Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Of barefoot shoes and suffocation hazards

I’m a very reluctant shopper but had to bite the bullet and get some new camping gear. I’m also a reluctant reader of gear reviews and have never written one before. But I imagine you, gentle readers, to be an outdoorsy crowd, and so I’m biting yet another bullet by sharing how the new barefoot shoes, bug bivy, tarp and tent performed.

Barefoot shoes – already the name is an oxymoron. They are basically very lightweight and flexible sneakers without the raised heel “normal” shoes and boots have, the idea being that the human body evolved to walk without shoes and certainly without the need for stiff soles and the constant wedge of a raised heel underneath our feet.
I’ve been wearing homemade moccasins for the last two summers and figured barefoot shoes in all their plastic glory would be great to switch to when the going gets wet, because my moosehide moccasins turn into amorphous leather bags in rain and on wet ground. I found Vivobarefoot’s hideously coloured Trailfreak on sale and from all the hype out there about how barefoot shoes enable your feet to actually feel the ground you’re walking on, figured they’d be quite similar to my moccasins.
But when I put the Trailfreak shoes on, my first (and lasting) impression was: “Huh. Feels like plain old shoes.” Lightweight and flexible shoes, to be sure, but definitely shoes. My moccasins, on the other hand, feel like I’m wearing socks and actually do let me feel the ground, including the temperature.
The Trailfreak’s sole is pretty slippery on wet rocks and roots – not good at all. On the upside, they don’t turn into loose baggies like my moccasins when wet and dry out fairly quickly, so in that regard they serve their purpose. But if anyone out there wants shoes with a true barefoot feeling, sew yourself a pair of moccasins – it’s quite easy to do.

Bug bivy. I got the Outdoor Research bug bivy for short excursions or trips where paring down pack weight is important, and I love it! Summers are bug-filled in the north and because the sun only dips below the horizon for a couple of hours here, tents can get very hot. Sleeping in the bug bivy felt totally different than sleeping in a tent. You get the whole outside experience of looking at the sky, feeling the breeze and enjoying the summer smells without being sucked dry by mosquitoes.
It weighs only 454g (16 oz) and can be used without a groundsheet. The only thing I’m not too crazy about is that you have to worm your way into it from the head end. A zipper along the side would make getting in and out much easier.
The warning label seems a bit of a joke:

Now who would defeat the whole purpose of a bug bivy by leaving the zipper open and letting the bugs in? I’m happy to report that I didn’t suffocate and can’t imagine how one would go about it in there either.
Tarp. The colour of MEC’s silicone Scout Tarp (see bug bivy picture above) is super ugly, but that is the only drawback I have found. The 2.9m x 2.1m size (roughly 9’x6’3”) makes for a fine one person shelter and it weighs in at 515g (17 oz?). Apart from reinforced tie-out grommets along the edges there’s a reinforced centre patch with a loop, so you can suspend it or prop a stick or paddle up under the middle. The silicone-coated fabric allows lots of light to seep through so you’re not sitting in the dark.
And last, but not least – the tent. Sigh.
I love my ancient Moss Outlander tent fiercely. I’ve babied the increasingly stretchy tent fly and failing zippers for as long as I possibly could, but this summer had to face the unsavoury fact that I needed a new tent. Alas, Moss is a long defunct company that made incredibly high quality, beautiful tents, so I had to look at other options and after much humming and hawing decided on MSR’s Nook.

I wanted a glorified one person tent that can accommodate two if necessary, and I wanted something lightweight of good quality. The Nook’s material, as that of most new MSR tents, is whisperthin and light, and its size is exactly what I wanted.
What I found somewhat shocking and can’t understand: the rain fly is about 3” too short at the end. The inner tent sticks out below it, will get wet in rain and develop condensation there because the foot end is only single-walled thanks to the short rain fly. It’s a mystery to me why MSR skimped on the length of the rain fly and also why the tent reviews don’t mention this. Coverage is fine everywhere else on the tent. I was torn between returning the thing, but there’s not really another model out there I could sufficiently warm up to, so I grudgingly decided to extend the fly myself – a sad state of affairs when you have to modify a $450.- tent from a renowned company.
The Nook was put through its paces this summer with very strong wind gusts, heat and rain. With every guy line employed it can weather the wind, though it still shudders and complains – but unlike my beloved Moss, this is not a 4-season or mountaineering tent, so that’s to be expected. I really like the two vents on the rain fly, they greatly help with ventilation. While the light grey fly and canopy colour aren’t up my alley, they do make for a bright tent interior.
The Nook weighs in at 1.46 kg (3lbs 4 oz). If it wasn’t for the too short rain fly, I’d call it a decent tent.
Since I’m pretty underwhelmed with the MSR Nook and have acquired a sewing machine, I’ve decided to try sewing a new rain fly for my Moss Outlander. I primarily got the sewing machine to make fleece pants, an article of clothing we wear for 7 months of the year and which for some mysterious reason is not available anymore – so why not revamp this old tent?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

(Mis)adventures in food dehydration

Few things are more tortuous to a ravenous backpacker than the smell of garlic and a fresh steak frying in olive oil when you’re sitting in front of cold pasta without sauce after a 10-day hike. I know this because that was what a friend and I faced half a lifetime ago on the North Boundary Trail in the Rockies. We subsisted on energy bars and pasta for the entire ten days, using soup powder for sauce until we ran out on the last day. That’s when we had only bland noodles to eat, and they were cold because they fell into the dirt when we drained them. It was then and there, among the tantalizing garlic aroma from somebody who’d just started their hike from the opposite, that I decided to eat better when out camping. And carrying a 10-day supply of spaghetti is no fun.
Fast-forward a decade and a half:

No, it’s not out of control slime mould, it’s – yogurt! Behold my terribly unsuccessful attempt at drying it. Well, it dried alright and clung to the baking sheet with a vengeance (you’re supposed to dry it on parchment paper, but that’s not exactly easy to come by around here).

