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January 31, 2008

Weekend Walks


I went for two long walks last weekend. Along the way, I enjoyed my Vermont backyard from bottom to top. On Saturday, Marion and I wandered the Champlain Valley lowlands that stretch from our front porch south to Button Bay, making our way back home along the wooded shoreline of Lake Champlain. Then, on Sunday, 4000 feet higher up, I shared a walk to the summit of Camel’s Hump with a group of friends.

Saturday’s walk gave us a chance to pause and observe. We walked at a relaxed pace, stopping to identify tracks in the snow, and wondering why the robins had lingered past such a cold, snowy December. I took the time to photograph a flock of unknown birds that flew in tight formation across the wind-swept farm fields.  We eventually identified the red-capped cutie as the common redpoll. Marion is very good at getting me to slow down and experience my surroundings a little more intimately.

camels hump

Sunday’s hike was equally enjoyable, yet for very different reasons. It was a physically challenging walk that took us to one of the state’s most exposed mountaintops. Camel’s Hump is Vermont’s third highest, but it is the most “peak-like” among the three. Our route took us on a loop, up the western slopes on the Burrows Trail, over the summit to the Long Trail and down the south face, eventually returning via the Forest City Trail.

camels hump

The winds and the ice at the summit were strong enough to make balance and footing treacherous as we began our descent. No time to linger on this walk. We paused on the summit only long enough for a quick photo before heading down. Next stop, Nick’s house for a soak in his wood-fired hot tub and a hearty, home-cooked meal.

camels hump

January 19, 2008

An End to "Unsightly Floatables"

composting toilet

 “Unsightly floatables.” That was an engineering term that I’d learned years ago when I was a city planner in Burlington, Vermont. It was a phrase used by municipal wastewater engineers when referring to the “floaters” on the surface of Lake Champlain when a rainstorm would create a stormwater surge large enough to overwhelm the sewage treatment plant and shunt the sanitary sewer directly into the lake. Those occasional system overloads were not good for water quality, for sure. In fact, they were the primary reason why we invested $52 million dollars to upgrade our municipal wastewater system.

All my life, I’d hardly questioned the practice of filling a porcelain bowl with potable water, dropping our bodily waste into it, then using another large quantity of drinking water to whoosh it out of sight and out of mind - straight into the lake on occasion, as it turns out. Even in a properly functioning wastewater systems, does that method of waste disposal continue to make sense in this world of increasingly scarce potable water?

I've known about composting toilets for residential use for decades, but it wasn't until the Gypsy project that I had the opportunity to put one in my own home. We bought our composting toilet nearly a year ago and tucked it into a corner of Gypsy while we slowly began finishing the interior.

When we moved Gypsy here to the maritime museum we discovered an unexpected convenience – a guest bathroom on the outside of the nautical archaeology lab building, 30 feet from our front door. Rather than immediately installing our composting toilet, we took advantage of the “facilities” next door.

I’ll admit, I was dragging my feet on the composting toilet installation. Why was I so reluctant to make the switch?

Well, there were two primary reasons. The first had to do with cutting a hole in a perfectly good roof. The non-electric version of the composting toilet we bought from Sun-Mar requires the installation of a 4-inch vent running straight up from the rear of the unit. In Gypsy, it meant cutting a hole in the bathroom ceiling, then through the loft ceiling, then through six inches of foam insulation, then through the plywood roof sheathing, and then, finally, through my beautiful green metal standing seam roof. Taking a drill and a pair of tin snips up the ladder to make the cut was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do yet.

The second reason why my motivation was lacking had to do with my seemingly insurmountable fear of the unthinkable. What if it stinks?

I struggled to put that fear aside. Even though I’d read the marketing literature – “No odor” – and scoured the internet for testimonials – “No odor” – I just couldn’t bring myself to hook our new toilet up.

“What if ours is different?” I wondered. I couldn’t bear the thought of coming into our tiny home and feeling as if I had just stepped into an outhouse. The bathroom is right next to the kitchen, after all. What if . . .?

Then, as usual, Marion talked some common sense into me – “We really don't have another alternative – just do it and we’ll see what happens.”

Okay, here goes . . .

composting toilet

What could have been more fitting than to unveil the new throne on New Year’s Day. Once the vent and the urine drain were installed there really wasn't anything more to do except pour in a few gallons of composting mix (hemp stalks and peat), a bit of the starter microbe mix, and a little warm water. There you have it. Ready for use!

