Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gransfors Bruk Axe Review - Part 2

Gransfors Bruk axes are made in Sweden and are exported all around the globe. Their axes are unique, in that they are still individually forged and made by highly skilled craftsmen. No big factory, where truck loads of raw material are dumped in at one end, and endless numbers of axes pumped out the other end. No, this is where the time honoured methods and techniques of skilled tradesmen create finely honed, crafted axes. In fact, each axe head is stamped with the initials of the craftsmen for two reasons. As a testament and recognition of his ability to create a great axe, but also as mark of ownership. This ensures that they are constantly striving to make the best axe possible, but also take responsibility of any short comings. If that doesn't speak of quality, I don't know what does.

On the axe head, you can clearly see the initials, "AS". If you go
to the Gransfors Bruk website, you can find the smith's
name, in this case, Anders Stromstedt.

The shape of the Small Forest Axe head is long and narrow at the cutting edge, which is great for cutting deep into the meat of the tree. Then at the back end, it widens of course to accommodate the handle, but provides some depth to help with splitting. I would say the axe head is more of a felling axe head, rather than a dedicated splitter, but it will still split. The weight of the axe head is a fair trade off, not too heavy, and not very light at 1 1/2 lbs. The handle length again is a bit of a trade off too, not too short, but not long either at 19 inches. The handle is made from a solid piece of finely grained and knot free hickory. Lastly, the axe comes with a snug grain leather sheath, which protects both the cutting edge, and soft human flesh.

The well used axe head of a Gransfors
 Bruk Small Forest Axe.

This Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe accompanied me on many trips last year, 67 days in fact. I made sure this review came back with actual sustained field use, not just a weekend test run. Maybe it was coincidence, but it came in real handy on several occasions. This was perfect for properly evaluating its ability and effectiveness in real life situations, not just in the backyard. I carried it, worked it and sharpened it, all the while in the heat, the rain, in freezing temperatures, and with bugs. Trust me, it got out there, and got used - like it was meant to be.

What's the point of bringing an axe if you're 
not going to use it? 

So what did I do with the axe, besides portaging it a lot? The decision to bring an axe often rests on a particular purpose, which hopefully justifies the extra weight you will be carrying. Sure, someone may take it for protection against a bear, or a ravenous rabbit, but most times, people take it for its utilitarian aspect. Personally, because I often cook over a fire, or use a twig stove, I mainly use the axe for trimming tree trunks and tap splitting them into small pieces for the fire. Also, because I push the limits of the paddling season, having an axe in the shoulder seasons provide access to dry wood during a long wet cold spell. Lastly, I often trip in areas where the route is often not well maintained, or maintained at all. So this is where the axe  really gets handy - chopping through downed trees. As you can see, the axe serves a multitude of purposes for me, which to me go hand in hand with my other essential gear.

I've already lauded the craftsmanship of the axe, but now for the most important part. How does it actually perform? Well, in a few words, great, except for a few things. So let's talk about the two main things that I do with axes - at least for me. Tap splitting and tree/trail clearing (Mainly trees that have already fallen.) Because I usually have small fires, I don't often split big logs, so I won't be covering that, but what I'm going to share applies to that equally as well. For those that don't know, tap splitting involves taking pieces of cut wood, aligning it vertically, embedding the axe head into it, and taking a another piece of wood and hitting the back of the axe head to split the wood. Or, if the axe bites enough into the wood, tap the wood with the axe head above it over a wood block, or some solid surface to drive the axe head through it. Tap splitting can be done with large pieces of cut logs, but if that is the case, you may as well just split it standing above it. Tap splitting usually involves smaller pieces of wood.

Tap split wood was a big factor in our fire this day. After many
days of rain, even tap split wood can be damp,
thus our dry-feed routine.

As I tap split a lot of wood, and of various sizes and types, (hardwood vs softwood) I found in general, the Small Forest Axe does the job proficiently. The long narrow face drives well into small pieces of wood, and easily splits it. However, my issue stems around 2 things. First off, the longish handle. It is unnecessary for tap splitting. So in this case, I choke up on the handle and viola, problem solved. However, the 1 1/2 lb head, plus the weight of the long handle may not seem heavy, but tap split a lot of wood, and you'll soon find your forearm, and especially your wrist fatiguing. My forearm is less of a concern, as it is simply muscular in nature, but I have a small wrist and this weight and applied force (depending on the type of tap splitting you do) eventually causes aching, which is not of the good kind, unlike the forearm. This may not be a concern for people with big strong wrists, but for me, prolonged tap splitting means regular breaks. Other than that, the Small Forest Axe works admirably at tap splitting.

In the middle of a portage, we came upon a downed tree that
was too high to go over, and too low to go under.
As you can imagine, our favourite.

As evidenced, many people chose to go over the trunk,
as you can see the bark worn well off.

Felling trees is easier when it is standing, and away from obstructions. But on a 'trail', there is little that is ideal. (I rarely ever cut down a standing tree.) The ones I do, are usually horizontal, including all the other positions in between. There is no rhyme or rhythm when trees fall. They do so carefree, so that often means, you have to get into the most optimal position, since swinging an axe can be very dangerous. I probably got to cut through almost 10 tree trunks last year, most of them small to medium size - no bigger then 6-7 inch diameters. However, a few were bigger, with one being about a foot or more in diameter. And get this, it was high up too, making the swings very awkward. I eventually even had to climb atop and chop away. Let's just say it was a bloody good workout.

 Of course we could have just slid the canoe underneath and went
on our merry way, but this was a great opportunity
to test out the Small Forest axe.

  Almost there - it was a big trunk, easily over a foot in diameter.
It was awkward to cut too, as it was high up. At one
 point I had to stand atop the trunk
and swing away.

Hot and sweaty, but mission accomplished. The axe worked quite
well at cutting through this thick trunk. Future portagers
may not know it was the job of a Small Forest
Axe, but I'm sure they will
appreciate it.

