Moose Sightings

Last weekend, I rode the Parkbus up to Algonquin Park (more on that later) and was treated to quite a few moose sighting. For the most part, I did so from the comfort of the bus, but on one special occasion, I got a bit of a close encounter.


This moose pic was taken from the Parkbus

They say that if you want to see a moose, check the highways in the spring. In fact, if you want to find them, don’t look for moose, look for the line of cars pulled over. (Thanks to Ian H. for coining the phrase for this:  “Post-modern tracking skills”.) After a long winter, they crave the salty vegetation that grows near highways because of all the salt used to clear ice and snow the previous season. Highway 60, where it crosses Algonquin Park is arguably the best place to spot a moose in the spring. With the high population of moose in the park, naturally your chances of seeing them increase. It’s super easy as well – they regularly come to you. As our bus drove along the highway, we were treated to 8 sightings in all. Each time of course came with an array of cars on each side, with tourists vying for the best place to take pictures of the great beasts. Because of this, and how nice our driver was, we slowed down and were able to snap quite a few photos.


Nancy riding in the shuttle to Kearney Lake.

My route for the weekend involved a shuttle after the last Parkbus stop at Lake Opeongo. (I’d be portaging back to that spot for Monday to catch the bus back.) This gave me a chance for one more sighting, and again my driver was nice enough to slow down for more photos. I thought this was going to be the last chance until the ride back, so I took advantage. You see, I was able to bring Nancy on this trip, which I hadn’t done when riding the bus until now. I rarely see moose or deer (or wolves or bears for that matter) in the interior when Nancy’s with me. Or when I do, it’s brief. I thought the photos I got, not great having to take them through glass and while moving, were the best I’d get.


A couple more shots taken from the shuttle.

However, when I got dropped off at the portage to Kearney Lake, a young male appeared. Nonchalant, he fed himself while I unpacked – and tied Nancy out of view. From a safe, respectable distance, I took the photo below (and like a hundred others), when the inevitable tourists were attracted by the site of my friend. They all started to pull over, get out of their cars and try to get closer. A little too close, actually. The moose started to retreat back into the foliage, and I expected the photographers to drive off. But the problem was, I started moving my gear off the shoulder and up the trail. They thought they’d follow my lead. I couldn’t believe how close some of them felt they could get. More importantly, at this point the lines of people coming up the trail was driving the moose towards me. I already annoyingly had to organize my gear in a crowd and awkwardly had to move through them to get to the lake. Needless to say if they weren’t giving the moose any distance-respect, they weren’t getting out of my way either.

As for Nancy, she could now see the moose, and was freaking out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your pack on your back, canoe on your shoulders and a dog leashed around your waist who’s barking and lunging in another direction, but it’s quite a challenge to move through people.

Close encounter with this moose on the portage to Kearney Lake.

Close encounter with this moose on the portage to Kearney Lake.

No worries though. The moose moved into the woods as I made my way down the trail, each of us not succumbing to our base instincts to act against the crowd. (I may have made a sarcastic comment under my breath and the moose exhaled loudly, which I can only assume is moose-speak for the same thing.) The people were gone by the time I had come back for my second pack, with Nancy left to wait for me at the put in. As I made my way back to the lake, suddenly from behind the trees to my right, the moose snorted at me very loudly. I stopped and looked right at him. He looked at me. I can only imagine he was tired at being gawked at. I wondered just then if there must be an unwritten rule with moose. It’s okay to be watched by the road. After all, they come out knowing the privacy risks. But once back in the forest, that’s another story. I’m sure I’m projecting here, but I believe as he stared at me, checking me out, figuring out what I was doing, he was saying “Now watch it, buddy” in his own moose way. I laughed. “Oh now you’re annoyed,” I (actually) said out loud. He snorted again, raising his head slightly. I turned my shoulders towards the trail and moved on. After a few moments I heard some cracking branch sounds go off in the other direction.

Quite a beautiful moment, actually. But only so because everything turned out okay.

A Solo Trip Remembered

Some of the best moments are earned.

Some of the best moments are earned.


Recently I’ve been posting a lot of my photos on Flickr and when I got to this one I got a little caught up in describing the photo. So I thought I’d share the story here as well. It’s a brief story explaining what’s going on in the photo, but putting it up there was inspired by another photographer talking about how he rushed to get into the frame within the 10 second timer and how frantic that experience can be. The point I was originally trying to explain was that the urgency of doing that – setting up the camera, running to get into position – can itself make for a great photo. 

A Long Day

This self shot was taken at the end of a really, really long day, but the good kind of long day.

I was on a solo trip up through the west entrance to Killarney Provincial Park. In the weeks leading up to the trip, each person in the group that was going to be joining me had dropped out one by one. The weather was bad when I started out, some kind of crazy cold streak had arrived, and I forgot some of my rain gear. In short, I had every excuse to skip this trip. When set out into the park, the outfitter gave me one of those maternal, supportive smiles, telling me that the weather report she heard called for nicer weather tomorrow.

I accepted the cold temperatures, keeping an eye on my slowly blue-turning feet, ignored the drizzling rain coming down in an awkward horizontal direction and concentrated on navigating through the high waves and indecisive but strong winds. My route would be much longer as instead of a straight line, I had to zig-zag along the coast or hide behind islands to get out of the wind. Of course there were some spots where you just had to muscle through.

When I finally made it to camp, an hour or so before sunset, I was exhausted (and even managed to dunk my sleeping bag in the lake, but that’s another story). I cooked up some dinner and went to bed. Cold, tired and a little wet, I went to sleep crossing my fingers for better weather the next day, with the last thought before drifting off was that this had been the short day of the trip (distance wise).

Crossing my fingers worked. I woke to a completely different world outside. It was warm, sunny, with a gentle breeze. But I couldn’t stand around. I had a big day ahead, including a challenging 1700m portage just before another long 2200m. The second wasn’t particularly tough, but had a fun surprise at the end: a beaver dam to walk over like a balance beam, with your legs all rubbery from the long trail.

Great New Day

Now don’t get me wrong, I had a great day. I mentioned the weather, but the scenery I was passing through was fantastic, and I took my time to enjoy it. That’s kind of the point of these things. In fact, at one point, with a pack on my back and canoe on my shoulders, I looked to my right and saw a fantastic site: the top of the white tipped quartzite hills. If trail brought me this close, I just had to drop my gear and climb to the top. The view was amazing from up there. You might call it unnecessary energy spent, but I say it was an opportunity taken.

When I finally got back on the water on the finally stretch, the winds had arrived, and were funneling through the narrow lake, of course, in the wrong direction. All the head down, muscle through paddling distracted me from hitting a sandbar, which was tough to get the canoe back on course. When I got to camp I was once again exhausted, done.

So I found a tree to sit and lean against and made myself a tasty dinner, eating it watching the sun slowly move across the gorgeous surrounding hills. It was the most beautiful spot. Even the winds settled down a bit.

The Best Place I Could Be

I couldn’t even imagine a better place on the planet to be sitting. I was completely at peace, not to mention pretty proud of myself. I had put a lot of effort to get here, but it was worth it. This is when I took this picture. I set the camera on a rock, put the timer on and ran into place, arms raised. I’m not sure whether I had planned to do that gesture (though I repeated it for a couple more just-in-case shots), but it turned out to be my best picture of pure, spontaneous emotion. Running to get into place before the timer when off probably help create that urgency, but maybe only I can tell looking at it.

As you can imagine, this photo has a lot of meaning to me. I wish I had taken it after I bought a better camera, or after I had learned all that I have about taking better pictures since, or even if I had brought a tripod. While all of that might have led to a technically better photograph, it was what I needed to do to be there at that moment that made this picture possible.

A more detailed description of the whole trip, maps and more photos can be found here

If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.

If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Canoecopia 2013 – Day 2

I woke up on Saturday morning – Day 2 of Canoecopia – to an emergency. Okay, not so much an emergency as an urgent request. Probably not urgent, actually, more of a request. No, let’s go with emergency. It’s makes for a better story. (To catch up on Day 1, see here.)

Kevin Callan behind a present given to him by Aluminum Chef competitor Marty Koch - a poster for what Marty assumed was Kevin's new cookbook, Camp Cooking for Dummies.

Kevin Callan behind a present given to him by Aluminum Chef competitor Marty Koch – a poster for what Marty assumed was Kevin’s new cookbook, Camp Cooking for Dummies.

Fiona, the “better half” of Badger Paddles sent me an urgent – I mean emergency – message saying she needed a picture of Kevin Callan wearing a blue scarf. With Mike (the “starving” other half) busy at the show, and Fiona holding the fort back home, she asked me to track down Kevin and get him to pose for a nice picture wearing the blue scarf of the Six Degree Project – an Autism awareness program that is trying to get celebrities to pose with the scarf to demonstrate that, based on the idea of six degrees of separation,  we all have someone close to us affected by Autism. Kevin had agreed to be one of the celebrities, had his scarf on, and it was now my job to track him down and get a nice picture.

The Badger Paddle booth was my rendezvous point, to check up on Mike in case he needed a break, but also in case anyone in the group got lost. Luckily, I had a label pinned on my lapel to tell anyone where I needed to be.

The Badger Paddle booth was my rendezvous point, to check up on Mike in case he needed a break, but also in case anyone in the group got lost. Luckily, I had a label pinned on my lapel to tell anyone where I needed to be.

Today would be the best day to track down Kevin. I was planning on attending a few presentations where he was involved. Seems a little strange to drive all the way to Madison to watch the Canadian presenter, but you’ll understand why I couldn’t miss his shows when I you see the pictures below.

First presentation of the day was Lake Michigan in a Dugout. These two ladies circumnavigated the longest of the Great Lakes in a dugout canoe they built.

First presentation of the day was Lake Michigan in a Dugout. These two ladies circumnavigated the longest of the Great Lakes in a dugout canoe they built.

