Campers – Is There a Bread Truck in Your Future?

Remember sleeping on the ground on camping trips? Me neither.

The truth is it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep lying on the ground. Unless you’re like my camping buddies who got so drunk they wouldn’t notice the rocks, ruts, and tree roots. Actually, getting drunk doesn’t mask the pain; it just postpones it. At least the aching bones and joints took their minds off their hangovers.

Remember sleeping on the ground on camping trips? Me neither.

Before I discovered the joys of self-inflating ground pads, I did my share of trying to sleep on the ground. I have “fond” memories of squirming around and contorting my body around the lumps and depressions in the ground. Even a tiny stick can feel like a log when you’re trying to settle in and sleep.

I bought my first Therm-a-Rest more than 30 years ago. Best 60 bucks I ever spent. That little mattress rocked (or de-rocked) my world. For the uninitiated, self-inflating ground pads are constructed to provide maximum padding with minimum thickness. Properly inflated, you won’t feel the rocks and roots, and you should be able to lie in your side without your hip bottoming out. They roll up tight and, if they get wet, dry very quickly.

There are other brands on the market. Some might be as good as or better than my Therm-A-Rest. I can’t say one way or another, because I’m still using the one I bought more than three decades ago.

I’ve patched it once and replaced the valve. All of that can be done pretty easily — even out in the field. (Although I wouldn’t attempt a valve replacement in sub-zero temperatures.) Patch kits are available and should be packed with your mat.

By the way, mats should be stored flat or on their sides with the valves open. Keep them in a dry environment and out of direct sunlight. It helps to scrub them occasionally with mild soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s) and rinse thoroughly.

I now own four Therm-A-Rests. I bought a second standard model (like my original) from a Goodwill store for $3. I found another — the larger Camp Rest model — discarded, apparently because it had a small leak. Seven years ago, I bought a lightweight model for canoe excursions to Algonquin Provincial Park, where we do a lot of portaging. 

The only downside to my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Trekker is that it isn’t self-inflating. However, it is easily inflated by mouth, it’s much lighter than the standard model and better insulates against the cold. It also packs smaller.

The company boasted that it can be rolled up to the size of a loaf of bread. Actually, a lot of modern camping gear manufacturers are making the same claims about sleeping bags, tents and folding chairs. So I’ve decided that, in lieu of buying a camper, I’m going to see if I can’t find an old bread truck for sale.

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More cooking advice from the Breakfast Bitch

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Pouring eggs from the chili can. Note the pan of chili set close to the coals to keep it warm. (Photo courtesy of Kevin & Theresa Clark.)

Previously published in a series of outdoors columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times-Shopper.

We eat better on canoe trips than we do at home. Being a morning person, breakfast has always been my specialty — chili omelets in particular.

Making elaborate omelets over a campfire can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.

Here’s how I do it.

For the chili, I start from scratch — Scratch together a few bucks and buy a can of Amy’s organic black bean chili. Not to be confused with Amy’s organic spicy chili, which has the consistency of sawdust and play sand. In a pinch, I buy Tony Packo’s world famous chili with beans! (The exclamation point is Tony Packo’s idea. Personally, I never get that excited about beans.)

As I was saying, I generally start with Amy’s, then I make it my own. I add onions, peppers, sausage, and — if I’m really feeling ambitious — sliced portabella mushrooms.

It’s easier to pre-cook the sausage at home. I brown patties, cut them up into small chunks, then cook thoroughly. Wrap them in foil and, while you’re cutting up your peppers, onions and mushrooms, warm the sausage by putting it well above the fire on your tripod grill.

Lightly sauté the onions, peppers and mushrooms in olive oil. If you’re one of those people who prefers overcooked, flaccid onions and peppers, stop reading this immediately. You are not worthy of my culinary masterpieces. Vegetables should be sautéed to the point that they retain some crispness. By the same token, never overcook portabellas. Sauté them just enough so they’re slightly darkened and moist inside. If you’re one of those people who likes leathery mushrooms — reread the second sentence of this paragraph.

Once the prep work is done, open the can of chili, scoop it into a small pot and mix in the sausage, onions, peppers and mushrooms. Warm the pan over medium heat by adjusting your tripod grill.

Clean out the chili can; you’ll use that to scramble your eggs.

Next, wait for your campmates to wake up. I discourage them from sleeping in by threatening to urinate on their tents.

Once your campmates are stirring, crack a couple of eggs into the can, You could use a wisp to stir the eggs, but that would be just one more thing to wash. Or forget to pack. I just break off a green twig, preferably with a forked end, and use that to stir the eggs.

