Sunday, February 23, 2014

GEAR TEST: Hammock Peapod and Wool Anorak

The quest for cold weather hammocking gear continues.  I feel like every week, I check my local outdoor stores for specials on sleeping bags or other gear that can be used to fight the cold temperatures in a hammock.  I never pulled the trigger until now.

At my local Army Surplus store (Prefair) J-S and I were lucky enough to come across the last two Canadian Army down sleeping bags that were in good condition, and for only 50$ each!  Add to the shopping cart a 95% French Army wool blanket for 25$, and my kit for winter hammocking and camping majorly improved.

So, back to J-S's house for some DIY work.  He took out his sewing machine -  Exuse me - "thread injector", and got to work.  3 hours later, I was sporting a beautiful custom Anorak, minus the hood as we ran out of blanket.

Later that day, back at my place, I took the time to wash and dry out the down army bag.  The brown water in the bathtub during the wash confirmed this was a wise decision.  When everything was dry, I went to work on the foot end of the hammock, to make an opening large enough for my hammock.  Very simple work and I managed to do this without losing any down.

With all that gear in hand, I had to go out and test it.  The following video is the said test.  It was a very warm morning, so not ideal conditions to test a cold weather system, but nonetheless, I headed out to Mont Saint-Hilaire.

The test was  very conclusive and I can't wait to try this in colder weather.  After getting my butt kicked by some -33C conditions two weeks ago, and having to leave camp at 5am because we were too cold, I told myself that next time I would be warm and cozy.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Hike through, ZEC Lavigne. Revisiting lake Bouchard.

And so it came to pass that on the last tuesday of April 2013, our fearless adventurers packed their bags and hiked back to Bouchard Lake. The journey was fraught with danger, gun shells and snow melt.  I think I may be overselling it again, however, I haven’t written anything all winter. You can’t blame me for trying to make it sound interesting!

The hike in seemed easier, perhaps because it was not new anymore. The roads were actually blocked to car traffic in order to make sure that the roads would not degrade further. That meant that we had them all to ourselves for the entire way in, except for a couple of dogs near the St-Zenon entrance. The first part of the hike, about 4 kilometers long, was simple because the road was dryer there. That was not the case on the rest of the hike.

From the moment we travelled along Sauvage Lake, the roads were still covered in ice and snow. On the few areas of road where the snow was melted (usually near steep hills and cliffs) the roads were either quite muddy or close to collapse because of oversaturation.  We were also surprised to find shotgun shells from last autumn’s hunt in a few places, right in the middle of the road.

The closer we got to Bouchard Lake, the muddier and wetter the way got. Cedric completely soaked his boots, not having waterproofed them in far too long. I tested mine to the limit, yet they managed to stay dry. We were glad to see that the campsite itself was dry and in good shape, even though the path leading to the campsite was not. We were able to setup our hammocks quickly and with little fuss. 

Finding wood proved a bit difficult, but not unmanageable. We had a hot fire drying Cedric’s boot and socks in no time. Supper was cooked on my trusty Emberlit stove. Soon after, our bellies were full and the beer we had brought along helped in getting us to bed quickly.  

A few things changed since our last visit. Cedric and I have both shunned tents for 3 season camping. We are both quite happy with hammocks for the present and near future. Also, our pack weight has gone down significantly, to my poor back’s great joy.

We’re going back tomorrow. This time, we are bringing the druid back with us,  and a new man joins the party. More news shortly.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Mont Sutton, an adventure in every fall.

It would appear that Cedric and I are starting to become jaded with our regular hiking spot. This is truly a sad state of affairs, as it is close by and cheap (if you know how to get there without going through the main entrance). This means that, like all good junkies, we need to start looking for a better source of drugs. Although we didn’t find the holy grail of hiking spots, we certainly got an adventure worth mentioning. As you can guess from the title, it was one were a few falls did take place. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Mont Sutton is a beautiful place. Nested near it is a gorgeous little village, filled with quaint homes and small businesses. Getting there is simple: take the 241 from highway 10. Once you’ve arrived in the village, you’ll need to pay for the privilege of being here: 5 dollars per person. You can actually pay with paypal off their website.

