How to Turn Your Spine Into an Owl Pellet

Backpacking for Pack Rats

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My bivvy bag and camp chair. If all else had failed, I could have slept in the chair.

(From My Outdoors Column)

Last week I took my own advice. In a previous column, I recommended taking a hike for temporary relief from coronavirus anxiety. So I did. Three days later, I emerged from the woods a happier, wiser and sorer man.

The experience reminded me why I took up canoe camping instead of backpacking. With canoe camping, the water bears the weight of your gear for the most part. With backpacking, as the name implies, your vertebrae and back muscles are packed into a tight wad.

If you were to get an MRI after a few days of backpacking, your spine and supporting tissue would look like an owl pellet.

So, how does a seasoned canoeist approach backpacking? I cheated. I divided my gear into two packs and made two trips.

In backpacking — and day-hiking, for that matter — you’ve got your loop trails and your out-and-back trails. In backpacking Irv-style, you’ve got your out and back and back and back out trail.

I tried my best to pare my load down so I could make it in one trip. I packed freeze-dried meals, lite beer, and put two batteries in my headlamp instead of three. I even opted to use a bivvy sack in lieu of a tent.

For those unfamiliar with bivvy sacks, they’re kind of like body bags with an escape hatch.

I bought mine about 20 years ago; I’ve used it all of three times. Truth be told, I hate it.

If you’re the least bit claustrophobic, bivvy sacks are not for you. Rooting around inside one when you’re preparing to bed down for the night is like spelunking in a groundhog burrow. I suppose you could stand outside the bivvy sack, get into your sleeping bag like putting on a pair of overalls, then flop onto the ground and shimmy into the bivvy sack.

You get inside and settle down to try and sleep, but you can’t because the mosquito netting is practically resting on your face. Now you know how a bank robber feels when he pulls pantyhose over his head to conceal his identity.

But all was not lost. I figured that, if I couldn’t sleep, I could hike back to the house, crawl into bed and hike back to get my gear in the morning.

In a future column, I’ll discuss the concept of base camp backpacking. But first I’ve got to hike back out there and retrieve the rest of my gear.

Paddling into obsolescence at a leisurely pace

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Reflection on the water of billowing smokestacks at the Conesville Power Plant on the Muskingum River — like everything and everyone, destined for obsolescence.

We hadn’t yet paddled out of Coshocton when the Conesville Power Plant smokestacks came into sight. From there they look so close, but veteran Muskingum River paddlers know better; Conesville is more than five miles downstream of Coshocton.

That’s about an 80-minute paddle if you’re in a hurry. I never am. To me, that defeats the purpose of canoeing. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

My canoe partner for this trip, Ken Arthur, was OK with that. He’s all about exploring and discovery.

It was Ken’s first ever glimpse of the Conesville stacks — at least from the river. But, for both of us, it might have been the last time seeing them belching smoke. American Electric Power plans to close the 62-year-old coal-burning power plant at the end of May 2020.

According to a Coshocton Tribune article written by Leonard Hayhurst, the Conesville plant has become obsolete — another casualty of the flagging domestic coal market. It has been a slow painful death.

“In October 2017, the plant was devalued by the Ohio Department of Taxation, going from $72.2 million to $34.7 million due to coal-fired plants being not as valuable in the energy market as natural gas facilities,” Hayhurst wrote in October 2018. “This resulted in close to $2 million in revenue lost to local entities. The hardest hit dollars wise was River View Local Schools at $1.18 million annually and the biggest percentage drop was to Franklin Township which lost more than half of its annual budget at $87,193.”

Paddle upstream — physically and in time — and a similar scenario played out about 100 years ago.

Railroads had rendered canals obsolete. That included the Walhonding Canal, which I mentioned in previous columns. (Earlier in this trip, Ken and I portaged Six Mile Dam on the Walhonding River, where Lock 5 of the canal had been.) Six Mile Dam, which is between the town of Warsaw and Coshocton, was repurposed. The canal was reengineered to channel water down to the Village of Roscoe to power a hydroelectric plant. That also became obsolete; no doubt a casualty of coal-burning power plants.

Now the dam has become obsolete. It’s become a liability due to an undermined wing wall. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has slated it for removal around this time next year.

