Saturday, July 2, 2016

Easy Peasy Backpacking

A few weeks ago Brent and I participated in the Edmonton Outdoor Club's "Backpacking 101".

There were five of us volunteers participating and we had various stations set up including Jo demonstrating long-term point-to-point backpacking and winter backpacking, Brent demonstrating cycle touring, and Rob and Lynn demonstrating backpack cooking, safety, and so on.

My station, of course, was the "Easy Peasy Backpacking" station and I had two topics to share:
  1. Easy backpack food
  2. Easy backpack trips, including hub-and-spoke trips
Easy Backpack Food

A number of my friends are essentially backpack chefs.  On each trip they show up with all their little containers full of  fresh ingredients.  They prepare their fresh, aromatic meals, while sharing tips, secrets and recipes with other backpack chefs.

If Brent were into being a backpack chef, I'd be all over eating those fresh, aromatic backpack meals, but he isn't, and I definitely am not.  So, I've learned a few things over the years about taking the easy way out with regards to backpack food.  Here are some of my favorites:
  • Breakfast:
    • Quaker instant oatmeal
    • Starbuck's Instant Coffee packs
  • Lunch:
    • Tinned tuna salad (from the tinned fish section of the supermarket)
    • Left-Over Pizza.  Good for day one and maybe day two (if it's not too warm out)
  • Dinner:
    • Boil-in-bag meals from the Indian grocer.  Pair a Paneer meal with:
    • Homemade boil-in-bag rice: Prepare rice at home, store it in a Ziplock boil-friendly bag
    • Backpack meals from the store are acceptable in a pinch
  • Snacks:
    • Cheese.  It travels extremely well, even on multi-day trips.  Pre-wrapped pieces such as individual cheddars or BabyBels are great.  Take a few pieces for every day, even for trips of a week or longer
    • Indian snack mixes: Punjabi Mix, Navrattan Mix, Chevda... find these in the snack aisle of your local Indian grocer.  They're a great, tasty substitute for traditional trail mix
    • Raw almonds (from the baking aisle)
    • Run Rype dried fruit bars
    • Clif Bars
    • Sesame Snaps
    • Special K breakfast bars
    • Mini-Wheats in a tupperwear
    • Potato Chips
What are your favorite easy backpack foods?  Please share in the comments so I can learn some things!

Easy (Yet Wonderful) Backpack Trips - Hub and Spoke

I know people who talk about their backpack adventures, including 14-day back-country trips through Willmore Wilderness, backpacking in Iceland, and any number of things that I would assign any number of adjectives but "fun" and "enjoyable" would not be on the list.

But backpacking doesn't have to be back-breaking or soul-crushing.  If you just want to get out for a nice time with your friends, or family, consider a hub-and-spoke trip.

Hub-and-spoke means that you walk in to your camp site and set up camp.  For any number of days, you do day trips from your base camp.  On your last day, you pack up camp and walk back out.  No packing up and moving every single day.  You can even enjoy a day off if you want!

Some of my favorite hub-and-spoke backpack trips in the Canadian Rockies:
  • Tombstone: Hike in via Elbow Lake.  Day trips: Rae Lake, Sheep Lakes, Piper Pass.
  • The Forks: Hike in to The Forks campground.  Day trips: Turbine Canyon & Haig Glacier, Three Isle Lake & Kananaskis Pass.
  • Skoki: Hike in to Hidden Lake or Baker Lake.  Day trips: Deception Pass, Cotton Grass Pass.
  • Berg Lake: Helicopter in to Berg Lake.  Day trips: Snowbird Pass, Hargreaves Lake, Robson Pass.  Hike out.

I am a self-professed sissy.  In order to enjoy backpacking I have to make it as easy for myself as possible.  And I do.  Make it as easy for myself, AND enjoy it.  Even if you're a backpacking sissy, you can enjoy it too.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Set-Up Beer

The first time I took Brent backpacking with my Calgary pals was a trip to MacLeod Creek in August of 2009.

