Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ultra-Light Weight Backpacking = Hiking Without Stuff



It is important not to carry too little. Not having gear can create more safety issues than benefit. The true success to ultralight backpacking is to hike with people who have STUFF!

I have noticed that since super lightweight backpacking has become popular I find more people on the trail wanting to borrow stuff from me. Many of them look like they are cold in the morning and hungry in the afternoon. If you use some common sense and lighten your load to a reasonable extent you will find you can comfortably do just as many miles in a day with thirty pounds on your back as people carrying half that weight.

Light weight hiking is not only restricted to backpacking. If you day hike you can also drop pounds just by thinking about what you really need to have along and what you may be able to replace with lighter gear.
One rule of thumb that does not always work is, "If I haven’t used it in a hundred miles I don’t need it." I tried that last summer while hiking the Great Divide Trail in Canada. I started out with great weather and no bugs. After a week on the trail I came in for a resupply and went through my gear so see what I might leave behind on the next section. I came across my bug repellent and thought, "I haven’t used this. There haven’t been any bugs."

I left my bug repellent and the little beasties devoured me for a week. It was like they had put out a newsletter and every bug in the Rocky Mountains knew I was fair game. No bug juice. Saved myself about 3 ounces. Actually I saved a lot more weight than that because the insects took at least a pint of blood and blood is heavy.

So my point is—don’t get carried away. Take what you need and trim what you can. Save weight on items that do more than one job. Example: a rain poncho that also works as a ground cloth. If you hike with others you can share the load with community items like the cooking gear, shelter and water purification equipment. The more you think about it the lighter you become and the lighter you become the more you are going to have to start looking down the trail for people with STUFF! —Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Hiking James Bay


I wanted to go backpacking where I wouldn’t see another soul. I decided on James Bay in Ontario, thinking it would be a remote area and a good spot to find some interesting birds.
I drove into Ontario, Canada and took the road as far north as it would go. I then boarded a train called the Polar Bear Express for another 186 miles straight north. I ended up in a town called Moosonee. It reminded me of a lot of Alaskan towns: a few miles of road and everyone had a vehicle that would take him nowhere.

I had not come looking for a frontier Chamber of Commerce, so I hiked across town to the Moose River and hired a Cree Indian to taxi me across to the Tidewater Provincial Park, an island in the middle of the Moose River.

I set up camp and had lunch then went off to explore the island. It didn’t take long to discover that there were more people camping on this island than the state park back home in Traverse City, Mich., during the Cherry Festival.

I broke camp and decided to go back to the mainland and see if I could find a trail less traveled. I stopped in at the Ministry of Natural Resources in Moosonee and found a brochure on the Coastal Trail. It was just beginning to be developed and promised possible encounters with spruce grouse, boreal chickadee, black-backed woodpeckers and gray jays. It also said pine marten are common.

This sounded more like the adventure I was looking for. It recommended rubber boots as a minimum (hip waders recommended)—they should have mentioned a submarine. When the tide is in (twice a day) finding a dry camp would be almost impossible.

Up the trail several miles I noticed it was low tide and still the ground was too wet to pitch a tent. I would need an air mattress to set my tent on and then float around all night.

I returned to Moosonee and hopped the first train going south. I plan to go back and explore this area one day but I will take a rubber raft to sleep in during the twilight nights and knee high rubber boots to hike the marsh like landscape of James Bay.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Acceptance is the Rule When Lost


The most important tool we carry with us in the outdoors is between our ears. Our brain and common sense are the most important tools we have. Individuals who have had life-threatening illnesses have many different outlooks.

Some individuals give up and do not have a propensity to live. Subsequently death is imminent. Others have a will to survive and move on, to live. There are many factors contributing to this. One’s personal view and outlook on life, their family, humor, goals for the future all play an important role in surviving illness, as well as surviving in the outdoors.

How we cope with our fears, phobias and stressors in life definitely plays a direct role as we continue on our life’s path.

Becoming lost in a wilderness setting has made various people depressed, angry, stressed and often frightened. Experts say that acceptance is the best frame of mind to develop when hopelessly lost. If one can accept the fact that they are lost and resolve themselves to the fact that they will be found and reach some terms of agreement within themselves about their unfortunate predicament, they can then begin to make progress. Subsequently, acceptance is a very good place in which to be. However most people usually go through all or a few of the other feelings before they start making progress in their unfortunate situation.

The first thing you should do when finding yourself lost (does that make sense?) is to sit down, take a deep breath, look around, study the terrain and figure directions. Plan your path and work your plan. Don’t wander hopelessly in circles. If you have water or access to it, stay hydrated. You will think more clearly if you stay hydrated.

