A little while back, I referred to the Vargo Titanium Wood Stove. To wit, I’d bought one. Well, this weekend, I gave it a test drive in the backyard. The pictures look a lot like all the other ones on the web.

Setup:

Fuel – I used a modest pile of collected sticks from my backyard for fuel.

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Lighter – my trusty Light My Fire, some drier lint, and the lock release button on the back of my Fallkniven U2.

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Pot – a GSI Ketalist for the pot. I filled the pot (about 1L) with cold water from the garden hose.

Stove – the Vargo.

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Operation:

I lit the tinder and put it in the stove, and piled on a little birch bark and some Honey Locust twigs, broken up by hand to about 3 inches. It started to catch and I put on a few more. Total fuel collection process was about 10 minutes. Total lighting process was about 4 minutes, including fiddling around. Once I had the fire going, I put the Ketalist on top of the stove. Everything seemed pretty stable, although I didn’t try the “kick the stove test”. Flames licked up around the pot from the vents in the top of the stove, so I knew there were BTUs getting pumped into the water. FYI, birch bark, while great for starting due to the volatile oils, also burns with a really oily smoke, which deposited a kind of nasty, gummy residue on the bottom of the pot. Beware of cramming it back in the pack without proper wrapping.

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Anyway, I waited. Fire burned. I added fuel. Fire burned some more. Lots of smoke (the bark on the Locust is pretty smoky). Roughly 16 or 17 minutes later, I had a boil. Granted, I was boiling a whole litre, but it did seem like it took a long time. I will need to experiment with the vent door – too closed (I thought to direct the heat up) and it kind of starved the oxygen. Too open, and it seemed to diffuse the heat. It WAS certainly hot – the sides of the stove were quite discolored to a deep blue color.

In any case, I got boiled water off of lawn debris. I also got a sticky, gummy mess on the bottom of the kettle, and an appreciation of how to meter oxygen into a fire.

Bottom line? Not bad, but a cheaper version in steel would not be that much heavier and would cost way less. Still want to experiment with an AL stove in the Vargo as a windscreen for maximum versatility.

What a loaded title, huh?  I'm not piling on to the religious war.  Being notably agnostic, I have all the major OSes at my house (Mac, Ubuntu, and Win 7).  I did notice something interesting, however.  I recently picked up a Lenovo x201 with a Core i7 cpu and 4gb of RAM.  It dual-boots into Windows and Ubuntu.  When I run the machine with Windows, and nothing else running, the OS alone takes about 40% of the memory (see the attached Task Manager screen cap).  When Ubuntu is running with nothing else, the OS alone takes about 6-7% or the RAM (see the attached System Monitor screen cap).  Anyway – 40% vs 7%.  4gb of RAM goes away quickly when the OS hogs almost half of it.  If it weren't for connecting to the office, I don't think I'd use the Windows partition at all …

I like food. I like being in the backcountry with no civilized amenities. So, those two things in combination mean that I’m frequently thinking about my mess kit, or how I make food in the back country. Generally, I’m kind of a lightweight person, so I’m usually just boiling water for freeze-dried pouch food. Easy, light-ish, and the only thing to “cook” is heating water. There are times, however, when I actually want FOOD, not a chemistry experiment. So, I try cooking over a stove and over a fire. For the stoves, here’s what I use. Context – the pots in this tale are Evernew 700, 900, and a GSI Ketalist – a pretty nifty approach, if your focus is just boiling water.

I used to use (and still own) an MSR canister stove. The weight of the stove wasn’t too bad, but the canisters were heavy, and you packed out nearly the same weight that you packed in. For cooking however, the canister stove simmers nicely … ;-)

So, I started looking at alcohol stoves. I read a whole bunch of stuff about DIY, and even joined BPL in order to get access to articles on it (which turned out to be unnecessary). I was a little leery of the DIY approach initially, which explains why I purchased the Great Brass Boat Anchor, aka the Trangia. But the brass base stove is pretty heavy. I did have it on an outing and it did successfully boil water, but not without some effort and supplementary wind screening with my pack. Note to self – pay attention to windscreens.