When backpacking, of course there is a lot of focus on bringing only what you truly need for the trip.  The essentials.  You're going to be carrying everything for your trip on your back, so size and weight are key considerations.  Every backpacker decides for themselves what "exceptions" they are willing to carry.  For some people it is a proper pillow.  Others may decide that a book is not optional, and carry along their favorite novel.  My friends have a long-standing tradition of bringing a "set-up beer" on our trips.  A "set-up beer" is pretty self-explanatory... it's a beer that you bring along to enjoy while you set up camp after lugging all your stuff in on your first day.

I like having someone to share gear with on a backpack trip.  I can comfortably carry 30lbs in a pack.  By the time I reach 33-35lbs, I'm getting uncomfortable, and carrying anything beyond 35lbs is virtually impossible for me.  Yeah, I'm just wimpy that way.  So, having someone to share the load with is awesome.

Brent and I prepared for our trip together and split up the essential gear - tent, tarp, first aid kit, food, water filter, pot and stove, and so on.  I didn't tell Brent about "set-up beer".  I snuck out and bought a couple of big cans of Molson Canadian and re-packed my pack, hiding them at the very bottom.

When the day of the trip came, we all hiked in together.  Honestly, MacLeod Creek is not a particularly interesting nor scenic trip, so as km turned into km and another km, we were all feeling very ready to reach our camp site.

Then... someone said they couldn't wait to have their "set-up beer".

Brent: "What?  What?  What is that?"

Friend: "Set-up beer!  We all bring a beer to enjoy while we set up camp!"

Brent looked absolutely stricken.  He looked at me with his heart clearly breaking, "You didn't tell me about 'set-up beer'!  I don't have a 'set-up beer'!"

I apologized to him and we kept hiking, Brent's bottom lip dragging on the ground from the pouting while my friends tormented him, expounding about the joy, and tradition, of the revered "set-up beer" (they were in on my prank).

When we got to camp, I couldn't wait to spring on him that I had, in fact, brought set-up beers for both of us.  Thankfully the relief and joy of experiencing his "set-up beer" overrode the trauma of the first practical joke that I played on him.  Yay for "set-up beer"!

Monday, March 21, 2016

"Miracle Gabi" Day

Brent's sister's friend, Gabi, who lives on Bequia but is originally from Germany, rode with us on our European Cycle Tour from Donaueschingen to Vienna.

"Miracle Gabi" and the Canadians
To say that Gabi is a "character" would be a gross understatement.  Traveling with Gabi was thrilling, vexing, and never boring.  Of all of our adventures with Gabi, one day stands out quite spectacularly.  I call it "Miracle Gabi" Day.

Our good friend, Laura, joined us for the same portion of our tour as Gabi.  The four of us had been cycling together across Germany for about one week.  We were enroute to Donauworth for the day, cycling mainly down little-used side roads.  It was overcast and threatening to rain.

We were on a particularly small and quiet side road when Laura's bike decided to blow a spoke.  We stopped to have a look at it and hoped that it could be repaired on the spot, but we came to realize that that was simply not to be.  We were in the middle of nowhere, about 8km from Donauworth and it was starting to drizzle.  Our map indicated two bike rental shops in town, but no bike store or mechanic, so I expected the next few days to involve a lengthy solution in order to get back on the road.

Starting to formulate a plan, we were angling towards having Brent and Gabi continue on to Donauworth, and I would walk with Laura the 8km to Donauworth.  None of us was happy with the plan but it was the best we (and when I say 'we', I mean, the three imagination-less Canadians) could come up with.

One of Gabi's happiest moments on the tour
Completely dissatisfied with our inferior plan, Gabi pronounced "Don't worry guys, I got this".  She blew a kiss to the sky and said something to the universe, and then, quite confidently stated "the next vehicle that comes along is for us".  Doubty Doubterson became my name at that moment.

We didn't even have time to convince Gabi that "Plan A" (logic, reason, and "sucking it up") was the way to go when down the road, traveling in our direction, appeared a small car towing a small horse trailer.  Gabi marched out into the middle of the road, stopped the car, and had a conversation with the driver.

The horse trailer was empty.

The driver was a man, heading to Donauworth, with his son.

