2010-12-29

Gear Review: Montane Windpants

When I was first lightening up my backpack load I was doing research into various types of gear. At the time the idea of water resistant clothing for rain (rather than water-proof) was pretty hot. I read several articles and decided I'd give it a try.

So, I ordered a wind-shirt from Montane (a European company). It weighed 4 ounces. I quickly discovered that a water-resistant jacket was insufficient for my needs. A couple of years later I was backpacking with my parents in bad black-fly country. I was carrying non-breathable waterproof rain-pants, and wearing shorts. Our legs were literally dripping blood from 50 or so places each due to the black-flies, and I finally gave in and put on my rain-pants as bug protection. That evening I took them off and my whole lower body was soaked from sweat, and I had pretty bad chaffing the rest of the trip. I thought about the windshirt and realized that similar pants might fit the bill perfectly.

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(I'm on the right, in the black wind-pants and black tee-shirt)

Well, I've had the 4 ounce pertex wind-pants for maybe 6 years now. They've seen over 2000 miles of trail, as well as use as x-country ski pants, snowboard pants, rain-pants, anti-bug pants, sun-pants, and laundry-pants. On one trip we bushwhacked through wild roses and blackberries for 4 days. I've also bushwhacked through manzanita and live oak wearing them. I wore them for a couple of years as my only long pants (often over warm tights). I ran to work 2 miles every day (often through the snow) for an entire winter. I used them as my long-pants (wind/rain/warm/etc.) for the whole AT. I've slid down rocks on my butt in them. Basically, it's hard to come up with something I haven't done in them (short of going to a cocktail party).

After all that wear, they still only have one hole. On the AT I knocked over a burning alcohol stove on my leg (spilling burning alcohol all over), and it melted through before I was able to put out the alcohol. This hasn't significantly affected the pants' utility, and I'm still using them.

So, anyone who claims thin Pertex pants aren't sufficiently tough, is going on instinct, and hasn't really tested them. They have a downside of course, they are not waterproof.  Basically, they do everything rain-pants do, and do it better, except for stop water :P.

BTW, to be clear I would not recommend a thin Pertex pant for bushwhacking through thorn-bushes. They'll tend to stop you from getting huge gashes down your legs, but you will get scratched up a bit. Still, for 4 ounces what do you expect? On many trips I wouldn't have carried something else, but I had these because they're so tiny and light.
I also strongly strongly dis-recommend use of these pants for activities like snow-caving. Cross-country skiing is one thing, where you fall in the snow and get back up. For prolonged direct snow contact I've discovered I want something really actually waterproof, or really thick wool. In all my years carrying them, snow-caving is the only time I wished I had waterproof pants instead (though that time was pretty bad).

Long and short of it. These pants are awesome. They are some of the toughest gear I've ever owned despite being 4 ounces (I know, hard to believe right?). They're great unless you really need something waterproof, and in my experience that's relatively rare. Don't ever let someone tell you rain-pants are tougher them wind-pants, pick between the two based on your needs for water-proofness, not durability.

One final note: Going up in the Sierra on edge-seasons and winter has changed my use-case a lot. I just got a pair of water-proof breathable rain-pants. We'll see how that works out - Stay tuned :P.

A tangled tail: Hair care for the trail

To prefix this let me explain to you that I have demon hair. It's fine and thick, down to my butt, and likes nothing so much as to tangle into an impenetrable mat. It's the kind of situation that makes you eye the scissors.

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But I'm a hiker, so for years I just muscled through it. The modus operandi was throw it in a braid, hike, then spend the next week slowly coaxing sticks and knots out of my hair until I had a giant, but clean, frizz-ball. When I decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail* I was pretty sure I'd just have to shave my head at the end.

About a week into the hike I first tried to brush my hair. It was a disaster. Two hours of brushing with my tiny brush left a lot of knots, a sore scalp, and was just discouraging as to the future of my hair. In short it was what I'd experienced coming back from every trip I'd gone on. Shaving loomed. Two weeks later I had another chance to shower and something magical happened. This time I didn't bother with the pre-shower brush-out. Instead I just jumped in and finger-combed out my filthy hair before washing it. It took awhile, but I was able to work out almost all the knots. It only got better from there on out too. In fact, while on the trail, my hair got longer for the first time in years: it was enjoying this neglect!

The difference? My hair was dirty. Filthy even. Impossible you say! That could only make it worse. Not true. If you stop and think about it dirty hair means each strand is coated in oil, which will help keep it separated from its neighbors. The best way I've found to set up this lovely knot-repelling oil-coated situation before getting into the woods is simply to not wash my hair for as long as possible. Of course just ignoring it would cause many of the same problems as starting a backpacking trip with clean hair, so what I do instead is brush my hair out in the shower every day, but skip the washing step. This helps keep the hair separated and distributes the oil evenly throughout. Obviously this oil can pick up dirt and eventually become downright disgusting, but that takes several weeks. While hiking, washing lightly every week or week and a half is enough to keep me out of the disgusting zone without resulting in inhuman attack knots.

Everyone's body chemistry is different, but if you've considered head shaving due to backpacking then washing it a little less often might just be the key.



* Note: I decided I'd do the whole thing. While hiking I decided to only do 1,000 miles (2.5 months) to allow time to try farming that summer as well. I can't wait to do the other half.

2010-12-25

Practicing being a hyperactive child: Parkour

So. Jess and I like to fool around with Parkour occasionally. The name parkour (as most know) is a french martial art. For more on Parkour see the Wikipedia article. Recently it's gotten some play in the media, but it's been around for a while longer. Many have tried hard to keep it from association with gangs (as jams really aren't gangs in any classic sense, and are usually polite, friendly, ad-hoc, and non confrontational), but probably the strongest adopters have been street artist groups.

I've always loved jumping on things. Sometime in college I discovered my friends did too, and we started playing with wall running (running up a vertical wall as far as you can), jumping up and down flights of stairs as far as we could, doing standing jumps from one wall on a walkway to another - etc. Basically, think of anything a hyperactive child that's always covered in bruises would do... we did that.

Not long into that I discovered people who were really good at this stuff called the collection of all of it "Parkour". The flashier forms of it are called "Free Running". Having a name for it meant I could find information about it on the internet, and pretty soon I saw cool things people were doing. Thing is, I still had no idea how to do much of it.

Jess moved to Seattle, and so did a friend of ours Tom. Well, in Seattle they ran into Parkour jams, and thought this was the best idea ever.

The way people practice parkour is pretty different from other sports. The sport itself is very individual, and non-competitive, but to learn new things and work out how to do things (that is, to get "beta" in climbing parlance) it's often practiced in groups. It's also just way more freaking fun with others, and it's good to have someone to call an ambulance when you fuck up. That said it's not exactly an organized sport either. So there's what's called a "Parkour Jam".

So, recently we've been working on several motions. I started playing with wall-running and jumping up and down stairs in college. Tom and Jess learned cat-hangs in Seattle, and through a number of inputs we've learned the basic vaults. Speed vault, lazy vault, and catch vault, and now we've been working on the more advanced monkey vault. My follow-through is still poor and I catch my feet sometimes, but I can vault crossways over a picknick table now.

We've also been working on shoulder rolls, I'm trying to get mine reliable enough to use on pavement. I can now do a dive over a bench or similar and come up well. We've recently been playing a lot with monkey-bars and trying to "run" smoothly with your arms hanging under the bars, without the body swaying backwards and forwards.

Parkour can broadly be broken up into 3 classes of activity. Running, Jumping, Climbing.
- Running is of course, running, except possibly over very uneven surfaces and similar.
- Climbing - This includes quadrapedal motion, balancing, cat hangs, and of course... climbing
- Jumping is the flashy stuff, doing vaults (jumping over things), drops (jumping off things), wall runs (running up things) etc.
For definitions and background the Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkour) is pretty good.

I won't say that I haven't hurt myself. Not long ago I was walking across a train platform and went to vault a railing. I did a catch-vault (where your foot hits the rail). I was wearing very different shoes than usual though, and my foot slipped off backwards. I had forward momentum so was flipped over by the rail. With my head quickly approaching the cement, I threw my arms down as if to drop into a shoulder roll - but, my foot was a bit caught on the rail, and I had a bag on my shoulder so the roll failed, and I didn't flip early enough to land on my shoulder. Instead, after absorbing most of the fall with my arms, my head (a bit backwards from my temple) contacted the cement.

My first thought was "crap, my head hit... this is really bad". I lay on my back flat without moving to see if a headache came. I touched my hand to my forehead, no blood. Okay. My friends said my eyes were dilating, and I pointed out I was looking directly up into a street lamp :P. It turned out I was fine, just a minor impact. I only had a headache for about an hour, but it scared me... a lot - and reminded me to be careful.