Just as the axe performed well tap splitting, at the other end of the spectrum, it worked well chopping through thick meaty trunks. The 3 1/4 inch head depth allowed me to penetrate deep, whether hard or softwood, wet or dry. Rotating rhythmically from side to side, I was easily able to take chunks of wood out - yes, the chips were literally flying. In no time, I was quickly able to cut through the trees. Only a few times, when I had to deal with awkward angles and positions, did it take considerably more time, but that's expected. In general, I found it effective and efficient in cutting through. Saying that, there is one caveat. The handle. Not a fault in the design or wood, but in it's length. 

I won't deny that the Small Forest axe does a good job felling trees, but the handle is not the ideal length. The length of an axe handle is important for good leverage, and helps reduce fatigue, as less effort is needed to drive the head into the wood. Hence why when I swung at lengths, it always felt limiting. Thankfully, since the length of my arms are more akin to a gorilla, being longer than my height, this helped with the 19" handle. But ultimately, I always felt I was lacking in length. (This statement, nor the gorilla one, is going to fair well for my manhood.) Therefore, I believe the Small Forest Axe is better suited for cutting down the occasional tree, rather than sustained use. But in this regard, it is perfectly fine too, because I believe that was the whole purpose of it's design - a compromise. Or better put, a jack-of-all-trades, much like the Prospector canoe. A canoe that was designed to be good for both whitewater and flatwater, but not great at either. In the same way, the Small Forest Axe doesn't shine in any particular way, but it is good at accomplishing multiple tasks.

When downed trees block your way en-route to a canoe
trip, what do you do? Pull out your axe!

Three sizable trees came down, two softwoods and one
hardwood. If it wasn't for the axe, we'd have
to head back home.

Is this what you call, "Three up, and three down"?

Whether in sports or hobbies, when one specializes in a specific field, you quickly realize the shortcomings and advantages of things you regularly use. Hence why Gransfors Bruk, makes many types of axes. All axes have a purpose, and to that end, it's about matching the axe to its ultimate use. However, there are times, when it isn't ideal to take one of every kind. If you're going to let's say Algonquin, where you don't have to worry about clearing trail, and just want to tap split wood to cook, then a small hatchet would be sufficient. But if you are trudging into thick unmaintained bush and want to build a cabin, a good felling axe is the way to go. However, if you find yourself needing wood to cook, AND clearing the odd trail, then the Small Forest Axe is probably the one for you, as it often was for me.

So, is the Gransfors Bruk Small Forest axe the one for you?
Based on the trips I do, it certainly is for me!

It's a wonder how much I love axes now, and even more surprising how long I've went without one. Spending time in the bush can be accomplished in many ways, with various gadgets and tools. There is no right or wrong way. Sure, sometimes there are more efficient, or effective ways to do things, but based on circumstances, it's often what works for you at that particular time. It comes down to what you decide is important and how your time spent in the wilderness is to be enjoyed. Once upon a time, axes were essential for frontiersmen and settlers, but in this day in age, as trippers or adventurers, you don't need it. Or you have other options. But for me, the axe has become more than just essential to my enjoyment of the wilderness. Yes, it helps me make a fire, clear a downed tree, or used for camp craft, but this tool actually helps me to connect to the wild spaces around me too. I pay closer attention to my surroundings and spend more time wandering and admiring the forest while looking for wood. It's also taught me about the different types of trees around and the best wood for harvest. Who would have thought a simple axe could be the precursor for a more meaningful outdoor experience?

You don't need an axe to enjoy the wilderness, or for that matter, nor do you need a canoe. But I do love the canoe for where it can take me, and I do love the axe for what it can do for me. It's that simple.

I spend almost 3 months of the year on canoe trips. As important as
my paddle is to my canoe, so is the axe, (tucked nicely in
my pack), to my enjoyment of the outdoors.

Interested in Gransfors Bruk Axes? Check out The Canadian Outdoor Equipment Company store. The folks there will be more than happy to help you. Their website has all the information you need to take the next step from drooling over Gransfors Bruk axes, to actually purchasing one.
 Happy swinging!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Gransfors Bruk Axe Review - Part 1

Not just any axe, a Gransfors Bruk axe.

As a kid, I loved being outdoors, but that was only one part of the equation. The other part was the dreamer, aspiring to be some rugged outdoorsman, carving out a meagre existence in the cruel wilderness. Seared into my impressionable head as a kid, was the iconic image of a woodsman holding an axe, much like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. It seemed to me to be the pre-eminent tool, for anyone wanting to embrace, live and survive in the wilderness. I wanted to be like them, and of course, that meant I 
had to have an axe too.

That was, and still is me. Forever the dreamer.

Well, many years have passed since, and my notion of a woodsman going hand-in-hand with an axe was crushed. I found out in time, that axes are not as heralded now as a must-have tool when heading into the bush, as they once were. I fondly, or maybe painfully remember heading out on a backpacking trip with an axe for the first time. I was proud as ever to purchase my first axe, a hatchet. There were few words to describe the feelings and elations of ruggedness that coursed through my blood having it hang from my waist. My childhood dream almost came true, until I used it for the first time. Without so much as an understanding of how to properly use it, or what it was for, I took it with the all-knowing assumption that it was to provide firewood, and lots of it. Little did I know.

Yup, if you believe, I still have the first axe I purchased.
I bit rough looking, but still very usable.

Yes, they are primarily a tool to cut wood, but not often just on its own. If you can imagine, my first mistake was hauling in a big log. (Big wood = big fire.) Chopping away, what seemed like forever was brutal. Sweating and cursing, I started to imagine the legendary woodsman as powerful demi-gods. After finally getting through my first cut, I looked at the log incredulously. How did they do it? I wasn't going to give up that easy, so I swung again vigorously. There is something to be said about the correlation between how youthfulness can make up for the lack of logic. (Thankfully, even though age hasn't made me stronger, it certainly has made me smarter.) I eventually got through the second cut, and finally had my first piece - yay! However, then came the splitting part. I quickly realized that hatchets aren't made for that, especially with a sizeable log. No matter how hard I swung, I couldn't get it to split. I sat that evening dejected around a cold fire pit, but learned some very valuable lessons. First and foremost being, that you don't need an axe to enjoy the wilderness, nor have a fire.

