SELDOVIA -- The bow of the packraft wiggled gently back and forth as we paddled back home across the bay. Behind it, a yellow packraft trailer wiggled as well, weighed down with a backpack full of camping gear, a bucket of fresh clams and some driftwood. My husband Hig thought the driftwood might be a good yard decoration. Or maybe a part of a new outhouse.
He sketched constellations of glass balls for the walls. A sun, moon and stars burned into the wood over the door. Extra shelves, a skylight and plenty of room. A hand-washing basin attached to the building. Situated back along a path through the blueberries in the woods, this was going to be a fancy outhouse.
The outhouse we've lived with for nearly six years is of the decidedly non-fancy variety, with a door that doesn't quite close, a semi-alarming tilt and barely enough room to sit down comfortably. Occasionally guests complain of torn clothing -- they didn't know to avoid a protruding nail. It looks like it was haphazardly plopped down where it is, right on the edge of the driveway, a bit too close to where we like to have picnics.
We are some of the 12,000 Alaskans who live without indoor plumbing. And though we're building a new, fancier version of the outhouse, the basic fact of the outhouse is something we're not planning to change. I could say it's a commune with nature to walk down that path every time, with a view of the mountains and the woods.
There are times blowing snow swirls in through every crack in the boards. I have to shovel out the door and then wipe a layer of snow from the seat. It makes me appreciate the quick jog back to the wood stove. But most of the time it's just an inconvenience that's not very inconvenient.
Since 1980, Alaska has topped the list in the percentage of households lacking "complete plumbing," defined as hot and cold running water, a tub or shower and a flush toilet. As water and sewer grids have filled in across the nation, there are still a lot of places too sparse, too remote or too expensive for that kind of thing. Seldovia is a do-it-yourself kind of place. For most folks I know, a "primitive lifestyle" is neither a sign of abject poverty or a deliberate rejection of the modern world. It's simply the sum of a series of practical choices.
When you plop yourself down in a patch of spruce and alder and decide to live there, nothing is a given. What kind of structure will you build? Will you do it yourself? Bring in power or go off-grid? What about water? Haul it from town, get it from a creek, dig a shallow well, or hire someone to drill into a deeper aquifer? Septic or outhouse? Greenhouse? Shop? Driveway? Each choice is a calculation of priorities -- of money, comfort and time.
Everyone beyond the Seldovia city limits (165 people, nearly 40 percent of the community) has had to answer all these questions for themselves. They have to decide what exactly goes on their patch of dirt, taking into account all its peculiar complexities of slope, water tables and distance. They often build it themselves. Looking around me, I can find convenience and primitiveness intersecting in every possible combination. There are human waste composters, fire-heated outdoor bathtubs, and well/septic combos that work just like any house in the city.
We're living pretty cushy here. We have power from the grid, and one building with a washer/dryer/shower. Even a hose. Six years of improvements has brought us just an outhouse away from that "complete plumbing" category.
Sewer systems were a wonderful and critical invention that enabled humans to have sanitation in the midst of density. They freed inhabitants of overcrowded 19th-century cities from perpetual outbreaks of cholera. They allow the density in which most of the modern world lives. Even most Alaskans. But on the outskirts of Seldovia, we haven't got the density and seem unlikely to acquire it any time in the near or medium future.
So we'll glue in those glass balls, hang some pictures, and keep hanging our rear ends over a hole in the ground.
Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. Author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski", and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.