Thursday, May 29, 2014

Spring trip to Shirley Lake, Algonquin Park- May 2014

Friday, April 26, 2013

TOPS B.o.B. Fieldcraft Knife, Etched, Striped and Polished

For the past year now I've been using the TOPS B.o.B. Fieldcraft as my belt knife.  This isn't a knife review, as there are plenty of better places to get that type of information.  Needless to say that I'm happy with the knife and it performs.

I was lucky to be introduced to this knife while it was still being developed by the Brothers of Bushcraft.  My first exposure to it was when I spent a week with Mors Kochanski, where Caleb Musgrave was field testing the prototype.

The prototype of the B.o.B. Fieldcraft

At this stage features like the bowdrill divot and the shango notch hadn't been added yet, but the blade and handle design were there. I was one of the lucky few who actually got to handle the knife before it went into production and even held audience as Mors himself critiqued the knife.  Needless to say I was impressed as I was a first adopter.

Of course as I've stated before, I'm not a fan of epoxy coatings on my knife and so I stripped it.  This time however, I wanted to save the laser engravings of the logos, so I decided try my hand as acid etching.

I took cues from this process, but modified it to a smaller scale.  I coated all of the exposed steel that I didn't want etched with a clear nail polish, which is cheap and works to protect the exposed areas from accidentally coming into contact with the acid.

Rather than immersing the whole knife into a tank (which I don't have) with a whole load of etching solution (which is wasteful for only 1 knife) I built up a small retaining wall around the area of the logos I wanted using hot glue.  I built up the wall layer-by-layer, allowing sufficient time for each to cool, so I could stack the next.  The etching solution I used was ferric chloride, which it typically used to etch printed circuit boards (PCBs).  This isn't something you can walk into a hardware store, so I sourced it from a local electronics hobby store.

To perform the etch, I filled the small reservoir with the etching solution and let it sit on the blade in 6 hour intervals.  After the 6 hours, I would rinse the areas with water while scrubbing the logos with an old toothbrush   During the etching process the material exposed to the acid turns dark, but while wash away with scrubbing to reveal the fresh material underneath.  To achieve the level of depth I wanted I repeated this process over two days.

When I was satisfied with the results I removed the protective nail polish with acetone and began stripping the epoxy coat the same as I did for my ESEE knife.

The stripping process

The resulting etch and polish turned out really well

The final result, shown with my custom made leather sheath

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lessons from the Roof of Africa

Exactly a week ago my fiance and I successfully climbed to Uhuru peak, the highest point in Africa located at the very top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world.  This challenge was without a single doubt, the hardest thing mentally and physically we have ever done in our life (so far).

We knew this challenge would test us, but we had no idea the degree that we would be pushed to.  I came down with multiple symptoms of AMS (loss of appetite, fatigue, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, headache...basically everything except vomiting) and combined with the environmental factors (glacial winds, -30C temps, exhaustion from climbing up scree for 6hrs across the ridge to Uhuru for 2hrs and then down the summit for 6hrs) made this the most miserable experience of my life.

...and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

While the rest of my group made it to the peak, the AMS forced me to fight for every breath and every step I took.  My journey was quite literally [10 half steps - catch my breath - 10 half steps - repeat for hours].  It's hard to describe the challenge and what made it so tough.  Telling the story now that we're no longer fresh I get the feeling that I cannot properly convey what we experienced, but imagine the conditions I've already described above and then add to that, that you're
  1. Low on energy and weak, but can eat from nauseated and having lost your appetite
  2. Thirsty; but every sip of water is frozen so cold that it drops your core temperature immediately
  3. Your hands and feet are numb from the cold
  4. You start moving to warm up, but you get exhausted easily and have to stop to catch your breath before you're warm again
  5. stopping to rest allows the wind to cut through your "wind proof" clothing and chills the sweat that's collected on you within seconds
  6. Your muscles are tired and sore, and your hips and knees begin throbbing with pain each step you take
So was hard.  So hard that you think about quitting...a lot.

