Another kind of freedom

When I asked a friend, "Hey - do you want to paddle down Minnehaha Creek next Monday?", it didn't cross my mind for a second that next Monday was July 4th, America's great celebration of independence from the tea-guzzling evil British Empire - a day Americans normally spend burning the Union Jack and stomping furiously on hot cross buns.

Okay, not really. Well, not in Minnesota.

In any case, this was a big weekend - a major holiday in the land of the free (where most people don't have a lot of free time because they're holding down four jobs so they can pay off their debt, college fees, and healthcare bills - but hey, let's not quibble semantics). A pity, then, that political duelling in the state capitol resulted in a government shutdown, resulting in all state parks closing down during the busiest weekend of the year. My friend was worried that the put-ins on the creek would also be closed, but I was more concerned about the volume of water flowing through it. This year, the tiny river running through the heart of Minneapolis has had up to seven times its normal volume. I was concerned that my newbie packrafting skills would not be up to the speed of the creek as is passed through the swanky neighborhood of Edina, making its sharp twists and turns past the grandiose homes of the plastically-enhanced Minnesotan elite.

We went on a reconnoitre expedition in the morning to check the conditions, having heard that some bridges were impassable owing to high water. Fortunately, the water volume had reduced, and, apart from a few downed trees in the middle of some exciting class II rapids, it all looked pretty good. We decided to celebrate our freedom from the tyranny of state-owned park ownership, government shutdown be damned.

We weren't the only ones.

I was a little nervous while inflating the Denali Llama. I don't know why; it's a very tame river but it's also been a while since I've been on one, and this was the first time I'd taken the raft in any kind of current. As I  filled the cheerful blue raft with air, several children drifted by on inner tubes. Ian was a little concerned for their safety with the downed strainers, but I figured if a 10 year old can do this without a paddle, I have nothing to worry about. They seemed to be having a whale of a time. Of course in a tube you don't really have to worry about getting wet, as this is your default starting position, but I expected to get a good soaking anyway. It's all par for the course.

We set off, and immediately hit a series of rapids, fast turns, and strainers spanning the entire width of the creek! The kids in the inner tubes had either got out or somehow managed to negotiate their way past. I, on the other hand, had a quick lesson in trying to get over a downed tree while sitting in a raft being pulled in two directions at once (the wrong direction, and under the tree). But with a little effort and some gentle persuasion, I found a way past the obstacle, marvelling at the sturdiness of the Alpacka raft. I would probably have not got any further in a lesser, vinyl raft.

Fortunately, after the initial twisty-turny section, the creek calmed down a little and I was able to practise actually controlling the boat a little more. I got used to back-paddling to stay in place in the stream or slow down. I figured out that the lack of tracking can be problematic in a stream, and frequent rapid paddling is necessary across the current to avoid obstacles. The kayaks that swept by us occasionally had no problem maintaining a nice line, but without thigh-straps the packraft likes to spin around and go where the river wants to take you. It's fantastically maneuverable, but with that comes the price of unpredictability - at least in my inexperienced hands.

As we drifted downstream, I found myself enjoying the rapids, and looking forward to them. We're not talking major rapids here, but some nice 30cm waves that give enough of a thrill - enough to provide a brief moment of bander-snatchage as the stern was sucked back into a wave trough, and water spilled down behind my back and into the raft. Some rapid, determined paddling averted anything beyond a minor soaking, but the experience reiterated my belief that the new Alpacka stern designs would limit this a little more, and that, if I ever buy one of these, I will definitely get a fitted spray skirt! Going down anything even slightly more exciting than a basic class II without one would not be wise.

We stopped for a moment for a bite to eat, watching a couple of children drifting downstream using just their PFDs. They jumped out by us, ran up the river bank, and did it again, over and over, delighted. It was great to watch them enjoying themselves so much. When I was a boy, I was always a little afraid of water. I didn't learn to swim until I was 32, and always envied other children splashing around or playing  in the water. I'm no olympic medallist now, but I'm making up for lost time and opportunities.

One thing is certain though - paddling and photography do not mix. I took my iPhone in my

Haglöfs Watatait case

(thankfully, as otherwise I would now be without a phone), but a better option would be a GoPro Hero, helmet- or otherwise-mounted, and set to record either video or time-lapse images. Every time I got ready to take a photo the creek would turn and I'd have to quickly shove the camera somewhere safe. I tried shooting some video, but it looks more like the Blair Witch Project in a boat.

We stopped for a late lunch, which turned into a lengthy discussion of politics and whitewater rafting in Washington, before putting-in once again for the final stretch to Nokomis, where we had left the other car. I forgot to temper the raft at this point, so for the last couple of miles I endured a rather floppy and not very streamlined float along some flat water that took a lot of effort to paddle. My mistake. I wasn't supple enough to bend and use the inflation tube.

It was a beautiful afternoon, something I'd love to do again. There are so many rivers and creeks in Minnesota to explore, most of them gentle little things that drift along through bluffs and cottonwood-lined valleys. To have something like Minnehaha in the center of Minneapolis is something quite special though - a relaxing ride with a couple of fun runs, all for free.

That's my kind of freedom. Government shutdown be damned.

Wild River State Park, MN

After what seemed like an eternity, a window of opportunity opened. I'd been getting crabby and a little depressed at home, sure signs that I needed a little outdoor alone-time, so I was eager to seize a chance to stretch my legs. But where to go?

For quick overnight trips, I often go to Afton State Park. It's near the Twin Cities, and is a pleasant enough escape. But I've been there I think three times in the last year now. It was getting a little too familiar, so I started looking for somewhere new nearby.

There are several State Parks, State Forests, and other managed lands scattered around Minneapolis and St. Paul. What I wanted was to camp near water, and scout out a few areas for some packrafting later on.  Jeremy at Trek Lightly mentioned the Governor Knowles State Forest in Wisconsin, but when I checked it out the website informed me that I'd have to book a campsite 7 days in advance. I can't stand booking campsites in advance. To me it's anathema to the whole point of being outside. It's too planned, and makes me feel too much like I'm part of an administrative system, rather than a free spirit. I want to camp when and where I feel like camping.