Now that I've scared you a bit, here's the thing, most of these activities are not terribly dangerous, it's all about working your way up slowly. What I was doing when I slipped was just jumping a railing, something any teenage kid would do. Having done parkour meant I pulled out of it fine, because I'd practiced rolls. In other words, I wasn't injured because of parkour, as much as I was injured because of parkour.

Be aware and informed of the risks of course. Most importantly don't start by trying to do a monkey vault over a 4 foot high 4 foot wide block of concrete. Instead start by doing a monkey-vault on grass, over nothing. Start with just the dive and absorbing it in your arms. Then do a frog hop until you feel confident and comfortable, etc. The key to not getting badly injured is learning how to work up slowly on any given activity. This is true of ALL sports, and something people who do sports a lot often forget when they switch - but it's doubly true when the consequences of a significant screw-up are your head impacting concrete at high velocity. Once a major screwup is coming in at slightly the wrong angle, or your hand being rotated a few degrees the wrong way - you can make several and still be okay. If that's true at all stages, the activity should be relatively safe (adjust to your own standards of course).

I highly recommend trying it, much of it can be done very safely. Maybe someday you'll find yourself jumping off 2 story buildings, and maybe not - either way doing a shoulder roll on the grass is a lot of fun now :P.

2010-11-29

Yosemite and hail (a tail of fun, despite minor disasters)

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So. Jess and I went to plan a trip.
The trip was from October 2'nd to October 10'th

Planning
We wanted to go for 9 days. We had a couple of places in mind: the lost coast or the Sierra. I poked around for weather a bit (looking up local weather patterns, and computing what elevations should be within our gear, and still have a margin of safety), and the conclusion was either was viable. The Sierra would be a bit cold, and we may have to avoid going to high (our gear goes to 10F right now, and we like to have 5-10 degrees of slop in case of freak weather or being wet or sick or whatever), but that could be interesting. We decided we wanted to go near Yosemite, up in the Sierra, and we wanted to be out for about 9 days. So we grabbed a map (topo of the entire Sierra, we'd picked it up a couple of months prior on a whim) and started looking at interesting areas.

We looked at how we might get there, and get back. Figuring we could get a hitch out of Yosemite easily we figured that was a good endpoint. Also, that way we wouldn't have to deal with getting a permit there, which we'd heard could be a bit harder than other places.

After some looking at the area, we figured 100 miles north would be good, if we could get there. Jess did the legwork and found out Amtrack with bus+train could get us out of Yosemite valley in an entirely reasonable amount of time... awesome!

We both posted to a mailing list or two, hoping to find someone going out to where we wanted to get dropped off. I realized I could loosen the constraint and asked for anyone going within 100 miles of Yosemite. Surprisingly, no bites. Okay... We could rent a car, but that's silly for 9 days with only 2 of driving. Eventually someone *did* respond pointing out that permits are easy to get from Yosemite this particular season. Okay then why not just grab the train in to Yosemite? It means doing a loop which is psychologically different, but we decided that was okay.

This was an edge-season trip, a bit colder than we're used to, in an geographical area neither of us are experienced with. So the weekend prior we ran over our gear to make sure we had what was needed. I lost my rain-coat a while back, so I did some quick testing of my experimental tyvek raingear and sealed my hat to make it a rain-hat. We got Jess some waterproof socks, and after I failed to acquire boots that fit, I ran out and bought a pair of exactly what I wore for 800 miles of the AT. We ran about and packed gear and food in the evening the 2 days before. Usually we can pack all our gear in about 30 minutes, but this trip took a lot of thought - we hadn't even needed rain-gear in months.

Extra gear we grabbed (over say... AT gear) included:
  •   Jess had an extra warm wool sweater-thing
  •   I had a pair of puffy pants, and silk tights in place of other warm tights
  •   We both had microspikes (almost crampons)
  •   We both had wool gloves/mittens
  •   some of our socks were extra-thick
  •   sunglasses (in case of snowfields)
  •   spin-cast fishing gear (because we were psyched about it)
  •   an extra sleepingpad each for added insulation in cold 


We also packed what we believed to be 9 days of food. And we grabbed one bear-canister (required for Yosemite), and an ur-sack ('cause we only have one bear-canister).

Jess's Gear:
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My Gear:
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(We didn't carefully lay stuff out, Jess just snapped some shots while we were packing)

Travel
  
Thus armed we set off on our trip early in the morning. We kinda bumbled looking up the station the night before, got confused and took a bus out to nowhere. On the bus someone informed us we were going to the wrong place, but as it happened, the bus went to the right place at the end of the line... HURRAH! We'd gotten up an hour and a half earlier than we needed to, but at least we would meet our train.

There are lots of stories in here, and as always the travel can be as fun as the destination. Here's a quick summary. The train ride was beautiful, we met a couple of guys heading out to climb for a couple of weeks. We hopped of the train and (in between practicing parkour on the railing) met a guide who was heading up to Yosemite on the same bus. We talked to him the whole way up and got lots of fun stories and information about fishing spots and such.

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We talked to the people in the wilderness center apon arrival. The Ranger was really excited about people going out in the backcountry for that long and willing to really cover some miles. He gave us a ton of hints. We'd figured we'd just take whatever permit they had, we aren't much for planning :). In fact, all trailheads were free, so we sat down and figured something. Jess rented a bear canister so we'd have 2.

Backpacking

And we set off! On the way up the hill it started sprinkling on us. We donned our rain-gear and kept hiking. It's a long climb out of Yosemite valley, and we had heavy packs (~40 lbs each). At the rim we were shot, we went far enough back to be legal to camp, and did so. We Cooked our dinner on the woodstove by a stream, met some nice folks who were also sleeping nearby, and turned in. All our food didn't quite fit in the 2 canisters, but we had the ur-sack... so no big deal (against regulations... but we tried right? oh well).

Next morning, we went to get a fire started in a ring. Everything was wet. I'd brought some cotton from the top of a couple pill bottles, so we tried that but we couldn't get anything lit with it. We gathered things from under logs. I thought of just grabbing a huge handfull of old pine-needles and duff from under a log, thinking we hadn't had enough tinder. It was more successful but didn't actually light up well and I eventually gave up after several tries. Jess gave it a shot using that method and the "heap of sticks" method and some patience, and got it lit. YAY! breakfast.

So, we set out hiking north again. We figured we'd make it to a lake just north of 120. It was sprinkling again. Partway through the day, it started hailing. Then it stopped. Then it hailed again... HARDER. Then it stopped for a while. Then it hailed agian... etc. It wasn't too bad until we got into camp by the lake. While trying to set camp it hit us hard, and wouldn't let up for more than a couple of minutes at a time. We got the tarp pitched and gathered the driest wood we could find, putting it under the tarp. I decided I wanted to fish, set up my entire fishing pole, and finally quit just after finishing the steup due to my hands stinging too much from hail. In the process of getting the tarp up Jess' homemade tyvek rain-pants (which were doing okay as rain-pants still) split wide open at the butt... oops! she'd made them too small.

Alright... fine, we're wet, cold, and our rain-gear is falling apart and leaking (jess' jacket is fine). We'll eat some dinner and go to sleep. We'd been standing under a tree to lessen the hail hitting us. I start trying to get the stove lit, and Jess sits on her sleepingpad under the tarp. My rain-gear didn't work... as it turns out, and I'm soaked. I'm getting colder and colder and stupider and stupider, and am (unsurprisingly) unable to get the fire lit. We had found dry'ish wood under logs and such, but it wasn't good enough.

Finally I realized I was in kinda bad shape. Jess and I switched, and I began trying to get warm again. I started trying to put on warm clothing. I put on my down vest, tights, and warm pants. The vest got pretty wet (I was wetter than I thought), but I warmed up some. Jess eventually got the wood stove lit using cotton with a lump of chapstick in the middle, and the driest of the wood we'd found. With some tasty warm food in our bellies we went to sleep - hail still pounding on the tarp. I put my down vest on *top* of my sleepingbag, and left on most of the other stuff to dry and dry it out (except socks).

I should mention actually that we've been laughing and having a good time all this time :). Just cause it's raining and your near hypothermic is no reason to get depressed (though I was certainly a bit frustrated, and was getting a bit more snippy than usual).

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Discretion is the better part of valor

Come morning most of my gear was dry, my bag was damp but not too bad, but my vest was completely soaked (it had gotten even wetter after falling off my bag in the night, and lying in melting hail. We realized that there was no way (given our skills) that we'd get the fire lit this morning. The hail had been side-blown during the night, coming in the front of our tarp, this would mean wood under logs would be soaked. It was also now below freezing, So the wood would be not only soaked, but frozen solid. Also, my rain gear still didn't work. We decided... maybe continuing was pretty dumb. It didn't look like the weather was going to suddenly clear. So we packed up and hiked to the nearest road (120).