I began to wonder why I putting myself through this ordeal.  I didn't care about the view or the bragging rights or the nice certificate they give you at the end if you made it to the summit.  I just wanted to test myself, and I got exactly what I was looking for.   It was literally 8 1/4 hours of questioning my own resolve and then fortifying it to move forward one more step.

By the time I reached Gilman's point, I was the last up the mountain.  AMS and exhaustion were taking their toll on me.  I forced myself to drink hot tea the guides were giving me and tried my best to force down some biscuits for energy.  I was warned that if I wanted to be able to continue on, I shouldn't rest at that point too long or serious AMS would begin to develop, and so I pushed on.  For another 45 mins I traveled, pole-pole (swahili for slowly-slowly, the mantra by which you will conquer Kilimanjaro) and each step of the way my mind told me to turn back.  I had made it to the summit after all, but deep down the fighting side of me knew I'd never be happy with just that.  I had to make it to the peak.

Upon reaching another checkpoint - Stella's Point, my guide looked and me and asked me if I wanted to turn back yet. I'd reached a farther point, and now my certificate would reflect that.  I looked at him, and without a thought I said

"I want to go to Uhuru Peak"

 The moment you begin to experience Pulminary or Cerebral Edema your trip is done.  You turn back, no questions asked, not fighting it or you will die.  My guide checked me out to see if I was sick, and when I got cleared as being ok we began moving again.   1 1/2hrs later I was almost crawling on my hands and knees but I had made it.  I gave everything I had to get to the top and left nothing in the tank to get back down.  Thank God for the guides.

It took 6 hours for me to get back down, half on my own, half leaning on the guides for support.  During a particularly difficult section down the scree my guide turned to me and said

"You're very strong".

This was the last thing I expected to hear.  Here I was- the last person up to the peak, hanging onto my guide for stability, last one down the mountain...weak, slow and pathetic.  So I inquired why he said that, and his response shocked me.  He replied "Most people who get [as] sick as you don't make it up [the mountain]".  I stewed on that sentance the rest of the way down and as I limped into the dorm area to finally rest, I was met by the other members of my group.  They had passed me on their way down, and saw the rough shape I was in.  A few even admitted if they had gotten as sick as I did, they wouldn't even have continued the the summit, echoing the very sentiments my guide tried to convey to me.

I sat on my bed, trying to make sense of everything I had just been through when our chief guide came in and sat down directly in front of me.  Fataeli, a 60 year old man who has been guiding the climbs for the past 35 years had a very knowing and satisfied look on his face.

"I made it...I made it to Uhuru" I said to him.

He nodded knowingly, he already knew.  He said he knew as he had passed me on my way to Uhuru and saw that I wouldn't stop until I had made it.

This got me to thinking.  Through all of the challenges I faced, it wasn't my body that was trying to make me give up.  No, it was my mind. My own mind was what was trying to convince me to turn back. The fact that I made it in the end is proof of this.

My mind was the weak link, not my body. The only reason I made it to the peak, was because I was willing to drive my body into the ground to get there. Because every time I began to doubt if I would make it, I just pressed on.

I later found out that only about 41% of all people attempting the climb make it as far as Uhuru (source).  I consider myself proud and extremely fortunate to be counted among them.

Mountains will humble you.  They will take any sort of arrogance you have and strip it away until the only thing left is the true representation of your character.  How you fair is entirely up to how you cope with the challenge.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

East Africa - Our Next Adventure

Tomorrow my girlfriend and I will be heading to East Africa for two weeks.  We plan to spend a couple days in Nairobi ('Nairobbery' as it's sometimes known, with its reputation for thefts, car jackings and con men) before heading out for a week's worth of travel across the Serengeti.

