Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lessons Learned: Nistowiak Falls Trip

After our trip to Nistowiak Falls in northern Saskatchewan, the group shared via e-mail some of the things they learned on this trip. It's a way to think about and document these ideas so that we don't have to re-learn them again next time. Here is my contribution to the discussion: 
  1. 12 km is a long way with a heavy load through hills, but it can be done. On the flats (lake travel) it would be easier, and without skidoo tracks would be much harder. (Note that I do think the way we broke it up into 12km & 8km was the best possible arrangement given our goal of the falls).
  2. I think I could manage even solo with the current canvas tent (17 pounds, sleeps 3-4, co-owned by Rob & I) and stove (25 lbs with stove pipe, 22 gauge, built hours before the trip by Rod), though I would not attempt to go very far. A smaller stove and tent would of course be better for solo or tandem travel.
  3. Camera batteries don't work well when really cold. Always keep a spare battery in a pocket so it can be used.
  4. Black spruce boughs work well as a bed/floor, but takes a lot of time to collect with our spindly northern trees.
  5. Black spruce firewood produces a lot of sparks. These embers come out of my current chimney (4 lengths of 5" x 18" black stove pipe, plus two elbows) and can fall onto nearby stuff, including the tent. One ember burned a nickel-sized hole in the tent.
    • I will add a length or two of 4" 26 gauge galvanized pipe, and a reducer to the stove pipe - the extra stovepipe will nest inside the existing pipe inside the stove.
    • I may also add a spark arrestor to the stove pipe. I've since learned that spark arrestors can be a problem, even dangerous.
    • A heat shield or piece of canvas to protect sleeping bags, pads & other gear inside the tent while the stove door is open may also be useful.
    • The hole burned by the ember was still burning when I noticed it, but it was progressing very slowly (or not at all I - I didn't leave it long enough to measure it's rate of progress). It also smelled bad. Both good signs.
    • For more about the stove, see the post at
  6. My sleeping system worked: thin MEC overbag, -12C MEC down bag, and a Serratus vapour barrier liner. I think this is the first time I've ever used the VBL even though I've brought it on numerous trips. The wool long undies absorbed what minimal sweat there was and I woke up barely damp. I was able to wear the same long underwear that morning. 
  7. It is very important to have kindling and everything ready to light the stove fire long before bed time. Matches, along with a striking surface must be at hand too. I quickly lost all dexterity trying to light the fire with bare fingers and non-functioning lighters.
  8. Lighters don't work when it's really cold.
  9. The fire-starters I made using paper towel & vaseline worked very well. (See here for a pictorial "how to" -
  10. Even at -30°C I don't need a heavy winter jacket.
    • My layering system worked - on the coldest morning I was wearing most of what I had brought, but not yet everything. 
    • That included a fleece sweater, wool jacket, a polypro midweight layer, and wool long undies on top, covered by a nylon shell jacket.
    • On my legs I wore three layers - wool long undies, heavy fleece pants, and wool army surplus pants. 
    • Before heading out on the trail, some of these layers were removed.
    • Some day I want to replace my nylon shell with something like this.
  11. Body glide works
  12. You can chop a hole in ice, even when it's nearly 3 feet thick, using just a medium sized axe. But...
  13. For getting water through thick ice, an ice chisel would be helpful.
  14. I must look at garage sales more carefully for old axes (and ice chisels). Bob's old Hudson Bay axe was very nice.
  15. A vent at the top of the tent might be helpful to vent warm, moist air. That would likely speed drying.
  16. There is a huge temperature gradient in the tent when the stove is going - the closer to the wall, the cooler it is; and the higher, the hotter.
  17. I need to think more about food.
    • Gummies are really hard when frozen.
    • Cubed cheese worked but sliced cheese froze together.
    • Chocolate covered coffee beans are still damn fine in GORP.
    • Some people get tired of eating frozen food. 
    • Soft, oily cookies would be good snack/lunch items.
    • I should cut up meats into cubes the way I did the cheese.