I was changing to try and look a bit more reasonable (I had my silk long-underwear on the outside), when a large truck pulled up, and asked if we needed help. We said well... sortof. Our plan was to hitch down to the nearest place to buy fuel, and if we could find lighter sticks and rain-gear all the better - but we figured I'd be okay if I borrowed Jess' spare wool jacket (we discovered much later it was cotton actually), even if I got wet.

Well, the ranger informed us they were closing the road, so no-one else would be passing by. Also, he said it was supposed to keep hailing until the next Sunday (our entire trip). Lastly, he said that they were pulling all the rangers out of the backcountry because of the storm, it took everyone by surprise and the weather is changing really fast, very unpredictable. We looked at each other and considered. We almost turned down the hitch to stay in (since we couldn't get back), but the guy convinced us.

Turned out the ranger was responsible for the water system's around the park that feed waterfountains, spigots, bathrooms, etc. He does a lot of his work in september and early october when the rivers are still low, so he can get to the middle where the feeders to the systems are. This was the first significant precipitation of the year. He was pulling out from some repair work he'd been doing, the truck was full of tack for mules and a horse, as well as tons of water-processing gear (pumps and stuff). He told us stories about getting stuck and having to abandon mules because they won't walk on slick rocks, and get spooked by thunder, and we chatted about park politics and such. Well, there was no point in stopping just down the road, since we couldn't hitch back. He was heading to the valley, so we went with him all the way back.

Regroup

Back in the valley we dropped by the wilderness center so they'd know we were okay. We figured if they were pulling rangers they might also be counting up who was out there, and if it got worse thinking about how to get them out, so letting them know we were out and safe might be useful. We found a small tourist-oriented gearshop and bought some raingear (pants for Jess, full suit for me), fuel, and those magic light-wet sticks for starting fires. Then we wandered over to camp four. We did a bit of fishing in the river, messed about on the slacklines, and talked to the climbers (Jess and I both do a lot of indoor, still getting into outdoor, but camp four tends to collect the traveler's of all types anyway - lots of fun to talk to). We weren't sure what we were going to do, but were thinking we might just head out again the next day.

The next day we went back to the wilderness center with a newly planned route, ready to try again. We figured 5 days, heading south this time. The girl there put in 5 days, from the 5'th to the 10'th (that sound right to you?). We spent a LOT of milage wandering the valley and failing to find the trailhead. I got a bit frustrated (stupidly), but eventually we found it and started up the hill... YAY! It was actually sunny today too!

I was wearing my down-vest over my new rain-coat - drying it out with body-heat. By partway up the valley it was starting to actually get fluffy again (just a bit). By the time I took it off due to overheating it was actually adding warmth again. YAY! Beautiful views all day

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We *still* got hailed on :P. But that was fine.  On the way up we heard rumors of a mountain lion. Instead though we saw a mother bear and her 2 cubs. Pretty cool!
At the top of the hill it turns out there's an outlook you can drive to with a view of half-dome. We grabbed some food and met some neat people. Got a few nice pictures. After a bit we saw rain coming in again and decided to hightail it to lower ground.

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We didn't see anyone else after this. We walked down to the south. On the way we saw our second bear. This one was hiding in the bushes. Sadly, about this time (just as we get out of the area everyone goes to) our batteries for the camera died, so we don't have any more photos. Here's one of the last ones we got:

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We camped by a pretty stream in a coniferous forest that night. Jess lit up the fire while I went fishing. I lost a lure, despite fording the river once to get it back... oh well. We had a hard time keeping the fire going, but we were learning, and we did manage to cook our dinner on it. Generally a pleasant evening.

Next morning we saw some boyscouts go by, but otherwise didn't see anyone. We set off towards our first lake for the trip. We weren't sure yet if we were going to go over the ~1300' pass, or just over the ~9200' pass. The milage that day took us a LONG time. we were climbing to 9200 from about 6000 (we'd dropped about 1200 since the overlook). Turns out climbing greater than 3000' for 2 days, one days rest (while cold) and then doing it again, all with a good amount of weight, is pretty hard. Well, it was getting dark, but I really wanted to make it to the lake. Jess was starting to have problems with her leg. It's snowing on us. We hadn't seen any landmarks at all for miles, and were beginning to think we might've taken a wrong turn. After dark, FINALLY we come apon the trail intersection we were looking for. I get ready to dive off into the woods to search for the lake, but with some effort Jess convinces me that that's a really stupid idea, I concede sulkily and we find a spot in the snow and set up camp. Once again, a pretty nice evening.

Next morning, Jess is having trouble walking. We never do find the first lake, but that's okay. We definitely do NOT want to go higher than we are now, given that it's snowing and we already pushed our luck once this trip. So we set off the other direction. Jess is having problems lifting her leg, eventually I prevail apon her to let me take some weight... then more weight. I also gave her my hiking poles. So, now I'm carrying all of the food, and a bit of her gear. 2 full bear-canisters strapped to my pack (a pretty hilarious sight, to bad I the camera was dead). I'm still out-hiking her a bit. She's moving along though. We're near the farthest planned point in our trip, so backtracking doesn't have much point. So we push forward, looking for routes that might reduce our hill climbing (hill climbing requiring her to lift her leg). Throughout the day (and the evening prior) we'd been following just one set of footprints in the snow, eventually we caught up with the actual guy who made those prints and talked to him a bit. He had a huge pack, lots of weight. We set off again and see no prints for some time. Eventually though we do run across another set of footprints, and not long after meet that guy going the other way - he was doing a 30 mile dayhike. Those are all of the prints we see all day.

We get to another lake fairly early that night. We set up camp. I go fishing and catch 2 fish with only 8 casts... awesome! I hadn't cleaned a fish before actually, but I'd seen Brian do it on our dinky lakes trip. After a bit more torturing of my poor prey than I'd like, I figure out how to do it (and how to reduce the torture next time... tip, start by severing the spinal column just behind the head. That column contains the blood supply to the brain and the nerves, so your fishy friend will die fast, painlessly, and without twitching.)

We sleep FAR from where I cleaned the fish, being afraid of bears. In the morning we discover we camped fairly near someone else (who'd tented earlier in the evening, and come in from the opposite direction). He gave us some tips on how best to get out without stressing Jess' leg. We also talked a bit about how things go wrong on trips. He had had accidentally slept on his byte-valve and drained 2 liters of water into his bivy the night prior and had been drying all his gear since sunup. Oops! We'd begun to wonder if it was only us that always had problems, apparently not.

That morning we were getting nervous about getting out. We've got too much food. WAY too much food. Jess is having trouble walking. We start considering burying some of the food. It's not very friendly to the ecosystem - but it's better than calling SAR to get Jess out because she can't walk... or to get me out due to a knee injury from carrying too much weight down hill. While we're considering this, we're trying to count days... suddenly we realize we're off by a day! We STILL have too much food, but no-where near as much too much. YAY! We could hang out here and let Jess leg heal - but it's not clear that it won't be *worse* tomorrow. So we decide we should just make our way out slowly, splitting the mileage as evenly as we can across the days - but getting in the day before we have to leave so we don't have to worry about speed while descending. We pack up and head out.

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. Beautiful views, Jess limping along (lifting her leg with her hands at times), but doing fine. I'm hauling my huge pack, but also not having problems. We saw one more bear, just a cub this time. My knees held up through the entire descent, no problem. We came down via the waterfalls and half-dome trail. MAN that was a lot of people... oh well, pretty anyway :).

We slept at the "backpackers camp" which took us a LONG time to find. There are *no* signs for it in the valley. You have to go to the wilderness center, and even their directions can be tricky. None of the normal campers have any clue it even exists... That's all pretty cool actually, but it does mean you have to work a bit to find it. We had it marked our our map (not one of the valley, one of all of yosemite) and found it that way.

Overall it was an awesome trip. Yes we had some disasters, but we had a great time anyway, we recovered well from the problems, we bailed when we needed to and we were never in any real danger. This trip had been a bit of an experiment in edge seasons, and we learned a lot. We also learned a lot about starting fires in wet weather, and such. Jess' leg problems appear to have been a simple overuse injury (tendon damage, which heals fine, but slowly). She hadn't done that long uphills before, and certainly not with that kind of weight, we assume that was the problem - so we'll be more careful about that in the future.

more photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smalladventures/sets/72157625184424068/

Flying without ID

I lost my last piece of valid ID the weekend before thanksgiving, and so got stuck flying without ID to and from Texas to see my grandparents. I was nervous before hand, so I shoved every piece of offical and unoffical documentation I had in my luggage. I had photocopies of the lost ids, my social security card, my birth certificate, expired passports and miltary ids... basically everything.

