Laura Rubin

Laura Rubin
Executive Director, Huron River Watershed Council

Tottered on: 3 October 2007
Temperature: 74 F
Ceiling: crystal clear blue
Ground: autumn mess
Wind: WSW at 9 mph


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TT with HD: Laura Rubin


[Ed. note: Useful background on the Huron River's watershed, the HRWC's work, Liz Elling's swim down the river, and rain barrels can be found on the Huron River Watershed Council's website. The direct link discussed below to the real-time flow rate data for the Huron River can be found here.

THE HRWC organized a mass distribution of 700 rain barrels in early September in response to community interest driven in part by a restructuring of Ann Arbor storm water rates, which provide a financial incentive for maintaining a rain barrel. ]

HD: Alright, so shall we totter?

LR: Sure!

HD: You can see the leftover sawdust from the chainsaw that the forester was using the other day ...

LR: ... the forester? ...

HD: ... to trim off some branches from the overhead canopy there.

LR: Yeah, I see, there's a lot of spots on this.





HD: Yeah, that is--what did he tell me--'tar spot'. It looks like spots of tar, and so that's the common name for it, I guess. And he assured me that was entirely cosmetic ...

LR: ... and not bad for the tree?

HD: Well, the fact that there's still leaves on the tree this time of year, he said, was an indicator that it was not something that needed to be addressed, so I was happy about that. So welcome to the teeter totter!

LR: Well thanks! Glad to be here!







HD: So I just showed you my rain barrel, which I'm awfully proud of, ...

LR: ... you should be!

HD: My chest is swelling with pride, ...

LR: ... most people don't have quite the ease that it looks like you had--with putting it together and getting the overflows, and ...

HD: ... so have you heard from people who've had difficulty?

LR: Well, a couple of people. I think that in general people thought that they would bring it home and put it there, and one-stop-shop type thing ...

HD: ... so just a matter of putting it in the right place? ...

LR: ... yeah. And out of 700, it's probably been pretty good. But, of course, I hear from the ones who say, You didn't tell me I needed to have something to cut my gutter! or You didn't tell me that I'd have to put it up, or that I'd have to get hoses for the overflows! So it's those kinds of things. The demand is just incredible to do another [mass distribution of rain barrels].

HD: Oh, really!







LR: But we'll probably put some of those caveats on the website, saying the rain barrel is only useful if you empty and drain it, you have to do this to fix it up. A couple of people had trouble with the threadings.

HD: Yeah, I forget where I read this--maybe online somewhere, or maybe there was an Ann Arbor News thing--about the company that supplied the barrels, they drilled holes but didn't tap some of the threads?

LR: Or sometimes the threadings are hard, or they go in at an angle, so people have trouble. So we ended up buying two taps. People can bring them back to us and we can just retap the barrel. Or another thing that I've told a lot of people is to just take the metal spigot on the bottom ...

HD: ... oh, you can use that as a tap for the other [plastic connectors] ...

LR: ... yeah, you can thread that way, and then do the plastic. But it's just a little more for some people than they expected or than they're used to.

HD: It might be then that the 40 bucks that the Gutter Doctor wanted, to install these may be not be overpriced?

LR: It may not be! [laugh] And you know, [laugh] I was livid ...

HD: ... I'm sorry to bring that up! [laugh]







LR: That's okay. It's just that I was livid that somehow these emails had gotten out and somebody had the gall to say, We're the certified rain barrel ...

HD: ... yeah, the 'exclusive' dealer, I think was what they said. Yeah, I think that definitely crossed the line, claiming to have been selected as the exclusive dealer for installation. However, I have to say that as a recipient of those emails from--is it the Gutter Doctor or Dr. Gutter?

LR: It's Gutter and Roof Doctor Plus, or something like that. I hate to mention their name again! [laugh]

HD: Maybe I should redact that right out! But you know, as someone who received those emails, it was only the fact that they made the exaggerated claim that bothered me. I didn't really mind the fact that they used the list. I sort of figured, you know, I'm happy to see the private sector get behind it, in a way.

LR: That's true.

HD: Also, it validated that the work I had already done was worth 40 bucks.