I was looking at St. Croix State Park, the largest state park in Minnesota, but it only offered two backpacking sites - a bit of a disappointment. Thankfully Jeremy came to the rescue again and recommended Wild River SP. Seven sites, 37 miles of trails, the St. Croix river, and no need to book anything in advance.

After a late start, I made the hour drive north, and arrived after the office closed. It's necessary to pre-pay for a backpacking site, and to declare which site you will stay at. The park seemed empty to me, and as nobody was there to tell me any different, I just scribbled something random on the form and let it be.

Eager to set off, I found a parking site, shouldered my huckePACK, and set off - only for disaster to strike moments later. I'd left something in the car; something vital, and slightly illegal as it is not permitted within the state parks. For this reason I will not divulge what said item was, except that it rhymes with Durban.

So, fully packed, with LT4 poles extended, I set off again, heading toward the section of the park where several backpacking sites were located, making a brief stop to fill up with water (the park guide states that water is not available at backpacking sites, which is not strictly true. What it means is that backpacking sites have not been fitted with taps/faucets - there is plenty of water around to collect and filter.)

As the trail led steadily uphill through some pleasant woodland I heard a strange sound. A distinct


. The kind of irritated, guttural growl that could only be one thing: a bear. I cursed my apparent animal magnetism. Still, I knew I'd be heading away from that sound, and as I could also hear a chicken somewhere in the distance I decided to concentrate on that instead.

Before long I reached the summit, if we can call the top of a small hill a summit. An unusually English-looking scene spread out before me; rolling hills, clumps of trees and bushes, even a oak tree. I felt oddly nostalgic.

I passed a couple of the backpacking sites - Aspen Knob and Breezy Valley. Both seemed pleasant enough, but I didn't want to camp in a forest of leafless trees. I wanted a view, and headed onwards.

A small stream soon blocked my path, and offered me a chance to put my Terroc 330s to the test. I happily sloshed across, shoes and socks getting soaked, and was pleased to find my merino socks kept my feet warm as the shoes slowly dried out along the trail. It's a most liberating feeling, and it put a big smile on my face.

Not long after this, the landscape opened out again onto a large meadow. Frogs warbled from a pond as I  passed by, heading to a potential campsite overlooking the field.

When I found the site, I mulled over the possibility of staying there. Sadly, some previous visitors had left a bunch of beer cans lying around. After collecting them up, I assessed the lay of the land. If I stayed here, I'd have a nice morning view. I might even see some coyote (or that bear) crossing the meadow. But something felt wrong. Maybe it was that large mound and the suspicious holes indicating some kind of burrow nearby.

I checked the map. It wasn't far to the river, and a canoe campsite which looked promising. On my downloaded map it was marked as a canoe/backpacking site, but on the park map it was just for canoeists. Sod it. I'd take a look anyway. I was pretty sure nobody else would be there - I hadn't seen a single soul so far. The only risk would be if it was under the flood water.

I raised my hand up to the setting sun. Three fingers between it and the horizon. About three hours. More than enough time to get to the river and back if necessary, and still have time to spare to set up camp. I set off again.

It was really no distance at all, just a mile or so. But when I arrived I found perfection - exactly the kind of site I was looking for.

A perfectly manicured, riverside campsite, complete with picnic table and fire grate. Luxury. Hardly a backcountry feeling, but I wasn't complaining. I took a little time to look around before setting up the SpinnTwin and bivy.

The sun began setting as I gathered kindling and tried to find some dry wood for the BushBuddy to eat.

All around, the sounds of nature filled the air. An owl hooting a real


. Some swans agitated at my presence. The splosh of a beaver diving.

The wood was a little wet, but with a vaseline soaked cotton ball, the BushBuddy soon had a good burn going, and my bland Beef Stroganoff was ready in no time. One day, I hope to try Fuzion's backpacking meals. Hopefully soon.

I poured a little of that which rhymes with Durban into my Kupilka kuksa, and sipped away my abstract fears. Of course there are no bears! They're not mentioned on the info leaflet, and thus they are far, far away.

This trip, I remembered to bring some additional shock cord to attach my Exped pillow to my POE Ether Elite. It was perfect. Absolutely no slippage.

I also figured out a great way to attach the bivy, mattress, and quilt together. The Katabatic Bristlecone has two sets of internal attachment points. I clipped the pad to the lower set, and my GoLite quilt to the upper, and had probably the best night's sleep I have ever had outdoors.

The stars were bright, the air increasingly cold. During the night I awoke to find myself surprisingly chilly. Fortunately I'd packed my hot socks and BPL Cocoon pants – possibly my greatest recent purchase – and after slipping into them I returned to a deep sleep.

I cannot emphasise enough how great it is to sleep in a quilt compared to a sleeping bag. I no longer have to wrestle with hoods and draw cords at night, and I sleep as well as I do at home. It's possible that the Durban helped, but the quilt has transformed my nights beyond belief.

I decided to take the SpinnTwin with me this time as the weather was getting warmer, and I hadn't used it since last summer. I have to say that waking up under an open tarp, with a view through the large bug mesh window of the Bristlecone (I had is closed as protection against the cold) is pure joy.

When I crawled out from the shelter though, I found that it was considerably colder than the forecast had predicted.

A thick layer of frost coated everything, the side effect of sleeping next to a large body of water. Much of my carefully collected stash of twigs was now damp, so I went in search of more.

Mist rose from the river, shrouding everything.

I didn't have much luck finding dry wood, and had to make do with what I could scrape together. Damp kindling and moist twigs do not a good fire make, and for the first time, the BushBuddy struggled to bring my pot to a boil - taking almost 40 minutes of continuous, frustrated coaxing.

But eventually it worked. Oatmeal was consumed. The SpinnTwin was taken down. The amazing huckePACK was loaded. And I was ready for a morning stroll.

I was in no hurry to return, so decided to take the long way back to the car and explore the park a little more.

As the sun rose and the mist evaporated, I followed a trail along the banks of the St. Croix.

