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Generally Recognized As True: My recent camping trip (epic version)

Friday, September 12, 2008

My recent camping trip (epic version)

Well, finally, I am getting around to writing about the trip part of that Carnivale Lune Bleue visit I made back in August.

[ note: I am going to post random pictures amongst the text that don't really have any relevance to the position they're posted in. The pictures are of, in order
  • MSR Hubba tent in the front pocket of my pack
  • Hubba tent set up and in place
  • Rideau Canal coast from the campsite (aka the Mosquito Coast)
  • inside the very cozy (and other real estate terms for "small") tent
  • Omnifuel liquid fuel stove doing its job
  • Candle lantern
  • Me, home again ]
My original plan for this trip was over-ambitious: to take the train to Ottawa, take public transit as far south as it would go, and then walk to Rideau River park -- probably a 20+km walk, as well as carrying my stuff on rush hour transit, which would also have been a bad idea. I'd then have to walk to the carnival from the park, and back -- about 13km each way. In my review, I mentioned that I had to get back to the park by 10pm before it closed. Since it would have taken about 2 hours to walk back from the park, I would hardly have been able to see anything at all.

In retrospect, it was a good idea that I decided to rent a car in Ottawa instead. But the faulty premise above made me a bit shortsighted in the plan, because I ended up taking the train to Ottawa and renting a car from there. It would have been more efficient to get off the train earlier along the line at Smiths Falls and rent a car from there, saving both travel time and money. I would have avoided rush hour on Ottawa's highways and cut my driving by about 15km, in addition to possibly paying less for my train ticket. Adapting the original plan, rather than replanning, meant that I didn't consider those options.

The plan I actually used was to walk to the Georgetown GO station with my stuff, get on the VIA train to Toronto, transfer to the VIA train to Ottawa, and then walk about 3km with my stuff to a car rental place I'd found in Ottawa. Then I planned to buy groceries and drive down to the park in the rental car. This worked as planned with no problems.

So, in whatever plan I used from above, I still had to carry everything in one bag on my back in order to make it portable for the train and carry it on the walking segments. I used an MEC Ibex 80, and it was very well-suited to the job. Within that bag, I was able to pack:

  • MSR Hubba tent
  • Primus Omnifuel stove
  • MEC Drake sleeping bag
  • MEC Kelvin sleeping pad
  • 0.5L liquid fuel bottle, filled with white gas
  • lightweight frying pan with detachable handle (doubles as plate/bowl)
  • lightweight Nalgene cup (doubles as measuring cup)
  • UCO candle lantern
  • LED flashlight
  • Leatherman Wave II multi-tool (Swiss army knife type of device with can opener, saws, etc).
  • camping pillowcase (soft bag for stuffing with clothes to use as a pillow)
  • toiletry bag
  • lighter
  • MSR 8L dromedary bag (water storage)
  • light waterproof/breathable jacket
  • 1L Thermos (empty)
  • coffee percolator (doubles as tea kettle)
  • coffee, tea, sugar, powdered milk
  • light towel
  • clothes, including hippie cardigan
  • lightweight Nalgene spoon, fork, knife
  • MEC Dragonfly miniature backpack (for carnival trip), strapped to outside of the Ibex
  • camping soap (biodegradeable soap that works well in hot, cold, and salt water)
I took the 1L Thermos because I had no way of keeping things cold on the trip, and I wanted to keep some milk. I bought milk in Ottawa and kept it in the Thermos. This worked well, because the remains were still cold when I opened it after getting back from the trip. Obviously a luxury, though, and not necessary, because powdered milk is always an option.

My gear includes almost no food because I had planned to buy that in Ottawa. If absolutely necessary, food could have been added to the pack and milk could have been stored in the Thermos right from home, but I would have had to do a lot more planning because you can only really take non-perishable or dried foods. I had done a brief search for high-calorie, non-perishable foods and would likely had taken instant noodles, fortified oatmeal, rice, pasta, dried vegetables, and things like that. As little water as possible makes them more compact and lighter, but you could also taken things like Chunky Soup and canned fish, which don't even need a can opener because they have pull tabs. Obviously, it would be possible to take flour and yeast and make bread by fire, but that's an adventure I didn't have this time.

Another thing: the packed Ibex bag exceeded VIA's stated specifications for carry-on luggage. Not by weight, and not by all that much in size, but it was measurably in excess. Still, numerous people had luggage the same size or larger than mine in the carry-on area, and it fit without any problems at all on their luggage storage shelves. I had to load and unload 4 times in total, and had no problems.... which is good, because if there's one thing I get anxious about, it's holding other people up in queues!

