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    Sunday, January 15, 2017

    A Tale of Fire and Ice

    Winter camping growing up in Minnesota.

    "Winter" camping in Texas.

    While my normal camping grounds are deep in the woods of the Sam Houston National Forest, there are certain things you can't do on public land. Luckily, over the years amazingly cool people have welcomed me onto there slices of the wild. Sidenote: people with slices of wild also usually have cool toys.

    50 cal...putting the "power" in "firepower".

    .22 cal bullet vs 50 cal. Bazinga!

    We had planned this trip months ago and while it technically is winter I personally didn't think it'd get all the cold. Just to be safe though I did buy a SnugPak underquilt for my hammock because I wasn't sure my homemade one would be enough. Turns out this was the right call...and also the many reviews saying it's tricky to use were also right...unfortunately. More about this later, though.

    Clark and I arrived at the Busman's property in late morning, soon followed by the Bearded Hobbit and his friend, David. Sidenote: my UV-5R radio was able to alert the Busman we were approaching for around 3 miles away. Cool...and to go off topic I was using this same radio this morning to listen in on the support crew of the Houston Marathon, 15-17 miles away! Clark's wife was running in it. Anyway, I digress. Different people had different goals for the weekend. The Bearded Hobbit and David wanted to try out their homemade gear against the harsh Texas winter whereas I wanted to experiment with some new cooking methods in preparation for my "Primitive Cooking for Ancient Foods" classes this fall at the Midwest Wild Foods Festival.

    Cooking foods inside a pile of hot rocks is pretty dang primitive...unless you are using cement blocks as your rocks. Alas, East Texas lacks fist-sized rocks so twelve 12"x12" cement pavers were used to create an oven. These pavers were used to absorb the heat of a fire burning inside this over. To increase the thermal mass the were used to line a hole dug in the side of a hill and then buried, making something akin to an Earth oven used for millennia.

    The floor was made of four 12"x12" pavers stacked two deep and the walls and roof were made of single pavers.

    The chimney was made of a standard "Figure 8" cinder block with a 6"x 12" paver to control the draft.

    The whole thing was buried and another 12"x12" paver was used as the door. An ash-pit hole was dug in front of the oven to make pulling out the fire coals before putting in the food to be cooked. Some scrap pieces of wood were also placed in front of the oven to kneel upon when using it.

    Once the oven was completed a fire was made inside it and fed for four hours to get the pavers really hot. The paver over the chimney reached 225F even though the outside temperature was in the high 30s. Replacing it with a pizza stone would give us a hot, rock cooking surface.

    We used that "chimney slab" to dry and preheat wood to be added into the oven fire. The front door didn't seal tightly so it offered enough fresh air in to keep the fire blazing to the point where flames were shooting out of the chimney! It seemed to be working quite well.

    The first cooking test of this over occurred four hours later. The chimney was completely sealed, most of the hot coals where scraped into the pit with about half pushed to the back of the oven to maintain heat, a cast iron pan of biscuits was placed inside the over, and the door was replaced along with plugging its gaps with clay and wood. The biscuit recipe said bake them for 20 minutes at 425F. After 20 minutes the oven was opened and the pan of biscuits was removed. The side towards the back of the oven looked perfect but the front ones were still a bit raw. The pan was turned around and put back in the oven and the door was resealed. After another 8 minutes or so the biscuits were taken out again...and devoured! They tasted delicious and hit the spot as night fell and the cold weather started sinking in.

    Cheese biscuits!


    Busman had brought along some venison which we cooked over the campfire rather than in the oven. However, after taking out the biscuits the oven was loaded up with whole potatoes, onions, and garlic to bake while the venison was roasted.



    Meat on sticks!

    While the foods were cooking I set up my hammock, underquilts, and blankets. Since it was supposed to get down into the 20s after sunset I used both my poncho liner under quilt and the Snugpak underquilt beneath me and the Snugpak Jungle blanket and a wool blanket as covers. No sleeping bag was used as I find them too confining.

    My room for the night.

    Temperture below freezing and dropping more. Luckily I brought my Minnesota Hat!

    The SnugPak underquilt did prove as tricky as reported to set up properly and sadly (and coldly!) I never did get it properly adjusted under me. It kept slipping out, taking the poncho liner with it and leaving me really, really cold. The top covers did great but without the underquilts they weren't enough to keep me warm and so it ended up being a COLD night. At 4am my feet felt on the edge of frostbite so I did what any smart adventure does and stuck them inside the paver oven! Oh blessed warmth! The inside of the over was still 95F and felt great. Had I brought my blankets with me to it I would have slept the rest of the night there, with wonderfully toasty toes. After 30 minutes I was warm enough to return to my hammock and drifted in and out of sleep until the sky began to turn gray.


    Of the five of us camping out there I ended up the coldest by far. Ironically, three of the other four were from Texas and one was from Florida. There's concern about the cold weather made them over-prepare to deal with it and so they did fine that night.

