Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gear that works: Wood-burning outdoor water heaters

Outdoor water heaters were issued to New Zealand troops during WWII, and became popularly known as "Benghazi Boilers". Variations on the theme are manufactured today by a variety of British, Australian, Scandinavian and New Zealand sources as "Kelly Kettles", "Thermettes", "Ghillie Kettles", "Volcano Stoves", "Storm Kettles" and etc. For some reason, they haven't caught on in our hemisphere. I have a half-gallon copper "Thermette" (I reviewed it in this blog some time ago), and it's a worthwhile piece of kit. But I understand that the newer versions are rather poorly made in China.

Well, if a "Thermette" was bitten by a radioactive spider and then mated with a genetically-modified "Storm Kettle", and the resultant offspring overdosed on steroids, you'd end up with these things.

A metal fabrication outfit in Christchurch, New Zealand makes them. I stumbled across a reference somewhere on the internet, tracked them down and talked them into airfreighting me a couple. (I don't think they have a website, but their phone number is 03-384-2184 and their email address is . The fellow I spoke to is Paul.) The stoves arrived well wrapped, but dented nevertheless. The airport bag smashers must have have had some aggression to work out. No real harm done, though. I hope that they'll have much more character before I'm done with them.

Shipping doubled the price, but they were still a bargain when compared to the quality and size of the aforementioned competition.

I bought ten-liter and thirty-liter (!) sizes. The ten-liter weighs 16 pounds and stands 23 inches tall. The thirty-liter weighs 29 pounds and is 32 inches tall. Both consist of three pieces, with a fire ring that goes underneath and a trivet that sits on top for cooking. The latter two pieces fit together and can be used without the boiler as hobo stoves. Everything is very solidly built of seam-welded stainless steel, and the boiler is powder-coated. The hole patterns punched in the trivets are works of art. I expect my kids will pass these on to their kids, blackened and more dented.

I tested them on a damp and windy 40 degree Fahrenheit afternoon - exactly the kind of hypothermic conditions when your morale would be well served by enough hot water for a bubble bath with a super model. I chopped a hole in the lake's ice and filled the boilers to the gills. (I've decided that a bucket and funnel are necessary accoutrements - not only did my hands get cold holding them underwater, but I was worried about dropping them. A cork would be a good idea as well, to keep bugs and debris out of the filler hole when water isn't actually being heated.)

All the squaw wood is long gone from around my place, so I picked up a variety of natural fuels from the ground, unfortunately not perfectly dry. Each stove was touched off with birch bark, then I started dropping pine cones, branches and horse poo (in the spirit of those Kiwi soldiers who used camel turds in North Africa) down the tubes like a mortarman when the enemy is in the wire. Both came to a boil at almost the same time, in about 17 minutes. They would have boiled faster if the fuel hadn't been damp, the water hadn't come from under ice, and the dog hadn't kept running off with the sticks and poo.

This sort of low-tech practicality and versatility gives me a stiffy. Water boiler, hobo stove, and water storage all in one. Most of the charm of an open fire with only a fraction of the mess, danger, inconvenience, inefficiency and illegality. No petroleum-based fuel to buy, store, carry, spill or smell. One moving part, the tap. While dinner cooks, there's simultaneously enough water heating for a family or even a boy scout troop. It's stingy with fuel. The only trace it leaves is a circle of ashes. Windy conditions that reduce the efficacy of most stoves actually make this one draft and burn better if the firebase intake hole is turned to windward. Kids enjoy feeding it, and they only sear their flesh once or twice before they learn not to put their hands over the chimney.

When comfort is more important than weight and bulk, or when the electricity goes out at your house, this is an outstanding piece of gear. It earns the prestigious and coveted Oblio13 Two Thumbs Up award.

Book Recommendation: Island of the Lost

By Joan Druett. 

In 1863, two ships wrecked on opposites sides of an island about 300 miles south of New Zealand. The interior terrain was so forbidding that neither group of survivors ever became aware of the other. One group of five had a strong captain who maintained control and morale, and a talented crew who cooperated. They all eventually made it home after almost two years. The other captain fell apart emotionally, and his crew went "Lord of the Flies" pretty quickly. Only three of nineteen survived. 

Fascinating subject, and one of those stranger-than-fiction true stories that reads like a novel. I like the author's style so much that I'm going to track down some of her other books.

The Law Enforcement Role of Santa Claus

There's an omnipotent being who watches everything you do and knows everything you think. He'll reward you if you're good, and punish you if you're bad. No, I'm not talking about a god, I'm talking about Santa. Same general concept, though: We use Him to make others behave. 

We heard six-year-old Rudy get out of bed at four a.m. on Christmas morning and pad to the top of the stairs. There was a long pause as he beheld all the presents under the tree. Then he shrieked "I TOLD YOU I WASN'T THAT BAD!!"

