Just Add Water…

One aspect of being self-reliant in the outdoors is simply working with a variety of resources in a variety of ways. It’s not always in conjunction with a life-threatening, emergency scenario, but simple a way to expand certain skill sets to enhance your outdoor experience. 

To that end, I decided to check out an aspect of camp cuisine: What about those foods you “cook” just by adding water? My quest took two significant turns:

Turn #1 

Most of us are quite familiar with freeze-dried, dehydrated foods that sometimes come in MRE’s, backpacking pouches or individual offerings such as instant oatmeal, desserts, etc. I’ve learned several key palate-pleasing realities from having tried each.

MRE’s taste just like the color of their packaging – olive drab- and are as appetizing as the one might e         xspect from something that has a crammed-in-the-can shelf life of several decades. Backpacker meal packets are always heavily laden with instant pastas of some form, or rice, in a salty tomato base. Typically you add water to a pouch containing the food packet and a chemical generated heat source activated by water warms up the sealed meal inside.

The package hisses and vents steam like a sleeping dragon, sometimes going on with 12-15 minutes of warming or reconstitution time. After which the food comes out luke warm or only partially saturated and “cooked”. Yummy!

Granted, these are extreme cases for the most part. Being able to prepare tasty meals pretty much anywhere (I’ve prepared many from the cockpit of my kayak) remains their biggest advantage.

I therefore offer these examples of especially good tasting, easy-to-prep “instant” foods that I’ve field tested for many years and guarantee that if you have discriminating taste buds, you’ll likely find these particular, specific brands worth stocking in your campfire kitchen pantry:

  • Quaker’s oatmeal packets: especially if you combine the regular flavor with one of the seasoned varieties; use boiling water and thicken to taste;
  • Sturdiwheat pancake mix: a far cry above the watery yuck earlier mixes yielded. These are a 1:1 mix/water delicacies – in a variety of rib-sticking blends; 
  • Idahoan instant mashed potatoes: my youthful memories of “instant” potatoes is one of a chemically-odiferous blob, impenetrable to gravy, butter and sometimes a fork. These taste and feel like real mashed spuds. Good for potato pancakes or thickening voluminous Dutch oven concoctions!;
  • Swiss Miss Cocoa: Head and shoulders above other brands; adding a bit of dry dairy creamer powder creates a thicker, mouth-coating brew;
  • Milkman Dry Milk: The secret to natural-tasting instant, dry milk is to mix it the night before and let the sugars do their thing to enhance the flavor over several hours. Milkman adds dried cream to its milk powder, resulting in a taste very, very similar to 2% milk, maybe 3% if you cut back on the added water a bit. Great taste!
  • Bear Creek dried soups: Very tasty with each packet serving up many bountiful bowls of cheese/veggie/meaty soups. Get the water boiling and you’ll have hearty stew-soups to soothe multiple cases of hunger pangs around the campfire.

Most of these selections above rely up freeze-dried, dehydrated real meat, veggies or grains. What about those who want these conveniences but don’t eat meat or dairy products – regardless of their altered convenience form? 

Turn #2

Enter Vegan cuisine!

Now your stews don’t have to even contain any meat. Instead the chewy ingredient is actually processed protein powder extracted from peas, or the ubiquitous soy bean that’s masquerading as “beef”, or as “chicken” in your stir fry dish. Food science had come a long way, riding on the back of protein processing technology – turning legumes into textured meat wanna-be’s! 

Basically these ‘meats’ are processed powders that are able to be formed into a variety of similar looking animal tissue that we all know as “meat”. The key to their deception is that they take on the tastes of whatever they are combined with: the seasonings and sauces used to create a dish, as an entreé or side.

I’ve made classic Sloppy Joe’s using a pea protein substitute that when seasoned with ketchup, mustard, onions and spices tasted convincingly like the real deal. By themselves, once reconstituted by long soaks in very hot water, they are bland to the point of being tasteless, coupled with a totally unnatural, homogenous texture. 

