Boreal Expedition pt. 2

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We woke up the next day having learned something about our gear.

I’m of the mindset that too much focus on gear is the bane of the outdoor/bushcraft industry. You get a lot of “experts” who know a hell of a lot about knives for example, in an academic sense, and put a lot of weight on the details of a knife. (How it’s constructed, the materials used, etc). To me though, it’s about the ability with a piece of gear that matters. You should be able to do with a ten dollar morakniv, the exact same things you manage with a two hundred dollar custom knife. I’m cheap as anything, so I still stick with my battered “companion” model mora, and know that if and when it eventually breaks (as tools are apt to do with the work we put them through), I’m out fifteen bucks and it’s an easy thing to replace.

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This is getting pointed out as a contrast to a necessary approach to winter gear. Specifically sleeping bags and sleep pads. The most important thing you can do in the field, besides keep hydrated, is make sure you’re getting a good nights rest. Sleep’s not often pointed out a neccesity in outdoor work, but think about that time you crammed every night for a week for upcoming tests. Remember how your mind worked at the end of it? Not exactly firing on all cylinders was it? Now add in days filled with the intense physical activity required by winter camping. The simple mechanisms of keeping warm are draining in a biochemical sense. Even if you’re not expending energy processing wood for your fire, or hiking around the site, your body is working harder than it’s probably used to in order to keep you warm. A few days of that will sap even the most energetic of people without the chance to recharge and reset when you sleep each night. So if you’re planning a winter camping trip, don’t hesitate to drop a little extra money on a good bag. There are ways around it, like layering a couple of subpar bags together or keeping

So if you’re planning a winter camping trip, don’t hesitate to drop a little extra money on a good bag. There are ways around it, like layering a couple of subpar bags together or keeping your stove/fire going all night. However extra sleeping bags mean extra weight, and keeping a fire of any kind going all night means sacrificing some of that much-needed rest. For the most part, we all slept alright. Save one of us, who’d rolled off his sleep pads and lost a lot of warmth as the cold ground sapped it out of him. He didn’t complain much, but it was a visible mental struggle as he warmed back up by the stove. Nobody likes getting out from under the covers on a cold winter morning, let alone when it’s ten degrees while camping out.

Our first day was spent rehashing the skills we’d gone over in a hurry the night before in order to get camp set up. We had two students with us who had virtually no outdoor experience, and this meant going over axe safety, firewood processing and a lot of other pretty basic stuff. For me, that was a good experience. It allowed me to test my own abilities by helping out when the new people struggled. (“See one, do one, teach one” is Tim Smith’s approach to the learning process, and it’s proved itself over and over)

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This was particularly true with one match fires. The process involves gathering a “twig bundle”, and while that seems pretty straight forward, it’s a subtle skill. Simple, and basic sure, but getting the density of the fuel right, as well as collecting the right sized twigs is important. You can explain it over and over, but until someone’s done it a few times the necessity doesn’t quite make sense.

Axe work was pretty similar. There’s a tendency to think of splitting wood as a formula of “harder work=faster processing”. I disagree. Splitting is a calm, almost lazy process if you’re doing it right, All you really need to do is lift the axe up and let it fall again. That’s an obvious simplification, but the idea’s right. Contact splitting makes it even easier, just hold the axe and the piece of wood together, then let them drop. It was interesting to watch new student’s figure these things out as they went. I had a whole semester of fiddling with these skills. They’d had a day or so with them, but a day fueled by necessity is apparently worth more than a day where it doesn’t matter.

In the next article in this series, I’ll span a few days of our trip. We covered a lot of winter skills in a very short time, but I don’t want this series to become a study in winter living minutiae.

Hope you’re all doing well, and thanks for coming back!

Slainte Maithe everyone.

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The Art Of Gear Checks.

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Whelp,  it’s almost time to head north folks.

I’m mostly packed up and to my mind that’s the most important part of any trip. Not the packing, but the preparation that comes along with it. Making a checklist of gear and supplies, and going through it a few times saves a lot of headaches once you’re on trail.

I’ve become fascinated with trip prep over the years. It’s not something we see a lot of in books, movies and stories about expeditions, but it’s probably the only reason those expeditions could happen. Folks planning long periods of time away from the conveniences of life have to think of every factor possible. That’s hard enough to do for yourself, let alone a large group of people. In the stories of glory and adventure we tend to see in fiction of any kind about the outdoors, it gets left out. No body wants to see fourty five minutes of a movie in which the two main characters argue about whether or not to bring the extra tarp. (An actual experience I’ve had. I still stand by the fact that we needed the extra tarp.)