Remove the chili from the tripod grill and set it close to the coals to keep it warm. Rotate occasionally to distribute the heat evenly.

Lower the grill because you want a hot fire to cook your eggs. Once the skillet is hot enough, coat it lightly with butter. Pour in the eggs and cook till firm. Take the skillet off the grill, flip the egg and spoon chili on half of it.

Now you’re ready to cheese it. Cheddar, of course.

It’s easier to grate the cheese at home or buy pre-grated cheese.

Sprinkle the cheese over the chili, then fold the other half of the egg over it. Cover the skillet with a paper plate, raise the grill and warm it up just enough to melt the cheese.

There you have it. Next time, I’ll divulge my secrets for serving up tomato and basil omelets on canoe trips with fresh basil! (The exclamation point is mine, because fresh basil on camping trips is worth getting excited over.)

Poor Man’s Laptop

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This photo — taken by Kitty Palm-Houser during my first canoe trip to Marietta — was used as a column header for Hoot, a humor tabloid I once published.

My first laptop computer consisted of a 1950s-vintage Royal portable typewriter, a Rubbermaid Action Packer storage tub, and legs made out of PVC pipe.

I carted it more than 150 miles down river from Brinkhaven to Marietta, Ohio. From  campsites along the river, I wrote my weekly columns for the Columbus Guardian. I had prearranged with businesses along the way to use their fax machines to send the columns to the paper. One of the businesses, a golf course in Beverly, Ohio, had never used their fax machine to send out faxes. They only used it for golfers to reserve tee times.

This was in the early ’90s, when laptop computers were relatively new technology — and had the battery life expectancy of a geriatric fruit fly. They also were impractical because transmitting text would have been impossible. Especially from southeastern Ohio. Although things have improved, three years ago you still couldn’t get a Verizon signal on the Little Muskingum River.

Of course, my poor man’s laptop had apps. There was Word Imperfect — i.e. typewriter paper and Wite Out. I also had a standalone dictionary app — a paperback version of the American Heritage Dictionary. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I put my clustered fingertips on the page and spread them out, I couldn’t make the type larger. It was on this trip that I discovered I no longer had 20-20 vision.

Sadly, the manuscripts no longer exist. But I still have the ol’ Royal portable. With cellphones costing $900, I just might press it back into service.

Algonquin it ain’t – Charles Mill Lake canoe trip, part 3

You are NOT alone

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One of two bald eagles that watched me break camp.

There was no one else around at my Muskrat Bay campsite, but I was not alone. Lucy kept me company all evening and, when I crawled out of my tent in the morning, she was still there.

Lucy was a Canada goose. She appeared to have been injured and unable to fly. She swam around in front of my campsite, constantly positioning herself so she could keep an eye on me. It was sad to see goose couples come and go. Lucy watched them helplessly, perhaps longing for a life she’ll never have.

She wasn’t the only company I had. As I prepared breakfast and ate it, an osprey looked on from a tree across the bay. It flew off as I broke camp and, moments later, a bald eagle landed near where the osprey had been and stayed there until I slid my loaded canoe into the lake and paddled off. It was joined by a second eagle.

I began a day of exploring the lake north of the SR 430 bridge. Along the way, I saw a mallard, an egret and a plastic goose. I also rousted thousands of cormorants, which have become something of a plague on Charles Mill Lake.

There are suitable Islands for camping and a site — complete with a picnic table — on a peninsula at the southeast entrance to Big Turtle Bay. The downside is they’re situated between US 30 and SR 430 and the sound of traffic never stops.

I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon paddling along the shoreline on the northern end of the lake. Because of the highways, Eagle Point campground, a boat ramp and houses, it’s less appealing than the southern part of Charles Mill Lake.

In short, it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay there.

In Camp Harbor on the west side of the lake, I came upon what I hope wasn’t a familiar sight — a scuttled dredge. Years ago, while working as a reporter for the Ashland Times-Gazette, I wrote an article about the naming of a new dredge. It was dubbed “Sedimental Journey.” Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District had purchased the dredge. The plan was to dredge the channel under the SR 430 bridge, which separates the northern and southern parts of the lake, then take it to other MWCD lakes.

I can’t imagine it would have been scuttled without being used more.The average depth of Charles Mill Lake is only five feet. That’s down three feet from the original depth. The bottom of the lake is covered with a gooey layer of silt, the byproduct of irresponsible farming, logging and construction practices. I’d like to think that this was another dredge, one replaced by Sedimental Journey.

Ironically, as I explored the lake for three days in April, 50,000 gallons of drilling clay had been dumped in a wetland upstream — a byproduct of the Rover pipeline project. It might not reach the lake, but the harm to wildlife and the wetland is disheartening just the same.

