Dismay on Ice

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 08.00.08I tried ice fishing once. It did not go well.

My late Uncle Paul made arrangements with a Lake Erie charter captain he knew to take us ice fishing on the West Basin. The captain met us on a beach near East Harbor and we piled into an early ’50s Chevy convertible.

It wasn’t an actual convertible. It was a hardtop with the roof cut off. It didn’t appear that the roof had been removed with conventional cutting tools; more like it had been gnawed off by Godzilla.

As we rolled out onto the ice en route to the ice shanty, the captain announced, “If you hear ice cracking, jump clear.”

I felt like jumping right then and there, just to be on the safe side. Had someone so much as cracked his knuckles, I would have been out of there and turning horizontal cartwheels across the ice.

We made it to our shanty unscathed, piled in and bid the captain adieu.

We sat around a hole in the ice, dangling hooks baited with minnows — for no apparent reason.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Hours passed without so much as a nibble. The minnows died from exposure.

Unlike warm weather fishing, you can’t move to another spot when the fish aren’t biting. We were stuck in the shanty until the charter captain returned.

We passed the time with idle conversation, during which each of us confessed that we hadn’t bothered to bring our fishing licenses. After all, who’s going to come out there in the bitter cold checking licenses?

We were talking about how things couldn’t possibly get worse when we heard a snowmobile pull up followed by a knock at the door.

“Game warden,” a man outside announced.

 

This was published earlier this year — one of my outdoors columns for the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times-Shopper.

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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.

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.)

Tangential Travel

Experiencing Algonquin through modified base camping

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Steve and Ken encounter a red squirrel on a hike around our Big Porcupine Lake island. Reminiscent of the killer rabbit scene from “The Holy Grail.”

While we were camped on Big Porcupine Lake late last month, Steve McKee explained how he arrived at the concept of modified base camping on Algonquin canoe trips.

Typically, with wilderness tripping, you go from lake to lake, camping one night then moving on. The same with river trips. There’s a lot of work involved in setting up and breaking camp, but the scenery is constantly changing. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed the sense of movement — the sense of progression — that you get from doing it that way.

Many years ago, a group of stubborn Boy Scouts inspired Steve to opt for the modified base camping approach. He told us the boys crapped out on their leaders in the middle of a trip, refusing to move on from their camp and enduring several more days of portaging and setting up and breaking camp.

Steve wasn’t happy about it and pressed on, leaving the Boy Scouts and other leaders to their squatters’ camp. However, he later turned the experience into a positive — adapting it to his own preferences. The result was a modified base camp approach, which allowed him to move at a slower pace, spend more time at each lake and take day trips to other lakes or hikes into the back country. This involves spending a few nights on each lake and taking the empty canoe out for excursions during the day, sometimes portaging to other lakes.

Steve’s an accomplished naturalist and this left him plenty of opportunities for botanizing. In fact, on every trip, he’s found at least one plant species he had not seen in the wild before.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this approach at first. But, after six years of Algonquin trips with Steve and our friend Ken Arthur, I’ve come to see the value in it. There is much to be said for taking day trips from base camps and canoeing to some of the more isolated lakes.

This year was no exception. The highlights included Steve finding a few “life plants” on Ragged Lake and coming across a yellow birch three feet in diameter on an island where we camped on Big Porcupine Lake.

Now that I’m retired, I occasionally use the modified base camp approach on river trips. Especially when the weather is bad. There’s something to be said for hunkering down,  listening to the raindrops on the tent or tarp and watching the birds and other critters going about their business.

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Cotton grass, a “life plant” for me, but not for Steve. We came across it on one of our day excursions along Big Porcupine Lake.

 

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Ken keeps an eye out for killer squirrels while Steve and I check out the cotton grass and other flora.

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Ken and Steve check out a huge yellow birch. Estimated to be 250 years old, it somehow was spared when Algonquin was heavily logged.

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Botanizing on Ragged Lake. This is where Steve found a few “life plants.”  The species we spotted included glove clubmoss, lance-leaved violet and lady tresses orchid. And we snacked on a few cranberries.

 

Finding the ‘can’ in ‘Canada’

Algonquin 2018 – Part 3

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Pre-ringtab era cans — older than most of you.

On Big Porcupine Lake we found tin cans — for better or worse.

Cans are prohibited at Algonquin Provincial Park. As are bottles. Campers have a habit of not packing them out.

