Articles in this category provide a lighthearted and whimsical view of wilderness related topics. Entertainment is clearly in the eyes of the beholder. By entertaining, I do not mean these articles will entertain you, but rather that they entertain me, which frankly is way more important.
Other serious researchers have explored the magnetic sensitivity of various animals, including migrating birds and rodent-hunting red foxes. Even cows and deer have shown a preference for north/south orientation.
So what exactly did this Czech Republic/German study find?
Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North-South axis under calm MF [magnetic field] conditions.
They do, they do indeed.
This directional behavior was abolished under Unstable MF [magnetic field]. The best predictor of the behavioral switch was the rate of change in declination, i.e., polar orientation of the MF.
After observing backpackers struggle for years with compass orientation, I am absolutely astonished that dogs can not only calculate declination, but can actually detect small changes in it. Let’s see, for 17 degrees westing, do I subtract or add that to the heading? It’s gotta be add, right? 17 plus 354, that’s like what 371 degrees? Wait it can’t be more than 360, so… oh, doggy excrement!
Besides revealing their incredible math skills, what’s the big deal about compass dogs? According to this latest report, it is all about availability:
Dogs are widely available experimental subjects all over the world and can easily be trained to react on diverse sensory stimuli.
Clearly they don’t mind defecating in public, plus many show a willingness to eat their own poop. Perfect for this study. So how serious was this research? How’s this for commitment:
We measured the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period.
In order to appreciate the scope of this effort, I conducted research on my own three cats. Ninety-seven percent (97%) of the time my cat’s prefer to poop unobserved, most likely in the neighbors yard. When trapped indoors, regardless whether the litter box was oriented on a North-South or East-West axis, they manage to fling all the litter onto the laundry room floor. I trust this puts to rest any questions regarding my contribution to science.
Given the nature of this magnetic study on dog defecation and urination, it may prove difficult to maintain a straight face while reviewing. I tested myself by reading the entire study, and frankly struggled in a few sections:
The direction (u) and length (r) of the (grand) mean vector and the p-value of the Rayleigh uniformity test as well as the sample size are given next to each diagram.
P-value? Sample size? In the same sentence?
Pooling is justified in this case because samples for respective dogs have comparable sizes.
And here I thought pooling was the expected result of urination. And apparently sample size does matter… so lay it out there big fella.
Navigation in the wilderness can be quite a challenge, so help of any kind would be greatly appreciated. Exactly how dependable at navigation are man’s best (and becoming even “bester”) friends? The research shows dogs are only good at it when the magnetic field is calm. I’ve personally never felt a magnetic storm, so its gotta be calm most of the time, right? Well it turns out:
MF is calm only about 20% of the daylight period.
Bummer. I am not great at math, but I think that means dogs would be wrong something like 80% of the time. Coincidentally, that is about the average rate of error for most backpackers using a compass. Is there any good news in this study?
Typically, the daily declination comprises westward-shifts in the morning and eastward-shifts in the afternoon, while the magnetic field is rather stable at night.
Great, while I am in my tent thrashing through nightmares about which direction to travel in the morning, the dog’s out pooping directions in the dark. If I brought my cats, I could at least figure out which way it is to my neighbor’s yard.
Legend has it ancient map makers feared white space. Every gap revealed a cartographer’s lapse in geographic knowledge. And like London Underground passengers, mind the gap they did indeed. Artwork became a form of cartographer’s spackle, filling in those unsightly and embarrassing holes.
Not exactly sure what’s out there? Quick doodle a giant elephant, a sea serpent, or better yet a really cool dragon. No gap means: relax I’ve got this map covered. A scary monster means: don’t even think of going there to prove me wrong.
Cartographers with sketchy sketching skills simply wrote HC SVNT DRACONES, which in Latin means Here Be Dragons. In English it means your fingers are probably not lined up on the keyboard. Here be Dragons went on to become the standard way cartographers indicate “terra incognita” or “land unknown.”
This particular legend has a characteristic common with many legends. Namely, it is untrue. Oh yes, there were real and mythical creatures drawn on maps, but apparently only one marked HC SVNT DRACONES. Written, or perhaps mistyped, HC SVNT DRACONES appears on the 1510 Hunt-Lenox Globe near the eastern coast of Asia. As cool as Here Be Dragons sounds, it was unfortunately not a mappers standard. What a drag for the dragons.
Ironically, what cartographers abhor, adventurous backpackers adore – terra incognita. Given advanced satellite imagery and Google Earth delivery, it is hard to imagine what on earth still qualifies as terra incognita. Not only has Google created a world of interactive street views, they have strapped cameras on hikers enabling trail views as well. Okay, so the entire planet has been selfied. Boring. Short of sporting a winter balaclava, how can an adventurous backpacker feel anything remotely incognita?
Well let’s not forget there are plenty of remote wilderness areas, small and large, with no mapped trails. If you can’t actually order up a tectonic plate of terra incognita, perhaps you can at least wander in for a reasonable entre of “vestigia incognita”, or “tracks unknown.” Off trail, cross country, bush-wack, off grid, or vestiga incognita. Regardless what you call it, getting off the trail may be as incognita as you are going to get.
John Muir loved to wander trail-less in the wilderness. Ironically, so famous for that was he that a 210 mile trail now bears his name. This John Muir Trail however, has become so popular that it feels a bit more highway than my-way. It reminds me of the Yogi Berra quote: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” At times I feel like one of those nobodies. And frankly, backpacking nobodies like to see, well nobody.
As an alternative to the John Muir Trail, rock climber and outdoor adventurer Steve Roper describes the Sierra High Route. This should not to be confused with the High Sierra Trail which, though spectacular, is yet another established trail. Roper’s Sierra High Route is not a trail but rather a suggestion. It is roughly 200 miles in length, though your mileage may vary and batteries are clearly not included. Roper’s route guides you on and off the topographic maps of Kings Canyon, Mono Divide, Mammoth, Yosemite, and Hoover Wilderness. Roper went out of his way not to define a specific trail. Doing so would be like taking an ancient map and erasing all the dragons.
