Sunday, October 14, 2012

Overnight in ZEC Lavigne: enjoying lac St-Amour

Although the main purpose of this short trek up north was to test out some concepts and related gear, We were lucky enough to land on a beautiful spot: overlooking lac St-Amour, with only an eleven foot drop down to the waterline. We were also able to cross over what looked like a beaver dam to a sheltered rocky area, with access to a large flat rock ideal for mediation and pictures, surrounded on three sides by the lake’s cold and clear water. Immediately across the lake from us was a large cliff face, climbing straight up to an unnamed summit which we were all inclined to ascend.

Nice Lake view

The only flaw to this area was that it provided no shelter from the wind. It rolled down the cliff face, accelerating along the way and over the lake, making finding a good spot to set up our hammocks and our fire pit a bit more difficult. Throughout our short time there, the smoke from the fire was a constant annoyance. Indeed, regardless of your actual position, the fire would inevitably find its way into your eagerly awaiting eyes.

Regardless of the smoking hazard, the area was well sheltered from the road, although quite close to it. This brought on an element of adventure, as we went camping right in the middle of hunting season. We were, in fact, surrounded by several hunting camps, all within walking (i.e. bullet) distance from our little peace of paradise. Also, finding a step ladder for Cedric so that he could climb into his hammock proved remarkably easy: a conveniently placed rock of the 150 pound variety was right there, just for him to climb upon and into the the waiting arms of morpheus.

Natural ladder!

To a chorus of “they can’t shoot that badly” and “remember to make lots of noise”, we were able to locate and gather firewood safely, set up a hot and relaxing fire and to listen to all sorts of loud and brutal metal and electronic music. Needless to say, our neighbors didn’t catch anything with us around.  I call that making my part for large game preservation (or being an absolute douchebag).

This time, we had the luxury of a car to bring our things and ourselves along. Although we had packed for a backpacking adventure to test out our gear load outs, we also the luxury of having a large cooler, a two burner stove and a full set of plates and dishes. The menu was impressive but not overly elaborate. Our buddy Patrick (arguably the best cook among us) had really outdone himself: jack daniel’s marinated burgers with bacon and jalapenio cheese, spicy cheese omelettes for breakfast and, of course, sausages to eat by the fire as a late evening snack. There was more food, however, we ran out of propane and time before we could get to it all.

The sleeping arrangements were quite simple: two hammocks and, just in case, a large tent, large enough for three full grown men (or, in this case, two grown men and a Hobbit), all their gear and a small herd of water buffaloes. As it turned out, Patrick slept in the large tent all by himself, as Cedric and myself stayed warm, comfortable and dry in our hammocks. Having declined my offer of a warmer sleeping bag, Patrick apparently slept badly, not getting sleep until very early in the morning of day two. Although he protested that he enjoyed the experience, I cannot help but feel that I should have ignored his refusal and brought my outbound barrel bag for him. Let that be a lesson to you: we really need to trust our feelings young Padawan.

Overall, it was an excellent -albeit too short- excursion. If we are to travel there again, that cliff face must be hiked or climbed. It would have given us an impressive view of the entire northern part of the ZEC. I will get to it, eventually.

Calm morning lake


Proof of concept (2 of them): hammock camping and wedge splitting.

In this oft’ delayed issue of Four seasons of Quebec, we are going for a double whammy: Two subjects for the price of none! That’s right, you are going to get our impressions on two vastly different subjects. At least they are connected by camping. On one hand: the thrill of sleeping in a hammock at 2 degrees Celsius and the gear required to pull it off, and on the other, the joy of splitting logs with wooden wedges and smaller knives. Let’s get going!

First, hammock camping. We were expecting colder weather at night and some rain. That meant we needed a few items besides the obvious: An underquilt (in our case, home made), a bug net, and a tarp. Since budget didn’t permit an overquilt, we went for mummy sleeping bags.

