Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Occasional Definitions: Fire Ring

  1. A circular barrier used to contain a campfire. The primitive version uses rocks. The fancier version consists of an iron hoop. Not needed for small backpacking fires used for cooking.

  2. Piece of bodily adornment worn on index finger of right hand by the Dark Lord. Has inscription in flaming Elvish characters and contains immense powers of evil. Also known as “The One Ring.” If you’re the one wearing this baby, you don’t have to carry your own pack.

  3. Seldom-heard pristine, bell-like sound that a finely-tuned fire makes while burning smokeless under a clear evening sky when everything is perfect and all is good with the world.

From: Fire In Your Hand

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Occasional Trails: Stomping Along Gichigami

  • Name : The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT)
  • Location : Northeastern Minnesota
  • Length : 205 miles
  • Best season : Probably not winter
  • Features : Runs along ridges above Lake Superior, crossing state, county, national forest, and private properties
  • Permits : Not required
  • Info at : Superior Hiking Trail Association (

About 1100 million years ago, as you recall, the center of North American began to shudder and bulge the way it does sometimes. After many unpleasant events involving stretching, thinning, heaving, tilting, molten rock leaking out here and there, erosion, and massive glaciers banging around and scraping things almost forever, there came to be a big dent in the ground. After a while the glaciers gave up and melted, filling the dent with water.

This became known as Gichigami (big water), Lac-Supérieur ("My lake, she is bigger to yours, eh?"), or as most of us now know it, Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume.

The restless earth left tilted layers of rock around the lake's edge. These are the Sawtooth Mountains of Superior's northwest side. This is where you will find the 205-mile Superior Hiking Trail.

Conceived in the middle 1980s specifically as a long distance foot path, the Superior Hiking Trail has one end anchored in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and the other on the Canadian border. An additional 39 miles of trail wind through the City of Duluth, for a total of 244 miles. Access is via Minnesota Highway 61 or on spur trails associated with it, or along many smaller roads. Seven state parks also connect to the trail and provide their own access points.

Hikers out to bag the most miles can start at Two Harbors, hike to the eastern end of the trail, and then continue along the Border Route Trail, which in turn links to the Kekekabic Trail. These last two trails traverse the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Permits are not required for the Superior Hiking Trail but are needed for the BWCA. By combining trails a thru-hiker can put together a trip of over 300 miles.

One nice feature of the Superior Hiking Trail is that it is truly for hiking only. No motorized vehicles, bicycles or horses are allowed. It is steep and narrow in parts and there are frequent rocky ascents followed by descents into deep valleys, but bridges facilitate stream crossings.

For those used to tramping well above treeline in high mountains, this trail is a different experience. It generally hugs the ridge above Lake Superior, but at its lowest point it does skim the lake's shore, which is barely 600 feet above sea level. The trail's highest point is 1750 feet, more than 1000 feet above the lake's surface.

Panoramic views of Lake Superior, the Sawtooth Mountains, woodlands, and various other lakes and rivers are frequent all along the trail. And because there are so many streams, and the land is so rugged, there is no shortage of gorges, foaming rapids and waterfalls.

But one peculiarity of this trail is varied land ownership. National Forest, state parks, county holdings, and parcels of private land form a patchwork. Because of this camping is allowed only in designated sites, and extra restrictions apply in some areas. Cooperation and mutual respect keep the trail a viable route.

Speaking of back country campsites, the trail has 81 of these, an average of one every two and a half miles. There are no fees, reservations, or permits required, either to hike or to camp. Leashed dogs are allowed.

Backpackers will see hardwood forests of oak, maple and basswood, stands of balsam, pine, spruce, cedar and tamarack, and groves of aspen and birch. Wildflowers are common in spring, and some persist through the growing season. Blueberries and raspberries show up in mid-summer. Deer are frequent sights and a traveler might also find moose, beaver, black bear, grouse and even eagles.