One of many fires enjoyed on a canoe
trip, without an axe.

Many years passed since that trip, with no axes in sight. Various types and styles of saws now accompanied me throughout the proceeding years. Then one year, the flame was re-ignited when I met a new paddling friend. On our first trip together, he brought an axe, and opened my eyes to the possibilities. Not that I was totally oblivious to the things axes could do, as I learned much more about them after that initial trip, but never bothered, as the saws were more than sufficient for my needs. But seeing how my friend put that axe to work, showing me what it could do, and where/when it was best to have one, I was duly impressed. Leaving that trip, I was not only convinced, but seriously considering getting an axe again. I had come full circle, and now was back where I started.

My friend Ben demonstrating what he could
do with his axe. (And yes, this
was on a canoe trip!)

Since them, I've purchased 2 axes and take them regularly on canoe trips. What a difference compared to my initial experience, especially when you know what to do with it. Owning an axe is only one part of the equation, the other, having the skill-set and knowledge of what it can do - of which I was sorely lacking years ago. Sure, I will still admit, they are not essential to have on a canoe trip, but depending on circumstances, they can be. For me personally, they've become an essential part of my kit. I find myself in many circumstances and conditions that warrant its need and use, so like how a paddle is essential to canoe, so is my axe essential to my needs in the bush.

On this canoe trip years ago, without an axe, I wouldn't be
warming beside a fire with all the rain, sleet, 
and then snow I got.

A couple years ago, I was introduced to one of the owners of The Canadian Outdoor Equipment Company, Chris Scerri. We had crossed paths a few times at trade shows, spoken of our interest and passions, and came to discussing opportunities. If you've ever seen their booth, or their shop, it would make any hardened outdoor warrior drool. It is filled with 'earthy' high quality outdoor gear that seems to fuse better with the sense of wilderness, than many of the other big box gear stores. With many subtle neutral tones in the colour of their products, tools and gear that have lots of wood, carbon, or wool, it just feels like - being in the woods. No GoreTex, bright flashy colours, or much plastic. The Canadian Outdoor Equipment store feels like the real deal, because in fact it is.

Inside of The Canadian Outdoor Equipment Company store.
Literally eye candy for the outdoor enthusiast!

One of those discussions with Chris was about me testing some of their fine gear and reviewing it for them - one of them consequently being a Gransfors Bruk axe. Have you seen their famed wall of axes? Not only are all those axes gorgeous, but they look plain intimidating as well, especially the double-sided ones. If you haven't had the chance to hold one of these beauties, I urge you to. They quite simply exude beauty, precision, and craftsmanship. There are axes, and then there's Gransfors Bruk axes. To hold one is to tease, and to use one is to savour - they are practically works of art. They are not cheap either, but neither is a prime steak, or a BMW. I think you get the idea. Simply put, they are premium tools for the hardened adventurer that accepts no compromise.

The wall of Gransfors Bruk axes. Once you get to hold one, bet
you'll find it hard to leave without one!

With any axe purchase, the best thing to do is talk with the staff. There are a various assortment of axes - styles, sizes, and features that are tooled for a specific purpose. You don't buy running shoes for a backpacking trip, nor would you buy a two bladed axe for a backpacking trip either. Tailoring an axe to your activity is key to your comfort and enjoyment, but also knowing you have the right tool for the right purpose. 

You got it, a Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe.
Forged by fire, to give you fire.

After hearing about the trips I do, and the situation I sometimes get myself into, Chris had the perfect axe for me, a Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe. I stood in awe admiring the solid wood handle, the polished axe head, and the snug leather sheath. I left the store with a sense of grandiose. Like how I recalled feeling years ago when I purchased my first axe. This time, it was a bit different, knowing what I could do with it and how it could be used. Maybe it's a guy thing, but holding this finely crafted tool in my hands, had me emoting a sense of confidence and power, like I was some unstoppable bushman. Then my wife broke my reverie, as she reminded me about getting her something to drink. Right, take the wallet to the convenience store, not the axe.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I finally get to put the axe through it's paces. And no, NOT at the convenience store!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

When Canoeing and Facebook Collide

You know the saying, "life is full of surprises"? It really is.

I'm sure we all have things that surprise us in our daily lives. Maybe because I'm so in tuned with my passion for canoeing, that quite often, I run into many surprises in my 'canoe life' as well. Some you think are just coincidence or plain luck, but other times, it's just odd and weird. Well recently, I came across a really amazing surprise. It was shocking in many ways, and just plain incredible at the same time, just fathoming how it could actually be? It was certainly noteworthy enough to me, my wife and the other couple, that I really wanted to share it.

Meeting Ray for the first time at the 2014 Toronto
 Outdoor Adventure Show

I ignored Facebook for years, literally. Despite the multiple and many requests to join, I didn't. Finally, last year, I took the plunge because I was more interested in making a 'page' about The Passionate Paddler, rather than a profile about me. ( Despite some technical issues with it, (Still, sigh.) it has been a great experience. Sharing my passion, connecting with other paddlers, and sometimes meeting them along the way. So I admit, maybe I did wait too long?

Recently, I was asked to speak at the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show. Leading up to the event, I was given a bunch of free admission tickets, which I decided to give away by holding a simple contest on my Facebook page. The first person to enter, was a fellow by the name of Ray McCullough. Consequently, 
by coincidence perhaps, he also took first place and won not only a pair of free tickets, but a copy of Jeff's Map.

Who would have thought, I had something
to do with this tent?!