When I went to get on the flight at SFO in San Francisco they looked at my checkcard which has a very fuzzy picture on it from high school and my miltary id which expired 14 years ago. They guy checking ID said it was better than just a driver's license and I didn't get any extra screening.

On the way back from Texas I ran into a little bit more trouble. The lady checking IDs told me I really should have returned the expired ID to the government and requested my health insurance card in addition to the check card and military ID. After that I was pulled aside for additional special screening. Talking with the lady doing the screening however I found out I'd gotten the new enhanced pat down due to wearing a floor length skirt, and not due to any issues with ID. As a note the lady doing the pat down was suprisingly profesional and seemed somwhat embarsed to have to do this to people. Quite a neat lady in general.

In conclusion: Flying without valid government issued ID is not an issue, though the standards are inconsistant. Skirts are much more of an issue.

2010-11-22

Building a Wickiup

Jess and I got the great idea of building a Wickiup.

Well, In particular Jess got me a Kukri - and I really wanted to play with it (I.E. hack at something). What better test it than to build a pole Wickiup! The plan was simple. We'd go up to Mendocino National Forest, possibly try several areas until we found a good stop to build one, and then start building. We've been wanting a consistent area to go to to try and learn, so we have the option to spend more time doing bush-crafty things and less time "backpacking".

The wickiup we planned to build is a small temporary structure, we're not removing wood from the forest (just moving it around), and we figured we'd only use deadwood to do it. A quick scan of the regulations we could find and based on reading other's experienced, it seems fine to just do it - so we did.

We rented a compact car as usual and did a few drifts on our way up (aveo has nice clearance, never hit the bumper). We had an idea for a spot, so we drove there and slept by the road that night (it's fall, so it was dark by the time we left home, much less got to our spot). We set up a tarp to ward off the dew and went to sleep.

It was a cold and damp night. We got the wind direction wrong and it came from where the camera is for the photo. You may note that in that direction the tarp will catch the dew and carefully direct it onto us. We had also figured on sleeping in unestablished camps, so we had no sleepingpads. As a result we woke up very early, cold, damp, stiff, and a bit cranky.

After some quick oatmeal cooked on the wood-stove we got moving up the river valley we'd selected. We picked a side of the river based on the pine forests on that side - thinking it would be easier to build there. After walking down it a bit we realized this was a poor choice. The early morning sun was on the other side (meaning much more warm and pleasant mornings) and the road ran too close on this side. So we walked back to the road and circled around again. We walked back in on the other side, intentionally skirting the line between the meadow and the forest. This, we reasoned, should be the line between the cold-damp air affected by humidity from the river, and the dryer and thus warmer air farther away. A few excursions into the woods proved this theory out. We needed timber from the forest, which grows in the humidity of the river - but we wanted to build our structure in the dry air. The closer to the line we built though, the less work, and the less distance to the river to collect water.

We soon found a nice spot, but kept scouting for a bit anyway. We found a better one, then a better one. Then we found something that was just beautiful. A gorgeous view of the valley, a dry spot to build, just above a nice damp forest filled with lots of small pine, large standard oak, and huge manzanita, live oak, and madrone (we'd never seen a madrone grove before, pretty cool). There was only one problem. Between the forest and the spot we wanted to build was what amounted to a cliff.

Oh well, we picked an exact spot, and headed down to the forest to start pulling out logs. We were looking for ~12 foot logs, for ~10 foot diameter shelter. We knew 14' would make 12' diameter shelter, so a bit of loose geometry says ~11.7' gives 10'. We wanted extra solid ones at the start - meaning not rotten, and large. This proved difficult. We eventually found some and hauled them up though. We didn't end up with convenient forks, so decided to cheat. We used a piece of nylon twine we'd brought (we could've made it, but that'd slow down the project) and lashed the 3 logs in a bundle at one end with a straight double-constrictor knot, finished with an overhand. We then stood it up and seperated the legs - it took some futzing to get the largest one in the right spot and such, but Jess figured it out and it all worked. The photo has the other logs we'd gathered in the process of finding our base added in as well.


Now, all we needed was a LOT more logs, longer at first, then as the top filled in we could fill in the bottom with shorter ones. So we set to work. After about half a day of limbing, hauling, and carefully standing up logs, we were exhausted. I could barely unbend my pinky - it turns out my pinky does a LOT of work to keep the kukri in my hand. Jess had been using a hatchet I found on the A.T. that had never been sharpened except with what I could do on a rock in an hour or so (not much... I've only sharpened an axe a few times, and it started scalloped by the previous user). By this time jess' shoulder was shot. I'd also ripped the skin off my palm earlier that week, so the new skin kept cracking, splitting and tearing. So after a bit of lunch, a trip to the river to check it out and replenish water, and a bit more log hauling, we decided to quit for the day.

Instead, we dug a nice fire pit in our shelter (a little forwards of the center). We had a nice fire going quickly using a sparker, and started roasting a gigantic pine-cone that came from a tree right next to the shelter.



We made a bit of dinner (the pine-nuts were huge and delicious), then started thinking about sleeping accommodations. Our shelter was on a bit of a slope, so we started trying to dig it out and flatten out a platform by digging in one end, and moving the resulting dirt to the other end. We carefully did this a bit away from the fire, but with enough space to sleep 2. We also made sure to leave room for firewood near the fire, and for a space to enter the shelter. After a while we had something relatively flat (close enough for now anyway). Then we realized our sleepingbags would get all dirty; plus, we needed something cushy to keep us off the ground - otherwise we'd be cold like the night before.

Jess had the idea of gathering "straw" I.E. old grass, and laying that in as a bed. So we spent a while gathering some nice grass, and piling it up carefully as our bed. Jess put 4 sticks upright a bit from the fire to help keep us from pushing the bedding into the fire - that would suck. I wrapped the tarp around the shelter on the windward side to reduce dew. Then we curled up for a pleasant evening.



That night was FAR more pleasant. We basically put out the fire before going to sleep - since it wasn't going to do us any good in an open shelter anyway. We slept dry and warm, and the grass was indeed very comfortable. We lit up the fire again in the morning (using a sparker again), and ate some oatmeal. Then we set about another day of gathering wood. It went similarly, we wanted to make sure we had fun, and hauling stuff up that hill was really hard work. It's the kind of hill that a few years ago would've taken me some significant time to go down, and until quite recently Jess would'be been pretty circumspect to side-hill across. So, we took it easy. The wood we needed now was smaller though. Just long enough to lay against something near the peak. There's a lot more wood of this size to be found. Also, since it's not as structural we could use more rotted wood. So, by the time we stopped we had this


The door is on the far side - to face the morning sun. We clearly still need about as many logs as we have now again, but what's needed is getting smaller and smaller. By the time we stopped we were starting to use pine branches and such, not just trunks.

Feeling quite accomplished, and sufficiently sore, we cooked lunch over the fire again (olive bread, cheese, and lintel soup - amazing) and explored the area a bit more. Interestingly, a large madrone nearby had a LOT of claw marks. As we looked we saw several madrone with some claw marks. We'd noticed some earlier, but hadn't fully investigated. Down in the valley when gathering water we'd noticed a strong bear-scent, (there was some deer scent as well, but not as much). We'd also seen bear scat around. Still - I hadn't mostly seen bears tear up trees that much just to climb them. These weren't rotted. We began to wonder if maybe we were in a mountain lion's territory.

Anyway, we packed up and headed home, feeling satisfied. We plan to go back and finish it as soon as we get another free weekend.

Note that this is called a "Pole" wickiup. The idea is to pile lots of poles on, until you basically have a solid wall. Then you cover this with grass or pine-boughs or similar, then cover that with duff, then more pine-boughs, then some more poles to hold those on. The duff sandwiched in there creates a relatively waterproof layer.

On a side-note, think about what gear we used after the first night.

  • Hatchet and Kukri
  • sleepingbags
  • tarp
  • twine
  • clothing on our backs + wool sweaters
  • sparker
  • water bottles
  • book (In case we wanted to double-check something)
  • cookpot and utensils
  • knife each
  • backpacks to put it all in
Jess had some extra clothing with her due to packing in 10 minutes on Friday, but I didn't. It was a good thing she'd been lazy though - I didn't bring enough water capacity which would've been annoying, she had spare.
We still need gear, but as we keep learning we'll keep dropping it.

(further images)


Update: Here's some more pictures of the wikiup further along

2010-10-17

MYOG: External Framepack Mod

MYOG is usually "make your own gear".
Well, this is "modify your own gear". A while ago I posted about some awesome backpacks we got cheaply. I've been using one of those packs ever since, and I've found one really annoying "flaw".

Modifications

Here's the backpack. I've been using the one on the right.


