Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Making Cider

For much of human history, the safest things to drink had alcohol in them. "Hard" cider was very popular in England, and early emigrants from there brought apple seeds to New England.

Grains required for the production of beer don't thrive in the northeast's soil and climate, but apples do. Before long every homestead had a small orchard and a cider "press", or "mill". Cider, both sweet and hard, became the most popular drink in America. Cider houses were ubiquitous. Sometimes cider was also made from pears and peaches. Children drank ciderkin, a weaker version made from soaking apple pomace in water and re-pressing it. Sometimes a little molasses and ginger was added.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the average New Englander was drinking about 35 gallons of cider a year. John Adams started every morning with a tankard. Wages, taxes and debts were sometimes paid in cider.

In the early 1900s, huge numbers of German immigrants insisted on drinking beer instead. The barley-friendly soil of the Midwest and the advent of mechanical refrigeration made beer production easier than it had been. The popularity of cider waned.

Then the temperance movement and Prohibition almost put an end to it. The Volstead Act limited production of even sweet cider. Prohibitionists burned countless orchards.

By the time Prohibition was repealed, Americans had forgotten their love of cider. Barley could be brought back into production faster than trees, so beer became the predominant alcoholic beverage.

To make hard cider:

Add yeast, stir, then seal and affix an airlock. Keep in a dark place with a temperature close to 60 degrees.

Within a day or two you'll see carbon dioxide bubbles in the airlock, indicating fermentation. This bubbling should subside within two weeks. Let the cider sit another week to allow the yeast to settle out.

Bottle and let it sit for at least another couple weeks. Your cider will probably be “still” (not fizzy) unless you let it age for several months. Flavor improves with age.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Favorite Axes

Starting from seven o'clock and proceeding clockwise:

A military axe from a surplus store, made by Hults Bruk and marked with the Swedish three crowns. It's about a 2 1/2 pound head on a thirty-inch handle. Light enough to carry on a camping trip, large enough to do serious work.

A Wetterlings full-size felling axe. I didn't like it at first because the handle was thick enough to paddle a canoe with. After it sat around mostly unused for several years, I slimmed and 'octagoned' the handle. Now it's one of my favorites.

A Granfors Bruks splitting maul. We heat with wood and it's been splitting about three cords per year for a long time. It has a steel collar to protect the handle, and it's still on the original one. It's an indispensable tool on our homestead.

A Stanley double-bit on a 36" handle. Made by the Mann Edged Tool Company, I think, back in the days when quality axes were still forged in the US. I mostly use it to split kindling, by driving one edge into a stump and then batoning small sticks over the other. The head is too slender for anything other than what it's designed for, felling, and I don't like felling trees with an axe. But it's fun to use once in a while. I have a lot of respect for lumberjacks who swung axes like that all day.

Last, at four o'clock, another Granfors Bruks, a limbing axe with a light 2-pound head on a 25" handle. It's a good camp axe, small enough to choke up on one-handed for carving, and large enough to get a powerful two-handed swing with. The grain in the handle runs exactly the wrong way, so I figured I'd use it hard until it broke and replace it with a proper one. I haven't been able to break it. That hickory is very tough stuff.

Granfors Bruk axes are good quality, but after being featured on some survival TV shows, they've become almost "boutique" tools, with prices to match. Fortunately I bought mine a long time ago. I like that the shape of the heads shows the medieval roots of European axes.

I usually duct-tape a strip of leather to the leading edges of handles to protect them from overstrikes. My theory is that pink is easy to see in the snow and leaves, and less likely to 'walk away'. What self-respecting woodsman would swipe a pink axe?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Duct Tape Axe Sheath

Every axe needs a sheath. Duct tape and paracord aren't as classy as leather, but they're almost free. You're less likely to lose them in the leaves or snow, and won't feel as badly if you do. 

This is my daughter's axe. I duct taped a strip of leather on the leading edge of the handle beneath the head to protect it from overstrikes. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Favorite Rain Gear

I've written before about military surplus rain capes (also known as zelts, zeltbahns, plasch-palatkas, palatkas, cloak-tents and shelter-halves) being my favorite foul weather gear.

Centuries ago, armies discovered that soldiers performed better if they slept under shelter, and began issuing individual tents to be carried on the march. Inevitably, soldiers began wrapping their tents around them as shelter from the rain as they walked. Commanders took notice, and modifications were made so that the tents would be more useful as cloaks. 

These are what evolved by the early 1900's. They're more effective than ponchos, and more convenient and versatile than rain suits. I've collected German, Swiss, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Czech, and now Polish versions. The latter is the best of the best.

The Polish army issued these in three different sizes to accommodate different heights. They're made from a very nice light cotton canvas. Breathable, but thanks to an extra layer over the shoulders, also very water resistant. The olive-drab color is perfect. Good camouflage without being Rambo-ish. I appreciate that there's no brown in it - I'm paranoid about wearing brown during deer season. It doesn't look too stupid to wear in public. (Okay, it looks pretty stupid, but not as stupid as most, and not as stupid as being soaking wet.) They're cut in the shape of a six-sided polygon, with no "tail" to either button up or drag in the mud as with square rain capes. Grommeted corners are reinforced with an extra layer of material. Unlike with most rain capes, though, there's no annoying grommet at the peak of the hood. 

