Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Yellow Paint


In the vast wilderness of the Adirondacks, I have never failed to find my two great loves of the outdoors- Cairns that mark the trail above the treeline which stand as pyramids of rock built by generations of hikers, and the rocks themselves. Rather, the veins of minerals and variance that run through them like roots of the towering peaks.


When last I ascended into the peaks earlier this month, I was not disappointed. However, I found something else that day. When the terrain becomes difficult or treacherous to navigate, the guides paint a single stripe of yellow paint upon the rock guiding the right direction. It is something I have always seen and followed without ever taking a moment to appreciate what it represented.


Hundreds upon countless hundreds of feet have followed that trail, subtly engrained within the character of the mountain itself. It becomes like the cracks and the trees, the boulders and the gentle weathering of time. That yellow paint, faded and worn, seems to challenge the weary foot to take one more step, the exhausted lung to draw another breath, the downcast eye to carry on and rest upon the brilliant views of the summit. It is the soul of the mountains, an echo of everyone who has come and gone and, while the forests' memory of those hikers is long gone, the trail reminds the world that they will ever be a part of it. For in their memory these spectacular lands will ever remain.


This day's adventure led to the summit of Big Slide Mountain by way of the Three Brothers. Numbering at #27 in height of the 46, Big Slide stands at 4,239 feet. The trail up was one graced with so many false summits that the Three Brothers could have been three dozen. But the views they provided made the deception a welcome gift.



Unlike the other treks I have made into the Adirondacks, this was unique in the way the other mountains showed themselves. Higher and higher along the ridgeline brought us sight of more distant peaks than the previous overlook. The giants Marcy and Algonquin, the Pyramids, Haystack, Gothics, Colven, Wright, Upper and Lower Wolfjaw, so many cresting the horizon that it seemed by the summit all of the 46 save the one beneath us would appear before us.


But the distant peaks were not all that the hike had to offer. When the trail dipped beneath the tops of trees, another world existed there. One of tranquillity and timeless endurance that I have come to welcome. Mossy rivers and sprawling pine forests, great boulders with secret alcoves trapped beneath, all without the signs of humanity's wear upon them.


With the third Brother behind us, the summit seemed so close, peaking through the clouds above us. Each time we took a bend in the trail, it seemed to disappear into the ridgeline and afford a view of another, new peak in the distance.


Off beyond the neighbouring 46, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, others to the north in Canada, to the south and the west, nested there around the Adirondack wilderness. As the morning clouds burned away in the afternoon sun, the distant horizon kept racing back into the pale blue abyss.


Finally, the trail split and the last jog to the summit appeared in the form of a weathered sign pointing us up the rocky steps. Rickety wooden ladders and yellow paint took us the remainder of the way, and suddenly the forests disappeared below.


Capturing a mere third of the distant peaks, the above tries to capture the sight at the summit. Although there were no USGS markers for the summit, we knew we had come to the end of the trail. It is sights like these that you can watch for a lifetime and never grow tired of.


This marks my 8th of the 46 High Peaks.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Waterskin

It has been quite a while since I have posted anything here about what I have been making, and unfortunately the going has been scarce for the last few months. Between work and moving to a place that doesn't have any shop space, I have only been able to take on a few odd projects. 

Inspired by a trip I took a few months back to meet some friends in Michigan, I decided I would try my hand at making a leather waterskin. Traditionally, they were made with the stomachs of livestock, but I figured leather would be easier to find. Having had no idea of what this would take to complete, or how to go about doing it, I just dove right in and let the project develop on its own.


First, I drew the pattern and cut it out. Nothing too special or measured. Because of leather's quality of formability when wet, I would take flat pieces of leather and stretch them over a form.


These two pieces will later be sewn together. The edges do not matter, as they will be trimmed again after fitting them together. If I were to do this again, I would do everything after this step differently. I will explain why later.


For a form, I used recycling packed together and covered with duct tape. Making it smooth and solid was difficult, but in the end it worked out alright. On the edges, I left enough of a gap for the leather halves to come around and meet with about ~1.5cm flange. That is where the stitches will go. If there is not enough room, that is fine, as the leather will still be pliable before sewing and can be fixed then.