But what is really distinctive about this trail is one massive, omnipresent feature. Lake Superior. With a surface area close to 32,000 square miles (larger than South Carolina!), this body of water sets its own rules. Three hundred fifty miles long and 160 miles wide, it is not only too big to spit across, it is too big to even see across. It is a freshwater inland sea averaging almost 500 deep. To give another sense of scale, Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior, has several of its own lakes, and some of them have islands of their own.

Drain this lake and you could walk to the lowest point in North America, 733 feet below sea level. But up on top storms routinely generate waves over 20 feet, and some over 30 feet have been recorded. And there is enough water in this lake to cover both North and South America a foot deep. Think about that. This is a different world.

With its length, easy access, cooperative landowners, and varied landscape, no wonder the Superior Hiking Trail is thought of as one of the best trails in the country. And then there's that lake too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Betty Of The Backcountry

A couple of months ago I stumbled on a forum post asking about a hiking or backpacking book for someone's wife. He wanted something from a woman's perspective so his wife could get a better feel for the subject. That, and join him on the trail, once she got inspired and had some of her doubts smoothed.

Well "Backcountry Betty: Roughing it in style" would have been a good bet. I just stumbled over it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it myself. One thing that intrigued me is that, flipping through the book I could tell that the author was a good writer. The style is smooth and professional. Most outdoor books plod.

Reading this book is like taking a short run and sliding across clean, flawless, frictionless ice. But it isn't cold. Just the opposite. It's a warm book. The style is breezy and friendly, and you can tell that the author is in charge of every word, each nuance. She knows what she is doing.

Which isn't surprising. She makes her living from writing, has around 20 books out, and writes for major publications. That's hard to do well, and a tough way to earn your pay. Her name is Jennifer Worick. The illustrator is Kate Quinby. The entire editorial and publishing team is female. I thought this would be a good chance to understand the female outdoor perspective a little better.

First let's get some housekeeping done. Here are the chapters:
  1. First things first: hygiene.
  2. Getting your glam on in the Amazon.
  3. Eating out(side).
  4. Camping it up.
  5. Entertaining at Camp Betty.
  6. Wild thing, I think I love you.
  7. Let's get physical.
  8. The wild life.
If you're really interested, read it. I'm not going into excruciating detail. The chapter titles are all teasers, but you can guess about what each one covers. I think I could sum up the book's main themes as
  • How to deal with the icky outdoors.
  • How to throw a party in the icky outdoors.
  • How to decorate the icky outdoors.
  • Nooky in the icky outdoors.
  • Basic skills for the icky outdoors.
  • Assorted things about animals.
It became clear really fast that I wasn't going to learn much about women from this book. I'm sure that somewhere in a film vault, and maybe available now on VHS and DVD is a camping episode of "I Love Lucy". Spend a half hour with that or spend three hours with this book. You get about the same either way. One has sound and moving images and the other is more up to date.

For a while I wasn't sure how to categorize "Backcountry Betty". Categorizing any work of art sucks. It's plain dumb. Anything worth exploring is more than one dimensional, but categorizing something gives it a place to stay, a shelf to put it on. From there it's easy to pull it back down and give it attention. So I had to decide what I'd call "Backcountry Betty", in fewer than five words. Preferably one.

"Manual" is out. This is not a how-to book. No one is going to use the instructions on how to decorate a camp site with stone cairns and sticks, and make wind chimes out of pine cones.

"Satire" doesn't work either, though it's closer. The book, and the author's approach are too earnest. There isn't enough self-consciousness or self mockery. To play the satire game you have to mimic something and either show how ridiculous it is or go out of your way to make it ridiculous. You want satire, try "The Colbert Report". OK, now you get it. Considering the state of how-to books on the outdoors, this wouldn't have been hard, but it probably wouldn't have had much audience either, only a teeny-tiny one.

Next up I thought about comedy. That seemed closest. This book is supposed to be funny, even ridiculous in parts, but it still has truth. It's not grade school level silliness, but it isn't serious. I would guess that the author has gone on some hikes, and stayed out overnight a few times, and hasn't gone beyond that.

