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Ah, the noble condom.

It has been the faithful companion of men around the world for hundreds of years for its labeled purpose, and we have been finding alternative uses for them since they started making them out of latex (they were, and still are often made from sheep intestines).

One old school use of condoms is as a waterproof or dirt-proof container. Back in WWII it was common for sailors, especially those on the extremely vulnerable liberty ships, to put their valuables in a condom and tie off the end. If they were torpedoed (an all too common occurrence) and they had to abandon ship, it would keep their stuff dry. And at least since Desert Storm (and probably long before) soldiers and marines have often tied a condom over the end of their M16s to keep the sand out of the barrel. As long as whatever you want to keep dry is not too large or sharp, condoms can make a cheap and effective protective case.

I have heard of some people using condoms as fishing bobbers. I suppose that if you inflated the condom especially large you could use it for jugging (where you tie a baited line to an empty jug and throw it out into a lake), but you would probably want to put the condom in a bag or net rather than to tie the line directly to it; a big fish might rip it through tugging.

The elastic properties of condoms can allow them to serve as rubber bands. I am not sure how effective of a sling shot could be made with a condom, but you could probably make a decent polespear with it. It can also serve as an emergency tourniquet or can be used to secure a field dressing.

There has also been a lot of talk lately about starting fires with condoms full of water. I have tried to do this, but have been unsuccessful so far. However, this link will show the video of someone who knows how to make it work.

However, the most popular and practical use of condoms in the wilderness is as a water carrier. I was not always a big fan of condoms for holding water, but the fact is that no other container takes up less space in a pack or kit and can hold as much water as a condom. Some people have filled their condoms with a gallon or more of water, but it will last longer if you limit it to a quart or two. I have also learned a few tricks to make them more effective water carriers.

First, common logic would seem to dictate that non-lubricated condoms would be the preferred choice, but I have heard some good arguments for lubricated condoms. Condoms will dry out over time which will cause them to break more readily (hence the expiration date on the package); I have tried using some expired condoms as water carriers for a test, and they are quite a bit more fragile than new ones. In theory, lubricant should slow the drying of the latex. Also, the heavy duty lubricated condoms seem to be thicker, and hence stronger, than non-lubricated condoms which usually only come in one strength. As long as the lubricant is water based, it will rinse off the condom pretty easily. However, washing the condom is only practical where there is a lot of water available; if you were in the desert where water is more scarce, a non-lubricated condom would probably still be more practical.

Next, always inflate the condom several times to stretch it out. Obviously don’t over inflate it until it pops, but blowing it up like a balloon a few times will make it much easier to fill with water.

The trickiest issue with condom is how to seal them up while still making them accessible to drink from. Undoing a latex knot is maddening at best, so many, if not most people who carry condoms in their kits also include a twist tie. But there is an even better way…

I ran across this video a while ago which explains how to make a spout out of an elderberry branch (elderberry has a pithy core which is easy to dig out and make a tube with). It is pretty slick, but what if you don’t have elderberry or an equivalent pith cored wood to work with? There is another way:

The stages of twisting a spout out of green wood

I learned a trick from this video. The idea is that if you heat a green stick over a fire the heat and steam will allow you to twist out the core, leaving you a hollow tube. If you can build a fire and have a knife or other tool that will carve wood, you can make a spout. You will want a green tree branch at least an inch in diameter, and as straight as possible. As you can see in my pictures, you want to carve a notch about 1/2 of the way to the center of the stick all the way around and three inches or so down from the end. You then heat the stick over the fire, turning constantly as you don’t want to burn it. Once you hear the moisture in it start to hiss, and you can begin twisting the stick. This part takes some practice. You want to twist it hard enough to separate the core, but if you twist too much before the stick is heated enough, you will just snap the core. What I did was to twist it as far as possible to put the core under tension, and then would put it back over the fire for a while longer; twist, heat, twist, heat, and so on until the core breaks free. You also want to carve in as deep as I said, because if you go too shallow, the outside of the stick will split while you are twisting. This is definitely something you want to practice around the campfire a few times. If you are successful, you will have a tube.

Carve your notch and sand it smooth with a rock

There will be a bunch of loose fibers in the spout, but pushing a twig through it a few times will get rid of most of those. Carve a notch around the spout to be able to tie the condom to; just make sure you don’t go too deep. At this point, it is a good idea to take a rough pebble to sand everything a smooth as possible. You do not want any splinters to rip the condom. Once the spout is completed, carve a simple plug to use as a cork. Then it is just a matter of securely tying the condom to the spout:

It was raining out, so I just filled this in the sink quick. This is just to show you what it looks like; always use a sock or bandana to support the condom.

I also decided to try making a full abo-style condom canteen:

With a birch bark neck and a netted body, I think this looks pretty cool. I don't know how practical this is, but I think Cody Lundin would be proud.

If you want to see the steps to making the neck, click here.

The last major issue is filling the condom. If you have a waterfall it is pretty easy, but what about lakes and streams? If you live in birch country, it is no problem. Make a simple funnel-shaped scoop out of birch bark with the exit hole slightly smaller than your condom or flask mouth:

A simple cone of birch bark can do wonders. I pegged it together with spruce root, but even twigs would work.

Just hold the funnel tightly to the condom/flask and scoop.

The funnel will leak, but you will still have enough water pressure to do the job. You mught have to squeeze the water down a few times (like milking a cow), but it should fill pretty easily.

That is enough stuff for now. As always it is best to practice this stuff at home. I do admit, it is quite entertaining to go to the drugstore and tell the clerk, “well, I worked my way through the last six I bought; better give me an even dozen this time.” And what brand to buy? I like Durex; after all, the Trojans did lose the war against the Greeks.

Until next time.

I want to tell you a story about an experience that I had when I was 14 years old. This a memory that is still quite vivid even after 16 years. I am talking about the time I had an encounter with Bigfoot.