The problem was it wouldn’t rehydrate properly – stubborn lumps remained and the whole thing tasted like water with yogurt flavor. I’m not so desperately keen on spooning yogurt while kayaking this summer that I want to give it another try and stuck to my time-honoured favourites for stocking up the camping food supplies. Tomato sauce dries to the consistency of fruit leather and keeps for years if stored in a cool, dry place:

I never bother to cook up actual tomato sauce before drying it, but simply spice up tomato paste, spread it thinly on a baking sheet and it’s done a few hours later. Don’t look for actual recipes and detailed how-to instructions on here, these are merely a few ideas of dehydrating food (you don’t need a dehydrator – experiment with drying in your oven at the lowest setting or on top of a wood stove; it’s really not a high-tech procedure).
Pea soup also works well and dries into little chunks that could be pulverized with a rolling pin, but it will rehydrate just fine in its crumbly state. Kidney beans and black beans for chili and refried beans are equally easy to do.

I like to dry a batch of moose hamburger, trimming out all fat to avoid it getting rancid. I can add it to the tomato sauce, dried beans or spice it up with curry. One nice thing about dehydrating your own camp food is that not only will you know it’s going to actually fill you up, but it will taste the way you like it. And it costs just a tiny fraction of the commercial stuff out there.

And I made some more jerky out of moose meat – always good for snacks or to add to the odd meal.

If you plan to go camping this year, give dehydrating your favourite foods a try!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

... and then there were two

My four months of solitude ended on Thursday in a cloud of whipped up snow and rotor noise as the helicopter set down in our meadow and my partner, veggies, antibiotics for my chronic tonsillitis and (unfortunately) the flu tumbled out.

To a hidden observer and even to myself, the desperate frenzy I flung myself into before my boyfriend’s arrival would have had quite the entertainment value. For days on end, I dashed through the cabin like a woman possessed, wielding a hammer, varnish, broom and dishcloth, slightly hampered by a sudden influx of translation work and the finally corrections of my first book. Bush life being what it is, my preparations for welcoming him home after all this time were focussed to putting the finishing touches on the furniture I’d built in his absence, putting away tools and stocking up on water and firewood instead of primping my hair and donning attractive clothes.

Apart from the supremely hideous shower stall, our tiny bathroom now features a sink. After washing in the kitchen for the last 16 years, my heart sings with joy each day as I make use of our new bathroom sink. The toilet remains where it belongs – outside, that is, where there’s a chance to watch the northern lights while occupied with more trivial matters.
And after years of perching our dinner plates on laps while sitting on the sofa, we now have a dedicated dining room table. The bench doubles as dog food storage (we currently have twenty 40lbs bags, the remainder of which are stored in a dog food closet and underneath the sofa). I also built doors and a pull-out storage box on casters for the huge pantry shelf that forms the third kitchen wall.

I’m usually struck dumb when I meet people again for the first time in months and stand mutely with a big a grin on my face, but somehow the helicopter didn’t chase all words out of my head – I’m proud to report that I was able to make halfway intelligent and intelligible conversation right away! In between unloading the chopper, bear-hugging my flu-infected boyfriend and inviting the pilot in for a cup of tea, I hopped around with the dogs in a little dance of happiness. While I am somewhat addicted to these long periods of loneliness, this has not been an easy one thanks to the dog emergency in November, the unusual lack of wildlife activity, my constant sore throat and the increasing frailty of my old dog.
I’ve rejoined the world of people, folks, and am wildly ecstatic about it.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Cold moon rising

When I walk north these days, the sun doesn’t spill my shadow as far ahead of me as it used to. Shadow woman stays closer to me now, at flat bluish puddle at my feet, while the sun swings itself a whole hand width above the mountains and pours more light onto the land each day. At winter solstice, it inched its way over the mountain peaks with only a finger width of sky to spare.
It’s cold; well, sort of: the -30s have finally found us, but thanks to the brilliant sunshine and our large south-facing windows it gets so warm inside the cabin I don’t have to heat much during the day.
My old dog now wears not only booties but a warm vest when we go out. He had three spells of extreme exhaustion and weakness over the last few weeks, and I’ve shortened our rounds even more. I’m beginning to practice my goodbyes to him. I snuggle with him on the large dog bed that catches the sun and from where we can look out on the lake and the mountains, and I memorize the feel of his head underneath my hand. I inhale his smell that now carries a faint undercurrent of urine again, just like when I picked him up as a puppy at the humane society.

I tell him stories of the past, of how he was smaller than my cat and just skin and bones and urine-matted fur. He remembers the word “kitty kitty” and pricks up his ears. We wander down memory lane to when we still lived with road access and had a truck – definite interest in his eyes as I mention “truck” -, and we relive the times he was a bad boy and chased after moose. He knows “moose”.
But mostly we lie quietly and soak up the sunshine that slides across the cabin floor until night falls and the moon rises and the cold with it.