I'm going to step things up a notch this year. I'm going to tell him that Santa is old and burned out. He doesn't like kids anymore. He's not going to bother leaving coal and hickory switches for boys who sass their mother and neglect their chores. He's going to have them killed. By elves who look like Chucky.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Shotguns for Home Defense

If you want a defensive weapon to keep in your home, you'd be hard pressed to do better than a 12 gauge shotgun. A psychological stop is as good (maybe better) than a physiological stop, and thanks to Hollywood shotguns have a huge intimidation factor. The sight of that big bore will probably discourage most intruders, if the universally recognizable sound of a shell being chambered hasn't already. How badly does the average burglar want your TV? If you're unlucky enough to be facing an irrational and/or chemically-fueled intruder, an ounce of buckshot is devastating. And shotguns are, for now at least, legal in more places and more politically acceptable than either handguns or "assault" rifles, especially if they're stocked with walnut rather than black plastic. It's a shame, but in our time and place, it's wise to consider things from a potential jury's viewpoint.
Police trade-in shotguns tend to be a good deal. Most show wear on the outside from years of bouncing around in patrol cars, but much less on the inside. They simply aren't fired much. I've lucked into a couple Remington 870 pump-actions. Remington's police shotguns are of higher quality than their civilian counterparts, with no plastic or MIM parts, stronger springs, better finish, and more comprehensive quality control. There are other brands and action types that would be equally serviceable as long as they are totally reliable. Look for an 18- or 20-inch smoothbore barrel (shorter might be better, but thanks to Bill Clinton they aren't legal without a huge tax and an even larger hassle).
Don't get too hung up on accessories. Simple is good. The best thing you can put on any firearm is wear. I had an instructor once say "Bond with your weapon until it wags it's barrel when it sees you coming." Most shooters are over-equipped and under-trained, even though "software" is far more important than "hardware". A shell holder on the butt or the side of the receiver is handy. A simple two-point sling can't hurt. I wish I could find a durable fore-end light at a sane price, but so far no luck. I lost my faith in extended magazines when one from Choate came apart at the threads and all my ammo squirted downrange, followed by the spring. Besides, the clamp that secures them has a tendency to change the point of impact. Avoid the pistol-grip-only shotguns that are unfortunately in vogue. They're difficult to aim, difficult to control, and painful to shoot.

People will tell you that it's more awkward to move around in confined quarters with a long arm than with a pistol. That's somewhat true, although the technique is much easier to learn than is proficiency with a pistol. So either master proper house-clearing skills, or don't do it. As a general rule, it's a bad idea to go looking for in intruder in your home anyway. Need proof? Have your kid hide and go look for him. Even though you know your house intimately, who sees who first? Better to take up a position covering the door that's important, and wait. That gives you all the advantages.

People will also tell you to use birdshot to prevent overpenetration. While it's true that birdshot doesn't penetrate walls well, it unfortunately doesn't penetrate bad guys well, either. # 4 plated buckshot seems like a good compromise, with 27 pellets per 2 3/4" shell, each with the approximate authority of a .22. The pattern spreads about an inch for every yard of range. (By the way, it's essential that you pattern your particular gun with the ammo you're going to use in it). I shot a deer with that load, at about 15 yards, and I now have enormous respect for what it can do. Buckshot has a limited effective range, but it'll enable you to control your environment better than anything else at indoor or across-the-street distances, and that's all you need. Besides, you're not gonna convince the aforementioned jury that somebody a hundred yards away was a threat anyway.

Shotguns have relatively low magazine capacities. But we're not talking about human-wave banzai charges here. If you can't solve your home-defense problem with a few rounds of 12 gauge buckshot, you're probably not gonna solve it with a boatload.

As with any firearm, GET PROFESSIONAL TRAINING. Not from your "uncle who was in the Army", or your "friend who knows all about guns". Take at least a weekend course from a reputable instructor so you'll have a solid foundation upon which to build. Otherwise all your practice will be only reinforcing bad habits. You should learn to load and unload (it's not as straightforward as you probably think), to shoot under stress, from several positions, in dim light, while moving, at multiple targets, at moving targets, and how to keep someone from taking your weapon away from you. You should also learn what to do after a shooting incident. Imagine yourself standing there in shock, looking at the mess you just made, with your ears ringing and a smoking gun in your hands. If that's the moment Barney Fife shows up, things can go from bad to worse. Last but not least, because of the unfortunate nature of our legal system, the marital advice my dad gave me applies here: "Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut." No matter how justified you were, politely decline to explain yourself to the police or anyone else until you've consulted a defense attorney.

Keep it simple.
Become proficient in the
basics. No need to waste
your time with the fancy
stuff unless you have orders to Iraq.

Practice regularly. Shooting
skills are perishable.

A pump-action can be kept "cocked-and-locked", with an empty chamber and a loaded magazine. It's reasonably safe that way even if it gets into the wrong hands, but still ready for action quickly.

When you cock your shotgun, don't be tentative or gentle. Treat it like your girlfriend, not your wife.

Get in the habit of topping off the magazine before you run dry. "Shoot one, load one, shoot two, load two". And a mnemonic device for loading technique is "thumb on brass".

If you want your home defense shotgun to do double-duty during deer season, modern Foster and Brenneke slugs are pretty accurate out of even a smoothbore barrel. Don't waste your money on saboted slugs unless you have a rifled barrel.

  • All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  • Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  • Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for most inadvertent discharges. Keep your booger-hook off the bang-button.
  • Identify your target, and what is behind it. A tiny lawyer is attached to every projectile that you launch.
  • Saturday, December 20, 2008

    I am not making this up:

    A man called into our local radio station to talk about his experiences during the last winter storm. He described running out of firewood and being unable to keep his house warm. The DJ asked why he didn't go to a shelter or a friend's house. The caller said that he couldn't because there were trees down all over the roads.

    I waited for the DJ to ask him why he didn't use the trees for firewood, or why he didn't just get out of his car and walk. But apparently neither of those thoughts occurred to her, either.  

    We have a water-comes-out-of-the-tap culture, and we've become helpless and dependent.

    Monday, December 8, 2008

    Rendering bear fat

    Drove down to a friend's cabin in the Catskills. I shot a doe and a coyote, he shot a bear. We rendered the fat in the fireplace and used it in an old Betty lamp.