However, once prepped, those ’chicken’  chunks, mixed in with rice and fried with accompanying flavor enhancers  can trick your mind and taste buds into thinking that it does, indeed “taste like chicken”. Same goes for the beef chips when the are soaked in all the great additives that come together to form beef stew.

These can all be incorporated into a campfire kitchen menu that even the staunchest vegan/vegetarian in the group can chow down. 

Besides meat substitutes, liquid egg mixes made from mung bean powder can take the place of those from real chickens in the same manner. Alone they have a weird texture (too uniform), but cook up like the real scrambled variety, especially when the salt/pepper is added, or when incorporated into a tasty, flavor-sharing omelet. These fake mixed eggs that look just like a beaten whole egg can be used when baking, too. 

These high-tech foods may open the door to broader opportunities for creating backcountry cuisine. The question around the campfire may go from “What kind of meat is this?” to “Is this really meat at all”?

An Eye on the Weather

You don’t need sophisticated instruments to make fairly sound weather predictions – especially if you know a few basic principles – and can read the local skies (and other natural clues such as animal behavior and other physical signs). At least you should know when Mother Nature is waving her meteorological yellow flag!

Let’s start with cloud cover. Generally, high clouds tell of upcoming weather –  ice crystals are from moisture in the air generated by distant storms often meaning fair weather further down range. Low clouds are a manifestation of current weather in the immediate area. The middle range clouds are indicative of the “weather” over a greater area or region.

There are three basic categories of cloud formations:

  • High clouds Cirrus/“horsetails”,  Cirrostratus: thin veil of ice crystals/“sun dog” halos, Cirrocumulus: tiny cotton balls/rippled sand;
  • Middle clouds: Altostratus: light gray veil/blocks the sun. Altocumulus: lumpy/“flock of sheep”;
  • Low clouds:  Cumulus: puffy clouds,  Stratus: straight, layered clouds, Stratocumulus: puffy clouds, clustered/partially separated or layered; Nimbostratus: dark clouds not usually visible from directly below.

Air, Pressure, etc. – Changes in the air’s temperature affects how it moves. Warm air rises forming a partial vacuum that creates a low pressure at the surface of the earth. That rising air begins to expand and get cold (often forms clouds). As air starts to sink again, it warms up and starts to pile up at the earth’s surface thereby creating high pressure. Winds blow from high pressure to low pressure.

Lines of equal pressure around either a high or low area look like a contour map. Those lines are much closer together around a low pressure area. Since the air flows from high to low it flows from the wider contours to narrower ones, creating higher winds because of the steeper, downward slopes of those narrower contour lines.

Besides temperatures causing air to rise, obstructions on the surface do, too (i.e. mountains, bluffs, escarpments).

Generally then, higher pressure means drier, warmer conditions; lows mean rain, winds, etc. Highs circulate winds clockwise; lows circulate counter-clockwise.

Mother Nature’s Weather Forecaster:

Low pressure causes insects and birds to fly lower than with high pressure; bees tend to be more active before fair weather. A vertical column of smoke is a sign of fair weather whereas smoke that tends to flatten out indicates poor weather. Odors are more noticeable and sound seems louder and sharper in low pressure air.

Halos around the moon and sun (called Moon or Sun Dogs) are also good indicators of impeding weather: rain before the night is done – sun dog; or rain by the following noon- moon dog. Also, sharp, clear images of the moon, and bright, twinkling stars means there is little moisture in the air.

Knowing all the ways winds can be generated is important – temperature, obstructions and other weather elements all affect the movement of air (wind).

Anywhere there are high, sheer bluffs, cliffs or steep mountains adjoining the water’s edge can generate williwaws – winds that literally spill down off of the high country like water overflowing a sink. These sudden gusts can come out of nowhere and cause an unsuspecting and unready kayaker to capsize.

During the day, as the sun heats air over land, the sea/lake is cooler. This causes the cooler, sea/lake air to flow in to replace the rising, warm air over land. At night, the land cools faster than the waters and the wind shifts to flow back out to the sea/lake.