Traveling upstream even further in time — more than 2,500 years ago — Greek philosopher Hiraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Clearly, this stretch of the Walhonding and Muskingum rivers will not be the same. It will be much different without the dam and Conesville’s belching smokestacks.

Time will have changed us as well. This canoe trip served as a reminder that all of us are destined for obsolescence. As I said earlier, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

This was one of a series of five columns on my September 2019 canoe trip from Mohawk Dam to Dresden, Ohio on the Walhondong and Muskingum rivers.

 

 

I Canoe Because ‘Amish’ the Good Ol’ Days

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Ken Arthur updates his journal by candlelight – while our Mennonite neighbors luxuriate in their modern RV.

On this leg of our canoe trip, I mistook a Mennonite family for Amish and Ken, in turn, was mistaken for Amish.

Instead of camping at Six Mile Dam on the Walhonding River the first night of our trip, we pressed on to Coshocton. On the gravel bar in front of the Lake Park Campground, several Mennonite children frolicked in the river. A middle-aged woman played with the children while an older woman sat in a folding chair reading a newspaper.

It was quite a bucolic scene — the women and girls in their long dresses and white bonnets and the boys in their plain dark clothing. I thought to photograph them but decided to respect their privacy.

As our canoe ground to a halt on the gravel landing we became aware that some of them were staring at us — much as we “English” sometimes hazard uncomfortably long glances at the Amish or Mennonites. The sight of two old guys in a canoe laden with camping gear might have been something of a novelty to them.

“Are you on a camping trip?” the middle-aged woman asked.

We told her we were.

At first I had thought they were Amish. Then I realized, when I noticed their multicolored clothing, that they were Mennonites. Unlike the Amish, they don’t shun technology. This would become abundantly clear.

As Ken and I pitched our tents, the middle-aged woman walked by.

“Have you heard whether it’s supposed to rain tonight?” Ken asked her.

She pulled out a smartphone, checked her weather app and said, “There’s a slight chance of rain around midnight.”

Then she sauntered on down the lane to her campsite — and climbed into a big fancy RV.

This experience reminded me that primitive camping is just another form of shunning the trappings of modernity.

After supper, Ken recorded the day’s events in his journal by candlelight while I wandered down to the gravel bar try to catch a glimpse of the full moon.

After a leisurely breakfast we broke camp, loaded the canoe, and headed downstream. We stopped to stretch our legs at the public river access south of Coshocton.

Ken wandered along the bank, looking for objects to incorporate into his artwork. Meanwhile, I picked up litter left behind by careless fishermen.

An older model car rolled into the parking lot and stopped near the riverbank. It was occupied by two men, who I guessed to be around 50. They had fishing rods in the back seat.

I approached the car and noticed the man in the passenger seat had an open bottle of Budweiser on the seat between his legs. The driver asked if the river was shallow and I told him it was. They indicated that shallow water wasn’t conducive to good fishing. Although they seemed more interested in drinking.

The driver noticed Ken walking along the bank.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“Oh, he’s with me,” I responded.

“Is he Amish?” he asked.

I laughed and told him he wasn’t.

They left, apparently to do their drinking elsewhere.

As Ken approached, he asked about the men in the car.

“They asked me if you were Amish,” I said.

He was not amused.

Personally, I don’t mind being mistaken for Amish. I have been on at least one occasion. After all, isn’t that what canoe tripping is all about — shunning the trappings of modernity?

In their book “Canoeing and Kayaking Ohio’s Streams,” Rick Combs and Steve Gillen aptly observed, “Paddling … can take you back to a time when travel was more deliberately accomplished.”

(This was written for my outdoors column, which runs in GateHouse Media publications.)

 

Define ‘Morning’

 

The Joys of a Leisurely Morning in Camp

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Here I am camping with my favorite canoe partner. (Photo courtesy Steve McKee.)

There are two ways to break camp — the leisurely morning and what I call “bugging out.”

As the name implies, bugging out means getting up, packing hastily and hitting the river, lake or trail. (Or, if you’re car camping, the road.) The reasons for bugging out typically involve a long day of travel, a scheduled rendezvous, or sleeping in until it’s nearly time to set up camp again — somewhere miles away.

The worst part of bugging out is there’s no time for breakfast. A friend of mine would prepare for this eventuality by packing caffeine pills in lieu of coffee and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. That’s not camping; it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

All camping trips should be planned and executed to allow for leisurely mornings — the more leisurely, the better. Ideally, it will be a two coffee pot morning.

