Troubled waters a head

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Christine Cunningham hauled this beauty from the deep during a fishing trip.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Christine Cunningham hauled this beauty from the deep during a fishing trip.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

The captain scuffed around deck in his XTRATUFs. He sniffed over his boat as if he’d only know it by smell. He was like many sportfishing guides in Alaska who’d slept all winter and were waking up from hibernation with the bears. He talked a lot but only had one thing on his mind. If you didn’t have the same thing on your mind, you’d be in trouble. There were four of us who’d tagged along with him for his first trip of the season. It was a scouting trip for the Homer Winter King Salmon Derby.

“I don’t know if the toilet is going to work,” Captain announced.

“I put the blue stuff in it before winter,” he said, while taking out tackle. “Never know if anything’s going to work the first time out.”

A boat across the dock from us started up. The motors emitted a fog of success. We all watched.

“Lucky bastard,” Captain said.

I had to use the restroom, and I’d better do it before we left the harbor or else endure the stigma of being one of those people who actually uses a marine toilet.

The toilet on Captain’s boat was merely ornamental. That the boat contained an enclosed restroom was an advertised feature. A girlfriend recommended the boat, not for the potential success of the charter or the demeanor of the captain, but for the enclosed toilet. Should anyone aboard the boat make use of the feature, they must do it with skill and diplomacy. The captain had many times instructed guests on the proper use of the head. I’d taken a few notes over the years:

“No butts in head” is not a personality prerequisite for marine toilet use.

“Nothing should go in the toilet that has not gone through a person” does not mean you have to eat toilet paper if you want to use it.

“The water is calling” only refers to fishing, not marine toilets.

Whether seated or standing, brace yourself as if you were about to ride a bull for eight seconds because nothing says “story that will be retold in mixed company” like being the person who smells like a urinal the rest of the trip.

It would be better to wear Depends than use the marine toilet.

“Going down for a beer,” is one of the many acceptable euphemisms for using the toilet.

“Never used a marine toilet in 50 years,” is something men will sometimes say to impress each other.

A “midendeavor flush” is not a courtesy, it’s a mechanical necessity.

“Every bullet has your name on it.” The decision to use the toilet is yours alone. If you do not clean and replace parts, you will be specifically referenced for the rest of your life by the captain.

Don’t use a marine toilet unless: A, you are the person that maintains it; B, you have no shame; C, you want to be infamous.

“One time,” Captain said, “I was waiting in line at the launch. The boat is still on the trailer. And this 300-pound guy uses the boat toilet!”

The four of us all shook our heads.

“The public restrooms were only 100 feet away!” We started to laugh when the Captain did. “They are heated restrooms!” We were all laughing. “The guy comes out and says, ‘I think I broke your toilet.’” Tears were starting to come out of Captain’s eyes. “We hadn’t even left the dock!”

I’m never using the toilet, I thought.

“We can go over the edge like they used to,” my fishing partner said.

He often referred to the way things used to be done, but I could never determine when or where people ever did most of the things the way he described. It was a world before the existence of plumbing, before clocks, before traffic or the discovery of fire, and yet it was a world that had invented the cigarette, thermometer, Winchester rifle and bungee cord.

Captain emerged from the cabin. He looked at the three of us as though we were helpless old ladies. He gestured us aboard as he re-accounted last spring’s preparations for the mechanic’s consideration.

I wasn’t going to get a chance to use the restroom before fog poured out of the motors and Captain smiled a smile that I had never seen in all my midseason trips. After months of guiding, sometimes two trips in one day, the smile grew weary and only appeared when the fishing was excellent. This was the first time I’d seen Captain pause to smile without a single hope of fish. It was just a shakeout trip, after all.

“The toilet’s not working,” he announced.

I was never so happy to pee in a bucket in my life.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at


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