I followed old military trails and logging tracks dating from the early 1800s.

Suddenly, a flash of white above me. From the treetops, a bald eagle swept into the air. As usual I fumbled for my camera, too slow to capture it. It flow across to an island and landed near it's nest, watching me.

Further along the trail a came across what I assume was it's lunch (there were no nests nearby anyway).

At the site of an old logging dam I turned away from the river and headed inland, towards the prairies.

The variation of landscapes in the park was very pleasant. Form hills to river, meadows to forest, thicket to prairie, it's a nicely rounded park which I had all to myself.

As the sun rose higher, it was time to try out my new "Survivorman" outfit.

Fortunately, I only had a few more hours to spend in the park, and no reason to start eating weevils. Instead nibbled on a delicious Tanka Buffalo bar and some dried cranberries.

Refreshed from trail food, and the trail itself, I found myself once again at the parking lot. I'd walked 8 miles - which surprised me. I felt I'd walked two or three at most. Such is the light-footed feeling one gets with trail runners like the Terrocs and a lighter load. I could have happily gone on all day, taking the longer path, following whatever diversion I happened upon. I felt relaxed, renewed, happy to have been exploring somewhere new.

I thought back on my fears yesterday – about that bear I heard, and that I thought I would assuredly see at some point. I must have been mad. A bear? When I could hear chickens? And no mention of bears in the park information. No signs about bear hanging. What was I thinking?

As I drove out the park, and passed a farm on the boundary I realised...

That bear I heard was probably a cow.

To Afton, and beyond...

Another last minute decision. The temperature is cold enough – it'll be at least -10C tonight. I know I've been putting it off – finding excuses not to go because this or that needs to be done. It's only one night and now I've run out of excuses. If I don't go tonight, I don't know when I'll get a chance again to test out the gear. The plan is to go for a longer trip in February, but February is a cruelly short month, over before you know it. Winter slips by like sand in an hourglass. I want to head out for longe, but with our first baby on the way hiking plans have to take second place. This one night might be the only opportunity for a while, and I should make the most of it. After all, one night is better than no night.

Over the winter, I've built up a collection of gear to supplement and enhance my rather limited set of cold-weather kit. Most of it has remained untested in snow and cold. I really wanted to make sure my new winter clothing and sleeping system could handle the varying weather conditions we get in Minnesota. Unlike Lapland, where the sun hangs so low it offers little or no heat until March or April, Minnesota is at the same latitude as Southern France and the sun rises high enough to warm the ground even in deepest winter. It's not uncommon to have a -15C air temperature and melting snow on the ground. Night and day temperatures veer wildly between extreme cold and not-unpleasant, spring-like warmth. This makes selecting gear that much harder. You're not simply going to be cold; you're going to sweat, then get cold, which is never fun.

Last Autumn, you may recall, I didn't get a chance to test out my Laufbursche huckePACK. So today, it was the first thing out of the gear closet. I grabbed my Multimat Adventure CCF pad to give it some structure, and crammed my WM Antelope into a stuff sack. Opening the pad wide enough inside the pack to accommodate the bulky winter bag was a chore. It barely fit. I made a mental note to try stuffing the bag in first next morning, and then slip the mat on top. That worked much better.

The huckePACK is a surprisingly large pack. I wasn't packing particularly sensibly, but there was still plenty of room for more gear once I'd squeezed everything in. It carries extremely well. My pack weight was around 7kg, and I didn't notice the pack's presence at all while hiking. The presence of load lifters makes a big difference - especially when a pack is loaded high. The larger main outer pocket takes a snow-claw and DuoMid as it it were made for them. As for the other two pockets, they are roomy, but I found I would prefer the angled side pocket to just be a simple rectangular style; my water bottle fell out while I was bending to fiddle with snow shoe buckles. The other side pocket, while rectangular, has a cut in the side to allow access. It's handy, but I was worried about losing my kuksa and tent stakes. It's a matter of personal choice – some people like to access the side pockets while wearing the pack, but I'm not dextrous enough. I'll fix a couple of shock cord cinches to them to keep things nice and secure.

I used a four-section piece of Z-lite on the back of the pack for added padding. I originally thought that the shock cord holding it in place would not be sufficient, but it did a great job. The pad never moved, and was very comfortable. It was also a great thing to take with me – serving as a kneel pad, sit pad, and added insulation for my back at night. don't leave home without one!

I'm driving to Afton. A bald eagle swoops down out of nowhere. It always amazes me to see them. Even in central Minneapolis, by the Mississippi, I often see them scoping out the river banks for mice. It is a good sign. I stop by the park office. No trouble getting a campsite today. Down to the end of the road. I take out the pack, and buckle up the snow shoes. Off we go.

Joe tipped me off on some good and reasonably priced ski-poles – the

Black Diamond Traverse

. A two-section pole, with a simple flick lock tightener. Light enough, sturdy, simple, and strong enough for the DuoMid. Their cheerful orange colour doesn't hurt in the snow either. They even match my Lightning Ascents. It's important to be fashion conscious while hiking. You never know who you'll meet.

I trek down the hill, taking a winding, narrow, steep path through some aspen. My snow shoes crunch, gripping tight. There is a trail, but I decide to head off track through deeper snow.

And now another hill – up this time. Time to raise the heel lifters. I'm glad I have them. It's not a big hill, but it's enough to point out my state of unfitness. I wonder how the guys in Bozeman and Colorado do this all the time. I seriously need to exercise more!

I chose not to wear my

Aclima WarmWool

top. The temperatures were not cold enough, and I was worried I'd be sweating buckets in it. Instead I went with my good old Haglöfs synthetic baselayer. It dries incredibly quickly after a workout, and my only complaint is that the torso length is a little short. I often find this though. My shirts ride up too easily. I wish more manufacturers would offer a long body option.

Up in the camping area. Not many people have been here – no tracks, and deep snow. I'm not sure where I'm going to stay, but I find one site that people have been in recently. It's a good spot – under a stand of birch, shielded from the wind but with a view over the prairie. They obviously dug into the snow, and I decide to take advantage of their work. I lay out the DuoMid and stake down the corners, leaving the snow to sinter while I head off to explore the park some more.

