Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Uncommon Visitor

Recently my family and I went hiking at a local state park while I was off from work for Christmas. We had heard buzz from a number of bird watcher friends that they had been seeing Saw-whet owls near the bird blind and feeding station. My wife has a special fondness for these tiny owls because she did her ground breaking senior theises on their nest success rates on an aspen plantation in Oregon.

So on a gray, late-December day we bundled up the squeakers (aged 2 years, and 4 years) and made the trek down the road to the state park. We parked the van near the trailhead that leads to the bird blind and made our way as quietly as one can with a 2 and 4 year old along.

We sat for a couple of minutes in the bird blind and enjoyed the sights of the common winter feeder birds, White-breasted nuthatches, Black-capped chikadees, Dark-eyed juncos, Red-bellied woodpeckers, American goldfinches, Downy woodpeckers, Mourning doves, Hairy woodpeckers, and Northern cardinals.

We then began to thread our way through a miriad of trails that criss-cross the flood plain forest that is the state park. We were searching for clumps of Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) where the Saw-whets like to roost during the day. We had checked all the prime spots closest to the main trail but my wife, ever the birding adventurer, wanted to follow a deer trail deeper into a stand o cedars that we both agreed looked promising.

While she tore off in search of the eluzive owl the girls and I stuck with the main trail and more-or-less walked along and the girls shouted to each other and practiced their Barred owl calls (which need A LOT of work). In spite of the girl's best efforts I did see some game. Namely a very nice looking white-tail buck. We continued on our merry way until I felt my wife would have had ample time to check the cedar grove I tried to talk the girls into heading back. No luck. We had been that way already. Then wanted, neigh NEEDED adventure! So we opted to bushwack it through the timbers and find our way back to mommy and eternal glory! Which we did, and I am very glad. Because if we had not, we never would have stumbled upon our owl.

We made our way into the backside of the cedar stand when I heard my wife give the family "locator whistle" so we veared in the direction of the Bobwhite call and there we found Mommy who stated she had not found an owl. The girls were getting a tad bit cold so we decided to head back to the van, but with heads held high. For even though our goal had been thwarted by the elusive boreal visitor we had spent time in the woods as a family, and there is no loftier goal than that.

The oldest and I took off down a deer trail as Mommy helped the youngest with a mitten emergancy. Just before we were about to emerge from the cedars onto the main trail my oldest stopped randomly (she dominates at doing things randomly, ask anyone that knows her) and started to shake a small tree back and forth vigourously. That was when I caught a flas of yellow out of the corner of my eye. I looked to the yellow flash, and there, 4 feet from me was a very surprised little owl. Had it kept it's eyes closed, we never would have seen it.

I called the oldest back to me and had her sit just off the trail to prevent her from doing anything excessivley random that migh scare off the owl and called my wife up. She was elated, and took the picture you see at the top of the blog from about 6 feet away.

Needless to say we were some happy hikers on the van ride home, and we were all very excited to see what other adventures awaited us during Christmas vacation...
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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stuffed Crust Pizza on the Trail

Boiling water and making stuffed crust pizza
 This was a largely improvised recipe that turned out to be our new camping favorite.  To make one stuffed crust pizza you will need:

  • Two flour tortillas
  • pizza sauce
  • cheese
  • toppings of your choice (ours was pepperoni)

Improvised dutch oven
 I improvised a dutch oven using the two fry pan/lids from our mess kit.  The smaller fry pan is about 8" across and the larger is about 10".  I placed the smaller fry pan on the fire great off set from the fire a bit so it was not catching the full force of the heat.  The ingredients were layered in as follows:

  1. Tortilla
  2. Pizza sauce
  3. Pepperoni
  4. Cheese
  5. Tortilla
  6. Pizza sauce
  7. Pepperoni
  8. Chesse
On top of the smaller fry pan I placed the large fry pan, right side up and filled it with hot coals.  When cooking with a dutch over you usually want to err on the side of more heat on top and less on the bottom.  Heat rises as you know so the underside will tend to cook faster than the upper side.

Melting cheese
Once the cheese was well melted on top , but not fully browned, I slid the smaller pan over the flames and replaced the top pan still full of coals.  This causes the bottom tortilla to crisp up nicely while the top brown.

Ready to serve!
Here you have the finished product.  It was one of the most amazing things I have ever dined upon on the trail.  Just to be sure it was good as it seemed in the woods we made the same dish again once we had been back home for a week. It was indeed as good, so it was not just deprivation that drove us to crave it.