But the first presentation I needed to be at was for Lake Michigan in a Dugout. I’m a big fan of stories about epic paddling adventures people go on, but especially when those adventures are particularly interesting and when the people aren’t the typical types to go on these adventures. Also, I like hearing about young ladies empowering themselves by taking on a challenge that seem reserved for the boys. Last year I got a chance to see the girls from Hudson Bay Bound, who traveled from Minnesota to Hudson’s Bay by canoe. (Incidentally, they have taken that experience and dedicated a new non-profit to share that same paddling/learning experience to young girls through the Wild River Academy. I stopped by their booth at the event but missed meeting Natalie.)

Jerry Vandiver did three shows over the weekend, but Saturday's performance was the place to be. Not only for the great camping and paddling songs, but the place was packed because of an upcoming special guest. Pictured is one of the canoe dogs they featured during the song Molly and Me about the bond created when we take our canine friends with us paddling.

Jerry Vandiver did three shows over the weekend, but Saturday’s performance was the place to be. Not only for the great camping and paddling songs, but the place was packed because of an upcoming special guest. Pictured is one of the canoe dogs they featured during the song Molly and Me about the bond created when we take our canine friends with us paddling.

Lake Michigan in a Dugout was a project undertaken by two ladies from Indiana, Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas. They have lots of stories and fun videos at their website, including their post on Canoecopia – which if you look closely, you’ll even see a picture of yours truly in the audience. Basically, the project started when Mary brought home a huge piece of wood and told her father that she was planning on carving out a dugout canoe. I can only imagine what was going on in her father’s mind when he saw this happening. My poor father had to deal with a few of my “ideas” brought home, but none took up that much room (probably). When the boat was finished, it was named Makeba, and Mary and Amy set off to cover the entire shoreline of Lake Michigan. It took them 93 days, and from the stories told at their presentation, they had a lot of fun, and learned much more. Similar to Hudson Bay Bound, they seemed to discover friendly and helping people along the way, discovered some hidden beauty along with some ugly realities, and leaned on their mutual friendship to get through a difficult challenge. Check out their website. They’re quite funny.

More Cowbell! Kevin Callan takes his cowbell playing seriously. He dons a full length cow costume, complete with horns and udder. (I thought that should be one or the other, but I don't judge.) This man is a sport.

More Cowbell! Kevin Callan takes his cowbell playing seriously. He dons a full length cow costume, complete with horns and udder. (I thought that should be one or the other, but I don’t judge.) This man is a good sport.

Next I floated between getting more photos, checking up on Mike and tracking down Kevin Callan. I waited outside Kevin’s presentation on Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, and waited out the fans talking to him, getting autographs and posing for pictures. The difficult part about this blue scarf assignment is that Kevin, to me, is quite the celebrity. I’ve been around him quite a bit at shows and things, but never approach because I don’t want to bother him.  There’s plenty of people vying for his attention. Friends and I joke – as I’ve done here often – that I’m a little star struck. But having to get his picture wearing that scarf meant that I had to actually walk up to him, introduce myself and specifically ask him a favour. I hemmed and hawed about it for a good while, much to the amusement of my friends.

When he came out I approached him, and as it turned out, Fiona had already talked to him. We arranged to meet at his next show with the scarf. I really had worried over nothing. Of course I did. Kevin’s a great guy who is very approachable and accommodating to everyone. (I’m really glad this worked out, because I was about to introduce the idea by totally throwing Fiona under the bus by saying “Sorry to be a bother, but Fiona is making me get a picture of you and your scarf.”)

When it came time for Kevin Callan to participate, he was all in. Everyone loved the performance, and it was obvious all those on stage were having a great time.

When it came time for Kevin Callan to participate, he was all in. Everyone loved the performance, and it was obvious all those on stage were having a great time.

That next show was the second concert by Jerry Vandiver. As I mentioned yesterday, there was something special planned for this performance. You see, Jerry had come up with a fantastic fund-raising idea to pay for his whole band to make it to Canoecopia from Nashville. He started a Kickstarter campaign, offering up several fun options to supporters – CDs, autographs, VIP seating to a show, that kind of thing. The best idea was an option to get up and play with the band playing along with a cowbell (aptly titled “More Cowbell”). The bonus was that joining you on stage was non-other than Kevin Callan. (Jerry mentioned that Kevin was actually a drummer in high school. That makes sense, but I’m not really sure why.)

I had tried to buy that option, thinking it would make for some great (read: ridiculous) photos, but there were only three spots and got gobbled up too quickly. I never would have imagined what Kevin had planned, however. When he was called on stage, he jumped on stage with a full length cow costume. I mean, how appropriate! It was hilarious. The crowd loved it, and everyone on stage was having a great time. They all played cowbell to “Too Tired to Start the Fire“, an upbeat song that had everyone dancing.

The competition was fierce during the Aluminum Chef this year. Marty Koch and Kevin Callan continued their outdoor writer rivalry, looking to prove who was really the better camp cook.

The competition was fierce during the Aluminum Chef this year. Marty Koch and Kevin Callan continued their outdoor writer rivalry, looking to prove who was really the better camp cook.

Next up was again another Kevin Callan show. Without a doubt my favourite event at Canoecopia is the Aluminum Chef. Based on the television show Iron Chef, the competitors are given a secret ingredient that they have to use along with others you’d bring with you on a camping trip. In fact, they have to use camping stoves and cooking equipment to create an appetizer, main dish and a dessert. Each dish is judged by a group from the audience and points awarded to the winner of each course.

This year's secret ingredient was sardines. Wow. What a challenge it would be to make a great meal with that! Then again, I guess it is a fish, normally a staple of camp cooking.

This year’s secret ingredient was sardines. Wow. What a challenge it would be to make a great meal with that! Then again, I guess it is a fish, normally a staple of camp cooking. I’m a little suspicious of how much of this ingredient was actually used. Here Marty Koch is offering Kevin Callan some of his extra.

But it’s also kind of a show within a show. While cooking, the chefs offer advice, tell stories and crack jokes – usually at each other’s expense. Marty Koch is a writer and outdoorsman from Missouri, and Kevin’s friendly rival. Having found out Kevin has finally written a camping cookbook, Marty brought a poster that theorized what he thought a book by Kevin might look like – Camp Cooking for Dummies (see picture at the top of this post). That’s the kind of fun they have with each other. The third chef, Joey Dunscombe from the Weary Travel Freehouse restaurant, wasn’t immune, as his recent accident breaking his hip and forcing him to cook on crutches made for an easy target. (Neat side note: I checked Joey’s Twitter feed, and found a picture he posted from the stage. And again I was able to find myself in this photo.)

While Kevin Callan didn't win the competition, he did do as well as all the other participants. It was a draw, with Kevin winning the appetizer portion, Marty the main course and Joey the dessert.

While Kevin Callan didn’t win the Aluminum Chef, like he had the last two years, he did do as well as all the other participants. It was a draw, with Kevin winning the appetizer portion, Marty the main course and Joey the dessert.

The fun doesn’t stop there. Between all the jokes and stories, the crowd is offered up samples of the dishes being created and there are draws for some great MSR cooking gear. (I was really holding out for some free gear to use and review, but sadly missed out on the big prize by only a few numbers.)  But some of the best giveaways are of the impromptu variety. You see, Kevin likes to share the unused ingredients. Last year he had a lot of fun flinging pitas into the crowd, which he was told, in a faux-sternly fashion, that he was not permitted to do that this year. He secretly got a couple off though, and joked later he needed someone to toss him one back as he had run out.

That didn’t stop the chefs from walking into the crowd and sharing in a more civilized manner. Kevin brought out grapes (after feeding Marty some like a Roman emperor), and carrots (I got one, and it really hit the spot at that time of day), and at one point even jokingly offered up the remaining sardines. An enthusiastic young lady took him up on his offer to everyone’s amazement and amusement. Finally, when they noticed a big block of cheese unused on stage, it was given to one happy audience member.

Between the tips, the jokes, the samples and draws, I think the Aluminum Chef is worth the price of admission on its own and am surprised the place wasn’t packed. This year’s competition turned out to be a draw, so next year I’m sure the rivalry will be stepped up to break the tie.

I finally tracked down Kevin, appropriately at the Badger Paddle booth. Pictured here with Mike, Kevin agreed to wear the blue scarf of the 6 degree project for Autism awareness.

I finally tracked down Kevin, appropriately at the Badger Paddle booth. Pictured here with Mike, Kevin agreed to wear the blue scarf of the 6 degree project for Autism awareness.

Oh, and I did get that picture of Kevin in his blue scarf. In a happy coincidence, I found him passing by the Badger Paddle booth, so I had him pose with Mike. They both gave me big smiles and I got everyone in focus. (Have I complained about how hard it is to get clear pictures at these events yet?) Assignment complete. Whew!

Tomorrow - really this time - I'll show you what all those colours are about.

Tomorrow – really this time – I’ll show you what all those colours are about. (Hey look, another picture of me!)

Day 2 was another great day at Canoecopia. Exhausted, I got back to the hotel in time to start wandering around a cold, rainy downtown Madison looking for a restaurant that didn’t have an hour long wait for a table. (This is the point where you’re supposed to feel sorry for me.) Apparently there was kind of paddling event going on (and a basketball tournament). After we had given up and walked back to the hotel, we spotted an Indian food restaurant directly across the street. Tired from the long day, I’d have gone anywhere there wasn’t a wait, so this was a real bonus. The food was awesome – and of the “a lot” variety, which was what I needed. We took the short walk back and crashed. We had one more day to go, and one hour less to sleep because of daylight-savings time.

Finally, I should probably apologize. I meant to talk about those fancy coloured things today, but decided to re-organize how to write up the event. It was not my intention to tease you like that. But tomorrow, I promise, I’ll talk about all the cool gear and fancy gadgets we saw, and what I decided to spend my money on.

Canoecopia 2013 – Day 1

I just got back from Canoecopia 2013 and, typically, I turned a simple (road) trip into an adventure. (It’s what I do.) Sorry I couldn’t post as timely as I did last year (same day), but here’s my account from Day 1. Check back for Days 2 and 3 in the next couple of days.