I was inspired to write after watching a bunch of Monsterquest episodes on Netflix. For anyone that hasn’t seen the show, the premise is that they go out to search for legendary creatures using the best technology that their budget allows. After 50 minutes of suspenseful music we find out that they didn’t actually find what they were looking for (except for the giant squid; that was pretty cool), but that there is evidence that it still could be out there. What we end up with at the end of each show are people who really believe that they saw what they saw and skeptics who do not think that the existence of these creatures is possible.

I am a casual believer in Bigfoot (or Sasquatch to the PC crowd) based on my one experience in the Boundary Waters as a kid. Here is my story:

When I was 14, my school had us go on a fall canoe trip into the BWCAW. At this time in my life I was not very fond of canoeing, but it was fun to be out with friends in the woods. It had been a cold morning on the day of the return trip, and I had put on several layers of warm clothing which was rapidly becoming uncomfortable as the sun heated the portages. We were on quite a long portage and my friend Mike and I had run ahead of the others who were carrying 70’s era Grumman canoes. Those old aluminum tankers will slow anyone down, and we were planning to drop our packs at the far end of the portage and go back to help the others.

When we got to the end, Mike went back to the group while I decided to stop and remove those warm clothes. Anyone who has taken off layers, fumbled with the straps on a an old canvas Duluth pack, opened the waterproof liner, reloaded the pack, and closed it up again knows that it can be quite a process. Probably four or five minutes later I started heading back.

I had only been hiking for a minute or two when I saw something cross the trail about 100 yards ahead. The point of the trail where it crossed made a bend to the left, but it crossed silently to the right and into the forest. As I visualize the image in my mind, I still feel the hair rising on my neck. It looked for all the world like the dark silhouette of a chimpanzee walking on two legs with its long arms swinging. It didn’t look at me that I could see, it just crossed the trail and disappeared into the brush.

Being 14 I wasn’t thinking about Bigfoot, I thought that Mike was hiding in the bushes to jump out and scare me. I crept quietly to the point where I saw the creature cross the trail, but it was long gone. At that point I got pretty wierded out by the situation and double-timed it back to the group. Mike had already been back there for quite a while, and swore that he never crossed the trail in front of me (and either way, if it was him, he could not have beat me back to the group if he had wandered into the brush).

I have tried to piece together the location of my sighting from memory, and the best I figure is that it is within a 2 to 3 portage radius of West Bearskin Lake (we were based out of Camp Menogyn on that lake), but I don’t know for sure what our route was. I have been in the area several times since then, but I have never seen it again.

Before anyone tells me that what I saw was a bear, I know what a bear looks like. I have seen black bears in the woods; I have seen them on roadsides; I have fed them in animal parks; I know what a bear looks like. This was not a bear. It did not have the silhouette of a bear. I am not saying that I saw a Bigfoot for sure and for certain, but I know that I did not see a bear.

What I do know is that my encounter has added another layer of spice and mystery to the forest for me. I tend to be coldly logical at times, but living in a world without some mystery would be pretty boring. I hope that they never prove or disprove the existence of Bigfoot. We need a few legends just to stay legends, if only to scare our friends with around the campfire.

I realized the other day that most of my blog entries (when I remember that I have a blog) in the last year have been heavy on cooking and gardening, and light on bushcraft. So lets do some bushcraft…

I had the day off, and decided to make it a bush day. I had not been fly fishing since early July and ventured out to my favorite bass stream (and no, I will not tell you where it is; find your own). In addition, I had bought some new boots for grouse hunting (Irish Setter’s for 80 bucks on Amazon.com; how could I refuse?) that needed some breaking in, so I laced up the boots, grabbed the rod, and off I went.

A long story short, I didn’t get any fish. I had a northern check out my fly, but it took off before striking. I wasn’t surprised; I have never had much luck at this spot past July. The water gets to low, and today there were several hawks cruising the river (I don’t know if they were fish eating hawks, but I imagine to a fish a hawk is a hawk).

Fishing being a bust, I decided to check out the area right around the river to see what kind of useful stuff I could find. While still on the subject of fishing, there were some nice bait sources available:

Galls like this form on plants from insects laying their eggs

If you split them open, you can often find a grub to use for bait

I believe this is a green frog. If you are slow and quiet you can often catch them by hand. This guy let me touch his back without jumping away (I didn't pick him up; no point stressing him out). Frogs can make good fish bait too.

There was plenty of animal sign. Some beaver appear to live on the river. No dams, but a few old houses and plenty of chewed wood on the river bank(although that could have come from anywhere upstream). I found the wire and weight for a trapper’s drowning trap set, and it was heavy enough that I assume that beaver is the target. I found a lot of other stuff too:

There were lots of game trails like this leading to the river. (note: it is really hard to get a good photo of a game trail)

I think this is a mink track, but I am no expert. It definitely appears to be the track of some member of the weasel family. It was about an inch wide.

I think the scat also came from a mink. Note the green frog to the left; they were everywhere.

A burrow perhaps? There was a lot of squirrel sign around the hole. Would it be a good spot for a trap? Maybe.

Plenty of pine cone parts and hazel nut shells around the burrow

A whole bunch of scat on a rock. Probably either cottontail rabbit or snowshoe hare; they both frequent this neck of the woods. I took a few pieces for making pitch glue (more on that later). However...

... Right next to the rabbit/hare scat were some pellets from a raptor. Predatory birds often eat small creatures whole and cough up the hair and bones later.

If you are looking for shelter there were plenty of raw materials, but if you are lucky you can find it ready made:

Deer hunting is practically a religion in Minnesota and there are stands scattered all over public land. They can be a ready made shelter, but it is best to leave them alone unless you are in dire need. (you wouldn't like someone going in your tent while you are on a day trip, would you?)

There were plenty of edible plants around too. I am sure that for every species I saw that I missed three more, but here are the ones I photographed:

Thistle. Get past the spines and they are quite edible. This one might be a bit old for eating, but the down can be used for fire starting, and the Cherokee used it to fletch their blowgun darts.

Rose Hips. The outer pulp can be sucked off the seeds, and you can make a drink out of them too.

Raspberries. There were not any fruit left on them, but the leaves were used by the Ojibwe (and many other peoples) to make tea.