Almost all of the books I’ve read on guiding stress the importance of checklists, gear checks etc. That goes without saying. What hammers it home is hearing anecdotes from others about some vital piece of gear, or seemingly obvious part of the list that was left sitting on the kitchen table, or countertop when everyone piles into the truck. People are excited to get out on their trek. Of course, as a guide you are too. That doesn’t excuse your responsibility to the group to make sure every knot is tied correctly, and every ingredient of the meals has been measured and packed.

One of my favorite exercises at Jack Mountain was writing up meal plans for our expeditions. It was a mundane, necessary, and albeit somewhat tedious task. You keep track of your food intake over the week, then use that data to plan for the trip appropriately. This method of planning takes a bit of forethought, and an understanding of what you really need. Not to “survive”, but to be comfortable enough that being on trail is what it should be. Relaxing, and an experience that you’ll remember fondly instead of looking back on it as “that time I didn’t bring enough flour and was miserable the last two days of hiking.

It doesn’t just apply to food. I’m a natural “but what if I really NEED these twelve extra axes?” sort of packer. It can be a problem if you don’t really step back and look at your habits on trail and make sure that what you pack is what you need. Sure, bring along an extra item or two, if you think it’ll bring something to the experience.

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                             (You know, like a shield. That you need. For obvious reasons)

In some downtime during courses, I read a book called “New York to Nome” by Rick Steber. It’s an account of the experiences of Shell Taylor and Geoffrey Pope paddling from the Hudson bay, across North America, all the way to nome, Alaska. In it they see all sorts of incredible things, but they also go into details about how they set up food and gear drops, rationed out food when necessary etc. That makes it all seem pretty well plotted out. I’ll let you read the book yourself and see why it was decidedly not that.

 

It’s tempting to fly by the seat of your pants when you go on a vacation, or even just an over night trip somewhere. In most modern getaways, you can do that and be just fine. It’s important for either solo outdoors folks, guides, or even parents taking their family out for a weekend to keep in mind the limitations of being out and away from the conveniences of life, and plan for them accordingly. Hell, even if you’re just going with a group of friends, it can’t hurt to plan for the inevitable “Oh geez, I didn’t even THINK about bringing a sleeping bag” friend (We’ve all got one) and toss an extra blanket in the trunk.

This article is sort of short, as I’m putting the final touches on little details for the next coming months of school and snowshoeing with the Cree in northern Quebec. As well as hammering out little nagging thoughts about the project that’s coming afterward.

Oh, and it’s the holidays? Whoops. Knew I was missing something.

 

Watch this space. Big stuff coming.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

Little sisters and Feathersticking.

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I’m back in St. Louis for an old friends wedding and a quick visit. Stu and Morgan’s wedding was wonderful, and filled with Halloween decor. I’m lucky to have such interesting friends, that’s the truth. It’s been great seeing family and friends as well as explaining my new world to them.

One of the nights here I went to a housewarming party with some friends. While there I watched someone struggle to light a fire for smores and to ward off the increasingly crisp October air. It was a mirror into how much I’ve learned over the last year, and an opportunity to practice. Not only the act of lighting a fire, but explaining the process to as I went. A golden chance to prove to myself that I had a good grasp of the concepts, and could explain them in a way that made sense. That’s the mark of knowing something isn’t it?

And you know what I did? I let it slip past. I simply sat and mentally disparaged this man while he soaked a log in lighter fluid, and became more and more frustrated trying to get a flame going steadily in the fire pit. I sat drinking my beer and chatting with friends instead of stepping up and offering to help.

Not a lot of things make me ashamed, but that did. So how do you deal with a missed opportunity like that?Approach A. Beat

Approach A. Beat yourself up in the hopes that it’ll somehow fix it.

Approach B. Penitent actions. 

I’ll take option B, thanks.

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So, I assigned myself a penance of practicing feather sticking and one match fires. I woke up early, walked out to my parents woodpile and grabbed a few logs and got to work. After ten of them, my sisters walked out to see what I was up to. Eventually they decided to try their hand at it. I’ve got to say, it felt really good to sit and watch them go through the learning process. Feather sticks are a fairly simple concept, but the execution is tough, and only gets easier through practice and trial and error. It helps immensly to understand not only how to make a featherstick, but what you need it to do once a flame is set to it. They don’t have that connection, so it was slow going at first.

