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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The History of Toilets….and other disposal processes

By Hal Studholme

A history of YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens can be told from many different perspectives: people, structures, changes in programming, even in the types of boats that served it over the years, But the most profound history has to be the one that describes TOILETS. 

When you have a camp on a relatively small island, human waste eventually becomes a problem--it’s a problem for the human race in general, but it becomes a concentrated concern on 24 acres. In the early days with a few adults visiting for a short three to four month summer season, outdoor “biffies” were more than adequate. You dig a hole, build a crude hut over it, fashion a seat with a bum-sized opening, provide an Eaton’s catalogue, and the place is open for “business”! 

The only other consideration at the outset is location, preferably downwind about 50 paces. But as the years go by, two things happen. First you begin to be concerned about just how many places there are left for another biffy. People, for some strange reason, get fussy about having one too close to the place where you live, sleep, eat  etc. 

Second, as modern conveniences begin to be developed elsewhere, and at home in particular, you logically want to have the same amenities at camp, or something that approximates these comforts. A better biffy is the first step. At Camp Stephens, a communal community exclusively for boys and men, a larger, better appointed, deeper biffy was created…the “Eight Holer”

This was a definite movement in the right direction. The facility centralized the function of disposal in a 15 by 20-foot room with a raised, concrete bench along three walls with eight evenly spaced holes, each with a comfortable toilet seat, paper roles conveniently placed, vents to provide for the exchange of “airs” and screening to keep pests to a minimum. Luxury and more. This was a gathering place where friends, cabin mates, fellow staff could commune and pass the time of day, amongst other things.

With nearly 200 souls on the 24-acre island at peak camp population, human waste had two other components, effluent from kitchen operations and the disposal of various other items such as hundreds of tin cans and bottles which were emptied of their contents over the camping season, and paper and general food waste.

Over the years these had been cleverly managed by three efficient but environmentally disastrous methods. First, kitchen drains: they were simply emptied into a four-inch pipe which ran directly out onto the lake for about 30 feet where lake currents swiftly dispersed the effluent. That is except when the wind and lake currents were flowing towards the front bay, at which times the effluent tended to form a greasy scum on the sand beaches of, at that time, the beginner swim area. 

The second problem was tin cans and bottles. These were collected in garbage cans behind the kitchen and twice or more a week the “Chore Boy” would load them into the small utility boat with the 15-horse power outboard and ferry them to the vicinity of what was called “bird shit island” a pile of rocks liberally coated with seagull guano some 300 yards off shore where he would methodically sink them to the lake bottom some 30 or so feet below. 

Decades after the practice had been abandoned, divers from the ‘Y’ scuba club explored the site and found a mound more than 50 feet in diameter and 20 feet high with many treasures of bygone eras including valuable rare glass and stoneware bottles. The final problem, other kitchen wastes, was solved by simply burning them in a concrete fire pit back of the dining hall. 

Sometimes the process had to be assisted with liberal applications of kerosene and white gasoline. But the system worked well, unless you happened to be down wind at times such as in the ‘Y’s Men cabin at the start of Junior camp. But they were eight year olds and didn’t mind, so it was thought.

Back to toilets. Someone eventually got the idea that a biffy, even one with eight holes and the benefit of collegiality, was just not the kind of thing the modern camper deserved, coming from a home with flush toilets, a handy sink, proper lighting and other amenities. 

The 7 Come 11 now emerges as the newest system of creative waste management on Copeland Island. Perched upon the second highest part of the island once dubbed “Pulpit Rock” (No one remembers why the name) it stood tall and stately for all to see and was everything one could ask for in a modern public toilet facility, double sided so that ladies had their own facility with seven toilets and three sinks, and a men’s side with four toilets, three urinals and two sinks. 

It was perfection, except for one small problem. In order to properly flush a toilet the system required water pressure that was found in a large municipal water service, usually about 60 to 80 pounds per square inch.

The camp pump at the best of times, could only manage 40, and often was struggling to get 30 up to furnish the mechanisms. One flush it could manage, two it might with great effort, three or more, forget it. The valves in the passageway between the two sides stayed open, the pump ran continuously, no other toilets would flush and so remained with contents intact, and the whole process failed miserably. 

The solution was a constant process of someone, often the camp director, turning off the main water supply, and hitting each stuck valve with a hammer to cause it to close and return the system to “normal” Normal it never was. The other part of the system that completed the joy was the septic tank and field that was to “handle” the effluent from the toilets and sinks. 

It appears no one thought to inform camp staff that this element required regular maintenance which included opening the tank for inspection and if necessary, stirring the contents to assure proper settling and drainage to the field (which was not properly constructed in the first place, the seepage from which causing considerable consternation as it leaked out into the waters at the back of the island and stained the rocks a rich brown hue).

But what made the whole thing really ridiculous was the fact that there were only two women on the island on a regular basis at the time, the camp operating on the monastic model of that era.(The camp nurse and the wife of the cook used a small, clean, comfortable outhouse near the hospital) The “Ladies” side of the 7 Come11 was never used, even in emergencies such as the occasional need for extra facilities when a bout of diarrhea inflicted a number of the residents at the same time. It was the “Ladies” washroom and only used on four Sundays of the summer during visitor’s days or during Girl’s camp in late August, or, if operated, at family camp. Given the effectiveness of the system, however, it’s probably just as well!

