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Repairing an Outhouse?

(Part Five of the 2014 segment of the Cottage diary)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

If we were to sell this shack in the woods (and that day, while not imminent, is not very far off), the first thing that the new owners will do – before anything else – is get rid of the outhouse.

Who, these days, except the deprived citizens of impoverished countries, are willing to relieve themselves in a pit!?  Whether or not it is made decorous by having a little cabin over it, a pit is simply unacceptable to today’s civilized person.  So, mark my words: anyone who buys this place will install a septic field or a composting toilet faster than the blink of a cat’s eye.  And they will tear the outhouse down – or hire somebody to do it, if the thought of that pit – or what’s in it – makes their stomach turn.

But in truth it is quite a nice outhouse – a “two-holer,” set on the steep slope of a forested hillside.  Three flights of wooden stairs lead up to it, and at the top, in front of the door, is a platform on which, on sunny days, we can have warm showers.  And it doesn’t stink.  Well, sometimes it stinks, but we have a powerful enzyme to put in when that happens, and truly, most of the time, there is no unpleasant odor.
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A corner, where the roof decay was worst

But it is getting a little elderly.  Built about 54 years ago, at the same time as our cabin itself was built, and sitting out in the forest all those years in ice and snow and rain, some of the wooden roof has inevitably decayed.  The roofing material above it is cracked, and peeling, and covered in mould, which only serves to accelerate the rotting process.  A couple of years ago, rain began to drip inside.  Not on your head, if you happened to be using the place in a rainstorm, but water would run down the back wall and pool a little on the seat.

I have contemplated this slow decline for a while, and this year, I decided to fix it.

Which also tells you something, doesn’t it?  Having an outhouse in good condition is not a “selling feature” of a cottage.  I do not need to fix the thing if I’m planning to sell.

So, as I went to town to get the necessary supplies, the realization hit me that somewhere deep in my subconscious I’m not planning to sell the place any time soon.

That was August 5th.

I should add that the weather at the beginning of August this year was wonderful.  Bright, sunny days, and temperatures that are comfortable, but not too hot for me to do some serious outdoor work.  All the same, it took me a while to get started.  Not only would there be a lot of labour involved just in getting ready to work – hauling, for example, heavy tools, large pieces of plywood, and a ladder up the steep forest path and then up the outhouse stairs – there was also the problem of my rather severe vertigo.

The outhouse is set into the hillside, and its roof is steeply raked (high in front, low in back) such that standing on the ground behind it, I can put my hands on the roof, but at the front, over the door, the leading edge of the roof is at least 5 metres above the ground.  Although I could do some of the work simply by standing on the hillside behind the little building, sooner or later I would have climb up a ladder to reach the roof at the front – a ladder that is standing on the platform at the outhouse door.  A platform that is, itself, quite high above the ground.

Okay, I admit it, I’ve never gone to a doctor to complain of vertigo.  I just live with the condition.  Many years ago, I took my then small children to the top of the Sears tower in Chicago.  I stepped out of the elevator on the viewing level, and, at the sight of the city far below I was so immediately struck by dizziness, an overturning of my stomach, and a terrible feeling of being propelled toward the window and, through it, out into the air, that I had to cling, literally, to the wall at the elevator door.  It wasn’t rational, but it was visceral, and terrifyingly real to me.

A few years later Heather and I were watching a Disney animated movie in a theatre.  That should be innocent good fun, right?  But the movie was The Hunchback of Notre Dame and in one scene the artists drew the central character looking down from one of the Notre Dame cathedral towers.  They drew it from his viewpoint – with the people and the street far, far below.  Dizziness and a clenching of my insides became so pronounced that I had to close my eyes and hunch down in my seat until Heather told me that the scene had passed.  For goodness sake, this was a cartoon, an animated drawing!  And yet I felt myself being wrenched from inside and pulled to my certain death.

Regular readers of this blog will know that this spring, Heather and I visited the Grand Canyon.  You can be assured that I never went anywhere near the edge of the canyon, although by standing far back and looking straight ahead over the extraordinary vistas that are everywhere, I was able to genuinely enjoy this, one of the natural wonders of the world.

Thus, thinking of being perched on a ladder which is in turn perched on a wooden platform high above the slope of the hill, did not fill me with joy.

But, I faced my fears and began on August 8th.

I started at the front.  On the leading edge of the roof.  Where the height would be greatest.

First, place the stepladder on the platform, carefully, making sure that none of the four legs would drop into the spaces between the platform planks.  Now, climb!  One hand on ladder, other hand holding claw hammer and crowbar.  Up... one rung... two... three (the thing is a bit wobbly, but it should be okay...) four.... don’t look down...