There are adventurous dragon-free trails, such as the Appalachian Trail (AT) or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) where backpackers can navigate with merely an elevation profile. These well worn trails are reasonable enough to follow, if you just have the marathon willpower to keep placing one foot in front of the other, for months at a time. What these trodding thru-hikers likely want to know is: How much up and down today? Where’s the next water? How far to my campsite? Rarely are thru-hikers in the truly dragon-infested land of the lost. Lost to them usually means being spun around, heading blissfully down the trail in the wrong direction. It is quite amazing how different a trail appears when traveled in reverse.
Traveling vestigia incognita, however, requires additional skills to root out the route. With no trail or tracks as guides, you must translate map contours to the canyons, peaks and passes before you. This navigational art and science is also a game. And like other games, you do not always win. Be prepared for the defeat known as being boxed-in or cliffed-out. Retreat, regroup, and counter attack are necessary strategies and frankly half the fun.
To some the frustration of not knowing exactly where you are, or where to step next, can be a total drag. Those willing to walk off the trail and amongst the mythical beasts, however, are more likely to say: Bring the drag on!
Without a doubt elevation gain can do some pretty nasty things to your body. Most outdoor adventures have heard of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness. It can cause severe headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Fluids accumulating in tissue, known as edema, can make a bad situation worse, much worse. If fluid builds in the lungs it is known as HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. When it accumulates in the brain, it is known as HACE – High Altitude Cerebral Edema. Both HAPE and HACE are potentially lethal, requiring immediate medical attention.
Given the life threatening seriousness of HACE and HAPE, it feels somehow inappropriate to worry about HAFE. But should a legitimate altitude caused affliction be completely ignored simply because there are other afflictions even worse? That’s like saying you can’t hate the Red Sox because there are Yankees. Ridiculous, right?
Public awareness of HAFE varies depending on whether you or someone close to you has suffered from it. By close I mean anything less than about 15 feet. Let’s face it, HAFE stinks. I mean literally. HAFE stands for High Altitude Flatus Expulsion. No I am not making this up! Look it up.
Paul Auerbach, MD and York E Miller, MD submitted their observations to the Western Journal of Medicine. In it they wrote:
“The syndrome is strictly associated with assent…
I had to read that several times to make sure it wasn’t some kind of a pun. I’m pretty sure it is. In fact, it may be two.
“… and is characterized by an increase in both the volume and frequency of the passage of flatus, which spontaneous occurs while climbing to altitudes of 11,000 feet or greater.”
So I guess at 10,999 feet you really have no excuse.
“The use of digestive enzymes and simethicone may minimize the hazard.”
May minimize? Doctors, we really need some answers here. I smell someone not taking this seriously enough.
“At present, we can advise victims that the offense is more sociologic than physiologic.”
I am not sure what pseudo-logic Dr. Paul and Dr. York are prescribing, but according to my spell checker sociologic is not even an actual word. My dictionary defines physiological as “characteristic of normal, healthy functioning”. In other words, paraphrasing the doctors:
The offense is more something that does not exist than it is characteristic of normal healthy functioning
That seems about right, I think. One thing I do know is that victims are often so ashamed of this abnormal act that they resort to deceit. Regardless of what your climbing companions are telling you, there are no such thing as Rocky Mountain Barking Spiders.
What to do?
Like both HAPE and HACE, HAFE appears to be caused by excessive and rapid altitude assent. To reverse the symptoms, descent is usually the best option. Yes I agree, descent is a very appropriate pun. If descent is not possible, then you are going to have to find a way to weather this storm. I recommend using the lightening storm safety model: spread out! No sense in everyone getting caught up in friendly fire.
Your other option, of course, is to always travel below 11,000 feet. If you do, however, find yourself still being productive at lower elevations, you are going to have to come up with something better than Barking Spiders.
The word backpacking means carrying all your belongings on your back. The word by itself, however, does not really tell the entire story. For example backpacking in the backcountry is very different than backpacking in the frontcountry. It could mean the difference between:
hiking 20 miles and sleeping on the ground in the Desolation Wilderness
riding 9 hours on a Eurail train and sleeping on a hostel bunk in Spain
To keep things straight, we need to pack more meaning into our backpacking words. As a service to the confused, I offer my own repackaged definitions of common backpacking terms, uncommon terms, and terms that don’t really exist but should.
Wilderness Backpacking:Carrying on your back all the necessary food and gear to be self-sustaining and self-righteous in the wilderness.
Urban Backpacking: Using a backpack as a suitcase, but otherwise traveling by planes, trains and automobiles. Also known as “Seriously, this is not really backpacking.”
Thru-Hiking: The process of hiking a very long trail from end to end. The term typically applies to the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The hiking term may be confusing if it suggests this can be done without staying out overnight. Thru-backpacking actually makes more sense, but thru-hiking is the term used.
Ultralight Backpacking: Wilderness backpacking with a base weight under 10 pounds. This usually involves giving up traditional comforts such as a tent, a stove, and a change of underwear. Ultralight backpackers value “miles” over “smiles.”
Less Common Terms:
Super-Ultralight Backpacking (SUL): Wilderness backpacking with a base weight under 5 pounds. Seriously?
Extreme-Ultralight Backpacking (XUL): Wilderness backpacking with a base weight under 3 pounds. Oh this is just ridiculous
Fastpacking: Backpacking for speed. Combine ultralight with trail running shoes. Now get going, you’re wasting time!
Slackpacking: Hiking wilderness trails, but being easily distracted by comfort. A slackpacker may day hike between hotels to avoid sleeping on the ground. Slackpackers are often found in pubs discussing the wonders of the great outdoors. They appear conflicted when offered a choice between eating on the patio or indoors.
Flashpacking: No this does not involve exposing private parts. Flashpacking is upscale backpacking. Flashpackers have larger budgets which they gladly use for gadgets and comfort. Urban flashpackers stay in fancy hotels and eat in high end restaurants. Wilderness flashpackers carry the latest technology such as a solar charged smartphone, mapping GPS, fully loaded eReader, and an emergency beacon to summons technical support.
Fatpacking: A marketing term used by Fatpacking.com to mean backpacking with the intent of becoming NOT fat.