I am hoping t make it again soon with alfredo sauce and to add more ingredients.  I will let you know how it goes.  What is your favorite deceptively simple trail food?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Packing for a Canoe Trip; My Opinion

A packed and balanced canoe
Canoe camping is a great way for people who are a little leery of "roughing it" to get started in outdoor recreation.  I see it as a perfect next step after car camping.  It is also a way for experienced outdoors folks to hone their skills and push their abilities.  Hiking a pack with the bare essentials does indeed take skill, but paddling a canoe across a bay with a 20 mph breeze 4-points abaft your larboard beam?  That is poetry in motion! (Plus you get to say things like "20 mph breeze 4-points abaft your larboard beam")

In this post I am going to cover what I took on my last Boundary Waters canoe trip.  Did I pack light?  No. Why?  Because I am big for one, and because I didn't have too because we only had three short portages to worry about.  At the end of this post I will go over the items that I did not use and would leave behind next time, as well as the items that I did not use but would take again anyhow.

Our gear

In the above photo you can see the three packs that my wife and I took along on our trip.  The grey one on the left was our food pack and you can see our bear ropes daisy-chained and carabiner clipped to D-rings on the front of the pack.

The red pack in the center is a water proof dry bag made from a rubberized canvas type material that my wife used as her personal pack.

The green pack on the right is a "Duluth" style pack made from a East German Army duffle obtained from Sportsman's Guide that the Amish added leather closure straps and buckles to convert it.
Shelley's pack~33.8 lbs
My wife carried a vintage Eureka Timberline tent (oblong green bag), poncho liner (camo), sleeping bag (beneath tent and poncho liner), toiletries (in zip-lock bag), compression sack with clothes (black), and Thermarest sleeping pad.

To pack the dry bag I first loosely rolled the sleeping pad up then inserted it vertically into the bag and allowed it to unroll again.  The sleeping pad then forms a tube in which the rest of the content of the bag goes   The sleeping pad acts as a barrier between your back and oddly shaped, hard items like mess kits, camp stoves, etc.  Works really slick.  That is a trick I learned in the Forest Service.  At the bottom of the pack I placed the compression sack with the clothes and the sleeping bag, next was the poncho liner, followed by the tent, and topped off with the toiletries.  

When packing up your gear be sure to put the last thing you will want first, and the first thing you will want last.  The tent is left near the top so that if you are setting up camp in the rain or after dark it can be the first thing you lay your hands on.  If it is raining and your tent is on the bottom you will have to lay everything else out in the rain in order to access it.  Bad idea.

My pack~40.8 lbs
 The contents of my pack included (clockwise starting at top left), tool kit bag (made from brown cargo pants leg), first aid kit (zip-lock bag), heavy green wool blanket (beneath & first aid), mess kit, 12'x12' green Etowah tarp form Ben's Backwoods, dark blue wool sweater, Cabela's 25" x 76" sleeping pad, tent poles (orange bag), tent stakes (small brow bag), my lovely axe, 3 sticks of dynamite (kidding, they are flares), black compression sack with clothes, rubber poncho (under flares & compression sack).

The wool blanket is folded into a thick rectangle, roughly the length and width of the pack. It is then laid in first to act as a pad between my back and my gear. My compression sack and mess kit go in the bottom, followed by the tool bag, and tarp, then the first aid kit and my sweater and finally the poncho.  If the weather gets cool I can easily fish out my sweater to add a layer, and if it begins to rain the poncho is on top to throw over myself, or my gear.  We used the poncho to cover our firewood when it threatened rain.  When I solo camp and have my hammock I lay out the poncho on the ground beneath it  to keep my feet clean an dry when getting in and out.

The axe, tent poles, and sleeping pad were all tucked under the three leather straps that close the pack up.
The food pack and Lil' Bastard...
  And then there was the food pack.  I will go a little bit into our favorite dish on the trip in a future post.

Items taken and to be left behind next time:

  • Some extra clothing was superfluous.  I wore the same thing the entire trip and washed it every night. I had an extra set of lighter weight clothes that I only used as a pillow at night.
  • Snacks; for some reason when I am in the woods I do not get as hungry as often as I do at home.  Leaving behind trail mix and the like would have greatly decreased the weight of our food pack.
  • File and stone for axe/knife; I need to invest in a small, lightweight, high-quality stone for sharpening in the field.  Any suggestions?
Items taken, not used, to be taken again:
  • First aid kit; fairly self explanatory I think
  • Flares; the flares could be used for signaling, or starting a fire in an emergency
  • Sweater; bulkier than it is heavy, if it had gotten cold I would have been happy it was taking up space.
  • Tarp; had it rained on our trip the tarp would have been priceless.  It can be stretched over the cooking area to provide cover.  If you have ever spent rainy days trapped in a tent you will understand why it is worthwhile to pack a rain-fly.
Items we wished we had:
  • Water purifier; we boiled the entire time which worked out well because our trip itinerary was so laid back.  It might have been nice to have a purifier on our day trip though.
  • More pizza ingredients!  This will make more since later...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Deer Camp 2011