Perception Kayaks demos how your furry friends can easily join you on your paddling adventures

Perception Kayaks demos how your furry friends can easily join you on your paddling adventures

I’ve learned one thing from my trip to Canoecopia: I’m too old for a good old fashioned overnight 12 hour road trip. I have to deal with this, and accept it. Monday, upon my return from my trip, I walked around like a zombie, basically just waiting for a time that was respectable enough to go to sleep for the night. (Is 8:00 too early?) On Tuesday, I’m still feeling a little dazed.

Lit up at night, the famous capitol building in downtown Madison is the center of a neat pedestrian-friendly street grid.

Lit up at night, the famous capitol building in downtown Madison is the center of a neat pedestrian-friendly street grid.

But of course it was all worth it. I love getting away, getting to talk to a large variety of paddlers, see the latest outdoor products and of course my favourite part, getting to see some great presentations. For those of you who don’t know, Canoecopia is the world’s largest paddling expo, a 3 day event filled with enough exhibitors and speakers to keep even the casual paddler interested and entertained. In fact, we were going to test that theory, as this year a group of friends decided to join me down to Madison, Wisconsin.

This is downtown Madison's ambassador squawking at visitors, and letting us get nice and close for a picture. I'm told he's not so nice to the local small bird population.

This is downtown Madison’s ambassador squawking at visitors, and letting us get nice and close for a picture. I’m told he’s not so nice to the local small bird population.

After reading my write up of the event from last year, one friend had asked whether it was worth it, travelling all that way, even though he wasn’t as hard-core a paddler as I. He decided that 2 days would probably be good enough, with the third he’d travel around visiting the local sites.

Presentations are my favourite attraction to Canoecopia. They have so many, often it's not a matter of finding one that interests you, so much as choosing which of the many going on to attend.

Presentations are my favourite attraction to Canoecopia. They have so many, often it’s not a matter of finding one that interests you, so much as choosing which of the many going on to attend.

Going in a small group meant we had to plan the trip around everyone’s schedules, and it was decided that in order to minimize the amount of vacation time required and the hit to the pocket book, but not miss anything at the show, we’d leave late Thursday, drive overnight, and arrive in time to be there when the doors open on Friday at 4:00. We’d drive and sleep in shifts. What could go wrong? Well, nothing did – and that might have been the problem. Without issues, we arrived at 9:00 AM which sadly was way too early to check into the hotel. We decided to grab a nice breakfast to kill some time. When that wasn’t enough, we walked around the beautiful Madison downtown grid. It’s a great spot, but we were tired, and again we were denied an early check-in (it was only 10:30 AM). Of course, this kind of thing wasn’t going to be a problem to a group of campers. We made camp in the car, napping until our rooms were ready. We totally didn’t look like homeless people, and the sleep was peaceful enough if you imagined the honking cars were loon calls. (The Hyatt was nice enough to give us an early check in by 1:00.)

Cliff Jacobson explains the best way to deal with bears.

Cliff Jacobson explains the best way to deal with bears.

By 4:00, we were napped, showered and ready to be shuttled off to the show. Sadly, because we were staying downtown, we had to rely on shuttles to get to the Alliance center, so we were a bit late and missed the first of my chosen presentations. (Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely pleased with having a shuttle back and forth to the event.) There are so many going on, in over a dozen rooms including a demo pool and workshop areas, all at the same time. As soon as the schedule came out I mapped out which speakers and topics I wanted to see. Some are repeated whereas others are not, so when two that you want to see are on at the same time, you really have some planning to do and choices to make. (I know. Tough life, right?)

David, one of my road trip partners, giving a presentation on Rescue technology

David, of Paddling Headquarters and one of my road trip partners, giving a presentation on Rescue technology

The first presentation I was able to get to was from Cliff Jacobson, noted outdoor writer and guide from Wisconsin. He discussed some of the proper methods and popular misconceptions for dealing with bears. His main points were that prevention and common sense are your best protection, and not the simplified versions usually conveyed by the usual sources. I’m not sure what his experiences are like with the American parks, but I’ve found Parks Canada and Ontario Parks staff seminars on bears quite good, but I completely understand his point on quick notes provided by the general media. His point on misunderstandings on the term “bear proof” is especially poignant. Through the rest of the weekend I noted at least a dozen times where someone called one of those blue food barrels a “Bear Barrel”. They’re not, and to show off just how clever bears can be, Cliff listed many examples of them getting into real bear resistant items – so you can imagine what short work they’d make of a plastic barrel.

I caught Jerry Vandiver meeting with fans after his Friday show. (Note the new Badger Paddles.) We'd see his Saturday show on Day 2 with some fun surprises.

I caught Jerry Vandiver, famous paddle singer/songwriter, meeting with fans after his Friday show. (Note the new Badger Paddles.) We’d see his Saturday show on Day 2 with some fun surprises.

I spent the next presentation segment running between different speakers/friends to get some photographs for them, including one of my road trip mates David Johnston of Paddling HQ. At the very least, I needed to give David a shout-out since he was nice enough to drive for and pay for a quarter of our trip. Ironically, while taking all those pictures I missed a seminar on photography that I meant to attend.

Ontario Parks booth was located in what was called the "Canada Zone". It's great to see how many Americans are planning to come and see our beautiful country.

Ontario Parks booth was located in what was called the “Canada Zone”. It’s great to see how many Americans are planning to come and see our beautiful country.

Like last year, I also offered to help out at the Badger Paddles booth. Basically, I’d give some time for Mike to take a break here and there. And just like last year, Mike needed few breaks – he’s a trooper, and loves to talk paddles with people.  But unlike last year, I challenged myself that since I was so close to selling a paddle at the previous show (my story), resolving that this year I’d finally convince someone to buy a paddle. Not that they need selling, mind you. They’re great paddles, and sold quickly, but the local trend is for wider, shorter bladed paddles, often with a bent shaft.

The freebies and swag were there for the taking, if you knew where to look - like maple syrup candies hidden in a birchbark canoe.

The freebies and swag were there for the taking, if you knew where to look – like maple syrup candies hidden in a birchbark canoe.

Badger paddles were referred to by most people as “Traditional” paddles, and most of the conversations I had were about the advantages of these versus the “regular” paddles. I still find this strange, and often I had to hold back from properly referring to the right style as “regular”. Of course, everyone agreed how great these long paddles looked.

After the success of some other kids paddle sales last year, I found many other paddle makers had special child size paddles, like this one from Sawyer Paddles - complete with places to write the things they see and places they've gone while using their paddles.

After the success of some other kids paddle sales last year, I found many other paddle makers had special child size paddles, like this one from Sawyer Paddles – complete with places to write the things they see and places they’ve gone while using their paddles.

Strangely, I didn’t remember any kids paddles being sold last year, but this year there were plenty. Some had paintings on them, and a really neat idea from Sawyer Paddles was to include places to write down the kid’s adventures they’ve had with the paddle, and even a ruler to measure progress (See picture above). I know some adults who’d want that on their paddle. I also saw a few cute smaller kayak paddles, made as fancy as the adult sized versions. Both ideas are great ones, helping get the next generation enthusiastic about paddling (something pretty necessary considering the electronic, indoor competition for children’s attention).

Rutabaga shows off it's pirate paddle logo on tshirts and water bottles.

Rutabaga shows off it’s pirate paddle logo on tshirts and water bottles. I might need one of these.

I’m not sure if it was just me or not, but I found a lot more in the exhibitor area this year. Maybe that’s because I made an effort to spend a little more time there than last year, when I saved most of that for the third and final day, when a lot of stuff had been sold out by the time I got there.

Icebreaker claims you can wear their shirts for 2 weeks without stinking. I'd be a good candidate to test that theory.

Icebreaker claims you can wear their shirts for 2 weeks without stinking. I’d be a good candidate to test that theory.

I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I made sure to grab things whenever I found something worthy of parting me with my money. I’ll talk more about what I bought in a later post, but needless to say I wish I could have got much more, as there was so many neat things on display. Turns out Canoecopia is not only the world’s largest paddling expo, it’s also an exercise in discipline.

What are these things? Tune in tomorrow (or check back for Canoecopia Day 2)

What are these things and why are they such a cool idea? Tune in tomorrow (or check back for Canoecopia Day 2).

After a long day of travel, sporadic sleep, wandering through the city, seminars and shopping, I was ready to get back to the hotel and grab a bite to eat. (We found a great fancy burger joint downtown, with reasonable prices and decadent shakes.) I crashed quickly, soon to dream about all that I’d see on Day 2.

Watch for posts for Day 2 and Day 3 at Canoecopia.

Making the most of the Ontario Outdoor Adventure Show

My favourite photo from last year’s Outdoor Adventure Show. Alan from demonstrating the benefits of carrying a spare paddle.

This upcoming weekend one of my favourite outdoor events is taking place: The Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show. (Read last year’s report here.) This year looks like it’s going to be an even better event than years past. If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to miss the best stuff, and so you might want to go in with a game-plan. Since I’ve done the research already, I might as well share with you what I’ve learned to expect at this year’s event. See below for coupons to save a bit of money and ways you can keep up with the event remotely.

What to look for:

  • Legendary Hap Wilson will be visiting the  Swift Canoe and Kayak booth on Sunday from 12-3 pm signing books, talking about tripping and the Path of the Paddle project as well. This is definitely something you don’t want to miss.
  • Kevin Callan – As usual, the Happy Camper will be presenting twice in the Ontario Outdoor Adventures Theatre: “Tales of a Wilderness Wanderer” (Sat 12:30, Sun 12:00) and “How to be a Better Camp Cook” (Sat 3:30).
  • Kevin will also be hanging out at the Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co. and Ontario Tourism booths as well. (Andy from Treks in the Wild will be helping out at the Ontario Tourism booth, so if you want expert advice when Kevin’s not around, ask for him.)
  • Speaking of Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co., they’re also hosting Sticks and Stones Wilderness School as well as Jeffrey McMurtrie (Saturday), creator of Jeff’s Map (formerly Algonquin Online Map).
  • Demos at the pool including favourites Swift Canoe and Kayak,, The Muskoka Paddle Shack and the Complete Paddler.
  • Henry’s School of Imaging booth is offering free 30 minute photography seminars throughout the weekend.
  • Mud Hero mini obstacle course (sans the mud, probably a good choice). If this is for big people too, I may have to try it. Someone needs to get my picture (unless I fall, of course).
  • Sat 1:30 – Les Stroud, aka Survivorman in the G Adventures Theatre
  • Sun 2:00 – Olympic silver medalist and adventurer Adam van Koeverden in the G Adventures Theatre. See Adam kayaking around with Rick Mercer here.