The "flaw" is those two pipes that stick up above my shoulders. I usually use the pack my strapping 3 bags to it, each between one set of horizantal bars. My sleepingbag in a stuffsack on the bottom, my ursack full of food in the middle, and a drysack with my gear in it on the top (sometimes those to are swapped). I also have 2 water-bottle holders lashed on, and I often tie my hatchet to the frame or clip on a knife.

Anyway, I never use those two pipes, and when bushwhacking in heavy brush, they catch on low branches constantly, and keep me from ducking fallen logs.


Well The pack on the left has bars going across between those posts (see above) - these bars hit my head, and at least vaguely annoy almost anyone who uses the pack. The pack on the left is also quite common, the one on the right is rare (I believe older, and made for a shorter period of time). So, I figured why not remove the top from the annoying pack entirely, and save the rarer pack that's more comfy for use by others. So, I moved the sack back onto the frame on the right (where it came from originally), and also swapped all of the other pieces as well, since I liked the padding and such on the frame I'd been using. In particular it has padding on the lower cloth panel, this padding keeps the panel from bunching and makes it far more comfortable.

I then hacksawed the top segment off the pack with the cross-bars on the top. I pulled the caps off and stuck them into the stubs I'd left level with the wields (to avoid weakening the pack). And... voila! an awesome pack that won't catch on trees anymore!

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The weight of the pack is 1.41 kg. as pictured above, that's including all the straps I use to attach sacks to it, and my "external pocket", but not including the leather hip-belt pocket or the dry sack that I put my gear in. the red dry sack is 97G. So the pack comes out to ~1.5 kg or ~3.3 lbs. Note that I'm still using the steel buckle, for example, which is anything but light.


Success

I would not call this a completely unmitigated success, but I do really like the back. I've now used this on a couple of short trips, as well as one longer trip with a lot more weight (up in Yosemite) recently.

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Advantages:

  • Easy to carry extra gear (like an extra bear-canister), adjusts to varying loads well.
  • Very good balance (holds gear close to back) and weight distribution
  • Still low/small enough for bushwhacking
  • Lighter than anything else with full-frame support
  • Can hack it to be whatever you like, add pockets, gear, etc.
  • Cheap ($2.50 plus straps)
  • Simple, easy to hack, easy to build, easy to replace, easy to repair
  • Easier to see what you are carrying
  • Anything you want can be easy to get to
  • It's cool! (literally, good ventilation)

Disadvantages:
  • Takes longer to pack in the morning than an internal
  • Getting to something from the "bottom" of the gear-sack is slow
  • Heavier than ultralight semi-frameless internal options
  • No sack to take the brunt of blows (I tore the drysack, despite it being tough)
  • Gear can fall off (unless you're good with knots/straps/etc.)
  • More lumpy/ungainly (so harder for lowering down cliffs, caving, etc.)
  • Easier to see what you are carrying

I've now used it bushwhacking (old frame, before I took the bars off the top), except those bars it worked really well. The only problem I ran into was that I tore the drysack (which was on the top at the time) catching it on a tree-branch. Note that this was bushwhacking down a 45 degree drainage through dense manzanita and live oak (I.E. unless your crazy, you won't do this).

I've also carried upwards of 50 lbs in the pack (Jess hurt her leg, so I was carrying all the food, 2 bear canisters full). The original hipbelt, which I'm still using, caused some problems. The latch slipped with that much weight (though a hair-tie helped hold it), and the belt cut into my hip enough to start putting my legs to sleep. Not too badly, but I wouldn't plan to use the pack with that much weight, without a new hipbelt. I'll probably pick up a better hipbelt at some point (you can ask REI to order you a belt for one of their standard packs, I did this once to get a women's belt for Jess, for her old external).

When carrying that much weight, it would've been nice to have the 2 verticals still there, so I could put the second bear-canister up there (rather than slung on the back). That would've let me stand more upright - but that's not my usual usage, so I'm okay with leaning over a bit in the extreme case.

It's not perfect, but it works well. This is definitely an option to keep in mind if you want to go light, but have back problems. The frame is extremely comfortable, the straps are all replaceable, so if they aren't comfy you're not doing it right. It's not for everyone or every situation - but it it's another option that is surprisingly unexplored.

Backpacking trip: Sierra, Dinkey Lakes Region

Summary


On this trip we learned:
  • GPS and a HAM randio can be useful in the back-country
  • We learn once again that you can get a tiny car down a lot of 4x4 only roads.
  • Wood stoves are awesome.
  • Fishing in the Sierras is awesome, enough that I plan to buy and carry fishing gear.
  • Slingshots are an awesome idea for opportunistic small game hunting.
  • Esbit is aweful and basically useless.
  • Gooseberry/currents are delicious.
  • Bushwhacking in the Sierra is *easy*!
  • Heavy boots are rarely needed, 5-fingers win again.
  • Good friends you can learn from - priceless :P (And sometimes they even catch you tasty fishes!)
In addition we came back with plans to make new shoes moccasin style shoes from Vibram soul sheeting material, and complete our tyvec rain-gear experiments.

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(Jess Felix and Lizza picking blueberries)

Details

How it happened

It was a 3-day weekend coming up, but I was going to be working on labor-day. Jess had planned to go on a bike-trip, and I was probably going to tag along for the first day and then head home.  On thursday though a friend of ours, Lizza, contacted me asking if we wanted to go backpacking in the King's Canyon Area. On the same day, I ended up (maybe) with labor-day off.

 So, this was thursday, the plan was to meet up friday evening - 4 hours drive away. We had Thursday night to pack. Neither of us had been to this area, and we weren't sure when it rained up in the Sierra. Lizza sent us some data on temperatures that basically said it could drop to near freezing.

We got distracted Thursday night, and weren't packed at all come friday morning.

In the morning I got an email from a coworker which meant I had labor day off - so, the trip was on. In about 20 minutes we threw our standard gear in our packs. We both started backpacking on the east coast so our "standard gear" includes rain-gear, wool sweater, down vest, warm tights, wind pants (or similar), warm hat, extra socks, insulating sleeping mats, and 10F sleeping-bags. Scrounging a bit in the kitchen we got most of what we needed for food, with a very short list left to acquire (Gatorade and lunches).

We still had some logistics to figure out. I called Lizza and got details. We were meeting at a GPS point, at the intersection of a hard to identify tiny side-road off of a small back road. She has an HT radio for hang-gliding, and I have an HT because I'm a nerd with a HAM license. So, we figured out a frequency we could meet on if needed. I installed a bit of GPS software on my smartphone, and made sure to pack gear to power both the radio and phone off the cigarette lighter. I have a real GPS, which I should really learn to use for such purposes, but the phone was less effort this time.

 I worked from home so I would have a bit more time to organize things and pick up a rental car (working from home saves me 2 hours commute time). I ran the numbers on zipcar, and several rental agencies. Zipcar is expensive in the summer, so they would've cost ~50% more in this case. We ended up with a Toyota yaris sedan from Hertz.

I still started working before my normal time. Then in the afternoon I quit a bit early as well and ran out to grab the food. Then I walked down to the rental place, got the car, drove back, got the gear, and drove down to pick up Jess. There I picked her up... and were off!

Getting There

Drive was uneventful. We stopped for food on the way. As a result Lizza, Brian and Felix beat us there. We found the point easily and they were waiting (it appeared that they hadn't been waiting long). We repacked and after some discussion concluded we should drive as far in as we could on the dirt (4wd only) roads... Note that I had a toyota yaris (a tiny economy car with poor entrance angle). By this time it was dark.

Well, we drove in, and I didn't trash the car. I dropped the frame on a rock once after taking a larger one under the right wheel. Brian managed to get one wheel of his Honda element off the ground on a steep drop, but it was no biggy. We got in pretty late.

We then pulled out our packs and humped off into the woods. We slept at a nice place just a couple of miles in. That night it hit 26F according to a thermometer Lizza and Brian had brought. There was also significant condensation. Jess and my down bags are a little water resistant on the outside, my toes got cool because I hadn't been careful to put my heals on my sleepingpad, but I slept fine. Both our bags had significant frost on them come morning. Brian's bag was holofill stuff, but wasn't water resistant at all, and wasn't nearly so warm. He had spent a cold night. Lizza had a -30F bag and was happy (she likes to be very warm).

Hiking!

Day 1

Due to the nature of the trip Jess and I had packed independently of Brian, Lizza and Felix, and with little communication. Jess and I were, effectively, along for the ride, as Brian and Lizza had planned the trip. So, come morning, we all made our own breakfast.

Lizza and Brian had made their own wood stoves! (apparently inspired by hearing about mine). So the 4 of us all fired up our wood stoves to make breakfast. I'll have to go into details another time, but their home-grown single-walled designs worked pretty well for having never been tested. There were minor airflow issues. Mine drafts a bit better than either of theirs, but they definitely worked. We also lit all 3 stoves with a spark from a "light-my-fire" sparker, using cattail fluff Jess had from our last trip. That was pretty exciting since Lizza and Brian had never done that before. We used a bit of dry grass from the edges of tufts as tinder, and the tips of dead pine-boughs as the next stage.