You don’t even have to admit to yourself that you are lost. When Daniel Boone was asked if he had ever been lost he said, "I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks."
When I hiked the CDT and the GDT I was lost a lot. But it was all part of the adventure. Eventually you figure it out and move on. It would be pretty hard to get lost in the lower 48. You are always just miles from some outpost of man.
Backpacking Tip:
Investing in a food dehydrator can save you hundreds of dollars if you take freeze dried meals on hiking trips. An average 20 ounce meal can cost over six dollars. A good dehydrator runs just over a hundred bucks and makes it simple to dry your own outdoor meals.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Backpacking in Bear Country


The fear of hiking in bear country is good. Fear is healthy for those who travel in bear country. It is also good for population control in bear country. For example, if not for bears, Glacier National Park would be overrun with backpackers. It's hard enough already to get a backcountry permit, when and where you want one.

Those who do find the urge to hike, stronger than the fear to not hike, still need to tread cautiously. Using bear canisters or stringing food up properly is one smart move. Food can be a bear magnet. Store it a good distance from where you sleep. I have heard a hundred yards. I have never put my food a hundred yards from my tent. That's a hike in itself. You could be eaten by a bear just looking for your food.

I never eat where I sleep. I always have a meal late afternoon and hike a few more hours. They say not to sleep with the clothes you cook in. I only carry a limited amount of clothing. After a couple days it smells so bad a bear would not find it appetizing.

Just so I don't masked my body odor with anything rosy that might attract a bear looking for a new fragrance, I also stash my toothpaste, wipes and deodorant in my food bag.

Bears have noses that are many times more sensitive than a bloodhound's. That is a sense that is in your favor or flavor. If they can hear, see or smell you coming, in most cases they will make themselves scarce.

Leave the bear bells at home. Canadian biologist have completed studies that show bears recognize the sound but equate it with a birdcall. You don't want to attract a birdwatching bruin.
I whistle, recite Robert Service poetry (Bessies Boil is my favorite), clang my hiking poles together and on trail rock outcropping, and did I mention I smell real bad.

I ran into two black bear in Glacier last year that would not get off the trail. I tried all my bag of tricks and every time I moved forward they were still sitting in the trail eating berries and looking at me curiously. Finally I back down the trail one last time and yelled, "Come on Joe, Charlie, Carl, Phil, Mike, Susan, Bobby, lets get going." That did it, when those two furballs heard I was with a bunch of people they moved just far enough off the trail that I could scamper past.

Don't laugh at my word games. Bears are smart. Another time I had a large male griz outside my tent, walking back and forth in front of the door snorting and grunting, shaking his head. I was camped at Dutch Creek on the Canadian Great Divide Trail. The hair was up on the back of the bears neck, which was contagious because mine went up to. I don't think it had anything to do with barometric pressure.
First, I coughed so he would know I was in the tent. That changed nothing. Then I cleared my throat. Still no change. I took a whole roll of film in the low morning light through my bug screen and he was still pacing. Finally, I had enough. I started singing, "I'm in the Mood for Love" as loud as I could and that bear took off up the trail faster than a rocket leaving the Cape. He thought, "This guy not only smells bad, he's horny!"

There is no guarantee what a bear will do. They are no different than a dog. They all come with different personalities. I have had many close encounters and all with good outcome. You never know when you are going to surprise a female with cubs (not a good thing) or a bear on a food cache (even worse).

The majority of those who have been charged by a bear have little time, if any to react. Bears are quick as a bunny, but bigger. They may be just bluff charging. If that is the case you walk away unharmed except for a major urine stain on your pants.

If it's the real deal, are you ready? I did my own little survey a couple years ago in Glacier. I asked many of the day hikers and backpackers I encountered if they had ever had the safety off their bear spray. So far, no one has said, "yes" to that question.

When you have 400-800 pounds of muscle, blood and bone charging you like a freight train of fright, it is not the time to read the instruction booklet or figure out how the little, hunter orange, do-hickey comes off your pepper spray. If you can draw and fire quicker than Doc Holliday, it might not be soon enough.

You would be better off just dropping into the fatal position, I mean fetal.

I am not trying to scare you into staying in the front country at the lodge. I am just making some observations and suggestions that are important if you plan to use a site that I want, when and where I want it. Good luck to you. Life is an adventure and sleeping with grizzly bears is all part of the fun.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Yellowstone Country


As we left David Jackson’s Hole and John Colter’s Bay and moved north into the Yellowstone Country. We felt the same awe that must have struck Jackson, Colter, Bill Sublette, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and so many other early explorers who stood in the shadows of the Tetons not so long ago. This valley completely surrounded by mountains is perhaps the most beautiful in the West. Yellowstone has been described in so many ways I think it is enough to say it offers a sense of identity with America. It is a wilderness showcase where people from all over the world come to experience the out-of-doors. The pressure of so many visitors on such a fragile ecosystem has taken its toll over the years, but Yellowstone is still a well-managed tribute to the Park Service.



