Thursday, January 31, 2013

Turkey time is coming fast

As we get ready to turn the calendar from January to February, already my thoughts are leaping forward to April.  April 27th to be exact.  The PA Game Commission has the legal start time for that day listed as about 6:04am, so with any luck, and good weather, by about 5:15am I'll be hunkered under a thick Beech tree, with a stand of white pine along the ridge to my right that could be just thick with roosted turkeys.  This is Spring Gobbler season, and for me this is the season I enjoy more than any other. 

I love the Spring Gobbler season, for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I've had my fair share of success.  I didn't grow up chasing turkeys, in fact my very first Spring Gobbler opener was May of 2002.  However, in the 10 years that have followed, I've called in and shot 3 birds.  In PA you were only allowed one bird per season, until just recently, so starting out as a complete newb in the 2002 season, I'll take my 30% success rate.  In that time I've seen my best friend take a fine Tom that had wandered in dead silent.  And probably had conversations with a dozen other birds while in season.

Just being in the woods during the spring green-up is reason enough to love this season, so this ranks as a strong 2nd in my list.  Traditional hunting seasons tend to occur as fall changes to winter.  So if you hunt several different species, you witness mother nature going to sleep for the winter.  Tender green plants dry up and die back.  Trees change color then drop their leaves.  In the Spring Gobbler woods, hunters bare witness to the exact opposite.  Sprouts push up through the leave litter, and the trees sprout this season's leaves.

The picture of my 2010 Gobbler shows the green-up in all its glory.   Not my biggest bird, but just ask anyone that has chased the spooky Pennsylvania Eastern Turkey subspecies, and they'll let you know each one is a trophy.

This particular fella had answered my calls early, probably with the first hours of legal light, but had taken his time.  My guess was he was a 1-2 year old bird, who may have gotten thumped by an older Tom.  As a result he was cautious in answering my calls, and he took his time picking his way to my spot.  Just as he wandered through the thick underbrush, into the opening I was watching a crow took issue with his presence.  Giving several loud caws, this crow swooped in, trying to run off my Tom.  He spooked, and ducked into the underbrush near the edge of the opening, but I knew what to do.  Knowing if he got spooked, he'd assume the hen he was looking for got spooked too, I let the woods settle then gave a cautious yelp.  Like a teenage boy, thrilled a girl called him back, the Tom rushed back into the opening, still looking for his dream girl.  Knowing he was bearded, and knowing that crow could be back in a second, I didn't hesitate.  The Mossberg 835, sent the Winchester Turkey Load about 50 yds and this fine Tom was getting fitted for my tag.

With a newborn in the house and a new job for my wife, the 2011 and 2012 seasons were a bit light on time spent in the woods.  Now that life has settled down, the 2013 season shows plenty of promise.  It doesn't hurt that I saw anywhere from 3 to 12 turkeys on each of the 3 days I spent hunting in the PA firearm deer season.

Happy Hunting!
Scott M

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The beautiful thing about Nature

I'm going to go ahead and capitalize the first letter in Nature for the entirety of this post.  Why?  Because the way I've seen and experienced Nature, it is a real and active thing. 

Take this photo as an example:

At the very bottom of the photo your eye can probably make out parallel tracks moving away from where I was standing when I took this picture.

As your eyes follow the tracks forward, you'll notice they quickly fade away into the undergrowth of hay scented ferns.

By the middle of the photo the former trail is all but invisible except to those of us who have used this trail for years.

I grew up going to a cabin where I would hike this trail regularly.  In fact as little as 10 years ago anyone could have walked this track with just a verbal description of where the trail begins and ends.

15-20 years ago, an adventurous soul, could have navigated this trail with lifted Jeep or pick-up.

Yet, now here it stands, nearly invisible to all but the few of us who recognize this trail through the woods.

And that's what happens.  Land use changes. The people who beat down this trail moved on, or just stopped needing the trail for whatever its original purpose was. 

What we see here is Nature reclaiming what is hers. 

While I was in college a friend was working on a paper for some class and asked myself, and several others, what they loved about Nature.

I recall thinking about it for a day or two, then responding back that:

"No matter what humans do to the natural world around us, Nature will eventually reclaim what is rightfully hers.  It may take years to undo what we did, but Nature doesn't care about time, she will eventually reclaim what is hers."

On a very minor scale this photo illustrates what I mean.  In fact these woods have been logged out 2-3 times since colonial days, with the last time being during the 1960's, right before my family purchased the property were the cabin sits now.  If you get off the main trails, and you know what to look for you will find logging roads long forgotten.  Maybe it's a bizarre indent in the forest floor, or a bank showing the high side of an old bend in the road.  These features aren't easy to find, but the fact that they are there and nearly invisible shows that Nature does heal man's scars.

I would encourage you to be a "mindful observer" as you enter the woods.  Pick out the little things and visualize the forest as a whole, while appreciating what is immediately apparent.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Monday, January 28, 2013

Motor Touring with our boys

Motor Touring.  It's an old fashioned phrase for what we all call a road trip these days, but no matter what you call it, it can be an amazing Saturday of exploring or a real struggle if you're taking your little ones along for the ride. 

Just this past weekend we were struck with a bit of cabin fever and no set plans.  So we loaded up the boys in my Cherokee and hit the road.  We had no destination in mind, but it was time to put the stuffy house in the rearview mirror.

Over the course of the last 2 1/2 years Jen and I have come across this situation on a regular enough basis to realize that there are just certain things that are must haves to keep everyone happy.

For her and I, our smartphones and a cold drink are typically all we need.  I've got a good enough sense of direction, and can form a mental map, so when I've taken left turn after right turn, I can typically get us back to a recognizable route and point us back home.  However, Google Maps is an invaluable asset to have on the road.  Google Maps are some of the most complete maps that are widely available.  They offer the capability to toggle between road views and satellite images, so if you're looking for something in particular you'll likely find it. 

For example:  While brainstorming our preferred route this weekend I opened up our new favorite scavenger hunt game, Munzee.  While looking for a spot to drive by I thought we could roll a few new Munzees into our map.  In fact I found an area that at first glance would yield 2 Munzees in one location, and 3 more just down the road.  However, once I toggled my map over to satellite view I realized the other 3 were likely down a trail.  Given the recent volume of snow we had I decided against trailing those Munzees with the little guys in tow.

