boondocking means free. It usually entails pulling over somewhere unofficial without fresh water taps and sewers or dump stations. People who don’t RV always tell me that they heard you can park for free at Walmart. Yes, you can park for free at a lot of Walmart stores and a lot of other places even nicer than that, but where do you get water and where do you dump?
Assuming your dump hose cannot reach a standard three inch sewer hole, there are two options. One is to have your own smaller version of the truck that comes to empty septic tanks. This is a small ‘honey wagon’ that you connect to your trailer’s drain, dump into, and then pull to the nearest dump site. This is a wonderful thing to have if we are staying more than a day or two at a state park. It’s much easier to drain our trailer into the little blue wagon than it is to load up the whole trailer and move it to the sewer. RV ‘honey wagons’ comes in multiple models. I investigated fully and bought the deluxe one that held more than the combined volume of both waste water tanks. My favourite feature is the “drop front” hose system. When the tanks are empty the flow stops. I close the valves on the trailer and then drop the hose while leaving it still connected. This creates enough room in the hose that the sewer pipe below the valves is fully drained into the wagon’s hose so there is no mess when I disconnect it. Pop in the end hose cover and my little blue wagon full of …black water… can then be dragged to the nearest dump station. My honey has nice big wheels so it can be dragged by hand if the dump station is not far. It can pulled behind my pickup truck by looping the handle over the trailer hitch as long as the speed stays below 5mph. It is a marvel of engineering genius. Think of it as mankind’s ingenuity at its finest.
The same hose on “drop” is low enough that all the contents of the wagon drain out without having to tip the end up. (Remember what I said about water being heavy and also about how you want to be far back, not up close, while draining black water. This will allow you properly to appreciate why not having to hold the thing up to drain it is so very important.) My deluxe honey wagon has a special nozzle to attack a fresh water hose to after the dump and it spray flushes the interior in a wide sweep. I can dump without ever seeing anything and almost not smelling anything and that suits me just fine. Anything less that the deluxe model is not worth buying. The most common source of funny RVer stories, after valve mix ups and hose attachment failures, are related to the cheap honey wagons. Cheap honey wagons are also very common items in campground rummage sales often going through a dozen newbie RV owners, quickly replaced by the better models, before a wheel falls off or someone drives over it.
Another excellent solution to the waste disposal issue is the macerator. This is a small pump with a spinning steel macerator like a high power food processor, except what it processes is what used to be food. It works by sucking out the waste water tanks through the drain pipe and turning the sludge and solid chunks into smooth uniform liquid. The exit of this little pump is a small garden hose attachment. We have a fifty foot dedicated garden hose used for nothing else (for obvious reasons). If you can reach the garden hose into a toilet you can stick one end in the toilet, connect the macerator, open the valves, and start the pump up, drain, and you’re done. This solves the problem of how do you empty the tanks when parked in a friend or relative’s driveway.
There are a variety of chemicals and other less obnoxious things that can be dumped into the holding tanks to control odour. I really like the bacterial enzyme concoctions as they don’t hurt living things the way formaldehyde based deodorants do or encourage algal blooms in lakes like surfactants do. The world is already full of little bacteria happily eating just about anything there is. A few more enzymes aren’t going to hurt anything. I especially recommend using odour control stuff if you are planning on using the macerator for dumping into a someone’s toilet. I also recommend shoving the garden hose end well down the toilet and having a monitor to make sure it stays that way. (A person with a less sensitive sense of smell should be designated for monitor position where there is a choice.) One of my personal funny RVer stories was about the time the hose flipped out of the toilet at a colleague’s home. Fortunately, this happened well after the black water had drained so it was only grey water. I cleaned up the bathroom and I thought it was pretty funny once it was clean and the house aired out. I don’t think they thought it was funny. We have never been invited back again.