 We had another successful deer season this year that, yet again, has given us a full larder.  My wife and I each took two deer.  In the picture up above you can see a portion of the crew from this year.  At one point we had 14 hunters*

*Did you know you can fit 14 people in a 4-door Dodge Dakota, armaments included.  Impressive, I know...
My buck
Here you can see the buck I took through the neck (the ONLY place to shoot a deer) at about 40 yards with a .50 caliber flintlock long rifle.  Dropped where he stood.
Shelley's buck
 Shelley took this buck with a .50 caliber in-line.  The ballistic tip bullet she used did amazing amounts of damage from the shock of the bullet.  This was another neck shot and the buck didn't even wiggle.
Dad's buck
My Dad broke from tradition and took this buck literally between the eyes from a whopping 6' away.  How did he get so close?  The trick is all the camo and scent blocking equipment he uses.  If you don't use that stuff you will never get a deer. Obviously...

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Bushcraft Beard

If you have ever considered growing a beard but were not sure it was a good idea I would encourage you to visit this site.

All the claims are true, I can attest to that...

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bushcraft vs. Leave-No-Trace: A Response

Brian of "Brian's Backpacking Blog" fame had a post semi-recently asking his readers to chime in on whether buschcraft and leave-no-trace (LNT) are compatible.  I started to write my response in the comment box but then it started to take up A LOT of space, so I decided I would use my own blog as a soap box for my opinion.  And here it is...

Bushcraft for me is the act of participating in nature while taking an "extreme" (my words) view of the LNT principles is the act of passing through nature.  I believe that following the LNT principles as they are written makes them completely compatible with bushcraft. In order to prove my point we are going to explore the 7 principles and my interpretation of them with the juxtaposition of how some LNTers interpret them.

The Seven Principles of Leave-No-Trace:

  1. Plan and Prepare Ahead: Fairly straight forward.  If you are camping in winter, don't pack Bermuda shorts, that would just be silly. But seriously, learn as much as you can about where you are going before you go there and pack accordingly.  Think of possible scenarios and make sure you are ready for the probable ones.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces:What's a durable surface?  Refer to Principle One and learn if there are any fragile soil types that you need to avoid.  When I was a ranger in the Boundary Waters I always slept on exposed granite.  Pretty damn durable stuff that granite...
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Another straight forward guideline.  Do not litter.  Idiots litter.  Do not be an idiot.  We will revisit Principal One here, find out if there are backcountry latrines, if so use them, if not find out if cat holes are sufficient, if not maybe you need to pack out your feces.  For me, if I can't get by with a cat hole I do not need to see it.
  4. Leave what you find:  This is one I struggle with.  I am who I am today because when I was a boy I filled my pockets with rocks, and acorns, and skulls, and *gasp* picked flowers for my mother.  If I had not done those things, or if I had been told not to do it I think there is a really good chance I would not have developed such a fondness for the outdoors.  I see this a lot in my line of work.  Teachers are often screaming at the kids not to touch anything in nature because they might hurt it or it might be poison ivy.  Which brings us back to Principal One, I'm detecting a pattern here.  Learn if there acceptable things to pick up an take home as souvenirs. You will be impacting the environment less by taking a pebble home as a reminder than if you buy a cheap petroleum based knick-knack that traveled in excess of 5000 miles to arrive at the tourist trap you picked it up at. In Iowa, on public lands nuts, fungus, and berries are fare game.  In National Forests shed antlers are ok to pick up, but antlers attached to a skull are to be left.  I once let a young gentleman who was about 11 years old carry a moose skull with moderately sized spoons out of the Boundary Waters.  Illegal?  Yes.  But if you had seen the pride in that little guys eyes as he passed me on the portage with that skull balanced on his pack you would understand why I did not.  His scout leader said he had found it early in the trip and had carried on each portage, including one portage that was over 500 rods (one rod= 16.5 feet). I console myself in that now he may be majoring in natural resources at a major university because of his experiences on that trip.. There are non-native/invasive flowers, trees, shrubs, etc almost everywhere you go.  Learn what they are an let your little ones pick the flowers and you can cut the trees and shrubs for your spoon carving and buck saws. You will be things out of the forest and leaving a trace, a positive trace. Educate yourself and make a difference.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Note that it does not say "never use a fire" which is how some folks interpret this principal.  Keep your campfires small.  Harvest dead and down wood away from your campsite. Use grate when they are provided.  If you want to use a stove look into making your own like one of my woodsman heroes.  If you think you are "leaving no trace" by using a white gas stove you need to visit a bauxite mine and an oil refinery sometime...
  6. Respect Wildlife: Another straight forward principal I think. Leave wildlife alone when camping.  Other wise you could end up like Timothy Treadwell... Oh yes, I just went there...
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Be peaceful and respect other recreational users.  If they are compiling with regulations keep off your soap box.  If you are a hardcore LNTer please do not accost a bushcrafter for practicing there craft if they are not breaking rules.  It is a bad idea.  We carry insanely sharp knives and axes all the time. (That's joke you realize,  sometimes the knives and axes are only moderately sharp).
And that is my take on implementing LNT into bushcrafting.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic, even if the conflict with mine.  I will just be sitting here...sharpening my axe...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Part II: 30 Miles There & Back