Maps are sold at the tourism office or the 520 entrance for 5$. It turned out to be far less helpful than the indications on the trails themselves. The hike begins at 520 meters elevation, which theoretically makes reaching the 968 meter summit far less impressive. The trails themselves are nice and wide, reasonably easy compared to Sentier des crêtes over near Orford. Even the most difficult trail was no harder than an intermediate according to SEPAQ standards. That being said, The forest appears healthy and the fall colors were breathtaking. 

Fall scenery 

However, we were limited in the paths we could travel because of the last dregs of the current hunting season (what is it with us and hunters?) We could only travel up the sentier du lac spruce and the round top, pass des caps area. Mind you, that was a pretty good choice, none the less: we got to climb all the way to the top. I imagine that if the top was not under a heavy cloud cover that the view would have been worth the trip. However, we’ll need to come back (or google harder) to find out.

First view

Overall, this would be a good intermediate hike for someone who wants to test himself a little bit more without truly going all out on a difficult trail elsewhere. You still get a true sense of accomplishment without risking life and limb in the process, unless...

Yes, unless the paths are swamped in mud. In which case, coming down will prove to be a far greater adventure than anticipated. I straight out fell twice. Cedric actually fell down for the first time this season, and did so again, once or twice. It’s slow going, and fairly dangerous at times. It takes some careful planning, however, it gives you more time to enjoy the views and the beauty of your surroundings. 

In conclusion, well worth it but, besides the newness of the event, it was a fairly easy climb. Getting down during the summer months must be much safer, however, october seems like a poor choice. We suggest summer or late spring.

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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Camping in ZEC Lavigne, firebuilding for fun and profit!

 To be honest, there was no profit to be made in fire building. Although useful and entertaining, it was not a ready source of income. This was the textual equivalent of screaming the word sex in a crowded room to get everyone’s attention. Clearly, if you are reading this, it may have worked!

This three day excursion was a physically demanding and challenging proposition: an 8.4km hike to the campground with everything carried on our backs. It was a great way to get back to nature, giving us direct access to vistas often missed by car and ATV drivers because of the speeds involved in their journeys.

The roads were clearly not designed for human traffic. These dirt roads were rock-strewn, the hills steep and they climbed fast. No effort was made to make off ramps or shoulders. We were lucky enough not to travel at night as vehicle traffic was fairly constant. Good news for us: the weather played in our favor. Although a few drops did fall, it ended quickly, leaving us not the worse for wear. We were privileged to see some great views of the rolling hills and a couple of lakes, making the hike in well worth it.


The camp site was a large and fairly well maintained area, surrounded by trees and far enough away from the main access road to make visitors easily noticeable. We had ready access to firewood (of the five finger discount variety) and lake water which we drank with no ill effects (with minimal filtering). A picnic table was available, as well as a metal garbage can with lid. There was enough flat ground to set up at least 4 small tents. We only had two, therefore leaving a lot of room for a very large fire pit. Bathroom facilities were of the do it yourself variety. Thankfully, gardening trowels had been brought. We learned later that this campground is used as a staging area for fishing trips on Bouchard Lake. There was a fair bit of garbage lying about. As an afterthought, we should have kept the empty beer cans for cash.

One of the many pleasant surprises about this ZEC was the large number of hiking trails in and around the area where we were. We actually managed to get some hiking done on day two, travelling back to lac sauvage, an area disturbingly close to the start of our adventure, on a far more direct route (although more dangerous to travel). The views on the lake and the brook leading to it from the path’s start were great. It was a worthy way to spend a morning.

Trail to Lac Sauvage

The rest of our time was spent doing camp chores, which mostly involved prepping fire wood and maintaining the fire. Getting dry dead wood proved to be a challenge, but nothing a group of determined men couldn’t handle. We managed to procure and baton a good quantity of wood, which allowed us to cook and keep the cold at bay.