Another great app for your smartphone is called Victory Rides.  Geared more towards the motorcycle rider, this is a very handy app for tracking your progress.  Once you're done for the day you can save the map and build up a collection of routes that you've driven over time.

Now the boys on the other hand are bit tougher to keep happy while touring around the country side. 

Robert is nearly 8 years old and very much into video games.  And while I'd much rather him be enjoying the scenery and watching out for animals, I understand that his Nintendo DSI is a true necessity for longer trips.  What's really important is to invest in a nice pack for the controller and the games, because while out on the road for several hours a single game will only keep him entertained for so long.  Even still when we see something cool, we make sure to point it out to Robert so that he realizes why we drive and explore.  To find new and interesting things of course.

Aiden is 2 1/2 and can have his moments, which justify the term "Terrible Two's."  However, just a little forethought and we can avoid most major meltdowns.  First is to take care of the belly.  When driving it's easy to lose track of time and find yourself at 3pm and hungry.  For an adult it's easy to suck it up and just have a bigger dinner in a couple more hours.  That logic doesn't make sense to a 2 year old, so if it's close to lunch, and it has been a couple hours since his last meal.  Chances are you'll be better off finding a place to have a small snack, then pushing it any further. 

Of course what goes in must come out, so even if it's a short trip, don't forget the diaper bag.  Since you're on the road a change of clothes will likely also be a necessity.  On one trip, we had pushed it a bit too far and Aiden's diaper didn't make it between changes.  His body is easy enough to clean up, but his clothes, not so much.  Thankfully his PJ's were in the bag from his last overnight at Grandma's. 

Finally the last bit of advice for the little ones.  They all seem to love to nap in their car seats, and a quiet car can be music to a parent's ears, but again pay attention to the clock.  Just because you're on the road at 5, and he's relaxed enough to sleep at 5, doesn't mean it's a good idea.  A late nap has caused many a night time heartache, which could have been avoided, by getting the little guy up and moving.  Stop the car, stretch, maybe jump into the woods for sec.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Sunday Project Day: Deer Bologna

There's almost nothing I enjoy more than a project Sunday.  Working at home preparing a new recipe, or an old trustworthy recipe.  Getting some food processed to be put up for use later on when you can no longer buy the product fresh.

Of all the recipes I've worked on over the years I'd have to say I'm most proud of the Deer Bologna recipe I'm currently using.  This is a sweet bologna with a bit of smoke flavor that I make from a 50/50 mix of venison and pork.  It's reminiscent of Hilshire Farms Summer Sausage that many of us enjoy around Christmas, but the knowledge of the hunt that resulted in this meat makes the product that much more enjoyable.

The multi-day process usually begins by placing the meat to thaw in the refrigerator the Tuesday or Wednesday prior to processing.  I like to grind my own pork, because the plane ground pork available in the stores is simply too lean for my taste.  I always choose a pork butt, with a nice cap of fat on the the top for this recipe. 

Usually by about Saturday morning I'm ready to start the next step: grinding. After boning out the meat, cubing it, and passing it once through the meat grinder I will weigh out my pork.  Since I'm going for a 50/50 blend with the venison, I remove any pork in excess of the amount of venison I've got thawing.  I like to season this excess pork and make breakfast sausage patties for the next couple days.

The equal parts of pork and venison can now be brought together, and your cure will need to be added.  I use Morton's Tenderquick, at a ratio of 1 tbsp per pound of meat.  If you have used, or have access to "pink salt" or straight sodium nitrate, you'll want to follow the manufacturer's recommendations on proportioning.  Once mixed thoroughly the entire mixture is put up in the fridge for at least 12 hours, I typically will go closer to 18. 

If you've never used these curing agents, don't fret.  I was apprehensive at first as well, but after 10 years of honing this recipe I'm much more comfortable with the process.  As to what they do, they kill off the harmful bacteria, and work to make the meat last longer.  In the end this will still be a cooked product that has been raised to 165 degrees, but it will be a more stable product in the refrigerator.  Think of the difference between keeping a pound of salami in the frig, next to a pound of steak.  They're both at a safe temperature, but the steak will spoil much faster.

After the cure has had time to work, it's time to add the remaining ingredients (see recipe below).  I've changed this list  up several times, and I'd encourage you to do the same.  In my opinion the sugars, and the liquid smoke are two of the keys and I rarely deviate from their proportions. 

The mixture is then stuffed into casings, and I like to give the meat time to rest here as well.  Two things happen:  First the seasonings have time to meld and work well together. Second the pork fat softens the casings making them more supple during the cooking process.

Now into the oven.  If you've done any smoking or roasting you know low and slow is where it's at.  This recipe is no different.  200 degrees for about 5 hours is typical, but I will place a probe thermometer in the meat after about 3 hours.  I also like to rotate the meat so that any liquid created inside the casing doesn't settle to the bottom.  After baking I'll allow the meat to cool in the refrigerator for a day or two, then I'll peel the casings, and slice into disks.  Once sealed into food saver bags they will last for months in the freezer.

My favorite serving is with a nice cheese, like a smoked Gouda, or cheddar.  I've made sandwiches with it, and even cubed it and eaten it with a sweet n sour dip.

Happy cooking,
Scott M

Scott Messenger's Deer Bologna

*Ingredients may be scaled up or down based on your batch size

5    lbs of ground venison
5    lbs of ground pork butt (all fat included)
10  tbsp of Morton's Tenderquick
3/4 c brown sugar
3/4 c corn syrup
4    tbsp of liquid smoke
4    tbsp minced garlic
3    tbsp of ground black pepper
2    tbsp onion powder
1    tbsp ground mustard
1    tbsp Accent flavor enhancer
1    tsp cayenne
1    c beer

Cube and grind the pork butt, including all the fat, and mix with ground venison.  Add 1/3 of Tenderquick, mix thoroughly, repeat for each 1/3.

Refrigerate mixture 12-18 hrs

Mix all remaining ingredients thoroughly until completely incorporated in the entire volume of meat.

Stuff the meat into fibrous casings and tie off ends hog rings.  Both of these are typically found year-round at many hunting stores.