Soloing with the Ancients
     The wind did indeed die down and we were able to break camp on an absolutely beautiful clear morning.  The type of morning where the surface of the lake is quite literally like a mirror.  After we broke camp and repacked the canoe I took a minute to plan our route the short distance the a campsite above the upper falls on the Basswood River.
Planning the Route
     We were in very familiar territory for me because I had worked as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in this area while I was going to school in Ely.  As a matter of fact the last campsite I stayed in when I was working on the Forest Service trail crew my first summer as a ranger was the last site my wife and I stayed on during this trip.
Portage Break
     The paddle to the campsite was easy, just a couple miles on a glassy surface.  Setting up camp was MUCH less eventful seeing as how no bear visited us this time.  With camp set up we paddled the short distance (maybe 50 yards) to the Basswood River portage which is close to a mile long.  With nothing more than our water bottles, lunch, and day-packs  the portage was a breeze.

Portaging...Like a Boss!!!
     I did rest the canoe against a short pine snag at a point that turned out to be about 70 rods from the end of the portage.  Good canoe rests, where you can simply step out from under the canoe are often hard to find.  Visitors use to lash poles in-between trees at regular intervals on longer portages but the Forest Service takes them down because some feel it diminishes their wilderness experience.  I've been on portage with and without canoe rests and I love them.  They do not do a bit of harm to my wilderness experience, but I'll save that bully pulpit for a later post i think.
     I am not the only one to portage on the trip.  My wife, who weighs only slightly less than our canoe, took more than her fair share of turns participating in this glorious torture. 
     At the end of the mile long portage we sat on the rocks listen to the river flow and gurgle by, took in the beauty of our surroundings, talked and laughed while enjoying our lunch of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and trail mix. Then it was time to get back on the water and make our way down the rest of the Basswood River to our ultimate goal of Crooked Lake and the Picture Rock located there.
Lower Basswood Falls
The rest of the paddle down the Basswood River was largely uneventful other than my wife's first chance to step on Canadian soil at Wheelbarrow Falls.  She said it felt a lot like American soil but just a little different, eh.
     When we reached the end of the Basswood River at Lower Basswood Falls we took a moment to take  advantage of the timer on our camera and snapped a quick picture for posterity.  Then it was time to hoof it over that last portage on the river and into Crooked Lake.
     We were approaching the terminus of the farthest I had ever been in this part of the Boundary Water so that every new experience that we had was a shared one.  Around each corner, and in each new bay our eyes took in new sites for the first time together.  I love that feeling.
Pictured Rock on Crooked Lake
     What we got to see next was the overarching goal of the entire trip, the Picture Rocks on Crooked Lake.  We have a painting over our fireplace by Francis Lee Jaques that depict the rock with a group of Voyagers paddling by.  It was gift from my parents and it ties our urban lifestyle nicely in with our wilderness life philosophy, and serves as a constant reminder of that fact for me.
Canadian Border Marker

     We snapped a few pictures of the various hieroglyphs on the rocks.  I have included a picture of one of my favorites which looks like a pelican and a large watercraft, which I think looks suspiciously like a viking long ship, but I am biased. Do I think that vikings painted on these rock? Absolutely not.  Is there a chance that the ancients that did the paintings had seen a long ship on some distant trading sojourn to the coast and recorded their memory for countless generations to see? Possibly(hopefully).

Looking-up the Lower Basswood Falls
     Before we made our trip back to our campsite on Basswood Lake my wife took a few pictures of me paddling solo past the Picture Rock to compare to the painting in our living room, then I paddled back over to pick her up next to the border marker I left her by.  While we we taking in our last look we heard a strange rushing noise that sounded a bit like a jet engine just over our heads.  It was loud enough and close enough that I physically ducked.  It turned out to be three Bald Eagles fighting over a fish, and the strange noise was the wind rushing through their wing tips as they would dive bomb each other.  One of the coolest experiences I have ever had in the woods.
Heading  for home
We loaded back up and retraced our steps up the Basswood River to our campsite.  We spent a uneventful evening in camp running over the experiences we had shared, and talked about ours hopes for future trips together.