I think this is a pin cherry. I find wild cherries to be too bitter to eat straight, but they are supposed to be great for jelly.

Highbush Cranberries. Often bitter, these ones were tart but still pretty good to eat.

I am not positive, but I think that these are Jerusalem artichokes (the leaves looked too elongated to be common sunflower, but I don't really know). I pulled one up and the roots were only a couple inches long, but they are probably not done setting tubers yet.

Beaked hazelnut. I didn't see any nuts on this one, but the squirrels can make short work of them. These are a major score if you need calories. The nuts are a pain to get to (green outer hulls covered with nettle-like hairs and a hard shell underneath), but they are packed with 60% fat and 25% protein.

Not a great shot, but beaked hazelnut bark. The leaves look like those of alder or birch, but the lighter colored lines in the smooth grey bark run vertically, while lines in alder and birch bark run horizontally.

I also found a lot of things useful for their utility purposes:

Wood nettle. The leaves make a good broth (it serves as either tea or bouillon, depending on your needs), and can be cooked and eaten as a leaf vegetable when young. It also makes great cordage, which is what I used it for today.

A nettle stalk stripped and ready to process. You will get stung handling nettles, but if you use only your finger tips it is not so bad. I had a picture of the next step, which is beating the stalk to remove the stingers and crush up the pith, but I seem to have deleted it by accident. You can also see that I have added a Mora knife to my rig. (note: the moss the knife is on could be used as a wound compress or sponge)

After beating and scraping out the pith, you use the basic reverse wrap to make a cord. The Ojibwe used to nettle cordage to make fishing nets, among other things (I can only imagine how long that must have taken). IA Woodsman has a good video on preparing nettle cordage (the link is below). I took some stalks home to clean and dry; I have heard the cordage is better if you dry and re-soak the fibers.

 IA Woodman’s Video

Slender Nettle (similar to stinging nettle but with more slender leaves). Different subspecies, same uses.

An old fallen spruce can be a good source for pitch wood (also called fatwood), which is full of resin and will burn in all conditions.

Here is a knot from the old spruce which has been cut open. the reddish areas at the top are full of resin. Old conifer stumps are also a good source of pitch wood.

Spruce root, also called watap; the mending wire of the woods. By digging gently around the base of conifers you can find plenty of small roots which pull up quite easily.

A blurry picture, but running the root through the split end of a stick will help remove the bark.

The peeled roots coiled and ready for use. If they dry out be sure to soak them to make them pliable again. The most famous use of watap is in the making of birch bark canoes as the split roots were used to sew the birch bark together. I tried to use this as a bow drill cord, but it was too short and I ended up breaking it because it was too tight; live and learn.

Healed wounds on conifers are great sources of pitch. I have burned pitch before, but I had never made pitch glue so I gathered a bunch of hardened sap to take home. (note: if you use your knife to pry pitch off of trees, you will spend a long time cleaning the blade later).

Back at home I ground up 5 parts hardened sap, 1 part charcoal, and 1 part rabbit scat (remember the scat? rabbit and hare scat is more like compressed sawdust than anything else).

My pitch making rig. It is just a flat stone angled to drip down and melt the sap. It was too windy for a fire in my yard so I used a five wick survival candle.

My not-so-pretty pitch stick. I don't think I got enough heat from the candle, and the sap didn't drip down as planned. I ended up mixing everything on the sap end of the rock with the charcoal and fiber, and so it is full of impurities. It hardened up well and it might still be functunional; if nothing else it will burn like a volcano.

My not-so-pretty pitch stick. I don't think I got enough heat from the candle, and the sap didn't drip down as planned. I ended up mixing everything on the sap end of the rock with the charcoal and fiber, and so it is full of impurities. It hardened up well and it might still be functional; if nothing else it will burn like a volcano.

Here is a good resource for learning to make pitch glue.

A feather I found on a game trail. Useful as fletching for an arrow (for people skilled enough to make bows and arrows), making field expedient fishing flies, and writing the Declaration of Independence. You are limited only by your imagination.

Human garbage. It's hard to go anywhere and not find it. However, it can be a life saver in a pinch. The plastic bottle would make a great canteen, and the foam could make a bobber for fishing.

An old beer bottle. Can hold (and potentially boil) water or could be broken or knapped for a sharp edge.

What all of this is meant to demonstrate is that the wild places of the earth are full of opportunities for the resourceful. If push came to shove I am not saying that you or I could live off only what we could hunt, fish, gather, and build. But if I die lost in the wilderness it won’t be for lack of trying.

And as a final note, I highly recommend Irish Setter 9″ Wingshooter boots. They are nice and soft now from my day of walkabout, and I walked through plenty of mud and standing water without a drop seeping in the boots.

“I’m going out with my boots on…”

Summer is a really hard time to maintain a blog. It a season of doing, not of reflection. Unless, of course, you think snowmobiling is the meaning of life and you are lamenting how long it seems until winter. If you are one of those people, please keep it to yourself.

I figured I ought to at least check in since it seems that no matter how much I neglect this blog, people still keep reading (especially the blog about making hard cider in your closet; I don’t know what that says about you people, but I like it).

Here you can see what has occupied most of my free time up until now. The garden is coming along and I might even have something to harvest this fall. After fighting with that plastic mesh fencing for the last two years, it is really nice to have a permanent fence with a gate.

What I am most proud of, however, is that the potato tower appears to be working. The fence post next to it is five feet tall, so you can see how the potatoes have really shot up as I have been adding soil and boards. Buds are starting to form on the stalks and they should flower within the week.

As a parting note, I have invented a simple recipe for walleye (or any fish for that matter) that has been in the freezer for too long. I sometimes forget that I have fish in the freezer, and hate to just throw them out (if you are going to kill the buggers you should at least eat them), but they are past their prime when I find them (especially if they were caught through the ice and have not been cleaned yet). Here we go:

Pineapple Teriyaki Walleye

  • 2 lbs Walleye Fillets
  • 3/4 cup Teriyaki Sauce
  • An 8 oz can of Sliced Pineapple
  • Parsley to garnish

Mix the teriyaki sauce with the juice from the canned pineapple, and pour into a plastic bag. Add the fish and pineapple slices, and marinate overnight. When you are ready, broil the fish and pineapple on high heat for about 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Garnish with the parsley and consume.