Fitpacking: A marketing term used by Fitpacking.com to mean backpacking with the intent of becoming NOT NOT fit. In the name of semi-transparency, I have guided for both Fatpacking and Fitpacking, but only because they are in fact one and the same. I imagine that Fatpacking gets more media interest, but Fitpacking is probably what most customers tell their friends they are doing.
Terms That Don’t Exist But Should:
Snackpacking: Backpacking without any cookware or stove. Snackpackers typically survive on cases of melted Snickers bars from Costco.
Meatpacking: Backpacking with carnivores. Vegetables? We don’t need no stinking vegetables.
Ratpacking: Backpacking without any clear understanding of what should be left at home.
Plaquepacking: A form of ultralight backpacking where the participant can no longer cut off any more of his toothbrush handle, so he simply leaves the dang thing home.
Statpacking: Backpacking with the goal of increasing your impressive statistics, such as: peaks bagged, famous trails conquered, and family birthdays completely forgotten.
Tracepacking: The opposite of leave no trace packing. Tracepacking typically involves burning foil wrappers and cans in the campfire.
Flatpacking: Intentionally backpacking in areas with little elevation change. Florida is a prime location for flatpacking. Himalayas, not so much.
Quackpacking: Backpacking with certified Wilderness First Responders.
Flackpacking: Backpacking with people who share no interest in food planning or preparation, yet manage to share observations regarding results.
Yackpacking: Backpacking with parents of genetically gifted children who will not shut up already!
Smackpacking: The results of backpacking with someone yackpacking.
Wackpacking: Escalation from smackpacking. Also known as Sicilian backpacking.
Backunpacking:The process of opening gear and releasing the unmistakeable odors of a backpacking trip.
ThroughHiking: Similar to thru-hiking, but shorter. A lot shorter.
Readily available technology, known as photo stitching, is allowing casual photographers to easily create amazing images. The technical terms used vary by vendor, but to the lay person they end up sounding pretty much like:
Really cool 3D virtual reality things you can spin around in and look at everything from your feet to directly over your head.
If you have not yet seen this technology, you should. Like the Street View in Google Maps, you can slip into a 3D virtual bubble and look around. But rather than being of popular street locations driven by a Google car, these are micro bubbles usually created by individuals in strange or remote locations. They can be inside a museum, an office building, or be deep in the wilderness.
For backpack planning, the possibilities are intriguing. My middle son loves to backpack but prefers solid granite to lose shale, and he wants inviting water features such as cascades and falls. A quick pop into a virtual bubble gives us a realistic view of the surroundings. Google Earth provides us high level visualization, but these photo stitches are micro level.
How Are Photo Stitches Created?
On a Yosemite backpacking trip we were resting near a wooden bridge which spans the Merced river. A man approached and sat down on the other side of the river, apparently waiting. For what we had no idea. Our powers of laziness far exceeded his powers of patience, and he eventually resigned himself to our continued presence. He ambled onto the center of the bridge, pulled out his smart phone, and began taking a series of photos in an arching and overlapping pattern.
Well, we were in stitches. That’s not to say we were laughing, though we might have been, but we were being stitched, as in photo stitched. Once I realized, I apologized for ruining his visual knitting. He simply smiled and said he was using Microsoft‘s Photosynth™ application. He went on to say that in about a month we should go to Bing Maps, find this bridge, and there find a 3D panorama of us on our lazy rear ends. Okay, I added that rear ends part.
Frankly, I was not sure I could remember my name in a month’s time, let alone to come to this bridge on Microsoft’s Bing Maps. Apparently, the thought of seeing myself sprawled for eternity in a virtual wilderness wonderland was powerful indeed. For I did remember to come. I found the bridge and spun myself around on it like a whirling dervish. I zoomed in and out and eventually landed on my chillaxing virtual self. I marveled. Not at the amazing technology, but rather at how happy and relaxed I seemed.
And yet I somehow also felt violated. There I was, happy to be in a place I had worked so hard to reach. Nearing the end of what had been 2 weeks of rigorous backpacking, I was marveling at the raw beauty. Much of my thrill, I now admit, coming from the realization that very few people in the world have ever seen this place. And of those who have, they certainly earned it… made painfully clear by the sweat on their brows, and a little less clear in other places.
Mousing around in my virtual wilderness, I realize that every common sofa spud within an arms reach of a computer can now come play here too. Not only can they see what I saw without any effort, but they can do so with the smiling approval of virtual me! I click on virtual me in an attempt to make him protest: “You have to earn this!” But oblivious virtual me remains blissfully silent.
Upon further examination, however, I realize this virtual world is not an entirely accurate representation of what I worked so hard to see. For example, notice the legs to the right and below me. They are missing a torso and head. I am pretty sure I would have remembered that. The good news, however, is that in the lower left part of the frame, near the waters edge, there appears a head missing a torso and legs. This virtual slaughter house is made slightly worse by the realization the head is that of a woman and the legs are that of a man. I leave it to you to determine which, if either, is improved by the addition of the other.
So for now at least, if you want to see what actually exists in the wilderness, with heads and legs attached, you are going to have to get off the couch and work for it. But like most technologies, I am sure these virtual representations will continue to improve. In fact it might not be long before virtual me in the wilderness is able to see actual you on your couch. I’m thinking at that point you are going to want to turn the technology off, leaving me virtually alone.
To see the actual Bing Photosynth of the bridge follow the attached link. But while there, please remain quiet. I am clearly resting.
It seems during the biblical “wilderness of the wandering” six items could be found in the Sinaitic Tabernacle:
an ark – a gold overlaid chest of acacia wood
a table of shewbread – a gold overlaid bread board
a lampstand – a seven branched light stand
an alter of incense – gold overlaid alter / deodorizer
an alter of burnt offering – a bronze alter
a laver – a bronze basin
Personally I have done a fair amount of my own “wilderness wandering” and I too have found items. Such as:
a bag of tent stakes
a mosquito net head gear
a dirty wool sock
a walking stick
a set of earbuds
a change of plans note from Troop 60
Perhaps not quite as impressive, but certainly as mysterious to me. What meaning can I give to these apparent gifts to the wilderness gods? Who concludes, 26 miles from the trailhead, they suddenly no longer require the means to secure their tent to the ground? Or that mosquitoes should now have free reign to partake of blood from their neck and face?