    If you get the urge to try this, I'm told that pork fat works just as well, and it'd be a lot easier to come by. Cut it into small chunks, and heat it slowly in an uncovered pot (you want all the water to evaporate). Skim off the "floaters", then ladle the oil off the solids that settle to the bottom. You may want to render it more than once. Old timers used bear oil for cooking, lubricating and as a lotion.

    Saturday, November 29, 2008

    America as seen by a new citizen

    This  morning I shared a breakfast table in a crowded restaurant with a gentleman from Columbia. He came from humble beginnings, had wanted to live in America since boyhood, worked hard to educate himself, and had just passed his citizenship test. It turned into a two-hour conversation. America is not living up to his boyhood hopes. He realizes that he was naive, but is still alarmed by the trends he sees in his adopted country. 

    He's appalled at how wasteful we are.

    He is disillusioned by how uneducated and uninformed most Americans are, and even more so by how content they are to remain that way. "They barely graduate from high school, then they just watch TV and make babies until they get cancer. They don't read books, they are unaware of history, and they believe myths."

    He has reached the reluctant conclusion that America's political system is every bit as complicated and corrupt as Columbia's.

    He's a demographer, and said that the demographic driving America both politically and philosophically used to be older white men. Now it's young white women.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    Ten days of foraging

    Set up my good old pyramid tent with a woodstove and a cot. Was very comfortable through lots of rain, a little snow, and a fair amount of wind.

    I packed along flour, honey, sourdough starter, salt, jerky from last fall's moose, eggs from our coop, rice, ghee made last year, and a couple good books. 

    As usual, there was never any shortage of things to make tea of: Pine, hemlock, berry brambles, rose hips, wintergreen, sweetfern and mint.


    Red currant "raisins". 

    It's a remarkable year for hickory nuts. I almost rolled down hills on them. 

    There were plenty of misshapen apples still hanging on scraggly trees where old farms used to be. They weren't pretty, but the bad parts were cut out. 

    I collected enough oyster mushrooms to fill two five-gallon buckets. What wasn't used fresh will be dried, and the family will enjoy those all winter. 

    I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few red raspberries this late in the year. 

    A tremendous quantity of red oak acorns had fallen into a lake and been concentrated in low spots by wave action. I was hopeful that their immersion would have already leached the bitterness out of them, but no such luck. I boiled a few and ate them just to say I did it, but they were bland at best.

    Tried unsuccessfully to trap crawfish. Maybe the water was too cold. 

    On the fifth day, I shot a small whitetail buck. Mmm, mmm, Aunt Bea, Aunt Bea.

    Things I could have harvested but didn't: Freshwater mussels, countless squirrels, three raccoons, a 'possum and a garter snake. Rock tripe, partridge berries, cattail roots, various inner barks.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    Satan's Piss

    New business idea: A wine named "Satan's Piss". Lots of folks would buy at least one bottle just for the name, especially if the label had sexy graphics with words like "sinful" and "repent". And if folks complain about the quality, you just shrug your shoulders and say "Satan's Piss". 

    Monday, November 10, 2008

    A good morning for a hunter/gatherer:

     A fall gobbler and a bunch of oyster mushrooms from a sugar maple. [Andy Griffith] "Mmm, mmm, Aunt Bea, Aunt Bea." [/Andy Griffith]


    Followed some tracks on a St. Thomas beach into a mangrove swamp. There were quite a few loud splashes which I initially took to be large fish. Then I noticed dozens of these things in the trees all around me, dropping into the water as I approached.

    Wild edibles: Pawpaw.

    Asimina triloba is one of the best wild edibles. The pulp surrounding large dark seeds tastes like a fruity vanilla pudding. These are growing in central New Hampshire, well outside every range map I could find on the internet.

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    Where derailers go to die

    Here's my latest "dump-cycle". I found a decent quality '80's vintage Japanese road bike in the scrap metal pile at our local dump. I converted it to a single-speed by taking off the derailers, shifters and cables, one front chainwheel, and all the rear sprockets but one. The chain was shortened, handlebars re-wrapped, and brake cables and tires replaced. Bearings were cleaned and repacked. The leather seat came from the bike I bought myself as a college graduation present - thirty years old now. I dabbed some rust converter where appropriate. Rides nice, looks too ugly to steal. Weighs 23 pounds. 

    Favorite campsite

    Up through college, I thought I was reasonably tough. Then I joined the Marines and discovered that I'm actually a Little Fluffy Kitty. I no longer have any illusions about what I'm made of. Now I just try to keep other people from finding out.

    So I like my camps to be comfortable. Dry and warm. No bugs. Private. Sheltered from the wind. No frightening overhanging tree limbs. An open fire for atmosphere. Clothesline. Hot water so I can start the day with tea and end it all pink and clean. Southern exposure. Views of both the sunrise and the sunset. Big dog in case it gets cold or lonely or scary. An accurate .22 for plinking - suppressed so it doesn't disturb the woods, annoy the neighbors or hurt my ears. A crystal-clear spring bubbling up out of the ground a few yards away. Close to the shore, so I don't have to portage anything too far from the canoe. This place has it all. I think I'll make some sort of more permanent shelter here, dug into the slope.

    Why I love freighter canoes:

    Two kids. Two dogs. Two tents. One wife. Cots - with mattresses. Tent stove. Even a dog bed. Not that I suddenly enjoy traveling heavy, but if mom's not happy, nobody's happy. This is a 19' Grumman square-stern with a 2 h.p. Honda outboard. 

