Archive for August, 2011

Unplugged, Part III: Our Green-ish Family Vacation in Maine

Contributed by Dr. Sarah Warren

I tend to be a woman of words, which is reflected in my (slightly!) wordy blog posts. This time, thanks to the fabulous camera on my new I-phone, and the photogenic scenery of the little island in Maine where I go with the 8 year-old HamSter and the 6 year-old DudeSter and extended family for our annual vacation without electricity or Internet, I will let pictures tell the story– mostly!

Can you tell I love my I-phone?

For context, here’s the house:

You may recall that in Parts I and II of this blog thread I talked about how our family benefits on our annual vacation from connecting with each other by unplugging, and the eco impact of our travel to and from this pristine spot.

In this post, I’ll share what makes it a green-ish vacation– what it is about the place we stay that makes it pretty eco friendly. I say “green-ish” because there is an eco impact, especially in getting from Chicago to Maine (via Redbones Restaurant in Somerville, MA!) and back.

So let’s start with the biggest and most obvious thing: There is no electricity. So, we’re not running air conditioners, not even fans. No electric lights. I can tell you that in the summer of 2002 I would have been really happy to have a way to stay cooler during a massive heat wave when I was pregnant with the now 8 year-old HamSter. But I kept my feet in the water most of the time, and I did survive.

And because there is also no electricity AND no Internet– No computers. So we’re not powering computers themselves, or accessing remote energy-hogging servers.

Here’s a pretty good shot of the living room that includes the original gas lamps (fueled by a propane tank) that we use for lighting in the evening. Because the lights are dim, it helps us to go bed early which makes the vacation restorative and restful!

And here’s our laundry hanging out to dry: 

Since most of the electricity in the US comes from very polluting coal power plants that kick out nasty things like mercury and emissions that contribute to our warming atmosphere and the “pickling” of our gorgeous oceans, not using electricity definitely contributes to the green-ishness of our vacation. Not that we can give up electricity in our day-to-day lives…

No microwave! We eat very well, thank you, with fabulous meals cooked on this gas stove:

We enjoy a daily does of homemade “Mama’s bread,” baked fresh daily in this oven! Thank you Grandma Lee! Not just for the bread, for making the island trip possible!


Why does composting matter?  The methane gas that comes from our landfills (you know those little blue jets?) is way, way worse in its warming effects than the stuff that comes out of our tailpipes. It may seem kinda gross, but  composting is a good thing for the planet, for our kids’ future– and plants LOVE to be fed with compost!

We also use biodegradable soaps and shampoos because everything drains straight into the lake. I don’t have a photo of our shampoo!- but no matter where you live, it’s a good idea to use soaps, detergents and shampoos that are biodegradable. Why? When we don’t, we contribute to problems like the vast Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico ( one of a growing number of dead zones) where the ocean cannot support life because our sewage ends up dumping into the ocean, often via rivers such as the Missisippi. And, most non-biodegradable products are made from petroleum– toxic stuff, and part of our hidden addiction to oil!

And last but not least, the solar powered composting outhouse. Yup.

The solar panel on this outhouse helps run the composter for the waste. On some outhouses solar panels even run fans and lights! You might have seen them in National Parks.

For the record, I do not personally use the outhouse, but the DudeSter does –quite happily.  For myself, I was very happy when shortly after we started going to the island, a flush toilet using lake water was installed.

So this is my final post for the year on our annual unplugged vacation. Stay tuned for next year!

Let me know what you think of this series. And share your story of your low impact vacation!

August 29, 2011 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

Unplugged, Part II: The Planes, Cars & Boats of our Green-ish Vacation

Contributed by Dr. Sarah Warren

Let’s talk about planes, cars and boats, shall we?

In Part I of this blog thread, I talked about how our family benefits from unplugging on an island with no electricity, running water or Internet– a pretty low eco impact vacation. In this installment, I talk about the eco impact of getting to and from our pristine little island in Maine with a 6 year-old DudeSter and an 8 year-old HamSter.   And to foreshadow– In my third and  final post about our “green-ish” vacation, I’ll talk about what makes it green-ish, above and beyond the obvious lack of electricity.

First, in case you missed the photo in my previous blog post on why we subject ourselves to the deprivations of this island, here is another photo to give you a sense:

Now on to those planes, cars and boats…

All of our dominant modes of transportation have some form of impact on the environment, mostly from the fossil fuels they burn, and the heat-trapping emissions they kick into our atmosphere.

I wanted to know just what that impact was. So…

I calculated just how many polluting emissions we generated.

According to, the kids and I flew 851 miles each way from Chicago to Boston.

Using Bonneville Environmental Foundations’s carbon footprint calculator (, I find that our flight generated 1331 pounds of C02 per person– our most common form of heat-trapping pollution.

We drove around the Boston area for a couple of days before we went up to the Sebago Lake region in ME, including a visit to my sister’s for a pre-island visit with the cousins. And our drive to and from Redbones Restaurant ( in Somerville, MA (a tasty jumping off point!) to the island in Maine? 210 miles roundtrip.

I’m adding a few miles for getting lost en route from Redbones to the airport (so tasty we had to stop on the way back.)  We had a very stressful dash to the airport when I missed the turn, in a very Boston driving experience, out of Sumner tunnel! Thankfully, the dudes in the backseat were oblivious to my stress as the driver– lost in Boston with a flight to catch!

So I’m using 300 miles as a pretty close estimate of our driving miles.

We were driving around in a Mitsubishi Endeavor, a large rented SUV– just what the rental car company had that was big enough for us and our stuff. Not a clean- burning hybrid, and not the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the road! I estimate that we got 21 MPG on the highway, which was the majority of our driving.

The driving added 281 pounds of C02 emissions to our trip’s eco impact.

About the boats part of the equation. The skiff that we ride from the shore to the island? Well, I’m not counting that 10 minute boat ride because Bonneville’s carbon footprint calculator doesn’t include boats (and I’ve not seen one that does). I’m pretty sure the impact of that short boat ride is below the threshold of the carbon calculator– but I do want to say that the two-stroke motors that power many smaller power boats are not only very leaky but very inefficient. Not eco friendly!

So even when we take vacations that seem like they shouldn’t have much eco impact– like a camping trip, say– we still might want to consider the impact of getting to and from our destination.

In order to compensate for– oroffset — our eco impact, I’m buying carbon offsets from Bonneville Environmental Foundation (, which are green-e certified.

A quick explanation– Green-e ( certified offsets (the only kind I recommend) ensure that for every unit of fossil fuel based energy you use, an equal amount of renewable energy is generated– hence the “offset” concept.  I buy from Bonneville because they are highly regarded in the industry.

The bottom line: The cost per person to buy 1612 pounds worth of credits towards renewable energy from Bonneville? A whopping $22 per person!

What are your eco travel stories? How do you assess your eco impact? What do you do to minimize or “offset” your eco impact? Post a comment! Share your story!

August 10, 2011 at 7:06 pm 2 comments

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