Show and smell
It has become an unspoken rule at Cottage Life, at least since the time we slipped up and someone mentioned it. He was a tough cottager, the kind of guy who’s always first up the highest mountain. But this time I think he was a little, well, squeamish is the word that comes to mind. What were we thinking, he asked, when we put the story on septic systems next to the recipes?
I guess he had a point. It’s easy to become insensitive when examining the contents of authentic bear scat – or finding room for it in the office fridge – is all in a day’s work. But that’s not the whole story. The truth is, we like septic systems and we think other cottagers do, too. Why else would we talk about them all the time? In fact, I recall a summer when I loved my septic system with the ardour of a child who has just received a shiny new toy.
Some years ago, as a responsible cottager (and cottage-magazine editor), I was becoming increasingly anxious about the ancient steel tank that squatted in the blueberry patch near the back deck, and the septic bed that, rumour had it, existed somewhere under the canopy of trees beyond the tank. A peek under the cottage revealed a sewage pipe that, to my vast relief, ended at the tank, but there was another that exited the tank and disappeared into the ground, after which we had only a vague notion of what happened to it.
And so eventually we bit the bullet and signed the order for a new system, a conventional tank and tile bed, and in so doing launched an onslaught of people and machines onto our shore when we closed up that year. The following spring, the property was transformed. A sand road for BobCats had been laid down from the water, where the barge came in, to the top of the hill behind the sleeping cabin. A sunny meadow had been cleared for the septic bed. And presiding over the meadow at one end was a large mound of sand, wherein lay a big new septic tank.
Effluent – such a delicate name for that combination of previously ingested matter we flush down the toilet and the suds we put down the drain – still needed transportation to the tank. But since we are off the grid and don’t have hydro, and thus can’t run a pump, it had been decided that the lovely stuff would be sluiced by gravity down a long (very long) sloping pipe towards the new field.
We happened to be in residence, eating burgers in the back kitchen porch, when the cheerful installer and his wife came by to drop off the long sections of plastic. Whatever happens, I thought as they went by with their load, we’ll never misplace the septic pipe again. An alarming shade of turquoise, the assembled conduit would wend its way on wooden braces through the forest like a brilliant hair ribbon.
And brilliant it was; the new septic system changed our lives. There was no smell, no ugly tank among the blueberries. Our renewed confidence in the thing made us realize how high our anxiety had been about the old system. One day, I took some leftover brown stain we’d used on the cottage siding and covered the few metres of pipe that were visible from the back deck. Instantly, the line faded into the bush. Over time, the road became difficult to identify, too, as the sand washed away and junipers reclaimed their place on the rock.
It seems we have a natural aversion to our own waste, and that, plus the cost of a new system should the one we have fail, makes septics one of the more worrisome aspects of cottaging. That’s why writer Ray Ford’s story in the current issue of Cottage Life magazine is all the more reassuring. Whatever is wrong with your system, he points out, it might not be as bad as you think. And fixing it now may mean you’ll have to replace it later rather than sooner. Best of all, Ray provides easy DIY steps cottagers can take to inspect their own systems and reduce the angst of waiting for a mandatory municipal reinspection. Most importantly, making sure our waste is being treated properly before being released into the environment is the right thing to do.
This year, we’re installing a composting toilet. Already, we have enthusiastically dragged our friends over to the exhibits at the spring and fall Cottage Life shows where “our” model was displayed. It reminds me of the summer when visitors to our cottage were barely out of the boat before being hurried up the hill for a viewing of the new septic bed – when, for the brief time the distribution lines in the bed were exposed, we could see our own field of dreams, ready to release a new, cleaner version of our, ahem, effluent.
I really need to get out more.