    Monday, October 13, 2008

    Venezuela, flight attendants and blubber

    As an airline crewmember, I lay over in the land of Hugo Chavez frequently. Today we parked our plane between Cubana and Iran Air, with Aeroflot further down the line. The hostility towards Americans is increasingly palpable. Not from the "regular folks", although they do tend to be demanding and melodramatic. But the attitude of the Guardia Nacional and airport officials is sometimes deliberately antagonistic. As if the attitude is trickling down from, oh, I don't know, maybe a national leader who is crazier than Charles Manson eating Cocoa Puffs. I've told my daughters to watch the international news so I can wave to them during the mock trial before my execution. 

    Speaking of airlines, ours is trying to save fuel by paring unnecessary weight. They're stocking flights with less water, for example. The beancounters should roll in some livestock scales and check out the flight attendants. Some of them would cork up the overwing emergency exits. It's not like they make up for it with outstanding social skills, either. The Asian, Latin and European airlines hire pleasant 98-pound hotties. We hire surliness-on-the-hoof.

    While I'm on a roll about quivering masses of gelatinous protoplasm, ever sit between two passengers who overlap the armrests and squish up against you? It's kind of like returning to the womb, so warm and moist. 

    Thursday, October 2, 2008

    The single most useful tool you can take to the woods

    An ax will do anything a knife will, and a lot more besides. Build a shelter. Butcher a moose. Cut vegetables for dinner. 

    It simply isn't possible to find a good ax in the local hardware store. You'll have to sniff around for a quality antique, or spend some serious money and order from the likes of Granfors Bruks in Sweden. Once you've finally acquired an ax worth owning, it takes a long time and a lot of practice to become competent and safe with it. If you're serious about the outdoors, though, both quests are worthwhile and satisfying.  

    Pictured above is my Granfors Bruks "Small Forest Ax", the one I use for everything but serious splitting. It seems to have become the standard for bushcrafters. Deservedly so. Despite being small and light it's remarkably powerful, mostly due to the quality of the steel. It will take as sharp an edge as any of my knives.

    I use a few layers of duct tape to protect handles from overstrikes. I've developed enough control that I haven't damaged a handle in a long time. But no matter how zealously I guard my ax, on almost every group campout I attend some kid (or worse, a well-meaning friend) will get his hands on it and take a few whacks.

    On the day this photo was taken, I used it to cut and limb a spruce tent pole, then to cut, carve and hammer in some tent pegs. I split more than enough birch firewood for our stay, then further split some of that into kindling. That was the work of minutes, so I selected some nicely-grained billets and carved a couple spoons and a spatula. The bowls of the spoons were dished out with an Indian-style crooked knife, but the rest of them (and the spatula in it's entirety) were carved with the ax. 

    For carving, you can choke up on the handle, or even grip the poll and use it like an Eskimo ulu. With a little practice, you'll be surprised at how precise you can be, and how much faster it is than carving with a knife. 

    By the way, have at least a rudimentary first aid kit along whenever you're going to do ax work. It would only take an instant to either lengthen or shorten your toes. And stay aware of the "rule of follow-through" - mind the arc that blade will take if it glances off a knot. The shorter an ax, the more dangerous it is.

    Monday, September 29, 2008

    Wilderness Equipment Survival Checklist


    Axe and/or Knife

    Fire and tinder


    Pot or cup

    Cordage (50-100 feet of para cord)

    Drum liner(s), clear plastic






    Warm clothing (sweater, mittens, hat, neck gaiter)

    Rain gear

    Nice to have: 






    First aid kit

    Water treatment

    Insect repellent

    Mosquito headnet 




    Pot, large

    Repair material for showshoes or skis





    I'm a Dogist

    There are lessons for living that we can learn from dogs. Our canine friends are always honest and open. They take pleasure in simple things. They don't waste time regretting the past. They don't worry about the future.

    On the other hand, they enjoy drinking from toilets. I think the key here, as with most things in life, is taking the good and leaving the bad - and being able to differentiate between the two.

    When I was in the military, I had "Dogist" stamped on my dog tags in the place where your religion is supposed to go. When I was questioned about it, I said "Sir, if I can't eat it or hump it, I piss on it". 

    Some of those senior Marine officers have no sense of humor.

    Interesting gear: The Zeltbahn shelter-quarter

    I'm typing this from inside a Zeltbahn, an ingenious triangular shelter-quarter developed and issued by the Wehrmacht during WWII. The design was subsequently copied by the French, Russians, Swiss and probably others that I am unaware of. I ran across a good deal on some surplus French versions and decided to indulge my curiosity both historical (my college major) and personal (some of my great uncles spent many nights in them). (I'll spare you the stories, but note the Knight's Cross.)

    Each soldier was issued one shelter-quarter, a section of tent pole, a peg, and some bits of rope. With those accoutrements, a zeltbahn weighs a total of 2 1/2 pounds. It can be pitched singly as a very minimal shelter, or buttoned together with others in configurations of 2, 3, 4, 8 or even 16. They also have head slits so that they can be worn as ponchos, and two can be buttoned together and combined with a couple poles to make a stretcher. How's that for versatile? 

    I buttoned eight of them together. I'm glad I didn't do it the first time in the dark or with cold fingers. Efficient assembly requires a degree of familiarity I don't have, and there are a lot of buttons. I wore my fingers out, especially since I seem to have done everything wrong at least once.

    Supposedly this would accommodate eight men, but it's difficult to see how unless half of them were off on guard and KP duties at any given time. It was roomy enough for me, a squirming, gassy six-year-old, and a squirming, gassy Great Dane. I was like the roast beef in a squirmy, gassy sandwich. 