After that, I started to see the virtues in a lighter format, so I started researching the DIY options. I decided on a SuperCat, mostly because it’s easy. I also picked-up a small roll of aluminum flashing to use for windscreen material (see – I DID learn something!). The SuperCat worked well with the Evernew 900 and 700 pots. I had a windscreen set-up that was directional, and light. I didn’t have a base for the stove, but I am capable of paying attention to where I put the hot stuff. The SuperCat was very light, to the astonishment of my friends on a BWCA trip in the spring of 2010 – they were pretty impressed that a cat food can with some holes performed on-par with their $50 canister stoves. :-P

Like everybody, I did observe the fuel issue. To wit, you still need to carry it. But it’s light, it’s enviro-friendly, and you use it up and the bottle is light weight (unlike empty steel canisters). Sometimes, however, you might run out of alcohol, or spill it or some other travesty. So I started researching wood fuel stoves. You might see a pattern here. My family refers to it as an “illness”, but I prefer to refer to it as “curiosity”. I thought about a Caldera Cone, but, frankly, it’s big-ish. I’ve seen one in action, and they are certainly a nice set-up, but still bigger than I wanted. Still pondering, I came across the Vargo TI Hexagon. So, I had to pick it up. It works remarkably well for such a simple device. And it seems to work fine as a base for a pop-can AL stove. So, it can do double duty. Then I noticed something else – the folded Vargo is the same size as the bottom of the Ketalist. Eureka! I store the Hexagon under the Ketalist in the Ketalist’s sack, with a pop-can stove inside the Ketalist. Pretty slick – I have a system that boils water, and can use AL or wood fuel, all in a package no bigger than the kettle! In theory, a decent system. Next, to try it out …

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This year was a totally new crew for the Boundary Waters. I decided to take my father-in-law (Charlie) for his birthday, and my neighbor (Pat) was interested in going. Of last years’ crew, 2 were having babies, and one had a conflict, so I was still short a fourth. In stepped a co-worker (Dan) to fill the final berth and (ultimately) provide a mountain of reasons to talk about Indiana. As before, I used Voyageur North as an outfitter for canoe rental and transportation. Gear-wise, the only changes were the addition of a new Therma-rest Neo-air mat, and the replacement of the old Quest Viper with a new REI Quarter Dome T2 tent. Both are significant moves in a lightweight direction for me. Oh, and the replacement of the old portage pack with a SeaLine ProPack (much more robust and with an actual “frame” for hauling).

Wednesday, May 19.

We met at my house in the evening to pack the car. So gear was spread all over the front-yard, and eventually crammed into Pat’s car for the drive up. Charlie was significantly over-packed, but that was remedied by leaving most of his stuff behind. ;-) I prepped and froze the steaks for Wednesday night.

Thursday, May 20.

At the crack of ass, Charlie and I piled into Pat’s car and then picked-up Dan. With us all aboard, we headed for Ely. Smooth drive and lots of interesting chatter. We arrived at Ely around 10 and puttered around Piragis for a bit before heading over to VNO. We checked in, John marked up the map, Pat got a fishing license, and they all watched “the video” for 15 minutes while I stole Pat’s car (and pulled it up to the van …). We loaded up the van and were at Entry #30 (Lake One) on the water by noon. The sky was totally clear and the weather was quite warm. I dumped my base layer and just went with shirt sleeves. Paddling was pleasant, sedate and hot. We had a little lunch at one of the early portages, and then pushed on. The water wasn’t as cold as we would have liked (for nice cold drinking water), but it did the job. We passed a couple that had gotten lucky with the fishing, and the woman was cleaning a nice sized northern on the portage trail (kind of in poor form) and trying to skin it with a multi-tool knife. Why they didn’t leave the skin on and let the cooking do the work is beyond me. And why they didn’t have a decent fillet knife and were using a multi-tool is also beyond me. We got one of the marked good spots at around 5pm, and leisurely set up camp. I was all excited to try starting a fire with no match, and it was easy! I had dryer lint, birch bark, and the wood was really dry. Caught in just a few strikes on the firesteel. We wrapped-up the green beans, fingerling potatoes, and the steaks, and put them to cooking on the fire grate. No scotch this time, and no s’mores (all ‘cause I’m an idiot and forgot them). The food was pretty good, although the potatoes weren’t done as much as they should be – I should have cut them up smaller. We ate well, and were stuffed. The evening was quiet weather-wise, but the bugs came out and made me run for a DEET refresh. There was a beaver that kept making a circuit around the campsite – we had some fun anthropomorphizing his exploits. Didn’t sleep so well that night. The Neo-air was fine, but I had a lumpy stuff sack for a pillow, and it kinked my neck. I also sweated balls ‘cause it was so hot.