They piled Laura and Gabi's bikes and gear into the horse trailer, tossed Laura and Gabi into the back of the car, and before Brent and I could say WTF, they were off down the road.

Brent and I rode the rest of the way to Donauworth.

The man dropped Laura and Gabi off right at the bike repair shop in Donauworth.

The bike repair shop had Laura's bike repaired before Brent and I even reached Donauworth.

I will never forget "Miracle Gabi" Day.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Waschfreunde, Where Are You When We Need You?

Cycling touring in Europe last year was the best, and most aromatic, time of my life.  By definition, when you're cycle touring, you haven't got a lot of clothing along.  Brent had essentially two outfits along: one to wear and one to switch into.  I had a little more than that, but not much more.  Good thing I don't mind being stinky!

We skipped merrily through Iceland without needing to do a load, and when we hit France we found it wonderfully civilized, with a laverie (laundromat) pretty much every place we went.

When we got to Germany, though, things started to get a little weird.  Every town we asked in apologized for not having a waschsalon (landromat) and it seemed that they were quite uncommon in Germany.  A few days in we reached Mannheim where we found out first waschsalon of Germany.  Mannheim is a university town, which is why they have one.

The Waschfreunde (wash friend) in Mannheim was a wonderful modern place with brand new machines and a very VERY attentive attendant.  She greeted us, showed us how the machines worked and proceeded to help us through the whole process.  It was like she thought we'd never used a laundromat before, and we suspected that most of her clientele hadn't.

The further east we went, the harder it got to find any kind of laundromat at all, and in most of the countries we visited, it just isn't done.  People own their own washing machine, and if they don't, they use their family or friends' washing machines.  We managed to find washing machines occasionally in campgrounds, and occasionally said washing machines were actually functional.  It was a pretty special day when we found a spot with a machine, even though most of the machines we encountered beyond France took up to three hours to wash one load.

In Germany we stayed at a very nice campground that had washers AND dryers.  What luxury!  We were vexed, though, to discover that the dryers didn't dry.  Eventually Brent figured out that there was a water reservoir on the machine that had to be emptied regularly (like, several times per load) in order for any drying to occur at all.  Very strange.

Occasionally we'd get too desperate for clean clothes to wait for our next chance encounter of a machine so we'd have to make "laundry wine" which involved stomping our dirty clothes into submission in the bathtub with some water and laundry soap.

When we reached Croatia, we not only found laundromats non-existent, we also found campgrounds non-existent.  For the first couple of weeks we stayed in hostels and "apartmani" (furnished short-term stay apartments) and once in a while we'd encounter a washing machine in our apartman.  I was, shall we say, disproportionately happy to discover a washing machine in our apartman in Rijeka.  As we reached the more touristy areas of Croatia, campgrounds became more plentiful, but washing machines were still scarce.  Quite often we'd resort to the "laundry wine" trick.

Even that didn't always work out, though.  We stayed in an apartman in Dubrovnik and we were beyond desperate to do some laundry.  The apartman complex had an extensive list of "rules" including visitors being strictly forbidden to wash clothes in their rooms.  They would happily provide a laundry service for €30 per load.  Yes, that's approximately $45CAD for a single wash.  We declined and I stealthily washed a couple of items anyway.

We've been back home now for four months and I'm still not over the shock of discovering how much clothing I own, nor the luxury of washing it, and smelling sweet, any old time I want.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Look Out pStyle, Here Comes Stadium Gal

I love the freedom my pStyle affords me.  I can pee standing up while outdoors, avoiding trying to squat in the snow or in heavy brush or in bug-infested places.  I can pee standing up in unsanitary long-drops and gas station washrooms.  There is no doubt the pStyle is my favorite gear.

On our recent trip to Loreto, one of our first outings was sport fishing on the Sea of Cortez.  I'd been looking forward to it ever since Legendary Ed and I started planning the trip.  He's been going on annual fishing trips since he turned 90 and I've always wanted to tag along.

We were introduced to a fantastic fishing guide named Juan.  Juan took us out for the morning in his panga.  One of his first orders of business was to have a whiz over the side of the boat.  I was envious as I was already feeling the urge too and I wondered how I'd fare out on the water in a panga for several hours.