On a recent trip my son and I came upon a strange shiny bolt, in very close proximity to a three rock duck. It is perhaps logical to conclude that the discoverer of the bolt, finding it of no particular personal value, constructed the monumental stone beacon in the hope of attracting the attention of the returning and frantic bolt loser. I suppose it could also be that the finder discovered three lost rocks, and placed the shiny bolt to call attention to them.
How do we decipher the intentions of what we find and more importantly how do we decide what, if anything, to do with these found items?
My natural tendency for obvious litter is to “pack it out”, in a pay it forward “leave no trace” manner. This pile of junk was discovered on a Yosemite trip, and packed out by a reasonably good Samaritan.
But hold on little doggie, is litter as easy to identify as we think?
According to the Bureau of Land Management:
Gathering or collecting historical or archaeological artifacts… on public lands is illegal. Violators may be prosecuted under a variety of federal laws. Vandalizing, defacing or removing scientific, cultural or historical items from sites is also prohibited.
On a Svalbard arctic expedition, we were informed that before us lay an historical whaling site, fully protected from disruption by penalty of law. Seriously? This pile of drums and junk?
In Joshua Tree National Park, we came upon a very similar pile of rusting food cans. Was it historical, or was I merely hysterical?
Some items in the wilderness are probablynot protected as historical. For example, I am not sure how old these wilderness found earbuds are, but I seriously doubt they are on a national registry.
So what would Ms Wilderness Manners advise a finder to do? Leave it, in hopes the owner will return? Carry it forward, hoping to find the music deprived hiker along the way? Turn them in to authorities? Who are the earbud authorities anyway?
According to the National Park Service:
Items left on park property will be considered abandoned property and will not be the responsibility of the National Park Service.
But then whose responsibility is it? Are found items available for anyone to take? According to BLM rules:
If you leave personal property unattended for more than 24 hours in a day-use area, or 3 days in other areas, it may be considered abandoned and disposed of by BLM.
Three days seems like a reasonable amount of time, but how does a finder know how long an item has been lost? Surely I cannot wait 3 days on a trail to be certain. Is there some trail side carbon dating system? Single headphone, adventurous, outdoorsy, seeking new owner with deeper pockets and a stronger sense of responsibility.
Some items left in the wilderness, such as food caches placed in bear boxes, should and often do display a date. In most cases food past this advertised date is considered abandoned. On a Yosemite trip we discovered a bag of resupply 4 days passed its date. It contained pudding mix, energy bars, and a jumbo sized Snickers.
What to do, what to do?
Technically it was up for grabs. But what if that poor late backpacker was on his way, delayed by injury. Perhaps only the thought of the awaiting Snickers was keeping him alive. We decided to let it go one more day, but after that, it was ours.
Suddenly, a Ranger appeared from nowhere, and began going through and collecting “abandoned” food. When we inquired what happens to the found lost treasure he smiled and simply replied “we eat it.”
Panic set in as the vision of a Snickers bar dancing in our wee little heads… vaporized. Mustering the most pathetic and desperate expression he could create, Jesse begged the ranger if we might at least have the Snickers.
I will never know the name of the ranger who saved, if not our lives, at least our souls by handing over that bar. What could have easily divided us, was quickly divided amongst us.
I may still lack clarity on how exactly to treat wilderness found items, but this found treat found a place near our hearts… though slightly lower, creating a surprisingly satisfying gurgle .
A clear night sky in the wilderness offers spectacular views of celestial objects, including the International Space Station (ISS). After all, the dang thing weighs 954,334.8 pounds and covers an area of 26,909.78 square feet. I mean you’d have to be practically blind not to see it.
According to the NASA ISS facts and figures page:
The ISS solar array surface area could cover the U.S. Senate Chamber three times over.
Frankly I think they should use some of the extra to cover the House of Representatives. Both houses could benefit from some heat, but I digress.
When observed from Earth, the ISS is one of the brightest objects in the sky, with an apparent magnitude of -5.9. It appears as a bright white dot, moving quickly across the night sky. So why then do so few of us actually see it?
Okay, yes it is 240 miles in the air. But don’t forget, 240 miles is the same distance Gandhi went for salt. I have no idea how far he went for pepper, but the point is 240 miles can’t be that far. The real problem is not the distance up, but rather that the satellite keeps moving. Not only does it move, but it does so at a rate of 17,500 miles per hour, or 292 miles per minute. At that speed, when asked to pass the salt, Gandhi could have said give me a minute, and actually meant it.
So how then do we see this really cool moving object?
We just need to know when and where to look. Circling the earth every 92 minutes, we get quite a few chances. It is possible, though unlikely, to see it during daylight. Our best chances are when the sun is reflecting off it brightly and the sky is dark, usually just after dusk or slightly before dawn. But frankly, we can’t stand out here all night, and we are probably looking in the wrong direction.
On a two week trip to Yosemite, Scott, a backpacking companion, was carrying a small piece of paper with magical insights: a list of dates, times, durations, maximum elevations, directions of entry, and directions of exit. Every night, when the sky and horizon allowed, we gathered and awaited the space stations appearance. If there had not been prohibitions against erecting structures in the wilderness, we would probably have constructed nightly mini Stonehenges in anticipation. It was just that cool.
Assuming you don’t have Scott on your wilderness adventures, you are going to have to create your own magical paper. Luckily, NASA has created a website to help you do just that.
Here you will find factual information about the International Space Station and a wide variety of other observable satellites. There is even a cool “applet” that will allow you to enter various criteria, including your location on the planet, and with the push of a button create your own list of observation opportunities.
The site offers these viewing tips:
For best results, observers should look in the direction and at the elevation shown in the appearing column at the time listed. Because of the speed of the orbiting vehicles, telescopes are not practical. However, a good pair of field binoculars may reveal some detail of the structural shape of the spacecraft.
You may, however, want to limit the power of your binoculars. After all, as you can see from the picture, some celestial movements are best unseen.
New employees of any company or organization are faced with digging their way through various policy and procedure handbooks. Typical tomes requiring shoveling include volumes on workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination policy, sexual harassment, and most recently the dos and don’ts of bullying. These manuals are typically painful to read and require some sort of mandatory testing to artificially infuse interest.