My intention was to mail out the free tickets, but due to time and the Family Day holiday, I ended up meeting Ray and the other winners at the door to give them their tickets. I only had a few minutes with each winner, as I congratulated them, as well as share a picture together with them before running off. As a nice gesture, Ray and his wife came by later in the day to visit me while I was working at the Eureka booth to chat for a bit. That's when it all started.

Jenn and Ray got married on Lake Chouchiching, on
the really big 'canoe', Island Princess.

In the course of chatting, I asked them a question that got the whole ball rolling. During the Facebook contest for the free tickets, I was corresponding with several people, tallying numbers, and noting other people's interaction. For the most part, you see names and faces, particularly the profile picture. With a cursory acknowledgement, especially in the rush of things, you just move on. But sometimes, something catches your attention and you stop to have a closer look. Like I did, when I saw the profile picture of someone named Jenn Seek. Yup, it had a canoe in it, but also what looked to be her in a wedding dress with her new husband. As you know, Anita and I got married in canoe, so naturally, this really caught my attention.

Checking out her profile, she had a few pictures. They were canoeist aright. There were outdoor pictures, ones of camping, and of course canoeing ones too! But what impressed me the most, was the couple in their wedding attire, in a red cedar canvas canoe. It took me back to my wedding, the drama, the fun, and of course 'the adventure', being married together - in a red cedar canvas canoe too!

Canoe cuff links for the wedding - what a nice AND smart
touch! Coming from passionate paddlers
themselves, not surprising!

I really wanted to contact Jenn, to see if she would be willing to share her story, and of course, me share mine, and ultimately share this story/pictures on my Facebook page. Because of those technical issues with my Facebook account I previously mentioned (Frustrating as hell sometimes.) I can't comment, message, or contact people through Facebook. Hence why, because Ray seemed to have some connection to this woman, I thought I would ask him if he didn't mind putting me in contact with her.

So back to where I'm chatting with Ray and his wife. Without sounding like some stalker, I asked who Jenn Seek was? His wife beside him exclaimed, "That's me!!" "What?!!!" Yup, stunned like a deer in headlights, I couldn't believe it! But maybe I really should? I soon came to realize, that many people, including Jenn, give themselves pseudo last names, so they can preserve their privacy in this vast capricious world of social media. Okay, so that was shocking, but pretty cool. So now, it was easier to speak to Ray AND Jenn, about their wedding.

Check these beautiful paddles out. Ray
himself made these for the wedding
to be exchanged! Wow! 

So away I went, asking questions regarding their wedding, as I tried to calm myself over the shock of it all. I found out they didn't actually have a canoe wedding, as those pictures were taken after they were married. The main reason they didn't, was because of elderly people that had mobility issues. Not surprising, as we had the same problems too, particularly wanting to have the canoe wedding on Georgian Bay. But thanks to Mike Armstrong, the superintendent of Awenda Provincial Park, his recommendation of using Kettle Lake instead sealed the deal, as it addressed that concern perfectly. Ray and Jenn however, with their love of the water and keeping to that theme, chose instead to get married in a 'bigger canoe', the Island Princess, a tour boat on Lake Chouchiching.

Another aspect that came up, was the weather, because the wedding was outdoors. They had a tough go with the cool and windy conditions. So naturally, I asked them what time of year it was at? I was stunned to hear it was in September, as ours was too. Theirs, Sat Sept 22, and ours Sun Sept 23! And for the record, our wedding was actually planned for Sat Sept 22, but due to family scheduling conflicts, it was changed to Sun Sept 23. Imagine that, we would have been married on the same date! Sure it is off by one day, but for all intensive purposes, it really is the same day! Wow!!

Ray even made the paddles for the guest to sign. Isn't it
obvious Ray thinks and breaths canoes? I think
 I found a kindred spirit!

So here I am, can't believe what I'm hearing, and then on top of that, can't even think straight any more because of the uncanny coincidence. But it didn't stop there. Ray went on to say, that they knew me long ago, of course from a distance. Four years ago, they came to the Outdoor Adventure Show in search of a tough rugged tent. Ray has lots of experience tripping, and has even guided the American Boy Scouts all the way up in Atikokan. So, besides knowing the types of trips he finds himself on, he also knows exactly the type of gear he is looking for. So four years prior, with two tents in mind, our Eureka K2-XT, a proven mountaineering tent, and a Mountain Hardwear tent, guess who helped him seal the deal?! Yeah, ME!! I recalled seeing a photo on Jenn's Facebook of the Eureka K2 on Dashwa Lake in Atikokan. Who'd have thought, I had something to do with that!

A couple years back, I presented at the Barrie Canoe and Kayak Club. It was a last minute fill in. Jay Mothersill from Paddle Shack couldn't do it because his computer crashed, including all the pictures for his presentation. So, he emailed me and the club, and recommended I do a presentation in his place. I accepted, and had a great time too. The club members were a cordial group of paddlers, and the feedback after the presentation was great too. But guess who was there? Yup, Ray and Jenn. They knew exactly who this 'passionate paddler' was. As Ray is a canoe nut like me, he mentioned (And which I totally agree with.) that the canoe scene in Canada is not that big. Yes, people see Canada as the canoe Mecca, which it certainly is, but big name canoeist are few and far between. Not that I in any way consider myself in that league, but between my association with gear companies, my blog, photos and stories that have been published, and even now Facebook, I've somehow managed to squeeze in through the back door and squeak the odd time here and there for people to hear me.

The happily married couple, Ray and his lovely wife Jenn,
hamming it up for the photographer in a 
classic red cedar canvas canoe.