Allow stuffed casings to rest in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours.

Bake at 200 degrees on a cookie sheet for 4 hours, or until internal temp reaches 165.  Rotate the logs every hour, to avoid a dark streak on the bottom where juices settled.

Once safe internal temp is reached remove from oven, allow to cool slightly on the counter, then place in the refrigerator overnight to cool completely.

Remove casings, slice into lunch meat style rounds, or leave in longer logs.  Vacuum seal and freeze.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An alternative to chili.

As winter blasted the Erie region Monday and Tuesday, and frigid temps locked down the region I found many of my friends breaking out the chili recipes and hunkering down.  Looking for an alternative to chili and I found a recipe for Spanish Chilindron on Hank Shaw's website  

This red pepper stew, has the look of chili, so your mind immediately goes down that path, but once you taste this you realize it's missing the key dried chili pepper flavors.  This winter warmer satisfies your need for warm red foods, but does it in a bright somewhat tangy way. 

Hank's recipe (see below) calls for Pheasant, or some form of wild game.  Since my freezer is far lacking this year, I chose to substitute in dark chicken meat, with skin intact.  I also shorten the simmer time, knowing that domestic chicken will take far less time to be tender.  Having now tasted the dish, I can see where this would be an excellent choice for wild game.

Other than substituting the chicken for pheasant, I followed the recipe as is, and probably would do it that way again  I could see the addition of mushrooms rounding out the stew and perhaps dialing back the bay leaf and rosemary, as the stew was quite fragrant.  The recipe called for stock as needed, and I had gotten my dark meat by boning out 4 thighs and 4 drumsticks, so I boiled those bones with seasonings and a couple bullion cubes.  That created a rich, depth of flavor that I really appreciated in the final product.  I ate the stew straight, and Hank recommends some fried polenta, but I could see any number of breads, or even a bed of rice, being a fine addition to this dish.

Happy Cooking
Scott M

Chilindron, Spanish red pepper stew
(as posted by Hank Shaw)

Prep Time:  20 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours

3 pounds chicken, pheasant, lamb, venison or rabbit, in serving pieces
2 large onions, sliced in half-moons
10 cloves chopped garlic
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika
1 jar (15 ounces or so) or 5 roasted red sweet peppers, chopped
1 cup crushed tomatoes
2 cups red or white wine
Stock if needed (chicken or beef or whatever goes with your choice of meat)
1/2 cup diced cured meat: Bacon, pancetta, ham, etc.
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
Large handful of dried mushrooms (optional)

If using, put the mushrooms in a container just large enough to hold them and pour hot water over them. Cover and set aside.

Salt the meat and set aside for 10-20 minutes at room temperature. Use this time to chop the veggies.

Pat the meat dry and pour the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot that has a lid.

Heat the pot over medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides in batches. Do not overcrowd the pot. Set the meat aside in a bowl when browned. Take your time and do this right. Add more oil if needed.

When the meat is browned, add the onions and stir to bring up some of the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the onions with a little salt. Cook until they begin to brown, then add the garlic, the cured meat and the mushrooms, if using. Cook until fragrant, then add the meat back to the pot and mix well.

Pour in the wine and turn the heat up to high. Stir and boil furiously until the wine is half gone.

Turn the heat back down to medium and add the tomatoes, the roasted red peppers and all the spices and herbs (except the parsley). Stir well. The level of liquid should be about 2/3 the way up the sides of the meat. If it is low, add the stock. I used the full 2 cups.

Allow to simmer until meat is tender, start testing after 1 hour, I removed from heat after 2 hours.  Wild game will be a judgement call.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thank you Mr Lincoln

Here's the story about harvesting the largest deer I've taken up to date.  The story's over 5 years old, and I've shopped it around a time or two.  It's never seen the light of day, so I figured what better forum than right here.  I hope you enjoy it!

Thank you Mr Lincoln

I don't normally consider myself a superstitious person, but when it comes to deer hunting, all bets are off.  I’ve got my favorite flannel, and a usual routine that I like to follow.  I pack up early and check my gear often.  Sometimes it seems like good karma is almost as important as the license, so I try to have a positive attitude, and be as prepared as possible.  Well, at least prepared enough to have a good day, without looking like a Polar expedition.

I feel that being prepared means having everything I’ll need from the beginning of my hunt to the end.  Including all of the items I’ll need, should I be successful.  Often if I get to the woods and realize I don’t have a pen, then mentally, my day is shot.  All hunters are great at coming up with excuses; mine tend to revolve around poor preparation.  As if not having a pen, or a piece of string is some kind of jinx that keeps the animals away.

The 2007 deer season was no exception to this.  Like most hunters I packed my field bag and vest a good two days prior to the season.  After checking and double-checking my gear, I finally placed all of it in the vehicle for safekeeping.  Later on while running some last minute errands I came across a head's up penny lying on the ground in front of a grocery store.  Being within 24 hours of the start of the deer season, I had to pick it up, and hope for any bit of good luck for tomorrow.  As I slipped the coin into my wallet, I laughed to myself, thinking that this was a little silly, but what's the harm.

I went about the rest of my day, not giving it too much thought of that penny and I set to completing some yard work while trying to clear my mind, so that I could relax and enjoy the season opener, tomorrow.  As a cleared the yard I came across another head's up penny, lying on the front step of my house.  This was just too much, so I laughed out loud as I placed my second "lucky" penny into my wallet.

I felt that my “lucky” penny experiences were just too foolish to tell any of my hunting partners.  Knowing them, if I did tell them about my pennies, I’d never hear the end of it.  There's always a good bit of ribbing out in the deer woods, and my pennies would be just too easy of a target.

As with most other hunter's, I barely slept the night before the season.  Finally giving up the struggle, I got out of bed around 4:15am.  I showered, dressed, and went downstairs to have some breakfast, and watch the weather forecast.  Saying that the weather here in Northwest PA was less than ideal would be an understatement.  We had fog and rain forecast for the entire day.  Undeterred we made the 35 minute drive to my cousin's property where we always spend opening day.  The property is small, but we’ve had good success on the opening day.