One employee handbook I recently came across, however, sparked my attention like no other.
National Park Service Handbook for the Storage, Transportation, and Use of Explosives
Now I have been fooled by YouTube™ videos where the advertised title and actual content were not in the least bit related. I carefully kept my giddy expectations in check as I followed this link to the online book:
It is quite possible that clicking this link blasts an automatic warning message at the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms. But even if it does, it also magically summons an eleven chapter, 221 page bible of wilderness pyrotechnics.
Many of us who have spent significant time in granite country have wondered in amazement at the trail excavation and armory work of various switchbacks and trail ledges. We imagine the blood, sweat and tears exerted from the working end of a Pulaski, Mattock, or McLeod.
In these areas of obvious labor, we occasionally stumble upon mysterious worm holes, the apparent effects of some giant silicon based life form. Or is it? Is it possible that in addition to exerting sweat, a subset of these NPS employees is actually having a blast?!
If the official job titles provided in the handbook are any indication, it seems there is no lack of people wanting at least a part of the action. With no exaggeration positions include:
Park Service Blasting Officer
DSC Blasting Officer
Regional Blasting Officers
Chief Park Blasters
I assume the latter is operating a device that holds explosive charges, as opposed to the latest issue of Field and Stream.
I confess to being a tad confused as to the target audience. The same manual that explains the formula for calculating borehole depth when subdrilling:
(H = 2.5 x Ve x (B² + J²)½ + T) / Vr
Allow no one to handle explosives while under the influence of liquor, narcotics or prescription drugs that impair performance.
As a side note, I found no guidelines regarding performing the actual borehole calculations while under the influence. Go figure.
For the backpacking layman, these procedures and people have something to do with removing big rocks by drilling holes in them and blasting them into new locations. Pretty cool.
Most of us have seen remnants of these endeavors, without ever considering the science. Let’s consider at least a portion of that burden.
In rock blasting, the term burden refers to the rock between the borehole and the open face or edge. To successfully move it requires knowledge of the interrelations between the depth of the hole, the velocity of the explosive, and the velocity of the rock.
By delaying charges in the boreholes, the total burden can be increased and direction controlled. For example to move a large burden up off the bench, a series of rows can be timed in sequence. The borehole row 1 is discharged, removing the burden from it to the face, freeing up the second discharge to take the burden from row 2 to 1, followed by row 3 to 2 and so on.
Similarly, if delaying in diagonal rows, the burden can be moved up and to the right.
So there really is a science to blowing up rocks. So much so there are multiple levels of certification programs (NPS/65) for people who do this for a living.
All this requires basic physics and applied mathematics. It occurred to me that if more teenaged boys were allowed to apply math in this explosive way, this next generation would be prepared to easily blow away our countries competition. With burden removed, we would rock!
Those of us of a certain age remember Euell Gibbons, a man of seemingly normal human intelligence, declaring on network television:
“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”
What an idiot! Not Euell, me. Years I wandered through thick pine forest, lugging my rolled oats and dirt flavored granola bars, never once realizing I could simply eat the trees. This fruit of knowledge, however, raised new concerns for me, such as:
Which goes better with fresh trout, red fir or white fir?
Still something in the back of my mind was just not right. The same could also be said for most of the front. If our forests are enormous arbor buffets, minus the sequoia sized sneeze guards, surely they would be filled with herds of grazing obese Americans. In my wilderness wandering, most white trash trail-ers I encountered were small, scrawny, and seemingly starving.
If I remember correctly my Latin roots, forage comes from the words fore, meaning in front of you, and age meaning unavoidable death. For the Greeks, forage derives from the word forge, meaning to make false. Forage therefore loosely translates to:
“before you lies certain death because this is all totally false.” Loosely.
There are two reasons to forage in the forest, neither of which is particularly appealing: revival or survival. Revival is an increased spiritual interest in something. It is true we have become disconnected from our natural food chain by, well, our grocery food chains. Food magically appears hermetically sealed in plastic, completely removed from its source, usually by underpaid migrant workers. Reconnecting to our wild food roots, regardless of how bitter they taste, is the dream of the forage revivalist. For the survivalist, well I guess we just got ourselves into such deep doo-doo that we need to eat a few logs to get out.
There must be food in the wilderness. After all, birds and squirrels are eating something. Some of it sounds surprisingly similar to their plastic wrapped relatives: wild strawberries, blackberries, asparagus, onions, and miner’s lettuce. Some things seem totally lacking. I have never found miner’s croutons or miner’s lettuce dressing. Also, some of it seems down right weedy: dandelions, cattails, and oh come on, seriously,nettles!?
The forest foraging marketing department could use some serious revamping. I have reviewed a wide variety of foraging books, guides, and websites, and offer up some of these apparent pearls of wisdom:
Braken fern tips, when tightly curled are delicious. As they begin to uncurl they become bitter and poisonous. Recent studies have also linked consumption to esophageal cancer.
Wild asparagus is delicious steamed or boiled, unless leaves have formed, in which case it become toxic. Eaten raw, it causes nausea and diarrhea.
Nettles should be cooked to remove the stinging hairs. If undercooked, even slightly, they can cause miserable tissues swelling in your mouth and throat.
Frankly, it is difficult to image that Mother Nature has not been sued, let alone the authors of these foraging guides and books. One author strongly recommended that new foragers maintain a yearly journal. Based on the labyrinth of risks to life and limb, I declare optimism has never been so bold.
One piece of supposedly helpful advice:
Eat only what the bears will eat.
First, why are we close enough to their dinner table to see what they are eating? Second, if they really want it, I am pretty sure they are going to get it.
Perhaps this advice simply means we should behave like a bear, focusing on things easily recognizable and digestible such as berries and fish. I have to point out that bears also eat grubs, and frankly if your hiking partner Steve get’s between bear and cub, he is pretty much in play as well. I suppose we can indeed take lessons from the bear. Given a strong enough driving hunger and the element of surprise, we might be able to take out Steve ourselves.
Foraging appears to be growing in popularity, though I am not sure how successful these scroungers actually are. A suspiciously significant amount of coverage is given to creating brews and teas from pine needles and manzanita berries. I am not sure too many people are actually starving in the wilderness from a lack of boiled twigs.