Fingers crossed, we went about our “daily business,” so to speak. We waited. We sniffed. We cranked the drum through its six revolutions twice a week. (I get Fridays and Marion gets Tuesdays. It’s really fun!)

We sniffed some more.

No smell!

We did have one “adjustment,” however. After about a week of use we had a day or two with very strong south winds. The length of pipe that had come with the toilet only brought the vent to a level even with the roof peak. Hoping to keep the profile of the pipe low, I decided to see how much “roof effect” we’d get without the specified two feet of pipe above the ridge. Well, when those south winds blew hard, we had downdrafts (creating positive pressure inside the toilet), and pew, we had "odor" in Gypsy Rose. Oh, no!

I quickly installed a two foot extension on the vent and instantly the problem was solved. We’ve been using our composting toilet for nearly three weeks now. It's great! The transition from a flush toilet to a composting model was completely painless. As it turns out, the only difference between our composter and a flusher (aside from lack of a flush) is the cupful of compost mix that gets sprinkled in after each poo.

Now that I’ve finally made the switch, my only regret is that I didn’t do it decades ago.

composting toilet

January 02, 2008

Around the World . . . And Then Vermont


 During the winter months sailors who live aboard in northern latitudes have three choices. Sail south to warmer waters, rig the boat to survive while iced in, or put the boat on the hard while wintering on land. Family ties and my love of four seasons are two primary reasons why I haul Raven during the winter. Winter living ashore was the primary reason for the Gypsy Rose project. When the days grow short, the snow falls and the waters ice over, I nestle in.

While ashore, the water is never far away, though. If I can’t be afloat, I pass many a winter’s hour reading the stories of those at sea. Last winter I happened across a remarkable story of a remarkable woman on a remarkable journey. When I picked up the story, Donna Lange was closing in on Cape Horne and the final leg of her 32,000 mile solo-journey. Aboard her 28-foot Southern Cross, Inspired Insanity, Donna was about to do something many hardy sailors dream of but few muster the courage to try – sail around the world, alone, via the Southern Capes.

In April of 2007, on the final leg of her circumnavigation, Donna ran into a strong nor’easter west of Bermuda. I received an email (below) from Donna, asking if I would be willing to relay weather information to her as she sailed from Bermuda to Rhode Island.

 “Hi Kevin.  gillian emailed your particulars on to me.  I have been, as you know, so so so frustrated with trying to get useful information and accurate data.  the weather fax picts are just sketchy to me... I was having trouble reading them. They just weren't the best copy... and the boat is in mayhem. not easy to get the gear out and get the faxes... I should be ready to head out the first few days of May and would love your input...mostly simple concepts of what will be there.  I am not looking forward to beating to wind the whole way but unless i come up with some southerlies, it will be a tough and slow road to RI.  thanks. keep in touch. please..  thanks xoxoxo d”


 As the storms raged on, Donna and I exchanged mail. I pulled together weather data, Gulf Stream flows, and Donna’s daily position reports. Mixing personal experience of weather and water with the synthesis, I sent a series of emails to Donna with my analysis of what to expect. In the end, however, I was snug on land while Donna was taking the brunt of the storms I was writing about. On May 16th of 2007, pushing on through conditions of those late winter nor’easters, Donna arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island on the remnants of a gale. Well done, Donna.

Donna is wintering in Florida this year, managing the refit of a 51-foot sailboat, but she traveled north to share the holidays with her daughter and grandchildren in Cambridge, New York. While there, she drove north to Vermont for a visit. Finally, we had a chance to meet in person.

With only a few hours to spend together, there was so much to talk about but not enough time. I treated Donna to apple-cinnamon pancakes while she showed me that my guitar is capable of beautiful music – in the right hands. (Donna is an accomplished musician who has performed in ports around the world.) We then headed to Mount Philo for a local favorite winter ritual - a hike to the top of the bluff rewarded with a fast sled ride down.


So, what happens when a woman who’s taken on the southern ocean seats herself on a Mad River Rocket sled in Vermont? Smiles! Big smiles!

It was wonderful having you here, Donna and we wish you the very best as your journeys continue.



* Above photos of Donna aboard Inspired Insanity taken by Billy Black (www.billyblack.com), as Donna made landfall on the Rhode Island coast – May 2007.