After breakfast we packed up and headed off. Due to planning time frame Jess and I lacked a map except for one of the *entire* sierra's (not very helpful), but Brian and Lizza had one. We headed for a lake. Beautiful! Incredible views, clear lakes. We were already at >9000 ft in elevation. We could feel the altitude in our breathing. We found a patch of blueberries and snacked. Brian had a tiny rod and reel that he pulled out. In a short time he'd caught 2 fish about 10 inches long, while the rest of us lazed around on the beach. Then we packed up and wandered off to another lake.

On the way we lost Felix for a bit. Brian pulled out a slingshot and was practicing his aim to kill time... this seemed like an awesome idea to me - it would be great for hunting squirrels and such. I tried throwing rocks, but my accuracy wasn't nearly as good.

We camped at another lake that evening. Brian went off to fish while the rest of us went swimming and gathered wood. As there was no fire-wood by the lake, Lizza and I ran off up the hill - which turned out to be HARD at 9000 ft! I'm used to bounding up a hill for several hundred meters without any issue, and being able to regain my breath in a few seconds - not so much at 9000 ft. Jess is always a slower uphill hiker (but able to kick almost anyone's butt on a good downhill). Her limitation is cardiovascular+lungs. Up there when you work hard you can hear your heart beating in your ears. She'd been noticing the altitude strongly all day, where it only came up for me when I tried to burst.

Brian caught 2 more fish. We lit up a fire. All the wood was from various pine'ish trees. So it was going to burn fast and we needed a lot. We again lit the fire with a spark using cattail fluff and had it going in no-time. We cooked dinner, including the 4 fish. Dinner was amazing as everyone cooked up what they had and we just shared it around - nothing like a 5-course meal including fresh-fish, at 9000 feet on the edge of an alpine lake in the middle of nowhere.

For dinner we had several things. Fish, which had been slit on the sides and salt and various types of pepper rubbed in. They were then stuck on a 2-tined metal thing that fits on the end of a stick and roasted over the fire. Jess and I cooked vegetarian split pea soup with couscous added. It was actually very tasty, just slightly bland. Lizza, Brian, and Felix had brought some backpackers pantry which was pretty good.

Lizza had carried in some Esbit tablets. Esbit is a burnable tablet for cooking, it's supposedly light to carry and easy to use. She had 2 types. Lizza tried to boil a liter and after 8 gave up (this is at 9000 feet, BTW). Our conclusion is that Esbit is heavier than alcohol per pot of water boiled, and more annoying. It even required a better windscreen than the alcohol did. We were stumped as to how or why anyone would ever use it.

Day 2

Next morning Jess and I got up late'ish. Due to the dew problems on the first morning, we'd slept under a diamond pitched tarp, but there was no dew this morning. I had woken up at dawn, glanced around, and seeing no-one up gone back to sleep. I did this a few times. It turns out Brian had snuck off to fish, and Lizza had snuck off for a morning walk.

Out of curiousity I tried the Esbit, and managed to boil 3 cups of water, but it required 5 Esbit tablets. This was on the bottom of my flipped-over pepsi-can stove, inside my woodstove (so it had perfect airflow). The apparent uselessness of Esbit stood.

We cooked up breakfast. Brian ate the 2 fish he'd caught before we got up. Lizza and Felix had relit the fire already so we cooked everything on it. Jess and I had oatmeal again. We extinguished the fire, and picked a route past a couple more lakes that involved a couple of miles of bushwhacking. The bushwhacking was glorious. The difference between this and even east-coast bushwhacking was night and day. You just walk, it's almost as easy as being on a trail. Compared to Mendocino National Forest (where going 100m could take you half an hour) it was like a dream. During our bushwhack we found what Lizza called Gooseberries. Jess looked them up later and says they're probably more like currents - but it looks like gooseberries and currents might be kind of like plants of the rhubis genus, in that there are arbitrary gradations in-between, and all interbreed. Apparently gooseberries are the more prickly ones, and the berries are oblong. In any case, they were delicious so we picked a pile and stored them away for later.




We missed our goal slightly on the bushwhack. Jess Brian and I were all sighting regularly with our compasses, Brian leading. We only missed by a short distance though, hitting a smaller (but very pretty lake). We figured it out based on topology and went the right direction. One HUGE difference between backpacking in the Sierra's and backpacking on the east coast or in low rolling hills is that you always know where you are in the Sierra. There are tons of landmarks, i.e. mountaintops and ridges of very specific and identifiable shape and size, such that you can just triangulate your position any time you need to. This was a totally new experience for both Jess and I who were used to dead-reckoning for long segments of a bushwhack.

At the lake we'd been heading for Brian caught several more fish while the rest of us mucked about, snacking and such. I was starting to burn a bit so I slathered on some mud, Jess as well (Brian and Lizza had brought long-sleeved clothing and sunscreen). Eventually we set off again, this time down a trail, heading for yet another lake nearer where we started, to make our trip out the next day a bit easier. 

Well... we missed completely. We were flying, hiking at a really good pace. I was really enjoying stretching out my legs and took off in front in big strides, bounding down the rocks. As dusk was just starting to hit we reached a sign. Brian looked it up and found that we'd gone a *lot* farther than intended and in slightly the wrong direction. We'd lost the trail a bit once or twice and refound it. So, we probably missed an intersection during one of those. Jess and I sat down and ate food while Brian figured out what to do, and Felix got eaten by mosquitos (he was the only one). Brian suggested a lake that was only a mile bushwhack away. We thought that was fine. Everyone set off again.

Jess took a sighting and found a rocky mountain top only 1 degree off from our destination. We beelined for that, I just walked in the straightest line I could out front, towards that mountaintop - double-checking with the compass occasionally. We hit a high ridge-line eventually that ran up towards the mountain. Skirting this to the right we came up over and dropped down into a high valley, The lake had to be to our left (nearly behind the mountain), so we set off that way, following a mostly dry stream bed... and sure enough, there it was.

Brian had left his fishing pole at the previous lake by accident (sad), but we had 4 fish already. That night we ate Thai peanut couscous with vegetables, beans and rice, more fresh fish, fettucini alfredo, an indian dish, rice pealoff, and to finish it all off brownie's with the berries we'd picked. Now THAT is some amazing fare. We all ate till we were stuffed. Anyone who tells you backpacking food isn't any good isn't doing it right. My Thai peanut couscous was very popular - I'd purchased the spice-packet a while back. I'd forgotten to grab tortillas for the beans and rice Jess mixed up, they were tasty. Just a bit over salted 'cause Jess was dehydrated when making them. The other 3 dishes were backpackers pantry. The Indian dish had chickpeas that didn't rehydrate very well, so it wasn't so popular. The other 2 were delicious and disappeared fast. I also ate a whole fish, and half of Jess' fish - the fish from the first lake we ate the day prior had been the best (best fish I've ever eaten), but these were still pretty awesome.

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We bunked down that night using a diamond pitch again. Again there was no dew at all. Brian and Lizza used a shaped tarp with 2 center support poles. It looked kinda nice, but kinda bad for snuggling.

Day 3


Next morning we all went for a swim in the chilly lake and then hiked back to the cars... Beautiful trip. We had seen a fair number of other people up there, but they were all friendly. And there was no-one else at the last lake we went to. Generally there were 1 to 2 other groups at each lake.

Brian was very low on gas, so we followed him at first. We came up on a couple of four-wheelers re-inflating their tires for normal roads and reorganizing gear. Brian asked if he could borrow some gas and the guy gave him 5 gallons - said to pass the favor on when it came up. Sometimes, people are just awesome. We'd been talking about how to siphon gas off the Toyota into his car, or about driving out and coming back with gas.

Our two groups parted ways at the end of the ruddy little back-road, saying we'd have to do something similar again soon.

One last note. Jess carried her heavy as hell boots the entire trip, wearing the 5-fingers the whole time. She had them in case of cold weather - and it DID get cold, but only at night. We really need a 5-finger style shoe that works with insulating socks. In other words... moccasins. We're going to try making our own as soon as we can get our hands on Vibram souls - our huaraches experiments have taught us that leather wears out too fast on pavement.

Making an arrowhead

--- I wrote this a while ago, but never got around to publishing it.

I think most outdoors nuts have heard of flint knapping.

When I was a kid I got into archery. Jess and I picked up the book "Naked into the wilderness" which had directions to make a bow and arrows starting from a dead deer, a tree, and some rocks. We also realized in reading this book that a huge portion of bush-craft is dependent on the hide and sinew from relatively large game. This inspired me to pick it up again with an eye towards getting good enough to hunt.