Friday, May 21.

Morning was a little cooler, but not much. Breakfast was freeze-dried stuff. Everybody else was smart and did oatmeal. I tried a Breakfast skillet from Mountain House. The “eggs” were remarkably like styrofoam packing peanuts. Not good. I got the super cat alcohol stove to work just fine. I think it opened a few eyes to see a little cat food can with some holes boil water in 8 minutes. Anyway, We hopped on the canoes and went over to Little Gabbro and Gabbro Lakes. Pat and Charlie fished in one boat. The fishing was fine, the catching sucked. They got a couple of small fry, and through them back. We had lunch on a little island in Gabbro, and while we were eating, the wind blew a plastic bag into the water. Pat and Charlie tried to cast for it with their fishing poles, but they weren’t able to land a cast on the bag. So, I paddled out to get it. I should have sat in the middle. Trying to paddle back, the wind kept blowing me around and it was pretty hard to get back on the island (but I did). The wind was picking up, and the water was getting rough, and with a crew of newbies, I didn’t want us to be sideways and swamping, so we headed back to the more sheltered Little Gabbro and paddled around some more. It was really nice to just float around and check out birds, turtles, and other wildlife. It was pretty recharging. We got back to camp around 4 or 5 (who cares about time in the backcountry?) and set to fire- and dinner-making. I switched to lighting the super cat with the firesteel, and really got off matches. Dinner was pouch food. The beaver was back. There was an interesting time watching an eagle that had caught something get harassed by a couple of ravens. I don’t know if the eagle got to eat that night, or the ravens. Sleep was better, but still hot and sweaty. Ugh.

Saturday, May 22.

Morning of the last day. Oatmeal and packing-up. We paddled out to Entry #32, and arrived 2 hours earlier than we told the outfitter. Surprisingly, I had a cell signal and just called him to come get us. Technology does kind of come in handy … ;-) Cold bevs in the van. Showers back at VNO. Lunch at the Chocolate Moose. And a smooth drive back to the cities – which is where the %$#%$#^-ing construction hosed us up for a bit. But we made it. Another most excellent trip to the BWCA. I was glad to be back to the family, and was nicely recharged.

This year, four of us went to BWCA in mid-May. That decision had its pros and cons.