The following morning we packed up our gear and made the long paddle back to the Fall Lake Campground and our vehicle, stopping at an island on Pipestone Bay for lunch where I took a moment to get a shot of our faithful canoe loaded on the water.

The Last Portage

Four days, 3 nights, 30 miles, and 12 portages later and we were, well a picture is worth a thousand words so here are two-thousand for me to send this post out on...
I Love You Shelley!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

30 Miles There & Back: A Boundary Waters Adventure

A glass-calm bay in the Boundary Waters
We moved away from Ely, MN eight years ago when we transferred to the University of Idaho (U of I) after graduation from Vermilion Community College (VCC)and we had not returned since. But not for a lack of desire.  Finally after all these long years it worked out that I had enough vacation days, money set aside, and children old enough to leave with their grandparents for a week that we were able to return.

So on August 20th, 2011 after I worked my job's booth at an area farmers market I raced off to my parents where my lovely wife (and the best paddling partner I have ever had the pleasure of sharing 16 feet of Royalex with) was dropping off our two lovely daughters.  Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised that my wife had actually come to a complete stop before unloading the kids.  We parted from the children with some sadness and reservations which my wife exhibited in the somewhat strange reaction of doing a combination of cartwheels mixed with wild sprinting and shouts that might otherwise be construed as joy.

And thus began our 8-hour drive from Iowa to Ely, MN.  The drive up foreshadowed much of how the entire trip (and following weeks) would go: almost non-existent arguing, lots of laughing and conversation.  We arrived in Ely a touch later than we hoped and found the Fall Lake Campground to be completely filled up and, as luck would have it, so were ALL the hotels in Ely.  We ended up staying in a little cabin at the Silver Rapids Lodge for the night; the only place available within an hours drive.

Silver Rapids Lodge Cabin
The cabin was nice but the bed was a touch short for my 6'4" frame, but it was nice to have a shower in the morning.  We had time before we had to check out so we ate a breakfast of bacon and eggs on the porch then went down to the lake (Garden Lake) to drink coffee and watch for loons.  Didn't see any.
Vermilion Community College
Once we had finished our coffee we packed the van back up and drove into Ely where we were going to visit old haunts, pick up souveniers, and basically kill time until 1:00 PM when the campsites at Fall Lake would start to open back up again.

It was amazing how many people that we ran into that we knew and remebered us after eight long years.

In the above photo you can see me standing outside of VCC where I obtained my A.S. in Wilderness Management.
View from Fall Lake Campsite
After lunch we drove back out to Fall Lake and found a BEAUTIFUL campsite with good access to the water for forays in the canoe, we also saw and heard our first Common loon of the trip.  No matter how many times I see and hear them it never gets old.

While we camped at the Fall Lake Campground we had several friends that we went to school with at VCC, and later on , the U of I, stop by for a visit.  We cooked up venison steaks on the fire and I made bannock in a reflector oven, but I'll save that for a future blog post.
Paddling across Newton Lake
The following morning we loaded our car camping gear back in our van and our wilderness gear into the canoe and took off paddling on our glorious 4-day trip into the Boundary Waters.

We paddled across Fall Lake to our first portage of 90 rods ( a rod is 16.5', or roughly the length of a canoe) and double portaged our gear into Newton Lake.
Lunch spot below Pipestone Falls, Pipestone Bay, Basswood Lake
After the relatively short paddle down the length of Newton Lake we arrived at the Newton-Pipestone Portage of 80 rods where we double portaged agin then had a nice lunch on the rocks where we could listen to the Pipestone Falls behind us.

Normally the Newton-Pipestone Portage is as busy as an interstate, but this day it was very quiet, which I liked.

Once we had finished our hasty lunch below the falls we started our long paddle up Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake, then into Jackfish Bay where we turned to the east, passed through the narrows and into Basswood Lake proper.  

Here we debated whether we should continue paddling up the west shore of Basswood nearer to the Basswood River (and busier campsites) or opt to camp at the first nice site we came to.  We opted for the latter.
Campsite #55 Basswood Lake

We chose a campsite that connected what would have been a large island to the mainland except for a narrow stip of land no more than 30 yards wide.  It had two beautiful sandy beach landings on either side of the isthmus and I thought it would have a good breeze to keep the bugs down. Did I ever hit the nail on the head, but more on that will come later.
Campsite #55 Basswood Lake

My lovely wife started water to boil to purify it, and got supper on the fire while I started on the tent.  Once she had everything going she came over to lend me a hand.  As I got things more under control she turned to check on supper when she said in an amazingly calm voice "Oh look honey, there's a Black bear" and she was right.  