The author does a good job of covering the idea of "leave no trace" and mentions the essential items to take along (which is either the "Five Essentials" or the "10 Essentials" or the "16 Essentials", depending on whose list you read these days. There are sound words about how and where to build a fire, and bathe, and so on. This is the interesting part. I'd bet, as I said, that the author has basically no outdoor experience but she has done a slick job of folding in all those things that a knowledgeable and responsible writer should. She's a quick study then, as well as being a fine writer. I liked watching her do that.

But those sections aren't the core of the book. The core is fluff. Interesting, well-written fluff, but goofy. And fluff. Like this: "Looking good is important to women, no matter where we might find ourselves...Some might not consider sleeping in a tent and sporadic showering roughing it. For me, it was like journeying into the Middle Ages."

And later: "To sex up your bunk, consider draping exotic fabrics (which can double as a sarong) on your bed or from the ceiling. Secure it in the center of the tent and gently drape it and pin it to the sides for a billowing 'sultan in a sandstorm' effect...Hang or place camping lanterns or flashlights safely away from fabric and on the lowest setting. Affix acetate or clear plastic stickers to your lantern so that it emits a soft or patterned glow."

Anyone up for hanging a few gasoline lanterns around the tent after a 20-mile day? This isn't serious, and the author clearly knows it. She's playing with the idea of leaving pavement but not leaving sight of it. It's both fantasy and comedy. And it's done really well.

I admit that I didn't get a whole lot of fun out of reading "Backcountry Betty". No doubt there are hundreds or thousands of women who think this book is adorable. Hey, it is. But not so much for me, unless it had really been satirical, like Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat". Then I could have felt invited to the party. Not so much with the book that is "Backcountry Betty".

Try it yourself. Take a quote from Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat", published in 1889: "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."

Everyone can get that.

Try a longer quote from the beginning of chapter six:
It was a glorious morning, late spring or early summer, as you care to take it, when the dainty sheen of grass and leaf is blushing to a deeper green; and the year seems like a fair young maid, trembling with strange, wakening pulses on the brink of womanhood.

The quaint back streets of Kingston, where they came down to the water's edge, looked quite picturesque in the flashing sunlight, the glinting river with its drifting barges, the wooded towpath, the trim-kept villas on the other side, Harris, in a red and orange blazer, grunting away at the sculls, the distant glimpses of the grey old palace of the Tudors, all made a sunny picture, so bright but calm, so full of life, and yet so peaceful, that, early in the day though it was, I felt myself being dreamily lulled off into a musing fit.

I mused on Kingston, or "Kyningestun," as it was once called in the days when Saxon "kinges" were crowned there. Great Caesar crossed the river there, and the Roman legions camped upon its sloping uplands. Caesar, like, in later years, Elizabeth, seems to have stopped everywhere: only he was more respectable than good Queen Bess; he didn't put up at the public-houses.

She was nuts on public-houses, was England's Virgin Queen. There's scarcely a pub of any attractions within ten miles of London that she does not seem to have looked in at, or stopped at, or slept at, some time or other. I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: "Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;" "Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of '88;" "Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886."

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. "Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!" The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.
I get that too. It teaches me nothing about rowing a boat through Victorian England that I don't already know, from the technical end, and a lot of the specifics of Victorian England are beyond my ken, only strange, incomprehensible, picturesque details, but I can understand three scruffy guys flailing around in a boat, stumbling over each other, being alternately miserable and giddy with elation, and making fun of themselves and the whole damn enterprise.

Maybe I'm just stuck in the guy thing. I hear that women, most women, are disgusted and repelled by the Three Stooges. Most guys choke to death laughing. Jerome belongs on their side of the fence.

So there's some of that. I do not quite get it, "Backcountry Betty". Ultimately I decided that the right category for "Backcountry Betty" is comic books. This is not a put down at all, even though I'm obviously not absolutely tuned to the right frequency on this one. Comic books are now "graphic novels". This isn't a novel, but though the existing illustrations are fine, the book could have done with more. Many, many more. "Backcountry Betty" screams to be a comic book. That would suit it perfectly.