    As usual, I was up and rebuilding the campfire well before anyone else was stirring. Breakfast was hot instant coffee and corned beef hash in a tortilla cooked in my pie iron. It was great but pre-cooking the corned beef hash some first may have made it even better.

    Our hot water froze during the night.

    Here's a picture of the ground to give you an idea of the temperature.

    Once everyone was up we went mushroom hunting. Alas all the oyster mushrooms had froze and were no longer edible. This was a tragedy.

    No mushrooms but the can of sweetened condensed milk I had baked at the edge of the campfire had turned into a giant Tootsie Roll! Mmmmm, calories on a cold day!

    Busman is currently clearing out some of his property to build a log cabin using pines he's harvested. There is still a lot of pines needing to be taken of course we tried it using Tannerite. However, the pine tree resisted four 1 lb blasts of Tannerite...but it couldn't stand against a chain saw.

    I love chemistry!

    Adventure! Excitement! Extreme Temperature Ranges!

    Monday, January 02, 2017

    Posting the Apocalypse

    Wherein Clark and Merriwether travel to an alternate reality and discover the world had ended.


    Not being limited to one reality is awesome. For instance, you can walk through the ruins of our civilization all day and still get a pizza at your favorite joint afterwards. Seriously, it's really awesome!

    Clark and I arrived...well, somewhere. When and where we were was somewhat unclear but obviously something had gone wrong in that world a long time ago. The first sign of this was finding a derelict boat/barge-thingy in the middle of a field, far from any water. It's underside was a collection of pontoons filled with decayed flotation foam. It looked some sort of dredging device but it had been stripped of parts.

    Standing in the ruins.

    Standing on the ruins!

    We wandered through the wrecked landscape, filled with craters and debris. Hills turned out to be giant pieces of machinery covered in the sickly vines and brambles of nature trying to heal.

    How many years?

    There wasn't any clues as to what caused the armageddon. Nuclear war? Zombies? Liberal policies like in Venezuela, Detroit, Chicago, etc...? You know how in some creepy places you feel eyes watching you? That wasn't the case here. There was nothing but a few straggly weeds and twisted trees.

    Great shot for an album cover but the bands are all long gone.

    There were no eyes watching us but the wind caused weird voices as it blew through the remnants of the world. It became a little unnerving so I was glad when I found a weapon.

    As we walked we saw various possible shelters in case we got stuck for the night. A tarp over both ends to seal out the cold wind and these would have been a regular apartment complex in the aftermath.

    There was even a source of drinking water! Algae means it's safe, right?

    Eventually we found a sheltered spot to make lunch. Clark likes his high-tech gear whereas I'm more of a campfire and cast iron sort of guy.

    My modified Pie Iron.

    According to our tracker, we walked over seven miles through a shattered remains of this alternate world. Not wanting to see what came out with the night, we left this place and returned to our much nicer world.

    Pizza is nice after spending time at the end of a world.

    It was interesting to see what remained of that world and it gave me ideas of where to find shelter if this one ever fell apart. Hopefully it never will but it's always good to be prepared...

    Adventure! Excitement! Apocalypse!

    Saturday, December 24, 2016

    Shortening a Rome Pie Iron

    Pie Iron

    If you've never experienced the deliciousness of food cooked with a pie iron you are missing out on one of the main reasons for having a campfire! These cast iron cookers fit together tightly to crimp/seal the edges of whatever bread or dough you've put in them turning whatever sandwich you put into it into some sort of Hostess fruit pie or stromboli type snack! They are a mainstay for family car-camping trips but they're too long for easy carry in a backpack. This ticks me off because I love cooking with them. But hey, I have a Dremel tool. ;-)

    Standard Rome pie irons are nice but too long. I'm assuming this is for liability reasons.

    Luckily, the Dremel tool cutting wheels sliced right through the stainless steel handle rods. I choose to use the square pie iron for this so I could use a single side as a skillet in the woods, too.
    I stuffed up the handles with coarse-grit sandpaper to give the epoxy a place to grip when I reattached to wood grips.

    Removing to wood grips from the cut handles required a lot of brute force. Lock the steel rod in a vice then twist the wooden grip off. You can see here the "wings" put onto the rod to hold the grips on. Twist and pull the grips so you don't crack them.
    Pie Iron

    I love JB Weld Extreme Heat repair paste for "gluing" together anything that'll be exposed to heat. It's good up to 2400 degrees F which is plenty for a campfire.

    Smear the past on the rods, slide the rods back into the grips, then shape the paste over the tops of the grips if you want it to look nice. The paste takes 24 hours to set up properly.

    Finished product next to a regular-length pie iron. After this picture I ended up sawing off three inches of the wood grips to make it even shorter.

    Testing it out as a skillet to fry an egg. Season the cast iron as directed and you'll end up with a wonderful, non-stick surface!
    Pie Iron

    When out in the woods I like to use the Bisquick "just add water" mixes. I and the water to the pouch, stir it with a stick until it reaches the proper dough consistency, then squeeze it into the pie iron.
    Pie Iron

    Before cooking.
    Pie Iron

    Cooking on the coals of a small fire.
    Pie Iron

    End result using a 3-Cheese Bisquick packet.
    Pie Iron

    I also like making pizza-thingies with it.
    Pie Iron

    Pie Iron

    There's a number of cookbooks and on-line recipes for use in these pie irons. Another favorite of mine involves Nutella and mini-marashamallows. I'd show you a picture but I ate it.