Some resources:

Can’t be there? You can keep up to date from tweets and Facebook updates from a few of the people and companies I know will be active (or at least have something to say):

Oh, and me too! FacebookTwitter. Hope to see you there.

On Love and Paddling

It’s Valentines Day today. Now I’m not all that touchy-feely, and I’m one of those people who is torn on the idea of this “holiday”. But then again, it is a good excuse to show the ones you care about how you feel. So just like any holiday where you’re supposed to do something (i.e. buy something), if done with the right intentions, why not? (Incidentally, did your mom make you give Valentines to everyone in your class? As a kid I found that weird, and embarrassing. I mean, I did NOT want to give the wrong impression – especially to that girl who always wanted to sit beside me during reading time. But at least if everyone got one, the implication of something more isn’t there. That said, I do remember making sure a couple of girls got one just slightly bigger than the others. But I digress….)

Happy Valentines Day

Happy Valentines Day

This isn’t a website about holidays or love or candy, so I’m going to talk about love from a tripping perspective. Whether it’s romantic or parental or even just a strong bond with someone – or a furry friend for that matter – there are plenty of ways love is expressed out in the back-country. Here are just some of the ways I’ve experienced, witnessed or listened to in stories:

Love Is:

  • … Quietly keeping the canoe straight for a new paddler, telling them their doing just fine when asked.
  • … Letting someone think they’re doing a great job keeping you straight.
  • … Compliments, even when “it’s not a big deal”.
  • … Sneaking some of the heavier items into your own pack.
  • … Staying up late the night before a trip to prepare some special treat.
  • … Offering up the last bit of chocolate when the treats have been exhausted.
  • … “You first.”
  • … “I’ll go first.”
  • … Slaving over a campfire to make an elaborate meal.
  • … Telling someone you like it better burnt.
  • … Offering to do the dishes.
  • … Buying someone a piece of gear that makes their trip a little more comfortable – or even fashionable.
  • … Getting into the canoe from the muddy spot.
  • … Not laughing, no matter how hard that might be, and no matter how dirty/wet/ungraceful someone got.
  • … Smiling.
  • … Bringing some things you normally might not on a portage trip.
When you see something like this, you take a quick picture, don't look around for the owners, and quickly move on.

When you see something like this, you take a quick picture (if you must), but don’t look around for the owners. Most importantly, quickly move on.

  • … Lying about how your side of the tent is soft enough when one of the sleeping pads deflate.
  • … What I got, I said remember that. (Sorry, I hate that song too, but it got in my head writing this.)
  • … Taking an extra shift driving home.
  • … Resisting every urge to fall asleep so you can keep the driver company.
  • … Asking for directions, you know, just to be sure.
  • … Telling someone they’re even prettier dirty and natural.
  • … Telling someone they don’t smell that bad at all.
  • … Making sure someone’s little face is clean the whole trip, no matter how an uphill battle it seems to be.
  • … Being vocally impressed by how someone carried that little, but obviously quite heavy bag, almost the whole length of a portage.
  • … Bringing a lot more “Gummy” food items than you would normally.
  • … Being the one who steps up and says it’s time to rest.
  • … Sharing body heat with a plugged nose.
  • … Band aids with Spiderman on them.
  • … Standing guard but out of site of the privy.
  • … Watching a sunset with an arm around the shoulders and a head against a chest.
  • … Checking to see if it was a bear, when you are certain it was a squirrel.
  • … Not saying “I told you so” and packing an extra rain coat.
  • … That look across the campfire. It’s even better when light is flickering.
  • … A welcome home hug, even when it goes against every instinct.

… And of course,  love is, most of all, wanting to share great experiences together.

Paddles Together

Paddles Together

Nancy Postscript

One of the funniest experiences I’ve had with Nancy was on our very first portage trip, shortly after adopting her from the SPCA. We had known each other for less than 10 months by this point and I think finally at a point where she truly started to trust me. It was late September and on one of those really cold spells that happen – you know the kind, where you freeze your butt off for 2 days only to be sweating (off whatever you still have of that same butt) for the next 2 days from all the extra gear you had to bring for the cold. Anyway, Nancy and I had a problem the first day getting out on the water, so we instead drove out to our property in South River to camp out the night and try again in the morning. It was freezing (!) that night. As we lied in the tent, Nancy could not stop shivering, but strangely, kept herself curled in a little ball as far as she could possibly be from me. I took my sleeping bag and spread it out more, to give a second layer for her sleeping mat that was clearly not doing a good enough job keeping the cold ground from sucking up all her heat. I tapped it, telling her to get on but she shyly stood still, probably not knowing what I was asking of her. So I picked her up and put her down on the sleeping bag. She stayed about 30 seconds before getting up and moving back to the corner. (Talk about insulting. She’d rather freeze than sleep beside me? I was certain I had put on deodorant, but then again, it was a long drive.)

I picked her up again and put her back, then pet her so she wouldn’t move, hoping she’d get a little warm and understand it’s better over here. It worked, but she was still shivering. So I unzipped my sleeping bag, wrapped what I could over myself, then took the bit of fabric left over and draped it over her. After a little while she was still shivering, and so was I. Nuts to this. I re-worked the sleeping gear, putting her mat on my sleeping pad, covered it with the sleeping bag, got in and zipped it up half way. I then lied on my side so there would be room for Nancy, grabbed her and put her right beside me and covered us both with the sleeping bag.

Well! She gave me this look that I can only describe as what someone would do when a date was being a little too forward, as if to say “Um… Yeah… I don’t think we’re really there yet.” It was polite, but clear. At this point she got up and went back to the corner of the tent. Then of course, she quickly went back to shivering.

“Fine!” I said, “let’s go.” I opened the tent, grabbed all the sleeping gear and made a crazy-cold dash towards the car. I setup up a rather uncomfortable bed in the backseat, with a little spot made up for the cold dog. It would be cramped, but I couldn’t bear the thought of her freezing on the cold ground. I don’t know if you’ve ever slept in a car, but it always seems like a better idea until you try it. When I finally found a comfortable sleeping position (legs hanging up by the window, neck twisted against the door), and saw that Nancy was comfortable in her little spot near my feet (or where they should have been), I finally dozed off. When I woke, I was pretty sore. Not a fun sleep. I was also a little annoyed, because there was Nancy, no longer in her spot, but in the front seat alone. I wonder how long she’d been up there by herself. For my own sanity, or maybe pride, I’ve chosen to believe shortly before I woke, being too hot from her comfy spot, she decided to cool down in the front. Yeah, that must be what happened.

Little did I know that only a short while later I would be complaining about a certain spotted someone always pushing up against me in bed. (Quiet complaining, mind you. Save for a few moments here and there, I wouldn’t have it any other way.)


Where were you planning on sleeping?

Where were you planning on sleeping?

BioLite Campstove

“Did you also bring you’re BioLite?”

“No, because I figured you would.”

— A conversation I had 3 times this year.

The BioLite CampStove

The BioLite CampStove

Must get new gadget

In December of 2011, I stumbled on a little gadget that was being introduced. It was a camping stove fueled by twigs and other small cast-off materials, used a fan to make burning more effecient, and most importantly, didn’t need installed batteries because – get this – it used the thermal energy created to charge the internal battery. AND it stored the excess power so you can even use it to charge your electric peripherals (camera, batteries, cell phone etc.). All this in a unit as big as a large water bottle. I had to get one.

I pre-ordered one immediately. They suggested it would be ready some time early in the next year’s camping season. I couldn’t wait. Then the emails started coming in. Everyone I knew it seemed, was sending me links to this camping stove that could charge your cell phone. At least 8 friends told me they ordered one, usually telling me I should get one as well. We all waited, getting the occasional teaser update by BioLite, and we got a little present for pre-ordering: a wood burned carving of the BioLite logo. What was fun about it was that they suggested that we save it to use the carving as fuel for our stove’s first use. Nice touch, BioLite.

Just how badly I wanted this stove

When it arrived in June, I was in a hotel room in Europe (Arnhem, The Netherlands). I got a voicemail from UPS, saying I owed them some customs brokerage fees (see below) before they could deliver the stove because it was being shipped to Canada from The States. Roaming charges from being in Europe did not deter me from calling them back. I wanted to make sure I got my stove, and paid them over the phone by credit card. I had it re-directed to my mother. I stressed to the lady on the phone to make sure she charges me everything now, even their elevated brokerage fees. I did this so that my non-driver mother wouldn’t need to have cash on hand. In short, I wanted to make sure there was no reason not to deliver the stove, as I was a week or so away from being home. They still wound up charging my mother more money when it arrived, but thankfully she had the extra $27 dollars lying around somewhere. In the end, I think I wound up paying for 3 stoves. This stove better be worth it! (If this is deterring you from getting yourself one, see below for good news.)

Using my CampStove on Grace Lake

Using my CampStove on Grace Lake

How it works

I was really excited about the idea behind this stove. First, it had all the advantages of being a stick-stove, so for example bringing along gas based fuel is not necessary and contains the fire in a small area to make best use of small amounts of twigs and bark or whatever else is lying around. Next, it uses a fan to make fuel use more efficient, accelerating and concentrating the heat (like blowing on the coals constantly, without loosing your breath). And of course its cylinder shape focuses the flames to your cooking surface. These are all important factors in the CampStove design, but BioLite didn’t actually set out to create a neat little gadget for campers.

“If we were to think about the three biggest problems affecting our world. Any socially conscience person would have to include poverty, disease and climate change. And yet there is one thing that causes all three of these simultaneously. That we pay no attention to, even though a very good solution exists.”

Ethan Kay, BioLite’s Managing Director of Emerging Markets at TEDx Montreal. See the full presentation here.