It probably would have been easier to just set up on fresh snow. I don't know why the people before me felt the need to dig down to the cold ground, but I thought the walls around the shelter might save me building a wind break. As it was, I had to dig into them and construct slots for my

REI Parachute Stakes

.  I was a little concerned that they wouldn't be strong enough to hold the DuoMid in place. It requires a fair amount of tension to maintain a taut pitch, but I shouldn't have worried. It is amazing how strong a snow-anchor can be once it's set. In one corner I had to use a

MSR Blizzard

stake. I'd not used one before, but after scratching a line in ice, it slipped in nicely, horizontally, and after I buried it in snow, it held fast. I find the snow parachutes to be better – more flexible, easier to set in snow, sand or with rocks. Plus, they weigh next to nothing.

For working around camp, I used a

Snow Claw

- a cheap, plastic, emergency snow shovel. It did the job, but next time I'll take a decent shovel (maybe a Black Diamond Deploy 3) as shuffling around on my knees with the snow claw killed my back.

As for gloves, I had four pairs with me. Well, three technically, as the

Montane Resolutes

are a layered set. The pile and pertex inners are prefect for snow work; they don't get wetted out in the snow, which is more than I can say for the air of thicker PowerDry liner gloves I was wearing at first. Stupid of me I kno, but the cold does that to you. Anyway, in this case, PowerDry didn't dry very well. The good thing about the resolutes is that if it does get wet and windy you can slip the eVent mitts over the top. My final pair of gloves were a cheap pair of thin liners, which are great for doing odd jobs around camp that you might need your fingers for. Next time, I'll skip the PowerDry pair.

I stomp through the snow, making a path through the trees, across the whitened prairie, going nowhere in particular. That's the beauty of snow shoeing, I think to myself. Go anywhere in perfect silence.

I skirt around an island of trees. As I pass, the wind starts biting into my face. I slip on the wind shirt, glad I decided to bring it at the last minute. Which way? Which way now?

Into the open white expanse. Deep, untouched snow. Even my snow shoes can't float above this soft powder. I struggle on, knees lifted high, toppling now and then into a drift. I smile as I push myself up and on, the wind still at my heels. I'm hungry.

The Tanka Bar, is, in my humble opinion, the best snack ever. Pounded buffalo (well, technically bison) meat with cranberries, produced by a start-up company on Pine Ridge reservation, 150 calories, and weighing in at only 1oz. Also available in a spicy hot version! (Commercial over.)

Restored, I plough on, heading back towards the campsite, excited to finish setting up the shelter and getting some food on the go. It's hard work though – sometimes the shortest route is the hardest. When I see the bright yellow of my shelter I am relieved. The snow has set hard. Everything is going to be okay. I just need to get some water. I take off my shoes and head along a packed path, and immediately discover why snow shoes are necessary. With every other step I posthole into the snow. The return journey, as I stumble back with a pot of water is frustrating, to say the least. I make a mental note not to try that again. 

Food. Yummy, delicious, dehydrated food. Or not. I decided to try a different brand of organic dried ginger and sesame pasta. I don't really know why I did this as the idea of ginger and sesame pasta sounds awful to me now. I think I didn't want to eat a huge pack of Backcountry Pantry, and this brand made smaller, 1.5 serving packages. My mistake. It was awful.

But let's look on the bright side... my

Primus Express Spider

was wonderful.

Fast and efficient, not too noisy, lightweight and simple to use. My boil time was a little slow as I didn't bother to take a wind break, but nothing to worry about. My GSI Haluite pot was large enough to boil enough water for the meal a nice cup of Russian Caravan tea which I drank from a

Kupilka Kuksa

for the first time – about which more will follow in another post.

As I sit eating in silence, I notice my legs and feet getting colder. The temperature is falling with the sun. Somewhere, not too far away, a pack of coyotes start howling.

It's time to enter Ice Station Zebra.

I don't usually suffer from cold feet – cold hands, yes, but my feet usually run hot. But hanging around in camp in slightly damp boots is when hot feet turn cold.

I was a little worried about this, so did a lot of research into keeping my feet warm and dry in camp and while on the move. I know a lot of people swear by vapour barrier liners, but I feel they are really not for me. Layering systems are vital for winter, but I'd just get annoyed with a complex layering system on my

feet. It's enough hassle putting snow shoes on and adjusting buckles without fiddling with waterproof socks, plastic bags, and overboots.

I bought a pair of

Integral Designs Hot Socks

to slip on in camp, and a pair of Tyvek booties to pull over them so I could walk around in camp (or, as was the case, slide around in camp – they are quite slippery on snow). These were just about adequate. At first I tried squeezing my Hot Sock enclosed feet back into  my Vasque GoreTex boots. It was a tight fit, but helped to dry them out a bit more. In colder weather, a pair of down booties would be better.

In the leg department, my

BPL Cocoon Pants

were excellent. Super lightweight (213g), really warm, and water resistant. Just perfect. I'm very happy with them. They are very flexible as part of a layering system.

Time for bed. I pack used things away loosely and pile everything inside the DuoMid. Out with the CCF pad and air mattress. Puff up the sleeping bag. Do I need the bivy bag? Probably not, but it won't hurt. Air pillow – check. With a luxury lantern all is good. I curl up inside the bag, the air cold on my face.

Foolishly, I forgot to make a shock cord system to attach the Exped pillow to my Ether Elite, so once again I was in for a nocturnal wrestling match as I tried to reposition the pillow from within the cocoon of my sleeping bag. Every time I got it in position, it moved when I got back inside the bag. Over and over again,

ad nauseum


And I'm really torn about the sleeping bag. The WM Antelope is well made, warm, and fairly light. The hood cinches down tight and at night, in winter, when all you want is to be cosily tucked up and protected from the cold and the wind, a mummy bag is perfect. But when it comes down to it, I'm a side sleeper, and mummy bags are made for back sleepers. I would be far better served by a quilt and a separate down hood – much like the set up that



. The only problem is that I'm not convinced a quilt is the best solution (for me) in true cold.