We fished for skipjack.  We fished for yellowtail.  We fished for marlin.  We fished for roosterfish.  Brent and Ed caught fish.  I lost a fish, took photos and tried not to think about my bladder.

After we'd been out for a few hours, Juan took his second pee over the side of the boat and I decided I'd have to ask to do the same.  Before I had a chance to ask for myself, chivalrous Brent asked on my behalf.  Juan suggested that I squat over the side of the boat.  I wouldn't be able to do that, but I thought I could give the trusty pStyle a try.

I asked the men in the panga for some privacy and they looked the other way while I tried to use the pStyle off the front of the boat.  The side of the boat was too high, the boat was too floaty (yes, I understand that's a good quality in a boat), and I had stage fright.  To clarify, the side of the boat being too high is a problem because:

  1. If I got the exact right pressure on the pStyle, it was angled back towards myself instead of over the boat
  2. If I got the pStyle angled over the boat, it put too much pressure on my urethra for me to pee
After my first unsuccessful attempt, the men politely all moved and faced the other direction so that I could try peeing over the back of the boat, which isn't quite as tall as the front of the boat.  Alas, still no success.

For the rest of the trip, I suffered with my full bladder and vowed that I would find a solution to this problem asap.

One of our fellow villa-dwellers lent me his "pee bucket" for our second trip out, which was great.  I happily used the bucket and Ed even used the bucket once.

A pee bucket isn't the kind of long-term solution I was hoping for, though, so I decided to take another look at the Stadium Gal, which I've been aware of for a few years.  The Stadium Gal is the female version of the Stadium Pal, an external catheter designed for men to enjoy sporting events without having to interrupt their fun by getting up to pee.  

Now, reminiscent of my first foray into peeing standing up with the dreaded Whiz Easy, my Stadium Gal has arrived and is sitting, mockingly, in my office waiting for me to muster the courage to try it.  Soon, Stadium Gal.  Soon.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dear Westjet: You Suck


Ed and I just got back from Loreto (Mexico) and boy did Westjet ever let us down this time.  By "Ed" I mean "Legendary Ed".  At the time of this writing, he's almost 94.  He's also well over 6' tall.  He always goes for bigger seats on aircraft simply so he can fit in the seat.  For our trip to Loreto, we got the "Plus" seats, which I've never done before, but that's where the leg room is.  Having a "Plus" seat is pretty nice - I enjoyed having one on the way to Loreto.

When our time in Loreto was nearly completed, I got the usual "check in online" e-mail from Westjet a day before our flight.  I didn't use the online check-in because I didn't have the same access to technology (including 3G roaming) that I have at home and was concerned that I wouldn't be able to access our boarding cards at the airport.  So, we decided to check in the old-fashioned way: at the check-in desk talking to a person.

At check-in, the ticket guy clearly knew that we had Plus seats because he didn't charge us for our checked bags.  He neglected, however, to warn us that our seat assignments were not for Plus seats.  (FAIL: Should have warned us that our seats had been given away... or, rather, sold to another customer).

After check-in, we looked at our tickets and the seat assignments looked wrong - 6B and 19B.  Those didn't look like Plus seats to us, but since we hadn't been informed by the ticket agent, nor charged for checked bags, I wasn't particularly worried.  I told Ed that I'd inquire when we got through security and to the gate.

At the gate area, I went to speak with the lady at our gate.  She looked up our reservation and told me she couldn't help me because our reservation was not for Plus seats.  (FAIL: Lied to me about this).  I produced my printed confirmation that we did, in fact, have Plus seats at which point she summoned her supervisor.

The supervisor shrugged and said we would have to complain when we get to Calgary.  I said that wasn't good enough because my friend is very tall and very old.  I went to get Ed as "backup" and to show them that making him sit in a cattle car was not acceptable.  Incidentally, Ed was not looking like his usual robust self today.  He'd taken a spill hiking on Coronado Island and half of his face was a big purple bruise, and he was walking with a cane because of a newly acquired "trick knee".  The supervisor shrugged again and told us to tell the flight attendant and they would figure it out.  (FAIL: Supervisor should at least say sorry for the situation and be more helpful about finding a resolution).