So yes, I was totally stunned and amazed. Not only did we practically get married on the same day, in similar locations, but I've personally helped them purchase a tent, and they got to know me better through my presentation, but never ever REALLY met me, until now. It was Facebook, imagine that? Facebook brought us full circle and provided the opportunity for us to finally connect, and connect we certainly did! If there was one person that was ever doubtful of the usefulness and authenticity of Facebook (and social media in general), that was me. But I certainly have put those feelings and thoughts aside. Yes, we unfortunately hear the odd horror stories, but something as special and unique as this, has made me a firm believer of the benefits of social media. And to think I waited this long to join Facebook. What else would, or could have happened if I jumped aboard sooner? Life is certainly full of surprises!

Look familiar? Much like Ray and Jenn, we were getting
married almost at the same time and location.
Who would have known?

Post Script: After getting their permission to share this story, I personally spoke to Ray to get some more details. Here's another kicker. We both planned to get engaged at the 'peak' of something, on a canoe trip no less. Anita and I, on the highest point of Ontario, Ishpatina Ridge. Ray was originally going to propose on top of Silver Peak, (Killarney PP), but due to getting a dog the week before, couldn't go on a canoe trip with their new young Burnese Mountain Dog. So instead, got engaged to Jenn at the peak of the Lookout Trail in Algonquin. Oh, and one more thing. I almost had a coronary when I found this one out. I failed to ask them which year they got married, as I was so scattered brained when I found out we practically got married on the same day. Yup, the same damn year! 2012!!!! (Excuse me, I think I'm going to faint!)

PS. A big thanks to Visual Roots Photography for allowing us
to showcase their lovely photos. Check them
out. They are paddlers too!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Getting Familiar With A Dog On A Canoe Trip

I am nowhere as comfortable, as I am out in
the wilderness on a canoe trip. 

As humans, many of us like familiarity. It makes us feel comfortable and secure, knowing there is no surprises. As much as I totally agree with the previous statement, at times, I like change. A disruption to the normal sequence of things. Not a rule of thumb, but sometimes, these changes can enrich one's life.

 I've canoed since I was a kid. The odd trip here and there, where I got to head out and enjoy being out in the wilderness. That was then. Now, I've taken it up a notch or two, and the trips have become a significantly bigger part of my life. I now head out on a dozen or more canoe trips per year, spending easily over 2 months out in the bush on various types of trips. Times have changed.

Whether portaging a canoe, or paddling a river, these are
things that are very familiar to me.

For many years, I've headed out with others, or on my own. The process for preparing and executing the trip was routine, the only difference being the type of trip (flatwater vs moving water) or the location. Even then, it was pretty straight forward - paddle, portage, set up camp and do the routine all over again. Of course I am simplifying the whole process, as there is lots more that goes on in between, but you get the idea. I enjoyed this routine - it was predictable and straightforward. Well, that routine got a huge disruption when I got married. No, not because of my wife, but because of what came with her - two dogs.

With my wife came two dogs - Toby and Teddy.

The dogs have caused a huge disruption in my paddling life. Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. Maybe not huge, but significantly. The two dogs are poodles, one a black toy, and the other, a miniature red. I mean, the first thing I had to do, was befriend them. Make them feel like I was a part of THEIR family. That is a whole story in and of itself. Once I did that, (Meaning they didn't bark at me when I came home.) we moved on to the next phase, one of which was taking them on a canoe trip. First off, Toby, the toy black poodle, which my wife refers to as the "old man", was not given the green light. He is 12 years old, and the physical rigours of the canoe trips I plan, would not be conducive to his health. Thus, he was relegated to staying at the in-laws when we went. I'm sure he didn't mind, as he was good at conning my mother-in-law into giving him treats.

So there was the first disruption. Every trip, unless solo, had to involve the extra drive to the in-laws. Just thankful they were willing to look after Toby, it still meant a visit before, and after the trip. So now, only one dog would be accompanying us. If I thought taking only one dog would significantly lessen the disruption to my routine, I'd be the first to tell you. But no, in essence, it hardly does. All the things you need to do and prepare for the one dog, would be the same for two or three, you just multiply the quantity by the additional canines.

Surprisingly, Teddy took to the canoe easily and was a 
trooper even in less than ideal conditions.

My wife is very experienced with dogs, having many, and multiples at a time. The only thing new, was taking a dog on a canoe trip. Naturally, my wife took the lead in this to assure Teddy's first canoe trip would be safe and enjoyable.  It was a bit of a learning curve for sure, but it slowly came together. One of the first things we had to do was get Teddy a float coat (aka life jacket). Now that initiated an interesting discussion. Like, don't all dogs swim?! I soon found out not all dogs do; well, in a nutshell they all do, but not all very well. So, like us humans that don't swim, or even the ones that do, we need life jackets for safety. Plus, I had to consider other factors, such as, what if the distance to shore is significant, or the cold water is debilitating, or you are dealing with a strong current. As those factors can affect us, they are the same for a dog. So fine, he got a float coat.

The float coat came in real handy when Teddy fell out of
the canoe for the first time. The problem
was, it wasn't his last!

With the float coat, you'd think there wasn't anything more to worry about, but that's only if the dog stays in the canoe. For the most part, Teddy is actually pretty good. He usually finds a comfortable place on the pack and lays down. However, occasionally he wants to be closer to water, with his paws literally on the gunwales. I could tell my wife was nervous, as she often looked back from her bow seat. I didn't think it was a big deal, as I figured he was just curious about his surroundings, but one day, he slipped in! Sure, the odd slip is tolerable, but if it happens regularly, it can be a real annoyance. Besides soaking all your gear, and getting you wet as the dog shakes, you have to stop the canoe, turn around and pull him out. You'd think he would learn his lesson after the first dump, as he doesn't even like water, but nope! Guess whose job it is to keep him back now? Yup, I have another role to play, other than sterning the canoe. Sergeant-at-arms, plus, the coast guard when he goes into the drink. Three times and counting. I still question my wife when she says poodles are one of the smartest breeds of dogs.

Folks, I really need a better raincoat.

Now THAT'S better!

