Monday, September 25, 2017

Hunting for Pawpaws - The Perfect Rosh Hashanah Addition

A few weeks back I noticed folks on /r/foraging reporting success finding pawpaws, and most surprisingly, many of the posts referenced the DC area. This timing checked out, as it was back in September of 2014 when I first learned about the fruit, by discovering it along the Potomac Heritage Trail.

Pawpaws, for those not in the know, are the largest edible fruit native to the U.S. Lewis and Clark, as well as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the fruit. As I learned back in 2014, they grow wild along the Potomac River. While I had seen the fruit there, I'd never actually tasted one.

As Rosh Hashanah approached, I decided that pawpaws would be the perfect addition to the apples and honey we eat on the holiday. I've always been fond of the distinct significance that apples and honey have. Both may be sweet, like the year we're after, but they come about their sweetness in different ways. For apples, it's simple: they're a sweet fruit. For honey, it's more complicated, and represents the sweetness that comes from an unexpected sources. Pawpaws add another dimension to this: as they are sweetness that's in front of you your whole life, yet you've never taken the time to notice it.

While this was a novel idea, how was I going to manage to find pawpaws in such a short time? Shira had an unexpected solution: one of the apple orchards in town also offered pawpaw picking. And so for our pre-Rosh Hashanah apple picking we made our way to Mackintosh Fruit Farms, which along with a large selection of apples did offer pawpaws:

They didn't have a huge selection left, so we were lucky to both pick some and find some in their store.

Incidentally, I did get one jog along the Potomac Heritage Trail before Rosh Hashanah began, and I found many pawpaw looking trees:

However, I saw no sign of any pawpaw fruit. Shira definitely scored with the orchard approach.

On Rosh Hashanah, I enjoyed my very first pawpaw, and I have to say, it was truly delicious. It definitely matched up to the mango'y flavor folks say it has. Even with all the foods I have available they were delicious, I can't imagine how precious these fruits would have been back in the 17th century.

Shanah Tovah Tikatevu! May you have a good and sweet year, full of health and interesting discoveries!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

On the surface, it seems like Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout would be a tricky book to author. After all, how much can you write about sitting in a tower, staring at the landscape and waiting for a puff of smoke to appear. It turns out, if you're Philip Connors, there's a lot to say and most of it is quite fascinating.

First off, in this age technical wonder that we live in, who knew that Fire Lookout would even still be a job? It is. And Connors takes us through the full range of experiences that a lookout goes through: from the awe inspiring views, to the adrenaline rush of discovering a live 'smoke', to the often unappreciated power of solitude, to the terror that accompanies experiencing a full on lighting storm in a glass and metal box. And yes, he even also covers at times soul-crushing tedium that comes with the job. It's a true testament to Connors' writing skills that I found this book to be a real page turner (or, whatever the equivalent is for an audio book).

We are also treated to a healthy dose of history with book, covering both the creation of National Forests as well as how wild ires have been treated throughout our country's history.

We are truly fortunate that we had individuals with enough courage and foresight to demand that we block off parts of our country to 'progress.' At the time, this must have been an absolutely absurd notion. And yet, now we're truly blessed to have these green spaces.

As for the history of wildfire management, that's fascinating as well. Once I started reading this book, I polled a few individuals, ranging from adults down to middle schoolers about what they know about wildfires. They all reported back to me what I had know before reading this book: fire is healthy. While a wildfire may appear to decimate the landscape, often it's just the opposite, serving to keep the landscape healthy. Connors only reinforced this understanding and added another important dimension: every time you keep a fire from burning, you leave more fuel in place for the next fire. Do this long enough, and you've got the makings of a fire that is far more dangerous and traumatic to the landscape than need be.

What I found so surprising, is that for decades, the exact opposite of these principles were observed. Fire was treated as the enemy, and every means necessary was brought to bear to put it out. It's hard to believe that such a wrong headed idea could be believed by so many, yet those in charge just couldn't imagine a world where fire was doing anything other than destroying precious resources.

I found Fire Season to be my kind of book: educational, inspiring, eye-opening and just a fun read. I'd definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Keep me Organized/Motiviated/Working Portable Office Sidekick

As a computer programmer, I typically need little more than a computer-like device and an Internet connection to get work done. However, I've found that when I'm away from my desk a few extra items can go a long way towards keeping me effective. This handful of tools helps me stay organized by letting me keep my TODO list updated, stay motivated by letting me focus in on critical tasks, and gives me the chance to tackle certain tasks offline (like, sketching out a design) with relative ease.