Here are a few photos from the final day of my three-day canoe trip:

 

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Lucy, my constant companion.

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A mallard duck doing some morning yoga, north of the SR 430 bridge.

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An egret looks for fish in the shallows along the eastern shoreline.

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A plastic goose lurks in a tree trunk near Sites Lake, a residential area on the north end of Charles Mill.

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A scuttled dredge in Camp Harbor. Note the disintegrated oil boom around it.

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The cab of the dredge. I was concerned that the interior of the hull reeked of oil.

Click on the link below for a map of the lake:

Charles Mill Lake Map annotated

 

Previous posts on this trip:

Part One

Part Two

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Algonquin it ain’t – Charles Mill Lake canoe trip, part two

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While paddling around Bushman Bay, waiting for my friends to arrive at the lake, this tree called out to me.

Sitting around the campfire after a day of exploring the western part of Charles Mill Lake, I thought about the traffic on nearby SR 603. Like a lot of rural state routes, traffic dies down at night. It was far enough away and masked by trees and the sound of water going through the dam that I could barely hear the occasional truck going by.

I thought about how many times — thousands — I had gone up and down that road to and from work. About 13, 14 years. Tires over the bridge now; I’m retired.

On the second day of my trip, my friends Kevin and Theresa joined me for a day paddle.

We spent several hours exploring the east side of the lake, from Charles Mill Dam north to the main campground. Part of the mission was to explore islands, looking for other potential campsites.

I’d always thought Harbor Island at the southern end of the lake looked promising. Like Mud Lake — mentioned in the previous post — it was not. It, too, is choked with multiflora rose and too close to civilization. There are several houses nearby.

From previous experience, I knew Applegate Island was suitable for camping. Kevin Theresa and I found Barb Island to be good also. It’s small, but isolated enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to camp there. Except during duck hunting season. Duck hunters have staked claims on most the islands and other spots along the shoreline, posting their names and phone numbers. It’s a good lake to stay off of during waterfowl season.

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Theresa and Kevin check out turkey vultures that were checking us out in Muskrat Bay.

We were particularly impressed with Muskrat Bay. Isolated and shallow, it was teeming with wildlife including great blue heron and belted kingfishers. As we headed out of the bay, I told Theresa that the islands there had camping potential. Those words proved to be prophetic.

After we parted company, I headed north. I planned to paddle upriver on Black Fork of the Mohican River and, perhaps, camp on one of the islands.

However, it had rained a lot the previous week, leaving the islands muddy. I found a few suitable spots, but they were too close to SR 603, which follows the river pretty much from US 42 to SR 30.

So, I grabbed a six-pack of Molson XXX from Molly’s Cheese House and headed back downstream to the lake. (Another story for another day.) I paddled back to Muskrat Bay and found another perfect campsite on one of the islands.

Here are a few more photos from day two of the trip.

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Great blue heron in Muskrat Bay. Notice how shallow the water is.

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Waning full moon over Muskrat Bay

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Turn on yer Bud Lite — I “repurposed” a discarded beer bottle found on the island and made this swell candle holder.

 

Click on the link below for a pdf map of the lake.

Charles Mill Lake Map annotated

Next – Breakfast with friends in Muskrat Bay and dredging up memories.

 

 

 

Paddle Your Kids – Tips for Canoeing with Young Children

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When canoeing with young children, it’s important to stop along the way and allow them to play.

You shouldn’t hesitate to paddle young children.

I’m not talking about corporal punishment for toddlers; I’m talking about canoeing.

The most important thing to remember is that you don’t want canoeing to seem like punishment. With a little preparation and planning, you can make it a safe and enjoyable experience for them. And yourself.

Safety is the main concern.

The use of life jackets for children is mandatory. And should be. Ohio law requires that children under 10 years of age must wear a life jacket while aboard watercraft under 18 feet in length. That would include most canoes and kayaks.

Adults must have life jackets in the boat, but are not required to wear them. However, except in extremely low water conditions such as shallow streams with little current, it’s a good idea to wear a life jacket for two reasons — to set a good example and to be better able to respond in the event of a capsize or kid overboard situation.

Fit is important. Life jackets come in many sizes and styles. (In fact, manufacturers recently started making them to accommodate the adult female anatomy.) Generally speaking, youth life jackets come in three sizes — for children under 30 pounds, 30-50 pounds and over 50 pounds.

You probably won’t find life jackets for children under 30 pounds at your local department or sporting goods stores. They can be special-ordered online for store pickup or purchased online.