Once off the water, at camp or on the portage, there was another concern. My wife and I were worried that Teddy would run off into the woods. Surprisingly, he pretty much stays hot on our heels. In fact, while on the portage, he runs ahead, acting as a scout, then behind us, as a bodyguard, all the while, keeping a close eye on us. (From imminent attack by the local evil squirrels.) He was easy to call back, most often by my wife's bidding, so our fears were quickly allayed. However, one issue with the dog we didn't expect, was with bugs. Black flies in particular. Outside, no problem, as we all get 'bugged', but when it was time for us to go into the tent, all hell broke loose. Black flies get caught up in Teddy's curls, as they work their way down to his skin, but as soon as he is inside the tent, they seem to want out. Quite literally in droves, they exit his hair for the open space of the tent - and us. It literally becomes a wholesale slaughter as we try to kill them all. How's that for excitement? Especially when you try so hard to keep them out in the first place. I won't even mention red finger-painting art deco that now adorns the inside of the tent.

With the 'big red beacon' ahead, it wasn't
difficult for Teddy to follow.

Speaking of inside the tent, that's another issue. Teddy often gets dressed with some warm clothing at night, particularly if it is early or late in the season. He even gets a blanket too, to sleep on, or be covered. You'd think he would by mindful of my personal space and stick with the stuff he's given, but lo and behold, when I come into the tent, he is nicely curled up on either my stuff or my sleeping bag. Being closer to my wife, wouldn't he want to lay on her things? She tells me that that's how Teddy is showing his affection to me, which I have a hard time believing. So, not only do I have to sometimes deal with a wet and dirty dog on my sleeping bag, but compete with him for sleeping space! Did I mention he sometimes moves during the night - between my legs, next to me, or between my wife and I? I can't win. Oh, and guess who wakes up first? It's one thing waking up to your wife smothering you with kisses, something entirely different if it's the wet tongue of your dog trying to wake you up.

Teddy's favourite part of the trip was getting
extra special morsels with his kibbles.

Well, it's now been a full year of tripping with my dog, and boy has he gotten quite the introduction. He's been out in a canoe on every conceivable body of water, on half a dozen trips over the course of 31 days! He has come a long ways in his inaugural year, but he still fails to recognize lakes as the biggest bowl of fresh water available to him, or that he still can't go through mesh tent doors. He's also gotten swallowed up by mud on a portage, fallen into the water thinking he could rock climb, and mistaken foam on the water as solid ground, but thankfully, has survived the year pretty much intact. Even I will admit, he did exceptionally well.

One thing Teddy does better than my wife first thing
in the morning is lather me with kisses.

 Sure, he's given us some big headaches along the way, but despite them all, having Teddy with us has been hugely positive. He has certainly taught me to be more patient and understanding, and more importantly, to appreciate and enjoy the interactions between us, the dog, and the environment. What's not to love about a devoted four-legged companion that often makes me laugh and ensures nothing is routine? I acknowledge my dog has forever changed my familiarity with canoe tripping, but in time, those disruptions will become routine too. I know change can sometimes be tough to deal with, or even accept. But if you make the effort to the see the other side of the coin, you just may be surprised - much like I was. I haven't given up the title to my sleeping bag yet, but Teddy has certainly earned his place in my canoe.

Teddy has now become a bona fide canoe dog, and me,
a sucker that admits to enjoy having him
along on my trips!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

180 Stove Review - Part 2

The simple, but highly recommended snow/ash tray.
(Sorry, obviously WELL used!)

Before I talk about performance, I want to talk about the snow/ash tray. No, you don't need it, but would I recommend it? Totally. Yes, it is more weight, but the features totally out weigh the extra grams. It's simply two equal pieces that slot into each other and perfectly form the base of the 180 Stove. (Works with the 180VL Stove too!) The other great thing is, the size of each piece is approximately the same as the sides of the 180 Stove, therefore easily packs together. I've seen other twig stove trays, but they just don't nestle as well as this one. It's obvious the priority of pack-ability was foremost in the simple but effective design - nice.

The snow/ash tray serves two main functions, portability and environmental stewardship. In regards to portability, it allows you to move the stove wherever, or whenever you need, based on conditions. Whether in wind or rain, I was easily able to move it under cover, or to an area with a wind block - all the while, with the fire still burning. (Of course, extreme care is needed!) Or how about cooking from a nice vantage point? How often do you get to decide where the kitchen is, in regards to the fire pit? To take advantage of a nice view over-looking the lake, or in front of the setting sun, you can do that with a snow/ash tray and your 180 Stove. Plus, it can be that small intimate 'fireplace' after supper. It will literally go wherever you need it to go. 

First it was the wind, then the rain. No problem. We just
moved it under the tarp, which protected it from
both, and voilĂ , fixed!

Then there is the environmental stewardship factor, for a lack of a simpler word. The tray is used to contain the ashes and keep it from making a mess. I don't think I need to expound any more in regards to this obvious concept. The tray simply contains the ash, and you dispose of the it in a prudent manner. The other issue which is a bit of a thorn in my side, is the damage caused underneath the tray. The tray does NOT prevent heat transfer. You will most likely scorch the soil underneath after using the stove. I know people have stated that you can dig a depression and then cover it afterwards, which I've done many times myself, but I'm not convinced any more. If you cook in the same spot for an extended period of time, you will most likely kill everything alive below and prevent anything from growing there for some time. Just imagine a dog park with splotches of dead areas around. Sure, I'm exaggerating the point, but I think you get the idea. I've decided now to either use the 180 Stove (or any other twig stove for that matter) in the fire pit sans tray, or on non-combustible surfaces such as rocks, pebbles, or sand, with the tray. This will prevent unsightly blackened areas all around, and protect the environment around us that is teeming with life, even though we may not always be able to see it. I figure there is enough damage being done on camp sites, that every little thing helps.