Gear-wise, there weren’t too many changes this year. I had the new shell (from a year ago), and that was about it. Instead of bringing a hatchet (which does have some maiming potential), I brought a folding sawvivor bow-saw and the camp knife (an old Ontario Knife machete that was cut down by my friend Alan into a bowie shape) for splitting. This combo was lighter than the hatchet, and served quite well for cutting and splitting firewood. I also brought a few figure-9s from Nite-ize, which turned out to be very useful for setting up tarps and hanging food bags.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We left mid-day on a Wednesday after a half-day of work, and planned not to return until Sunday. Again, I used a great outfitter – Voyageur North – and we spent Wednesday night at their bunk house. We got into Ely at 18:30 and were able to hit a restaurant for dinner and the liquor store. We checked-in at the outfitter and they marked-up Marcus’ map with the good camp site and fishing areas. Everybody was fishing except me. I volunteered to eat anything that was caught. Rob had driven-up separately, and arrived at about 3:30am on Thursday. So, he didn’t get much sleep.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thursday morning, we woke to snow. Not too cold, but snow nonetheless. We sucked it up and went out anyway. We put in at #23 – Mudro Lake and made for Horse Lake. There was one party on front of us, and they looked like they were heading for Horse as well, so we switched to Four Town Lake at the last minute. The sky was cloudy and it was windy, but the precip held-off. Marcus was experimenting with a different kind of footwear – knee-high neoprene socks under low hikers. They should have been waterproof, but weren’t. As a result, his feet were really cold, and we needed to take care of that, because foot amputations in the backcountry aren’t positively regarded. We found a nice campsite and set up in the blustery day. Rob took a nap. Marcus fished from shore. Ted and I hiked around to the other side of the bay and checked out a bunch of old junk from the old resort days. There was a rusted out Model-T truck, and a selection of old bed frames. Kind of freaky. There was also a lot of fur in clumps around the area. It was white with tan/brown tips, and I thought it was like dog fur, and could have been wolf. From the high-point of the ridge, we could see quite a ways, and waved at Marcus across the bay.

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We got back to camp and started to discuss dinner. During this conversation, a snowshoe hare got into Marcus’ stuff and stole his camp soap. We were puzzled by that all weekend. WTH? The soap?

By this point, the weather had cleared-off and it was quite pleasant out. We had packed in some steaks, fresh potatoes, fresh greenbeans, and scotch. The potatoes and greenbeans were cooked in foil over the fire with olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano. The steaks, marinated in olive oil and season salt, were cooked directly on the fire grate. And, yes, it blew the doors off of anything else I can ever recall eating in the backcountry.

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Dessert was s’mores (courtesy of Ted and his 30-gallon plastic bag full of groceries). The evening was most stupendous, enhanced by Rob’s embracing his inner pyro and burning every bit of fuel that could be found. I do believe that the heavy cast iron fire grate was glowing slightly. Bed was 11-ish.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday dawned gorgeous. It was clear, bright, and relatively calm. Breakfast was eggs, real canadian bacon and tea. The other futzed about with fishing gear, and I packed. By late-ish morning, we had set-off. We paddled for an hour or so and fished and lunched on the north side of a little island. No great luck, but the views were stellar. We paddled across the lake, as the weather began to come up. Rob and I got separated from Ted and Marcus, and took refuge in a small cove. The wind was quite gusty now, and it was pretty hairy to be on the water in a small canoe! Eventually, Ted called us on the radio to say that he and Marcus had found a great campsite, so we paddled like crazy in the wind to get around the point to the new site. It was a nice location, and the sun was still out, despite the wind. We set up camp and went for another hike around the point. At the mid-point of the hike, we got some elevation and could see that the weather was moving in. A big wall cloud was racing for us, and we scuttled back to camp. It started to drizzle, but Ted and Marcus still went out to fish, and Rob and I stayed at camp. We got the fire going good, but the weather really came in hard – lots of rain and very strong winds. The tarp we set up near the fire was constantly blowing in and the fire was nearly put out by the rain. Rob and I ate freeze-dried dinner while waiting for the others. By about 7, Ted and Marcus returned – with FISH! They had caught a 20? Northern Pike and a 12?-ish Walleye. It was too miserable weather to cook them, however. So, Ted and Marcus ate freeze-dried food under the tarp. The tarp wasn’t big enough for all four of us to fit, so (since we’d already eaten) Rob and I stood outside in the rain and wind while Ted and Marcus boiled water for their pouch dinners.

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Early bed at 9-ish. Everything was wet and cold. General misery. My tent had seemed to leak, especially since we took the tarp that I usually use as a groundcloth for shelter by the fire. So, in order to stay away from the wet edges, I slept in the middle of it, and Rob slept in Ted’s tent. Marcus was dry in his hammock, but not out of the wind (as much as he would’ve liked). It rained all night. I was a little anxious about how the night would go, as I fell asleep.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday morning was cold (just under freezing) and snowy. There was snow on the tents and the ground.