Yesterday, as I worked away from my desk, I realized just how valuable this simple setup had become. In the spirit of sharing, here's what works for me. I'd love to know what works for you.

Better Together Pouch - this pouch was a gift (thanks Dawn!) and I love using it. It has slots to hold everything perfectly, and I always feel professional busting it out.

Index cards - I carry a big o'l stack of blank index cards, as well as my active TODO List. Yes, the irony is not lost on me that I'm a computer programmer and I track my TODO list with dead trees. The top card in the stack shows a roughly drawn weekly schedule. I've found that drawing out a schedule on Sunday night is a fantastic way to prepare for the upcoming week. And don't even get me started on the index cards themselves. With their cheap price tag, portable size and ability to offer both a lined and unlined canvas, what's not to love?

Hotel Notepad - There's something both powerful and freeing about hotel stationary. Maybe it's because it's provided free, and there's no consequences for just scribbling on it? Maybe it's because of the compact size and low page count? Who knows. I just know that for brainstorming and other (nearly disposable) writing activities, a hotel pad just feels right.

(2) 0.38mm Pilot Juice Gel Ink Ballpoint Pens - I love the Pilot G2 gel ink, but it wasn't until I tried the .38mm size (instead of the usual .7mm size) that I realized what a difference the right pen thickness could have on my handwriting. I use these ultra fine tipped pens for general writing on note cards, and all of a sudden, my hand writing doesn't have to be a chaotic mess. (I mean, it still is. But it doesn't *have to be*.)

Various color Pilot G2 0.7mm pens. Oh, the power of color! I use green to note due dates, red to title the cards, orange to represent 3shrink links, and purple to mark priority (1 asterisk is priority, 3 means I better get it done today!). My cards may look like a middle schooler created them, but that's fine by me. They're effective.

Not shown: at one point I had small ruler that I found was helpful for making grids and other precise'ish drawings. I lost it. Now I just use the edge of an index card when I need a straight edge. If I see a replacement, I may pick one up.

Also not shown: goodies in my murse daily utility bag, such as headphones, USB cables and other on-the-go essentials.

And that's all there is to it. I should mention that my archival and backup strategy is simple: I just take pictures of index cards and notes, and then I don't worry about losing them.

What's your on-the-go office setup like? Any recommendations?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Apple Picking Done Right - Mackintosh Fruit Farm

As has become our tradition for this last few years, the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah we hit a local orchard to pick apples (for Apples and Honey, among other uses). This year, Shira picked Mackintosh Fruit Farm as our destination. It was further out than other options, taking us about an hour-fifteen to get there, but turned out to be a great choice.

Maybe it was because it was so far out, or maybe we arrived early enough in the day, regardless, the crowds were less than we usually find at Butlers. We also appreciated the free containers and free entry; though I can't fault Butler's for their choice to charge for both of these.

We got off to a rough start with picking, as we found ourselves in an already picked-over section. But with a little walking and patience, we eventually found the pristine apples Shira was in search of.

In the orchard, my job is mostly to stay out of the way. Not that I don't contribute: someone has to reach the apples higher up, and someone has to carry the full bag of apples back to the car. But my lack of choosiness when it comes to apple picking mean that I tend to have plenty of time to photograph the surroundings. Hey, we all have jobs.

Speaking of surroundings, I do believe I've learned the name of a new plant: Horse Nettle. The yellow berries of horse nettle reminded me of the delicious goldenberries we ate in Ecuador and Colombia. Alas, these berries, and the plant itself are poisonous. Still, it's always fun to learn a new species of plant.

If the grounds of Mackintosh Farm weren't good enough, the little cafe turned out to be a hidden gem. We got grilled cheese, pizza, some kind of veggie fries and a basil-lemonade for $10. After having spent $10 for a grilled cheese at the US Open, this felt like a deal that was too good to be true. The grilled cheese was OK (though for $2.00, OK was just fine), the basil-lemonade was delish, and the fries were excellent. But it was the pizza that was the real hit. The gal at the counter told us it was veggie pizza, which was a bit of a misnomer. What we ended up eating was a bunch of veggies and cheese cut into the shape of a pizza slice. It tasted a lot more like veggie lasgana than pizza. Regardless, it was quite good and a pleasant surprise.

On top of all of this, the apples were only $1.49/pound, which I'm told is an excellent deal.

Shira definitely chose well, and while we had to spend a bit more time driving, Mackintosh was a rock solid choice.

Trolled by BJ's Wholesale

While shopping at BJ's yesterday, I noticed this sign:

Hmmm, I thought, I didn't recall a Kosher section in the refrigerated area. I walked around the corner and stood in front of the sign. This is what I found:

Ouch.