The day progressed just as usual, with some shooting on either side of the creek, but no deer through our spot.  By 9:15am my hunting partner Joe, left his tree to push through a brushy area that usually hides a deer or two.  I remained at my favorite tree hoping that Joe, and other hunters, would push the deer my way.  With the rain falling steadily I knew it would be hard to hear any deer approaching.  About 9:45am I glanced over my left shoulder in time to see a heavy antlered buck slipping past me at less than 20 yards.  The wet leaves had hidden his approach, and he has about to crest a small slope.  If he made it to the crest my shot would be unsafe.  Before reaching the crest the buck glanced away, and as he looked away I swung my gun and body into position to make the shot.

The Marlin 30-30 cracked and the deer bolted over the crest of the hill.  I worked the action and then made it up the slope to try and get a glimpse of where the he had run.  Just outside of my wood lot are two fields separated by a road.  All together the two fields span about 250 yards. Even with such a great distance the deer was out of sight by the time I reached the spot he had been standing.  Since I was pretty sure he was hit well, I began the search for blood, but the steady rain made finding blood, a lost cause.  Knowing the deer had to cross a road, I searched up and down the road for tracks, which might give me a clue to the deer's location.

Having no luck finding tracks or blood on my own, I got my hunting partner Joe on the radio, and told him I needed his help in locating a downed deer.  From his location it took him about 20 minutes through wet golden rod, to meet up with me.  Of course this was the longest 20 minutes of my life.  While I waited I searched with binoculars the field edges, hoping for a glimpse of a white belly or antlers.  When Joe arrived, I went over the shot and the deer's possible location.

The deer's most direct line would lead into the woods at the south end of the field.  I entered those woods at the nearest point, while Joe walked the field edge searching for sign.  After we covered the nearest portion and did not finding any sign, I began to lose heart that I had even wounded the deer.  I quietly hoped to myself that I missed clean, and we wouldn’t have a long messy recovery.  As I continued on the south end of the field, Joe crossed the field to begin checking the north side.  Shortly after reaching the field edge, Joe hollered to get my attention.  I began crossing the field and from Joe's body language, I could tell there was a deer down in the brush.  My spirit lifted as I made the quick walk across the field.

His antlers were larger than I remembered, with a standard eight-point rack and a two-inch kicker on the right G2, making him a nine pointer with a fourteen inch inside spread.  He field dressed out just north of 180 pounds.  He was a massive animal.  We made quick work of the field dressing, and let him hang for a short time, while we recounted the story.

I never fail to be amazed at how far and fast a wounded deer can run.  This deer had crossed almost 200 yards in the same time it took me to cover 20.  It just goes to show, in bad weather conditions, you have to take every necessary step to recover the deer you may have wounded.

We loaded him into the van, and made the short drive to our favorite meat market.  After I filled out the order form, I placed the receipt into my wallet.  Upon opening my wallet, I realized, I still had my two “lucky” pennies that I had found the day before.  I laughed out loud, as I thought to myself, "Sometimes superstitions really do payoff."

Happy Hunting
Scott M

Monday, January 21, 2013

Endless options to enjoy a good hike.

How fitting that after all last week of 40-50 degree weather and thinking of camping all week Mother Nature sees fit to remind all of us that it's January, we're in northwest PA, and as long as that lake isn't frozen a lake effect snow event, can and will arrive. 

While many of my friends are bemoaning the return of winter, I can't lie, I'm pretty excited.  And after being demolished by a horrible colds/infections over the last 4 weeks I need to get outside and feel fresh air. 

There's plenty of opportunities, even in the dead of winter with 12 inches of snow on the ground. 

Presque Isle State Park is running their New Year's resolution walk series.  This informational walk series takes place every Thursday night and has a different track to walk each time.  This is such a great way to explore an area many of us visit all summer, but rarely see in the beauty of winter.

Asbury woods has well groomed hiking trails that runners and dog walkers love spring summer and fall, why not explore them in the depth of winter?  The trails are still there, it's a great workout to break trail through the snow, and the blanket of white actually helps animals to stand out in the woods, so you're likely to see more animals this time of year.

Wintergreen Gorge hiking trail is an underdeveloped gem on the edge of the city.  The small public parking lot on the north end will likely keep it this way, and the topography doesn't exactly lend itself to easy going hikes.  The main trail is a mountain biker/cross country runners dream workout, buring legs and lungs.  Having grown up within a couple miles, I've had the opportunity to explore minor paths, and the place is amazing, and has so much potential.

To mention a truly underdeveloped public space:  Six Mile Creek Park, in Greene township is fundamentally unknown, and still stuck in the development phases.  Zoom in a Google Map on the area of I-90 and Station Rd, and all of a sudden you'll see a large green swath named Six Mile Creek Park.  How underdeveloped this is, is quite unfortunate, because this park could rival Asbury woods/Brown's farm area for public trail access and vast natural space preserved for public use.

One final property, or group of properties of note are the State Game Lands in northwest PA.  Yes these are areas typically used by hunters, but the reality is, they are public lands open to anyone.  Each one typically has well-developed parking areas, and several have nice trail systems that you can easily hike and explore.  SGL 109 has multiple access points along Rt 97, and SGL 218 is easily accessible from Rt 8 and has multiple paved parking lots for your use.  Hunters can and are using the areas, so it would be a good idea to throw an orange cap on, and be respectful of the area you're sharing with them.

I could go on for days with different areas, but I'll save those for later blogs.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Friday, January 18, 2013

Winter Camping and Hiking

There's a dusting of snow on the ground, and just like the first couple days of this week, I've got camping on the brain.  It's been years and years, but I have several very fond memories of camping in the snow. 

Yesterday I talked about managing a campsite, and all of your supplies around the site.  When it comes to winter camping, everything has to be taken up a level.  In the winter there's an added variable that even if you do everything else right, can hurt you.  Of course I'm referring to the cold.

Our bodies are heat producing machines, but without the proper gear you can find yourself in a world of hurt very fast.  My very first experience winter camping is good evidence of this.  The very first trip I can recall was a late winter campout that was actually in someone's yard.  That yard happened to be about 50 yds off of Lake Erie, but all the same we did actually have a warm house to escape into should we find ourselves in trouble. 