Peace out!

I am leaving really early tomorrow morning for a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters. As I have discussed in a previous entry, I am the “Lord of the Pack” in that I do most of the planning, shopping, and packing of the food and gear (because I am damn good at it). However, I tend to get a bit of pre-trip paranoia and always feel like I am leaving something important behind.

That got me thinking, what do you really need to have a good time in the woods? There are five mission critical factors for it to be a truly successful trip:

1. Fire – I have camped without a fire when there have been burning bans in years past, but it always felt a bit hollow. As we have been gazing into campfires as a species for something like a million years now, it is pretty much hardwired into our system. While I pride myself in being able to build a fire without matches by using a bow drill, I always do bring a lighter (or three). It is way easier and still technically is building a fire without matches…

2. Toilet Paper – Just try wiping your ass with a spruce. Thimbleberry leaves and sphagnum moss make good field expedient solutions, but are no substitute for the real stuff. And as camp fare tends to be light on the fruit and vegetable sections of the food pyramid, bring two ply at the very least.

3. A Good Tarp – The weather forecast for this weekend is rain until the day we leave (go figure). Tents are great to sleep in, but huddle all day in one during a downpour and you might just give up camping. A good tarp allows you to be outside and comfortable without getting soaked, and will keep the rain and dew off of your gear at night. Don’t skimp on the tarp either; I started with a 9′ square tarp and now use a 16′ tarp as it will cover everything better with elbow room to spare. Bring a tarp.

4. A Folding Chair – Sitting on logs and in the mud looses its appeal very quickly. The seats that go right on the ground make it almost impossible to do anything productive and can be tough to get in and out of after a day of rough portages, and while the small folding stools like Byers of Maine makes are better, they are hard to sit on for too long and impossible to kick back in. What you want is a good, stable, four legged folding chair. They don’t weigh that much, are high enough to let you cook easily from, and you can sit in one all day and be comfortable.

5. Wine – The three liter box of wine is perhaps the greatest innovation of the last 50 years. Take the bladder out of the box and it will pack almost anywhere. Three liters is just about right for one person on a Friday to Sunday trip.

Perhaps some of you may think that I have omitted things that might have bearing on a person’s well being, like food. Be that as it may, when you are sitting your clean ass in a dry, tarp covered folding chair in front of a roaring fire while guzzling high wine like a voyageur, will you really care? If I get too hungry, I will just have a chance to use my survival kit.

I wonder what wine goes with squirrel?

Why can’t the earth be softer?

I finished digging out the first of my two garden beds after a three hour push to get it done. I am getting really sick of digging, but I keep telling myself that I will always have the pride of knowing that I built the garden without having to fall back on a rototiller. Maybe the pride will be enough; who knows. The bright side is that my forearms have become rock solid. Move over Popeye!

I originally had planned to dig out a plot for my potatoes as well, but my lower vertebrae have been loudly voicing their opinion that maybe a third bed would be a bit much for this year. However, rather than give up on my beloved potatoes I have decided that rather than burying them in the ground, I will try to grow them up in the air.

I ran across an article a while ago about growing 100 lbs of potatoes in 4 square feet; it is basically a wooden version of growing potatoes in tires. You make a box out of the boards at the bottom and screw in four 4×4’s as supports. You then screw additional boards up higher as the potatoes grow taller. Potato plants are adaptable and the stalk can either produce potatoes or leaves depending on whether it is under the soil or not. So as the plants grow taller you keep adding soil and boards until you get up to three feet or so (hopefully). I really liked the idea, but rather than just screwing and unscrewing planks to 4×4’s, I wanted something that was a bit more refined and good-looking (I like the melding of form and function). Here is what I came up with:

This is the finished tower. Instead of pressure treated lumber I used cedar. It is more expensive, but also looks better and is naturally rot resistant. It is approximately two feet square by three feet high.

The base is made from 1×2’s to keep the structure off of the ground to improve drainage (to much water will make potatoes crack). A sheet of 1/4″ mesh hardware cloth sits on the base, and all of that is attached to a box made from 1×4’s (1×8’s would have been easier, but they cost over three times as much per board foot). The four vertical supports (each is a 1×3 and a 1×2 screwed together) are attached to the box by hinges so that they can drop down, as seen in the picture.

I made a sort of wooden hoop to hold the supports together at the top. I was running out of lumber and the cedar that I had left was pretty poor quality (the local Home Depot had been picked pretty clean) so while the hoop is functional, I will probably make a better one when I have a few bucks to spend on better wood.

Here you can see the interior of the tower once the boards (more 1×4’s) are put in. They just stack in, log cabin style, and can be added one row at a time as the potatoes grow (I really was wishing that I had a miter saw by the end; with just a circular saw I had to clamp on a board to use as a guide for each cut).

I had ordered my potatoes before I made the decision to do this (Irish Cobbler; they were out of Kennebecs) and I am hoping that they will work in this tower. The thing is, this works best with potatoes having a longer growing season as short season potatoes only set tubers once. Irish Cobblers have a longer growing period so I am optimistic, but it will be what it will be. Next year I will try Red Pontiac which are highly recommended for this type of enterprise.

I also bought a couple of fabric “potato bags” for growing above ground as well. They are not nearly as large as the tower, but I figure I would give them a shot as well and see how they perform.

I am setting up a composter this year as well, so the long-term plan will be to use the fresh compost in layers with grass clipping and leaf litter (making even more compost as the potatoes grow). To keep the soil from sifting through the hardware cloth I will put a heavy layer of straw or long grass before adding compost. When the season is done I can claim the potatoes and spread the used compost in the rest of the garden for next year. Potatoes are not heavy feeders so they should leave plenty of nutrients in the compost, and because I will always be using fresh compost in the tower there is no chance of carrying potato diseases over from previous years.