Now my head and shoulders are above the top of the roof.  Okay, this is it!  I start to hack away at the old asphalt roofing.

It was broken in many places, and covered in moss.  And, I discovered as I went along, under it lived a colony of ants.  They ran skittering here and there – sometimes on to my hands and arms – carrying their eggs.  Those that clung to the roofing material found themselves being summarily dumped with it on to the forest floor below.

When I had removed the shingles from as far down the roof as I could reach, I began carefully, one by one, taking off the beautiful old “tongue-and-groove” boards of the roof.  Those that were undecayed and not ant-infested, were dropped to a specific place on the forest floor where I could retrieve them, and use them in the eventual re-build.

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That first day, all I did was take apart the front part of the roof.  Although this doesn’t sound like much, the care needed for removing boards without breaking them, and the difficulty of using crowbars and levers while perched high in the air, and wobbling just a little bit with every push and pull, meant that after a couple of hours I was exhausted.

The next day there was no work.  Heather and I made a trip into Montreal, to visit some of her relatives.  There was a new baby to be met; which is, of course, of the greatest importance.  The day following was a Sunday, and most of the daylight hours were spent at church and then at a laundromat, so I couldn’t get back to the outhouse until Monday, August 11.

Here is my diary entry, made that Monday evening:

Today, I made good progress on the outhouse project.  The remainder of the old roof and support beams came off – it took me just under four hours.  Completion is within sight.  It’s supposed to rain by tomorrow night, and stay cool and wet until Saturday, so if I can have the new roof on by tomorrow afternoon, even if it’s not shingled I can cover it with plastic until Saturday.  I hope it works that way.

It didn’t work that way.

After breakfast the next morning I went online and checked the weather report again, and suddenly “periods of rain, beginning this morning” appeared where previously there was nothing predicted but sun and cloud.

The outhouse at this point was completely open to the skies, so I rushed out, and tried to get as far as possible before the rains began.

New support beams were cut and shaped, and using those salvaged boards from the roof, I managed to replace some of the rotten wood on one side of the structure.  But as the first raindrops began to fall, I was nowhere near finished.  I put in a few temporary screws, slid the new plywood roof panels loosely into place, and covered the whole thing in plastic.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now know that I should have started at least a week earlier.

We were, you see, about to have visitors.  The next Sunday my new daughter-in-law, Marisa, and two of her three children, would come to be with us for the remaining days of August.

If it had stayed sunny, I could certainly have completed the project before they arrived, but not with the weather that was now being forecast.

Indeed, I have noticed this year that when the weather office promises sunshine, it can often be wrong, but when it promises rain, it never errs.  Except that, if four days of rain are promised, we’ll probably get six.

This was August 12, a Tuesday.  The forecast said that the rain would be continuous until the Saturday.  There was thus very little hope that the project could be done before Marisa and her children arrived.

And as it turned out, the rain that began on that Tuesday was not merely “rain,” but a heavy, continuous, drenching and relenless downpour, which faded back to normal rainfall by Thursday, but never really let up until our company arrived.  Still, under its plastic, my half-finished roof at least ensured that the facility was dry, and usable.

On the second day of Marisa’s visit, the sun finally came out, and the skies were once more blue.  I had to resume work, company or no company, so I spent another day going up and down stairs and ladders, bending, lifting, carrying, holding things up in the air – slowly making progress, and giving myself a lengthy exercise workout at the same time.

All the same, things didn’t look much different by the end of the day.  There was plastic over the outhouse once more, and the three plywood sheets – the future roof – were only held on with rope.  But the two-by-four beams that support the roof were now screwed on permanently, and all the re-usable boards from the old roof had been cut to fit the sides, and screwed on.

All of which required a lot of measuring and checking.  Once, I nearly made a huge mistake wherein the support beams that project out from the building, would have ended up sticking out at different lengths, but I caught the mistake in time.  The adage, “measure twice, cut once,” kept running through my head.  And so, I felt that I had made acceptable progress by 7:00 PM, when I put away my tools, and went into the cabin, shuffling and creaking like an octogenarian.

The next day I hit another roadblock.  Not the weather this time, but my own faulty preparation.  I had thought that the packages of shingles and roofing nails left over from when I had replaced the main roof would still be good – but I was wrong.  The shingles had hardened, were mouldy, and basically useless.  And the nails were too long for the much thinner plywood that I was using on the outhouse.  So I had to go into town to buy some new roofing and nails, and thus lost one of the nicest days for work that there had been.

And the weather turned bad once more.

What with the weather and the family visits (Troy eventually came to join his wife and boys, and there were excursions, and feasts with friends), this project remained unfinished when it was time for Heather and me to pack up and head back to Manitoba.