    Here's a view from the rear, and the poncho head slits are visible. (If it's pouring rain, do you wear your zeltbahn or make a tent out of it?) 

    Gratuitous squirming, gassy Great Dane pic:

    Sunday, September 28, 2008

    Gear that works: Bushbuddy woodburning cookstove

    The "Bushbuddy" stove is a lightweight stainless-steel camping stove made by Fritz Handel in Canada. I don't know anything about him except that his workmanship is excellent, and that when I emailed him to say so, I got a nice personal reply. His stove fits neatly inside a Snowpeak titanium pot. Stove, pot and a matching titanium spork weigh a total of one pound. It will boil a liter of water in about ten minutes using twigs, pinecones, trash or even dried dung for fuel. No moving parts to wear out or break, no fuel to buy, carry, spill or smell. The only downside is that it makes pots sootier than a gas or alcohol stove would. Walking into the camp pictured above, I picked up one arm-length, finger-thick oak branch with some twigs still attached. That's more than I needed to fry eggs and potatoes and boil tea. 


    Obama is a lawyer. He's never been anything but a lawyer. He married a lawyer. He chose a lawyer with bad hair plugs as a running mate. He sees the world through lawyer eyes. He processes what he sees with his lawyer eyes through a lawyer brain. He's never had his courage tested, either voluntarily or involuntarily. We don't know what he's made of, and neither does he. He's never been in the military, but he "thought about it once", so he feels qualified to jump into the middle of a war as commander-in-chief. He's promised everything to everybody, with no way to pay for any of it. Since he became a senator, he's literally done nothing but run for president while we pay his salary. Credit where credit is due, though: He reads a teleprompter more charismatically than McCain. This is the best America can do? We've gone from George Washington to this? A president who led from the front, armed and mounted, to one who sues people for discrimination and plans to negotiate with zealots?

    Rubbing sticks together to make fire

    There's a primal satisfaction to starting a fire with stone-age equipment. There are plenty of videos and how-to articles about bow drills available on line, but I'll throw out these few tips: Technique is critical. Kneel, step on the hearth board, brace your spindle arm against your leg for stability, and concentrate in long, level strokes with your bow hand. Start slowly to warm things up and develop a smooth rythm. Don't bear down hard until you've already filled the cut-out with dust. Sometimes the bearing surfaces polish each other and they stop producing dust. A pinch of dry sand will help. Once you get a coal (you'll know you have one if your little pile of dust keeps smoking after you've stopped drilling), don't be in a hurry to transfer it to your tinder bundle and start blowing. Giving it thirty seconds or so to coalesce will be beneficial.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    Behold the fisherman:

    Behold the fisherman:
    He riseth early in the morning
    And disturbeth the whole household,
    For mighty are his preparations.
    He goeth forth full of hope,
    And returneth smelling of strong drink,
    And the truth is not in him.

    Gear that works: The Thermette from New Zealand

    After decades of roaming the globe and seeking the wisdom of elders, I have discovered the secret of happiness: Hot water. If you can start the day with a cup of tea and end it by cleaning up, almost anything in between is bearable. It weighs three pounds, so it's not for backpacking when weight and bulk are critical. But when you're camping by canoe, sled, horse, car, or airplane, this wood-burning gizmo is the best way to get hot water. It out-performs the similar but better-known Kelly Kettle. A double-handful of pine cones, twigs, trash or dried horse shit (no, it doesn't smell) will give you a half gallon of boiling water in short order. It comes with a stainless steel ring that fits on top, so you can cook with it to boot (yes, even when it's burning dried horse shit). There's no petroleum-based fuel to buy, carry, spill or smell (gasoline smells but dried horse shit doesn't). There aren't any moving parts to wear out or break. Thermettes have become expensive recently, but if you're handy perhaps you could fabricate something similar. I've scavenged some copper roofing and one of these rainy days will make some paper patterns and give it a go. Anybody know how to silver solder?

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    A disturbingly informative visit to a medical museum.

    I'm in Philadelphia again, and this time I went to the Mutter Medical Museum. I don't have the words to express how glad I am to be living in the age of antibiotics, vaccinations and anesthesia. If you'd like to shed a couple pounds, check out the displays of advanced syphilis, tuberculosis and cancer before lunch. I promise you won't be hungry. 

    Some of the morbidly fascinating displays: 

    Pocketbooks, wallets and bookbindings made from human skin. Apparently it was not uncommon around the civil war era for doctors to tan the hides of their dead patients. And since the standard cures for just about everything were mercury, opium, bleeding and blistering, there was lots of leather for arts-and-crafts projects. And you thought it was just for Nazi's. 

    A collection of trepanned skulls. A number of ancient cultures practiced trepanning - cutting a hole through the skull - for everything from removing bone splinters after rock-and-club fights to letting evil spirits out. The quality of the workmanship varied from remarkably good to breathtakingly crude. I imagine much of it depended on how well the shrieking patient was restrained.

    Thousands of items removed from the throats of choking victims. When your mother told you not to talk with food in your mouth, she wasn't kidding. And don't put pins or nails in your mouth, either.

    How about a preserved forty-pound colon? Some unfortunate dude was born with an enormous digestive anomaly that displaced his other organs and made him look pregnant. He averaged one bowel movement per month, and it weighed about 40 pounds. Boy, I bet he could clear a room. 

    Monday, September 8, 2008

    An early-American attempt at social reform

    If you're ever in Philadelphia, take a tour of the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. 

    Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush were in on the planning. At the time it was the largest and most expensive building in America. It had heating and plumbing when even the president in the Whitehouse - Andrew Jackson - was using fireplaces and chamber pots. 

    In those days, governments had no way to track or even to positively identify prisoners. No dental records, fingerprints, retinal scans, drivers licenses, DNA samples, not even photographs. Officials had no idea what recidivism rates were. On both sides of the Atlantic, criminal sentences had traditionally been humiliation, torture and/or death, with incarceration merely incidental. Maybe a few hours in the stocks as a target for rotten food and rocks for drunkeness or swearing. Caning or whipping for more serious offenses. Perhaps a tongue cut out for heresy. Hanging or burning for the most heinous crimes like murder or practicing witchcraft.

    By the late 1700's, a number of social theories about prison reform were floating around. The Quaker-inspired philosophy was that if criminals had quiet, reflective time and religious instruction they would be moved to penitence and reform. Thus the word "penitentiary".

    So a facility with 7'x12' individual soundproof cells was built. Each containing a cot, toilet, and table. Prisoners spent their entire sentences in those cells. Food was delivered via a tiny door. No mail,  messages or visitors were permitted. No human contact of any kind was allowed except with religious instructors. Guards in the corridors wore socks over their shoes so that not even footsteps would be heard. Each prisoner was issued a bible. No other reading material was permitted. Each cell had a skylight called the "Eye of God" to remind prisoners that they were being constantly watched.

    The administrators also went to remarkable lengths to prevent what was then called "self abuse. It was thought to be unhealthy as well as immoral.

    Imagine being handed a bible, warned not to spank your monkey and locked in solitary with a god staring at you.

    The system didn't reform criminals or bring them to penitence. It drove them insane. 

    Saturday, August 30, 2008

    Sharpening knives

    I like to sharpen knives. I especially like to sharpen knives in front of company. It helps pass the time while I listen to their banal drivel, and it reinforces the image I cultivate of a mentally unstable genius.
    Like most things, sharpening is easy to do and difficult to do well.
    A felt-tip marking pen and a magnifying glass are helpful tools. If you mark the edge, you'll be able to see how much metal you've removed, how much more you need to remove, and where you need to remove it. Once you've got the correct, uniform angle along the entire edge, switch to progressively finer stones. When the "scratches" you can see with the magnifying glass are acceptably fine, finish up by honing just the last few molecules of the edge with a ceramic rod and a very slightly increased angle. For the ultimate edge, finish with a razor strop. It's not necessary, but it's possible to produce an edge that looks mirror smooth and cuts literally like a razor.

    Friday, August 22, 2008

    Airplane camping

    A friend bought a bushplane (an Aviat Husky A1B) in Seattle, and we ferried it across the country to New Hampshire. Seven days of flying low enough to smell pine trees and cows. The windows were open most of the time. Except when we needed fuel, we stayed as remote as possible. The baggage compartment weight limit was only 50 pounds, so we went ultra-light with such things as titanium cooking gear and hammocks instead of a tent. Following the train tracks through the mountain passes in Glacier National Park was spectacular. Camping by a lake in Michigan's upper peninsula was another highlight. The first pic is a road we landed on in Montana. The second is the survival gear I brought along.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Backcountry Firestarter reviews:

    My personal rule-of-thumb in the bush is to have at least three ways of starting a fire, and preferably with only one hand. 

    Strike-anywhere matches: They aren't what they used to be. Companies are saving money by putting just the tiniest heads on them. 

    Lifeboat matches: Burn furiously, but they take some practice to use and they're pricey. They'll break if you try to strike them like regular matches. Try jabbing them downward at just a bit of an angle, almost like you're trying to poke them through the striker. 

    Bic and/or Cricket butane lighters: Usually reliable, cheap and light. No excuse not to have a couple in your pockets.

    Sparklite: Excellent piece of gear. Very small and light, can be used with one hand. As with the above butane lighters, there's no excuse not to have a couple of these scattered about in your pockets and packs.

    Blastmatch: Another excellent piece of gear that can be used with one hand. There's magnesium in the large synthetic flint, and it throws a good shower of sparks. A bit bulky in your pocket, but definitely worth having.

    Swedish Firesteel: Works well with two hands. But do your good knife a favor and use a bit of hacksaw blade - or even better, a broken Sawzall blade - as a striker. The larger "Army" model appeals to me more than the smaller "Scout".

    Magnesium blocks with a synthetic flint glued on: Cheap ones, like those from Coghlans, tend to fall apart when you need them most. Milspec ones are commonly available and are more reliable, but they aren't easy to use. It takes several minutes of work to accumulate a pile of shavings, which have a frustrating habit of blowing away in the slightest breeze. Still, they're light and unaffected by moisture, so I usually have one available.

    Magnifying glass: Useful not just for starting fires, but also to help identify mushrooms, remove slivers, etc. It's obvious weakness as a firestarter is that the sun must be shining, so it won't help you when you need it most. I once saw an antique tinder box with a "burning glass" built into the top. I thought making one would be a fun project, but I still haven't gotten around to it.

    Fresnel lens: These are thin sheets of plastic that work like a magnifying glass. They're so small, light and inexpensive that it's worth owning several. They'll crease if you don't pack them properly, but will still work. I use them as bookmarks - I rarely travel anywhere without reading material.