I will let everyone know how the tower is working as the season progresses. It has worked for other people, but I am not setting my hopes on getting 100 lbs of potatoes. Like anything it will probably take some tweaking to make it work right, but I will get it figured out.

Now I just have one more bed to dig. Sigh…

It has been an unbelievably warm spring here in northern Minnesota. I live in Duluth where Lake Superior tends to mitigate our winter weather, but even by our standards it is an unbelievably warm spring. The snow is gone, the temperatures are in the 60s during the day and above freezing at night. Trees are budding, birds are singing, and I am quarrying out a garden. My new house is situated on half an acre of flat, treeless land, but two inches down the soil contains more rock than a Rolling Stones concert.

It has been tough to find time to even work on the garden over the last couple of weeks as with tax day rapidly approaching and the fact that I have an accounting degree, I become everybody’s best friend and favorite relation right about now. I help my friends and family with their 1040s in return for a twelve pack of Newcastle Brown Ale (I like my beer to cross at least one ocean if possible) from each of them; let us just say that my fridge looks like it belongs in a frat house right now. Thankfully I have finished doing all of the taxes that I am going to do this year and can get down to business.

During the winter I had been planning out my garden in detail, and every time I rethought the process it just got bigger and bigger. My original hope was to build a garden large enough to support half of my food needs. This is not so bad if you are lacking gainful employment, but to grow a garden that size in northern Minnesota (not known for its prime farmland) while working full time was more than I could realistically handle and stay sane.

The new plan is to try and get the most output for the least input. I am digging two 6X18′ beds for my beans, squash, melons, cabbages, and the like, and will try growing my potatoes in towers (more on that later). I figure that this is a good start, and that I can always add to it later on if I feel that it is too small.

Unfortunately, the digging of the beds is taking much longer than I had hoped. I have dug just over half of the first bed, and in those first 10 feet I have quite literally pulled out 250 lbs of rock and broken blacktop fill.

That which does not kill us makes us stonger...

The simple solution would be to just build raised beds, but I am not prepared to buy a dump truck full of black dirt just now. Plus it would violate my pioneer ethos of using what you have to the full effect. No rototiller for me.

I have been digging it all out with a shovel, garden fork, and a mattock. The mattock has been a lifesaver. It is basically a flat bladed pick axe, and can power through, and dig up the broken fill that the shovel and fork simply cannot penetrate.

I am doing this John Seymour style by cutting a trench which I then fill with the turned over sod that I pull from the next strip and top with the underlying soil. My sod has the best soil (no rocks) and as the grass decomposes at the bottom of the tilled soil it will add nutrients back to the garden. I had hoped to be digging down a solid foot, but there are huge slabs of rock that are preventing me from going past seven or eight inches. I will be edging the plots a couple of inches higher than the surrounding grass, so after I add compost I should have 9-10″ of tillable soil to work with.

I have also begun construction of a potato tower for growing my potatoes vertically rather than in the ground, but I will save that for another post.

For now, my back is hurting and I think that I will have a beer.

Those of you who read my earlier blog about my survival kit might have noticed that I keep a folding razor blade with it to act as an emergency knife. Although it fits well in the kit, I have always been a bit uneasy about including a razor instead of an actual knife. Razors are extremely sharp (which is good), but lack the durability and backbone of a knife (which is bad). A razor will split a fish open quite efficiently, but trying to carve wood with it can snap the blade if you are not careful.

In my usual web-wanderings I happened to come across this site by M40, where he shows how to grind a knife out of a carbon steel hacksaw blade. It is pretty simple, but like most simple things, brilliant. Here is mine I made in about an hour and a half (including sharpening):

My knife is not the work of art that M40’s is, but it works. The whole knife is only 3.5″ long so that it will fit in my survival kit container. It is also much thinner than the folding razor (which has a plastic handle), so it will fit even better in my small kit and give me more room for other stuff. I used a carbon steel hacksaw blade with 14 teeth per inch (which should cut wood better than a finer blade) which now adds a saw to my kit as well! As it is carbon steel it also could theoretically spark off of a quartzite or flinty rock, but it is pretty light for that so I will stick with my other methods for now.

The grip is too short to hold securely in the hand, so I followed M40’s example and attached a cord loop to the end of it for my ring and little finger to make the blade more comfortable to use.

The cord loop also makes it easier to use as a saw:

I used the end of the hacksaw that had the teeth angled so they would cut on the draw, which is way easier that if you had to cut on the push, especially without a proper handle.

As the tip of the knife comes to a sharpened point, it could be lashed to a stick as a spear of some sort (as M40 does) and could probably be tied into the split end of a bow drill to serve as a drill bit. I might even drill a hole in the blade to serve as a second anchoring point.

The knife is not going to win any contests on efficiency or style, but it will do its job which is to serve as a practical backup to whatever knife I am currently carrying.

I am sure that there are a lot of other similar projects that could be done with hacksaw blades. I don’t know anything about spear fishing, but you could probably make a pretty fair harpoon point.

If you like the concept of this knife, be sure to look at M40’s page; his knife is definitely better looking than mine.

I love to go camping and get away from it all: cell phones, the office, proselytizing religious groups, etc. There are many grades of camping ranging from John Muir types who need only a blanket, tin cup, a little oatmeal, and some tea to those who think roughing it is a weekend at the Holiday Inn Express. I am not picking on anyone; the only wrong way to camp is if you are not enjoying the experience.

Perhaps my favorite way to get away is by canoe. Canoeing is as old as the peoples of North America, and indeed was the only way to get around much of the continent in many places until quite recently. The North West Company, one of the largest companies in the world in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, had its entire trade network from Montreal to Lake Athabasca (something like 3000 miles by water) driven by canoes. They are fast and efficient on the water and light enough to carry over portages. For the outdoorsperson, a canoe allows you to carry more vital necessities (I am taking about wine, specifically) than would be practical for a backpacker, and gives a fisherman total access to water too far out for the shore fisherman, and water too shallow or reedy for a motorboat. It is a good way to get around.