Originally, BioLite set out to solve a huge global issue by making home stoves in developing countries safe and efficient. The full size version of their design is called the HomeStove, and it has been nominated for several humanitarian awards because it has the potential to reduce wood consumption (50%), smoke (95%) and black carbon (source) and most importantly making it safer for cooking. Open fire cooking, which much of the world still practices – 3 Billion people –  can be dangerous and is definitely inefficient. Considering in many places how much time is spend just gathering wood to cook (not all the world has our dense supply of trees), I would imagine a stove that uses half as much would be very appealing. Add to this that the HomeStove is basically a big multi-fuel stick-stove, and so can burn smaller material, less material and even residual material, like the unconsumable  portions of crops or even cow dung.  BioLite is currently working with existing “carbon-credit off-set programs” (in Europe, for example), to make this stove affordable to the poorest of the poor.

Now add to this the fact that BioLite has included a device that converts the heat generated into powering the fan, means that no power is required to run the stove – no batteries or electric outlets required. Great idea, isn’t it? And again, any excess energy created can then be used to charge up electronic devices or stored in rechargeable batteries for later use.

This is a great, helpful idea. I’ll be honest. I would probably buy a CampStove because it stands on its own as a great idea and a helpful piece of gear and a neat little gadget to have. But knowing that by buying one I’m supporting what BioLite is trying to do in distributing HomeStoves and its helpful technology, well, that’s why I was willing to pay the price to get one.

The design makes for efficient use of fire.

The design makes for efficient use of fire.

That good news I was talking about

But here’s the thing: Now you don’t have to pay what I did, or go through the same trouble trying to import the stove. Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) will soon be selling the CampStove, currently offering pre-orders. At $130 it’s only $1 more than I paid from BioLite, without the importation, brokerage (and apparently gratuitous UPS) fees I had to pay. AND, they often offer free shipping so watch for that as well.

Using your BioLite Campstove

The CampStove is pretty easy to use. Simply collect some fuel – whatever twigs and sticks are lying around, or even some burnable trash (though avoid anything that would gunk up your stove after burning, like plastic).  Pull out the power-pack/fan stored in the cylinder and attach it to the outside by inserting the thermal sensor first, and unfold the stove’s legs (which will also lock on the power-pack/fan). Next, throw in your twigs (or whatnot) and light your fire, and click the power button once to start the fan on low. Once the fire gets going, push the button again to set the fan on high. That’s it. Pretty easy, eh?

You’ll be amazed at how efficiently this device burns. Keep an eye on the amount of fuel you have, because you’ll want to add more well before it burns out so you don’t waste cooking time, especially if you have to re-light your fire. As for charging your device, you’ll need to wait until the energy has built up enough to the point where it has more than it needs to run the fan. A light at the front of the device turns from yellow to green when charging is possible.

***Note: Before you take it into the back-country, charge the stove’s battery (it comes with a USB cord). This conditions the battery for its full capacity. You should only have to do this once per season. I do know however, that it does work without doing this, but not optimally. (In other words, I forgot to do this, and while it’s not optimal, I didn’t have any problems.)

What I like about it

I’ve touched on it already, having the advantages of being a stick-stove, so there’s that. It also works as advertised, which we can all appreciate with other promises made by gadgets and gear. It burns well, boils water as quickly as a gas stove, it runs a fan without a battery and even charges electronics. With the folding legs it’s also extremely stable considering it’s vertical design. (Campers who use a screw-on-top of a butane canister can appreciate this point.)

It’s also relatively light at 972 g (2.14 lbs) and small, around the size of a large water bottle when stored. Is that light and small for ultra-light backpacking? Not at all. It’s only considered light because it replaces some other gear, namely your typical gas powered stove with fuel, plus a battery pack for charging your electronics. Compared to other fan-based stick-stoves, this is actually the lightest one I’ve seen. I’ve taken mine on several trips this year and it hasn’t disappointed. It’s also kind of fun to play with, and a great conversation piece. When I bring it out with a group who hasn’t yet seen the CampStove, a crowd gathers.

Not for nothing, this stove makes for a great emergency preparedness tool. Many other multi-fuel or stick-stoves advertise that, but not only will this stove work independent of power, but might even charge up a flashlight, or get you enough juice to make a call while cooking or warming you up.

Feeding the BioLite

Feeding the BioLite

What I don’t like

I found that the top of the CampStove can be a little awkward for holding smaller camping pots. You really need to make sure to set it properly because it barely fits my 1 liter cooking pots. And be careful, because once your water boils, the shaking will make it unstable. So maybe don’t leave it to boil unattended. (Also, if you’re charging a cell phone or something, if that pot falls off it could be quite costly.)

The only other negative things I can say would be based around the disadvantages of being a stick-stove: You have to start a fire, even in the rain. It gets a little dirty because of the residue. You need to keep feeding and managing the fire, lifting the pots off each time. I think the advantages outweigh this small problems myself, but you might feel differently. You may even considering bringing one along on trips with larger groups where multiple stoves are needed or more convenient. Take along one gas powered stove and the BioLite, each for their own advantages.

If I had to nit-pick, the only real problem I have with it is the thermal sensor. It sticks out a little when stored inside the cylinder, and I worry that it might get damaged while stuffed down in my pack. So far that hasn’t been a problem. Also, when it gets dirty from burning wood (unlike clean burning gas), the sensor gets some gunk on it making you have to force it into the cylinder a bit, though slightly, which again I worry might break the sensor in the long term.

But what I really don’t like 

I don’t like some of the things written about the energy conversion and charging. You may have even noticed I’ve been downplaying this particular feature. I’ve seen the posts and the forum discussions and I started to get a little frustrated thinking people were missing the point of this stove. Sadly, most of what’s been written about the stove promotes it primarily as a device that charges your cell phone, and incidentally cooks your food. It does do this. It can charge your devices. BUT, it’s not the best way to do it. If you need electricity, bring a solar charger. They’re way better. For instance, while boiling 2 liters of water and letting it burn out afterwards, I was able to charge a dead cell phone to barely 10%.  (The cell phone was not dead on purpose – that’s another story – but since we had it, we figured this would make for a great test subject.) That used up about five or six handfuls of solid wood (no larger than the device) and about a half an hour all told. In the same amount of time, my solar panel would create twice the energy. It can also be set and left alone to charge away, unlike a stove that requires supervision and feeding. (In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking about electric power and some of the best ways you can manage and create it while out in the woods.)

One problem some have expressed, is that with the creation of this device, people are going to be hacking down forests to charge their iPhones. These people, if they exist, are in for a disappointment. If you’re car camping, paying campground prices for wood, just to play some music or call back home, it’s going to be pretty expensive. This device might not be the best car-camping stove anyway. This device, when used and promoted properly, actually lessens your environmental impact and saves trees (and to a lesser extent, cleans up campsites) by using of all those piles of little supposedly unusable sticks and such.

I think a big problem is that BioLite’s promotional photos have an iPhone being charged. This offends a lot of campers just out of principle – the dreaded “cell phone” in the outdoors, and I guess the thinking is that this kind of device would encourage that kind of thing. Even if it did, that’s really their missed opportunity, and you’re doing it (camping) wrong if you let it bother you. And so, having a CampStove is now pulling you into the debate about being too plugged in, and how it’s all about getting away from it all. On the other hand, other people see that iPhone and don’t understand that BioLite doesn’t put up cell phone towers in the back-country. You can charge your phone all you like, but it doesn’t mean you can call anyone. Either way, I wish they’d emphasize more practical things to charge, like your emergency (weather) radio, your GPS, your flashlight/headlamp.

Let me put it to you like this: Even if this device wasn’t able to charge anything, I would still take it with me. It’s the fan and the cylinder shape that are the key to a high powered stick-stove – which leaves a lesser impact on the environment because you’re burning less material and using up material that wouldn’t normally be bothered with –  twigs, pinecones, etc. (So if you’re chopping anything down, you’re SO doing it wrong.) In other similar stoves, you need to keep batteries with you, possibly charge them, and even dispose of them. For example, the Vital Stove (which I’ll review soon) has an external plastic battery holder that is fragile, can easily be misplaced, and makes its features useless when the battery runs out. 3 times I brought the Vital Stove with dead batteries because as I packed it the “On” switch was flipped. Without the fan, it’s just a small, heavy, metal box to burn stuff in, and there are much better ones out there. The fact that I don’t have to manage that, plus all the other features I mention, make this stove worth it. The power-charging part should be looked on as a secondary, bonus feature.

I like my BioLite CampStove

I like my BioLite CampStove

Final Word

I love this stove. It works great, and lives up to my expectations. Don’t buy this stove if charging is the primary reason, because there’s better options out there. Don’t buy this stove if you either the idea of stick-stoves are not appealing to you, or if you’re into ultra-light backpacking and its advantages don’t seem to be worth the weight. (Oh, and don’t buy this stove if you believe it will somehow force you to update your Facebook status because it has an iPhone in the picture.)

Otherwise, buy this stove for a great piece of gear, a great working stick-stove, and to support a forward-thinking company. Oh, and it’s fun too.

How My New Canoe Came to Be

Warning: I’m going to sound like I’m overly-gushing about Swift Canoe & Kayak, to the point where you might think I get paid by them. I don’t. I just they’ve been very nice to me and I really like their canoes. It also helps that they’re a Canadian company, built in a factory in one of my favourite little towns, South River, ON, where I spent much of my youth. Also, as I’ve come to learn during my long search for a new canoe last year, they employ some really great, helpful people. 

So your local pond or river is frozen. You’re stuck inside or have a bunch of white stuff to step through. You’re overly clothed, probably sporting one of those Christmas-present-sweaters to appease a loved one. You’re dreaming about being out on the water. You may even be pathetically sitting by a window, staring out like they do in the movies when the protagonist is conveying melancholic longing (in some kind of fuzzy, 3-D reindeer sweater). You flip through outdoor gear catalogs, and visit canoeing websites and skim through to pictures of warm sunny days. It’s all you can do to wait for the water to thaw so you can get back out there. What are you to do until spring?