Bill and Diana Plyley, who we met up with in the Tetons, like to sleep late and drive fast. We like to get up with the sun and travel with the turtles. So we never caravaned together. We would just pick a camping area and meet up with them when it happened. We would always leave long before them and get in long after them. Bill and I wanted to do some backcountry canoeing, so we met up in Grant Village campground and left the next day early for Shoshone Lake.

Bill was camped two sites behind me. When I arrived at his trailer at 5 A.M. he was still sleeping. So I sat on his picnic table very quietly, drinking my coffee and listening to the birds. Someone had let a black lab out to run the field which was against park rules, but this is just one example of the pressure on the parks I was referring to earlier. As I sat there the park was coming alive. A lady who had come in during the night climbed out of her station wagon and walked back to her canvas-covered utility trailer. She stuck her head under the canvas and began rooting around for cooking gear. About the same time, the black lab came up from behind and goosed her. She dove right under the canvas and into the trailer. When she peeked out she saw a black lab wagging his whole hind quarters and wanting to play and me rolling on the ground trying to control my laughter. She said to the dog, "Boy, am I glad to see you! " Her first thought was bear—which is much more uncommon now than it once was.

Bill finally rolled out and we packed our gear and drove to Lewis Lake where we put in. It was a short paddle across the lake and then a power portage up the spillway into Shoshone Lake. I call it a power portage because we found it easier to leave our gear in the canoe and pull it upstream which often meant we were in the ice cold water right up to the threshold of stream scream.

Shoshone Lake is about 6 miles long and can become very dangerous very fast. The wind had created too much of a chop to cross the lake so we started along the shoreline. We set up camp between the river and the first point of land. We thought this area would create a windbreak and allow us to do a little fishing. As we set up camp a group of seven kayaks came out of the river and started across the lake for the point. It was obvious the last kayak was in trouble. Through the binoculars it looked as though his craft were built from duct tape. He was taking on water and sinking. The wind was so bad we kept hoping his group would be going back for him—not only for his sake but also for ours—we knew if they didn’t we would.

We watched in horror as he finally came out of his kayak which was being blown across the lake with just the front end exposed, bobbing straight up out of the water. We knew he would not make it in the cold water very long so out we went with no plan of how to get him in the canoe in this chop.

Luckily, at the same time another canoe had come up the river and had been watching the kayak struggle. We all reached him at the same time and were able to get him aboard. He was in the first stages of hypothermia and it took a good fire before he was even able to say thank you.

I never thought too much about this incident until many years later in Reader’s Digest I read the story of a group of scouts who had drowned in this same area under very similar circumstances just one year after our little excursion. Respect is probably the most valuable thing you can take with you into the wilderness—not only for the sake of the wilderness, but also for your own.

While we were still in the park we heard about a French couple trying to have their picture taken with the bison. She stood near the animals as her husband recorded the event. Then they switched. But he was not satisfied with la bison lounging. He thought it would make a much more impressive picture if la bison would stand. So he kicked the animal in the hind end and his wife recorded his goring. I say respect is valuable but that does not mean you leave intelligence at home.
Park Service records are full of reports describing irresponsible behavior acted out by people who are under the misconception they are at a theme park.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wilderness Future


The first time I visited Olympic National Park, WA. was 1968. My first stop was Kalaloch Beach. I went to a campfire program on the beach that evening and took a picture of the Ranger Naturalist looking out across the ocean, his palm sheltering his eyes from the glare of the setting sun, and its reflective path across the water. It was a wild and beautiful beach, full of life.


It was ten years before I was able to return to Kalaloch Beach. It seemed as though little had changed. Gaila and I went to the naturalist program, and yes, the same ranger I had captured on film a decade earlier was giving the nightly talk.But things have changed at Kalaloch, Olympic National Park and the once pristine forests that bordered the area. Persistent progress continues to squeeze the natural life out of this magical landscape as it does so many other supposedly protected regions of the world.


Gaila and I backpacked along Hurricane Ridge in the late 70s. During the first night the sounds just outside our tent wall frightened Gaila into thinking we were being visited by a black bear. I assured her it was only mountain goats digging around our site for salt. Her first question was, "Why is there salt around our site?" I had to explain that many other campers in this site have urinated over the years leaving salt deposits. I should have stuck with the bear visitation!