Before forming the leather, I began work on the pour spout. I was taken with the idea (at the time when I conceived the project) to use antler as a collar. I had a piece lying around that was perfect size and shape. Keeping the natural flute for the top seemed to have a nice flow to it that would secure the leather after sewing.


In order to help the antler seal with the leather, I cut around three rings that would grip the leather. The bottom most, I realized later, would need to have an inverted funnel leading to the pour hole so water would not become trapped there when held upside down. Similarly, it is important to have the bottommost ring at the very bottom of the throat, as the leather will tighten around it and if done improperly, will have the same problem. Imagine putting a straw in a cup and turning it over. Water will only drain out until it reaches the bottom of the straw, even if there is still a considerable amount of water inside. Same principle here.


After cutting around the rings, I affixed the antler to the form. This ensures that the wet formed leather will have the right shape around the antler in the right place.


Soaking the leather in water for a few minutes to make it thoroughly wet, then drying slightly with a paper towel, makes it extremely pliable. Aligning the two halves and clamping them down as tightly as possible stretches the leather over the form. It should be noted that the clamps will mark the leather, so I used scraps of leather to protect the piece from the bite of the clamps.


Sitting for a few days to dry completely, flipping it over occasionally to let the underside have some air, the two pieces will keep their shape.


For decoration, I cut two pieces to sew over the skin. I later abandoned the larger ones for ease of sewing, but kept the top, smaller ones for use holding a leather cord.


Using a star wheel to mark the holes, I took a flattened nail to punch through. I thought of using an awl, but the holes were too large. Here, it is critical that the holes are as small as possible. The larger they are, the harder they are to seal later. And with a few hundred, even one oversized hole makes a difference.


Instead of using sinew, I opted for a nylon thread for its strength and better handling of boiling water (later step). This was by far the most time consuming part. Aligning the first set of holes was tedious and painful on the fingers. Two passes on each row of holes for a complete stitch took about 5 hours.


Before finishing the first round of stitching, I went back to the spout. I drilled a hole through it for the water to run through as well as shaping the antler a little more. Above, it is still covered in residue from the tape, but that was all removed.


With the antler in place and all the stitching done, it is time to boil the leather. Boiling makes the lather tighten, growing in thickness but pulling tighter in every other direction. Boiling plasticises the fibres in the leather, making it rigid and more waterproof. The length of the submersion will dictate how much it shrinks and how hard it becomes. This technique was done to make armour for centuries. One warning, however, is that if you over boil it, the leather will become extremely fragile and crack apart.

Depending on the leather and altitude and a number of other things, it can take anywhere between 20 seconds and a minute to achieve the rigidity you are looking for (probably varies for you too). This is not something that usually comes out right the first time, so I would recommend taking a scrap piece of leather from the same hide as the pieces for the waterskin and practising on them first. For best results, either pour the water over the leather as evenly as possible or find something large enough to fully submerge it.

A third point about boiling. Boiling involves water. Water makes leather pliable. It will begin to deflate as you boil it, making this extremely difficult to do if you try to make a waterskin this way. I had to continuously inflate the skin as steam tried to pour out the antler spout.

***If I were to do this again, I would cut the leather, sew it flat, then soak it in water to make it flexible. Instead of a rigid form, I would fill the skin with sand and work it to the shape I wanted before boiling. While boiling, I would leave the sand inside so it would not deform. After it becomes rigid, I would let it dry and pour out the sand.***


To seal the leather and the seams, I used a copious amount of beeswax. I did not have an oven at the time, so I had to use a campfire to warm it first. For the wax to be absorbed by the leather, the leather needs to be warm. I would set an oven to around 115(c)/240(f) and leave it in there for a little while (maybe with sand still inside it if you went that route). When it is hot and your supply of wax melted, (remove the sand and clean as much as possible) pour the wax into the skin. Constant rotation will help the wax cover everything inside. This may take several attempts, but it is the most important step to the process to ensure that the entire inside is sealed, especially the seams. I would continue to pour in wax and mix around, blowing air into the spout, until wax no longer comes out of the seams.

Allowing to cool slowly is best, and when the inside is sealed, I brushed a coat of wax over the outside too. That helps protect it from the elements and increases its longevity.