Plants with seeming potential, such as oaks which sustained centuries of Indian tribes, begin to generate reservations when you realize their acorns have to be harvested, sorted, dried, stored, mashed, leached, boiled, shaped into a patty, and only then cooked on a rock. My instant oatmeal pack is looking pretty good about now.
Maybe the skills required are so refined, that commercial providers are better suited for foraging. There is a restaurant in California called Forage in the Forest that serves, get this, hamburgers. Call me cynical, but it seems this hunger game has crossed over from gathering to hunting. If hungry enough, I suppose poached food will have to do.
We now return to Euell Gibbon’s pine nuts. I have to confess that by now I am no longer sure if this refers to edible seeds, or simply the people like him who think pine trees are edible.
I am slightly embarrassed to say I experienced perverse pleasure when I first heard Euell Gibbons died of malnutrition. I am not completely convinced this is true, so I personally refuse to Google it for fear of spoiling the immense irony. I suppose it is possible old Euell simply passed away in his sleep, bludgeoned to death by troop of starving backpackers.
Backpacking with small children is mental, and I mean that in every possible sense. To do so requires Olympic class mental gymnastics and probably some mandatory drug testing. Consider for a moment oil and vinegar. At first they don’t seem to go well together, but if you shake them really really hard it can be absolutely fantastic. Well its the same way with backpacking and children, minus the really hard shaking. My lawyer and therapist recommended I add that last part.
Approached in the right way, backpacking with children can indeed be fantastic. Seeing the outdoor world through their curious eyes can open ours in ways we never knew possible. Assuming you are mental enough, as I was, to take these wild ones into the wild, here are some things you may want to consider.
Did I mention it is mental?
Age and physical strength are not the most important factors in determining if someone is “ready” for backpacking. It’s mental. With the right mindset, children can do amazing things. A properly motivated tiny tyke can pound out mile after mile, and smile after smile. However with the wrong attitude even a 5’10”, 160 pound teenage boy is a nothing more than a whining baby about his twisted shoulder straps, chaffing hip belt, and missing wireless game controller.
Physical conditioning can enhance safety and improve your overall enjoyment. Limiting backpack weight to no more than 25-30% of body weight is a pretty good guideline for children. However before you care for any of those, first evaluate mental state, both theirs and yours.
How to carry on when children are carrying on?
Most parents of small children are well aware their bones can liquefy. We have all seen it. A child expresses desire at the local grocery store. You explain calmly and rationally why it is not appropriate at this particular time and zap, the bones are liquid. Suddenly you are Steve McQueen in 1958, trying to act cool before the amoeba-like blob at your feet. Clean up on isle six is not going to cut it. Minus a hand held fire extinguisher, you are at a total lose as to what to do next. Now imagine a similar scene playing out three miles down a mountain trail. The good news is the grandmother death-gripping a shopping cart walker, mumbling something about your parenting skills, is far far away. The bad news however is so is your car.
Surely it is more than coincidence that patience and patients sound so similar. Dehydration is probably the most common wilderness cause of emotional melt down. One solution is a good swift punch, preferably Gatorade fruit flavored. If not, water is a viable option. One personal piece of advice is to avoid water purification techniques which render water “disgusting” to children. Filtering or boiling water does not leave an after taste, and kids might actually drink it. Treating with Halogen leaves water tasting eerily like a community swimming pool. If you do flavor water, make sure the purification process is complete before you add the Crystal Lite or other additive.
Backpackers are often obsessed with ounces of weight. Backpackers with small children should obsess over ounces of prevention. Prevention is key to avoiding mental breakdowns, whether yours or your kids. The ability to anticipate problems and head them off at the wilderness pass is a worthy skill. Here are some approaches to consider:
Happy Meal Approach
Happy meals are fun because they are small, well packaged, and contain a prize. When selecting wilderness outings for children, make sure to include all three. Avoid super sizing. Don’t bite off more miles than your kids can shoe. Make sure the trek is easy enough for their little legs, or your larger tired ones when you need to carry them. Position the trip as an adventure. Walking under burden of load, though perhaps a personal joy for you, is understandably torture for a child. Know your child’s interest and find ways to trick them into walking. Identifying lizards, chasing frogs, or hunting geocache treasures are all legitimate reasons for kids to move. Backpacking is not. When one motion motivation wears out, come up with another quickly. Try not to lose momentum. Also make sure the destination is a prize in its own right. A swimming hole, frog pond, or waterfall are potential worthy destinations. If your child cannot tell the difference between the final destination and where you were 30 minutes earlier, you have failed.
Be flexible. Sure you probably had it all planned out, and yes it is frustrating when it does not go as planned. But frankly, kids don’t measure conformance to plan as an indication of pleasure, and neither should you.
Gaming their Systems
Entertainment can be an effective distraction. When little mouths are engaged in rhyming games, I spy games, or silly singing, they are not available for I’m tired, when are we gonna get there, and you said this would be fun! Think of games as potential solutions to these boredom problems:
Driving to and from the trailhead
Actually hiking on the trail
Staring at each other in camp
However, do not assume what is entertaining to you is entertaining to your child. Do not mistakenly believe you can create a passion for wild flower identification just because the television is too far away to see. Take something you know they will like and let them push it a little further. Water, fire and throwing things all offer great potential. For example, don’t explain why you can’t throw rocks here. Find a different place you can throw rocks and spend time throwing them together. Just not at each other.
Our life comes pre-loaded with a limited number of potential backpacking days and nights. It is fairly clear that when our founding fathers proclaimed the right to pursue happiness, they were specifically referring to backpacking. Do not deny yourself or a child the opportunity to maximize this pleasure. Besides, when you are old and weary, how will you possibly convince your children to carry your backpack if you weren’t willing at some point to carry theirs?
You don’t just want to be a star gazer. Anyone capable of tilting their head back at night can be that. You want to be a Rock Star Gazer. A Rock Star Gazer is a gazer who says:
That red star is Betelgeuse. It represents the arm pit of the great hunter Orion.
The typical star gazer is more likely to say:
Oh, that pretty one is twinkling, I think it’s… ops, no it’s just an airplane.