 One last thing, particularly in a dry season. If you use the stove without the tray and decide to dig down, be very aware of the possibility of an underground fire 'taking root' from humus, or a root itself. I've seen this happen once from a fire pit, and I was relieved that we found it the the next morning before we left camp. You may confidently douse the area with water, but with underground fires, it could well be far from the original area and burst into flames in a different location when you are long gone. This is another big reason for having a tray and using it atop non-combustible material. It goes without saying, be mindful and safe.

I'm sure you'll agree, it is better throwing the ashes out of
sight in the bush, then under these nice stones.

So, the biggest question remains, how does it perform? The answer is not so simple - it actually depends. The reason I say that, is because it depends on a few factors, but namely what you place on top of the stove. If the pot is small, and there are open gaps around the pot, the fire will continue in its intensity. The problem is, if the pot is big and it covers the entire surface, your fire will be stifled due to the lack of air flow. The best way for you to visualize this is, to think of your fireplace at home. Before you light the fire, you have to ensure your damper is open. Why? Because when you light the fire, the hot combusted gases have to go somewhere, which is up. (Remember, hot air rises.) As the hot air moves up, fresh air moves in from the surrounding room and feeds the combustion process by providing fresh oxygen. If you close the damper, not only will you have smoke flooding the room, the intensity of the fire will diminish because there is a chaos between hot air trying to exit upward (Which it can't.) and fresh air trying to move in from below (Which it can't as well, since hot air above is having a hard time leaving.). The fire will continue, but just not as efficiently as if the damper was open. The 180 Stove, or any wood stove for that matter, works on the same principle. Hence, why I say the answer to the question isn't so cut and dry.

I used this stove many times under varying conditions. It wasn't always bad, despite using a big pot. There are actually ways to work around the problem. If there is a mild breeze to 'force feed' air, that helped the issue significantly. However, you can't control the wind, nor the intensity, so it is out of your control and not reliable. You could also use wood in small quantities. Too much wood and again, you stifle the little air flow you have. Problem is, more effort is needed to get/process smaller pieces of wood, and your fire will never be as big or hot. Lastly, using absolutely dry wood - which sounds like a no-brainer, but has more relevance here. Since less air is moving, wood will not burn as efficiently, particularly if it has a bit of moisture to deal with. However, if the air flow increases, even slightly damp wood will burn well. (Think, blowing into the fire.) Oh, one other thing, the small pot scenario. If you are solo, sure. If you have more people and lots of time, sure. I think you get the idea, but it may not always be practical. So, the stove does work, but not as good as it could, and better under certain circumstances.  

Here's a fire pit we found one day at camp. If I wanted to cook 
over a fire, I would have to do a major clean up, 
then rebuild the fire pit to cook.....

.....or, as we did, take out the 180 Stove, find a nice spot
(Meaning clean, level, AND comfortable),  and
proceed to cook supper. Yup, I'll 
take option 2!

One other point that I'd like to make, that affects performance too, is the method of introducing combustibles into the stove. All twig stoves I've used prior, involve putting things in through the top. This method, while it works, has its drawbacks. It isn't easy to see the fire with the pot over the top, and putting things in often times suppresses the flames. If you only use small pieces and in measured intervals, it will minimize this, otherwise, you will go through cycles of a crazy burn, then a suppressed burn. The reason I love the side entry is, is that you can see the fire and how it is burning. Thus, you can add to it where and when you need. Sure, you will have similar heat intervals, but it is much easier to control and minimize, since you can monitor your flame. I'm all about side entry. (Hmmm, that didn't sound right.)

In regards to the performance issue, there is an easy remedy to this problem. All it needs, is elevated cross-members that will lift the pot about an couple centimetres. Through some tests and trials out in the bush, once I had the pot lifted, the fire easily regained it's intensity, and the heat output significantly increased. This crucial air gap, is the key to good air flow, since the hot gases has a place to exit. As mentioned before, it's quite simple - good air flow equals good fire. Trust me, I was really rooting for this stove as I love so many things about it, but it needs a bit of a tweak to ensure this good stove becomes a great stove. I will definitely be making recommendation to the company and hopefully they will determine the best course of action in the future. I just know, if they adopt an 'improved design', I guarantee, I'll be the first in line to purchase one. In conclusion, my recommendations to purchasing one still stands, but with a caveat. Knowing this may not exactly solve the problem, but help you deal with it and still make it a very usable stove.

Cooking with the 180 Stove alongside the more traditional 
method. As you can see, my friend had to use
more wood than us.

In regards to purchasing one, here's another reason to get one. They are reasonably priced, even though they are made locally in the US. At $46.95US, where else can you find a dependable stove at that price that will likely last you a lifetime? You will not only have a great product, but support a domestic company that strives to keep sustainability and reliability as a priority. You can order directly through the company at 180 Tack ( or from Canada from an on-line retailer - Surprisingly, they are priced there at $47.99 CAN! Unfortunately it shows they are out of stock at the moment, but at that price, it's probably obvious why they sold out!

The new trend of outdoor gear is alive and well. With products that get you out there, and help not only the environment, but your pocket as well, definitely deserves your attention. The 180 Stove is one of them. I may still have a white gas stove, but when I head out into the bush, it's the twig stove I turned to first.
Will you?

With the 180 Stove and the snow/ash tray, you 
decide where to have the fire, not
 the other way around.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

180 Stove Review - Part 1

Cooking over a fire is nothing new. A skill worth having, but
just comes down to whether you want to or not.

I've come a long ways in the art of cooking over a fire. I use to exclusively cook with a white gas stove for many years, but have now developed a love for cooking over an open flame. Although it is not an essential skill, it is definitely a practical one worth acquiring, as it can be useful when your stove malfunctions, or you unexpectedly run out of fuel. Cooking over a fire is nothing new, as it has been employed for eons, but there has been a resurgence of a similar open fire method - cooking using a twig stove.