Nancy, longing to go portaging.

Nancy, longing to go portaging.

Outdoor Shows!

Yeah, this time of year is hard on paddlers, for the most part. But, did you know this is the best time of year for gear shopping and outdoor shows? Yep. Coming up this weekend is the Toronto Boat show (Jan 12-20). I normally don’t attend that one as it mainly deals with non-man-powered watercraft, but there are some canoe and kayak companies there. Up next is the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show (Feb 22-24), which I’ll probably hang out at all weekend to meet up with outdoor friends and catch all the presentations.

Speaking of presentations, Canoecopia comes next in March, which is quickly becoming my favourite outdoor show. It’s in Wisconsin, but it’s a great chance to see all the different exhibitors that I normally don’t have access to, up hear north of the border. What  really makes it worth the travel to get down there is seeing all the great speakers and presentations. Incidentally, I’m organizing a bus trip there, so if you’ve ever wanted to go but the expense of traveling is holding you back, checkout for the details. Tell your friends too, because the more people go, the cheaper the trip becomes for everyone.

Canoecopia 2013 Road Trip

But if you can’t make it, there’s still the Outdoor + Adventure Travel Show in Ottawa (Mar 16-17), then the Spring Cottage Life Show (April 5-7).

Wait… I thought this was going to be about your canoe?

The other great reason to do the outdoor show circuit is that this is actually the best time for boat shopping. You get to see all the new models, talk to the manufacturers and even see some demos. Immersing yourself in canoes can do wonders to keep the Frozen Offseason Blues as bay. It was last year that I did exactly that, and took advantage of all the access to canoe building companies to find out what options were available to me.

The following pictures were sent to me by the good folks at Swift Canoe & Kayak, and I’ve been dying to find an excuse to share them. Turns out they are so nice over there that they sent me photos of my new canoe during the building process. As you go through these pictures, imagine for a moment, a little egg with something special inside about to emerge, while humming the theme from 2001 A Space Odyssey. (Go with me on this; it’ll be better that way. You don’t want my lame attempt at typing the song out.)

The beginning: My canoe gets formed.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

It took a while for me to finally get my canoe, because I was picky. I wanted what I wanted. I suppose I could have saved some money and bought a canoe that was already made or taking advantage of the off-season deals at outdoor shows. When I’d see the sales guys and chat with them at a show or demo, they would constantly want to save me a little money reminding me of this. The Swift people even searched around for an available Osprey model (when I was finally settled on the model). But they were never  exactly what I wanted, and as tempted as I was to have my new canoe immediately, I continued to be particular (read: difficult), because as I mentioned, I wanted what I wanted.

The Osprey ready to come out of it’s shell
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

The whole Swift team was very accommodating. They were both patient with my demands, and of course listening to me prattle on about what I wanted in my new canoe, especially when I was torn between different options. Those poor guys – and they never once made me feel as if I was boring them. I’m sure I did. I’m sure Jon and Mike saw me coming up to the booth at one of the outdoor shows thinking “Uh-oh, this guy.” But as a testament to how great they are, they never once let me know it. (I kid. Who wouldn’t want to talk about canoes all day?)

The first crack out of the shell reveals the integrated Carbon Kevlar trim
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

I must have babbled on to at least 3 or 4 sales guys about the material alone. I could save a couple of pounds here or there, or get a little bit more durability. Then there was the Flax Fusion Dilemma, a more ecologically responsible material, but that only came in the one colour. (I was told later that you can of course add a paint coat, but that would add weight.) Then again, this problem might actually help me decide on material. Do I like the yellowish brown of the Flax? Actually I do. But was I set on the very sleek looking blue over white (Kevlar Fusion)? Yeah… I don’t know. I even put it up for debate on Facebook at some point. (If I ever do buy a kayak – and I’m not saying this is something I’m even thinking of doing – but if I was in the market for a kayak, I would get it in the Flax Fusion. This is a seriously good looking kayak.)

The Osprey emerges…
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

The best advice I got from my impromptu Facebook market research, was that my logo would look best set against the dark blue, and the white bottom would not show scratches as much. Sold! Blue and white it is. As you can see from the pictures above and below, I made the right choice. I haven’t put a Portageur decal on the canoe just yet, but I can embarrassingly say that the scratches I put on the boat in mere hours after picking it up, do not, in fact, show (on the bottom).

There it is, all new and fresh. Next, they’ll put on thwarts, seats and all.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

Just look at that fresh and clean canoe shell (above). What they needed to do at this point is to install some of the neatest features I opted for. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons for deciding on the Osprey was that you could get what they call a “Combi Seat”. As you can see the the pictures below, this is a kayak seat that can be switched back and forth with the standard canoe seat. This gives you the ability to use the canoe traditionally, but also as a Pack Canoe when you so desired. I even made sure to have them add foot braces for that reason.  To switch the seats, you simply unscrew the wing-nuts on the bottom of the seat frame, slide one of the seats out and the other back in. Even for me, a guy who likes to make things more complicated for some reason, and was all crazy excited to get the canoe in the water, this was pretty easy to do.

Thwarts and seat installed, now for the foot braces.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

I like this idea because it gives me a little more freedom to have the speed using a kayak paddle to keep up with kayaking friends or tandem canoes, but still have the storage space and the portagability (totally a real word) of a canoe. I also made sure to get a molded removable yoke. Swift has great ones, by the way, and it’s important to get a good one. (Solo canoes require a yoke that is removable, because of where the seat is located.) Others I’ve used are flat, sitting on your shoulders painfully awkward, and often don’t attach to the canoe smoothly. I don’t know how many times I’ve given up on these things. Ironically, while it’s supposed to be helpful on the portage, it’s a hindrance, then becomes dead weight that you have to carry around with you. The last few times I’ve had the option, I’ve just left those thin, flat yokes at the outfitters.

There it is, pretty much done.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

When I took the canoe for it inaugural trip, I was confronted by a new delimma. Which seat should I put in for it’s first trip? It made sense to put in the kayak seat, as I found myself at Opeongo Lake – a big, open, potentially windy lake – on a quick overnight trip with no portages. This seemed perfectly appropriate for kayak-style canoeing. But in the end, I needed to canoe this boat, and I had waited all that time. I paddled out to a great camping spot (single bladed).

One last shot before they send it out.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

I’m not saying you should go out and buy a boat right now, or even ever if it suits your needs more to simply rent. But if you’re going to buy, this is the time to start looking. Talk to someone at the outdoor shows, get all the information you can, and definitely take a test paddle. If it all works out, this time of year is when you’ll get the best discounts. And when you’re at the upcoming outdoor shows, stop by the Swift Canoe & Kayak booth. Tell them I sent you, but most importantly, that you won’t be as difficult as I was.

The Swift Factory Crew – Big thanks for making such a great canoe.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

Portageur Gift Buying Guide

tl;dr version: Gift Cards, Toilet Paper. (And repeating Tina Fey’s name enough in the hopes she’ll read it.)

You can’t go wrong with Toilet Paper or a Gift Card

Giving gifts to anyone can be a bit of a challenge. If a camper, canoeist or any type of outdoorsy person is on your list, it might seem a little more difficult, especially if you’re not one. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been known to get a few hits now and then, and I’m proud to say even the occasional home-run. The reason is that I use a few guidelines I’ve adapted over the years. While this has been written focusing on gifts for the outdoors person, I think you’ll find that these principals are universally applicable. I’ve also decided to focus on things you can get together relatively quickly and cheaply, assuming that if you wanted to buy something fancy you’d probably have an idea of what that is, and would have got it by now.

1 – Acceptance

Accept and remember this:

  • Giving gifts is about your intent and receiving gifts is about the thought behind it. What is given, no matter what it is, is the effort thinking about the gift’s receiver, not whatever the it actually turns out to be. In other words, if you’ve put in some thought to it, there’s no such thing as a bad gift.
  • GIFT CARDS are a totally under-rated gift, when used properly.
  • A hit might not mean your gift gets used, or displayed prominently or worn all the time. Leave it at that, and don’t be giving the person an obligation on top of your gift.
  • Learn from gifts. It’s an opportunity to find out more about the gifter and the receiver, but also what works and what doesn’t, present-wise.
  • Some people don’t accept gifts well. Whether there’s a materialistic reason or an appreciation standpoint, next time, get them a GIFT CARD – or quite frankly, nothing. Which reminds me….
  • Know to whom to give gifts. A pretty accurate rule of thumb is that if you feel you have to give a gift, reconsider. If you want to give a gift, you should.
  • The same thing I constantly say about portaging is the same for gift giving: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Apply those lessons and you’ll be amazed at how stress free the process can be.

2 – Shared interests

I very strongly believe that your gift to someone should reflect a common interest. After all it’s coming from you. It’s like two gifts in one, or a power-up, making your gift a little bit better. So if you’re not an outdoors person, consider finding another shared interest (keep reading for when to break this rule). If you are an outdoor person, then giving gifts should be easy, as you know the kind of gear they’d want and need. If you know specifically what they want, then you don’t need to be reading this. Then again, you may not know what they already have.  An even better power-up to your gift would be to give the gift of doing something with them in the outdoors.

Create a postcard and plan a trip

Create a postcard and plan a trip

Some ideas:

  • You know some things that every outdoor person uses often. Create a care package for next year’s trips with stuff like TOILET PAPER, rope, carabiners, etc.
  • Maps of places you’d recommend, that you know they’d like, or that you’ve both spoke about visiting.
  • Get a card and write in a tentative date and place where the two of you will be going.
  • Instead of a Christmas card, print out a picture of that place and write the details on the back (like a postcard).
  • A coupon, or coupon book detailing what you guys can do together. (This one’s lower on the list because it’s a bit over-done lately and runs the risk of seeming unoriginal. Besides, all the coupons for hugs I’ve given away never seem to get redeemed – I’m talking to you Tina Fey.)
  • GIFT CARD to a store you know that they’ll get something nice. Since you’re in the know, try getting one from somewhere a little less popular and specific.