    Wind-resistant lighters: Several companies make "storm proof" or "wind proof" butane lighters. I bought a "Helios" from Brunton for a pretty penny. It worked well for a few weeks, but then it quit when I really needed it, on a long backcountry trip. I sent it to Brunton for repair. It again worked for a few weeks, and was sent back a second time, then a third, then a fourth. Adding to the frustration, Brunton's technical support people were terrible about responding to emails requesting return authorization numbers. It was an unimpressive piece of gear backed by unimpressive service. Perhaps other brands are better. I've noticed that the online reviews of Windmill brand lighters are more positive than those for Brunton's, and I'll probably try one if I stumble across a good sale.

    With all of the above, take them out and use them before you need them. Have fun practicing in your back yard when it's windy and raining. It's too late to learn to swim when the boat is sinking.

    Tinder is almost as important as the actual firestarters, and I haven't found anything better then cotton balls soaked with petroleum jelly. Just put a few cotton (make sure they're real cotton) balls in a heavy-duty plastic bag with some petroleum jelly and squish them around. When you need to start a fire, pull one out and fluff it up a bit. Hit it with a spark and it'll burn furiously for a couple minutes. Fringe benefit: The petroleum jelly feels good on the cracked hands and lips you invariably have on camping trips.

    Monday, April 28, 2008

    Preparedness for Travelers

    (I originally wrote this for Backwoods Home Magazine)

    When the subject of preparedness comes up, do you think of having a stock of supplies in your kitchen pantry in case of a storm? Maybe a backpack in your office or the trunk of your car with the things you’d need until you could return home?

    If you travel for business or pleasure, the concept is likely to apply to an unfamiliar city thousands of miles from home. Being ready for the unexpected while traveling will give you options you wouldn’t otherwise have. Sometimes what might have been overwhelming becomes merely an inconvenience, or even an adventure.

    So what should we anticipate? Consider what has affected travelers before us: natural disasters, transportation strikes, civil unrest, crime, epidemics, quarantines, terrorism, war. Things as common as snow, traffic jams, flight cancellations, or car accidents. Things as local as a bridge hit by a barge, a derailed commuter train, or a power outage. Things of magnitudes beyond our comprehension like the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Mount St. Helens, the Mississippi flood of 1993, Chernobyl, the New England blizzard of 1978, the hurricane that killed 6,000 in Galveston in 1900, wars that involved the entire world.

    Anything your imagination can conceive of, and even more things that it can’t. Being prepared might not always be enough for every circumstance, but anything that improves your odds is better than nothing.

    I once spent three days in the Nashville airport during a snow storm. There were no hotel rooms available at any price. Airport personnel provided hundreds of cots, but there weren’t nearly enough to go around. The junk food from the kiosks in the terminal was gone within hours.

    Immediately after hurricane Andrew, I was holed up in a Miami hotel room with no running water, watching from the balcony as looters smashed windows below. I ended up using water from the toilet tank. (Relax—I said the tank, not the bowl.)

    I have acquaintances who were stranded at a ski resort in Utah when an avalanche closed the only road out.

    During the New England blizzard of 1978, hundreds of people spent days in their cars on Rt. 128 around Boston. A friend was in a grocery store during the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. The roads and bridges to her home were destroyed. Another friend was trapped by a revolution in Guinea-Bissau—anarchy that didn’t even make the news in a country that no one’s heard of.

    Tens of thousands of airline passengers on 9/11 were diverted to places without accommodations for them, and deplaned without their luggage. (Hearing about the hospitality they experienced in places like Gander, Newfoundland, restored some of my jaded faith in the nature of people.)

    My family physician volunteered for a U.N. humanitarian mission to Congo. Rebels paid the hospital a visit, and he was the sole Caucasian survivor. (Hearing about that jaded my faith again.) He survived because he was alert to what was happening around him and prepared to act. Something that extreme will probably never happen to you. He didn’t think it would ever happen to him, either.

    As a gentleman from the destroyed city of Sarajevo said “War is like bad weather. It just comes.”

    When I read about disasters in the news, or watch them unfolding in living color on TV, I think about what those people would want if they could magically go back in time for a “do-over.” What needs seem common to most times and places? Water first, usually. Then appropriate clothes, and then shelter and food. Sometimes medical help and protection.

    General preparedness

    Clothing is your first layer of shelter. Pack for what’s expected, of course, but anticipate more. A trip might start in Miami and end in Fairbanks. Dress appropriately, not only for your destination, but for possible diversions along the way, unnatural weather extremes, heating or air conditioning problems, and extended stays.

    Synthetics are warm and they dry quickly, but will do skin damage if they melt. (I’m a little paranoid about this as I’ve seen it happen.) Natural fibers are a better choice if fire is a hazard—and it is in your car, mowing your lawn, starting a barbecue, or going to a nightclub.

    Cotton is comfortable, but loses its insulating value if it gets wet, and it dries slowly. Wool provides some warmth even when wet, but gets heavy and some types are itchy. Silk combines the best attributes of both, and is my favorite first layer. It can be washed in a sink by hand at the end of a day, and will dry overnight—both you and your travel companions will appreciate that if your one-day trip becomes a five-day trip.

    Impractical shoes are the biggest clothing mistake I see travelers making. I love the look of a woman in heels, for example, but the leggy girl of your dreams will wear on you pretty quickly when her feet start to hurt. Bring along something comfortable just in case there’s walking to be done.

    “Carry-on” preparedness

    Airline travelers have the highest standard of resourcefulness to meet in order to be prepared. Not everything you’d like to have when things get difficult will fit in checked luggage, let alone in carry-on bags. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a government agency that helps terrorists by disarming the 282 million of us who don’t want to go on a suicide ride (but that’s another article), won’t allow so much as a Swiss Army knife onboard. Before a recent international flight, even nail clippers and a book of matches were confiscated from me. An elderly woman behind me had her sewing needles taken. (Of course, if a weapon were ever needed by either a terrorist or a law-abiding citizen, one can always be improvised. So far, at least, a can of soup in a sock isn’t illegal.)