That would be a reasonable and entertaining excuse for how to mix fresh vegetables and sauces with freeze-dried food. Show us! The author pre-cooking and pre-packaging perishable foods for later gourmet meals on the trail. Show us! And what would really happen if she did. A perfect excuse to show us! Although this is a comedy the author deadpans (in a sprightly and entertaining way) most of the time. I would love to see illustrations of settling the back country kitchen into a pack. Here's a rundown of the essentials:
  • Camp stove and fuel [note: not a backpacking stove]
  • Cooler
  • Skillet
  • Saucepan with lid
  • Large mixing spoon
  • Plates
  • Sharp knife
  • Forks, knives, and spoons for each person [note: she doesn't say how many of each, per person]
  • Ziploc (to shake and bake and to secure your aromatic foods)
  • Thermos (for mixing up liquids)
Let alone the exotic draperies or assorted camping lanterns for evening fun. Me, I don't even carry a spoon anymore, or anything resembling a cooking pot, and don't actually cook either, so I would really, really enjoy seeing Betty, in full color, drawn well.

OK, overall I'll say this was a good read. It will never be my favorite book but I don't want one. You want a book that will make you scream and blow snot, check the end of this piece, but favorite books are like best friends. You can have a new one every week. So it's not an issue anyway. So let's get to the issues.

One, the author doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to the outdoors. This is obvious, and OK by me. Not a defect. I really, thoroughly enjoyed watching a real pro pull together alien concepts and explain them in a clear and simple way without understanding them from bitter experience. (I always have to learn the hard way.) When I say simple, I mean it in the best sense of that short and sturdy word. Forget the idea of whipping up an impromptu Zen sand garden at the end of a day's hike to decorate the camp site. Yeah. Forget it. Not a problem. That's what this book is about, after all.

One thing does bug me, one thing only, which isn't bad. The editor or fact checker should have vetted the sections on poisonous snakes. "If you have a snakebite kit handy, wash the bite and place the suction device over the affected area. Do not suck the poison out with your mouth!" OK, the last sentence is fine. Unfortunately more gangrene, deaths and amputations are caused by people trying to hack themselves up with snake bite kits and do the sucky thing than are actually seriously harmed by poisonous snakes, even if bitten. This advice should be removed.

Sort of off in left field, there are other things buzzing around. "Backcountry Betty" obviously isn't a book on backpacking, and no woman who actually goes backpacking is likely to mistakenly take it seriously, but scents. Let's talk about them. A example: "Scent is important...amp up your tent with lavender and rosemary pillows or sachets...." Not good. In another place the author suggests more of the same, and it's all likely to attract unwanted midnight visitors, even in a drive-up campground.

So I have a couple of issues. One big one and a few tiny ones.

But overall this is a fine book. It's an easy read, it's a smooth read, it's a fine read. The author knows how to write good. I'd like to be so good when I grow up. Me write words good when I big too.

And now for something completely different. Try Mil Millington's "Love and Other near-Death Experiences". It is not about hiking or camping or backpacking. It is about relationships and about life and death and will make you squeal like a happy pig. No point in trying to convince you. Just go take a look. Try finding both "Love and Other near-Death Experiences" and "Backcountry Betty" at your library, and read them together. You ought to enjoy both of them.


Jennifer Worick
"Prairie Tales" blog by Jennifer Worick
Another woman's perspective on life, and traveling: "Dork Whore", by Iris Bahr
Jerome K. Jerome books online
"Things my girlfriend and I have argued about" web pages by Mil Millington

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cherry Picking A Pot

I love my pot because it's part of me. How could I not? Even though I hate it too.

You get older, you get softer. Sometimes you get bigger. It's the pregnancy of age. Can't hardly avoid it.

Get older and you don't feel so much like getting out every 15 minutes. Sometimes not at all. And on top of that your body starts doing things on its own. Getting cranky. Hurting when it shouldn't. Going flabby when you aren't looking.

Hence the pot.

No, I don't like having it, but it's here so I have to deal with it, and I've decided that it's food already paid for, so that helps. I just have to carry it around all the time. That's my penalty. But have someone cut it off? No. No suction either. None of that. It's part of me after all, so I have to love it.

But not too much.