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Now it is October.

I have returned to the lake to do what needs to be done.

The forest is silent.  Songbirds are gone.  Geese fly over in parties of fifteen or twenty, honking raucously.  But they, too, are soon gone, and the silence descends once more.

Very occasionally one hears a rustle of leaves on the forest floor, as if some tiny creature is on a last-minute errand, prior to its winter nap.  But no squirrels stand chittering in the trees, as they were wont to do all summer.

As the breezes pick up in the early morning, it sounds as though a light rain is falling – but the sky is cloudless.  It is only the drying leaves – an overhead riot of red and yellow and orange – whispering and rustling in the treetops.  Some leaves have begun to fall.

I flew from Winnipeg to Ottawa two days ago, then rented a car, and drove from Ottawa to the lake, a distance of just over 100 kilometres.  I’ll be here a total of 10 days.

When I got up at 8:30 yesterday morning, it was 10°C.  The cabin wasn’t exactly cold but it sure was chilly.  Planning to work outside much of the day, I did not make a fire, but through breakfast and the morning ritual of collecting my email, I was uncomfortable enough to notice the chill in the air.  Then I went up to the outhouse to work.

Off came the plastic sheeting.  It had done its job.  The new plywood of the roof was quite dry, and the interior was, too, for that matter.

First, the three large plywood sheets were set into position, and screwed down.  Then, working from the back of the structure, where I could reach the lower part of the roof even while standing on the ground, I applied a product called “ice and water shield.”  Over that went a layer of asphalt shingle.
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Outhouse repair nearing completion... 1

But I could only reach partway up.  I had to drag the ladder up to the back, lay it on the roof and, crawling along it, put the roofing material on the higher portions (see inset).

Two hours into this work, I decided to take a break.  I went back down to the cabin, made a coffee and sat down.  My reading glasses, which I only wear when I use the computer, were at “room temperature” – that is, they were cold.  Really cold.  I, however, was not cold, and in fact I was so warm from my exertions that those glasses steamed up, and I could not see a thing for a minute or two.

No wonder I like the cold!  When I work, I generate a lot of heat.  As a result, if I work hard in the summer, I quickly become incapacitated.  But now I’m comfortable in my cool cabin, and after a very short break I was ready and eager to continue my labours!

The morning had been overcast, but the sun came out in the afternoon, and things warmed up to about 19°C.  It was still cool enough to work, and indeed it was more than pleasant.

Then biting bugs came out of nowhere.  The injustice!  It is cool in the forest; the nights are cold!  Why are there biting bugs!???

By 3:00 PM I was covered in lumps, but I refused to be defeated, and by evening yesterday the roof was all done except for the finishing touches.

To do those finishing touches properly, I decided that I should go into town this morning, to buy a hair dryer.

A hair dryer?

Yes.  You see, the roofing material that I bought, although brand-new, is too stiff to fold properly over the edges of the roof.  In the summer, it would have been quite pliable, and folding it would have been smooth and easy, but in the cool of the fall, it is stiff, even rigid.  With a hair dryer, I can warm it up, softening it sufficiently to fold over the edges, finishing the roof perfectly.

I got back from town about mid-day today, with a cheap little hair dryer.  Up I went to the outhouse roof for the last time.  Shingles, once warmed up, bent quite easily, and by placing them just so, and folding them over the leading edge of the roof, I made a proper “cap,” sealing everything down with tar.

Now, tar is not a tame substance.  It seemed to be alive, lying there and waiting for an opportunity to leap up and stick to me or my tools when I wasn’t looking.  Of course I was perched either on a steeply-raked roof, or on a wobbly ladder, so that in my precariousness I could, and did, occasionally find myself leaning on, and getting support from, a place that I had just tarred.

The end of this outhouse saga is therefore not just the labour of putting all those tools and supplies away, but a fairly lengthy cleanup.  I did manage to get the tar off my arms, and my watch, and the new hair dryer, and the trowel.  And luckily, not a drop of that black goo got on my clothes, for which I am most grateful.

And the outhouse roof job is done.  Bells may be rung, sirens may wail, confetti and ticker tape may be thrown.

THE ASTUTE READER will no doubt have noticed that I did something that is a bit reckless: working alone in a forest, dangerously perched on high places, where, if I fell, I would lie broken and helpless for possibly days, possibly forever, before being discovered.
Well, yes, that is true.  And if you think I took a chance with that outhouse, read on....

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Next: The Last Outdoor Task of the Year


1  Leaves in this picture are surprisingly green, given that the forest on October 1 was a riot of red and yellow and orange.  However, below the upper canopy of leaves, green persisted for several more days.
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