The primary requirement to be a Rock Star Gazer is that you appear to know more than your gazing companions. One strategy of course is to simply hang out with slightly stupid people. The reason I caveat “slightly” is that if they are actually “totally” stupid they may not be able to appreciate and acknowledge your star stardom, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose.
Assuming your companions have cleared the 70 IQ hurdle, you probably need to actually learn something about star gazing. If on a hot summer evening you say with confidence:
Castor and Pollux sure look bright tonight…
and one of your gazing companions mumbles something remotely sounding like idiot, it should be clear you have given up your Rock Star Gazer title. Otherwise you would have known Gemini appears in the winter evening sky. Lamely offering up that you meant from Australia is not enough to recover.
Our goal here is not to teach you everything you need to know about stars, but rather to give you a framework to accelerate your journey. Remember you don’t have to actually get there, you just have to be ahead of the others.
Star Gazing Applications and Tools
Yes, I am aware there are star gazing applications which allow star wannabes to point their PDA towards the sky and declare: “There is Cassiopeia!” The problem is that pointing the PDA and reading is a dead give away. It is clear you have no idea what you are looking at other than what you are reading, which the woman gazing over your shoulder can do faster and frankly with better retention. Use these applications to practice your star gazing skills, but never let others see you. It’s too much like the Wizard of Oz begging us to “ignore that man behind the curtain.” Too late, star status lost.
There are some other freely available study resources that can help rock your star world. Sky charts can be found and printed at http://skymaps.com/ The charts show the current month view of sky, including location of visible planets. Again, great resource, but study at home.
Rock Star Basics
Establish some street cred by working these facts into the conversation. At times it may feel awkward and forced, but more than likely they will be mumbling “Wow, I never realized that.”
A star is a burning ball of flames so far away it appears to us as a point. As such, it has no real shape and is subject to atmospheric interference, causing it to “twinkle.” Magnifying with binoculars may reveal additional stars, but does nothing to provide more details for the ones we can see. The color of the star revels its relative temperature. Hot to Cold, Blue->White->Yellow->Orange->Red.
A constellation is a region of the sky as viewed from earth. There are 88 modern constellations. Any star within the region is considered part of the constellation. It does not matter if the star plays a role in some bizarre connect-the-dot version of a flying horsey or a mythical dragon. If it is in the region, it is in the constellation.
An asterism is a subset of stars that make a well known shape. The Big Dipper is an asterism, not a constellation. The constellation Big Dipper is in is Ursa Major (Big Bear).
A planet is a sphere circling the sun. Those visible to our naked eye are close enough to have a shape, which is a small disk or sliver of a disk depending on the phase. As such, they do not really “twinkle” like the “pointy” stars. The color of a planet does not reveal its temperature, but rather the color of its surface or atmosphere.
Remembering stars and constellations is a challenge because most of us don’t do it often enough, and the dang things keep moving. Or at least they appear too. To help with navigation, we will divide the sky into 3 regions:
Your first opportunity to present as a rocker is to point out that the earth rotating on it’s axis makes the stars appear to move. Everything appears to rotate around the north star like a giant backwards twenty four hour clock. Great, but since the clock is moving super slow, it’s not like you can look up and tell which one everything is turning around. Therefore, being able to identify the north star is your first and most important sky skill. Contrary to popular belief, the North Star (Polaris) is not a particularly bright star, and most people rely on the pointer stars from the Big Dipper to find it.
Since everything appears to rotate around the North Star, there is a disk of the sky that is visible all year round. The North Star is the center of this disk (or rather close enough). The radius of the disk is equal to the distance from the North Star down to the horizon. The further north you are on the planet, the higher the North Star appears in the sky, and therefore the larger the circumpolar region. As you move south, the North Star gets lower, shrinking the size of the “always visible” disk. Side Note: the angle from the ground to the North Star tells you your latitude.
This circumpolar region is your friend. Learn the stars, constellations, and Greek mythology of this region. It is time well spent. Regardless of the season, you will always be able to show off your incredible knowledge of this always-visible region. Focus on the Ursa Major (Big Dipper), Ursa Minor (Little Dipper), Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. For extra credit, point out Thuban, a minor star that used to be the pole star long before the current one.
The Zodiac Belt (aka ecliptic) is where the action is. Because our solar system is relatively flat, with all planets circling in essentially the same plane, everything appears to pass through this belt. The sun, the moon, and the planets all travel along this solar super highway. The reason this is important is to keep you from looking like an idiot. If you ever look for a planet outside this belt, you are in fact looking like an idiot.
Using your sky chart aides, you can determine if and where the five visible-to-the-naked-eye planets are located. The five visible are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Mercury and Venus are on closer orbits of the Sun than Earth. That means we have to look kinda towards the Sun to see them. Therefore, you can only see them just before sunrise or after sunset. Mercury is ridiculously hard to see but Venus (the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon) is often refereed to as the Evening Star or the Morning Star. If you are looking for Mercury or Venus in the middle of the night, you are again looking like an idiot. The other three (Mars Jupiter and Saturn) are in further out orbits of the Sun than Earth and therefore have the potential to be visible at any time during the night.
The ancients recognized the importance of this action packed belt, and started tracking where the sun was relative to the stars behind it. This constellation / sun connection defines the calendar of the zodiac.
Apr – May
May – Jun
Jun – Jul
Jul – Aug
Aug – Sep
Sep – Oct
Oct – Nov
Dec – Jan
Jan – Feb
Feb – Mar
Mar – Apr
A challenge of being a Rock Star Gazer is that people will often say something like, “I’m a Libra. Where is my constellation?” This is where your study aid can help. If you know during the evening of a particular month which Zodiac Constellation is rising and which is setting, you can approximate the location of the visible ones in between. And for goodness sake, do not get caught looking outside the Zodiac belt for a Zodiac Constellation.
The southern sky is like the astronomical clearance rack. None of the major brand Zodiac constellations are available there. None of the big wig wanders (Sun, Moon, or any planets) are ever caught passing through. Unlike the consistent and reliable Circumpolar North, the Southern Sky is constantly changing with the seasons. Here you may find little known irregulars such as Eridanus, Lupus, and Grus.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great deals in the southern sky, because there are. The great hunter constellation Orion (a crowd favorite) is there every winter season. The spectacular winter hexagon of stars (Sirus, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux and Procyon) are also on full display.