LR: Right, right.

HD: So I felt good about the fact that, Wow, in forty-five minutes, I did $40 worth of work! I felt better about myself. And if they hadn't sent that email message, I wouldn't have ...

LR: ... and I think some people probably responded. Because after I had sent my response, I got a couple of emails back saying, Well, do you have anybody you'd recommend?

HD: My guess that their name wasn't exactly first on your list. But, I mean, like I say, I think they were wrong to claim to be the exclusive installer, and I'm glad to see that they ran that apology in the Bulletin Board section of the newspaper. Did you see that?

LR: Oh, I didn't!

HD: Yeah, they actually I forget what that section is officially called, I think it is the Bulletin Board ads. They're not in the classified section, I think they're in the front section, the section that includes the front page, whatever they call that. Anyway.

LR: And they ran an apology?!

HD: Yeah. I think it ran every day last week. I definitely noticed it on multiple days. So I thought, Well, you know, okay then. And they pretty much owned up to the fact that they blew it.

LR: Right, right.

HD: There was some small attempt to deflect part of the blame to some third-party advertising agent a little bit, but they did basically say, we did not put this through our regular quality controls and we blew it. So I don't really have any hard feelings towards them.

LR: We had, you know, the five people who were really angry. But we're always going to have those people who are really angry.





HD: So I was talking to you before about using this water from the barrel for laundry. Because this time of year, from my point of view, I've got nuthin that I want to water. So I guess I could make a point of letting it seep out gradually to get it emptied for the next rain. But the laundry water, what I have been doing with all my laundry water now, is using it to water the bean patch.

LR: Is your bean patch still growing?

HD: Yes. Well, I mean it's starting to die now, but I think that's because it's the end of the season.

LR: That's right.

HD: But what I reasoned was, If this water doesn't kill the beans and potatoes, then it can't be bad for the river. Is that a reasonable rule of thumb?

LR: That's probably a good rule of thumb, yeah. You know any time you can re-use it--a lot of people will use it to flush the toilets, water plants, things like that--it's good for the river. Anything you keep out of the storm drain. Now some of your gutters [looking around] aren't necessarily going right to the street and into the river. But you're slowing it down, you're reusing it, you're probably cutting down on your water bill.

HD: Let me ask you about that, because I was challenged by a friend of mine, just yesterday, on exactly the point you're making. He said, What's the difference, if it goes into the ground in the backyard--because where I have my rain barrel, that downspout would ordinarily just drain out here into the backyard, and I guess eventually the water would wend its way downhill in that direction. But I don't suppose it would ever get into the storm drain.







LR: It might. That's a tough question. The City is dealing with these new storm water rates. Wherever I go and I talk, I always have somebody in the audience who raises their hand and says, I don't contribute anything to the stormwater system, and yet I'm paying! And it's a tough thing to say that anybody doesn't contribute [water] to the stormwater system, because we all have roads that lead to our houses, so we're all benefiting that way. And in many cases, sometimes your water is infiltrating in, but sometimes it might just be running down over the turf grass to a lower section, or a road, or somebody else's driveway, and making its way [into the storm drain].

Similarly when you're on a hill like this, the guy at the bottom of the hill, and especially where we are in Murray-Mulholland, there's been a lot of flooding down there. And so if you keep it on site, it's much better than letting it roll down this hill and eventually contribute. Because it's saturating those soils and all those kinds of things. So while the storm water rates I don't think are perfect, they're a first attempt at trying to get people to think about, How do I contribute to the storm water system? And I should pay some kind of fee. The problem is, the City can't charge you a flat fee. That's why they changed it. There's this famous law decision called the Bolt Act--have you heard about it? We used to all be charged 20 bucks a quarter, or 24 bucks a quarter for storm water ...

HD: ... hmm, oh, I used to have that figure in my head, I think everybody used to pay 22.

LR: And it was challenged in Lansing. They said it's a flat tax, and we've got to vote on something like that.

HD: Oh really, I didn't realize that the impetus was a legal decision!

LR: Oh yeah. The City was very scared that somebody was going to challenge them on it, and it would fall through. So they spent about two years building this new storm water rate, hoping that it would be legally defensible.