The not too terribly large bear (I guessed it to be around 200 lbs) was bee-lining for our food pack so I bee-lined it for the bear.  I ran straight at the bear, my heart pounding in my ears and I was mildly disconcerted that the bear wasn't leaving yet.  I wasn't sure what I was going to do if I arrived at the food pack and the bear didn't leave but I thought I could take it.  I mean Davy Crockett killed one when he was only three.  How hard can it be really?  But here I jest.  The bear ran like it's ass was on fire once I was in 6' of it an thankfully didn't make off with a morsel of food.

Needless to say I felt like a real badass during supper having defended my wife in the wilderness from a wild animal that eats mostly berries and insect larve(I'm hoping someone over at The Art of Manliness will read this and want an article).
Campsite #55 Basswood Lake
I'd like to say the rest of our stay at Site #55 was uneventful but it wasn't.  Remember how I mentioned I picked the site due to the good breeze it would get to keep the bugs away?  Well it did a bang up job.  Point of fact there were NO bugs our first night, or the entire next day as the breezes picked up to 40 miles per hour with gusts up to 60...

Luckily our tent withstood the wind and no trees fell on us or our gear.  Late the second day in camp the winds died to nothing and the following morning we began the next leg of our trip which I am going to save for another post.  Until then here is a route map of the trip we took. Stay tuned...!
Upper Basswood Falls, Basswood River

Friday, July 15, 2011

Look at me... I'm sailing!!!

A few years ago I went to a movie featuring Russel Crowe and Paul Bettany called "Master and Commander: The far Side of the World" and instantly wanted to sail on a tall ship.  A good friend of mine we'll call "Morgan" informed me that the film was based upon a series of books know, collectively, as the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian which only furthered my desire to sail on a tall ship.  But alas it is my lot to live in land-locked Iowa where tall ships are exceedingly, nay exasperatingly rare.  So what is a bushcrafter to do when he has sailing blood coursing through his Scandinavian veins?  Why he needs to improvise a sailboat!

So I did, during a summer camp at work.

The kids, other naturalists, and I took a couple of canoes down to a lake found near our Nature Center and then set about to find sticks to use in lashing the canoes into a pontoon and for the mast for our sail.  The sail in this case was my ever present surplus poncho.

We lashed the two canoes together with assorted ropes and 550 p-chord and three, wrist diameter sticks each about 3'-3.5' long.

 The sail was supported by a frame made by lashing together four wrist-diameter hackberries (Celtis occidentalis L. ) that were being shaded out by some old cottonwoods.  In this picture you can see me and two other naturalists lashing the starboard (right-hand) mainmast to the thwart located abaft (behind) the bow seat.
 Once we had securely lashed the cross-braces to the canoes thwarts and attached backstays to the mainmasts, and the sail lashed to the spars it was time time to see if she was sea worthy.

 Here you can see two other naturalists lowering the sail after we'd paddled into the wind and swung the pontoon around.  The top spar (not in photo) is square-lashed to the two up right masts.  The bottom spar is lashed to the sail only and is longer than the distance between the two masts.  The overlap of the lower spar pushes into the mast when the wind fills the sail and pushes the whole thing forward.
 Look at me.... I'm sailing!!!
We didn't get going to fast, slightly slower than an easy paddling speed largley because of the way the wind acted on the lake that day.  With a larger body of water where the winds are steadier, and less erratic we could have gone much faster than if we had paddled.  I look forward to trying it again soon.

Anyone else ever improvised a sailboat?  I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Guide to Field Guides and Journals

I did this post a while back on a now defunct blog.  I was pretty happy with it so I’d thought I resurrect it here. The post is about my choices in field guides for identifying flora and fauna while out in the field.  In it I explore print media, free on-line sources, and also show some of the ways that I use to help me ID plants and animals that are new to me.  

Print Media
There are a wealth of books out there that cover plant and wildlife identification in very broad terms covering entire continents such as the Sibley Guide to Birds to highly specialized books that focus on one family, or species like Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. Selection of a good field guide depends entirely on what you...(wait for it!).... want to identify in the field!  If you are interested in birds alone, pick out a book that covers birds in your region (i.e., Western U.S., or Eastern U.S., etc...).  A little later I will give my recommendations for the series of books that I use.  At this point I would like to give a disclaimer; this is an opinion piece.  These are the books that I prefer to use.  I strongly dislike some books that people better at identification swear by (I am thinking of the Audubon and Peterson guides send hate mail here(include link for email address, do research and find what works for you.  I suggest going to your local library and to check out book layouts.  If they don’t have the ones you are looking for try getting them through a inter-library loan.