    Personally, I’m armed wherever it’s legal for me to be so. Armed or not, don’t attract attention to yourself by acting like easy prey. Behave confidently but inconspicuously. In third-world countries, don’t be a loud, rich American wearing expensive jewelry. Keep your wallet in a button-down pocket, and some of your money in a money belt or an ankle pouch. Make a copy of things like your passport information and keep it in a separate place. Ask your hotel’s concierge about neighborhoods to avoid, and have them choose a taxi for you. Ask for a room above the ground floor. Most problems can be avoided simply by being alert, but consider taking a self defense course.

    When I fly somewhere, I feel naked without at least a pocket knife. It’s permissible to take one in your checked baggage. If you have only carry-on luggage, an inexpensive one may be purchased at your destination. Use it while you’re there, then make someone’s day by giving it away when you leave. In any case, I take a small course-grit diamond sharpening stone. It’s weight and bulk are negligible. If necessary, even a scrounged piece of metal or plastic could be sharpened.

    Keep a bottle of water in your carry-on, and top it off it when opportunities arise. The collapsible kind takes up less space and won’t slosh annoyingly if you squeeze the air out. I bring a water filter or iodine crystals, too. You might not always be able to get water out of a tap. Pack some lightweight, nutritious, compact food. You’re still free to patronize restaurants if that’s your choice, but you won’t be forced to rely on them.

    Ear plugs and an eye mask will help you get some sleep on a crowded bus or plane. Other essentials for my “carry-on survival kit” are a toothbrush and floss, sunscreen, sunglasses, one of those candles-in-a-can, disposable lighter, a small first-aid kit (if you take medication, bring extra), a tiny LED flashlight or headlamp, and above all else: a good book. Something like, oh, say, a Backwoods Home Anthology.


    Terrorism is making headlines these days, although it’s probably less likely than weather or petty crime to disrupt your vacation or business trip. According to a recent news show, many people are buying gas masks. The odds of needing one, however, are miniscule. Unless you have sophisticated detection devices, the odds of knowing when you need one are even more miniscule. Visible clouds of biological or nerve agents don’t roll down the street like in the movies.

    Even if you do have a genuine need for a gas mask, and know when it’s necessary to wear it and when it’s safe to remove it, and even if you are trained in its use, it still must be instantly available, properly fitted, and with fresh filters of the proper type. For agents that can be absorbed through the skin, special suits are also necessary. Your money can be better spent.

    I once read that the greatest risks to an airline pilot on the job are traffic accidents during the drive to the airport, and hotel fires during the layover. The same probably holds true for most passengers.

    Automobile preparedness

    Operate your car as if your life depends on it, because it does. Drive with common sense and at sane speeds. Make sure the next car you buy is crashworthy. (Common sense and sane speeds only count for so much if you’re in a cat-food can.) Wear your seat belt. Have a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit. Know where they are and how to use them.

    A duffel in my car also contains a sleeping bag, insulated ground pad, saw, jumper cables, tow strap, first aid kit, flashlight, a pot for cooking or melting snow, an ice scraper, and a couple of MREs (the military meals, ready-to-eat). I have used all of those things. I replace the MREs every year. (Want to make friends with the neighborhood kids? Give them your old MRE’s. They’ll be fascinated by them.)

    Throw in whatever’s appropriate for changing seasons, forecasts, or local conditions. In winter I add a hat, mittens, boots, shovel, and snowshoes. A candle or two will keep a stalled car reasonably warm. Be careful with fire, of course, so the solution doesn’t become worse than the problem. A cell phone can summon help and reassure family. Keep your car’s gas tank as full as is practical—it costs the same as leaving it empty, and again that phrase: It gives you more options.

    A bicycle in the trunk, with an air pump and a spare inner tube, is my favorite automotive insurance. Walking a few miles with anything to carry is a time-consuming ordeal. On a bike, twice as far with twice the load is a pleasant outing.


    When you check into a hotel, make it a habit to look at the fire escape route posted on the inside of your room’s door. Then open your door and look at the route the way you will look at it at 3 a.m. when you’ve been suddenly roused from a sound sleep. Count the number of doors and corners to get to it in case darkness or smoke prevent you from being able to see. (Do the same thing, while we’re at it, when you board a plane, ship, or train: familiarize yourself with the way out. Count the rows of seats to it so you could get there in the dark, and look at how the doors or hatches operate.)

    Don’t use elevators during a fire because a power failure may immobilize them. Smoke tends to hug the ceiling. If it becomes a problem, stay close to the floor. (So why are the fire exit signs at the tops of the doors?)

    If a fire alarm sounds while you’re in your room, feel the door. If it isn’t hot and you don’t see smoke or flames through the peephole, evacuate. Remember to take your room key in case you must retreat to your room again. If you can’t open the door, fill the bathtub with water and seal openings that smoke may come through with soaked towels. Breaking windows might create a draft that brings smoke in, so it’s a last resort. Sit tight if you’re more than a couple of stories above the ground. Most fires are confined to a few rooms or floors. We have a natural fear of fire, but smoke and panic are usually the greater threats.

    I suspect that for most of the readers of this magazine, the concept of being prepared isn’t new. But I hope this article has stimulated some thought and encouraged you to be alert and resourceful. Above all, being prepared is an attitude.