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We all hung out in tents and sleeping bags until later in the morning, due to the cold. By the time I had to pee, it was nearly 9 am. My pants were still wet from the night before. The wind was still blowing hard. But, the little frozen, pellet snow was tapering. There was a confab. We were far enough from the take out (where we needed to be by 10:30 the next morning) that we couldn’t stay a second night. We needed to move, but the wind was making the lake really choppy – 2-3 foot waves and whitecaps, and we had to cross open water from our site. Actually pretty dangerous stuff, given how cold the water still was. We determined to make a go for a site on Horse Lake, and the move across open water was with the wind at our backs, so we could keep the canoes perpendicular to the waves. We still managed to get a little wet with bow-spray. We made it across the open water and thru the little portages. There was a longer portage that went around some rapids. Ted (ever the daredevil) convinced Marcus to run the rapids. The first (and only visible) set were pretty mild. Rob and I portaged. We could see from the far side of the portage that the rapids got much worse. I bushwhacked back to see if I could find the other boat. They were upright, contemplating the next set of rapids. I wasn’t close, but could shout enough to tell them not to run them, and they ended-up pulling the boat out by a little beaver creek and lugging it overland to the end of the portage. Marcus was OK with the first rapids, but commented that the second set would have violated his promise to his wife to “be safe”. Over three portages, Marcus ran with the fish on a stringer so that he could get them back in the water ASAP. We weren’t able to eat them Friday night, but weren’t going to let them get away. We eventually found our way around to another camp site. This one was very well sheltered from the wind. We set out all of our stuff to dry and Ted and Rob went fishing in a canoe while Marcus and I set up camp. Ted managed to catch another walleye, and so, for the final night, we had a pretty nice fish dinner.

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The wind cleared-out and we had a nice evening of s’mores and campfire.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The morning of our last day dawned clear, sunny and quiet. The lakes were glass-smooth, and the air was warm. Figures that the last day would be the nicest. We packed-up, and had a nice, mellow paddle back to Mudro Lake and the take-out. We were right on time to our pick-up and had a pretty uneventful ride back to the outfitter. A quick shower and we were on the road back to the cities.

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When I moved to Minnesota, I had to come up with something other than mountains to tickle my outdoor itch. When in Minnesota, there’s lakes, and lakes are what people do. So, I started planning what I can do on lakes. Back in 1995, I was able to come along on a trek to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for a buddy’s graduation gift, and I really enjoyed it. So, I started planning a BWCA trip. I found a few folks at work that were like-minded, outdoorsy types.

We went to the BWCA for a long weekend – 2 nights in the back country. There were 4 of us, so two canoes, two tents, one camp. And a bit of rain. Well, a lot of rain. I had been planning this thing since late August, which gave me plenty of time to buy more gear for it. Moving to up-nort activities (from the nice, dry, bug-free mountain west) meant dry bags. Oh, and I needed a new <a type=”amzn” asin=”B003W9JK98″>knife</a>. I also took a small hatchet. Your basic 1 lb hardware store jobbie that I had reshaped the head, and gave it a real edge. I can really see why the woodsfolk here really value a hatchet – with a decent edge, you can do some remarkably fine work. In this case, it was a lot of splitting wood to get to (hopefully) drier wood in the center to actually burn … I was way happier to do that with a small ax than with a big knife.

We left Mpls late (big surprise there) on Friday and got into Ely (after a stop for dinner in Duluth) around midnight. The outfitter that I was working with has a bunk house and set us up for the night. He left the key at the 24 hour gas station next door. Good news for us. Next morning (Saturday) we grabbed breakfast at the Chocolate Moose, and met the outfitter. We watched a video about safe travel in the BWCA, got fitted for PFDs and loaded our gear in the van. They drove us to entry point #30 on (the imaginatively named) Lake One. Loaded canoes and we were off.