HD: You know that explains maybe some context to some of the letters I've seen in the letters-to-the-editor section of the newspaper that have tried to make a huge deal out of claiming that really this new system is a tax and not a fee. And my reaction is, Whuh--um, I don't care.

LR: Right. That's where it's coming from. With a tax you need to pass it by the voters. If you're charging a fee, then you have to somehow relate it to a service they're using--so, water, or sanitary, or something like that. So they're trying to make it based on how much you contribute. There's also, I think--don't quote me on this--but a third of it is just flat for processing your bill and things like that.

HD: So the point you were making, if you have a road that leads to your house, and you use that road--then even though your house itself, you might be able to argue doesn't contribute--the water that runs off the road that you're using and into the storm drain certainly does contribute.

LR: Right. And almost every lot contributes something. Whether it's the front, it might not be the whole parcel. And there's no question that using an aerial survey isn't exact, but you can call the City and say, Come down to my site ...

HD: ... and appeal ...

LR: ... and see that this is not a hard impervious surface, it's a deck.

HD: See, I was hoping that the teeter totter would show up on that aerial shot of my house, and that it would be indicated as impervious surface, just so I could raise a ruckus about, You mis-analyzed my teeter totter as impervious!

LR: [laugh] You have this nice tree above it, though.

HD: Yeah, it didn't show up.

LR: You could probably pave right here and they'd never see it!

HD: Let's see, oh, I wanted to ask you about your own personal rain barrel situation. I know that you live in the Allen's Creekshed, ...

LR: ... yep ...





HD: ... because the website for the Huron River Watershed Council, it locates all the staff based on the creekshed they live in. Which, to me, is pretty cool. We live in the same creekshed! So do you have a rain barrel?

LR: I am waiting for mine. I'm one of the 700, and we have 60 that are still to be delivered. I feel a little bit of an obligation to the people that are bringing them back, to make sure everyone else has their rain barrel before taking mine.

HD: Fair enough.

LR: And I feel, too--I think probably like most people--if I get it in by next spring, that's the most important thing.

HD: So have you heard from a lot of people who are simply delaying, they haven't really installed it yet?

LR: Yeah. And that's been our biggest problem. There've been, I'd say, maybe 10 where the spigot hole was too big and that's just nothing we can fix. We just have to return those.

HD: So you want people to actually at least put the spigot in to make sure ...

LR: ... yeah. My fear is that some people won't look at it until next year and then, Oops. Now, we're working with the City to figure out some places to store some extras.

HD: Ohhhh, yeah, that's the thing about these things, they're huge. But they do nest, though, right?

LR: They do, as long as you don't put all the attachments on like the spigot, then they nest, yeah. So right now we're storing them in the old City yard on North Main that the City's just moved out of.

HD: So right down the street from here?

LR: Exactly. In Allen's Creek! And about three blocks from our office, so it makes it really convenient for us if we have to run over there. But yeah, I live on a different branch of Allen's Creek than you.

HD: Oh, okay.

LR: I live on a northern one, because I'm up north of Miller, and you're on Murray-Mulholland. There's probably three or four main tributaries to Allen. Murray-Mulholland is sort of a famous one because of all the flooding down in that section.









HD: You know, someone sent me a copy of the Old West Side News from 1982, twenty-five years ago, that has a write-up of the Murray-Mulholland district, I guess.

LR: Drainage district?

HD: Well, neighborhood. Anyway, there's a photograph--it's really grainy--showing a bridge, the Murray bridge over the tributary to Allen's Creek.

LR: Oh, really! Huh!

HD: And the article said there used to be these giant ponds, the Allmendinger Ponds down at the base of the street, which are now filled in. But my overall sense is that there used to be a lot more water around.

LR: Yeah. The same thing in West Park--there used to be a big pond that actually had a dam on it, and they actually used to ice skate on it in the winter.

HD: Wow. In West Park??

LR: Yeah, if you enter from the 7th Street side.

HD: So, from the band shell side?

LR: Yeah, but not the band shell. Closer to Huron, or Jackson, there. And down by where that soccer field is. That's the area. And they drained it. I know a lot of people told me they remember it--remember skating there and things like that.

