Hi! I'm Grace Evans and this is Dry Spell, my weekly letter of off-season reflections on canoeing.
I’ve learned a lot about packing and using gear after just one season of backcountry trips. My fellow paddlers passed along tips and tricks, such as wrapping whole vegetables individually in newspaper to absorb moisture before packing them. I learned best practices for thunderbox supplies: when you arrive at your site, leave a large freezer bag with two rolls of toilet paper and unscented hand sanitizer on the closed lid.
But there are a few innovations that, while they might not be totally original, were developed on the go and made my trips better. Here they are:
On my September trip, Sam, Emily and I came up with the idea of a satellite bear hang. After dinner the food barrel was packed with food and washed dishes and hoisted into the trees 200 feet away from our site. We kept our toothpaste and toothbrushes and some treats (tea, whisky, cookies, etc). After we enjoyed some before-bed goodies, we rinsed our empty cups with water and drank that down too. We brushed our teeth and sealed our mugs and toiletries in the a 10 litre dry bag and hoisted that high into a tree at the edge of our site. Admittedly it’s not strictly following recommended bear hang protocol, but it was low risk enough. More on that here.
Ladle Part 1
On my August trip, we didn't pack a ladle. It hadn’t seemed essential - but it would have been helpful when distributing soupy foods like lentil sloppy joe, dahl, and mushroom tomato ragout. My pal Anna is an artist who just can’t help but make stuff. In Algonquin she literally watercolour painted at some points while paddling; somehow Allison in the stern kept pace with the other canoes while Anna’s hands were busy. So of course Anna fashioned a ladle. Here’s Anna on how she made it:
I peeled the bark off a stick I like the shape of and whittled off a little with my knife. Then I took a piece of birch bark and soaked it in the lake a bit to soften up. When the bark was “ready” I cut a half moon out of birch bark and curled it up into a cone shape. I carefully slit the end of the stick in half and used it kind a like a clothespin to hold the cone of birch bark. Then I used the raffia and needle that Angela had brought for pine needle baskets and stitched the handle in place and lashed the split together so it was tight. It was an intuitive process! I don’t know if I could or would make another one the same way.
Most valuable carabiner
One of the sites I stayed at on Little Oxtongue River had a terrible thunderbox situation. It was at the top of the hill looking over the campsite, which meant that odour drifted down into the site, and we could all easily view anyone who used the toilet. But perhaps most egregiously, the chain was broken. The lid of the thunderbox usually acts like a privacy screen behind the user, but this particular chain was so long that the lid hyperextended backwards. This meant the whole campsite, and even passersby on the west side of the river, could see a person sitting on the toilet’s full top half.
When she recognized the problem, Anna jumped into action. She used a spare carabiner to shorten the chain thus ensuring some privacy for toilet sitters; only the user’s head remained visible to everyone below.
Ladle Part 2
On my September trip I packed a metal measuring cup for measuring water for my bannock mixture on day three. But the metal measuring cup proved to be perfect to use as a ladle - specifically for making coffee or tea. I realized that if I kept the pot of water boiling on the gas stove while making the first cup of coffee, the last cup of coffee would actually be hot for the drinker. Instead of pouring water from the pot and removing it from the heat, I used the metal measuring cup to ladle water, cup by cup. I felt like a genius, but I also felt sorry for the last coffee drinker all of the previous days who received lukewarm coffee.
When I was in Girl Guides, each camper brought her own mess kit in a mesh bag. After meals we lined up to wash our own dishes and then tossed them into our mesh bag and hung them on a line to dry. The first time I washed dishes in the backcountry crouching over a collapsible sink, Emily dried and didn’t know where to put them once clean. We hung some on tree branches and sat some in pine needles. I thought longingly of a sturdy mesh bag or two to hang on a branch and toss everything into, where dishes could dry more and be easily tossed into a food barrel at the end of the night. For my second trip I brought my husband’s old mesh bag from Scouts, and then I purchased two more from the Scout shop. I might not wash dishes often while camping since I try to trade tasks to get out of it, but when I must, I appreciate this system.
On my September trip the evenings were too cold for my Jack Russell terrier Dash. I experimented with a few different configurations but what I settled on was my fluffy down sleeping bag fully zipped, wrapped around him and placed inside a pocket of thick plastic I’d brought as an extra mini tarp. I rolled the edges down so that it protected the bag from moisture and dirt but didn’t suffocate Dash. He snuggled deeper into his nest, poking his nose or eye out of a small opening. Even after it warmed a few degrees the next day he retired to his comfy cave by dinnertime.
In the future, I’m wary of wetter conditions and not eager to share my sleeping bag with a dog. So Dash is now the proud owner of his own dog sleeping bag, which he has been snuggling in all winter. More on Dash’s backcountry sleeping arrangements here and here.
I know I picked up other ideas while portaging; it was a good time to check out other tripper’s gear and systems for unloading and loading their canoe. But one of the things that most left an impression on me was the way seasoned trippers were friendly and generous, saying hello, being kind and welcoming to those around them.
I’m sure I’ll learn more with each trip! Here’s to a summer of safe canoeing and backcountry trips for everyone.
Reconciliation means rethinking parks governance: “It’s our collective responsibility to engage in conversations about how new systems of land governance could look.” [David Suzuki Foundation]
A brief history of the Madaoueskarini Algonquin People: “Soon, borders would be drawn around Algonquin strongholds of the territory, like Algonquin National Park, rules and regulations would be put in motion. The traditional ways of my Algonquin ancestors were not conducive to new park policies. Their lives were forcibly changed without any consultation or respect to our thousands of years of presence on this land.” I was so pleased to find this article and Omàmìwininì Madaoueskarini Anishinaabekwe writer Christine Luckasavitch’s work, since I’ve found next to nothing written about the colonial history of Algonquin Park. And even better, she’s writing a book about the history of the Algonquin people. [Muskoka Region]
Farewell for now!
I’m paddling again and it feels great to get on the water. This is an off-season newsletter, so I’ll continue writing Dry Spell this fall, once I’ve turned over my canoe for the season.
Thank you for reading!!!
Thank you for sharing your stories over the winter. Enjoy paddling this summer and looking forward to hearing more of your tales! Enjoy, Deb
Thanks Grace. So many interesting tidbits. Great suggestions re mesh bags and sleeping bags for Dash. Enjoy the summer.