We spent the next five or so hours paddling along the South Kiwishiwi River. Eventually, we got to the area that had the campsites we were interested in. It turns out, the ones the outfitter suggested to us where all occupied. We realized this, and took the first open one we found. Not a bad spot, but I ended up with my tent in a low spot that was already suspiciously muddy. We were barely successful getting a fire going, but it’s didn’t matter so much because it was quite (unseasonably) warm. So warm in fact (and there’d been so much rain) that the mosquitos were confused and thought it was still September (or maybe even August), cause they were out. I will endure basically any climatological challenge, but bugs irritate me disproportionately to others; I hate ‘em. I had planned a trip in October in northern MN to avoid the bugs. No can do. They were brutal (to me). Saturday night was basically a pleasant night camping.

Sunday morning, we moseyed around and weren’t moving too fast. Had a little breakfast (the ubiquitous oatmeal), and got on the water. We basically paddled around and checked out Little Gabbro Lake and (regular) Gabbro Lake. Pretty country. Ted mugged for the camera on a tiny rock just above the waterline. We saw some eagles, but no moose. We had some lunch on a small island and were back on the water poking around when we saw some very dark clouds coming towards us fast. We made a bee-line for the closest shore and made it just as the rain came down in buckets. We flipped over the canoes and tried to shelter under them as best we could while the storm moved through and lightning struck less than half a mile away (that’s awful close when you’re huddled under a fiberglass boat with AL gunnels and rails …).

It passed and we got back on the water to head back to camp. Sunday night, we were more effective at getting a fire going (due to the generous amounts of birch bark from downed, dead trees that burned to dry out the other wood). Thankfully, we still had a small MSR stove that I brought that allowed us to cook our food without needing to cook over the fire that wasn’t cooperating. After dinner, we were hanging out and heard something banging around in the woods. After the initial little freak-out, we went to investigate and found a beaver had basically felled a small birch, drug it down to the water and was in the process of swimming with it across the lake. It was really weird to hear the gnawing sound of a beaver felling a tree. That was new to me. After the beaver excitement, we turned in.

Four hours later (at 2 am), I wake to the sound of rain pouring on the tent. It’s really dumping. That’s really loud on a nylon tent. I was quite pleased with my old Quest Viper, it did a great job of keeping the wet stuff outside. I lay there for a long time, listening to the rain. I think Rob was actually sitting up for a lot of it, since his sleeping pad was short and he was trying to stay on it …. Around 3:45, I sat up and was dinking around with something in the side pocket and put my hand on the floor of the tent. It was just like a waterbed mattress. The tent floor had made a relatively impermeable membrane, but we were still camped in a few inches of water (at least).

By this point, it’s getting on to when we were going to have to get up anyway, and the rain started to slacken. So, we just got up and started to break camp. Ted and Nick were blissfully unaware and sleeping through most of this (in their higher-ground camping spot). I’m really thankful for the decent sized vestibules on the tent – my boots were basically dry and most everything else under there was OK as well. Of course, it’s still dark (and overcast – no moon). So we packed up the whole camp by headlamp. I’ve done this before (or some other significant activity), so it didn’t bother me. I took some pictures of the tent in the muddy, nasty water. We made some breakfast (in the dark), loaded the canoes (in the dark), and headed out for the rendezvous with the outfitter (in the dark). Dawn light came on about 20 min into our paddling. We found our way to the take out (#32) and discovered a pretty long portage to get to that spot. That was rough – 4 hrs sleep, already going for a work day, and now I get to lug a 55 lb dry bag for about half a mile. We finally got all the gear to the pick-up spot, and it turns out we were there about 30 min early. Not bad precision for basically guessing. Back at the outfitter, took a quick shower, loaded up the car, had lunch in Ely, and started back down. We took a wrong turn out of Ely and headed for the North Shore instead of Cloquet, but we made up for it with a stop at Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors. And yeah, it’s hard to stay awake in a car after being up since 2 am on 4 hours of sleep. All in all, a great trip. We had a little rain, but it could have been way worse. It was warm, and everything dried out pretty well. I’m eyeing April … Any takers?