We had an old 8 person tent, so we dug down into the snow to reach the frozen ground.  After placing a large tarp on the ground, thus began our insulating process.  Really that's the best way to approach any cold weather outing:  Layers of insulation.  So what is insulation?  Sounds rhetorical right?  Understanding how insulation works, and what makes for good insulation may save your life someday.  Insulation must work to capture heat.  That heat may be generated from a fuel source, like an electric heater or even a propane lantern.  Or that heat may be from your own body's metabolism, breaking down food to fuel your body.

Our tarp on the ground helps to create layers of air pockets.  Trapped air is actually an enormously efficient insulator.  If you have a down jacket you know what I mean.  The downy goose feathers trap a layer of air around your body, which is heated by your body, thus keeping warm air closer to you. 

After staking the tent down the remaining steps of pitching a tent are familiar to the rest of us.  Now even though snow is frozen water, it actually serves as a fine insulator, helping to keep body heat in, just witness igloos and other shelters that are actually built exclusively of snow.  We used the snow we removed from the bottom to begin to pile up the sides of the tent.  This was just a nylon tent, so it's not going to bear the weight of a lot of snow, just enough to firm up the bottom of the tent. 

Our next layer of defense was to place a blanket down under our sleeping bag.  It might seem to make more sense to layer a blanket within the sleeping bag, but remember that sleeping bags are built to keep your body heat in, so in this case the folded blanket serves a better insulating factor outside the bag, insulating us from the cold ground.

Now speaking of how the sleeping bag works.  A sleeping bag has layers of insulation to hold warmth in, but if you pack layers and layers of clothes on your body before you crawl into the bag, you are working against the design of the bag.  To some this may sound crazy, but I've done it for years, and never had an issue.  I cut down to the gym shorts, and maybe a tank top.  I've slept outdoors in sub 50 degree temps in a sleeping bag and nothing by my skivvies, and woke up warmer and more comfortable than people who were wearing half the clothes they brought. Remember that the bag was built to hold your heat in, allow the bag to work, by letting your body heat up the air space within the bag and you'll have a more comfortable night's sleep.

Now after having that wonderful night's sleep, you came to camp to explore, right?  Hiking in the winter woods is simply magic.  I've been to areas, where I've hunted and hiked for years and years, but once the snow flies, it's a different world altogether.  Thriving out in that world takes preparation, but can be done very comfortably. 

First is to fuel your body.  When cold, your body will burn calories 15%-20% faster than normal, so you've got to feed that furnace with high quality, slow burning fuel.  Think complex carbohydrates.  Grains like oatmeal, and grits are a great choice particularly because they are warm entering your belly giving you a great psychological edge.

Next is your choice of clothing.  Bundling up like Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story is tempting, but 100% the wrong idea.  You're trying to go for a hike, right? So you body needs to move.  Then once it is moving, your body is going to generate even more heat and just like in the tent you have to manage that heat.  Some heat you need to contain, while other heat you need to dissipate.  Here I like to let my body do the instructing.  When too warm, I want layers to remove.  Then if I cool off I can replace those layers.  That's why I always dress in layers.  A tight fitting base layer that will help to move moisture away from my skin and evaporate without cooling me off.  Next a looser, insulating layer, like synthetic fleece or wool.  Either choice will capture warmed air and hold it close to your body.  Finally your outer layer.  All this layer needs to do is to keep the outside, out.  If it's raining or snowing you want your outer layer to shed that precipitation as quickly as possible.  That outer layer doesn't need to be highly insulated, just moisture resistant.

Following this formula, I have comfortably spent hours out in the exposed elements.  While tired at the end of the day, I've never found myself in a compromised situation.  Now don't let the cold temps scare you off, get out and explore, you never know what you may find.

Happy Exploring.
Scott M

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Why Camping?

It's not always a direct question.  More often it's a look, but it always happens.  If I'm talking about a camping trip I just went on, or a camping trip that I'm currently planning, someone will give me the look. 

The "why camping?" Look.

As if it's fundamentally absurd to leave the comfort and amenities of your permanent residence, just to go to a non-permanent, even a movable residence, for a couple nights at a time.   A place where you have to work to just get along.  You have to gather wood, water, maintain a fire, safely handle and prepare food without refrigeration, or at least from a cooler, but again you have to manage that process as well. 

So why go through all that?  It's hard for me to explain without being a little rhetorical, but I go through all that in order to go through all that.  It's about surviving on simpler terms.  I don't need to worry myself with the ephemera of life.  I need to worry about keeping my food cold, my fire hot, and my head dry. End of list.

When camping there's always something to do, and those things have real implications.  If I'm at home and I leave food on the counter, fine, I've got more in the freezer.  If I'm camping and food spoils, well one meal is going to be a little thin.  The focus on survival, breaks you down to a very primitive self.  It wipes away the nonsense of the modern world.  I don't worry that I have 70 channels and nothing to watch because there's wood to be gathered, a fire to be tended, and a trail over there that I haven't walked down yet.

That unknown trail is the real other reason to go camping.  The ability to explore the unknown, and particularly the wild places of this Earth.  My family and I love to hop in the car and roadtrip to find a new park or diner, but just like being at home, if plans fail on the road, there's an easily accessible back up plan.

In the woods that is not always the case.  For me knowing that I'm a visitor in this wild place helps to ground me and make me more mindful of my surroundings and how I'm going to move through them.  I'm not going to blindly leap over that log or creek, because failure in the woods is often catastrophic.  Now, if I  re-read that last sentence it sounds overly dramatic and frankly a little pessimistic.  Injuries happen, and you do need to be mindful of your surroundings.  However, instead of allowing that anxiety to weigh you down, allow that mindfulness to lift your spirit, to focus your attention on the REAL. 

Mindfulness in the woods have lead to some of my greatest experiences.  A doe and two fawns within 20 feet. A flock of turkeys meticulously picking bugs while moving through the undergrowth 30 feet away. A fresh bear track within 50 feet of a fresh coyote track.

Now-a-days, I have the distinct pleasure of teaching two young boys these skills.  With time and patience I believe they too will appreciate wild places and the simplicity of life at a campsite.

Happy Camping
Scott M

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Between a Good Time and a Great Time

My wife and I both grew up camping, so we want our boys to have the same love of the outdoors, and fond childhood memories that we have because of camping.  We have found with a little planning we can turn potential good times into great times.