OK, so now to the subject.

For birds I have a couple of recommendations.  For a true field guide I carry the Kaufman Guide to Birds of North America.  I like the Kaufman Guide because of the artwork.  Rather than artists renditions, they are digital photographs, which I find a little more useful in the field.  There are other books in the Kaufman Guides series now covering insects and mammals and that are of the same high quality as the bird guide.  I’ve looked at them but have not purchased them yet.

You’ll notice above I mention Kaufman being a “true field guide”.  By that I mean it’s reasonably sized to be comfortably carried in the field either in a day-pack, shoulder bag, or if you’re built like me, a cargo pocket.  For my “desk guide”  I use the The Sibley Guide to Birds.  The Sibley guides are excellent and go above and beyond simple bird ID by including text on bird behaviors that you may observe.  The wealth of information included in the Sibley books make them a touch prohibitive for use in the field, but they make a great reference to cross check your findings once you are home.

For plants the books I prefer are a bit specialized and focus on the tallgrass prairies because of my location.  I don’t use an ID book for trees because I was taught those by my Grandpa and Dad growing up.  The prairie book I use is the Falcon guide Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers.  It is broken up by the colors of the flowers rather than my families which makes it nice for beginners.

When it comes to wild edibles I have to go with Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest.  I have been lucky enough to meet Mr. Thayer on a couple of occasions through work and the man knows his stuff backwards and forwards.  Mr. Thayer’s books are focused on the Upper Midwest, but a lot of the plants he covers can be found throughout North America.  The layout of the book, the text, and the art work are the best and most concise I’ve ever seen in a book on wild edibles.

Budget Buys
I, like many others in the survival/bushcraft world, tend to be a touch on the frugal side.  So I thought I might take a moment here to endorse some books you can get on a budget.  For a great source of field guides that can easily fit in your back pocket I recommend the small Golden Guide.  There is a Golden Guide for just about every thing you could come across on a hike, day or night such as; insects, birds, trees, flowers, stars, weather, geology, weather, and the list goes on.

One of my favorite desk references, and one of the most important books in my life, is the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.  I can remember a copy of this sitting on a shelf in my Grandma’s living room.  I always loved to sit on the floor in front of the kerosene heater on winter evenings after a night of coon hunting and just pouring over the pages.  I think I can safely credit this book with a good portion of my interest in the natural world.

By searching around you can get these guides at very reasonable rates.  If you are a patient lot and as thrifty as I am I recommend setting up an account over at  When you set up your account you will get two credits to order books for free; after that you have to mail books out to receive credits (one credit per book).  All you have to do is pay the media mail postage.  You can pay your postage in advance on the site and then print your mailing label with postage right at home.  It isn’t as always as convenient as ordering from an on-line book seller, or going to a local bookstore, but it is low cost and sort of adventurous.  When you set up the wish lists of books you are looking for you receive an e-mail notifying you if one of them has been posted then you just request it and it will be mailed out to you.  You never know when that book you’ve been trying to find will suddenly be within your grasp.

On-line Resources
If you are R-E-A-L-L-Y cheap and aren’t looking to shell out money there are a wealth of websites out there that are very useful for plant and animal ID.  This is all the better you you are tech savvy and have an internet capable phone.  Below you will find a list of my preferred websites and a terse description of what you can find there.

Animal Diversity Web is a excellent source put together from reaserch done by students at the University of Michigan.  Lots of in-depth information no all aspects of the ecological niche’s that animals hold.

eNature is a loss scholarly website geared more towards the layperson interested in animals in there area.  At eNature you can search plants and animals that can appear in your zipcode.  

All About Birds is one of my favorite websites, largely because I love to identify birds.  All About Birds is run by the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology so you can count on the validity of the information you will glean from there site.

American Mushrooms is a site maintained by mycologist an author, David Fischer.   The site has ton of rich photography an text on every fungi imaginable.  Mr. Fischer has also been very good about IDing photos of fungi that I have sent him via e-mail, which is listed on the site.

Kansas Wildflowers is a great place to ID a lot of grasses, flowers and trees, even if you are not from Kansas.  Most of the plants listed on the site occur in my native state of Iowa, and there for can be found across a wide expanse of the Midwest. The site is affiliated with Kansas State University.

Insect Identification is a site I just stumbled across in writing this post.  I had been using a different site for a few years, but i always found it a bit cumbersome to navigate.  In the brief while that I have been looking over Insect Identification it seems that a lot of the problems with my old standby have been worked out.  I am happy about this...