That’s something I hadn’t thought about. In college and traditional school classes you bounce from subject to subject each hour, and the information in each of them doesn’t ever need to cross over in most cases. Sure, the things you learn in an algebra class, will be important for the next math class and some sciences, but you’ll never need to apply it to language arts, or history. In the outdoor education world, everything is connected, and in some cases the understanding of a specific craft, or task is dependent on a broad understanding of other ones. Sure, you can make a featherstick without using it as tinder, but if you don’t understand how the curls hold a flame and allow the flame to breathe, there’s a good chance it will just be a pretty piece of wood. It’ll burn at first, but likely won’t catch enough to start a serviceable fire.

 

Those connections are hard to explain, and not neccesary to the actual act of making a feather stick, no matter how important they are. So we just sat and made them. It was a nice, quiet exercise, interrupted by the occasional question. Eventually Julia exclaimed and held up her stick to show me a small, but beautiful curl she’d managed to produce. It wasn’t much, but it was clear she’d gotten the general concept. That little start made up for the missed opportunity of the previous night. Sure, her featherstick wouldn’t start a raging inferno, but it was the closest I’d felt to them this whole trip. Just little quiet moments, doing a menial task, was better than the previous few days of filling each other in on the changes in our lives.

It was also a moment of realizing that I have a really good handle on a skill that eluded me at first. Not only feathersticking, (Most of my first ones ended up looking like Christmas trees, with not a curl to be seen) but also understanding of how to ignite them efficiantly. Fire, believe it or not was the hardest part of my Jack Mountain semester. I’d grown used to gas powered camp stoves, and lighter fluid. So what I thought of as simply practicing, ended up being really self-gratifying. I knew the answers to all their questions, I turned tight curls that made my old christmas trees look even worse, and I knew exactly how I’d lay each of the feather sticks to build a fire.

Christopher make fire. Christopher lord of flame.

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Those little moments like the man trying to light a fire are chances to teach, and they slip by pretty quickly. I’m glad I got a second one with my little sisters, but I’ll be keeping a better eye out for them from here on out. They sneak up on us, but if we’re obserbvent, we can snag them and not only help the person, but improve on our own abilities as well.

So in the future I’ll be paying more attention to how all these skills slot together when being used, and be keeping an eye out for opportunites to pass them on, or employ them to the benifit of those around me. Sure, it’s not an action I’ll take out of anything but self interest, but it’s got some great by products. I’ll be learning to be a better teacher as I teach, and at the very least won’t sit for twenty minutes smelling lighter fluid in the air because somebody thinks that’s the easiest way to get a fire going.

 

 

Plus, now my sisters can show up my dad when he’s starting a fire. That thought will give me a nice little chuckle whenever I have it.

 

 

Maxpedition Condor II review

I finally got a chance to test out the new pack, and I’ve got to say, it really exceeded my expectations. I picked this up through Redsgear, the outdoor gear company I work for. I’d read a few reviews of it, and it seemed like a good alternative to my old day bag that finally started to fall apart. The bag itself is built wicked tough, and has big fat zippers that I’m sure won’t break anytime soon.  The real selling point for me was how moddable it is. There’s extra straps all over it, and plenty of MOLLE loops to attach extra pouches, my bed roll, etc. All of this I could kind of see before I bought it, but after carrying it around all day at elephant rocks over the weekend, I’ve got to say that the most impressive part is just how easy the thing is to carry. Even loaded up with thirty-five pounds of gear, I hardly noticed I was carrying it. I’m really looking forward to trying it out on some longer hikes.

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So let’s get down to pros and cons here.

I’ll start off with the two complaints I have.

  1. Size;The pack itself only has a 25-litre capacity, which is a bit on the small side compared to my old bag (32 litres). I was worried about this at first, but after loading it up this weekend, I’m less concerned. I fit all of my gear into the pack itself, and all that MOLLE is going to make it really damned easy to strap on my tent, sleeping bag and anything else I deem necessary.
  2. Ease of access; This is my only real complaint, and ironically it’s caused by just how moddable the bag is. All of the MOLLE loops, as well as the extra straps that function as a place to slide a belt looped bag/hatchet sheath etc, mean that there’s a bit of unhooking to be done to get into the main part of the bag. It’s not a huge issue most of the time, but I can imagine it being a pain if you’re caught in a sudden rain or injured and trying to get to your first aid kit.

Now, onto the good stuff.

  1. Hydration Compartment; I didn’t even realize this when I chose the bag, but it’s got a 3-litre area to insert a water bladder, and it’s so cleverly positioned that when I put the bladder in it actually functioned as a padding for my lower back. That may not have been the intention, but I’ve got a feeling that on long hikes I’ll be grateful for it.
  2. MOLLE loops; So many MOLLE loops you guys. Just so many.
  3. Straps; I’ve got a feeling this played a huge part in how easy the bag is to carry, but having  waist and sternum straps is a huge shift. My old bag had a waist strap, but I rarely used it. I’m not sure why, because I’m definitely goign to make these straps a priority the next time I need a new bag.
  4. Weight; This thing is pretty heavy duty, but there’s hardly any metal on it. On it’s own the bag only weighs 3lbs. That’s a huge improvement from my old 30 litre, which weighed in at about twice that.