Learning weather signatures and what to expect will help you make safer decisions when it comes to planning any outdoor activities, course selection and alternate option needs. A good weather radio is an essential piece of equipment for even outdoor adventures. Small barometers are also a good bet, especially those that will track readings in eight-hour segments to show changes in rate and amount of change in pressure.

Basic knowledge of weather patterns is an essential part of being self-reliant in the outdoors.

Be Smart;  Be Safe; Have Fun!


By Tom Watson

(First Published in “Roots” in the July 2021 issue of Kayak Angler magazine)

Gather everyone together who’s ever influenced the technology of the pedal-driven fishing kayak and your guest list would include ancient Egyptians, Chinese, the famed scientist, Archimedes, a robotic tuna at MIT and a guy who basically designed sails for under the boat!

In the evolution of propelled watercraft over several millennia, mankind’s propulsion mechanisms have advanced from outstretched palm to pole to paddle to sail and finally to propellers.  Ancient screw drives and keen observations on how the shape of cloth sails were driven by the wind all influenced innovative ways to make those mechanics work to propel watercraft (and windmills). Taking those observations even further, an alternative to propellers was created based upon watching how penguins swim through the water.

In an incredibly shorter time span of about twenty years, kayaks have added new propulsion systems and pedal-drive mechanisms to their traditional and historic reliance on hand-powered paddles only.  

There are basically two types of pedal-driven kayaks:  A Push-Pedal mechanism requires that pedals are pushed down in an alternating motion to transfer force to a propeller mounted beneath the kayak; A Rotational Pedal mechanism is like a bicycle where the force is applied to pedals in constant rotation to provide power to a propeller below. 

In 1729, the Frenchman Du Quet had proposed that a screw mechanism could propel a ship; nearly seventy years later, Robert Fulton (steam engine fame) experimented with a ship powered by a 4-bladed propeller. Jump ahead two centuries and propulsion mechanisms for kayaks were just getting off the ground.

Working on his Master’s Degree at MIT in 1997, Jim Czarnowski was engaged in research for a fin propulsion system for watercraft – a goal that had also been pursued in Russian, China and others since the 1930s.

“We were working with a robotic tuna; we had cast its structure using the body of a real fish,” explains Czarnowski. The robot swam like an actual tuna while tethered and connected to sensors that could measure thrust. “Those findings showed that a back/forth motion was more powerful than a propeller”, he added. 

His research also suggested that a biological analog was better suited than the tuna design, so Czarnowski’s team looked to the way a penguin moves through the water.  The bird doesn’t move its body, only its flippers, producing speed and power to move through the water. 

At the same time on the west coast, sailing enthusiast Greg Ketterman was exploring the concept putting a sail upside down, under the boat. Ten years later, both he and Czarnowski were on the HOBIE team securing a patent for “…the means of propelling a vessel and more specifically [as] it relates to the design of a thrust producing oscillating fin.” – an Oscillating Foil Propulsion System – and the first step towards HOBIE’s Mirage Drive.

Andy Zimmerman who along with John Sheppard founded Wilderness Systems 1986 remembers, “ I shook my head,” “I didn’t believe it would be successful, I snubbed my nose at it!” Zimmerman recalls that there were many backyard “one-offers” creating “contraptions” using propeller drives but that none were really commercially viable. Most all of these home-built mechanisms used a chain drive to transfer force to the propeller, something Zimmerman wanted to avoid, preferring to focus on an enclosed, chainless drive instead.

by 2006 Zimmerman started Native Watercraft and introduced the prototype for the Propel Drive at the Outdoor Retailer show. It was the second commercially-sold pedal drive on the market, and the first one featuring reverse.

Czarnowski also reflects on the market at that time: “Props were before flipper on kayaks but were never very commercially successful.  The aqua-bike was probably the best selling one.  WaveWalker made the first good prop kayak in my opinion, followed by Native Watercraft.”