I'm not sure as to the primary reason behind the rise of twig stoves, as I've seen many variations and styles recently. But there certainly are reasons to justify it's purpose, usefulness and popularity. First off, it's environmentally friendly. You use a lot less wood to cook with a twig stove, than a grill over a fire pit. The flame is contained in a smaller area and directed straight beneath the pot, thus efficiently utilizing the concentrated heat. It is also much more wind resistant, first due to the sides of the stove encircling the fire, and secondly, because you can place the stove wherever you want. But most importantly, the stove doesn't require you to harvest big pieces of wood. The fuel is practically all around you on the ground - from twigs, pine cones, bark, and even moose droppings! This goes a long way in not only eliminating your reliance on fossil fuels, but also all the energy spent extracting, refining, and having it shipped to you. You just gather and utilize the fuel around you, while leaving the other form behind, so it can be recycled naturally.

The 180 Stove - one of many new designs of twig
stoves that have recently emerged.

There are also the financial implications. Twig stoves generally cost less than most gas stoves, whether white gas or ones that use pressurized gas canisters. There is also the cost of gas itself. With the upswing in the cost of energy, all it's other forms derived from oil have come up in price too. You can't save anymore money than what nature provides for free. Besides, who doesn't want more money in their pocket?

Then there are the practical reasons. Twig stoves are fairly simple designs that are usually made of very durable material - such as stainless steel and titanium. Not only will they most likely last a lifetime, but are fairly light too, easily the equivalent of other types of stoves, and quite often less. Talking about weight, as you don't have to carry fuel with you, that's where you will really notice a difference. No fuel AND fuel container(s) means less weight (and space) on your back when you are portaging. 

Why pay for fuel which nature provides for free?

One other big benefit to a twig stove, is its simple design that has no moving parts. Not that the twig stove can't be broken, (Usually due to carelessness or neglect.) but if it is looked after, you'll probably never have to deal with a repair or breakdown ever. That means more weight savings, as you won't even have to take a stove repair kit as well. These stoves really are a 'buy once, last forever' type of equipment that you can't go wrong with.

Well, I've had several opportunities to try different twig stoves over the years, but recently, I came upon another type that caught my attention - the 180 Stove. From what I could see, I liked many of its features, and was really curious about how well it performed. I sent an email to the owners to see if I could review it. They were more than happy to accommodate, and not only sent me the 180 stove, but the even smaller and lighter 180VL stove plus the snow and ash tray too! How do you like that? As you can imagine, I was eagerly looking forward to getting it and trying it out. 

The lighter and more compact 180 VL Stove. Have
your cake and eat it too!

Last year, I had the opportunity to take the 180 Stove with me on a half a dozen trips over 46 days. I think it's obvious I put the 180 Stove to good use. With this much time spent using the stove, I was able to get a good feel for its performance and design, and provide an objective review of it. There was many things I loved about the stove, but I did find one issue that detracted from it's great design. The good news is, that it can easily be remedied with some small changes. But before we get into that, let's talk about all the good points.

This stove is made of 24 gauge, high quality 304 (18/8) stainless steel. (In short, really good quality stainless steel.) Sure, it can be lighter if made of titanium, but it is a nice compromise between cost and weight. However, if weight is an issue, this is somewhat addressed with a sister design which I will mention later on. Although there isn't an option for titanium, you can't go wrong with good quality stainless steel. These stoves are built to last. No corrosion, pitting, and minimal warping. It is as durable as they come. The only thing you'll see change, is the usual scorch/sooty marks after they are first used. Other than that, they are guaranteed to last for many years of use.

You can't go wrong with good quality 18/8 stainless steel
for a twig stove. A good compromise between
weight, cost, and durability.

The design of the stove is my favourite. Reminds me of a little wood stove. Simply 3 sides, and three cross members atop to hold everything together rock-solid. And I mean rock solid. This stove easily handles a big heavy pot and you'll experience very little movement. The other good thing about this design is that the whole set-up is low to the ground - a low center of gravity if you want to call it that. This assures that there is little chance the pot (and stove) will tip over, unlike many others which have a more traditional vertical design that are more prone to tipping. The 180 VL Stove is a bit different as it has a triangular design to save weight. Therefore it has only 2 sides and 2 cross-members, reducing the footprint and therefore the size of pots you can place on top. Therefore, the VL version is more suited to solo trippers that are looking for the lightest and most compact stove, or trippers that don't mind compromising weight for functionality. Just be mindful, that some of the features of one versus the other don't necessarily cross over. 

Weight is a big thing these days when it comes to outdoor excursions. Although paddlers are not as weight conscious as backpackers, we certainly do take it into account, especially when trips involve a lot of portages. In either case, you won't be disappointed. The 180 Stove only weighs 286 grams, whereas as the smaller 180 VL Stove weighs in at a miserly 167 grams! That is pretty darn light! As a comparison, my favourite white gas stove, the MSR Dragonfly weighs 365g, not including the fuel bottle. Other highly regarded multi-fuel stoves weigh even more, so it is no rocket science as to the numbers. You can't go wrong in this department. On a side note, I also take the ash/snow tray, which adds another 167g, which of course negates the weigh savings and brings it closer to the weight of a gas stove and empty fuel bottle, but as you know, you don't need one to use it. I'll speak more about this further on.

Who doesn't want a compact stove for packing? Not only does
the 180 Stove pack small, but is not susceptible
 to damage when packed either!

Lastly, the 180 Stove packs down pretty compact. When disassembled and strapped together, you have a physical footprint of 17.8cm(L)x8.3cm(W)x1.5cm(H). Know of any gas stove or twig stoves that pack down this small? I didn't think so. And the other amazing thing to this pack form is, is that it is as durable in this arrangement as it is when set-up! No need to worry about damaging it at all. Rigid and compact, you can easily slide it into a small space or crevice in your pack or barrel without worry. This is an smart design that you won't have to worry about pulling your stove out in more pieces than it came with.

Part 2 Coming soon!