After slimming your way to Rock Star Gazer status, you may feel the need to cleanse your soul with a meteor shower. A meteor is a small piece of dust or dirt brilliantly burning up in our atmosphere. Passing through the tail of an old dirty comet increases the chance of “dust ups” creating spectacular displays. Some of the more common displays include:
To be a Rock Star Gazer is a great responsibility. Simpleton star gazers will be looking up to you, then back at the stars, then back again to you. Probably with a puzzled expression. Your ability to speak confidently, if not actually competently, is critical. Information is dangerous and you now have enough to be on the night time wilderness most wanted list. Congratulations.
In preparation to take a Wilderness First Responder certification course I started thinking about Samaritans, not that I know any personally. When I looked them up in Wikipedia I was surprised to learn that as of Nov 2011 there were only 745 of them in the world, mostly near the cities of Nablus and Holon. I am sure as with any group there are good and bad ones, but I am mostly interested in the good Samaritans- the ones with the legal doctrine that is either going to encourage and protect me or set me up for complete and total financial ruin.
I started thinking about the golden rule:
Do unto other as you would have others do unto you
It sounded pretty good when I was thinking about others doing unto me things such as pulling me out from under an avalanche of snow, performing CPR to restart my pathetic little heart, or simply splinting my broken leg and carrying me out of the wilderness on a litter fit for a king. It seemed a little less compelling when I thought about others doing unto me things such as dragging me by the leg compounding a spinal injury, CPR-ing my ribs into my spleen, or dropping me down the face of a cliff, making litter of my litter.
Why is it that intent and impact can have such different outcomes?
Clearly there are attorneys who can only survive by feasting on yummy rich tortes. Fear of legal peril has put at risk our willingness to aid an injured fellow traveler. The theory of the good Samaritan doctrine is to encourage voluntary assistance by offering some degree of immunity from legal damages.
Good Samaritan laws vary by country and state. The trick is to craft Samaritan law in such a way to consider both intent and impact when a volunteer renders assistance. If judged only by impact, any mistake would leave the volunteer at great peril, so much so, many would simply choose not to act. By removing all risk, however, we might encourage the volunteer to engage in reckless and even wanton behavior. Balance is the key. As an example:
Any person who in good faith renders emergency care, without remuneration or expectation of remuneration, at the scene of an accident or emergency to the victim of the accident or emergency shall not be liable for any civil damages resulting from the persons acts or omission, except for such damages as may result from the persons gross negligence or wanton acts or omissions.
This seems to capture the spirit, protected if reasonable, but not if grossly negligent or wanton. But how does this type of language hold up in court. Let’s consider an example from California: Alexandra Van Horn v. Lisa Torti. At the time California law stated:
no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.
On Nov 1st, 2004, Alexandra Van Horn was a passenger in a car that crashed head on into a light poll. Lisa Torti, in a following car, pulled her then friend Alexandra Van Horn out of the car, fearing it would catch fire. Alexandra claimed Lisa’s actions were reckless and compounded her injuries, which included paralysis. The trial court ruled in Lisa’s favor, noting she was protected by the Good Samaritan law. On appeal, however, Alexandra won on the grounds that the law only applied to medical aid, and Lisa’s aid was non-medical and therefore not protected. The California Supreme court heard the case in March 2008 and in a divided 4-3 decision sided with Alexandra, meaning no protection for apparently Bad Samaritan Lisa.
The potential repercussions for Samaritans good and bad was staggering. The California legislation, not exactly known for speed of purpose, immediately introduced and passed bills reversing the Supreme Courts ruling. In the process, they also added language regarding gross negligence and wanton misconduct. One hopes that future courts will rule as the legislators intended, but given Lisa’s earlier experience, one has to wonder.
The decision to render aid or not is personal. For my sake, I hope you are trained and decide to help me. For your sake, I am enrolled in the training, and hope never to have to use it.
Legal Notice: I am not an attorney and have never even played one on television. For advice on Samaritan laws specific to your situation and region, consult your own attorney, mileage may vary, batteries not included, and objects in mirror may actually be closer than they appear.
Analogies can be dangerous, especially mine. I love the simplicity and clarity they purportedly provide, but must confess when pressed they usually degrade into pretentious gibberish. Again, especially mine. At the risk of gibber-dome, I offer this example:
Fishing is a religion, and there are atheists, agnostics, and believers.
Fish atheists are clear in their belief: They simply do not believe in fishing. The reason may vary. It may be derived from personal moral standards of life, death, and torture; it may be based on environmental concern for the unnecessary consumption of limited resources; or it may be philosophically rooted in a constitutional desire for the separation of fish and man. Some fish atheists are extremely helpful in their communications. As an example, raise a question on any backpacking forum about the best places to catch fish and you will most likely find yourself receiving a very thorough analysis of your moral fiber and detailed recommendations on how to reposition your head from its current location.
Fish agnostics are not nearly as clear thinking as the atheists. In fact, you might question whether they are committed to a cause at all. They probably do not fish, or if they do it is a form of social fishing, simply to be polite. Fish agnostics are easily distracted. For example they may prefer actually sleeping to fishing, something completely unfathomable to the true fish believers. When pressed you may find a fish agnostics secretly hoping for the fish to escape, not on moral grounds like a fish atheist, but rather to avoid the whole unpleasantness of gutting and cleaning.
Fish believers are active participants in the epic battle of man versus wild. Human intellect, advanced technology, and years of honed specialized skills versus, well… a fish. Okay, but not just a fish. The fish is merely symbolic of our greater battle against adversity, our ability to face potential death from starvation with confidence in our own self reliance. The fish allegory could easily be replaced by one of say a small rodent, but clearly not as tasty and frankly harder to catch. True fish believers acknowledge a higher power, a provider of sorts, which makes available the bounty for our harvest, assuming of course we paid for and are carrying the proper fish and game license.
In the Tasting
The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and I think it is clear I have provided an insightful bowl of instant. Regardless of your status as a fish atheist, agnostic, or believer, I think you all will agree with my original premise… my analogies are in fact pretentious gibberish.
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