That said, there are lessons to be learned in the fine art of canoeing in order to make the experience not suck. Canoes have trade offs for all their advantages. In order to make them light, they often lack the robustness of other watercraft. While they are far more stable than most people think, doing stupid things like leaning way over the side and standing in the canoe can cause it to tip. They tend to be low to the water and as such can take on water quite quickly in rough conditions.

I am fortunate to live on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a huge federal wilderness designed expressly for canoes. In my hundreds of miles of paddling and portaging, I have experienced many of the ups and downs that come with the territory. While, like always, I don’t claim to be an expert, I have learned a few lessons (often painful) in my adventures that I wish to impart to anyone who might be looking to try their hand at canoe camping.

#1 – Take care of your feet. On one of my first canoe trips I had the idea that since I was going to have wet feet anyway, why not just wear sandals? That way my feet would dry faster and be more comfortable. I bought a nice looking pair of adjustable sandals with Velcro closures. It turned out to be the worst idea I have ever had, bar none. Portages are often muddy and that mud made the Velcro refuse to stick. On the first day my sandals kept falling off and even were tripping me as I walked; not a good thing with a 90 pound aluminum canoe on my shoulders. I had to use 550 cord to lash them onto my feet, which resulted in bigger problems. All of the mud and grit from the portages and landings got under the straps and, like sandpaper, pretty much shredded the top couple layers of skin off of my feet. When you are miles into the bush, it is not like you can just hop on the bus and go home, you have to suck it up keep going. I did, and I have permanent scars on my feet from the abrasion and where the 550 cord was digging into my Achilles tendons.

So the lesson is wear footwear with good ankle support and socks of some kind. I personally use Waters neoprene booties pared with Chota portage boots. The Chotas have full ankle support and drain quickly while the booties protect me from any grit that might enter the boots and keep my feet warm in cold water (although I am thinking of switching over a to simple pair of wool socks instead of the booties). You don’t have to have specialized footwear, however, hiking boots will do just fine.

#2 – Accept that you will have wet feet. You do not want to know how many canoes have been destroyed because people who were afraid of getting their feet wet got into the canoe while on an rocky shore and tried to scoot into the water. I once saw a guy with a beautiful cedar strip canoe (the canoe equivalent of a Chevy Corvette) do that on a gravel beach; it is enough to make a grown man cry. I recently saw a group of guys load up their canoe on a boulder beach (the canoe was almost suspended in air on four or five pinnacles of rock), try to get in, and swamp the canoe. They repeated the process again, and swamped again. Meanwhile I walked straight into the water to about calf depth, set the canoe down so it was floating, loaded my gear, got in, drained my boots over the side for 10 seconds, and off I went. I could feel the envy.

You can get away with the “sit-and-scoot” method with an aluminum canoe, but you can obliterate a Kevlar canoe in short order that way. So why not just always use an aluminum canoe? Many people do (I used to), but my Kevlar canoe weighs 50 pounds at 18.5′ versus 80 to 90 pounds for an old Alumacraft which is only 16′ long. Kevlar is also faster and quieter as aluminum is rough on the microscopic level, causing drag. For most of us, once you try Kevlar you will never go back.

While my feet will be wet during the day, I always bring a pair of dry, light shoes for camp. I have a pair of Steger moccasins that I bought on sale, and they are awesome. They pack flat, are comfortable, and are perfect in every way. You have to be able to dry your feet at night or you might end up with foot fungus or trench foot. I like to pack light, but a second pair of shoes is a necessary addition.

#3 – Assume that the canoe could tip over at any moment. I have never had my canoe tip on me, but I always prepare for it. It is amazing how many people have crap strewn in their canoes from tackle boxes to coolers to chairs. If their canoe tipped over, they could spend hours trying to gather all of their loose gear, and would lose any of it that sank.

So, either put everything in your pack, or tether any essentials to you or the canoe. When I am traveling, I have everything in my Duluth pack (lined with a 55 gallon drum liner) except for my paddle, life jacket, and fishing gear if I am currently fishing. That leads us to :

#4 – You only need so much fishing tackle. I have never understood how one person can need as much gear as most fishermen haul in to the BWCAW. All those nets, boxes, and multiple rods (you can only fish one rod at a time in Minnesota anyway). I understand all of the theories that different colors can trigger better reactions under certain conditions, but I do not really subscribe to it. My dad tells me that my great grandfather only ever used one type of plug his whole life under all conditions and still caught plenty of fish. I think the moral is that you will catch more fish with your lure in the water than if you constantly have your lure out of the water because you are changing it to a potentially better one. I know that there are thousands of fisherman who would argue that with me, but this isn’t their blog now, is it?

Fishing Tackle

I am able to catch plenty of fish with the following:

-A 7.5′ telescoping rod (packs down to 18″) and an ultralight reel with spare spool (generally 6# test fluorocarbon line)
-An 8″ by 5″ pouch with carabiners to clip to either my belt or to the canoe containing:

  • Small Plano box with hooks, sinkers, bobbers (the kind of slip bobbers that can clip on to an already tied line), bobber stops, leaders, marabou jigs, fast snaps (makes hook and lure change easier), and quick change clevises (great for adding sliding sinkers to an already tied line). I find that with a bobber stop and a fast snap on my line, I can set up almost any sinking, floating, or lure rig imaginable in seconds.
  • Small tin box with foam glued to the bottom holding my Panther Martin Lures (all Fly models in gold with orange bucktails and silver with yellow bucktails in multiple sizes; the best lures ever made in my opinion), fishing flies (I am new to flies so I have generic types like gold ribbed hare’s ear, elk hair caddis, and parachute adams), and a small red and white Daredevle (I have never caught anything with it, but I like it anyway)
  • Casting bubble (for casting flies with a spinning rod)
  • 4# tippet material
  • Forceps
  • Stringer
  • Fillet knife
  • Plastic bag for holding fish

If I want bait I will bring sometimes bring worms. That is all. I used to carry a net, but they are cumbersome and unnecessary if you know how to handle fish (just be sure to wet your hands in you are going to catch-and-release). If you are looking to pare down tackle for a canoe trip I recommend Boundary Waters Fishing by Michael Furtman; It is a good place to start, but you will want to tailor thing to your personal tastes.