So, last weekend I was at the "earth dance" festival most proximal to San Francisco - and someone was teaching flint knapping! Awesome.

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Flint Knapping, for those who don't know, is the process by which you turn a certain type of rock into a sharp cutting/piercing tool (such as an arrowhead).
The idea is simple. You strike a rock and it breaks. Certain types of rocks are very consistent, and don't contain structures that constrain the angles they will break at. Examples of this are cherts and obsidian. With these rocks exactly how you strike the rock, and what other forces you are putting on it at the time let you decide (largely) where it breaks. Thus, with repeated breaks you can slowly shape a tool.

This is one hell of an art. The guy who was teaching could fairly deterministically make an arrowhead in just a few minutes. It took me 4 attempts, and probably as many hours. The first 3 I cracked in half half-way through the process. And that's not counting the rocks I struck once or twice and gave up on.

Relevent facts are:
1) the rock breaks at ~120 angle from the angle at which you strike it
2) it's easier to transfer energy if the striking surface is rough, so the striker catches. Also, if the edge just cracks off it won't transfer energy deeper into the piece. So if you want to take a shard off that goes a long way across the piece, you have to strike a blunt face.
3) an arrowhead needs to be quit thin to slip between the two halves of a shaft for binding
4) making something thin is the hardest part, so that's your first priority. Shaping is easier
5) don't cut yourself! the edges are REALLY sharp

So, first, find your rock to make the arrowhead out of. You'll also want a rock to strike with, a round riverstone, sandstone rock about the size of your first works well. You can also use a lump of solid copper, or a chunk of bone.

That's basically it. With that in mind, you hold the rock with a piece of decently thick leather. Start with a larger piece and find a nice flat face to take a shard of, this shard will be the arrowhead. Next find a blunt face that points 120 degrees or so off from this. Take a rough rock and rub the second face to make a good striking surface. Place the first face against your thigh, on top of the leather. You'll want to be sitting on something, and not cross-legged, so your leg is solid. Strike the blunt face. It's easiest to strike with a wrist motion. You want a strike on the edge of the face, with a follow-through, you're looking to crack a long thin chunk off the bottom of the rock - not split it in half. Hit it lighter rather than heavier - you'd rather do nothing than split the entire rock in half.

This is one of 2 types of flaking. I just described strike-flaking. The other type is pressure flaking. It works exactly the same as strike-flaking, except that instead of striking, you just push really hard on the point you'd strike. This takes a lot of force, so it only works well once your piece is small, and you're taking off small pieces.

Hopefully you get a long thin slice off the back of the rock. If you're really lucky it'll be very nearly the shape of an arrowhead already. Most likely it will still require some shaping.

You may notice that you no longer have a good face to strike again (if you got it to break right). What you can do now is crunch the edges down, by just snapping then off, or by taking shallower flakes, until you have a better shape to flake against at all. You'll want to roughen the edges regularly as you go so you can get purchase for the flaking. Using this process slowly create the shape of an arrowhead.

Note that the hardest part is making it sufficiently thin. At the same time you don't want the whole thing *really* thin, or it'll just shatter. Because of this the most desirable break, what you're always trying to do, is get a long-thin flake off, since this lets you carefully control the resulting thickness.

That's really all there is too it! The rest is practice and skill. After about 4 hours, and shattering as many half-made arrowheads (and several more rocks earlier in the process), I got something that's pretty-much an arrowhead. As you can see I didn't quite finish flaking out notches to bind it to an arrow, but that wouldn't be that hard.

2010-09-10

Mendocino, First foraging attempt

So, Jess and I decided that it was time to go out and try some of the skills we've been working on. In particular, we went out for the weekend with the intent of foraging as much of our food as possible.


First, the "meat". Things we tried and goodness factor:


Foods

  • Manzanita berry oatmeal:
    • Delicious: Crush berries, remove the seeds, add to oatmeal.
  • Manzanita berry drink:
    • not bad: boiled the seeds from the berries and drank the water. It came out weak
  • Manzanita ash cakes:
    • Delicious: Crush berries, remove seeds, mix with flour and wanter, cook in the fire
  • Fennel and Pine-needle couscous:
    • Pretty good: Make pine-needle tea, Cook couscous using this water, add lots of fennel, and some veggies.
  • Milk Weed Pods:
    • Delicious: Young milk-weed pods, remove husks, eat raw and boiled and added to the couscous
  • Cat Tail Stalk:
    • Good: take the base of fat stalks, remove most layers, boil, remove more layers until it seems like food. Comes out a little slimey, and smaller than one might hope, but was pretty good in the couscous.
  • Cat Tail Root:
    • side-shoots:
      • meh: Boiled and sucked on. These were kinda like eating glue. That said, it was food, just flavorless.
    • new growth:
      • pretty good: boil, peel and eat.


So. now the details. We rented a car in southbay and drove up. We made pretty good time. The car (kia sedan) had only a slight overstear in a drift on dirt roads, but slid easily. This made the driving fun, though slower than the mazda3 we've often used.
The first night, surprisingly, it was relatively chilly. We really hadn't been expecting this; I'd brought nylon pants, a canvas shirt, and a wool t-shirt. Jess had linen pants and a lighter (though heavy) cotton overshirt. We slept well enough though. It looked almost like rain all night; the clouds were really incredible (no photos, sorry).

Hunters

Before bed we went down to the river and discovered it was dry. Just down river though, it joins an outlet from the reservoir, so we figured that'd be wet. We walked down there and filled up a few water bottles. On the way we saw a light, and dodged it to the other side of the bridge. While gathering the water we could hear voices, so wandered around to say hi.
The camp consisted o a group of men. They had a couple of pickups and were wearing camo. One had a gun slung over his shoulder, another had a light he was shining up at the hillside. They didn't respond for a while as we walked up, making us a bit nervous. Eventually they did respond to our hails. We asked if they were here hunting, they said no, but that they were going to go hunting on the other side of the river tomorrow. They were still being oddly cagey. As we walked away we realized they were spotlighting deer, or possibly elk (there are a lot of elk on that particular hillside). They seemed like a friendly crew though, and not any danger (I'd rather have cagey spot-lighters around than someone who might shoot me by accident.)

Gathering

Next day we packed up our gear, with all our books, and walked down the river. We headed for an area we'd been in before where there was some decent foraging. We dropped some of our gear there and went off looking for good stuffs. We tried carrying sticks for opportunistic hunting of birds and lizards, but didn't get anything that way. The season is late now, so there wasn't that much. There were tons of manzanita though, many in full fruit. The berries were older and no longer sticky, but still tasty.
We got a number of milkweed pods. They're a very different variety than listed in our book. The poison quantities vary between verities, but all are low enough for even decent amounts to be eaten, according to our books. We'd discovered the last time we tried milkweed that the poison is a relatively strong and distasteful flavor. The poison can also supposedly be largely neutralized by a large amount of boiling, so we figured we'd boil it as much as needed. Upon tasting though it was pretty good even raw - though the pods we got (about 2-3 inches in length), we're on the old end of edible.
At our intended campsite we found some thistle, but it was dead, so no good shoots, and the roots were small (wrong variety). We dropped a bunch of our gear here and cooked some oatmeal with manzanita for breakfast on the wood-stove. We were near an old rope-swing, and as we ate our oatmeal some ATVs were going back and forth on the other side of the river. After breakfast we went to gather more food.
The cattail was hard to dig up from the muck, but pretty easy from deeper in the water. It was a small batch of cattail though, and we don't want to hurt the population, so we only took like 4 plants or so. A lot of the roots split while removing them from the muck. This meant they filled with muck that was between hard and impossible to get out, so we ended up discarding a fair amount.
Our books claimed that the root of lupine is pretty good, and we knew where some grew, so we headed there. It was growing in what amounts to rocks with a bit of sand in between. After a while of digging we'd gotten about 5 inches down, with no sign of anything looking edible. The root was still woody, looking just like a tree root. So we gave up on that one.