HD: So is the disappearance of exposed water--I guess to a certain extent that's just infrastructure, 'improvement' is maybe the wrong word to use. But is there any part of it that has to do with just a reduced volume of water? I mean, are we taking just more...





LR: Well, historically, the reason it's piped, is because it was filled with sewage, it was pretty nasty. So historically, going back, your property is by a river so you dumped your waste in it. And running down the street would be little gullies of waste. So historically, I think, especially when you go to Allen's Creek, the main channel, it was really awful. And so they wanted to get it underground and out of sight. So I think that was the impetus for most of the piping. And then building homesites. You can build more if you put [the creek] underground.

HD: So there's not any sense that this stuff has just dried up? That we're taking so much water out of the river for drinking water or irrigation that there's just less water around?

LR: No, no. No, if anything I think what we're seeing more and more is higher floods, higher rain events, and lower drought periods. So we're seeing more extremes. And part of that is, when you have Allen's Creek, which is probably 45 percent imperviousness--most of it is rooftops, driveways, whatever--most of that water is going right into the storm drain. And before, it settled on a wetland for a while, or it was taken up by trees, so you didn't have as flashy flows. You didn't have as much water going in. Climate change is also changing that. We're seeing more extreme weather fluctuation. We're seeing it in more hurricanes. But here we see it in more severe rain events--a lot more rain, a lot more hundred-year storms. A lot of people say, How can you call it a hundred-year storm, when it's happening every other year? Well, it's just that we've got a change that. And the same thing with droughts.



HD: I remember when Liz [Elling] did her swim down the river, I went down to the Broadway Bridge to watch her go under it, and she went under the Broadway Bridge in a canoe ...

LR: ... oh, right, so shallow ...

HD: ... the water level was not up to--4 feet was the standard she was using. If it was less than 4 feet then she didn't swim. And I looked at that area and I thought, Man, if it were 4 feet deep, that would feel like, Wow, that'd be a lot of water, we got a flood going on! I mean for that place in the Huron.

LR: Well, in the springtime, though, you go down there--I canoe there a lot, in the spring time--there's definitely enough water there to swim.

HD: Oh really, okay.

LR: This is something we struggled with [in thinking about scheduling Liz's swim]. July and August, the water levels are pretty low overall. On the other side, if she were swim in May when the water levels are high, not as many people can join her. It's colder, it's not as accessible for people. April, it's almost dangerous. So it was a trade-off there. There's actually a USGS gauge down there at Wall Street, just below the Broadway Bridge and above Island Park. There's a gauge that measures the amount of flow coming down the Huron. It's amazing to look. It's real time, so you see how much ...



HD: ... so this is like a digital readout, display, or?

LR: Yeah. It's called a transducer and it measures the amount of flow coming down.

HD: Really! So, now, how do you get to this place exactly?

LR: You don't get to it. They don't want you to get to it!

HD: Oh!

LR: You can see the readings of it online. If you Google USGS and then you click on Michigan, down to the Huron. You can click on it, there's a little button and you can see all the readouts. And we look it pretty regularly, to try to figure out the amount of water and the flow in the Huron. If you go back and look at April versus May, June, and July, you can see some of that difference. Or even after a rain event, it's pretty interesting to look at.



HD: Well, that's pretty cool. You know, I was talking to one of my latest teeter tottering guests, Ed Vielmetti, about this notion of measuring things so that if it's something you can apply the principle of more-is-better to--which is a very powerful psychological concept, it's much more powerful than let's reduce and let's get smaller--then you can try to change it to more.

So if you can somehow cast the problem as trying to always increase something, then that's good and if you can measure it, that's even better. So measuring the river flow, I guess, doesn't fit the idea of more-is-better, but if we did have some way of keeping track of how much water people were actually collecting and re-using in rain barrels, it would be interesting to watch the graph of that go up.