  18. The milk crate at the front of the sled works well as an easy access "glove box", but without a top things can get lost.
  19. I need to learn how to tie better knots! (One or two of the knots on the lashing lines of the toboggan came loose. Others had similar troubles too.)
  20. Long and low is a good way to haul gear.
  21. There is skill involved in driving a 10 foot toboggan.
    • The downhills can be lined with bow and stern lines much as you line a canoe in rapids.
    • Steeper downhills can be ridden, steering done with the ropes and using the snowshoes like skis on each side. 
    • Allowing the sled to overrun its ropes when heading downhill allows the ropes to act like a brake.
    • Ropes and strap allow quite a few options for towing.
    • Arms wrapped backwards in the ropes act like shock absorbers and help take up the slack rather than having the ropes yank me suddenly off my feet when the sled stops.
  22. That toboggan can haul a lot of stuff! After the trip I weighed most of it, and came up with some estimates for the rest:
    • Sled - 20 lbs
    • Stove with pipe - 25 lbs
    • Gear duffle (part) - 30 lbs
    • Food box (part) - 20 lbs
    • Food - 5 lbs
    • Beer - 5 lbs
    • Clothes, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads - 20 lbs
    • 2 full water bottles and a thermos - 6 lbs
    • Boots - 4 lbs
    • Other miscellaneous gear - 5 lbs
    •  That's a whopping total in the neighbourhood of 140 lbs!
  23. My steel thermos works well. Filled with coffee at a gas station in La Ronge, the coffee was still (luke)warm a full 24 hours later even though the temperatures were -30°C.
  24. My homemade blue foam water bottle insulator works well. Yes, the water does start to freeze inside but it lasts a few hours on the trail in cold temperatures (time enough for me to finish the uninsulated water bottle).
  25. Don't stick your hands in front of the end of the stove pipe to warm them up when wearing polypropylene gloves.
  26. Leave other people's "juice" bottles alone, don't try to do them any favours.
  27. Nistowiak falls is worth it!

That, more or less, is my own personal list. Below are some of the highlights from things others in the group shared, including some of the more humorous points. Keep in mind that our group was composed of experience levels ranging from novice to more experienced and the reflections offered below are going to be affected by that somewhat.
  • "I need to rethink my lunch menu. I knew that smoked salmon would freeze but I thought that I would at least be able to break pieces off. I was wrong, a knife was needed to cut pieces."
  • "I need to keep a knife on me at all times. For now I think that I'm going to keep a small folding knife on a lanyard around my neck."
  • "Bob's (Norlund) axe is a delight to use, I need to get one similar."
  • "I'm going to look into getting a vapour barrier for inside my sleeping bag for those cold nights"
  • "I can certainly appreciate the benefits of a hot tent."
  • "I learned to change into dry clothes asap."
  •  MEC "hut booties are the best investment ever."
  • "Cheese in cubes would work, I didn't bring any cheese, but cheezies are like cheese."
  • "Wine in a (tetra)pak" not bottles.
  • "Baileys."
  • "Instant coffee."
  • "Beef Jerky and cheezies are the only things that didn't freeze...muffins were crumbly/edible and yummy"
  •  "Bryan's whisky seemed to be 'less solid' than my wine..."
  • "Freeze suppers to size of pots."
  • "I need 2 pair of gloves[inners] for when one gets wet."
  • "Nalgene with blue foam really drinks when it's really cold is a 'gawd send.'"
  • "Tie my bloody stuff in properly."
  •  "I learned  the temp was...minus stupid cold."
  • "Chopping wood keeps you warm."
  • "A nalgene of boiling water in your sleeping bag is a must at night."
  • "It is hard to find good food for lunchtime which doesn't freeze."
  • "I LOVE Bryan's hot tent."
  • "Pulling 80 lbs is too much for day 3." 
  • "My boots do not keep my feet warm at -30 especially when just standing around camp."
  • "The falls were amazing and worth all the discomfort."
  • "Black fleece pants are easily confused with other people's black fleece pants of the same make and model!"