The pinnacle of the trip will be our attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.  At 5895m this is the highest point on the entire Continent of Africa, and will be the highest and longest trek we've ever done.  Hopefully training and preparation will aide us on this trek and we'll make it to the summit before Altitude sickness stops us.

To say I'm both excited and anxious is an understatement.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hiking "The Crack" in Killarney Provincial Park

Last weekend we had the opportunity to join some friends of ours on their trip to up to Killarney Provincial Park.  While a weekend out camping never really needs justification, we actually made the trip out so that we could do some hiking in the area and condition our legs for uphill hiking.

We decided to hike up to the "The Crack" a ridge  found along a section of the longer 7-10 day LaChoche Silhouette Trail.  This particular trail was only 4km to the ridge (8km round trip) and was fairly level for  just over the first half the trek.  At around the 2.5km mark the elevation began to increased 164m over the next 1.5km to the ridge.

Towards the end we were scrambling over the exposed quartzite which was extremely fun and gratifying.

A lot of the hikes we've been going on these past weeks have been to condition our legs and learn lessons for a pretty big trip we have coming up, and I needed to know how it felt to have the camera out for an extended hike.  Basically I'll want to have a DSLR camera but have no idea how I'm going to carry it.  This time around I had it around my neck and I think I did a pretty good job, having out the entire way until we started to ascend, but that point I put it away as it was swinging too much and became a distraction.  After that I left it in my pack until we took a scenery break and I could pull it out, pop the lens on and shoot of few pics.

One thing that I under prepared for what how much water I figured we'd needed.  I planned for 1.5L per person over 4-5 hours, but the day was so warm and sun so bright that we ended up going through most of that water just getting to the Crack.  Even now as I'm writing this I'm questioning what I was thinking, because we should have been drinking at least twice that.

All-in-all it was a good time and we learned a few lessons to take away.  With the trip coming up in the next few weeks we're scrambling to get everything prepared but I'd like to take the time to get at least another big hike in.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mosquitoes, and Black flies and BEARS...oh my!

Just returned from a long weekend in Killarney Provincial Park with some friends where we hiked "The Crack" trail, spent some time just enjoying the outdoors all the while trying our best to avoid the mosquitoes and black flies that plague the area at this time of year.

One our way home today we spotted this guy (above) and managed to take these shots while staying well out of it's way.

According to an old friend of ours from Ireland, I believe this encounter makes us "proper Canadians" now.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Canadian Bushcraft's Basic Hunter-Gatherer Workshop

Last weekend I attended Canadian Bushcraft's last running of it's Basic Hunter-Gatherer program.  I missed the Advanced version of the course that ran this past November, so I made sure to catch this one.  The "basic" in the title is something of a misnomer, as it was not a prerequisite for the Advanced course that I had missed, but rather focused on more "basic" skills.  More primitive skills.  More primary skills.

Friday night we arrive and set up our sleeping arrangements and made dinner.  It was a night to relax by the fire and be briefed on what we were up for in the coming days.  Caleb started by giving us a quick and dirty explanation of the tools and skill of North American Indigenous people.  He explained from an archeological viewpoint, the history of indigenous people could be broken down into three eras
  • Paleo
  • Archaic
  • Woodland
A very high level explanation of the type of tools use during each eras gave us an understanding of how they developed and which ones we were more likely to be able to produce in the event we needed to make them.

The people of the Paleo period developed tools closer to the end of the last ice age.  The hunting tools they used were very large and very specialized for the type of game that they were hunting, specifically Mega-fauna.  The tools created were used to hunt animals the size of Mammoths and required spear points such as the Clovis (which would easily be 8 inches long) to penetrating the thick hides.

As the Ice began to recede and the mega fauna began to die out, there was a shift in the type of tools used.  In this Archaic period no longer could people rely on having large kills that would feed them for a long period of time, and there was a shift to more opportunistic hunting.  Gone were the specialized tools and more generic variants began to emerge, which could take a wider variety of game that would be encountered more frequently.