The trip was surprisingly smooth, and everything worked as planned. One thing to be said about VIA is how big and comfortable the seats are, and how big of a leg room area there is. Since I'm used to taking the GO Train, it was also nice to notice that there was a lot more shock absorption on these trains, and the train just kind of floated along. On the GO Train, you feel every rail defect in your skeleton.

On the way to Ottawa, I sat next to a woman (good sign -- my head won't be cut off) who became progressively impatient early on when the coffee cart wouldn't arrive. The frustration seemed almost childlike to me -- large, loud puffs of despair that I think she hoped would be overheard. After that, though, it was pretty uneventful.

One of my main concerns was that the train would be late getting into Ottawa (scheduled to arrive around 4:45pm), and I wouldn't be able to get to the car rental place in time, before it closed (6pm). But, the train was actually early! Also, getting off the train was quick and I was probably on the street within about 5-10 minutes of the train arriving.

One thing I should say about the Ibex pack is that it's very well-built. All of the seams and zips are strong, and there's water resistance in most places. The pack is very flexible, with lots of straps and adjustments. There's an internal frame inside the pack that pushes all of the weight into just the right places so that it almost forces your back straight while you walk. Despite being relatively out of shape for a trip like this, I had no muscle pains afterwards. Any feelings of exhaustion I had were due to the fact that I tried to conclude the day with a 3km walk carrying 35 lbs. on my back, having only eaten a light breakfast, a few cups of tea, a can of apple juice, and a 6-inch sub for lunch that day. I was able to do that 3km walk in about 30 mins, which is pretty much top speed: when I walk without a pack, I normally cover the same amount of ground in the same amount of time. The waist belt is very comfortable and the straps are so well padded that they don't dig in.

It wasn't the best day to be carrying 35 lbs. of camping gear around with me -- the route that I'd chosen was mostly concrete and asphalt, and it was at the end of quite a warm, humid day, plus the above-mentioned food/energy deficits.

One thing that Google Maps didn't tell me when it picked a walking route to the car rental place was that it was sending me on a walking tour of one of the seediest ghettos I've ever seen. It was right out of a South Central LA movie -- weedy lawns, mopes wandering around with gang-like clothing and nothing obvious to do, ambiguously prostitutional women passing you on the sidewalk, and a general sense that you shouldn't be there unless you knew why. Still, I got out alive, with all my stuff still on my back.

Also, lots of people had their patio sets out on the front lawn. Not sure if that's an Ottawa thing, or maybe a French-Canadian thing. I'm not really up on these matters.

They wanted a local phone number for me at the car rental place. So, I spent a few minutes trying to look like I knew how to find my own phone number on my own phone and then conceded that I didn't. A helpful co-customer let me call his phone so that I could get my own phone number from his caller ID display. Other than that, they handed over their $20,000 vehicle within about 5 minutes of my arrival. Pretty good for someone they've never met before. The car rental place was conveniently right across from a supermarket, so I didn't have to stop anywhere on the way to the park. The car was a 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt with only about 700km on it. As with most North American cars, I had a small surprise when a piece fell off -- in this case, the window handle on the passenger side, but it was easily reattached.

On the way to the park, one thing I noticed about Ottawa's highways is how well-maintained they are. I suppose politicians have to drive on them. The traffic was also quite courteous, which is an interesting change from what you see around Toronto. In fact, the only aggressive driving I encountered on the whole trip was on the way back to Ottawa after the trip was over -- on the Friday before a long weekend, on the road that Torontonians take to get to Ottawa.

Another interesting thing about Ottawa was that they have a bus highway -- a road that only buses travel on. During rush hour, buses were flying by every minute or so.

The trip to the park was uneventful, really. No problems at all. There's not much to say about the stay at the park in general. It was a nice site right on the Rideau Canal. Nice view, enjoyed by all, including the mosquitoes. I feel a bit sorry for the mosquitoes because they have no way of knowing that the Canadian blood bank won't take my blood because I was born in England and am therefore suspected of carrying mad cow disease.

I used pretty much everything I packed on the trip, and didn't really notice that I'd forgotten anything. Score 1 for the plan.

I've already covered the story about the carnival visit, so I won't repeat any of that.

One thing I should mention, though, is that although I normally just go dirty on small camping trips, I did take a shower for the carnival and also because I'd done a lot of walking and it'd make the trip back a bit more comfortable for myself and those around me. The showers at the park presented a special challenge because they had no shelves, no benches, a wet floor, and only three small hooks on the back of the door. Try imagining how you would manage old clothes, new clothes, and even just drying your feet and getting socks and shoes on in that kind of situation! It required some creativity. Thankfully, at least, my wet pack came with a large hook inside so that I could hang it from the shower curtain rail -- someone has had this problem before!