Tarp, bug net, under-quilt and hammock

It was definitely more crammed than inside a two person tent. However, it was quite comfortable. It was also quite warm. The underquilt made an excellent wind barrier, as well as heat reflector. This meant that, in theory, I could have used a warmer temperature sleeping bag like my Marco, by Asolo. However, It was a safe choice to go warmer: 2 Celsius is getting cold, especially when your body is still used to 20 degree days. I went for a five pound synthetic bag by Eureka. Review to be published when testing is finished.

In retrospect, it was pretty impressive. I’ve had back problems for a couple of years now, and I went to bed with pretty intense back pain. Getting up in the morning, it was gone. There may be something to the YouTube theory, common amongst the hammock camping crowd (there is a strong following for this practice, at least on YouTube) that it is more natural because humans have been doing it for a lot longer than sleeping in beds. I can only testify that my back pain has decreased ever since I’ve started to use my hammock more regularly, so there may be something to this. I’ll let my doctor decide if that is due to more regular exercise or to a change in my relaxation habits.

That being said, Let’s discuss pros and cons: all the gear but the sleeping bag fits in a 35L bag. I could have pulled it off with a one person tent at well, however, I’m not convinced that getting dressed would have been easier. Since I got dressed outside of my hammock, standing, I wasn’t limited to a 40 inch celling. 

Now, cons: was that my sleeping bag had no traction on the hammock and I found myself sliding down because I wasn’t in a true diagonal position (reportedly the best position to lie down flat). Also, the set up time required for all four items was much longer that the time required for a one or two person tent. Then again, both cons can be written off as newbie failure. However, you have to be made aware of this if you plan on using this camping method.

Honestly, I think both tent and hammock have their merits. I’ll use my hammock when flat ground in not available and tents for privacy (since getting dressed outside my hammock is a fine way to show off my naughty bits). Otherwise, I think I would prefer hammock camping if for no other reason than comfort. After all, I am bringing my hammock along anyway, so I might as well use it for something else than a short nap or rest.


And now, the second proof of concept. Do small knives and wooden wedges work as well as, if not better than large knives in fire making? First, lets define terms and concepts here: I don’t bring axes when I go backpacking. This is not a matter up for debate, since we are not discussing that; large knives will be defined as more than 8 inches in blade length. smaller knives will be defined as less than 5 inches. In both cases, we are talking about fixed blades. I won’t go over techniques. You can find videos defining cross cutting, chopping and batoning on YouTube in large quantities. Hell, you can find that information in most survival guides and courses. Let’s just say that usually, when I use a large blade for batoning, I tend to split almost all the way through a seven to eight inch wide log. That gives me lots dry of firewood with a small amount of effort.

Fire pit and view

The same technique applies to a smaller knife, but on smaller wood. In order to mitigate this, you can simply crack open the log with partial batoning (the blade doesn’t go all the way through to the other side of the log) and you can use a wooden wedge to finish the job. After significant testing over the two days, I think that I would recommend a hybrid of both techniques: I would do a full length split with the large knife, and to minimize wear on the blade’s edge, I suggest switching to a wedge as soon as possible. The effort is a little greater, but the wedge will naturally avoid knots and follow wood grain, something a bigger knife cannot do as well as has a wedge.

So, in conclusion, what are smaller knives for? I feel that they can be used for everything, but that they behave less effectively in batoning larger logs even with the partial split technique. I therefore recommend the use of larger knives whenever you plan on setting up camp and processing larger amounts of firewood. However, I strongly suggest you also bring along a smaller fixed blade to complement your effort and perform other camp tasks. On day hikes, were bringing a large blade isn’t convenient, we feel that bringing a smaller fixed blade should be on your list. It may very well save your life if you must light a fire or build an emergency shelter.

Although I have tried a traditional shaped bushcraft blade, I’ll stick to my Ontario gen II SP 46 for now. A review will arrive as soon as I have collected enough data on it.

Next, a story of the rise and fall of yours truly on mount Sutton. Until then, take care and enjoy the beauty of this province’s natural settings. Or at least go sit under a tree once in a while. Your body will thank you for the opportunity to get out of the house and get some slightly fresher air.

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