Sure, in a mummy bag, the down beneath you is compressed and inefficient. And that night, I did start to feel the cold radiating up from the ground. This was mainly because the Multimat Adventure and Ether Elite 6 were not enough even together for anything below -10C. After I slipped the 4-section Z-lite under my hips (this is where I felt the cold from, mainly) it was a little better, but still not perfect.

Perhaps the only solution is a quilt in combination with a down/synthetic filled air mattress. I don't know, but it's an expensive thing to try and find out I'm still not warm enough.

The Antelope is rated to -15C, and I feel this is very accurate. I wouldn't want to take it below that. In colder weather, I could easily extend it's range by combining it with the Golite 3-Season quilt, but the main place I felt the cold was under my hips, and that problem is more likely related to my baselayer riding up and the pads not being warm enough. Perhaps

Kooka Bay's secret down pad

is worth a look.

I picked up a balaclava for the trip, but in the end found it wasn't warm enough. I was warmer just sleeping in my

Mountain Hardwear windproof fleece hat

. This is my go-to had for everything. Possibly the warmest hat I own.

Still, even with all these gripes, I had a relatively good night's sleep after midnight.

Dogs barking somewhere. Talking to each other it seems. At least I think they are dogs. Maybe they are rabid coyotes? And now – distant sirens. They must be in Afton. What the hell's going on? Was that gunfire? It sounded like it. Maybe a farmer is shooting coyotes? Or maybe the police are hunting an escaped convict, and he's going to run through the state park, trying to evade them. What if he finds my shelter? Maybe he'll shoot me! Calm down. There are no rabid coyotes or escaped convicts. There are no rabid coyotes or escaped convicts. There are no......Zzzzzzzz.

I wake up early, with the light. I still have both legs and no gunshot wounds. I decide to make coffee to celebrate.

Thankfully, I remembered to keep my water bottle and boots inside the bivy bag, close enough to my body to keep them warm.

The main reason for getting the Spider was the ability to use the gas in 'inverted' mode during winter, to ensure an appropriate mixture of fuels reached the stove. After warming the pre-heating tube, the stove lit immediately – which was a relief as this was the first time I'd attempted this.

While the method of ignition was fine, the stove slid around on the thin aluminium pad. I'm going to need to make something similar to the

MYOG stove pad over at Thunder in the Night

. But for this night, I would manage with some careful balancing.

The inside of the DuoMid – as expected – was covered in frost, but this shook off easily when breaking camp.

To be honest, I'm surprised there wasn't more, but the wind, which picked up in the night, probably helped disperse some condensation.

Coffee and oatmeal. Then another coffee. I'm ready to go. I crawl out into the day, and start shuffling around, packing up, excavating stakes, and – what's that? A fox dashes out of the trees. I rush for the camera, fumbling with the lens cap – too late. It's gone. It seemed happy, bounding along with the same expression my Springer has in the snow; pure glee.

Can dogs and foxes can know glee? I remember something I read about babies in the womb. Apparently at around 19 weeks, they can dream. But what do they dream of? They haven't seen anything yet; their eyes are still closed. Do they dream of sounds? Amniotic tastes? Movement? Heartbeats?

There it is again! The fox! It's taking exactly the same route as before! It's like the deja vu cat in The Matrix. This time I'm ready. I grab the camera, raise it – but the lens is too wide, and apparently covered in frost.

Can you see the fox? It's in there, somewhere!

I'm packed up and ready to go. I strap on the snow shoes. I think I'll take the long way out, and go for a walk around the park some more. It's a beautiful morning. Crisp and fresh. My show shoes crunch along. I'll be home soon enough, but not yet...

For some reason that morning, the snow shoe bindings were not quite right. With every step they would clatter and rebound with a double tap-tap. It became so irritating I had to re-adjust them twice, but to no avail. It seems that with large boots, the bindings can rub against the edge of the floatation platform, causing them to flip-flop up and down. The manual informs me that I can cut a curve out and remedy the problem. Add that to the list of little things that need fixing then!

Down the hill, stomp stomp stomp. A beautiful trail down to the St Criox River. As before, I feel refreshed; lighter somehow, as if I've shaken off some burdens.  There's a lot to look forward to this year. 

"Big changes are coming, here they come..." 

An old favourite Laurie Anderson song rolls around  my head. How did it go? Oh yes...

"What next, big sky?"

Miscellaneous Snowbank Lake Gear Notes

A little late, but I have a few left-over gear, ongoing-use notes that don't yet qualify for full review status...

Kooka Bay air pillow
I ordered a custom sized pillow from Kooka Bay. It's the first time I've used an air pillow - previously I used my clothes bag, but when carrying fewer clothes the bag started to get a little uncomfortable. I sleep on my side, and like a large, comfy pillow, so i hoped that the Kooka Bay would suit me.

I feel a little underwhelmed by it, to be honest. It is light - 63g - slightly les than the Exped pillow (85g), but the nylon material is quite slippery, and I never got entirely comfortable on it. Half inflated, my head lolled around, and even with silicone spots glued underneath it still slid around on the Ether Elite.

One of the other hikers had an Exped pillow, and the surface on that was quite soft in comparison - it has a coating which just feels nicer against the skin. The shape - a crescent - is more suited to side-sleepers also, and the internal supports are vertical rather than horizontal, which I believe would limit that lolling around feeling I got with the Kooka Bay.

I have to say I'm still on the fence about pillows; I'm wondering if they are really worth their weight.

Golite UltraLite 3 Season Quilt - Long
Golite's recent trend of going-slightly-heavier continued when they re-released the Golite Ultra 20 with a little more down and a more water-resistant material on the footbox and shoulder, and called it the Golite UltraLite 3 Season. Mine weighs in at 837g, which isn't bad, but there are much lighter quilts out there.

I've slept in it now about 10 nights, and really enjoyed the freedom of movement a quilt provides. It's plenty warm enough for spring and autumn, but a little too warm for summer (at least in Minnesota).