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All in all? Really happy with this bag, and I’m looking forward to modding it out with all of the accessories Maxpedition offers. I’ll have to take it on a real blister making hike before I head to Maine to see how it carries on a really long hike, but after this weekend, I’m not really worried about it in the slightest.

If any of you are interested in this, or anything else made by Maxpedition, head over to Redsgear and take a look at some of the stuff they offer. I’ve gotten most of my gear through them, and know for a fact that the people who run it will answer any question you’ve got about their products.

Slainte

Avoiding Comfort

My family has this weird tradition (I say family, I mean my three boneheaded brothers and I, “king bonehead”.) Every year on the first snow we all strip down to our underwear and go see who can stay out the longest. I don’t really remember why this started, but it’s been an influence on my approach to life. There’s a strange trend in the human mind to seek comfort, and while I understand this entirely, the best things I’ve ever done in life have been uncomfortable, or downright painful.  So, I’ve become an addict for things that I don’t take a shine to right off the bat.

Boxing is my favorite example. I hate the feeling of being hit, everyone does. The first three times I got the wind knocked out of me I almost quit right then and there. A strange things happens though when you keep forcing your body to do things it doesn’t like. It adapts, and not in the way I’d expected. I figured I’d simply get better at boxing and get hit less. Perhaps with another coach that may have been the case. Mine has a slightly different approach. His favorite line is “If a punch doesn’t knock you clean out, it may as well be counted as a miss.” After three years of having this shouted in your face when you start complaining, you stop seeing the pain, and start seeing it as an opportunity the other person missed and acting on it.

This isn’t just true of sports, or being outdoors. It’s also incredibly true to pass times. There’s this desire for all the good parts, but without taking on the less than fun effects of it. I’ve always liked the smell of cigarette smoke. I grew up around it, and I learned something from it. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but I saw how it calmed down the people who used it. It was a sacrifice to some unknown god. In the old days we killed a calf and burned it as an offering, now we light our own throats ablaze and spit the smoke out towards the heavens. There’s something meaningful about that. It makes the chemical reaction something we’ve earned. The same way with alcohol. You want the buzz? You’ll have to learn to stomach bad beer, or strong whisky down your throat. Everything in life should be that way. Sacrifice bits of yourself to get what you want.

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    I suppose it’s sort of  that way already, but we just don’t notice most of it. It’s sort of leeched out as we devote time and breath towards whatever it is we’re working towards. Those are usually the good things though. Anything you’ve devoted time and attention to has a worth of it’s own. That’s why the chemical reactions are so appealing to us. It’s instant, but we also immediately feel what we’ve given up. The bits of our lungs getting clogged, the burn of vodka down into our stomach. Those are good things, because we’re constantly reminded that we’re poisoning ourselves in exchange for that high we need.

   Personally, I like that concept of “poisoning” myself. I like being reminded that I’m burning off bits of myself, via fire or toxins. I know what I’m giving up for the few moments of calm that I get. Bits of my lungs in exchange for a train of thought I can actually run and leap onto as it blares past. I understand what I’m giving up in exchange for those little experiences. It’s modern day sacrifice. No god in between the burnt offering and the reward. We sacrifice bits of ourselves to our own desires. I personally enjoy that sentiment, and I’ve never understood the appeal of flavored vodka and things like that. The deliberate attempt to lose the harshness of intoxicants, but maintain the enjoyableness seems like a dangerous and greedy thing to me.

Maybe it’s because I’m rereading Jack London’s work, but I think this quote would come to mind as I write it anyway.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.

~Jack London, Call of the Wild

I adore this line, because it sums up perfectly something I’ve only ever felt when I’ve failed, or realize I’m about to. The most alive I’ve ever felt was when I fell off a small ledge while running at local park. I hit a patch of ice, and slid (In my head, I’m pretty sure I looked like a looney toon) off the edge. I fell about ten feet and cracked two ribs. the jog/walk back to my car? I don’t really remember it. I remember fear which turned into action, immediate and born of requirement. I’m not saying you should fall off cliffs to feel alive, but put yourself in situations where it could happen. Then at the end of the day, while you’re having a beer and a lung scorching smoke, laugh about the fact that it didn’t.