The differences were notable, if not all visually apparent. The Mirage Drive was a push-pedal foot mechanism that moved flippers beneath the boat; the Propel System used a bicycling motion to rotate a propeller.  Perhaps a more critical difference, particularly as the crafts became more popular as fishing platforms – the Propel System let the boater move backwards, the early Mirage Drive would not.

Move ahead another dozen years and the two types of pedal drives have pretty much secured their place in the fishing kayak world. 

“Our biggest efforts are on gears and parts,” says Shane Benedict, head of R & D at Native Watercraft, who says the focus is more on refining to where it’s all smoother, more reliable.

Adam Ott of Wilderness Systems, referring to their Helix Pedal Drive agrees,”In the mid-90s there were props at the back of the boat on an attachable transom. That system was adapted to a straight up/down unit that was easy to deploy … and used baffle brushes to reduce air/water disturbances. The next step was to simply make it more efficient, friendly and easy to use.”

Benedict says propellers and pedal drives have stayed pretty much the same noting that the efficiency of pedaling vs. a boat’s hull speed and human power limit a boat’s capabilities regardless whether its thrust is created by even more aggressive propeller blades or fins.

Kayak anglers appreciate speed to get to into position during tourneys, but efficiency, smooth cadence and maneuverability are more important, says Benedict. 

Phillip Dow joined HOBIE in 2005 , “Theres a whole other level of sophistication and manageability” in developing and refining products.  “Our Pro Angler took six years from concept to production,” he says.  The Mirage Drive 360 “ has further advanced the fin mechanism by enabling it to maneuver in all directions now. He likens  the evolution as: Paddle…Mirage…“360”

Historically, the principles of the mechanism used to pedal power fishing kayaks today reach back thousands of years of human history and influenced by millions of evolutionary years biologically to get where it is today. 

The family tree is pretty much evenly branched with well defined twigs. Still one question remains ripe for debated: Which evolved system is best? Benedict uses the Tortoise/Hare analogy:  The propeller is slower but more efficient over the long haul at leisure pace versus the [flapper/fin] with higher initial speed but hard to maintain over the long haul. Seems both have settled into subtle, satisfying differences.

Welcome to winter camping…

Winter camping may be a stretch for some and an adventurous cold weather outdoor experience for others. The shift in seasonal camping can be made in increments from the milder shoulder seasons of late fall and early spring. As one gains more experience, overnight camping trips in the middle of winter can extend your camping adventures throughout the entire year.

Check out these tips below, from how to make simple, inexpensive change-overs from summer gear, to winter tent pitching tips, to how to stay comfortable and warm in your sleeping bag.

Compacted ground snow provides insulation, snow up sides of tent blocks wind, grasses beneath floor provide warmth.

Converting your summer gear to cold weather use can be as simple as adding a fleece/flannel liner to your sleeping bag.

Special snow stakes – either nature “deadman” anchors or special snow stakes help you secure your tent on snow-covered ground.
Dutch ovens are great for creating one-pot-meals. Bowls keep food warmer than do plates. Always have some hot water in a pot on the edge of the fire for a quick ‘warm-me-up’ drink. Also, use hardwoods for maintaining a lasting hot bed of coals.

Other tips include how to make adaptations to your liquid containers and how to use snow to keep things from freezing.

Adding small amounts of snow to liquid water in bottle melts it without needing a fire or heat source.

Lastly, consider spending your first winter campouts in a camper cabin. It’s a warm, cozy base for sleeping yet lets you venture outside to cook, enjoy the campfire and explore on foot, XC skis or snowshoes. It also helps you try out different types of layered and insulated clothing that you will need to wear during your future winter camping adventures.

The insulating quality of snow (small air spaces between the flakes) can be used to keep things from freezing, or protect from heavy accumulations of falling snow.

Minnesota camper cabins are located in state parks, forests and county parks across the state. This book describes everything you need to know to select a cozy cabin for your first adventures into overnight winter camping.

As aways, Be Smart; Be Safe; Have fun!