LR: Right. All of these kind of efforts are trying to reduce that flashy, the flashy flows in an urban area. Because once you get into the city, you're paving a lot and you want to reduce that spike. We actually have some data where we've measured Miller's Creek which is up by Pfizer, and then we've measured Fleming Creek, which goes through the Botanical Gardens and is much more rural. You see how they respond with transducers. You see how they respond to a rain event--[laugh] sorry, a rain or a storm we call it a 'rain event'.

You'll see Miller's where more of the creekshed is impervious, there's a huge spike, within the first hour or two in the creek and it just goes whoosht! And then within a couple of hours it drops of. Fleming Creek, over 24 hours, you see this really gradual increase, and then over the next two days, you see a gradual decrease. And when you talk about what kinds of habitat and organisms can live in there, it's much better if you have a more steady flow as opposed to ...

HD: ... every once in a while you just flush everything through ...

LR: ... it rips out the banks, there's no sediment there, it rips everything out and nothings growing in there. Whereas in Fleming, you get that gradual increase and the bottoms aren't as low. I don't know if more is better, but slower is better, more gradual.

HD: But you know, what I would like to be able to do is to log, say, every gallon of water I'm using from my rain barrel and upload it, and if other people get on board with recording assiduously what they're doing with their rain barrels, then that would give you a more concrete and real sense of what's being accomplished. As opposed to now, we know that we've sent out 700 rain barrels into the watershed, and ...

LR: ... and you figure 60 gallons each rain event, that's great, make sure everybody empties them, and then you can get the benefit. If somebody doesn't empty them, then who knows. And then figure 50 other people have a cistern or a rain-barrel-type-thing, maybe it's more than that, maybe it's more like 100. You know once we did the rain barrels, now I hear all these stories--Oh, I've got this setup, and I've got a cistern, I've got a 300-gallon rain barrel.

HD: Yeah, that's Larry McMurtry, he's the guy with the 300-gallon rain barrel, right? [Ed. note: HD's misspoke here. While the author of popular Western Novels such as Lonesome Dove might well have a 300-gallon rain barrel, it's actually Tom McMurtrie of the City of Ann Arbor who HD intends to mention. Apologies to Tom.]

LR: Exactly. It sits up in his backyard.

HD: He could practically go swimming in that, I guess, huh?

LR: It's when you start to worry about little children and animals.

HD: Err, right. I actually haven't put in the safety screws in mine.

LR: Yeah, I told people you don't really--you'd have to ...

HD: ... you'd have to be really committed to ...

LR: ... trying to get in there.





HD: So what's the deal with this SUDS on the River? I discovered that quite accidentally this afternoon reading up on some background. You got the Great Lakes Myth Society to play this gig??!

LR: We did! Do you know them?

HD: I know of them, yeah. I've seen them play right down the street here at the Blind Pig.

LR: Yeah?

HD: They've become quite the regional treasure.

LR: They have! They have.

HD: It's kind of a coup to have snagged them, I would think.

LR: Yeah, we were lucky. We held this event last year, and it was an idea to start a fundraiser for us and, because in Ann Arbor we get 85% of our drinking water from the Huron, to highlight that. And so we decided to highlight the micro-breweries that use the river water. So last year, we held it, it was actually out in Scio Township at a house on the river, a little bit smaller in scale. And this year, one of our board members, John Lang, has a house down, mmm, ...

HD: ... off of Geddes?

LR: Off of Geddes, exactly. It's actually on an old peninsula in the river. You go over that bridge on Stark Strasse. And he knew the booking agent for Great Lakes Myth Society and talked to them and they agreed to do it. And then we have 16 restaurants donating food.

HD: Oh really!

LR: So really good food, and they're all giving it to us on platters we can return, so no throw-away stuff. We're asking people to car-pool. All that kind of stuff. We're having canoe trips.

HD: What kind of turnout do you suppose that will get?

LR: We've got about 120 signed up.

HD: Wow, that's a whole passel of people!

LR: It is. We actually got a port-a-john yesterday.

HD: So is anybody planning to arrive by canoe?

LR: No, but that would be a great idea. If you were coming from Ann Arbor, you'd have a couple of dams you had to get around. The problem is, it goes til 9:00 and it's dark. But that section of the river is gorgeous. Most people don't know about it. But downstream of Dixboro Dam all the way down to Superior Dam ...