#5 – Bear canisters are awesome. I hate bear bags. When you look up how to set a bear bag they always show a pretty little picture of a tall tree with one branch jutting out at the horizontal that is totally free of obstructions. This tree does not exist. Most trees tend to be a mass of random branches and obstructions that make throwing a line over one nicely almost impossible. Even worse, much of the BWCAW is coniferous, and if you want a frustrating experience try hanging a bear bag in a jack pine. And if you even can get the line up there, good luck hoisting it very high. You will often end up with what is dubbed a “bear piñata.” I became like MacGyver and at one point had rigged a pistol crossbow to a fishing reel in my attempt to make this easier; it didn’t really work.

Bear CanisterI now have a bear canister. it is basically a thick plastic container with rounded edges so that a bear cannot carry it off. All you do is close it, set it away from your tent, and you are done. I have customized mine with the following:

  • Coghlan’s bear bell with silencer. It has a Velcro ring to go around a walking stick in grizzly country to make the bears aware of your presence (and make them less apt to maul you). I cut off half of the loop and attached it the the canister with Velcro tape (so that it can be packed inside the canister for traveling). This way if something is trying get inside the container I will hear it and can decide if I really want to get out of the tent in the middle of the night and scare of a black bear. I try to keep everything packed in plastic inside to cut down on smells, and have never had the canister knocked over.
  • Table top. There is nothing more longed for by the wilderness chef than a clean, flat surface to work on. Robinson Crusoe’s first project after building his palisade was to construct a table, “for without this I was not able to enjoy the few Comforts I had in the World, I could not write, or eat, or do several things with so much Pleasure without a Table.” All I did was to scribe and cut a piece of scrap wood to the rough size of the opening in the canister, sand it to fit easily yet snugly, attach it to a square of birch plywood (nice and light), and polyurethane it. It is not very large, but it is a huge advantage over no table at all.
  • Cooler. Most of the food I bring is preserved in some way, but it is nice to be able to keep things like bratwurst, cheese, and eggs fresh in hot weather. It is made of two layers of Reflectix insulation (like bubble wrap with a Mylar surface) and duct tape, with a Velcro closure (I like Velcro if you haven’t guessed). It is made to fit against the rounded side of the canister so as not to take up too much space. Simple, but effective.

I also keep a large Ziploc bag inside to store garbage without it leaking. I suppose you could make a seat for a bear canister if you wanted too, but I like the table better.

#6 Cooking tips in the Wilderness. I love to cook and I love to eat, so food holds a priority for me in the wilderness. Here are some of my personal opinions and tips on camp cookery.

  • Cook KitGet an aluminum Dutch oven. The 10″ GSI aluminum Dutch oven is the ultimate in camp cookwear. Being aluminum, it only weighs a couple of pounds, cooks well on a stove or campfire, and its thickness provides even heating. I have fried fish, baked biscuits, boiled potatoes, and everything else you could want in this little beauty. Its thickness is also great on camp stoves which tend to be rather hot and can burn food easily in the standard sheet metal pots. The rest of my cooking accessories shown are two plates, sierra cups, and utensils, a measuring cup, folding spatula and serving spoon, cleaning supplies, a small brick of Ivory soap (to coat the outside of the Dutch oven, making cleaning easier), a wash cloth, a dish towel, and a foil pan to hold everything when I am using the Dutch oven. They all bungee together to make a tight bundle that packs easily and securely.
  • Bring a good stove. Campfire craft is, in my opinion, a good measure of wilderness skill. To be able to build a fire under less than ideal circumstances and then prepare a meal on it is impressive when done well. Although I love cooking on a campfire, it is not always practical and a stove is often a necessity. In summer there are often fire bans in the wilderness, and well used sites can be picked so clean of firewood that you cannot find enough to make a cooking fire. My stove of choice is the Jetboil PCS. With the pot support kit, it works great with the Dutch oven, and no other stove can make you a cup of hot chocolate in less time on a cold morning. I like canister stoves because I do not have to worry about the smell and leakage of liquid fuel, although the canisters cannot be refilled (so if you use only half a canister you cannot top it off for the next trip). So I cook on the fire when I can, but cook on the stove when I must. Also, if I want to grill steaks in the woods I often bring charcoal from home. I do not want to grill a $10 steak on pine, and a small bag of charcoal (I prefer the natural lump variety) weighs almost nothing, takes up little space, and won’t give the meat a bad flavor.
  • Aluminum foil is your best friend. I love the stuff. Need to fry something quick, but do not want to wash the Dutch oven afterward? Line it with foil. Catch a nice bass, but are out of oil to fry it? Wash it, season it, wrap it in foil, and poach it on the fire. Its uses are limitless.
  • Leave the Wonder bread at home. I love bread, but it is difficult to haul without crushing, and bagels and pita get heavy in quantity. So I get Cache Lake frying pan bread mixes. Each one feeds 2-3 people, tastes great, and cooks up in only a few minutes. If I am going to make it with a meal I will cook it ahead of time by lining the Dutch oven with foil and wrapping the bread in the foil once cooked to keep it warm by the fire. This way I only need the one Dutch oven to make a whole meal. The intrepid can design their own recipe for frying pan bread, but I like the Cache Lake stuff.
  • Here is a quick, hot breakfast for two that takes no time at all. You will need: 1 Jetboil or stove with a liter (or more) sized pot, 2 cups of water, 4 eggs, whatever you like in your eggs (seasoning, cheese, chives, etc), 2 Ziploc sandwich bags, and 2 packets of hot chocolate. Start the stove and get the water heating. In each bag, crack in 2 eggs and whatever additions you like, and beat well (trying not to puncture the bag). Once the water is boiling, turn down the heat and put the bags, partially sealed, into the water; use the lid to keep the bag tops from falling into the water. When eggs are firm, remove and serve; use the water to make the hot chocolate. I like to serve it with Quaker Oatmeal Squares. I know that people are saying that you shouldn’t cook in these bags, but I only do it once on a trip so I am not too worried (besides, everything is reported to be harmful these days).