The question is, when camping with others, how do you orchestrate this?

It helps to camp with people who have a common definition of “morning.” This can be difficult when some of your friends work night shift or spend a lot of time in bars. Old habits are hard to break no matter how much noise you make banging on a cast iron skillet with a spatula.

If the smell of coffee isn’t enough to get them crawling out of their tents, subtle hints might be in order. You could try standing close to the offending party’s tent and saying in a loud clear voice, “Gee, I wonder if this tent really is waterproof!”

The best way to find people who have a common definition of morning is to look in a mirror. It’s also the best way to find someone who appreciates the true definition of leisurely.

To camp alone is to set your own pace. There’s much to be said for that. The down side is, when it comes time to tell jokes around the campfire, you’ve heard them all.

This story ran as a column in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times.

Routine Acts of Kindness

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View from my canoe — Bridge of Dreams at Brinkhaven.

June 4, 2019 — Today I learned the fate of two men who mattered in my life, two men who mattered in a lot of people’s lives: Jonas Nisely and Jim Proper.

I stopped by Jonas’ farm in southern Richland County to see how he was doing. His sons were outside working on the main house when I pulled in and I spoke with Eli. He went into a house across the lane to tell his father I was there.

Jonas is 92. He and my late father became friends in the 1970s, when my family stayed at the KOA campground up the road. Jonas taught in an Amish schoolhouse and my father was a bookbinder. Dad bound books for him in exchange for milk and eggs. I arranged for a reunion between them a few years before my father died. I have fond memories of driving dad’s Crown Vic on a dirt road through the woods to find Jonas working in his tree nursery. He and my father never stopped smiling as they talked, catching up on decades gone by.

I joined Jonas on a porch swing overlooking the farm. He appeared frail, but still had a gleam in his soulful blue eyes. I was relieved to see dirt on the knees of his homemade trousers — a sign that he was still getting out and working the land that he loved.

The bucolic scene unfolding before us served as testimony to his dedication to farm and family. Two young women in long blue dresses tended plants around the foundation of the main house, their bare feet rooted in the dirt and grass. A younger woman in a long brown dress mounted a pony and rode it down the lane, the same pony a young boy had been riding when I pulled up.

“Eli’s keeping the place in good shape for me,” Jonas said.

That clearly meant a lot to him.

Then we talked about my family.

“Your father always treated me well,” he said.

That meant a lot to both of us.

Earlier that day, I learned that Jim Proper had passed away in 2011. It had been years since I’d stopped by Jim’s place along the Mohican River at Brinkhaven. I felt guilty for not having kept in touch.

Jim was only 62 when he died. Like Jonas, he was a family man.

I camped in Jim’s yard on Memorial Day weekend 1980. It was the first place I ever camped along the river. Canoeing would become the focus of my life and — thanks to Jim — Brinkhaven would always hold a special place in my heart.

Back in the day Jim charged canoeists two bucks a night to camp in his big back yard near Brinkhaven Dam. Over the years I spent many a night there, lulled to sleep by the sound of water rushing over what was left of the low head dam.

Legend has it Jim’s place originally served as a roadhouse, known for its fine steaks and — according to some accounts — served with a side dish of rowdiness. Over the years, the Propers made additions and other improvements to the house. It looks quite stately, perched on a hill overlooking the river.

Eventually Jim stopped charging me and gave me his blessings to camp in his yard anytime. He seemed to sense my desire for solitude. Jim would wait till morning — when I was making breakfast or breaking camp — to come down from the house and talk with me.

Jim figures prominently in Mohican River lore — Brinkhaven in particular. In fact, some paddlers owe their lives to him. He was instrumental in chipping out a section of the right side of the dam, providing safe passage.

Even though it clearly pained him, Jim talked about pulling bodies of drowned paddlers from the river, victims of the dangerous hydraulic of the low head dam.

There’s another story about Jim I’d like to share. I’ll save that for another time.

I never troubled him for help with a shuttle, but Jim was known to do that for canoeists. I was content to enjoy his hospitality and conversation — and to watch his family grow over the years.

I was told his son, Matthew, has the place now. Next time I’m on that part of the river I should make it a point to stop by.

[This column was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette.]

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.

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.