The waterproof breathable Pertex Shield foot and shoulder material sheds condensation from the tarp inner very well, and inside a bivy it's very cosy. I could prabably get away without the bivy under the DuoMid.

I have the long version, and there was plenty of length for me to pull over my head and snuggle down underneath. In theory it could be used in moderate winter conditions, but I prefer a full sleeping bag to keep out the chills.

POE Ether Elite 6
I found this pad to be comfortable and warm enough without an under pad - although the conditions were not cold enough to need that anyway. I definitely felt less likely to roll off the pad, compared to the NeoAir.

I added some silicon drops to the base of the pad to stop it sliding around in the bivy, but they didn't adhere properly to the pad material. I'll try pasting some on the bivy next time. I managed to improvise a solution tying the UltraLite's webbing around the pad and through the loops on the bivy floor. It worked well enough.

Out of NeoAir habit, I under-inflated the pad, and by morning found I had a numb arm. Next time I'll try a full inflation.

On the whole, I was satisfied, and at 396g for a long it's a good weight - but POE have already discontinued it, and released an improved version with a NeoAir-style reflective insulation.  I look forward to reading more about that when some reviews come in.

Sawyer Water Filter
Once again, where other people's SteriPens failed, the trusty Sawyer continued to filter water at a rapid pace. It is infinitely better than my old MSR pump filter - one of my hiking companions was using the Hyperflow and faced the same efficiency meltdown that I did last year up in the Boundary Waters. But the Sawyer just keeps on flowing. No technology to go wrong. No batteries needed. It just works. 71g of worry-free water, at about 1 liter a minute.

But... I managed to break off the outlet nipple while trying to remove the tubing. Fortunately, duct tape solved the problem, at least for the duration of the trip.

BushBuddy Ultra
It might take a little longer than firing up a gas stove, but the BushBuddy just gives me wood-fuelled joy every time I use it. It's fun to gather fuel from the trail and around camp, and relaxing to feed the flames and watch the pot boil.

Inov-8 Terroc 295
These were great to walk in. I loved the grip, and the protection around the toes and sides kept sharp rocks and sticks away from my feet. The mesh ventilated well, and dried very quickly. I didn't have to make many river crossings, but I did give them a good soaking in a lake just to test how they (and I) coped with wet feet, and how long it took them to dry while walking. Walking was fine when wet, and they were dry in 1-2 hours.

The shoes are deliriously light compared to anything else I own - even sandals - and although I didn't spend a long time wearing them in, I had no discomfort during the hike.

About a week after the trip, a horrible pain flared up in my foot. I don't know what it was because as usual I couldn't be bothered to go to the doctor, but it felt and looked like tendonitis, and lasted about a week. Whether this was a result of the Inov-8s I do not know, but I suspect it might have been the result of not being used to non-supportive shoes and using them on a long distance hike.

But I'm wearing them still and feeling fine, so maybe it was something else.

MLD Burn
The Burn was packed just about to it's limit. I don't know why, but I seemed to be carrying more weight than I should, even after paring the pack list down. But for most of the hike the Burn handled it comfortably and without any trouble.

The mesh pockets do require some care, and there were a couple of occasions when a branch snagged the pack and I was worried that it might have ripped the mesh - but no. It held up well to some pretty hard trail conditions.

The pack is very slim, but there's plenty of room for all the accoutrements of UL hiking, and the roominess of the mesh pockets is great. The front pocket fits a DuoMid with ease.

The top of the front mesh pocket was the only problem - the elastic tensioner at the top of the pocket kept disappearing into the Dyneema sleeve. It definitely needs a couple of plastic toggles to prevent this. A modification is in order!

The hip belt, under a full load, sits just a touch above my hips, but as it's not really supposed to be a load-bearing hip belt, that's not a huge deal. However, after three days, I did find my shoulders were aching, which leads me to believe that the Burn is really best suited to very minimal summer trips.

At 414g, it's super-light, too.

MLD Duomid
The Duomid was almost perfect. With all the talk about Trailstars recently I began to wonder whether I'd picked the right shelter. What I like about the Duomid is that I can leave the doors open if I choose, creating a kind of three-sided lean-to. It's extremely simple to pitch, and easy to tweak into storm-worthy mode.

Nitpicks? The need to clip-up the bottom when zipping or unzipping, maybe, to ease tension off the zipper - that's a bit fiddly. It also takes up a fair amount of space - which makes it a little tricky in forested spaces - and needs a relatively flat spot to pitch it well. To achieve a vertical pitch on a slope you end up with the head end low the the ground and the foot end pretty high. Last, it's a little heavy (614g, guys and stuffsack included). It seems ridiculous to say that, but the SpinnTwinn feels lighter than air at 305g.

My main preference over what I've seen of the Trailstar so far is that I don't have to crawl to get in it, although I'm told that it's entrance is about the same height as the SpinnTwinn.

Haglöfs Trail Pants
I've had these for some years now, and they no longer have the product name  visible anywhere, but they are my go-to hiking trousers for cooler temperatures. They are water-resistant, quick-drying, and very sturdy. They have reinforced, crampon-proof material on the bottom, breath well, and have a flexible material on the knees. They're not really UL (544g), but for clothing that I know I won't need to carry at any point, I don't really care. I have never been in a situation where I found myself saying "Damn, I wish my trousers were a bit lighter."

Disappointment Mountain - Snowbank Lake, MN

It was cold. Deliciously cold. After six months of humidity, the weather had finally broken and autumn was rolling in. I shook off the DuoMid and the polycryo ground sheet, repacked everything in my MLD Burn, and headed off with Len and Jan to meet Fred and Brad at the ranger station.

Fred had organised this trip through meetup.com. Last year I hiked with him on the Sioux Hustler Trail, and this year he chose a route around Snowbank Lake near Ely, MN. We planned to take in an additional loop to check out some old pines, and explore a rarely-visited trail over the charmingly-named Disappointment Mountain.

We were a mixed group. Jan, the oldest, from Poland. Len from Belarus. Brad from Bemidji, and Fred from Finland - Finland, Minnesota, that is. I don't usually like hiking in large groups; too much noise, and not enough flat tent places. But I wanted to get out, and this was a good opportunity to test out a load of new gear.