Each summer we plan various trips around Northwest PA and usually at least twice a year we make it the cabin my Grandfather built, that my Uncle now owns.  It's a wonderful place full of rich memories for me, and in all honestly "cabin" is a bit of an understatement.  The building could easily be used as a full time residence by nearly anyone that doesn't mind a bit of a drive to the grocery store.  All the same it backs up against 100's of acres of timber property, with a network of old logging roads, 4 wheeler tracks, and even the remnants of a small gauge railroad track used to mine sandstone and soft coal, we've affectionately named "the dinky track."  There's a mid century fire tower nearby, underneath of which is an old USGS marker which would have been used to map the mountain years ago.

To supplement the trips to my Uncle's cabin, we have branched out looking for campgrounds to take the boys.  Since we don't own a proper tent for all of us, and the idea of sharing a tent with boys as young as ours leaves a bit to be desired, we try to go to campgrounds where we can rent a cabin.  This has made the searching very tough, and cost us more money than typical camping trips, it has also taught us invaluable lessons about what we like in a campground.

Not to overstate it, but I LOVE Google maps.  I will use Google searches to trackdown a couple prospective campgrounds, but Google maps tells the real story.

Our 2011 camping trip is a tremendous example of this:  Robert had just turned 6 and Aiden was about to be 1.  After a successful trip to my Uncle's cabin, I found Pymatuning Campground, Pymatuning State Park, Andover OH.  This location stuck out, because of the Yurts they had available to rent.  A Yurt is a round tent with a peaked ceiling.  At the park they have them erected on a wooden deck with a covered picnic table.  Inside, two futon style bunkbeds, plus a sink and small refrigerator.  The brochure pictures look amazing, but that's really easy to do.  What does the Google satellite image show us?

In the above screen grab you will see a double driveway entering the park.  Near the top center you can make out 4 round white dots.  A single dot with a driveway, two dots with one driveway, then another single dot with a driveway.  Those dots are the Yurts.  You'll notice how close those are to the road, and the lack of tree cover in that section of the campground.  Couple that with the multiple paved spurs off of the driveways and this is obviously the section of the campground that is much more RV park then campground.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but this is good information to have prior to booking.  If you like big woods, long hikes, this might not be the place.  However, there was a clean, guarded beach, plus some flea markets nearby and the ever popular Pymatuning Deer Park.  So we packed walking shoes instead of hiking boots, plus swim trunks, and we had a grand weekend.

In 2012 with our boys a year older, and Aiden in the full thralls of the terrible twos, we made the decision we'd try just one night, but we wanted a much more secluded location.  Our plan, over the course of one week, was to spend a couple nights at my Uncle's, then branch out to a campground in the Allegheny National Forest.  We quickly discovered that Willowbay was the only Forest controlled campground with cabins available.  That was fine because as Google Maps showed this area had exactly what we wanted.

The primary driveway leaves the main road and serves all the campsites, plus the boat dock at the end of the campground.  If your eye follows the driveway, there is a parking lot near the center of the picture.  To the left of that parking area there is a thicker wooded area between the road and the shore.  It is in that wooded area where they have installed 10 simple one room cabins.

The cabins have a bunk bed and a twin bed.  You must provide your own linens, but each cabin has electricity.  From where the above picture is taken there is a walking path to my left, and on the other side of the path is a primitive campsite for tent camping that is directly on the water.  If you are at all into canoeing or kayaking I would highly recommend Willowbay. I would say for an ideal experience rent the cabin to have a dry comfortable place to sleep, then for a few bucks more rent the primitive site nearby.  Now you can leave your canoe in the primitive site, and have the benefits of the dry cabin when night falls.

While planning for our 2013 outing I was taking a drive around Oil Creek State Park.  Robert is getting to the age where the historical stuff is starting to get neat, and Oil Creek offers me miles and miles of trails.  On my drive I stumbled upon a sign for Oil Creek Family Campground.  The entry sign left me a little flat, but on their website I discovered they have several cabins for rent, at very reasonable prices.  My next question:  What does Google maps show me? 

Obviously heavily wooded, so I like it off the bat.  To the right of this picture is nothing but State Park land all the way down to Oil Creek.  In fact there is a hiking trail that connects the campground to the network of trails in the State Park.  It may only be the middle of January, but I think we have found a campground to book for 2013.

Spend a little time on your computer, scouting new locations, and your time away from home will be well spent.

Happy Camping
Scott M

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Oil Creek State Park

A little less than an hour south of Erie lies a small region of Northwest PA that very few people outside of the region have even heard of, let alone visited.  Yet events that happened there over 150 years ago have shaped the very direction of human life on this planet.  There is not a single day that goes by where we don't come into contact with the technology founded in this region of PA.  Of course I'm talking about Oil Creek, and the corridor that connects Oil City, Titusville and Warren.  It was here along the banks of a little known creek where Col Edwin Drake developed technology to efficiently extract crude oil from the Earth.

For centuries native peoples knew of small pockets in the region where a black slimy substance bubbled up from the ground and spoiled the water nearby.  They found out if you separated that substance from the water it would burn.  It stunk and gave off black smoke, but if you dipped cloth in it, it would be easier for you to transport fire starting material.  This is a critical skill in any nomadic or even semi-nomadic people.

In the post Civil War years whales were slaughtered en mass for their fat.  This fat could be easily boiled down and transported, making for cheap and safe lamp oil.  Lamp oil that eventually became so popular that whale population began to pay a hefty price.  Necessity being the mother of invention, people began looking for cheaper sources of lamp oil. 

Crude oil, while cheap, was not efficient to hand dip out of a few swamps here and there.  So what Col Drake did was to develop the first efficient drilling and piping rig to be used to give the crude oil a controlled method of escape.  And thus was born the modern age. 

Without oil the auto industry doesn't leave the ground.  Internal combustion engines are inefficient dreams.  And the plastics that encompass our entire modern lives never exists.  All of those things are derived from crude oil that Col Drake's pipes released from the ground.

Presently the heavily wooded region surrounding Drake's well has been preserved as a State Park, saving both the natural beauty of the region. The actual historic site is preserved with a museum, and for a nominal fee you can explore the grounds and view some amazing old equipment.  The park has over 50 miles of hiking and biking trails, plus a historic train ride available seasonally.  Tent camping is available in several areas, and some simple lean-to shelters you can stay in while hiking. 