As time passed, hunters began adapting better technologies through a better understanding of the materials they had and the game they were pursuing.  More finely crafted stone and bone tools were created in this Woodland period and it is here we saw the emergence of the famous bow and arrow.

It was at this point that Caleb posed the question...if we were in a situation where we lost our modern equipment and had to fashion tools to survive long term, which era would the tools we needed most represent?  The highly specialized tools of the Paleo?  The one tool, many uses mentality of the Archaic?  Or perhaps the more technically advanced tools of the Woodland period?

The answer of course, was the "swiss-army" style stone, wood and bone tools of the Archaic period.

The next point that was brought up was the need for food.  Very often we talk about survival scenarios where food is very low on the priority list.  This is a very good point, because depending on who you are, you might easily be able to spend 4-5 weeks survival on stored calories from your fat cells.  Of course with proper preparation, you might very well be rescued before you ever need to take in any extra calories, which is why survival is very different from long term living.

There may however, come a point where you need to transitions from survival to more "self reliance". Allusions were drawn to the outdoorsmen of 100 years ago, George W. Sears and Colonel Townsend Whelen who took with them modern tools to acquire food, fishing rods and firearms.  They spent weeks living in the bush, and were never caught using "pocket fishing kits" or survival style bows. Acquiring food was a big deal to them, and it showed through the type of gear they would take. Shelter items might be reduced to a simple canvas tarp, but a rifle, shotgun and fishing rod for acquiring food was always taken along.

The lesson?  Learn how to use primitive techniques, but never rely soley on them.  (Interesting point, Les Stroud in his Survivorman series tried endlessly to catch fish over many of his episodes.  His only real success?  When he brought a rod and reel.

The next morning we began our day stripping Willow saplings that would become our fishing spears.  We used stone blades to separate the bark from the wood and and did our best to keep the strips as long as possible.  The Willow was harvested the day before, which allowed the bark to come away cleanly and with ease, a trick I'm going to remember for future reference.

With the staves stripped and drying the in shade, we began to process the bark by separating the inner and outer bark.  Being primitive, this was of course done with a stone knife flaked off from a piece of chert.  To process the inner bark it was boiled in weak lye solution using a tin can.  Traditionally this would be done by hot rock boiling, but for the sake of time we used a tin can in the fire.   After an hour boiling, the bark was removed, split into fibers and left to dry.

With the cordage prepared we turned back to the staves which were now sufficiently dry to work with.  The tip was sharpened, split and then buried in the ash of the fire pit to fire harden.  We carved a third prone to be inserted into the split and create the trident. For my prong I used was Buckthorn because of it's resiliency (and why not harvest an invasive species?). I  specifically carved away all the sapwood to reveal the super tough heartwood which would be my spear tip.  Securing the middle prong was a matter of inserting the third prong, sealing with pine pitch, binding and sealing once again with more pitch.

At some point during all of this, I opened the split in my stave and almost created a crack that separated off the top prone from the rest of the spear.  The fix for this was to bind above and below the crack where I wanted to keep the material together, and seal with pine pitch.

I took extra time to make sure my spear was complete because of the long split I made.

We broke for lunch, and after eating picked up our spears and began to head to the marsh.  During this time Caleb suggested we take on the mindset of our hunter-gatherer, and stay focused on potential opportunities. Any animal, track, wild edible or medicinal plant presented an opportunity.  You walked with all of your hunting and gathering tools because you never knew when you would spot a plant you needed or animal to catch.  These tools included the digging stick, the fishing spear, the sharpened spear, throwing stick and "swatting stick" (a long forked stick which could be used to swat birds out of the sky, slap ground animals or even pin a snake to the ground).

I had particular trouble with the level focus required and attention to detail.  Maybe my modern city dweller mind couldn't pick up on the minute details but this is something that need to work on in the future.