After a quick breakfast at the trailhead, we set off on the first leg, a 13 mile hike to Medas Lake along the Kekekabic Trail and Old Pines Loop. The trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildreness (BWCAW) are rarely hiked and often hard to find. The frequent storms in the area guarantee a lot of treefall across the trail, so I had a pretty good idea that the 32 miles we planned to walk would be long and hard. I was correct.

The early part of the trail was fairly easy going. My MLD Burn was pretty light, weighing in at 8.2kg, or around 9 with the water bottle.

I did make one adjustment early on: I'd set up my Sawyer water filter to work inline between the dromedary and the hydration tube, but it was too much effort to suck the water through the tube. I simply removed the hydration tube and filtered water into the platy-bottle. In the end this method was less hassle anyway.

Considering that the other guys were carrying packs weighing 15 to 18kg(!) it wasn't long before I started to get enquiries about lightweight backpacking. By the end of the three days, all the guys were talking about getting lighter packs, sleeping bags, tarps, and hiking poles (the Gossamer Gear LT4s really impressed them). When you see their packs, you can understand why next time they hike, they won't be bringing three spare, heavy shirts!

The trail became progressively more remote and wild, and at one point the three guys in front took a wrong turn, missing the almost invisible path through overgrown young aspen and wild raspberry.

It's a shame beavers can't be trained to clear trails.

By mile 10 we were getting pretty tired of climbing over or swinging under fallen trees. We almost decided not to take the slightly longer trail around Old Pines Loop, but in the end our decision to do so was worth it.

In Minnesota, most of the virgin forest has been logged, and only a few stands of old trees exist. When you come across them they are magnificent. Tall, giant, strong; standing tall against storms for over a hundred years.

Above us stretched a vast canopy of pine, shading out the sun.

Most of the people in the BWCAW are canoeists. If you're on the water you can expect to see plenty of other people. Very few even know there are trails through the woods, with secret campsites hidden away up from the water's edge, on remote lakes almost impossible to reach by canoe. That night, ours was on Medas Lake.

It was getting late. We quickly set up camp, and I scavenged for fuel for my BushBuddy Ultra.

That night, the stars were spectacularly clear. Well away from any other light pollution, the Milky Way spread out above us. Even Andromeda was visible (I know this, because I used Pocket Universe to locate it!)

After hanging the bear bags, I retired into my DuoMid for the night. I slept erratically, woken by the THWACK of beaver tails on the water, warning each other of our presence.

The air chilled again overnight, falling well below the dew point. I slipped past the condensation on the DuoMid, and into the eerie morning.

Mist hung in the air, veiling the landscape.

Dew coated the morning, highlighting the nocturnal activity that had taken place as we slept.

Under one spruce, I almost expected to find presents and tree-elves.

After firing up the BushBuddy for oatmeal and coffee, I shook off the condensation, packed the Burn, and we set off again.

The mist lifted to reveal a fine blue day as we made our way towards Disappointment Mountain.

Before our "ascent" we had to cross a beaver dam. I was hoping to get my Inov-8s wet, but the dam was so sturdy that this test would have to wait until later.

Perhaps it is the name that keeps people away, but the trail over Disappointment Mountain is one of the least travelled in the BWCAW. It is also one of the most overgrown. Because it stands slightly elevated above the rest of the landscape, it picks up the wind more, and consequently had many more downed trees.

The two-mile trail took us three hours to cross. By far the slowest going I've ever experienced on any trail.

The views were... from a slightly higher vantage point!

As we sat for an hour, 7 groups of canoeists trudged grumpily over the portage. In the confusion, some of them left empty water containers, and one group forgot to take their water filter.

We packed up and left, the lake now full of people enjoying their wilderness experience.

Today's section of the hike would only be 12 miles, but the bushwhacking across Disappointment had exhausted us. Thankfully, our route would now take us on a scenic circumnavigation of Snowbank Lake.

I appreciated the more open views. I love hiking, but walking through a continuous green tunnel is not my idea of an enjoyable trail. I'm much happier when I get some open vistas, and am able to see beyond the next four meters.

After 11 miles, we were all exhausted. We'd been climbing up and down for hours, through dense thicket, over trees, along a trail paved with sharp rocks and numerous bear sign. When we arrived at a tiny campsite with poor access to water our hearts sank. We had to continue to the next site - but all would be well.

Half a mile further along the trail we arrived at a far better site with plenty of pitching sites, and some good trees for Fred's Hennessey Hammock (he swears by it, but I could never sleep in it - still, a light alternative to a heavy tent).

With tired limbs, I gathered sticks for my evening meal.

I had to pitch the DuoMid quite high because of uneven, rocky ground. This, combined with a low dew point, resulted in absolutely no condensation in the night. Fantastic! And what a joy to wake up to sunrise over Snowbank.

I rose to explore the shore. Distant pockets of mist drifted over the water near islands and inlets.

A beautiful scene to accompany breakfast.

Although we only had 8 miles to the trail head, I would have been happy to spend a day here. It was an idyllic spot to sit and watch the lake, and would have made a nice resting site for a day. But we had to continue - through more uneasy terrain.

We came across a group of six hikers from Michigan who were complaining about the quality of the trail - so many fallen trees. I was worried that we'd have another section like Disappointment Mountain, but between meeting them and the trail head I counted four trees down. They were in for a real surprise when they got further around the lake.

As we climbed a hill, we were treated to a spectacular view of Snowbank and Disappointment Mountain in the distance - can you see it towering above the landscape?

The trail in fact became much easier for the last stretch, but my shoulders were aching and my feet sore from the uneven terrain.

Thirteen mile days are not so bad when the trail is good and the path is clear. I would estimate that an equivalent distance travelled on a better path would be around 20 miles. But this is the Boundary Waters - there are no well-trodden paths. Fallen trees block your path at every turn, and the trail will often disappear into thicket.

The trail head was a welcome sight.

(More detailed gear reports to follow...)