Buttons are sewn-on, so they're easy to replace. They're plastic rather than the usual metal, so they make less noise, won't rust, and they're easier on cold fingers.

One cape can be pitched as a minimal shelter, and two can be buttoned together to make a small pyramid tent, 4'8" high. That's more stretching room than any similar military shelter I'm aware of and more than a foot taller than the U.S. shelter halves that I spent my military career using. And it's lighter and more versatile. 

Each rain cape was issued with two sections of the four-section center pole, and four ingeniously curved stakes that fit inside the pole sections without rattling. Veteran infantry tends to quickly "lose" such excess weight. But no matter, your walking stick and some improvisation will do. The thin stakes are meant to go through the grommets on the lower edge. I tie loops of biodegradable baling twine to the grommets so that larger stakes (usually sharpened sticks) can be used. When camp is broken, I can simply cut the twine if necessary. (Anyone whose tried to chip a frozen tent out of the snow without damaging it will understand what I'm talking about.)

When worn as a garment, there's a drawstring to take in some tucks and keep it from falling over your shoulders. A second drawstring forms the hood. It can be worn over equipment or under a belt. Unlike separate  jacket-and-pants rain gear, it's not a big production to put on and take off. It's large enough to drape over your legs when canoeing or sitting on a deer stand. You can even relieve yourself inside one without taking it off and getting wet. Make yourself a comfortable seat, light a candle lantern between your legs, and it's an instant heated deer blind that disguises your human shape. If you leave it mostly unbuttoned, you can keep your rifle under cover but ready for use. 

Here it is pitched singly as a minimal shelter. Not something I'd like to face wind-driven rain in, but I did spend an afternoon of moderate rain in it with no trouble. It's better than any other single half-shelter I'm aware of, and as good as TWO shelter-quarters such as the smaller German-inspired zeltbahns. 

Here are two buttoned together make a tent. I doubt that many soldiers would take the time and trouble to make a tent other than in training. Exhausted men are much more likely to simply wrap up in them and wiggle under a vehicle or something. But they do make admirable tents. The flaps and the peaks overlap in such a way that there's much less wind-driven rain leakage than with most of these sorts of tents, and no need to put a helmet on the peak to keep water from coming through the grommets - as I mentioned above, there are no grommets at the peak. Pyramid tents are my all-around favorite. they go up easily with only one pole, and there are no guy lines to trip over. The only downside is that the door isn't vertical, and you lose some useable floorspace to rain when it's open. 

When pitched as a tent, the extra shoulder material properly goes inside. The drawstring across the shoulders now serves as a place to hang a candle lantern or drying laundry, and the arm-hole flaps will be properly shingled. 

The tent is startlingly dark inside, nice for sleeping and an indication of how weather-tight it is. That should make it an excellent ice-fishing bob house - you can see right down into the water when there's no light reflecting off it. It's surprisingly easy to heat with just a candle. 

Relatively light considering how roomy and rugged it is. Two shelter halves, four tent pole sections and eight stakes weigh 7.5 pounds/3.4 kilograms. One rain cape alone weighs about 3 pounds.

If you pitch a tent on high ground and soil that isn't compacted, drainage isn't usually a problem. If you're on hard ground or anticipating a downpour, a trench around the tent with an outlet ditch to divert water is a good idea. 

Like a poncho, a rain cape is comfortable to hike in, with good ventilation for warm weather, and easier to put on and take off than separate pants and jackets. Even better than a poncho, it provides closer coverage and doesn't flap around so much in the wind. It may be worn over a pack or under a belt. It's full enough to cover your legs when you're canoeing or sitting on a deer stand. 

To carry it like Civil War Johnny Reb's carried their blankets, roll it and tie with a clove hitch, then a series of half-hitches, and finish with another clove hitch. Then tie the ends together and wear it wear it across your torso like a bandoleer. During deer season you'll have rain gear, an emergency shelter, a drag rope, something to sit on, or a pillow, whichever you want at the moment.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Great Moments in Real Man History: Mad Jack Churchill

John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, AKA "Mad Jack", 1906-1996

Mad Jack was a British officer who carried a longbow and a Claymore sword into battle. Not the Highland Rebellion of 1745, World War II. And he used them. He ambushed a German Sergeant in France with his bow, and led charges with his Claymore in Norway, Sicily and Yugoslavia. In his last action, every Brit who wasn't Mad Jack was killed by mortar fire. When the Germans captured him, he was playing "Will Ye No Come Back Again?" on his bagpipes. He also carried bagpipes into battle. They didn't call him "Mad Jack" for nothing. He was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but crawled under the wire and through a drain and was walking towards the Baltic coast when he was recaptured. He was sent to another concentration camp, but escaped again and walked 150 miles until he was picked up by an advancing American unit. They sent him back to England, where he was bitterly disappointed to learn that the war had ended while he was en route.

"If it wasn't for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years."

After the war he became a passionate surfer. The character of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in the film 'Apocalypse Now' is partially based on him.

In later years, Churchill served as an instructor at a school in Australia. He threw his attaché case out of the train window each day on the ride home when passing by his house so that he wouldn’t have to carry it from the station.

Every war brings out some remarkably eccentric personalities, but most of them don't survive for long. Mad Jack lived to be 90.

Notice the dude on the far right with the sword. That's Mad Jack. All the sissy-boys with rifles are behind him.