The Importance of Field Notes
When I go hiking I don’t like to carry a ton of ID books with me because of the added weight.  If I carry any ID books at all it will usually be my bird book, or maybe my wild edibles book if I’m on a foraging expedition for new food stuffs.  Instead of carrying a book to ID each new thing I may come across I have taken to carrying a couple of small notebooks that I use for sketching and note taking.  I have found that this technique has greatly improved my powers of observation when traversing the wilds.  

I carry a small Moleskin notebook and pen in my shirt pocket where ever I go.  All day, every day.  Lot’s of important people have done so,  just look here. Then in my satchel (It’s a satchel, not a purse.  Indiana Jones carries a satchel.) I carry and unlined hardcover notebook that I picked up at a local art supply store.  It has a small elastic strap you hold it shut, and a loop on the side where I keep my pencil.

In addition to my satchel notebook I carry an inexpensive set of water colors.  I started out with a set marketed towards children and I had really good luck with it, like this Belted kingfisher.  I purchased my first set of water colors at the lowest possible price for fear I would royally suck at it.   I have since purchased a nicer, yet still modestly priced set of water colors from a company called Reeves.  This kit was appealing to be because of the nice mix of colors it has and it had white, which I have found to be useful for blending and muting colors, etc.

To demonstrate some of the different ways I use field sketches and notes I have included a few of the things I have done over the last few years.  Each sketch was selected to highlight different mediums and different attributes to look for when sketching.

Sketch 1:Pencil Sketch of Bird
I was leading a hike in western Iowa for a group of grade schoolers focusing on Lewis & Clark and the journals they kept when an unidentified bird lit into the top of a nearby tree.  TEACHABLE MOMENT!!!  I deftly reached into my ever present satchel and grabbed my trusty notebook an whipped up this sketch.  I made notes as to field marks that i knew would probably appear in my bird book back home. I promised the kids I would e-mail their teacher when i knew what it was and we continued on our hike.  Upon returning home I was able to easily identify the bird I saw as a Harris Sparrow.

Harris Sparrow
Sketch 2: Pen Sketch of Hawk Tail

One day while my assistant and I were scouting some areas for potential prescribed fires she spotted an unidentified hawk circling above us. As I stared at the distant hawk through my binoculars (don’t scrimp on your optics, cut cost elsewhere) I looked for an distinguishing markings like the shape and length of the wings and tail, and markings on the birds chest.  What stood out most of all was the hawks tail.  So I sketched it in my Moleskin notebook/planner and sketched it.  I also jotted a note next to the picture that the hawk in question was a “Buteo”.  Buteo’s are soaring hawks that have relatively long wings, and short tails that specialize in hunting over open ground.  The “opposite” of a buteo is an accipiter, which generally have short wings and long tails and specialize in hunting in forest environments.

I bring this up because while the hawk in question had the body type of a buteo, and was soaring high above a grassland the tail was marked with distinctive bands, a trait common among accipiters.  Needless to say I was intrigued.  When I was able to look the bird up I learned it was a buteo that has adapted to forest hunting.  Hence the crossover markings on a buteo body of the Broad Winged Hawk.

Broad Winged Hawk Tail Detail
Sketches 3-4: Pencil and Watercolor Plants
Here, side by side, you can see how adding water colors to a sketch can really make a difference when IDing a plant.  Both drawings were done with a No. 2 pencil with notes pointing to where certain colors appear on the plant.  The drawing on the left is a Prairie Larkspur and the one on the right is Toothed Evening Primrose.
Left:Prairie Larkspur Right:Toothed Evening Primrose
Sketch 5: Pencil and Watercolor Bird
Finally I have included an example of a practice painting I did in my kitchen.  I sat down with my bird book and my paints and chose to do a Black-Throated Blue Warbler.  As with any skill it is important to practice to keep yourself sharp.  It’s not always easy to go birdwatching (i.e. the birds are out when the 11 month old is napping, etc.),  so I cross train.  When I can’t make it out I spend time looking over field guides memorizing characteristics and range maps.
Black-Throated Blue Warbler
I hope that this post will be helpful to beginners and experts by showing just some of the resources out there.  I believe that survival is all about observation, and awareness of your surroundings, and that it is arguably the most important skill to have.  Get guide books you are comfortable with, get a note book and a pencil, start taking notes, and sketching.  Paint a picture of a flower.  You will notice intricacies you never before noticed and I believe it will open your eyes and your heart to a world around you that you may have missed.   I hope that you will share your ideas about field guides that I have missed and that it will open a dialog about perception and awareness as it pertains to bushcraft and survival.