If an RVer is really stuck and simply must dump outside of a safe spot, it might be all right to dump the grey water into a place that can absorb it in an environmentally sound way. The stuff in soaps makes great fertilizer. In fresh water lakes and rivers, it makes algal blooms that kill fish by using up all the oxygen and it ruins the quality of water for recreation. Manure, whether cow, dog, pig, human or ‘other’ is super fertilizer. When rainwater washes manure from fields into a marsh, the marsh rapidly absorbs it and converts the stuff into that vegetable material marshes are so full of. Marshes can therefore handle small amounts of grey water and manure diluted by rainwater. Gardens are also able to recycle small amounts of grey water. In both situations the grey water should be relatively dilute. If one lone RVer is really stuck and must dump the grey water in an emergency, a single dump into a marsh or garden that is not connected to a lake, stream or open pond is probably not going to cause an environmental catastrophe. The key here is SMALL amounts. Marshes can be rapidly overloaded. If everyone at a campsite started doing this, the campsite would soon become uninhabitable.
Most places actively discourage dumping in unapproved places with hefty fines and lifetime campground bans. If a ranger catches an RVer dumping illegally they should expect that. Plus it gives us all a bad name so I don’t recommend it. It is never okay to dump black water, especially black water full of nasty formaldehyde, anywhere but in proper sewage dump sites. Black water is super duper ultra concentrated fertilizer that kills what it touches until it is diluted enough to cause an algal bloom. Plus, we generally don’t get sick from our own bacteria but the stuff from a stranger’s gut can kill an innocent bystander. Look what happened when E coli in cow manure from healthy cows got into the Walkerton Ontario water supply. Seven people died and a lot more were hurt.
The marsh effect is also why it’s a very good thing to leave marshes, especially those around lakes, and on deltas, exactly as they are. Runoff that has to run through a marsh is a lot less likely to damage a lake. Filling marshes in and building cottages and boat launches and digging open channels to drain marshes removes this vital fresh water lake protection system. Marshes aren’t just places to make check marks in your bird watching guide. Marshes also help slow the movement of rainwater into rivers and streams keep fresh water fresh. As a bonus marshes also prevent flooding because they act as huge reservoirs when the sky opens in a prairie monsoon. Marshes are also sources of habitat for all kinds of creatures besides ducks and cranes. The marsh around lakes is also the perfect habitat for many baby fish that grow up to become the prize on the end of the fishing line. Salt water marsh is even more important acting as a cradle for most of what we eat from the sea.
At “The Bog” we collected rainwater and used the sun to warm the rainwater. We would put the rainwater into dark green watering cans and set these in the sun to heat each morning. Each watering can holds about two gallons of water and the sun heats it to pleasantly tepid by mid afternoon. We would then hang the watering can up above head height but within reach so it could be tipped to wet and rinse. If company is present, we put up a shower curtain and warned everyone so they didn’t get subjected to a sight they likely would prefer not to see. After the Bog’s system of showering, the six gallon dual electric/propane hot water heater in the RV seems like the ultimate in luxury. Even so, visiting stick house folk usually end their first shower in our RV with a cold water rinse, no matter how much we warn them. With only six gallons of hot water one can shower thoroughly but one has to be quick about it. It would be good for the environment if all stick house people pretended they only had six gallons in their hot water tank.
Among the many lessons we learned out at “The Bog” was the importance of proper waste disposal and fresh water conservation. We live in a world where much of the population has to worry about where to get enough fresh water. We all need to worry about where our waste water goes. Wheel house folk use far less water than most stick house folk. We also produce far less waste water to be processed and cleaned by septic systems. From the perspective of water use, RVing is an environmentally right thing to do, as long as RVers always find an appropriate place to dump.
Stick house people, when asking about the full time RV lifestyle, soon or later get around to asking that burning question they really want to know. They drop their voice, look left and right to be sure no one can overhear, and then they ask that question in a hushed voice,
“But where does all….you know…. the stuff in the toilet go?”
Which is why I made this my second blog post.
May the gas be cheap, and rest stops clean.
Let there not be a single construction team.
May the patrolman be sleeping when your foot gets heavy,
And all the bridges you cross be free of levies.
May your roads be smooth and the cross winds light,
And may you find a full hook up where you stop for the night.