Friday, September 15, 2017

But will it cold soak?!

As I prepared for our Conway River / Bearfence Loop backpacking trip I seriously considered going stoveless. In my mind's eye, leaving the stove and other cooking gear at home had a number of advantages: a lighter pack, meals that were easier to prepare and cleanup, less hassle in the sweltering heat of Shenandoah, and yes, a chance to try a fad to see if it was worth the hype. Also, I figured it would be easy enough to toss in some tea bags and hot chocolate and heat water up over the fire, should the opportunity present itself.

From my research, I learned I had two basic food prep options when going stoveless. First, depend on food that was normally eaten without cooking. Peanut butter, tuna, hummus, etc. were all staples on the trail and need not change if I went stoveless. And second, make use of cold soaking. Cold soaking is exactly what it sounds like: you take the food that you'd normally re-hydrate in boiling water but do so in cold water. The obvious catch was that the process is supposed to be much slower. In theory, with a little planning, this problem can be mitigated. Rather than making your Ramen noodles essentially on demand, you need to remember to start soaking them 30 minutes before you want to dive in.

As we got closer to our trip, it hit me: I should really try this cold soaking technique before I hit the trail. And so, in the comfort of my home and kitchen, I ran a battery of tests to see just how palatable cold soaked food could be.

Before I dive into specifics, I will say this was interesting exercise. I will say, if I were exhausted enough, all of the food I tried was edible. Also, I could see where bringing stuff to mix in: Bacos, hot sauce, honey, etc. would be really key. It's worth noting that my tests were about consistency, not about flavor. That was by design, assuming that flavor could always be added after the fact.

What Worked

  • Granola and powdered milk - this wasn't really a cold soaking thing, but I had never experimented with using powdered milk before. Surprise, surprise, it tastes just like milk. This is an obvious win.

  • Tea - I suppose I could get fancy and call it Sun Tea. Regardless, black tea in a water bottle left on the window ledge was fine to drink. Again, not a huge surprise here.
  • Pearled Couscous - This stuff was my big discovery, and a big win. I found that after a few hours of soaking, the couscous was nicely re-hydrated and quite edible. I tried this not only plain, but also soaked with almonds and raisins. The result was a dish that was actually good.
  • Oatmeal - cold soaking oatmeal is already a thing, so it's not a big surprise that it would work well. Still, it was good to confirm that I could enjoy the taste of the stuff.

What Didn't Work

  • Green Tea Noodles - these claim to cook quickly, so I thought they'd be worth trying. Alas, after 30 minutes, I had a nasty, goopy mess in a bowl. No thank you.
  • Sprouted Quinoa - after a few hours of soaking, this was a bitter, blah, tasting food. No thank you.
  • Barley - after hours of soaking it was still tasteless and not worth my time.

The bottom line is that cold soaking isn't some magical process. A few things do well in it, plenty of stuff doesn't. Definitely experiment before you drink the Kool Aide, if you will.

As we got closer to our trip, the weather made it clear that this would be anything but a 'sweltering' trip in Shenandoah. In fact, I found myself packing my puffy down jacket and glad I had it while on the trail. Given these conditions, I scrapped the stoveless idea and was glad I did. This turned out to be one trip where hot food was truly appreciated.

Still, summer's in DC are often crazy hot, so having some intel on how I can backpack minus the stove is a win in my book. If nothing else, hopefully this will give you some inspiration and caution about your own stoveless adventures.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: Martian Notifier - Just How Valuable Is Great Wearable Battery Life?

A few weeks back I needed to send in my ZenWatch 3 to have a charging problem fixed (the repair was covered under warranty and therefore free). I knew I was going to be without a watch for a few weeks so I decided to poke around and see if there was a cheap device I could pick up in the mean time. In an ideal world, this cheap device would prove hackable and make for a fun future project.

Looking around, there are indeed super cheap 'smartwatches' available. But the consensus was: avoid them at all cost. They're such junk apparently, that they aren't worth your time.

There was, however, one exception to this rule of cheap devices: the Martian Notifier. I was able to pick up one these for a little over $40, and the reviews promised that it actually worked. Back in the day, the Martian sold for over $100, and it's because of it's age that it's such a steal.

On top of the price tag, the watch also promised superior battery life, which happens to be one of my biggest pet peeves of the ZenWatch 3. This isn't a huge surprise, as the Martian has only a tiny one line display and minimal functionality to power.

The Martian arrived, I shipped off my ZenWatch 3 and for 3 weeks I embraced the primitive smartwatch life.