How to split logs with a knife

And it did get cold. The second night in was colder than the mean seasonal averages. A pair of long johns would have been great to have. I’ll try to remember for next time. Although I have an excellent sleeping bag, a Marco by Asolo, it does tend to have a problem with colder temperature. I would define that as anything below 5 degrees Celsius. This is spot on with the product description, to my complete amazement.

 Fire building was a bit of a challenge. The perfect deadwood, still standing, eluded us all week-end. We were force to resort to birch bark and pine boughs to get the heat going enough to dry out our logs. It did work, but Friday night was a long battle to get the fire going, delaying supper for far too long for three very hungry campers. Regardless, it was good practice in Firecraft.

After Saturday night’s heavy cold and heavier fire (we actually got the flames up to 11 feet at one point), it became easy to cook the morning’s breakfast on the remaining hot coals. Needless to say, it took a lot of water to put the thing out before we left.

Fire Frenzy for the last night

The hike back to “civilization” was not an easy one. In a rush to get back, I did not pace myself enough, needing longer breaks along the way. My handy tripod stool was used, helping to take a load off my (at that point) very sore feet. We did stop off a few times to snap some pictures and take our packs off, however, we managed to do the trek back in an hour less than the trip in. This should become a yearly event for our group. We all enjoyed it a great deal, testing ourselves and learning a great deal about ourselves along the way. I feel that most people could benefit from week-ends like this, getting back in touch with a lost part of our collective roots as settlers and explorers. Learning to work with nature again instead of ignoring it from the relative safety of our towns and cities is something that everyone should try and do.

Zen night in nature
Gear review!

While on the subject of gear, this was my 3rd outing with my Eureka bella coola 3. I feel that it is an excellent option for backpacking. Its specs mean that even taller folks can get in comfortably, even with two large packs. Remember to always use a simple formula when shopping for tents: reported size -1. So, my bella coola 3 is really a 2 person tent.

 I have also had the opportunity to confirm my hypothesis concerning my MSR pocket rocket: it is not designed to work with my MSI bugaboo. We had another incident while boiling potatoes… It was grim. Several Bothans died. Seriously though, the main cook pot is too large for the pocket rocket. I’ll use my pinnacle dualist instead next time.

 The final piece of gear I’ve used and recommend is the Neoair trekker by Thermarest. I have some back problems. Sleeping on this mat actually helped, something my oversized and expensive bed at home fails to deliver. The Neoair does have two drawbacks: the price and the noise it makes when moving on it. Although less noisy than the previous version, it’s still pretty annoying. My “roommate” said it wasn’t that bad. Then again, it wasn’t his ear on the damned thing. Still, great comfort if you can spare the cash.

Friday, August 10, 2012

There and back again, a hobbit’s tale – Or the end of sentier des crêtes.

Regardless of Cedric’s heavy capillary endowments and large appetite, this was truly the most challenging hike yet.  We were faced with a hard uphill journey for the initial part, but the views really were the best yet, allowing me to postulate that there is a proportional relationship between physical effort and quality of the views from the top… So without further ado, here’s our review of the last part in this trilogy.

First, you need to know this: if you begin this stretch of the hike from Orford’s parking lot, you’ll need to ask someone for assistance because there are no signs leading you to where you need to go*. After finding our way to the foot of the correct ski slope (thanks to a helpful grounds keeper) we began the long journey to the top. Please note that this is not a gradual climb to the top. There is no serpentine trail heading progressively to your goal. This is straight upwards, all the way to the top. The only real plateau was halfway up and had a collection of picnic tables. That was it for an organized rest area on the way to the top. Needless to say, a fair number of trees were painted yellow on this hike.

Essentially, you are looking at over 500 meters of elevation over a fairly short run. As you progress through untended brush (the slope we travelled had not been mowed since the previous fall), you only need to turn around to see progressively more impressive vistas and views of the eastern townships. Near the end of this trail, you will finally see a sign indicating that the sentier des crêtes starts here. We suggest you hold that though and finish Orford first.