Price ranges vary. Form-fitting life jackets tend to be more expensive — $40 and up — but it’s important to provide a life jacket children will want to wear in lieu of the cheaper, bulkier horse collar variety.

Conditions are another safety concern — weather and water.

I wouldn’t recommend taking young children out in less-than-ideal conditions. Rain and high wind can make for an unpleasant and potentially unsafe experience. Even on a warm summer day, getting drenched by a downpour can cause hypothermia, which can be fatal. For that reason, it’s a good idea to pack rain gear in case of an unexpected shower.

It’s equally important to prepare for sun exposure. Don’t forget hats and sunscreen. I also pack a salve, such as After Bite, to treat insect bites and stings. Hydration is also crucial, so make sure you bring water or juice. Also, it doesn’t hurt to pack a little snack, if just to keep them entertained.

The less-than-ideal rule also applies to water levels and current. Even with a life jacket, a child can become trapped in a strainer (tree debris) or other obstacles.

In short, if the weather and river conditions aren’t perfect, wait for another day.

Create a safe, comfortable environment inside the canoe. I learned this lesson the hard way. Actually, it was my daughter who learned this lesson the hard way. On her first canoe trip, we bottomed out on a gravel bar. The canoe came to an abrupt stop. She didn’t.

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Foam rubber noodles protect kids from banging their heads on the thwarts and gunwales.

Since then, whenever canoeing with children, I pad the thwarts (crossbars) and gunwales (side rails) with pipe wrap. More recently, I’ve switched to hollow-core foam “noodles.” They provide more padding than pipe wrap and come in bright colors, which makes them more appealing to kids. Simply cut the noodles to size, slit them lengthwise and slip them over the thwarts and gunwales.

A yoga mat placed on the floor of the canoe provides better footing and comfort for children. My daughter also found hers very tasty, judging from the bite mark she left on the edge of it. Yoga mats can be somewhat pricey. Higher-quality ones run $20-$40 or more. But, when not lining the floor of the canoe, they can be used for other purposes — such as yoga.

Finally, canoe trips should be tailored for children’s brief attention span. They won’t be as enthralled as you are with the scenery and wildlife

I recommend providing child-sized paddles. Most kids, especially younger ones, won’t use them much. Except perhaps to resolve sibling rivalries. To kids, dipping a paddle in the water is like fledgling birds testing their wings; they aren’t ready to fly, but they will begin to get the feel of it.

More importantly, stop along the to way to play, to wade in the river and skip stones. While you’re at it, collect large quantities of “balooking stones,” so called because of the sound they make when they hit the water. Children enjoy tossing stones into the river and you’ll probably find yourself making frequent stops to replenish their supply.

When your children get to the age when they stop throwing “balooking stones” in the water and throw them at you instead, it’s probably time to buy them their own canoe.

This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2016, Ashland Times-Gazette.

Stir Crazy After All These Years

One good thing about getting your head out of your ass: The world looks so much better.

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To me, canoeing is a way of life. I’ve been doing it for 36 years. When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer last October, I put my life on hold. He became the center of my world and the center of my siblings’ world. Dad died on Pearl Harbor Day.

I didn’t realize it until mid January that my life had remained on hold. Part of the grieving process, most likely.

But it was more complicated than that. I allowed myself to become distracted, to idle away my time on the computer, drink more than I should and piddle around with this, that and the other.

Then I decided to pull my head out of my ass. I began staging for a winter canoe trip. It was a gradual process at first, packing one item a day — tent, sleeping bags (plural for winter trips), cookware, etc. Then came the point of no return. I borrowed a phrase from my father: “Do it like you meant it.” I spent an entire afternoon packing in earnest, getting to the point where I just needed to throw some food and water in the cooler and go.

It was just a matter of waiting for a window

Finally, on the weekend of the Jan. 22, that window opened. I loaded my canoe and shoved it onto an ice ledge on Black Fork of the Mohican River near Perrysville. The ice gave way under the loaded boat and dropped into the cold dark water. As the last three feet of the stern began to slide down what was left of the ice ledge, I jumped in, rode the canoe into the open water and headed downstream.

Mission accomplished. I had pulled my head out of my ass and gotten on with my life.

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Making breakfast Saturday morning at my campsite near Loudonville.

 

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Two eagles engage in aerial combat near Spellacy. I saw more than a dozen bald eagles on this trip.

 

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Poor man’s selfie. My Saturday campsite. Thanks to George and Amy Smith for their hospitality.

 

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A nearly full moon rises over a steep hillside Saturday night at my campsite at Smith’s Campgrounds & Cabins.