March 18th, 2012 was a truly beautiful day in Niagara Falls. Meeting at the South Carin of the Bruce Trail, the Niagara Bushcrafters got together for it’s first warm weather meeting of the year.
I stepped out of my Jeep and took a deep breath of the cool morning air. It was an amazing feeling to feel the gravel stones of the parking lot under my bare feet. This is the first time I can ever remember being comfortably barefoot for a hike in March.
Sean’s red Dakota rumbled to a stop, and we exchanged hello’s. Soon enough we had a few other members. Chuck, and Ed. Ed is the president of the club and is there for almost every event.
While we geared up, we showed off some of our new gear that we had acquired since we last met. Ed had a home-made wood gas stove made of two tin cans, Sean had a new paracord bracelet which he purchased at an outdoor show, and I showed my new Nalgene military canteen. They are identical to the original military canteens but made of opaque plastic so you could examine the contents. They were also BPA free.
We stepped out onto the trail, and noticed right away how different the land had become compared to previous years at the same time. The air smelled damp and alive, the trees were waking up, full of buds. Wild grasses had started to show. Wild onions, Garlic mustard, and other herbs were green and vibrant on the forest floor. The ground was warm and dry.
In the distance, we could see the countryside of Niagara-on-the-Lake with its’ rolling tender fruit farmland spreading out for kilometres.
Walking through the woods, Chuck scouted on ahead while the rest of us laughed, and exchanged outdoor stories. I shared some funny stories from the children’s nature camp which I had worked at in the previous week.
Making our way through the woods, we came the old Queenston Quarry. For over 100 years rare, Queenston Limestone was mined here in a large open pit mine. Remnants of it are still visible today. Queenston limestone gets brighter as it ages, rather than darkening like most limestone. We also saw some butterflies, chipmunks, and even a snake sunning himself on the trail.
We stopped for a rest at an old piece of history – a DEW tower. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) towers were a first line of defence against a nuclear attack from the Russians during the cold war. This tower was used to test new units made at a local aerospace company at the time. Thankfully the parks commission has decided to let the tower stand as a reminder of our past.
Further up the pathway, we discovered an old capped well. The well was very large and had a hatch welded on top of it. Chuck took some photographs of us examining the hatch and said out loud “Previously on LOST…” We all laughed.
Arriving at the entrance to the Queenston mines, we removed our packs and relaxed in the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful day for a hike. We sat around and enjoyed the beauty of the area.
We were surprised that the large fire ring had been covered in stones. The local volunteer trail commission had decided to put an end to the misuse of the fire pit. Ed decided to bring out his woodgas stove.
The wood gas stove is a special stove system which re-circulates the smoke from a small fire and re-burns all the unburnt particles. This creates a much more efficient stove than wood burning alone. It is very simple to construct, and does a great job burning all the secondary gasses.
Relaxing around the small woodgas stove, we decided to explore some of the safe areas of the mine, and enjoy the beauty of the day. It was very quiet, and no traffic noise could be heard. We could hear the spring peeper frogs, chorus frogs, and even a woodpecker in the distance.
During the day, I was shaving a deadfall stick to get shavings for the wood gas stove, when Sean tapped me on the shoulder and motioned to the distance and said “Hey, check it out.”
I looked over to find a young woman and her tall, barefoot partner watching us from a distance. He had a very nice looking vintage canvas pack on him.
“Hey Guys! Come on over!” I yelled out in my camp counsellor voice. They cautiously approached.
We introduced ourselves, and I commented on his bare feet. The man introduced himself as John from Toronto and said he had recently gotten into barefoot hiking through reading Christopher McDougall’s book “Born To Run”.
I mentioned that I have e-mailed Christopher several times and he is a very great resource in the field of barefoot hiking and running.
Over the next few hours we shared some coconut water, as well as other healthy concoctions that John had made. He was a natural food market owner in Toronto and we really learned a lot from him about Genetically Modified Corn, and other foods which are so commonly available.
Sean had been shaving a good sized stick for shavings and decided it would make a fantastic fire starting stick. I suggested that we try to get some embers using the bow-drill method, as we have a great spindle.
Sean walked into the brush and found a great split log which would work as a fire board. He asked for some cordage to make a bow drill. He did not appreciate my suggestion to unpick his para-cord bracelet and use that cording.
I prepared the fire board by first cutting a notch into it, then making a small hole in the board to prevent the spindle from slipping off
After creating the burn board, I checked to ensure the board and spindle matched up by using what is called the “hand drill method”. This takes less tools, but is a difficult method to start a fire.
I pulled some para-cord out of my pack and wrapped it around the spindle. We all took turns using the method and worked together until we were too tired to pull on the cord. The spindle created some beautiful brown powder, which poured from the notch onto our tinder bundle made from a cotton ball and jute twine.
After several minutes of using the drill assembly, and switching between myself, Ed, and Sean we finally managed to get an ember to form using the drill.
During this time, Ed had found some dry reeds to make a nest for a tinder bundle. The moment the ember came to life, Ed dropped it into the tinder bundle he had created and blew gently on it to encourage the spark to create fire.
A few moments of blowing on the coals, Ed breathed life into the fire and the tinder bundle came to life. Fire had been born! We all cheered as the bundle burned a beautiful orange colour. Ed dropped the bundle into his stove.
Curious hikers looked on from a distance during our merriment. The area filled with the sweet smell of wood smoke. There was much rejoicing (yay!)
None of us could have asked for a better day in the woods, or a better day for practicing our skills. We met some new people, and had a fantastic time. It was also one of the earliest times in the year I have ever made a 6km barefoot hike.