Not like my cooking pot, which I really love. That there one, it was love at first sight, a few years back now, and we've been happy together ever since. I can't believe how lucky I got. Sometimes it just happens. You can't really plan it. Love is sweet.

Gooseberry. That's my pot's name. Gooseberry Patch. Gooseberry Patch 2-Cup Cherry Measuring Cup (K320). Boy, I saw that cup and I bought it. I knew right away that it was for me. I've been good to it and it's been good to me.

Sixteen ounces. Aluminum. Marked in one-third cup increments on one side and half cup increments on the other. Red handle. Built wide and low. Flat bottom with a cherry design stamped into it. We get along just fine, me and my cup.

Granted, she's not for every one.

No lid, for one thing. That's a bother. Well, a bit of a bother. Can't really complain. I use a piece of aluminum foil folded over three or four times. Not too classy but I'm not either. It works. I get by.

The handle. It's there but it doesn't fold. It doesn't fold but it's there. Pick a point of view.

The handle is good for when I use the cup as a cup. And, shucks, it's good when I use the cup as a cooking pot too. Though the handle gets in the way when I stow the cup back in my pack. Can't have everything.

The price was right. Five ninety-five. U.S. dollars, cash, which is what I paid.

I knew this cup was right for me. I knew we were meant for each other. So right away I looked up the company, Gooseberry Patch, and bought me two more, just like that. Now I have three cups.

My first one is darkened from use. I used 'er over wood a few times, though mostly I make do with an alcohol stove (clean), but I did use wood a few times. The smoke and soot stained 'er. I scrubbed most of it off but you can't get it all, so it shows. No dings yet, though. No dings. That's good. My cup is tough, and I'm careful too.

Oh, sure I've tried other things. Had a big pot early on to go with my big stove, but they're both gone now. I loved that brass stove, but after half a dozen years of not using it and knowing I never would again, I donated it somewhere. The pot too.

Then I tried the Wal-Mart grease pot. Got two of them, cut one down, almost by half. Both work fine, the full-height one is especially good for steaming. But it's still pretty big, and relatively heavy. Something like five and a half ounces for the pot, sans the plastic knob in the lid. Good for steaming though. Wide. Flat. Lots of room inside. The steam circulates.

But you know, I don't really cook. Not mostly. Mostly I boil water. Not even that, really, just get it hot. Almost boiling. To the point of boiling, but not over it. No sense in boiling water unless you need it boiling. Just wastes fuel.

Same with food. No need to cook it if you don't have to, so I don't. I take foods that work by adding hot water to them. I do just fine. Heat some water, add it to the food, like instant mashed potatoes, or ramen, or bulghur wheat and so on. (You might call it bulgur but I kind of like the wonky spelling.) Anyway, the instant foods. It works.

It's clean and simple that way. Quick. Add hot water to something in a plastic bag, a zip lock bag, and eat it. The pot stays clean. No washing up. I like that too. I make tea in the cup and rinse it out afterwards. Don't even have to wash it then. It works good. Nice and simple. It suits.

So there's my cup.

I did some checking this morning against other stuff out there. Most all is titanium these days. Can't say why. I have not a clue. Aluminum is so cheap and so light and everyone sells titanium. Which is not cheap by any definition. Or light. So shoot.

Anyhow, I did a little comparison table. My cup, no lid. But aside from that, it stands up real well to anything out there. Especially since I got one on deck and two in the hole.

Though a week or so back I did spot a nice grease pot at Kmart of all places. Much nicer than the Wally's World Wal-Mart grease pot. I should buy one. Just to have. But I'll stay faithful to my Gooseberry Cherry, for sure. Mostly.