Gear disappears

We went back to our campsite and found... our gear was missing. Jess had lost her pack, cookset and sleepingbag. I'd lost my cookset and sleepingbag. We still had Jess' bearsack full of food, and a 2-liter soda-bottle, that's it. All gold this is several hundred dollars worth of gear (luckily we had the cheap sleepingbags, so it wasn't in the thousands.) Worse than that though, we had no way to stay warm while sleeping. We hadn't really gone out with the intent to try and survive in debris shelters, and eat food with no cookpot... so we headed for the car.
We were fuming on our way out, who would walk off with our gear? We'd carefully laid it out in a manner such that it would look like it was left intentionally. Most of it was even clean-looking. It must've been obvious that this person was stranding us without sleepingbags. We stopped by the hunters camp on the way, to ask if they'd seen the pack... They hadn't. When We got back to the car, I started fiddling with things (getting car-keys and such), and munching on some salami and corn-nuts while we tried to figure out what to do. Jess, on a feeling, waved down some people who were driving by in a pickup and asked if they'd seen our her pack. By some incredibly strange circumstance, they had.
They described the backpack as being right next to where we'd left it, but on the other side of the river, and hidden in some bushes. We figured we wanted to get there ASAP, so we hopped in the car and drove down the road and onto a smaller dirt road following the river. We passed a car that had clearly been beaten with bats and shot up as target practice, making us a bit more cautious. We stopped not long after at a spot that we thought might be near our goal, and went down a trail. On the floodplain we found ourselves in a camping area, just across the river from where we'd left our gear. There were a couple of groups there. One group had 2 ATVs, the ones we'd seen earlier. As we walked down to the river towards that spot one guy on an ATV stopped and said "Oh, are you looking for your backpack? I put it to the side of the trail."
It was exactly where the other people had described it, with all of our gear (modulo a BIC lighter). It did appear to have been hidden under the bushes... and not with the apparent intent of making it easy to find.

Car Camping

Anyway, we walked away with the gear, happy to have it. When we got to the car though. We weren't feeling great about that area, and decided to go elsewhere. We drove north a ways up around the lake. It was getting late'ish, and we were at a small campground and decided we should just car-camp there. The caretaker was a neat older man with a super-cute pudgy little dog that "was his daughters". Of course, there was also a rock with his and the dog's name painted on it :P - clearly his dog. Anyway, we happened to score the best place in the campground. The caretaker called it "boardwalk", and the one next to it "parkplace", and said that he often got a list of people waiting to get into those spots when someone left.
We lit a fire and tried all our food, sleeping in established sites is rough without pads due to the packed ground. We hadn't been planning that so had none. We slept okay - using one bag as a blanket and one under us (since I'd been cold the previous night, and my bag was less warm than Jess'). The next day we ate ash-cakes for breakfast, then walked a bit on the edge of the lake and just chilled out. Beautiful spot.
Not the trip we planned, but it all worked out fine.

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smalladventures/sets/72157625184464218/

2010-09-02

Appalachian Trail Gear Weights.

I realized today that I'd never posted this. It's just a spreadsheet with the weight of every item I was carrying when I got off of the Appalachian trail in Massachusetts, after 1500 miles from Georgia.

Sometimes it can be very educational to look at another person's gear list and compare your weights to theirs. Often you'll find that a different set of items is heavy (or even carried), thus comparing can help you realize gear you don't need (and they don't need :P), and what gear it's possible to replace with lighter stuff - if you so desire.
End of AT weights

Note that this is just what I happened to end up with at the end. I had actually stopped trying to keep my pack weight WAY down by this point (note that I was carrying a large steal handled hatchet that I found :P). I'm in no way saying this gear is what you *should* have, or any such thing.

As a side-note, I carried gear that I believed was sufficient for the entire trail, modulo replacement due to wear (including the white mountains and Maine). So the weights of a few items may be surprising for the southern end of the AT, especially to summer ultra-lighters.

In any case, I thought other's might like to see it. Enjoy!

2010-07-30

Swimming a river

Jess and I went on another trip up to Mendocino.

This time, after sleeping in a field Friday night, we drove down to the intersection of 18N25B and 18N25. We decided we should see if we could get to snow mountain - which we'd been eye'ing the last two times we went to mendocino.

We also realized on this trip that we really didn't need much. Both of us recently picked up new backpacks for work and dayhikes.

P1000106
P1000004
P1000142
As you can see, they're not big packs. Jess' is 23L Mine is 25L. These are photos from our actual hike, so that's all our gear right there :P.
I had:

  • basic med kit
  • basic emergency/directional gear (knife, sighting compass, headlamp, etc.)
  • sleepingbag
  • cook-kit: pot, woodstove, bandana, spork, lighter (and alcohol stove, forgot to take it out)
  • heavy overshirt
  • nylon pant
  • clothes on my back (t-shirt, shorts, boxers, giant heavy leather belt)
  • bandana
  • car-keys/wallet... at least part of the time
  • map
Jess carried the tarp (no cookkit) - and left her spork by the car.

So, we struck out Down a streambed. We tried milkweed on the way. It appears that some types are poisonous and some are not. I just this minute learned that common milkweed (an edible variety) only grows on the east coast. You can tell by the taste though. This seemed semi-edible, but not in large quantities.

Eventually we hit a river/corner of the lake. So, after some repacking in drysacks... we swam across. After wandering around a bit we realized the scrub in that area was not good for bushwhacking (something we were keenly aware of after our last 2 trips to Mendocino).
So, we swam back across, ate some food. While we were eating we heard some sort of party down the river. So we then began working our way downriver, walking on the sides, towards the lake, crossing as needed (I lost track of how many times). The sides were steep and in areas there was quite a lot of wild-rice.

P1000083
(note, this is actually a picture from our way back, crossing an inlet)

Around a sharp right and then as sharp left there was a large rock in the middle of the river, around this rock were gathered boats. They were playing loud music, people swimming, kids jumping off the rock, etc. We walked out and talked to a couple of people - apparently it's a weekly event.

P1000042

The river/lake is wider here, maybe a couple hundred meters across. So, after some consideration we picked a path and swam across. Jess got pretty tired dragging her pack. All our gear was in dry-sacks, so the packs floated, but we'd already swam the river several times, so were tired. As you swim the pack slowly fills with water and gets heavier - so you slow down as you go.

After a good break, we struck off up the hill, following more dear-trails. It was tougher going, but not terrible. There wasn't much to sight off of, and both of us were getting tired, it was getting towards evening and we didn't want to be doing this in the dark. We had a decent idea where we were, but not perfect, and we wanted the fastest way back to water (I had 2 liter capacity, jess 3, and we weren't loaded up, so a dry-camp would've been iffy). So... we picked a drainage and started heading down. Eventually we found a nice bit of lake, got some water, ate dinner up on the hill, and crashed... hard.

Just before going to sleep I realized I didn't have my wallet. After some considerable consternation and looking around, I left my wallet, with the zipcar key, on a beach just before we swam the river. I had been wonderfully contented, but now I was a bit more on edge, anxious and double-checking over and over where I might've left it. I figured out eventually that I definitely hadn't had it when I repacked on the far side of the river, and I didn't think I had it on the rock-bar when we ate lunch, before I repacked to go down the river. So that's where it *probably* was.

During the night we kept hearing deer. One in particular was really pissed off about us, I'd intentionally urinated near the ur-sack (soft bear canister), knowing that bears in this area are afraid of people. It seemed the deer came apon this (about 20 feet from us) and was VERY upset that it's planned route onto the point had been cut off. I spent maybe half an hour making annoyed noises.

Next morning we did a bit of scouting and quickly figured out where we were based on the map. We wanted to get back to where I thought the car-keys were. After looking at the lake we realized going down the edge of it wouldn't be easy, and the forests up near the tops of the hills where we were seemed pretty clear. So we struck off down the ridgeline, following the edge of the lake.

This tactic turned out to be VERY successful. We had a couple of dead-ends. It turns out that if you watch where the major deer trails go it tells you a lot about the surrounding geography. Deer don't like to go straight down cliffs (though... what they think of a cliff is a LOT steeper than what most people think of as a cliff). They *do* disappear straight into dense brush though. Keeping these in mind you can look out at the surrounding land and guess based on texture, and where the deertrails are going, which way will be most passable.

In not long at all we reached the rock again, and swam back across. Here we met some people on a boat, who offered us a ride back down to our rock-bar. Not relishing walking/swimming back up the river (and wanting to get to the keys and see if they were there), we accepted. The family had built their own house near the lake apparently about a year ago. They said that mendocino was much wetter this year, and that the area where we first swam was normally "dry" this time of year (I took this to mean, very low, impassable by boat). This explained why no boats had been up there when we first swam the river - the boats weren't used to going up there due to the normally shallow water.

They got very worried about snags (only a 18" draft apparently on the motorboat, so not TOO worried) after seeing a few, so the dropped us off not far from the bar, and we swam the river one more time - it's only ~70m or so across here though, and only a portion of that deep enough to require swimming. So, in short order, we were back on the rock-bar.

P1000087

And low and behold, the car keys!!!

Relaxed, contented, and happy, we napped on the bar for a while, then hiked back up to the car :). YAY!
The hike back was AMAZING. On the way down we'd missed a lot of the prettiest parts of the stream. A lot of it was almost like being in the jungle, just beutiful. It was all beautifully lush and full of life.

The rest of the photos are here http://www.flickr.com/photos/smalladventures/sets/72157624494623747/