Martian Notifier Pros

The biggest pro is that for $40, the device does actually work. Phone calls, e-mails and messages come in, and my wrist buzzes. The device does what it promises.

Also, the Martian did deliver on its battery promise. I was able to go days without a recharge, which was especially nice while traveling. And on longer trips, when the battery did completely run out, I was still left with a perfectly functioning analog watch.

Martian Notifier Cons

The biggest con I had with the device was so close to being a pro: the device charges off of a simple micro USB cable. This is awesome, because it means that I can recharge the device in the field using a standard cable. But alas, Martian constructed the device so you need an extra long tipped micro USB cable, not a standard one, to charge the device. So while a typical USB cable looks like it will fit, it doesn't.

Another con that was almost a pro: the watch is hackable with Tasker but requires your device be rooted. Like USB cable charging, this is close to ideal, but ultimately, not helpful. Incidentally, it is possible to deliver basic Tasker notifications to the watch, which does provide a level of integration that's easy to achieve. I also have visions of me hacking the watch in the future, but that's another project for another time.

One quirk I noticed in the watch is that some text message alerts never make it to the watch. I think this may have to do with RCS or other fancy text messaging facilities that some devices can take advantage of. Unfortunately, Shira's messages appear to fall into this category, so I haven't been seeing those. This is one of the few failures that the Martian Notifier has had, and it's arguably a biggie.

For the 3 weeks that I used the Martian exclusively, I found it worked well. It may not have done a whole lot, but what it did do, it did well. I wasn't using my watch to report my location during a run, read poetry or track the mood of my wife, but I wasn't missing calls and (most) messages. With that said, when my repaired ZenWatch 3 showed up at my door step, I gladly swapped the Martian out for the far more sophisticated Android Wear device. The Martian was simple and had great battery life, but ultimately, I'll take the flexibility and functionality of the ZenWatch over it on a typical day.

That's not to say that I'm ready to ditch the Martian altogether. Last weekend I went backpacking. Without thinking about it, I left the house wearing the ZenWatch. By the first night, the watch was dead and I spent the rest of the trip wishing I had brought the Martian. Sure, it may not have had the slick features of the ZenWatch, but at least I would have known what time it was. For traveling and other times when battery life is a premium, the Martian is clearly the way to go.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

3 Wins, and 3 Fails from My Latest Backpacking Trip

Here are three wins, and three fails from my latest backpacking adventure. Hope they're helpful!

Win #1: SOL Escape Bivy

Bivy sacks are like rain gear, able to keep you warm and dry from the elements, yet often failing due to your own sweat. Sure, you can pay obscene amounts for breathable gear, but even the priciest options don't often work as advertised.

My solution for rain gear is to avoid it most of the time by using an umbrella, and when you do need it, opt for the cheap and breathable Frogg Toggs. This past weekend I learned the solution on the bivy side: the $35.00 Escape Bivy by SOL. Like Frogg Toggs, it's cheap and claims to be breathable. And best of all, it works!

I spent two nights in 50°F weather, where I was warm and dry thanks to the bivy and my 45°F sleeping bag. If that bad boy hadn't been breathable, I would have woken up a cold, wet, mess. The bivy, like Frogg Toggs, isn't the most robust material but with care should do fine. I love the idea of cowboy camping, and having a cold friendly solution that lets me sleep under the stars is an absolute win. During camping off-season, the bivy will find its way into my car emergency kit.

Win #2: Fun Food!

We mixed things up a bit on the food side, and were mostly rewarded. It felt downright luxurious to have cheese, hummus, Cholula and olives on the trail. These definitely spiced up the usual tuna and minute rice staples.

We discovered that granola, powdered milk and hot chocolate mix allowed for a number of useful breakfast variations. If in a hurry, we could eat the granola dry and on the go. If we wanted to live it up, the granola plus powdered milk made for a filling breakfast. The hot chocolate was ideal for warming up. And the last morning, we just mixed all three ingredients together and enjoyed hot chocolate granola. Yum!

On the dessert side of things, Martha White Muffin mix and a generic packet of pudding both called for a single ingredient: milk. I brought along some extra powered milk and mixed these up. Both the muffins and the pudding were a hit. The muffins took some effort to bake, but were more than worth it. The pudding was like magic: add the powdered milk, mix in some water, and bam! you've got pudding.

Win #3: Murse Chest Pack

We've been on a number of camping trips this season, and from the beginning, I opt'd to bring my man bag EDC bag. It was tempting to try save ounces by dumping out the contents and only bringing the essentials that seemed to apply. The first couple of trips we were car camping so this exercise seemed silly. By the later trips, I'd gotten used to having bag with me and found that its contents came in use in surprising ways. There was that time when we were backpacking and needed to haul back a bunch of water bottles to camp. The reusable shopping bag in my murse was perfect for the task.