Volume Weight Cost volume/$
oz ml oz g
Gooseberry Cherry 16 473 1.8 51 $ 5.95 100 Al
REI Open Country Pot 40 1183 9.0 255 $16.95 70 Al
Snow Peak 700 24 710 4.25 120 $34.95 20 Ti
Snow Peak Trek 900 30 887 3.7 105 $47.95 18 Ti
MSR Titan Tea Kettle 28 828 4.0 113 $49.95 17 Ti
REI Ti Ware Teapot 27 800 4.6 130 $49.95 16 Ti
MLD Titanium Pot 29 850 3.2 90 $65.00 13 Ti

Specs for "Gooseberry Patch Exclusive 2-Cup Cherry Measuring Cup":

Volume: 2 cups / 16 oz / 473 ml
Weight: 1.8 oz / 51 g
Price : $5.95
Height: 3.2 in / 80 mm
Width : 3.7 in / 95 mm (outside diameter)
3.5 in / 90 mm (inside diameter)
Handle sticks out 0.98 in / 25mm
Lip: rolled and smooth


Gooseberry Patch 2-Cup Cherry Measuring Cup (K320)
MLD 850 ml Titanium Pot
MSR Titan Tea Kettle
Open Country 2-5 Cup Coffee Perk
REI Ti Ware Teapot
Snow Peak Titanium Trek 700 Mug
Snow Peak Trek 900 Titanium Cookset

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Nibble Of Luminosity

Good ideas don't have to be simple, but simple ideas are easier to explain. Simple things are easier to use. And simple things made from simple ideas have a nice symmetry.

Humans are lucky. We have lots of grabby bits. No tentacles exactly, but we do have five of these wiggly things on each hand, and some more on our lower appendages, though those others are not as useful at dinner parties.

Even though each of our upper extremities has a mop of flexible grapplers there are times when we could do with more of them. One of our design failings is that fingers can't be used independently of our arms. Think about it for a bit.

What is the point of having a hand with five fingers on it, but to use any one of those fingers requires you to use not only the whole hand but also the whole arm that it's attached to?

This is why it can be frustrating to wiggle out of a sleeping bag in the dark of night and hobble off into the bushes while trying to manipulate a flashlight. Or a pen light. Or a button light. Any light. We simply don't have enough hands to deal with all the technical issues involved.

Maybe this one case is easier for women. I am not one so I can't say. I haven't even tried to think through it from a woman's engineering perspective. That would be awkward at best.

I do know, based on several years of right hand experience, that, for a male, stumbling around in the dark trying to whiz off into the darkness while not tripping over a log, falling into a hole, or wetting my own pants is fairly hard to do with only the two upper manipulators.

My firing hand is fully occupied with issues of traversal, elevation, range, trajectory, and dispersion. One slip brings disaster. My left hand (and all of its fingers) is busy meanwhile keeping pants and shirt tails out of the line of fire. Both feet are completely booked with support services and the need to remain nimble in case of sudden side spray.

That leaves no way to handle the lighting, except for two lips and some teeth. Drooling interferes with this. Even a waterproof light ends up as an unfortunate slime dripping lump.

It might be time for Mr. Cord Lock Light.

The Cord Lock Light is a cord lock with an LED light built into it. At first this seems like a great idea. Then it seems like a greatly dumb idea. Then it seems like an idea for something that might be useful at the right time, in the right place, and it might be great if you are the right kind of person.

The Cord Lock Light is made by Black Crater LLC, of Portland, OR. It weights 0.25 ounces, or 7.5 g. Its plastic case is bright yellow, though some pictures hint at red or orange. It is water resistant, has a stainless steel spring, and uses two lithium CR1220 batteries. Rated battery life is 12 hours on high beam, 20 hours on low, and 50 hours of flashing. That's a lot of whizzing time. The switch is on/off, so you don't need to keep squeezing the little sucker.

Granted, standing there in the dark with one of these dangling from a swinging neck height drawstring wouldn't be the best way to get light on the ground but it might be good enough, and you could simply leave the dang thing permanently attached, for just those midnight trips. Never leap out of bed and find yourself SOL on a sudden blind urine soaked commando mission in the deepy dark woods.

I happen to have enough lights at the moment, so I won't be checking into this one, but it looks like an option. We all need options.


Black Crater LLC
Doug Ritter on the Cord Lock LED Light
Women's back country issues: Backcountry Betty
Cord Lock LED Light at Mountain Laurel Designs
Cord Lock LED Light - 3 Pack at