This past weekend I took my youngest son down to the museum.  It was just a short trip on Sunday, and we spent our time hiking along a couple of the shorter trails, and just enjoying the pleasant January weather.  We did drive several of the roads around the park, but be warned, many have no winter maintenance.  We were lucky that the recent thaw had cleared the way, but I could see several areas that would have been quite sketchy during a normal January.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Monday, January 14, 2013

Munzee - 21st Century Scavenger Hunt

A few months back a friend of mine casually mentioned something about "Munzee hunting" in a Facebook post.  Since I'm interested in every kind of hunting, I just had to ask what Munzee hunting was all about.  My friend let me know that it was a scavenger hunt game, similar to geocaching, played through an app on your smart phone.  Instead of hiding a "cache" for the next hunter to find you hide a game piece with a QR code printed on it.

Once that game piece has been deployed it will show up on the game map for all the other players to view.  As a player the pieces that I haven't captured show up as Green balloons, and the pieces that I have captured show up as Red balloons.

As you can see from the screen shot of my cell phone there are plenty of pieces around, and a lot of places to visit.  Some of them are kind of silly.  Just yesterday I followed the map to a game piece on the back of a Handicapped Parking sign in a random parking lot of some shop in an industrial park.  Okay, so I didn't know the industrial park was quite that big, but I also didn't find anything geographically new or interesting. 

However, most of the pieces are typically placed in a location that is maybe a bit out of the way, or takes you to part of a park you hadn't visited before.  For example: Yesterday I was out for a drive with my youngest son, Aiden.  We ended up at Drake's Well Museum, partly because I hadn't been to Oil Creek State Park in years, and partly because I found two game pieces on the map.  I parked near the the first game piece and told Aiden, "We find stickers!"  He got excited and nearly leapt out of the Explorer.  We followed a bicycle trail and quickly found the first game piece on the back side of a guard rail near an old steel bridge.  Looking at the map there was a second piece within a reasonable walk, so we continued down the driveway.  Unfortunately the second piece couldn't be located.  And this happens.  We are talking about laminated pieces of paper stuck to metal, outdoors, so as weather is apt to do, pieces get worn away.  The great part about this game being driven by an app on your smart phone is I can add a "Journal Entry" that the piece may be missing.  The original player that deployed the piece will receive an e-mail, and that person can investigate it further. 

Since it is a game, their are points.  Points for putting pieces out.  Points for finding pieces.  Points for when people find your pieces.  As you earn points you increase in level, but more importantly you gain a great satisfaction to see your map turn from green to red!!

Reading along the website, there's even a business reward aspect that can be involved.  While I haven't seen this locally, a business can place a Munzee game piece on their door, and reward customers for every 3rd, 5th, etc... visit to their store.  Since I love exploring and finding new places I think this is a tremendously interesting way to drive customers to your business and reward their loyalty.  Like a Foursquare check in, with a real reason!

Looking at the map the trend seems to be more toward urban areas, and some rural areas slightly off the beaten path.  As the game grows I really hope to find more and more pieces popping up in secluded and more wooded areas.  Seeing a piece on part of the map that you don't immediately recognize would be tremendously exciting.  Who knows, perhaps that place will be your new favorite picnic area.

If you have a smart phone, and like getting out and finding new places, I would highly recommend downloading the app and locating a couple game pieces.  It's endlessly addicting!!

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Sunday, January 13, 2013

January Gear Review: Ice Fishing

I spent some time at's headquarters talking Ice Fishing gear. Check out my article and video for more information,

Gear up for ice fishing | Times-News

While the weather has turned here on the North Coast, they're colder days in the forecast. So we still have a chance at some hard water action.

Happy Fishing
Scott M

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The weather...

Recovering from one of the worst sinus/ear infections I've ever had, I'm sitting here watching the snow melt in my backyard.  Checking the calendar, and yep it's still January.  My infection induced coma didn't result in me sleeping through to spring.  Watching this mid winter heat wave destroy our snow pack I can't help but think of how dependent outdoorsmen are on the weather.

To hot:  nothing moves
To cold:  nothing moves
Precipitation falling:  nothing moves

Catch the weather just right...  Wow! You will see action like you won't believe. 

January on the Great Lakes is ice fishing season.  Streams are mostly clear, but at these water temps getting steelhead to take your bait is about as difficult as keeping my 2 year old from demolishing his toys.  Technically archery season remains open, but this far north only the hardiest of souls venture to their treestands.  Small game is in, and this is actually the best time of year if you're looking for a large bushytail for a trophy mount, but again mid January weather leaves a lot to be desired. 

So what's an outdoorsman to do?  Ice fishing season will be heating up, if you'll pardon the pun.  I personally had a hard time understanding the attraction that hard water fisherman have to the sport.  After all in order for the sport to be productive you need the weather to really turn to a proper cold spell.  However, a few years back my best friend and I scrounged up some equipment, dumped it into a bucket, and headed out onto the now frozen waters of Presque Isle Bay.  "Scrounged up"  In all honesty I bought my Schooley's Spring Bobber on my way to the bay.  That plus a couple 1/2 ounce jigheads in fuchsia and chartreuse, and a dozen minnows.  Our very first trip we didn't even have an auger.  The game plan was to find holes that others had abandoned early that day or last night, then chip them back open with an assortment of flathead screwdrivers we had brought.  What a sight we must have been!

Several hours later we actually had each hooked into 2 dozen sun fish, and a handful of perch.  The sun fish weren't big enough to bother with, so back down the hole they went, but the perch made for a couple of fine sandwiches.

Since that trip we have gone out a couple times, and each upgraded our gear several times as well. 

The bay never froze last year, and up until the last several day, it looked like it would freeze up this year.  In fact a few brave souls have already ventured out.  For my taste I prefer 5 inches of ice or better.  I'm not starving to death without that fish, so no reason to get crazy about rushing onto thin ice.

With some simple gear any outdoorsman can find hours of entertainment and sport during any time of year.  Even in the depth of winter

Happy Fishing
Scott M

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A good hike

There's a saying about golf that "golf is a good walk ruined."