    Adventure! Excitement! Food on Sticks!

    Sunday, December 18, 2016

    Modifying a Cold Steel Kukri Machete and Sheath

    There's endless debates over which is the best hatchet/tomahawk to take along bushcrafting. After years in the woods I've decided none of them is the best choice for Texas woods. I find machetes are much more useful, not to mention they weigh a bit less, too. Hand axe-style tools make sense up north where there's a lot more wood (and bigger pieces) needs cutting just because more fire is needed. Down here you should be able to get by with smaller fires, assuming you've made appropriate clothing choices.

    Down here the big cutting will mainly be trimming branches into walking sticks or tarp pegs and for trail clearing. Something you can whip around quickly to cut through soft vines, thin branches, and young saplings. After trying many machetes I've settled on the Cold Steel Kukri Machete. Its weight to cutting power ratio is amazing. It's easy to sharpen. The wide blade also makes a pretty good shovel! In a pinch it'll also mess up a feral hog pretty well if needed. The down side is the handle, while practical and ergonomic, is ugly and the sheath, while designed well, lacks character. I'd been wanting to improve it but there was never enough time. So this weekend I finally made time!

    Cold Steel Kukri Machete after a number of adventures. Great blade...boring package.

    The synthetic-rubber handle sliced off easily revealing a sturdy tang.

    My buddy Wildcat replaced the rubber handle with a custom epoxy/fabric blend made from the remnants of the first adventure shirt Misseswether made for me almost 20 years ago. I then wrapped the new handle with glow-in-the-dark paracord because I like knowing where it is in the dark plus extra cordage is always nice to have in the woods. Once the handle was completed it was time to do some leatherworking.

    Cutting out the pieces.

    Taking shape.

    Finished product! I'm really pleased with it.

    The sheath was rubbed down with mink oil to protect it from the elements. Now to get out into the elements and have some fun!

    Adventure! Excitement! Sharp objects!

    Sunday, December 11, 2016

    The Return of Merriwether and Clark


    *stumbles over some camping gear*

    Damn, look at all this old stuff. Hey, there's my gassifier stove...and some knives. Good lord, what a lot of cooksets! My old backpack...

    It's been a loooong time. Nobody's probably even out there. So be it. Sometimes it's good just to write for ones self. Record the good times so some day far in the future when the adventures stop I can at least read about the great times.

    My plan today involved the couch and a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. But late last night I got a text from Clark. He needed some woodstime. Life was stressing him out and he just needed a break back like we used to do YEARS ago. The weather report for today was supposed to be rain and rather yucky but that never stopped us in the past. The answer was "YES! LET'S GO!"

    Thankfully he wasn't interested in driving hours to someplace so Merriwether and Clark returned to where it all started, Spring Creek. As much time as we'd spent there years ago we hadn't explored every nook and cranny. We knew some secret ways in and so that's where we went, but instead of following the main trail we cut off into the woods on a deer trail and that made all the difference.

    In the wild, tapping my inner Predator.

    We walked through woods lacking signs of any fellow adventures. The only footprints were those of deer and feral hogs. The trees were beautiful, draped with vines and fall colors. We walked for several hours until finally coming out on a Spring Creek sandbar a mile from any "civilization". A fire was built and years were burned away. We must have past this sandbar the time we took Seeker's Fate from Kuykendahl to Riley Fuzzel but it seemed like no one had been that way since.

    The pipe Clark is sitting on ended a few feet beyond the edge of this picture.

    The week of rain trigger mushrooms like this massive Reishi.
    Mushroom Reishi

    The last time Clark and I were out, according to this blog, was January, 2012. Damnnn...almost 5 years ago. Back before the Wethergirls and Clarkettes were teenagers, back when we both had very different lives...

    But you know what, when the campfire burns time goes backwards. If you let it it'll go all the way back to caveman times...but when you are with an old friend it goes back to old adventures. I sincerely hope anyone reading this has an old friend to sit by a fire and talk about life, family, and most of all, previous adventures...and you realize that it's time to start making new memories again!


    Eventually it was time to cold-dead-out the fire and head home. Oddly, the numerous animal paths we followed in had disappeared and we ended up fighting through four miles of underbrush and thorny vines getting back. We ended up actually getting more lost and finally powered up a cell phone to get our bearings and realized just how far into the borderlands we had ended up. Not bad for guy's pushing 50 and 45. We finally got back to a real trail looking like survivors from a jungle airplane crash. Sadly, the wool pants Misseswether had made for me were tore wide open and my favorite adventure shirt had a sleeve torn off. In other words, a normal adventure for Clark and Merriwether!

    Adventure! Excitement! Returned!