What you’ll see at the top is some of the best views of the eastern townships that we had observed to date. It was well worth the strain. Especially getting a picture of Cedric doing a most excellent duck face. Good news: the top of orford has both bathrooms and garbage cans! Unfortunately, it also has chairlifts. This meant that we were not surrounded by fellow travelers but mostly by tourist. Still, they were nice (looking).

                                                 The man himself, doing the best high elevation duck face in history.

After wasting some time up there taking pictures and filming and attending other biological imperatives, we made our way back down to the wooded entrance of Sentier des crêtes; trading butterflies for horseflies in the process. The hike was even more technical then on the first stretch of this trail. Indeed, what it was lacking in climbing it made up for in tight spaces, rocky outcrops and difficult terrain. The vistas were beautiful: some mossy areas looked untouched by man. There were regular breaks in the dense tree cover through which we could see the impossible-seeming hill we had just climbed up and down. Later on, we had breath taking views of the surrounding region, seeing Sutton and other nearby hills.

We never actually made it back to pic de l’ours. Family obligations forced us to leave earlier. We estimate we were a full kilometer away when we stopped off for lunch. Once again, a hot meal was on the menu. A passing hiker actually wished us bon appétit. After a short hammock break on the side of the trail, we made our way back down to the parking lot.

Overall, this was an exceptional day and an awesome adventure. Our friendly oversized hobbit says we should make this a yearly event. I tend to agree. Although the hike was difficult at times, it was well worth the effort. This pretty much ended our summer hike series. Next time, we will regail you with stories from mont st-hilaire and a camping trip in the lanaudière region of Québec. Stay tuned, dear readers for merriment and more copy-infringing jokes!

*Since you’re asking nicely, just go to the furthest slope on the right. You’re welcome.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sentier des crêtes, vers le pic de l’ours, Parc National du mont Orford

     What is it with us and long hikes on high humidity days? I assume I’ll figure it out some day. In the meantime, here is a brief overview of an exceptional adventure. For all intents and purposes, this was my first difficult hike, ever. This proved both very challenging physically and helped create a great sense of accomplishment, although we only actually went on half of the sentier des crêtes.
     The path is reached by going to the community center parking lot in the Orford National park. It is a fairly simple drive to it from anywhere in southern Quebec. Afterwards, a mere kilometre and a half on bike path number nine separates you from the natural beauty of this trail.

     The path itself is very technical. By that I mean rocky, uneven and often times, steep and narrow. The higher reaches of the trail are attained fairly quickly and some great viewpoints are swiftly reached. The suggested time for that section of the trail is five hours. This may not apply to you if, like us, you enjoy taking your time.
  The first point of interest on this trail has no name and is located over 500 meters in elevation. It is located 125 meters off the path and is well worth the small detour. You will reach an excellent viewpoint, overlooking Stukely Lake. You’ll see nearby hills and get a distinct feeling that the view never ends. It only gets better from there.
     The next major stop, called Rocher fendu provides 270 degrees of pure bliss and relatively stable ground to enjoy it. We stopped here for several minutes, filming, taking pictures and generally enjoying the heck out of the place. At this point, a drop leads you across a narrow pass and over to the next unnamed viewpoint. From there, a difficult hike up leads you over to the pic de l’ours. The views were excellent and the breeze was very welcome, as the wind was almost absent from the difficult stretches of uphill trekking.
     Once again, there were no garbage cans to collect trash, but people here were better at picking up after themselves. We were able to hang our hammocks in a grassy knoll bellow the large rock formation that gives the place its name. That area was sheltered enough that we could use our cooking gear safely, and the ground was level enough that no spillage actually occurred, this time.

     Since this hike didn’t have an elevator at the end, we had to travel back. It was a long way down. Needless to say, we were pretty tired near the end. Out came the hammocks again, for a well needed rest. I cannot describe the pure enjoyment of using a hammock on a long hike to get some rest. I strongly suggest it.Overall, this was an amazing experience. Next time: mont Orford itself, over 800 meters tall. Until next time, farewell and stay safe on your own adventures.