The only thing that remains now is to find something to use as a stopper. A whittled twig would do nicely, or maybe a small cork if you could find one that fits.


All said and done, it works, but I would not have gone about it the way I did knowing what I do now. None the less, it was a fun project and now I have a traditional waterskin.

Cheers!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Underworld

Witnessing the grand stature of the mountains has left me with a skewed sense of perspective. From their summits, you can see the world from above, everything beneath the sky from a single point so high above the rolling hills below. But what cannot be seen is the world beneath. For the better part of the last four years living in the north east, I never knew that there existed something so spectacularly different. A vast network of caves laces the same footprint as the mountainous peaks, as though beckoning where those towering heights once began.

Soon after learning about the caverns beneath the mountains, the allure had me fixed. None the less, how close they have been hiding all these years (much closer than the High Peaks). Taking an afternoon, two friends and I set out to explore one of the better known and more accessible, Clarksville Cave.

Nested between the Catskill Mountains to the south and Adirondack Wilderness to the north, the cave system is just short of a mile long between all of its passages, making it one of the longer horizontal caves in the north east.


Upon a small, well worn trail through the woods we began the journey until we came across what might have been a sinkhole in the ground. Very little marked this site save a pair of craggy holes that emptied into darkness. The first, in the upper left corner of the picture, was too narrow and collapsed to fit through, leaving the one between the three us. Forced to depack and slide down feet first, the entryway to the cave was tight and winding and met with a blast of air easily half the temperature of the world above.


Not long after navigating the narrow passage, the cavern gave way to a long, narrow chamber that was tall enough to stand in. A small stream began to appear between the loose rocks of the cave floor. Colder than the air, it was enough to make our feet numb within minutes. Yet that did not dissuade us; taken by the brilliant and alien landscapes carved by centuries of water, our minds were elsewhere.


On the ceiling clung countless formations of strange shape and size, all covered in a gold and silver lichen that glittered like veins of precious metal. Each movement of our lights caused the myriad stars to shimmer and glisten, dancing in the reprieve from utter darkness.


In places, the minerals born in the water collected on the walls and painted great rolling deposits as hard as bone. Bubbles and streams frozen in time hung on the stone, growing slowly and covering rings of crystal trapped inside. These were, as best I could tell, the genesis of geodes seen half way through their birth.


Islands of rock jutted from the streams like seen out in the deserts and canyons of the west. Strange tunnels and holes pitted the surfaces, sometimes cutting through clean to the other side where the river decided its path must lead.


At the end of the first passage, after over an hour's wade and crawl through the underbelly of the mountains, we came to a dark lake whose mysterious depths could not be seen. Here, half a dozen channels led out in spidering directions only to end abruptly against the smooth walls. Three times our own height or more, the ceiling suspended itself in this surreal world, silent and waiting for the earth to change around it.


Knobby pears hung out over the river where hundred of years ago the waters roamed farther and deeper and, upon their sinking back into the earth, left behind a gentle slope away. So narrow were the passages in places that we were forced to crawl through the waist deep water with our heads just above the surface, pressed down by the rocks overhead. At times, the end was out of sight and the water grew deeper, while in others there was no air at all and the tunnels demanded a swim to the other side.


Setting up a quick camp, we embraced the beauty of the cave and marvelled in its secrecy. So many voids and glittering walls, the pure crystal water and stalactites only just beginning to crawl down towards the cave's floor, chutes and tunnels carved by the gentle water, blooming calcium pools and waterfalls hidden far in the depths of the darkness; it was truly a glimpse into an underworld.


When we doubled back, we saw the first sign of life since entering the abyss. A single, lonely sprout growing in the rocky loam only a metre below the surface. It was a beacon, after a fashion, for it led us into another section of the caves that branched out again as far as we had already come. To me, these were the most spectacular of the vast underground rooms (in which I left my camera behind). Open spaces where rock slides had fallen long ago, parallel tunnels connected by a honeycomb of narrow passages, waterfalls and picturesque pools braced by thin shells of mineral deposits, and steep shafts leading to the shores of darkened lakes.

Upon returning to the surface, the experience was surreal. It left us all in a trance and the drive to find others like Clarksville, and to explore the hidden world that so many will never see.