I can identify with this, because as much as I love to hunt, I love to hike too.  So I'm sure more than one of my hunts has been ruined by my wanderlust pulling me out of a treestand.

That's okay really because I really do just love to explore a new area.  How else would I stumble upon bear and coyote tracks within 100 yards of each other:

It's a rare sight for me to see a black bear in the areas I hunt, and I've never seen a coyote in the wild, so to find both these tracks reminded me that I'm not the only hunter in the woods today. 

So I think it's only natural for me to plan our family vacations around hiking destinations.

Yes I'm aware it's January, but really is there a better time to plan vacations?  Most of us in the northern tier are stuck indoors most of the day, and I don't think there's a better time to browse maps and websites for places to camp.  Plus, if you find yourself totally enamored with an area, you can reserve your spot before the seasonal rush, and guarantee your plans.

With that in mind I've been studying a couple spots in the Allegheny National Forest.  My mother's family has owned a cabin near the outskirts of the ANF for almost 50 years.  For the last 2 years this camp has served as a basecamp for my family to explore the ANF.  Our youngest will turn 3 this summer, and our oldest 8, so we finally feel like we are able to effectively wrangle them, in order to do some tent or camper camping.

Since we have already done some regular exploring at Heart's Content Scenic Area we are going to try out the campsite just a few hundred yards down the road.  Heart's Content is one of the largest tracks of virgin timber east of the Mississippi.  It has never been cut, and therefore the forest exists in its pure natural state.  White pines grow to enormous proportions, until they are toppled in a wind storm.  The ground consumes the fallen timber and the opening in the canopy releases long dormant seeds from the ground.  It's an amazing place.

The campsite butts up against the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area.  The Hickory Creek area was one of the first area protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964.  Howard Zahniser, the author and champion of the Wilderness Act wrote: 
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Heart's Content campground can access the Hickory Creek trail, which links through the woods to the Wheeler trail, which will arrive at Heart's Content interpretive trail.  The next length of the Wheeler trail wraps below the campground and with a little off trail brush busting we should be able to arrive at our campsite.

Later in the summer we'll travel to the northern arm of the Kinzua Reservoir.  Last summer we rented a cabin for one night at Willowbay Campground, which is the only Federally controlled campground with cabins to rent.  All other campgrounds with cabins are privately owned.  This was a really nice stay where shortly after unpacking we were visited by a flock of turkey including young of the year.  And the view was just phenomenal looking out over the reservoir.

While finding our way to Willowbay we came across another ANF campground called Tracy's Ridge.  Since there were no cabins there, we didn't stay, but the brochure showed us the extensive trail system.  There's the Land of Many Uses interpretive trail, which links to both the Tracy ridge trail and the Johnnycake trail.  Both of those trails link up to a length of the North Country Scenic trail.

The North Country Scenic trail will someday be the longest footpath in North America stretching 4600 miles from upper New York to North Dakota.  Of that proposed route, 2100 miles have been certified, with some of the most well developed portions of the path being in Pennsylvania.  We explored a couple trailheads last year, and I'd be lying to say I'm not just a little bit obsessed with this trail.  Judging from the map I believe a through hike of the PA portion would be possible in under 4 days, but for a distance of that size I wouldn't want to push too tight of a schedule. 

So much land to explore, makes surfing the internet in January so exciting.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It really is all about the brine.

In keeping with this week's theme of cooking particularly long and involved recipes, let's take a look at the smoked turkey breast I prepared for our Christmas feast. 

If you have never smoked a meat or are fairly new to the process, I would very strongly suggest getting comfortable with the idea of brining meat.  Brining meat is actually quite an old process, and can be done with any whole muscle cut of meat.  Not to be confused with marinading, where the goal is to infuse flavor directly into the meat, the goal of brining is to increase the moisture content of the meat.  The addition of flavor can be a natural by-product of this process, but doesn't really have to be.

I actually started off with a whole turkey because pre-Thanksgiving turkey prices are amazing.  Since we were already having quite a bit of meat I decided to cut the wings, legs and thighs off the body, and save those for chicken and biscuits later on.  Now this beast looks like any other plain turkey breast you would purchase at the store.

Time to prepare the brine.

Just as it sounds this should be a salty solution.  Aside from the salt you can add any number of fresh or dried herbs to the liquid.  Just remember that unlike a marinade these herbs will not necessarily add a noticeable flavor to the meat.  So what will the brine do?  The salty water will create an increase in the osmotic pressure on the meat cells.  In English?  Sure.  Remember 10th grade biology?  Bodies are collection of microscopic cells.  In this case turkey breast meat, cells.  Salty water causes the cells to expand, and in order to expand they have to draw in water from their surroundings.  In this case that water is your brining solution.  So what the brine is doing is forcing the cells of the breast meat to hold more fluid than they naturally would.  Therefore, once you begin the cooking, or in this case the smoking process, the meat will take much longer to dry out.  Leaving you with a fully cooked meat product that is succulent and juicy.

I like to keep my brining solution simple.  Approximately 1/2 cup of salt into about 1/2 quart of water.  Heat to boiling in order to dissolve all of the salt.  Don't worry about that being too salty, because in order to brine a turkey of that size you'll be adding at least another gallon of water to the vessel.  This time around I also added about 3 tbsp of lemon juice, one branch of rosemary and a dozen peppercorns.  This all fit nicely into a 3 gallon ceramic crock I own, and Erie's weather cooperated with a cool 33 degree night, so the whole mix sat on the back porch for 12 hours.

After the 12 hour soak, I removed the bird, and allowed it to rest while I got the smoker up to temp.  275 degrees over pecan wood would make for a nice low and slow smoking process.  Still looking for an internal temp of 165 like any poultry product and this time the bird road in the smoker for about 5 hours.

The smoked meat then rested in the refrigerator for another 18 hours before I sliced it off the bone and ran it through my meat slicer.  As you can see from the results above I was left with a delicious deli style sliced turkey breast, perfect to eat alone, or in a sandwich.

Brining is an extra step, but it will pay enormous dividends at the end.  And don't stop at smoked meats.  Next time you are going to oven roast a turkey, brine that bird as well.  Your guests will love you for it.

Happy Cooking
Scott M