Harvesting Burdock root

After short walk, where we managed to identify and collect some burdock root and garlic mustard greens, we stopped by an entrance to the marsh that Caleb dubbed "ratroot road".  In here he had found a patch of sweetflag (rat root) that had been forgotten about and likely not harvested from for 100 years.  Picking some, and comparing it to Blue Iris, it is easy to see how closely related they are in appearance at this time of year.  Our ancestors needed to know a high level of detail about the plants they used, this being an one is medicinal and the other highly toxic (The blue iris can kill you).

Pink roots on the left is sweet flag, purple stalk on the right indicates toxic blue iris

We entered into the marsh and collected cattail shoots and roots, being mindful of where we were stepping as this was prime snapping turtle territory.  Cattail shoots are in their prime at this time, as they're still quite tender and taste very much like a cross between cucumber and celery.  The roots require some roasting, and are almost like sweet potato when cooked.

As an aside, Caleb mentioned that while turtle and frogs were fair game to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in current day Ontario these reptiles are having a hard time propagating their species.  As such, he usually leaves them alone to give them a better chance to continue the species, otherwise we would have had our bellies full of frog legs that night.

We continued on towards the lake, but not before stopping by a wood ant nest.  Our ancestors were not above eating insects and larvae and we began breaking open the nest in search of larvae.  Unfortunately it was either too early or these was no queen in this particular nest as we found no larvae, however the ants themselves tasted pleasantly like cider vinegar due to the formic acid they contained.  A nest can be harvested twice a year like this without disrupting the colony beyond recovery.

As we continued along to the lake, we cut Alder and dogwood as materials for a fish weir.  Traps like these were extremely beneficial to the primitive hunter-gatherer as they continue working without supervision.  The weir in particular was a great tool as it left the fish alive within it until you came by to empty it.

As we reached the water I had a close call and a very real reminder of how important it is to remain attentive to my surroundings.  Walking over to a Basswood tree to harvest some young leaves to snack on, Caleb pointed out that I had just walked barefoot through a patch of poison ivy.  Guess who didn't know poison ivy was red at this time of the year?  Yeah..that's  Luckily he noticed my error and we were able to treat it immediately with some crushed Jewelweed and Yarrow which were growing nearby.  A note on the potency of the ivy, I didn't notice it until I got home and took off my boots but my feet were slightly irritated up to 3 days after this had happened...even after treating it within minutes of noticing.

We entered the water to construct the fish weir and I was surprised at how much material was actually required for properly constructing it.  We used the Alder as fence posts and weaved a dogwood mesh in between.  What the illustrations in survival books don't show you is the intricate weave you need to make through the fence posts in order to maximize the likelihood that your fish don't just swim away.

With the weir completed we began to have some fun with out spears.  A little background, Caleb isn't all that impressed with armchair survivalists. He actually really, really doesn't like them.  So part of making a tool of weapon with him means using it.  The problem with a fish spear is that it isn't all that legal to use in Ontario.  The solution?  He carved a Basswood fish and weighed it down with a rock.  This faux fish would "swim" and follow the directions of the waves coming in, very much like a real one would do when resting outside of the current...the exact situation you would use a fish spear to get one.  The exercise was to slowly stalk the fish, circle it until you had a clear shot, and thrust into it with the spear, taking into account the refractive index of the water.  Easier said than done.  Stalking a fish, knee deep in water with the waves coming in on you and sand shifting under each step is no easy feat.  If this wooden fish were real, it would have swam away countless times, a humbling reminder to take what you see on YouTube with a grain of salt.

I'm going to be honest here, I didn't have high hopes for this spear.  I was doubtful it was going to work on a real fish, much less one made of wood.  I was wrong.  I lined up, took aim and thrust my spear into the water with so much force that the spear penetrated right into the Bass(wood) fish.  I lifted my spear out of the water and attached to the end was the wooden fish, impaled by willow prongs.  I was slightly in disbelief of what just happened and completely changed my opinion.  With practice and knowledge, this was a viable way to get food.