That includes a cluster of very old cans we found at one of the first campsites we scouted. We elected not to stay there because of its proximity to a portage trail head. That turned out better for us and a large group of Canadian Cadets (a sort-of ROTC). The site was better suited for a large camping party. There were only three in our group and two canoes.

We hooked up with them the next day while we were exploring and they were making the portage to Bonnechere Lake.

Among the cans was a peanut butter jar with a picture of an elephant wearing a silly cap molded into the glass. Ken collects bottles, so he scavenged it.

Ken would later make use of two tin cans we found at our campsite, which was on an island across from the first site we scouted.

A canoe trip isn’t a canoe trip unless you forget something. I forgot to bring a reliable vehicle; Ken forgot the “feet” for his camp chair. The feet were something I came up with to keep the legs of the chair from sinking into the mud or sand.

He improvised by putting the cans on the front legs of his chair.

Necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The afternoon of our second day on Porcupine Lake it started to rain and didn’t stop till the next morning.

To be continued.

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Steve’s chair on the right with the feet I designed. Ken’s cans on the left.

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Ken putting charred cans he found in the fire ring to good use.

 

 

Algonquin 2018 — Part 2

Isthmus Be the Place

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Morning view from the east side of the isthmus.

On the second day of our trip, I awakened to see a foggy sunrise through a curtain of silhouetted pine trees. All was well with the world — and I hadn’t even had my morning coffee.

 

It turned out that sunsets and moon rises would be equally as wonderful. The campsite was on an isthmus with small sand beaches facing the east and west. The latter also had a resident eagle that spent much of the day perched in a dead tree across from the beach.

Not bad for a campsite we found in the dark. As reported in the previous post, the ol’ Canoebaru broke down en route to Canada and we had arrived at Algonquin Provincial Park four hours behind schedule. We considered ourselves lucky to have made it there at all, much less on the same day we left from north central Ohio.

Especially considering the confusion caused by my hearing impairment when we passed through customs. The border patrol agent asked where we were from. I thought he asked where we were going and told him “Algonquin.” From the look of confusion on his face, I might as well have said I was from Mars.

From then on, Ken and Steve acted as my interpreters in all confrontations with figures of authority.

As had been the case five years ago, we planned to camp on Ragged and Big Porcupine lakes. This time, we’d spend two nights on Ragged Lake, two nights on Big Porcupine and the final two on Ragged again.

And, as I mentioned five years ago, the portage from Ragged to Big Porcupine is challenging. To put it charitably. In the post from 2013, I described the portage as “a vertical climb of 400 feet covering a distance of 1.4 gonzometers (roughly one-third of a light year).”

I wasn’t far off. Actually, it’s only a 150-foot climb over a distance of 590 meters (about a third of a mile).

To be continued.

 

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A bald eagle keeps watch over our isthmus campsite.

 

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There was a great collection of driftwood on our west beach.

 

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Ken Arthur with his journal and Steve McKee enjoying the sunset.

 

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Another sunrise from our isthmus campsite.

 

 

 

Old Fart at Play – Tracking Coyotes in the Snow

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This is where I stopped tracking. The coyotes had crossed Pine Run and scampered up the bank.

Had a couple of visitors last night. The dogs alerted me to it when we went out for our morning pee.

It was too dark to make out the tracks then. Whatever it was came up the lane as far as the barn, rooted around a bit, then retreated from whence it came.

After breakfast, I headed out to follow the tracks. Two coyotes. They might have been interested in a fox or a rabbit that had crossed the yard earlier. It looked as though they decided the tracks weren’t fresh enough and their would-be prey was long gone.

The coyote tracks led down an old tractor lane, past a log cabin and through a stand of pines that had once been a farm field.

As I followed the tracks through the woods, the wind kicked up. It blew snow off the boughs, creating an instant blizzard.

After crossing through the woods, the coyotes had descended into a floodplain and crossed a small wash. They continued along an old wagon road, then followed Pine Run a short distance before crossing.

I decided not to follow any further. I had followed the tracks about 2/3 of a mile.

It’s possible these was the same coyotes whose tracks we followed across the ice on Pine Run a few months ago.

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Instant blizzard. Wind gusts blowing snow of pine boughs in what had been a farm field.

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One of the coyotes found my stepping stumps to its liking when crossing a small stream.