When you flush a toilet in the North, it’s not quite out of sight, out of mind. Many small communities—and parts of larger Northern cities—don’t have underground plumbing, which means houses are fitted with septic tanks that the pumpout truck (lovingly called the “honey dipper”) empties when it makes its weekly rounds. But even this system would be considered a luxury to the many Northerners who live where the honey dipper does not dip. Their oval offices look a little different.
Bret Heebink grew up in a “hippy community” in 1970s California, where everyone had an outhouse. He’s since moved on, but his father hasn’t. “He’s like 74. He claims he’s never used his indoor plumbing,” says Heebink, owner of Whitehorse-based Heebink Green Building. “He must have had it for 10 years and he continues to go to the outhouse.”
Heebink is still moved by his roots. Last summer, he built a Dr. Seuss-inspired outhouse at Montana
Mountain near Carcross. He says it’s the connection to the outdoors that keeps people coming back to outhouses—aside from the immediate relief they seek. “There’s something peaceful about being outside,” he says. “That’s the charm I think: when you’re camping, you usually find a nice little spot, and it’s enjoyable.” Although he makes his pilgrimages to porcelain these days, he made sure his bathroom at home had a window overlooking the mountains.
The honey bucket
Honey buckets are literally that—buckets, in which you deposit your, ahem, honey. They’re usually equipped with a toilet seat for comfort and a replaceable, single-use bag inside for ease of cleaning. Peter Gillis, who has lived on a houseboat on Yellowknife Bay for the last two years, throws peat moss in the bucket after each use “to soak everything up.” When the bag is full, it’s taken out of the bucket and shuttled to the city’s landfill, where a special section is designated for honey bags. (Yep, they’re that common.)
Historically, honey buckets have been used across the North in places where it’s too expensive or impossible to connect to municipal water systems. They are such a feature of life in the North that when Iqaluit’s Toonik Tyme festival first got started in 1965, the honey bag fling was a popular contest. (Thankfully, participants used bags filled with water.) Even in communities where most people have moved off the buckets, they’re still a backup system. In Coral Harbour, Nunavut, honey buckets were distributed to each household after the community’s two sewage trucks broke down in 2016.
The top pots
Composting toilets are the Cadillacs of portable johns. Some models include a storage chamber beneath the bowl and use the same sort of science that composts your kitchen scraps. Depending on local regulations, this “night soil” (as human refuse has been called going back centuries) can be used to enrich soil like any other fertilizer. Most toilet models separate liquids from solids to cut down on odour. “The poo’s dry, so there’s really no smell unless you’re not cleaning it like every week or something like that,” says Gillis, who recently upgraded from a honey bucket. (Composting toilets can cost many hundreds—even thousands—of dollars.)
He doesn’t miss being able to flush his cares away: “It’s really not that bad at all,” says Gillis. “It’s so regular, going to the dump, that you don’t really think about it.”