After spending some time playing with the wooden fish, we finished up with Caleb explaining some other primitive fishing techniques.  This included using natural fish toxins such as juglone (very illegal) and primitive fish hooks made from black locust and basswood fiber cordage.

We headed back to camp and rested up, roasting our cattail roots and had dinner.    The night was spent by the fire talking bushcraft and outdoors related topic and at one point we even had surprise guests show up for a little while.  One of the coolest things about being in the woods this particular weekend was that it coincided with the "super moon".  The moon happened to be the closest to the Earth that it has been for decades appeared approximately 14% larger than normal, and the amount of light that the moon emitted illuminated the woods beautifully.

The next morning after breakfast our first lesson was the slingshot.  While not primitive, the bands used can easily be bought and carried in a backpack, taken out only when needed.  The lesson here was that for such an important item, it's a case where it simply just makes sense to bring a modern item with you rather than trying to replicate it with natural materials.  We collected stones and spent the morning target practicing with a 12x12 target.  Standing 50ft away, it was hard enough hitting the stationary target, never mind a rodent sized animal which was moving.  Many times you have one opportunity to spot, sight and fire on animal before it is gone and if you don't have hours of practice in, you're going hungry.

With target practice over we headed back to camp to do some netting.  As some of us have previously carved a needle and made tradition nets, Caleb felt it was a good idea for use to pass on some of the knowledge we had gained.  His reason being that you don't really know something until you know it well enough to teach.  Well, I tried.  Teaching is hard and that is exactly why I don't do it.  You need to take all the ideas and concepts floating around in your head and boil them down to a few concise words that describe exactly what you're trying to convey.  Trying to describe how to carve a netting needle I found myself tripping over my words and using 50 where 10 might do if explained by a more experienced person.  As a result, the person I was trying to teach didn't end up completing the needle before we broke for lunch.

As we ate Caleb took the opportunity to show us a number of different deadfall trap configurations that he preferred to the tradition figure 4.  The traditional approach to the figure 4 is time consuming and takes a lot of carving to make the pieces, a luxury you don't have if you haven't got a steel knife and are trying to do it with stone.
 The promontory peg, Sami figure-4 and Asian inverted figure-4

With lunch over the group split, half to learn the traditional netting techniques using a needle and the rest using modern materials to make the overhand knot survival net.  While the technique is easier to remember, I found that it was a lot harder to find a rhythm to continue working, since without an easy way to set the knot to the gauge, you needed to focus more when putting in the knots.

After spending time on the nets we got a quick primer on the use of shaping bone tools.  As Caleb explained it, he could spend a whole day teaching flint knapping one tool, but that same day showing multiple different bone tools.  Working the bone and fracturing it along the cracks I wanted was dead simple.  It took time, and patience, but there was no specialized skill involved, which made me very optimistic about using it.

Score, fracture, grind to shape.  The entire process was as easy as that, however it took patience and attention to detail.  The hardest part for me was identifying what kind of tool to make each shard of bone into, but that I think will come with practice and familiarity with the tools I would need.  Spearheads, arrow points, needles and awls all come to mind.  An interesting point for me was that the arrowheads needed to take down game are actually quite small.  The large 1-2" peices typically associated with an arrowhead are actually broken spearheads, with true arrowheads being thumbnail sized.  That for me was an interesting fact.

As the afternoon crept up the course was over, and after we packed up Caleb threw this to me:

A primitive spear he just made, utilizing the very skills he had taught us over the course of the weekend.  This spear is meaningful to me not only because it was a gift, but because of what it also represents. I can now make this.  I can identify all the materials, the steps required to process them, and how to assemble them into this final working tool.  While it would take me longer to reproduce, I can do it...and that is knowledge I did not have before coming into this course.

Walking away with the spear was something tangible to remind me of what I had gained.

That is pretty awesome.