Like the giant mastodon that once roamed the park, the goats are about to disappear also. With no one able to prove or convince the park service that the goats are native to the area the damage they do to delicate alpine soil will soon have them evicted.In the 80s over a quarter of a million gallons of heavy bunker oil dirtied not only Kalaloch, but hundreds of miles of pristine beach from Oregon to British Columbia. Thousands of birds and other ocean life were killed leaving a lasting scar in the shifting sands of time along this sacred shore.The 90s scored the boundaries of the park with clear-cutting right to the quick of National Park/National Forest property lines. If not for the creation of this country’s National Park System there truly would be nothing left of the few areas we have set aside. Even these areas that most Americans think of as hallowed ground are under constant attack from interests that battle for the resources they hold. Patriotism is used as leverage to rally support for what is blatant corporate greed. Money driven politics grease the wheels that turn up the pressure to ease protective legislation.


Logging peaked in the 1980s when timber companies raced to cut as many trees as possible before impending environmental legislation could take effect. New laws limiting where and what could be cut were enacted in order to preserve the few remaining stands of old growth trees and the plant and animal diversity of the Peninsula, and to protect the habitat of the tiny and reclusive northern spotted owl. Timber companies still push to cut as much as possible, and the old growth stands are still susceptible to the chainsaw, but tourist dollars have taken on a new importance to the region’s economy, and communities that once relied upon timber have had to diversify in order to survive.


With 95 percent of the old-growth forests felled in the Northwest, the timber companies have stepped up their logging in the Northern Rockies. They’re clear-cutting a place that is our Serengeti and erecting lumber company billboards that state the time of death—tombstones for the land.Walking from the barren clear-cut border of the park into the densely forested ravines of the Elwha Valley takes you through an abrupt change in landscape and politics. Standing on the moist and matted forest floor among giant conifers it is quiet except for a plunging stream. Studying a water ouzel dipping in and out of the snow melt I find myself agreeing with English navigator John Meares that this is—home of the gods.


Meares, sighting this area in 1788 named the highest peak Mount Olympus.Moisture-laden Pacific winds on the western slopes of the Olympic Peninsula has produced one of the most luxuriant temperate-zone rain forests in the world.Cutting Douglas fir and western red cedar trees over 50 feet in girth seems almost sacrilegious but that is what we have done leaving a very small population still in peril. Undisturbed for centuries we will once again see the forest heal and blossom. Timber science calls what they have done—management of a healthy forest. Have a financial advisor tell you to spend 95% of your retirement nest egg the first decade after quitting work and see if you are convinced that would be—management for a healthy future. --Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The No Plan Planet


Perhaps the sky is falling. I am never amazed at the stories that show up as I put together each issue of the paper. Exotic species raising havoc in the Great Lakes, new synthetic chemicals to mix into the boil we already have brewing, cloning and sperm production in unrelated animals, politics driving science and common sense from the decision making process and nature’s food factories despoiled by the very animal that sits at the trough the most. Most environmental battles will be won or lost not on biological but on economic grounds and by government policy. Nature has its own way of maintaining balance in the ecosystem. The long slow geologic and climatic changes that have taken place on this planet have resulted in the miracle of life we take for granted. A total disregard for the understanding we have for the care and feeding of this vast ball of real estate will eventually make some dismayed future generation think, “What the heck were those idiots thinking?”

The problem is we were given way too much property. If we would have ended up on a smaller planet we might be able to manage it better. It was like giving a kid running a lemonade stand the cola factory. He never gave a thought about how to run the place, he just wanted to drink pop. Here is how I see us. We are a bunch of cows on a ranch. We all get together, chew our cud and organize. We vote ourselves a rancher to oversee our herd and the rancher divides us into smaller groups and slowly takes us all to slaughter so he can line his leather wallet. When you go to the grocery store and know you are buying genetically engineered, growth hormone laced, pesticide basted food products—what do you say? You say, “It can’t be all that bad, everybody’s eating this stuff.” Don’t you remember your mother saying, “If Johnny jumps off a building are you going to jump off a building too?” Well, yes and no. We are not all jumping off buildings. Many of us are getting pushed. We have become those conquered and divided cattle with little choice but to push our way along the chute and have the Czar of misinformation turn us into hamburger.

When I’m out hiking trying to forget about all this crazy stuff is when I come up with so much of it. The scary thing is—most of it is true. We have become our own endangered species. Not because our numbers are low but because our potential for self destruction is high.
—Richard E. Mallery, a.k.a. Dick E. Bird


Since man has learned that the universal brotherhood of life includes himself as the highest link in the chain of organic creation, his interest in all things that live and move and have a being has greatly increased. The movements of the nomad now appeal to him in a way that was impossible under the old conceptions. He sees in each of the millions of living forms with which the earth is teeming, the action of many of the laws which are operating in himself, and has learned that to a great extent his welfare is dependent on these seemingly insignificant relations; that in ways undreamed of a century ago they affect human progress. —Clarence Moore Weed