HD: ... is that still considered part of the Middle Huron?

LR: Yeah. It's a beautiful stretch. And there just aren't many homes along it, so it's very undeveloped. I think people are turned away from it because of the waste water treatment plant.

HD: Where is that in the vicinity?

LR: If you pass Dixboro Dam, the waste water treatment plant's right there and then you keep going down--oh, I'd say you canoe two miles there before you hit Superior Dam.

HD: So does the waste water plant destroy the aesthetics of it visually, or is it actually you can tell something about the water?

LR: You can't really tell something about it. At least, I can't. There might be days when you can smell, you have an odor or something. But no, it's pretty clean what they put back in. I'd say the only water quality issue you have down there is that it's an impoundment, the dam. It's I-don't-know-how-many years old. 80-years old? So it's caught a lot of sediment there, a lot of nutrients, a lot of plant growth, so it gets a little murky at times. But it's nice.

HD: Well, listen, is there anything else you have on your mind? That you'd like to get off your chest and onto the teeter totter before we dismount?



LR: Mmm, no, I don't think so. You know when you talked about that we put where everybody lives, in which creekshed. The one thing that we've really found, and the reason we do that, is that once people learn their creekshed, they start to care about it a little more. And show a little more stewardship, if they know they live in Allen's or Traver or something. The Huron is just so big ...

HD: ... so creeksheds kind of localize the ...

LR: ... exactly.



HD: So is there any sense that there is some healthy competition between the creeksheds?

LR: I don't think so! I guess there could be! Mallets in the city is probably the most well-organized. But it's also where the most money has been put in terms of the drain office and the City. Emmm, it might be good to start some nice rivalry or competitiveness!

HD: Yeah, well they had these dragon boat races this past weekend ...

LR: ... yeah, did you go down and see them?

HD: I went down and we watched a couple of heats of the dragon boat races. I guess it was very well publicized in the University community and in the Chinese-American community, but I just accidentally stumbled across it online, otherwise I would have had no idea that it was going on. But I was thinking there's a lot of opportunity for friendly competition between organizations. I mean there used to be, maybe there still is, a Corporate Canoe Challenge, I forget who sponsored it, ...

LR: ... mmm, yeah, on Huron River Day, ...

HD: ... but a canoe that's just two people, two people who have to act as 'champions' for the organization. But if you have an organization that's big enough--I mean I think a whole creekshed ...

LR: ... that's pretty large!

HD: Yeah, that's a lot of people to draw from. You got 20 people to a boat, you could have Allen's Creek against Mallets Creek, and it would fit the whole water-river concept pretty well.

LR: Yeah! We're talking about how to follow up after Liz had swum, and not doing anything as big. But a lot of the paddlers have talked about doing these paddling races down rivers, where each community gets a team, and there's some kind of baton, and you start it up at Proud Lake, and you race down the river. And you set a time for the community and the next year, you try to beat that time.

HD: Huh!

LR: And I was amazed you could do this in a whole day. You could race down the entire river. You'd have to start very early and end very late, but.

HD: You'd also have to have reasonably skilled paddlers, too ...

LR: ... exactly. Right, you couldn't have novices. But it was again a form of making everybody feel connected to the Huron and having a little fun and competitiveness ...

HD: ... I think there's nothing wrong with competitiveness.

LR: And we could add, in the city of Ann Arbor, we could add the creeks racing each other!

HD: Yeah. And when there's a river involved, and it's a competition, it lies so immediate to hand that the losers have to go right into the river.

LR: The worst thing is that get in the drink!

HD: Well, listen, thanks for coming over to ride!

LR: You bet.



HD: This has been actually a gorgeous day. My god this fall so far ...

LR: ... for October 3rd, ...

HD: ... it's a little scary actually. I mean, it shouldn't be this nice this time of year.

LR: Well, if you remember, last December was so warm, it wasn't until January. You must have really strong legs from doing this. I mean you're the one who's been pushing and controlling this thing!

HD: It's not that strenuous, I mean, I'm in no danger of becoming overly fit from it!

LR: Okay [laugh].

HD: Alright, let's dismount.