Along with being functional, I also think it's invaluable to have experience with the gear you're going to depend on daily. What better way to make sure that your first aid kit is up to snuff, then to use it while hiking. So the contents of the bag were going.

But how to carry them? My first thought was to leave the bag at home and just dump the contents into a lightweight stuff sack. That would save me a few ounces, but would give up an advantage of having a separate bag. That is, when I drop my pack at camp all my essentials would be in a grab and go form. After more mental wrestling, I decided I'd bring the the bag and the contents as is.

After experimenting I found an arrangement that made carrying the bag comfortable: I shortened the main strap so that I could effectively hang the bag around my neck (like, say, a nope-on-a-rope). I fed my backpack's 'brain' through the opening and then clipped the top close. I put my backpack on and wriggled into the strap holding the murse. The result was that the bag hung around my neck, yet the pack was bearing the weight. I had just created a $15.00 improvised chest pack.

While I'm sure the setup looked goofy, it was surprisingly comfortable and most of all, it was convenient. My phone and sunglasses were always at the ready, and when I dropped my pack, the chest pack turned back into a camp purse. I was never without my flashlight, TP, hand sanitizer, first aid kit and other essentials.

Fail #1: Cooking using tent stakes

I know what you're thinking: Huh?! Alfie, one of my outdoor YouTube gurus, has a simple cooking setup that I've wanted to try. He puts tent stakes in the ground and builds a small fire around them. He then lays a small piece of wire mesh over them, voila! he has a mini grill. It's lightweight and seemed functional. I was hoping to try something similar with newly purchased tent stakes and the lid of my pot. Specifically, I wanted to make a surface where we could melt cheese on tortillas.

The project started off reasonable enough, as you can see in the above photo. But apparently, I had not accounted for the might of David's fire and the relatively fragile nature of the tent stakes. Once the fire was ablaze, the exposed parts of the stakes completely melted. Well done David!

We ended up warming our tortillas by wrapping them in foil and dropping them in the coals. I'm sure this tent stake cooking method works, but I need to be working with different stakes and a far smaller fire.

Fail #2: Blind Faith in Google Maps

The above photo looks innocuous enough. But what it shows is the point at which route US 615 turns into, what we assumed, was an off limits fire road. It was at this point that we realized that Google was planning to take us into Shenandoah using an obviously incorrect route. Ultimately, we were wrong about the above road and with the right amount of Chutzpah could have driven on it and gotten to about 1 mile away from the parking lot in Shenandoah. Still, this was clearly not the right way to enter the park. It was a bone headed move to just blindly trust that Google was routing us correctly.

Speaking of maps, next trip I'm absolutely going to spend the time to get the USGS topo maps on my phone. I'm sure it can be done, and having couple phones with maps is, in my estimation, just as reliable as having a paper map. It felt manly to bust out the map and compass, but man, it would have been nice to just bring up my phone and have the GPS tell me exactly where on the map we were. Plus, it makes the map one less thing to pack (and forget).

Fail #3: The case of the missing Bird and Trout Knife

After thoroughly enjoying the Cold Steel Bird and Trout Knife on my last trip, I was excited to get some more dirt time with it. Between its neck sheath and super light weight construction, I knew that it would be there when I needed it and out of the way otherwise.

On the first day, I busted the knife out a few times for some basic cutting tasks. But by evening failure struck: I went to reach for the knife and found it was gone!

I searched the area high and low, but alas, nothing. For the rest the trip, I relied on old faithful: a Derma Safe folding razor blade (which did quite well, thank you very much).

The million $15 dollar question was this: did I put the knife down and forget about it, or did the knife fall out of the sheath. By the end of the first week of heavy use, the knife came out of the 'locking' sheath with a tug. So it is at least plausible that the locking mechanism was a dud, and it fell out on its own. But it's more likely that I didn't put it back fully in the sheath or that I just dropped it myself. I really liked this knife, but not enough to risk losing it again.

The result: I've got a new small neck knife on the way and we'll see if it impresses me as much as the Bird and Trout. If not, I'll take my chances and go back to Cold Steel.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Backpacking with David: His Sweet Pics

Here are some of David's pics from our backpacking adventure this past weekend. The amazing views were taken during the Bearfence Mountain Rock Scramble. You can see me making my way through the scramble and get at least some sense of what the terrain was like. There's also more cooking pics that show our (mostly) successful attempts at trail baking.

Fun times and awesome work David!

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