When we got on the plane, I spoke with Flight Attendant Michelle.  I told her that we had been bumped out of our Plus seats for some reason and no one in the terminal would help me - they were making her deal with it.  Her first reaction was that we should go stand at the very back of the plane while everyone else boards and then she'd deal with us.  (FAIL: Really??).  When I asked her why she said because she didn't know where anyone else was seated at that time and she needed to get the plane boarded.  She then told us to take our assigned seats (which she wrote down) and she would come talk to us when everyone was boarded.  I told her that Ed won't fit in a normal seat and she just said she had no other choice.  That's what we needed to do until everyone else was boarded.

I left Ed at 6B and went back to 19B.  I was, oddly, seated between a couple, and, oddly, they declined when I offered to let them sit together, so I had one on either side.  They listened, sympathetically, while I ranted for a few minutes and then engaged me in conversation about Loreto, which was very helpful to calm me down.

When it looked like everyone was on board, I could see that Ed was still in 6B, so I walked up to the front of the plane.  When I reached the row where Ed was sitting, I encountered another Flight Attendant.  I asked her if anything had been done about moving him.  She said "I don't know anything about that.  Did you talk to someone?"  I indicated Michelle.  She said "Go talk to her then" and rudely pushed past me in the aisle.  (FAIL: I'm already being treated like a difficult customer... for what??)

I approached Michelle and she said that the flight was full and there was nothing she could do.  We would just have to complain when we reach Calgary.  I said "Look at him!  He doesn't fit in the seat!  We paid for Plus seats so he'd have leg room."  Michelle said "Well, all these other people paid for Plus seats too."  I said "Can we ask someone if they'd trade?"  Michelle talks to one lady who immediately agrees to switch with Ed.  I thanked Michelle and the lady.  (FAIL: She clearly didn't even TRY to do anything about it until I insisted, and wouldn't have even bothered trying if I hadn't insisted).  I asked if the seat he was being moved to was bigger.  Michelle turned and started walking away, flipped her hands in the air and said, curtly, "That's the biggest you get!"  (FAIL: Really?  Treat me like I'm being a difficult customer when all I'm doing is trying to get my long-legged friend into the seat that he paid for IN NOVEMBER!?)

I returned to 19B and the nice couple from Cochrane.  They had to listen to me rant again for a minute about the way Michelle handled the situation, and the way she treated me.

Now, over-selling a flight I can actually understand.  There is ALWAYS attrition.  When I post an outdoor event I always exceed my maximum as well, and thanks to attrition, I almost never have more than my maximum come out.  But what I don't understand is, if you're going to over-sell your flight, why over-sell the PLUS seats?  If you over-sold cattle-car seats and had to "bump" people to Plus seats, they'd be thrilled about it.  People being bumped from Plus seats to cattle-car seats... not so much.

Through the whole experience, not once did anyone say:
- We're sorry this happened
- We take responsibility for this happening
- We will try to resolve this
They treated us as an inconvenience at best, and a difficult customer at worst.


I called Westjet customer service and I spoke with a helpful lady named Leslie.  One of the first things she said was that she was sorry this happened to us.  She was the FIRST person through everything to indicate that she/Westjet was sorry.  She said she could clearly see that we had a Plus reservation and she didn't know why we weren't given our seats.

After several minutes of looking into it, she could find no reason why our seats were given to other customers.  She said the only reason would be if someone needed them for a medical reason, which was not the case.  She indicated that perhaps the system had somehow given up our seats to another customer checking in online as an "upgrade", although that shouldn't happen because Westjet doesn't over-sell their Plus seats.  I said that maybe that's something their IT department should look into.

She offered me compensation for the experience, starting with $200/ea back to me and Ed.  We could take it as cash back (to my credit card) or as a flight bank.  I said we'd take the money back on my credit card because I was not satisfied with the resolution and I didn't know if I'd fly with them again.  She asked if there was more she could do to make me happier and offered me $300/ea, which I accepted.  I'm not sure if I'm happy about that at all.  I don't feel compensated for what happened; I feel appeased.