This “modern convenience” was finally abandoned in the mid 1970s when it became clear that it was never going to meet the needs of the camp population and also because it was a definite health hazard. The “solution” was to revert to biffies again. But what biffies! The new design was much grander than the old one or two holer. Even grander than the storied Eight Holer of fame. 

The “High Rise” was a small house, divided into two rooms (camp Leadership having at last realized that there are two sexes on the earth and girls might like to go to camp too), each furnished with three “straight drop” toilets, a couple of sinks, and a shower stall on each side. All of these emptied directly into the rectangular concrete block-walled box upon which the structure was perched. They were called “High Rises” for this fact, as the base structure was about six feet high. Three of these “luxuries” graced the camp and provided relief for the residents as they slowly filled with their noxious contents. 

High Rise #1

Oh yes, the contents. Camp maintenance staff discovered that the only way to “manage” these services was the draw lots and the ”winner” donned hip waders and entered the “lower room” in order to spread the piles. It goes without saying that there was less than enthusiastic acceptance of this role. It also began to dawn on camp administration that eventually these receptacles would fill and not only would the High Rises become unusable but the contents would have to be disposed of somehow, somewhere. Already some ominous brown stains were developing in the mortar of the lower courses of blocks. There were still only 24 acres on the island. What to do? Back to the individual, two hole biffies scattered along the cabin line for an indefinite term while brilliant minds studied the problem.

The camp board finally tackled the problem seriously in the early 1980s. A high-tech solution was proposed that seemed to have all the earmarks of permanence. One of the new board members worked for a firm which manufactured sewage disposal systems. What he proposed was masterful, a machine that treated the effluent of a flush system with bacteria!  The new system comprised a huge metal talk about eight feet in diameter and 20 or so feet long.

In the tank were several great disks which churned the sewage that entered at one end and exposed it to the action of bacteria to cause it to break down. Effluent would be filtered and emptied into a large septic field to be constructed near the tank. The whole “plant” and field would be situated in an ‘unused’ wooded area below the popular Raspberry Rock. It was promoted as environmentally sound, economical within reason, and it would preserve the beloved flush toilet system that city dwellers were fixed upon as necessary for a modern camp. (Larger, higher capacity pumps would solve the water supply problems of the past system) Who could ask for anything more? But there was a catch….SLUDGE.

What the promoters of the system failed to mention in their first glowing description of this marvelous machine was that at the end of each season somewhere in the neighbourhood of a dozen 45-gallon drums of thick, brown, foul sludge would have to be drained from the tanks and disposed of. This fact was only discovered when a young, bright member of the summer camp staff, named Burton Tutt (later Boryen) attended a meeting and had the temerity to ask a question about sludge production and disposal. The nerve! He had been reading up on the machine! 

After much bluster and stalling, the fact of the sludge was admitted. But it was quickly dispensed with by suggesting a barge operator could easily remove the drums and ferry them to the Kenora sewage plant for disposal. The young man interrupted again by indicating that the camp had no way of moving the drums to a location on the island where they could be loaded to a barge, at least not without the expense of purchasing major equipment to carry out the task. He then made the most damning disclosure as far as the machine’s promoters were concerned; not only was there no operator on the lake who would do the barging of the barrels he pointed out that Kenora sewage plant had no capacity to accept such gifts as the Camp Stephens annual sludge production. The dream of our own sewage treatment plant was gone.

But the enterprising Mr. Tutt was not finished. He proceeded to make a masterful presentation complete with drawings, photos, cost estimated and time lines for a system he had researched a year previously on a trip to Sweden. The Clivus Multrim system featured large tanks which composted human and kitchen waste, producing rich compost after a year or two that could be used for the camp tree nursery. The plan included a small treatment system for kitchen grey water effluent that had been developed by a professor at University of Manitoba and successfully installed in several locations in the province.

Don Cochrane assembling a Clivus

Clivus #1

To the everlasting credit of the board, they saw the wisdom of this alternate, environmentally sound plan. To top it off, a grant appeared to be assured from the federal government for the bulk of the cost of the project. The board and threw their whole support into the venture. 

The development and installation of the two systems, however, were not without problems. One of the most formidable came from the Northwest Ontario Health Department, or rather, the chief inspector. In his wisdom, he refused to believe that a composting process worked, and certainly not on the scale envisioned by Camp Stephens. Moreover, he had given his approval for the previous (and proven flawed) treatment plant. 

His obstructions nearly stopped the process for good many times. Ultimately it went ahead and still functioned satisfactorily more than 20 years later. The health inspector?  Well, he made annual visits every fall until his retirement searching for the contents of the Clivus tanks in the firm belief that we buried same contents somewhere on the island and composting didn’t work and never would!

Epilogue….in the end (2007) The Clivus maintenance process, which required systematic attention, turned out to be beyond the abilities of camp staff as the years went by and fell into disarray, the tanks filled and the old inspector won his point at last. The Clivus’s were dismantled, their contents buried (as with other past waste collections) and Camp went back to a flush system.

Here we go again!  Story to be continued.