To be honest, though, I'm amazed that they even provide showers at parks.

On the day to leave, it was raining when I woke up. This was a bit of a problem because, unlike with car camping where, when it rains, you can just throw everything in the trunk and dry it out when you get home, I had to pack all of this stuff tightly back into my pack. I considered throwing it all in the back and driving to the picnic shelter in the park to do that, but eventually the rain broke for a bit and I got complacent and had breakfast. When I sensed rain about to resume, I started to disassemble the tent and, near the end, the rain started getting heavier. So, I threw the footprint and inner body and all of the stuff I had out on the picnic table for breakfast into the trunk of the car. I left the outer fly of the tent on the table because it was already soaked, and is waterproof so dries quickly, anyway. Later, I just shook off most of the water, folded it, and packed it in the shelter of the trunk. The rest of the stuff, I tried to start packing everything up from inside the car by opening the rear seat split and working in the trunk from the backseat. Kind of challenging and it's a time when you wish you could temporarily jump into a 5'3" person's body (don't ask why I picked that number!) to save feeling like a giraffe must feel when it tries to squeeze itself into a helicopter.

The weather forecast for Wednesday to Friday for the park when I checked on Wednesday morning, by the way, was for cool, dry weather and sun. By Wednesday, this had changed to warm and humid and rain on Friday.

I had to vacate the site before 2pm on the last day, so I left around 1pm and had to get gas for the car in order to make it back to Ottawa. I thought I might try and combine that need with a walk around a local town. The town I chose to victimize was called Kemptville, and it was a disappointment. It was a humid, uncomfortable day and, when I got there, I was pretty clueless about what to do. I wandered into a civic building that had "walking tours of Kemptville" maps in an information area, so I went and did the self-guided tour. It was disappointing and not really worth touring. The buildings might have been historical, but they now just housed shops and looked like they'd been "fixed up" back in the 1970s with the popular fascias of that time. Sort of like how someone walks you down to the basement of their historic house and you go down to find the walls adorned with that 70's faux wood panelling on the walls. Exuberance about possibly seeing something old is displaced quite quickly.

So, Kemptville, really, is a truck stop whose gas stations can't accommodate trucks.

After delaying my exit from Kemptville so that I wouldn't be at a loose end waiting for the train for hours once I got back to Ottawa, I ended up leaving early anyway. The rest of the trip home was like the trip there in reverse, really. Having tamed the ghetto, I went back through it on the way back. It was a Friday and the start of a long weekend, though, so quite busy. In retrospect, the traffic would have been worse if I'd not left Kemptville when I did.

On the train, the guy sitting next to me on the way back to Toronto was a "bark orders" kind of guy with a Mafioso tone who liked chips and periodically stood up to brush all the crumbs and fragments that'd fallen into his lap onto the floor in the aisle with one big sweep like a gorilla grabbing for a bunch of bananas. The view on the Toronto-to-Ottawa trip is not as interesting as some of the other routes. It goes through a lot of unforested wild areas, and through marshy/swampy area. But, it's still nice to look at, particularly compared to the concrete and asphalt alternative.

Going from Toronto back to Georgetown, I was sardined in with a bunch of London-bound students, presumably going home for the weekend from their new horizons of Toronto. The atmosphere was completely different on that short trip for some reason. It was tangible: a kind of strongly put-forth "I don't care" energy, mixed with the smell of cheap cologne (in amongst the mix, I smelled Aqua Velva, that cologne that smells like Off! mosquito repellant, and that other one that smells like the fart spray I bought in Quebec on my grade 8 French trip to Quebec). The young man next to me was playing video games non-stop and didn't even interact with the ticket collector, just slapping his ticket onto the armrest without diverting his gaze from the game when she came around. Being a right proper and rather elegant French lady, she didn't seem impressed.

One guy got on the train and tried to hammer his suitcase into the storage shelf, jumping and beating it with his fists with audible aggression and eventually almost headbutting it into a position that was satisfactory to him, but which left it half-hanging overhead into the aisle. The stewardess eventually had to ask someone to help her get it down and moved to a safe place. The strange thing about that, though, was that the violent owner was a full-grown man and not obviously a student -- at least 40 years old. He boarded with a student and seemed to be either a parent of a student, or someone trying to blend in with people that were considerably younger than him. Very much a type-A personality in the worst possible sense, he informed the whole train that he hoped we would be better passengers to be with than the ones on the last train he was on -- apparently including someone who "crapped their pants". Most likely, he was a dentist: he had the swagger of a doctor but was without breadth or acuity.

