COVENTRY, R.I. — Charles Morden got to Carbuncle Pond before dawn on Nov. 4 to fish when he noticed something unusual bobbing out in the water.
What in the world was that?
As day started to break, he and his fellow anglers figured it out: It was a portable toilet. A big one, too, extra wide to accommodate people with disabilities. Its exhaust vent was poking out of the water like a periscope of a disgusting submarine, and it was so far out it had achieved buoyancy, a plastic floater in the middle of a pristine pond. Morden, who himself has a disability, was in disbelief.
“To take something a handicapped person needs and destroy it, it just shows you how heartless and cruel people can be,” Morden said later. “It’s just downright crap.”
Morden took to Facebook to vent his frustrations, and also called the Department of Environmental Management, which manages Carbuncle Pond.
But the portable toilet remained in the drink, even after multiple calls.
Hundreds of miles away, Rhode Island newlyweds Jason and Kate Malbaurn were on a cruise in Bermuda for their honeymoon. Kate happened to be checking Facebook when she saw one of Morden’s posts. Even in sunny Bermuda, the cloudy situation back home nagged at Jason Malbaurn, who grew up going to Carbuncle Pond.
He was still thinking about it on Saturday, when their cruise got back to port in New York. As they were driving home to West Kingston, Kate saw another one of Morden’s posts.
“Anyone up for helping me get a toilet out of carbuncle pond?” Morden had written on Facebook.
The Malbaurns were. Honeymoon officially over, they went to Walmart to buy some rope and made plans to meet Morden out at the pond Sunday. When they arrived Sunday morning, the thing was maybe 50 feet out into the water.
What happened next was relatively straightforward and took less than an hour. Jason Malbaurn kayaked out to the toilet with the rope. He attached one end to the portable toilet with a metal fastener.
Then, Morden and Kate Malbaurn pulled the other end of the rope to draw the toilet in toward the T-shaped dock. Once the toilet was up against the dock, Jason Malbaurn worked to attach the rope more securely. To do this, he jumped right onto the still-floating toilet’s exterior — “I was surfing,” he said later.
Then, back on the dock, Jason Malbaurn had to reach so far out over the water to help secure and steer the toilet that his new wife and his new friend had to hold his legs so he wouldn’t plop in.
“I swear, his waist was over the edge of the dock,” Kate Malbaurn said. “It’s funny now, but I wasn’t laughing then.”
Once they had a clear shot to land, they pulled the toilet close enough so that they could attach it to the hitch ball of Malbaurn’s truck. He towed it out of the water, on its side, roof-first. At one point the part of the toilet that the rope was attached to snapped off and Malbaurn had to kayak out to it again to reattach it.
But eventually, Malbaurn got it out. When they were finished, they hung out for a bit and reminisced about old times coming out to the pond, where Jason Malbaurn used to fish and camp when he was going up in Coventry.
He never, though, did anything as thoughtless as throwing a toilet in the pond, as someone recently did — in addition to tipping over two others.
It seems to be a growing problem, not just with today’s generation of youngsters who leave beer cans in the woods and set couches on fire, but with environmental management in general. People seem to think of outdoors areas as dumping grounds, with little care for who else is affected, the Malbaurns and Morden said. And DEM, they added, seems ill equipped to urgently deal with it.
“They should have been here a lot sooner,” Morden said. “At least that day, or even the day after. I know it’s the weekend, but still. There’s a toilet in the middle of the lake.”
They were going to let it go. But then a few days later, they noticed a Facebook post by the DEM that blamed the vandals for throwing it in the pond — but took no responsibility for DEM’s role in not getting it out sooner. The post credited some unnamed local anglers with removing the toilet.
“We weren’t anglers,” Jason Malbaurn said. “We were frustrated citizens of the state.”
In response to questions for this story, the DEM was quick to credit Morden and the Malbaurns with swinging into action.
“DEM uses the hashtag #EverydayEnvironmentalHeroes to describe people who do something exceptional for the greater good of ecology,” DEM spokesman Michael Healey said in an e-mail. “We’d certainly say the actions of these folks are heroic and we appreciate it.”
In response to the criticism about DEM not acting swiftly enough: Healey said that the vendor had picked up the other two portable toilets that vandals had knocked over by 4:28 p.m. Friday. And, he noted, the DEM Division of Fish and Wildlife manages more than 28 wildlife management areas with more than 61,000 acres and another 200 fishing access areas, boat areas, ramps, fishways and dams. They do so with a corps of just five employees in operations and maintenance within the Division of Fish and Wildlife.
“Also, this act of vandalism is far from isolated,” Healey said. “People tag us almost every day about litter and illegal dumping on state lands.”
On Saturday, almost a week after their rescue operation, the Malbaurns, Morden, and Eileen Jakabek, Morden’s girlfriend, met up at the pond to explain to a reporter what had happened.
“It’s just upsetting, nowadays, how people — they just don’t care anymore,” Kate Malbaurn said.
The way Morden sees it, he got an up-close view of how environmental management works, and doesn’t work, in the state of Rhode Island. It left a bitter taste: Not only had the state not acted immediately, only two people had responded to his Facebook post. But those two people had become friends, and after reuniting to reminisce about their rescue operation, they went off to explore Spencer Rock, a little waterfall nearby. They’re planning to go fishing together this weekend.
The DEM, meanwhile, plans to test water quality soon in hopes of stocking Carbuncle Pond for ice-fishing season. The toilet in the water prevented the DEM from stocking the pond for Veterans Day.
“Relative to the size of the pond, the source of contamination was small,” Healey said, “and thanks to the civic-mindedness of the of the folks who fished it out, it wasn’t in the water for that long.”