Kekekabic - Old Pines - Disappointment Mountain - Snowbank Lake at EveryTrail

Afton Quickie

I did a quick overnighter at Afton State Park again last night to test out some new gear before heading up next week to Snowbank Lake for a few days. Over the last few weeks I've been selling old gear and buying replacements, so I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to encounter anything unexpected.

Here are some notes:

MLD Burn

The Burn impressed me. Although it's slim, you can pack a lot in. I didn't bother compressing my down sweater or other clothes, but I think I'll do that for the longer trip. My load was about 5kg including food for the night, and the pack was pretty full. With a little more compacting and careful packing, I have no doubt that I can get 3 to 5 days out of it.

In my first impressions entry, Mac E asked about the mesh pockets. Having now briefly used them, I can say that they are strong - however, the widely-spaced mesh did catch on my platypus bottle. The collapsible bottle had quite sharp 90 degree corners at the base, which help it to stand upright. These snagged the mesh, making it difficult to get in the side pockets when filled with water. I initially thought I'd have to use a plastic spring water bottle instead, but then I realised I could just cut the sharp corners into a curve with the scissors on my Leatherman Micra. Hey presto - no snagging. Simple.

The hair clips I used to keep the hip pockets in place didn't work so well. The pockets kept detaching themselves. I had another idea when walking out: I'm going to try a paper clip. It'll be more secure, and even lighter!

The paradox of lightweight backpacking hit me as I strolled up the hill to the campsite. The lighter backpack you have, and the slighter the hip belt, the more the weight is transferred to your shoulders, thus negating the effects of the light backpack. I did notice that, although the pack felt light, my shoulders were bearing the weight. This didn't affect me much on this short hike, but I have a feeling that after hiking 14 miles per day next week, I'll be feeling it more.

I didn't find the hip belt uncomfortable, but it doesn't really serve much purpose apart from steadying the pack. The webbing of the belt was right over my hips, so the fit is quite perfect.

I'm happy with it so far, but next week's trip will test it more.

Sunrise over DuoMid

MLD DuoMid

This was the first time I slept in the DuoMid. As in my garden test, it was a cinch to pitch, and, as others have noted, I did appreciate its sunny disposition in the morning.

Naturally, for a single-walled shelter, it got covered in condensation, both in and out, but the design ensures that the water beads and runs down to the ground.

I fixed the iffy clasp on the zipper (it wasn't latching together properly, and was liable to work itself loose) by submerging it in boiling water and bending the tooth out with a screwdriver. Seemed to work.

The Easton 9" stakes I used are great - very sturdy and light.

The DuoMid is often described as palatial for one - it is exactly that. The space is luxurious. And it really is the ideal shelter for one man (or woman) and his (or her) dog.

I'm still not sure which shelter to take up north with me - the DuoMid or the SpinnTwinn. Both require staking out, and often the campsites up there are quite rocky. There should be enough trees to tie guys to, but for that I suspect the SpinnTwinn might offer me more flexibility. It'll certainly test my knot tying abilities (which are slowly but surely coming along).

Now for a triumvirate of new sleeping gear.

Katabatic Bristlecone Bivy


are pretty new on the scene, and not so well known yet, but I think that is going to change fast. The Bristlecone is very well made, with lots of thoughtful touches. Side entry. A half-mesh hood with the tie out loop in the right place and the loop made of elastic. Corner stake out points - which I didn't use, and places inside to tie their down quilt to.

I have a feeling those tie out points inside the bivy might also be in about the right place for the GoLite Ultralight quilt, and could also be used to secure a sleeping pad.

I had a few problems tying the hood up, but this was entirely my fault - I was trying to use shock cord, and couldn't tie an appropriate knot in it. Also, as I didn't stake down the bivy, the hood was pulled out of shape by the tie out.

In the end I left the hood open - there were hardly any bugs, apart from a couple of inquisitive spiders, and one mosquito that died for its sins. I almost didn't need the bivy at all, but it came in handy protecting the quilt from condensation.

I got the 6'6" version, which in theory should just fit my long Ether Elite. In fact, there was still plenty of room, and I experienced the same thing

Martin Rye at Summit and Valley

did - that the sleeping pad slides around quite a lot. I'll try painting a couple of SilNet "X's" on the inner floor of the bivy to reduce that.

I still need to get the hang of this bivy business, so I'm going to experiment in the garden a bit over the next week.

POE Ether Elite 6

I was worried that, as a side sleeper, I might not get on with this sleeping pad, but in fact it was fine. I slept pretty well. As I mentioned above, it does slide around a bit, and this is accentuated by even the gentlest slope. Nevertheless, it's very comfortable, and noticeably warmer then the NeoAir, especially in the torso area.

In the end, I'm glad I got the long, as I like to stretch out my feet and lie full length on my front sometimes. The long version allowed me to do this without dangling my feet off the bottom.

I did notice my arms getting colder when they slipped off the edge, so I'll need to bear that in mind when it gets colder.

I noticed my breath had condensed into moisture inside the pad in the morning. The material is light and thin, so you can see inside a bit. I'm not sure if that is going to be a mould problem over time. I've inflated it again and left it open to see if it dries out. This probably happened with the NeoAir also, but you can't see inside that.

Kooka Bay Pillow (Jolly Green Giant large size)

As I'm taking less clothes with me now, my stuffsack pillow was getting a little thin. I thought I'd try an air pillow, and hunted around for one of the Exped ones, but they are all sold out. On Backpacking Light I saw one of the MYOG guys had set up

Kooka Bay

to make UL pads and pillows, and ordered one of his super-light nylon inflatables. I asked him to make a larger one than his standard offering, because I have such a big head.

Again, it served its purpose well. I under inflated it, and it was comfortable, if slightly odd feeling (to me). It also slipped around on the sleeping pad, so more SilNet is needed I think.

My "gear of the trip" award goes to my new Kuksa. Hardly used, it still imbues everything with a salty tang, but it just feels right.

That's just about it for my Afton Quickie. Now I just need to make a few refinements and I should be all set for Snowbank.