At the time, I'd thought, "this is just what I expect from Western students". When I was in high school, you see, the drunken, loud and promiscuous were the ones with Western at the top of their lists, presumably on their way to a remarkable career in business. But then I realized that they were probably going back home to London and not to London for school, and that the main troublemaker was not clearly a student. So, I was wrong... not about Western students in general (pre-emptive disclaimer: although this does not apply to Sarah, of course!), but that the main troublemaker was likely not really a student and, if he was, he probably wasn't a Western student.

And, that was my trip.

I've one more camping trip to go this year, but it will be with the car, and I'm hoping for cold weather. Not too cold, though: winter camping is on my to-do list, but not this year -- I might need one or two pieces of additional gear for that type of thing. Sleeping bags need to be loftier (mine is only good down to 0 degrees C), and tents need to be sturdier in wind and be able to bear snow loads.

I've compiled a short list of things that I found worked well on this relatively minimal trip:
  • vacuum bottle: as mentioned, a stainless steel vacuum bottle (i.e. Thermos) is very useful for keeping liquids cold. For milk, it was good. You could also use a food jar to carry foods that you want to keep cold... well-packed eggs, even...maybe? If you're not going to fill these until later, you can pre-fill them with water and ice cubes to pre-cool the inside. Vacuum bottles can also be useful for conserving fuel, if you want to pre-cook a multiple quantity and save some for later.
  • bread as a dishcloth: if you are taking/making bread, eat foods whose liquid can be soaked up with bread and eaten. It makes cleaning the dishes a lot easier and you use far less soap.
  • candle lantern: this seems to me to be the most compact type of lantern without ruining the mood. It is a wax candle inside a collapsible enclosure. It's springloaded so that the candle rises inside the lantern as it melts. LED lanterns may be a bit smaller, but the light they give off is horrible and don't belong on a camping trip!
  • liquid fuel stoves: liquid fuel stoves are a bit more work, but I don't like depending on heavy, large, compressed gas cylinders. Over 3 days, I used less than half a 0.5L bottle of fuel. When you are finished with them, the stoves take some time to turn off because the remaining fuel in the line has to be released and be burned before you can close the valve. With that in mind, it's useful to have a plan for that residual minute-long heat... nmaybe get the dishwashing water warm? Or remember to turn it off about a minute before you expect cooking to be done.
  • MEC Hubba: if you're going to use this for 2 people, make sure person #2 is the significant other. It's a very close tent, but ideal for this trip because it fits perfectly in the front pocket of the Ibex pack and doesn't take up any internal room. I originally considered an MEC Tarn 3 for this trip, and it wouldn't have worked: it was too big and twice the weight of the Hubba. The Tarn 3, however, seems far more durable and is my choice for car camping.
  • use of pack space: this is probably obvious, but all kinds of hard, hollow things can be filled with other things. The biggest offender on this trip was the coffee percolator, which is a roughly 1L, wide kettle-type steel pot. Fill it with bags of sugar, powdered milk, tea, etc.
  • cooking gear: one frying pan can do it all. Plan to make meals that are done in one pot, and share if you're with someone else
  • camping soap: worth it. It is suitable for all kinds of uses, including dishes, body and hand washing, laundry, and even shampoo. It's also biodegradeable and can be used in cold water (verified). Saves having to take all kinds of different soaps.
  • MEC Dragonfly: the Dragonfly is a perfect companion for the Ibex. Not only is it exactly the same colour, but it's also of the same quality. It's almost as if they were designed by the same people. I strapped this backpack hozizontally onto the Ibex using the straps that might normally carry a sleeping bag, which gave me a small backpack for side trips and also one that I could quickly detach to carry with me to my seat on the train.
  • coffee: if you're going to get groceries on the way, and since percolating is the easiest and cleanest way to make coffee while camping (other than instant), it's not a bad idea to grind just what coffee you need for the trip to percolator grind (a bit more coarse than drip grind) at the supermarket and take that with you. If you use drip grind, you'll get coffee grounds in your cup.

The End.

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acey said...

epic version. lol!

this was nevertheless enjoyable to read about. also picked up a few tip from you. i just don't know if i will ever survive a real camping trip like this! :)

nice post, matt!

mattbg said...

Thanks, acey!

I'm not sure my trip was a real camping trip because, in my mind, a real camping trip is the one you don't survive!! :)