Earth Day 2011: Talking Toilets

This earth day we taught the kids about water conservation by reviewing all our home videos involving toilets. Turns out there are two worth posting online. In the first, my son, as a toddler, explains the mechanics and hydraulics of the traditional toilet. In the second I demonstrate how to empty a waterless toilet.

Some background for video number 2 (pun): in 2006 my wife and I spent four months in southern France, in the foothills of the Pyreness mountains (some pics and a spider video), isolated from other human beings and from air conditioning and plumbing. We lived in a 500-yr-old shepherd’s cottage which my great aunt and uncle had retrofitted with a windmill and a waterless toilet, among other ultra-green technologies.

If you aren’t up for doing your business in a bucket, which you empty by hand every two weeks, a simple water saving trick is to drop a brick in the toilet (not a euphemism). Actually, drop it in the tank, and rather than a brick use a water bottle filled with sand or gravel or adamantium (not water, as the plastic will float). You’ll save a few hundred gallons of H2O per year.

Happy John Muir Day

john muir

Earlier this week, PBS aired its new American Masters documentary on John Muir (see the preview here). The full film is now available online at

Today commemorates Muir’s birthday, April 21, 1838. He was the father, or at least close relative, maybe uncle, of the National Parks movement, and is best known for preserving Yosemite valley and co-founding the Sierra Club. He stood for preservation in a time when other leading environmentalists leaned toward conservation, i.e., utilization of forest land. He advocated defending the wild and inspired others to experience it by getting into it, “feasting in the Lord’s mountain house.”

For more information check out the John Muir exhibit, from the Sierra Club. I also recommend perusing some of his writings.

Minnesota’s Largest Aquatic Carnivore

minnesota river otter

What I thought was a sea lion, escaped from the Minnesota zoo, was actually a close relative, a river otter, cruising down the Mississippi River in Red Wing, MN. Apparently, river otter are common in northern MN, but have only recently ventured south beyond the frothy Minneapolis waters of the Mississippi.

More from the MN DNR

Some great photos, taken in northern MN, by Mark Udstrand

Thoughts on Sleeping Pads

thermarest trail scout sleeping padThis month I attended a conference in New Orleans, or Nawlins, as mispronounced by tourists like me, pretending to be locals. Though I spent most of the week indoors, I did experience the urban wilderness, eating crawfish and frog legs and venturing forth to Bourbon Street after sundown. Also, since three of us cheap grad students shared a double hotel room, I got to try out my new Thermarest sleeping pad.

I’d only experienced two types of sleeping support that can be carried in/on a backpack. My first was an old piece of egg crate foam which eroded slowly with every use. It doubled as a human-sized sponge and was probably infested with ticks and various microbes, making it the worst backpacking pad ever, besides the mattress sitting behind our apartment dumpster.

blue closed cell sleeping padEver since the egg crate rotted away I’ve used the classic blue closed-cell foam pad, which can be found for under $7. It’s the cheapest and most durable, while still being reasonably warm and light. The main drawbacks are pack size (the smallest roll-up I’ve achieved is 20.5 × 6 inches) and comfort (they cover all manner of sticks and rocks but they about as soft as styrofoam).

There are two clear disadvantages to inflatable sleeping pads – they’re pricey, starting around $40, and delicate – they can puncture, tear, and lose their paddedness after prolonged smashing. But I decided to upgrade to an inflatable pad because of its packability. I went with the mid-range Thermarest Trail Scout, for the price of 7 orders of fried frog legs (i.e., $50). It fits nicely in my carry-on luggage (an REI Quick UL 45 pack) along with a week’s worth of clothes and Mardi Gras beads. The pad weighs 1 lb 12 oz and rolls down to 11 × 4 inches. More details to come, after some thorough field testing.