If you are looking for little packets and pouches of food or condiments try Minimus.biz. I buy everything from little bottles of olive oil to A1 sauce there, and orders over $20 get you free shipping. Also if you are looking for little storage bottles for oil, condiments, or toiletries, I like the bottles that 5 Hour Energy comes in (cures headaches, hangovers, and makes studying accounting at 10:30pm possible). They are robust, watertight, and the perfect size for canoe trips.

I am sure that there are other tips that I could give you, but my head is starting to hurt from typing (time for a 5 Hour Energy!). I know that other people do things different ways, but these are the ways that work for me. If anyone has any specific issues they would like to raise, feel free to comment.

Hasta Luego.

Alexander Mackenzie

Like most of you who are into bushcraft and other like pursuits, I get the bulk of my information from books and magazines. In this age of mass media we have tremendous resources at our disposal for researching anything from edible plants to making pottery. This boom of information technology is a godsend to all of us, but the downside is that we are so deluged by information that it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Take the subject of survival. If you run a search on Amazon.com you will find dozens of books on the subject of survival, but not all of them are created equal, in my opinion. Books are big business and many manuals written by experts are flashy and full of pictures, but often contain little useful content and what they do have can be quite vague.

I have read a great many books on survival, bushcraft, and like topics, and will give you a short list of some resources that I consider to be quite good. I will reiterate that I am not a definitive expert on any subject here, and many of you might feel that these sources are not as good as others that you have read or watched. If there is any media that you find particularly noteworthy, please feel free to share them with everyone else. So here we go…

  1. U.S. Army Survival Handbook – You do not have to be a veteran to appreciate this manual as a great survival resource. It is well put together and is generally pretty thorough on the important subjects. Unlike many writers, the army is not trying to sell books; they are trying to train soldiers (the rest of us get to read it because of the Freedom of Information Act). The manual contains a lot of information about escape and evasion strategies that won’t apply to most of us, but on the whole the book is worth its weight.
  2. SAS Survival Handbook – This book can be a little more vague than the U.S. Army Handbook, but it covers a great array of subjects including survival kit construction, survival in different environments, and edible and medicinal plants. They also make a pocket version that takes up little space and can be thrown into a daypack or glove compartment without difficulty.
  3. Outdoor Survival Skills – This book is considered by many to be the Magnum Opus of bushcraft, and for good reason. It has been in continuous print for over 40 years and was the book that inspired my interest in bushcraft when I was still a Boy Scout. It covers topics from bow making to hide tanning to hot coal beds and so on. It also has some good stories about the psychology of survival that are entertaining and educational.
  4. Chippewa Customs If you want to learn about bushcraft in North America, a good place to start is with the skills and traditions of the original peoples who have thrived here for many millennium. This book, originally published in 1929, chronicles the culture, religion, and industry of the Ojibwa people local to my area. If you do not live in the upper Great Lakes region, look for book about the people who lived in your area before European influence; it will give you a whole new perspective to your home region.
  5. Backwoodsman Magazine I have recommended this magazine before, and think it is a wonderful periodical. There are many contributors and the topics range from gardening to black powder rifles to the firesteel that I showed you on my knife. Some of the contributors often have political undertones to their writing which may put some readers off, but whether your are an eco-hippie or gun toting survivalist, you will find stuff in there that will appeal to you.
  6. Survivorman (not a book, but still good)- I know that this TV show is controversial in the survival community, but I believe that it has real value as an educational resource. There are lots of commentaries about how what Les does is all wrong or that he is a fraud, but most of the critics appear to be either a) armchair survival experts who like to talk smack, or b) real survival experts who are trying to market their own competing books or shows. While he often fails at what he does, that is the reality of survival. Keep in mind that he is trying to film a TV show on his own and is often putting himself outside of his area of expertise (which is consistent with many if not most survival situations). What he demonstrates is that thinking outside the box, trying to keep a sense of humor, and maintaining the right attitude are essential to keeping alive when you are lost or stranded. He also has a book out that has some really good information based upon his personal experiences. If you do not like his show, that is your right, but this is my blog and I like him (so put that in your pipe and smoke it).
  7. Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden – An extremely thorough narrative of a Hidatsa woman relating the traditional agricultural practices of her village. The Hidatsa were some of the premiere farmers of the North American continent and grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco; many of their cultivars still are bred today (I have grown shield figure beans myself). The book chronicles tools, ground preparation, planting, harvesting, threshing, customs, and cooking. A must read for anyone interested in gardening using traditional methods (you will be the talk of the garden club if you use a deer scapula hoe).
  8. The Forager’s Harvest – In my opinion the best book that someone trying to learn about wild edible plants in the Midwest could buy. It is by no means a comprehensive guide to wild plants, but it covers the more widespread and easy to identify plants like cattail and burdock, and does so with more detail than any other book I have read. Samuel Thayer covers identification, habitat, poisonous look-alikes, harvesting season, preparation and storage, and includes plenty of high quality photographs. He relates his own personal experiences such as discovering the fallacy of of milkweed’s bitterness (I have eaten milkweed myself and did not find it bitter in the least) and unearthing a several pound hopniss tuber (dubbed the Hopness Monster). If you live in the Midwest and want to learn to identify some good edible plants, you should get this book.
  9. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America While it lacks the detail the the previous book, it makes up for it in volume. Most images are drawings rather than pictures, but it contains several hundred wild edible plants. I use it as a beginning reference when I am evaluating a plant to determine what it most likely is, and then run web searches to get photographs to confirm what the plant is (Note: sampling wild plants without the supervision of an expert can be dangerous, so if you start sampling plants and get sick, don’t blame me).

This is just a short list of some of my favorite books; there are many other books that are just as good as anything I have up here. Reading about things is no substitute for actually doing them, but we all have to start somewhere. I would give these books a shot, but as they say in Reading Rainbow: “Don’t take my word for it!”