3 – Avoid getting in over your head

Even if you know the person well enough, you might not know as much as them about their gear interests and preferences. If you’re not into the outdoors, or not as hard-core as your friend, you may be tempted to get them something you think they might like. But the problem is that you might not know what they have already or what they prefer (you’d be amazed at how many different types of the same gear there is out there). Sure, it’s the intent, but if you’re looking to get something that will collect some goodwill and less dust, try to avoid specific gear.

A fun backcountry dessert. It's novel, probably not something they'd buy for themselves, but it'll get used.

A fun backcountry dessert. It’s novel, probably not something they’d buy for themselves, but it’ll get used.

Some ideas:

  • Since you’re not an outdoorsy person, here’s a list of some small stocking stuffers that support their outdoor pursuits: TOILET PAPER, first aid supplies, camp meals, batteries, waterproof matches, dry bags, stuff sacks, etc.
  • GIFT CARD – it turns into a gift from a knowledgable person, the receiver.
  • There are plenty of cross-over items that you can find that you might like or recommend that can be used camping. Think trail mix, granola bars, instant breakfast, instant coffee (though this would be the only stuff I’d personally recommend), or something else that isn’t food, like TOILET PAPER, for example.
  • Books are always a great idea. You can either find one on the outdoors, nature, instruction or how-to, travel guides, survival, anything really. In fact, most campers like to have a book or two on the trail, especially for those lazy, rainy days. Even an off-topic book will do in a pinch (like a biography for example), but in any case, look for small, light paperbacks as they’ll be carrying them into the woods.

4 – Make a statement

What does a gift really say? On face value, it says “I like you enough to buy you something”, or in the worst case “I’m related to you close enough that I feel I need to buy you something”. (I’m really not that cynical, seriously.) But you also have an opportunity to say something. If you buy some camping gear, you’re telling the receiver that you both acknowledge and support their pursuits. In other words, “I know you; I’m interested in your interests, and I want you to continue to have a great time doing them”. You’d be surprised at how good that makes people feel. Note however, that if you buy something that can or should be used by multiple people, the inference might be that you want to join them (and so if that’s not the case, be careful). If you really want to make an impression, don’t leave the receiver of your gift with the job of interpreting your gift. Get a card and write your statement.

"I support your love of camping, and I give you this because want to help you do it. Also, please use before coming back home."

“I support your love of camping, and I give you this because want to help you do it. Also, please use this before coming back home.”

Some ideas:

  • Once again, stuff some stockings with the little things that show your support: TOILET PAPER, zip-lock bags, soap…
  • A compass, with a card that reads something along the lines of “Have fun out there, just make sure to come back home.”
  • Gift Card, inside a card that reads something like:
    • “To keep you paddling – and taking those great pictures.”
    • “Love your stories from the wilderness. Hope this helps making new ones.”
    • “I have no idea why you’d want to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully this might help make the experience a little more comfortable.” (Optionally ending with “You Weirdo”, depending on your level of friendship.)
  • Here’s a real novel idea: Why not give the gift of participation? If you’re not into canoeing or camping or portaging, but think you might like to try it, why not let your gift be an offer to go with you? Personally, I’d love this. I’m not sure why no one has ever thought to give me this – I’m talking to you Tina Fey!.

5 – Tell a story 

Remember that time we all … Do you remember that crazy incident involving the … I was laughing the other day about the time we …

If you share a memory with someone from a trip or an experience with someone, why not make your gift a reminder of that great time you shared? Get yourself a card, write out something about that incident, and stick it to something you should have had on the trip, or that was used for something other than it’s original purpose, or that replaces something that broke, or even something that might prevent it from happening again. Don’t worry too much about the “thing” your giving, so much as the laughs and good memories (even if they weren’t so good at the time). Just think about that-thing-that-happened-but-you-can-laugh-about-it-now, and I’m sure something will come to you.

A favourite gift given to me is a framed set of pictures of one of Nancy's first trips

A favourite gift given to me is a framed set of pictures of one of Nancy’s first trips

Some ideas (to stimulate your memory, but inspired by my own experiences):

  • Map, compass, book on orienteering or even a water-proof map holder to that someone who gets you or themselves lost.  Another idea would be to get a topographical map of an exotic, far away location, insinuating that they (or in case they ever) get you or themselves really, really lost.
  • TOILET PAPER – for (or from) that guy who always leaves it at home, or worse, out in the rain.
  • Pepto Bismal – Maybe your friend isn’t a good cook. Maybe you weren’t on one eventful night
  • Aloe, balm, burn ointment, band aids – Someone get burned, cut or pass through (or misused) poison ivy?
  • Bug spray – You have to have a story about a bad bug trip.
  • Some kind of water-proof case – To remind you of that time you donated something to the lady of the lake.
  • Bear bell – Remember that time you spent a night huddled in the tent?
  • Squirrel bell – Same as a bear bell, but you have to re-label it (masking tape will do). Do you have a (or are you the) friend who thinks everything that makes a noise in the woods is a bear?
  • Gift Card – To replace something that broke at the worst time.
  • And for less funny and more sentimental, find a nice frame and put something (or a few things) in it:
    • Pictures of your trips together
    • Pictures of places you want to go
    • The permit from your last great trip
    • Make a story from a frame with a few spots (I don’t know the technical term for the frame spots. Photo holes?), in each tear off something flat from previous trips like a piece of a rain coat, used rope, that kind of thing.
  • Less outdoorsy and more of a novelty would be to print out a fake restraining order, like the one Tina Fey sent me. It looks pretty authentic too. She’s so funny.

Any of these things remind you of a little incident or funny story from last year’s trip? Get it, wrap it, then attach a card reminiscing.

7 – And finally, know when to throw out the rules

As you shop around to fulfill any of the guidelines listed  above, you might come across something and be suddenly hit with the realization that you’ve found the perfect gift. If there’s no doubt, just get it. When you know, you know. And don’t forget, if you find something but it’s too late to get it, you can always get a card and include a picture of what they’ll eventually be receiving. You might seem reluctant to do this because of the impression of giving an IOU, but if you write up your intentions, you’d be surprised at how much that makes up for it. People like to hear you’re thinking about and care for them, and the empty gift might be just the excuse you need to express that.

You know what Johnnie needs: A water proof toilet paper holder! ( )

You know what Johnnie needs: A water proof toilet paper holder! ( )

Some  other, random ideas:

  1. Buy a large can of beer (or any other beverage that would be appropriate for the receiver like those big ice tea things), attach a card with this link: – or choose from any other beer can stove instructions. Alternatively for a group gift, you can buy a six pack, attach a bow and a card that tells the recipients when to come over to help you empty and recycle the cans.
  2. Order up a box of Altoids and include a link in the card on creating a survival kit. Alternatively, if you have the time, purchase all the items in the kit, and wrap them all separately. Make sure they open the altoids first, then the contents of the kit, then finally give them the card with the link.
  3. For the Christmas theme: Get some Gold Duct TapeAction Wipes and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Given together, they’re getting something made with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
  4. Get a paddle sock (here or here) and stuff it like a stocking (on the chimney with care) with a whistle, small compass.
  5. Get a dry bag, compression sack or a stuff sack and either wrap up little gifts in it or use it like a stocking.
  6. Get a paddle sock (here or here) and wrap it like a scarf around a stuffed animal or other similar gift.

GIFT CARD ideas:

  • Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co. – Neat, unique outdoor items. (This card will make you seem like an outdoor expert, and can even be sent electronically.)
  • MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) – Practically everything an outdoor person needs, plus they have a policy that donates “1% of gross sales to environmental causes”.
  • SAIL – They also have plenty of outdoor gear to choose from, constantly having sales, but it also has an in-store or electronic version that you can even customize.
  • Canadian Tire – For all those little things I mentioned above, in particular, they often have deals on TOILET PAPER.
  • Bass Pro – Not my favourite store, but if you’re in a bind and need a gift card quick, you can buy these all over the place, and you can even get one sent electronically.
  • For my American friends:
    • Consider Rutabaga. They sell great stuff and you’ll be supporting small business as well as a fun business. This gift card is promoting an added benefit: “the person you give it to can shop any time, anywhere (as long as they have an internet connection) and they can be wearing anything they want!”
    • REI, The North Face, Campsaver, and Campmor all have gift card options, most with in-store or electronic versions.

I hope you can use some of these ideas, or that they might spark some ideas of your own. Of course if you’ve got some better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Bragging Postscript

A particular hit I had this year was for a birthday/Christmas gift for the Portaging Niece. I’ve been trying to get her set up with her own equipment the last couple of years and thought it time to she had her own paddle. I contacted Fiona, from Badger Paddles, in hopes we could create a custom paddle made for a 16 year old girl. I wanted her name on it, and something else, though I didn’t know really what that was. Her (properly spelled) name is Saffyre Peace, so we talked about a gem or something blue (to represent “Sapphire”) and a peace symbol, but I left it with her to come up with something. I trusted her as she’s done a bunch of neat things in the past. Also, I have no creative or artistic talent, so I was kind of leaning on her to come up with something. What she did was amazing. First, she came up with a water-styled blue peace symbol on one side, and an Ambigram spelling out her name. If you look at it one way it spells “Saffyr”, but turn it over and it says “Peace”. (It’s a long story, but I’ve been purposely mis-spelling her name since she was born, over a dispute over how to spell her name. It’s now an ongoing, inside joke. Just as all the nieces and nephews call me “Uncle Pest” because of how hard it is for young kids to pronounce my name. The name’s stuck, and I even get called that by many people, even older, unrelated people.)

Fiona is very talented. She even had a personal touch, having me sign the paddle before it was oiled (“From Uncle Pest”), which I sweated over when doing it, filled with anxiety that my poor handwriting and lack of artistic co-ordination would ruin an otherwise amazing work of art. Oh, and if that wasn’t special enough, Fiona included a blue paddle necklace. I knew the Portaging Niece would love it, so I decided to get her reaction on video. In order to keep it a surprise, I tricked her, telling her I needed to take a video of my new paddles, but needed to work the camera. Her reaction is priceless.

Here’s the video:

On Barrel Packs

Barrel Pack - Climbing the portage

Climbing the portage wearing my barrel pack

Barrel packs are a relatively new phenomenon, compared to canoe packs, wanigans and such, but they’ve become an extremely popular choice among canoe campers and portagers. It’s got to the point where those blue barrels are referred to as “Canoe Barrels”, even though a lot of them may have been used for some other reason before they reached the lakes. Strap one on your back and people know right away that you’re going canoeing, and not backpacking or just off car camping somewhere. (Often people who are unfamiliar with them will call them “Bear Barrels”, implying keeping your food safe from bears. They’re not. See below.)

Why so popular? That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked.

What are they?

Really? You’ve never seen one before? Okay, well Barrel packs are basically a harness that is designed to hold a barrel like you would a backpack. The harnesses have evolved over the years with added features available that make carrying a barrel on your back almost as comfortable as a regular backpack. You can find harnesses with padding for your back and shoulders pads, hip belts as well as load adjuster and sternum straps.

Generally, they’re designed for the 30L or 60L that a lot of food companies use to transport their goods with either a metal sealing ring, tight snap or screw on lid. Someone – I have no idea who – decided these water-tight, food grade barrels would make for great storage in the canoe, and people used to actually carry them without the harness for years. The appeal was that you could find these barrels for practically nothing, getting them from grocery stores or restaurants (hopefully after careful cleaning). Now however, most people it seems prefer to buy a new, never used barrel, specifically designed for canoe camping. What’s the difference between the outdoor store version and the re-purposed food barrels? The new ones usually have a more sturdy metal sealing ring, and often are thicker and durable than a food barrel, which can make them slightly heavier but definitely more expensive. A new 60L barrel can cost you $60-$80, whereas a used barrel can be acquired for $10-$20. If you’re resourceful, or know someone, that can even be free if you’re willing to wash it out yourself.

I used to think people who paid for their barrels were being very silly considering the other options. However I’ve since found out that some barrels have been used to store some strange stuff, and it’s been suggested to me that some have even tested for small amounts of mercury. This is why if you do go with a used one, make sure you know – for sure – what the barrel was used to transport before you got it, and wash it thoroughly.

Barrel pack at rest in Killarney Provincial Park

Barrel pack with padded shoulder straps and hip belt

Water Tight

The barrel’s primary advantage is that it’s water tight. Close the lid and nothing’s getting wet. Often, the last thing I do at camp before I go to bed is to throw in all the precious stuff that doesn’t take well to rain – electronics, but more importantly, toilet paper – just in case. Originally, people found that these barrels were great for food storage because they could keep the food away from all the elements, and can even contain heat (in and out) extremely well. I’ve heard of many people storing meat between layers of ice. With the lid on, that ice can stay frozen a surprisingly long time. Remember though, the same principle that keeps water out, also keeps it in.

They also float. This might be the aspect most worth the investment in a barrel pack: In the worst case scenario of a swamping or a full on canoe dump, your pack is safe, and you can concentrate on keeping you and your party safe, not rescuing your stuff. It’ll float and not slowly sink to the bottom of the lake. Sure, it may head down river, but you can always go get it; it’ll be somewhere. I can’t tell you what a great piece-of-mind you have knowing your water or impact sensitive stuff is safe. That’s what you’re really paying for when you buy a barrel pack.

Barrel pack full of stuff

Spacious, and keeps all your stuff safe

Hard round shell

Another huge appeal is the protection you get with the rigid shell of the barrel. For me, this is important because I am not nice to my gear. (Not fair, really, because my gear is so nice to me.) Mine has seen numerous drops, slammed down countless times, floated down a river, rolled down a hill hitting rocks along the way like a pinball – then floating down a river of course – and has even survived the grueling punishment of airplane luggage. Even with all that, none of my gear has been damaged or fallen out. My current $10 barrel has lasted the last 5 years and shows no sign of breaking down. Where you do want to take care is with the metal sealing ring, as many of the barrels will not close properly without it.

What’s really great, is that even if your barrel gets damaged – the way I used it, I should probably say when it gets damaged – you can simply replace the barrel with a new one, keeping the usually more expensive part, the harness.

Though not a huge deal-breaker, barrels also fit perfectly into the rounded hulls of canoes when placed horizontally. With concentrated weight, positioning them makes a great trimming tool to distribute the canoe’s load.  Alternatively, they can also be stored vertically to use up less space. Just make sure to pack them stably.

Barrel pack in the canoe

Not only does the barrel fit well in the canoe, it helps trimming by shifting the weight, in this case to the front of the canoe while paddling solo

Compared to a backpack, point-counterpoint 

Unfortunately, they’re a little heavier than typical backpacks and the inflexibility of the hard plastic shell makes packing slightly more difficult (i.e. the fabric doesn’t expand or shift). Then again, cleaning is much easier, just turn it over to dump whatever’s in there and spray it with a hose. Unlike a fabric backpack, you’re not going to constantly find little pieces of the all the forests you’ve traveled, nor will you smell them. Barrel packs also won’t have a lot of pockets or pouches or ready-made tie-ons. Then again, depending on the harness you buy, a couple of carbiners or rope will easily tie things to the simple harness structure. Some companies, like Ostrom Outdoors, design specific add-ons like their Barrel pouch. Generally though, you’ll find you can carry a less quantity of bulky items unless you pack well and jam them in real good. Then again, you can really jam things in. It won’t tear or re-shape. With the hard shell, just keep pushing, slam the lid down and you can really stuff your barrel pretty packed. Of course, obviously don’t do this if what your carrying is fragile. (Fun irony would be to crush the very things you’re putting in the barrel for protection.)

Of course the biggest difference is the comfort. Some of the lower end models (polite way of saying cheap) can be night and day compared to a proper hiking backpack. (Though the same is also true for a cheap backpack, but nevertheless…)  If you can do it, put the money into a comfortable, well made harness. It’ll be worth it in the long run. Not that any backpack isn’t cumbersome, but the barrel pack does tend to extend further behind you, making for some inadvertent, 3-stooge-esque bumping into things when travelling in closer spaces.

Barrel pack about to take off

So comfy, I used my barrel pack to travel to Holland

Secondary Purpose

Then again, barrels can also double as other items to varying degrees of success. It can be a camp chair, though the rounded bottom of most make it a bit unstable.  With a big enough flat lid, they also make great tables for dining or playing cards. It’s a great step-stool, to reach high places like when tying up a tarp – but learn from my fail here: If your barrel has a rounded bottom, they’re not too stable on rough ground. Turn them upside down because often the lid is more flat. Either way they’re quite slippery when wet. You know what, nevermind, don’t do that. It hurts… I mean, it could hurt when you fall. Not that that’s ever happened to me. And it certainly hasn’t happened twice. Some other uses:

  • Bath, for a child or dog (or a really small or flexible adult)
  • Water retrieval (maybe before someone’s bath)
  • Dish washing tub (when you’ve brought really large pots for some reason)
  • Soap Box (to sermonize to the group about the benefits of barrel packs)
  • The maturation of bush wine (for your really, really longer trips)
  • Camp games (basketball, log rolling, leap frog when solo camping*)
  • Gatorade dumping (for winner of camp games)
  • Camp prison for a child or small flexible adult (especially when they’re giving you lip about not wanting to be cramped in a small bath)
*This is usually a clear sign that you’ve been soloing too way too long.
Barrel pack and butterfly

Another alternative use: Butterfly rest stop

Hard candy shell

Okay, now this is serious: Many people have the mistaken belief that the plastic barrel is critter proof. Depending on the fabric of your backpack, barrels might make gnawing into it a bit more of a challenge for the smaller critters, and you could argue that because they are sealed they would give off less scent to attract said critters – though not if you’re using it as a dining table, as that would have the opposite effect. This is why it’s super important to wash your used barrel to remove any and all scents from whatever food it was used to carry (and so another advantage to buying a new barrel.) So I’d say yes, they’re better for the smaller animals, so long as they’re not tempted into putting in the effort. I have heard stories, though never experienced anything like this myself, of raccoons popping off the lids when they’re not locked.

As for bears, they can and do get into the standard blue barrel. Most parks now showcase that by having an example in the office of what a bear has done to them. These and these are real bear resistant barrels (note that they avoid the term “proof”). In fact, park staff tell me that in popular areas, bears and other food mooches are now associating any blue barrel as a food source. A funny conversation I had once involved someone suggesting that the standard blue barrel could still be considered bear resistant, in that they would be harder, and so take longer to get into than a regular back pack. Sure, you could argue that, I suppose, but what does that mean exactly? What are you going to do, exactly, with that extra time it take the bear to get into your barrel? Sure, I suppose it might give some people the chance to scare it off. But then again, if that doesn’t work it means you’re not only dealing with a bear but a frustrated, hungry bear. Ever get mad at food packaging that just won’t open? Do you remember those pudding tins when the little tab came off? We all had a good laugh at some of these scenarios, and as you can imagine it was a pretty fun conversation.

My point is, don’t think the barrel will make your food safe without taking the same precautions you should normally. All said, hanging it up a tree is your best defense against furry food thieves.

Carrying over a beaver dam

My barrel pack with the optional barrel pouches from Ostrom Outdoors

Final Word

When you’re in a group, I usually recommend taking advantage of different types of packs. Think of it this way: Every job has its tool. This means I definitely suggest having at least one barrel pack along if you don’t normally. Conversely, I’d also recommend not going out exclusively with barrel packs if you can. Either way, you can store everyone’s fragile or water-sensitive items in the barrel, or to keep the whole group’s food preserved better, then use the other packs features to store all the other gear. I’d also avoid the 30L model, unless used as a secondary pack, as it seems like a waste of a back that could have been carrying more gear.

Everyone has their own carrying preferences, and will like one pack over another for whatever reason. If you don’t use a barrel harness, I’d recommend trying one to see how you like it. There are several styles and at least one might be appealing to you. If you get a chance, borrow a friends and try it for a whole trip. If you’re like me, you’ll find that the many advantages outweigh (as it were) the few disadvantages.

So what do you think? Have you tried one, and if so, do you prefer them over backpacks?

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