Monday, August 31, 2015

Scenes From Chesuncook - Week 7

J & I used to always say, "someday, we will live off the grid." Not because we wanted to prep for doomsday or a zombie apocalypse, but simply because we thought it sounded cool.

We got our wish. The place we are living this summer is off the grid. We don't get mail here, have no phone service (not even a landline, much to my chagrin), use propane lights and gas stove, all that good stuff. And while we can admit it is pretty "cool," there's a huge learning curve that goes with it and it is harder than we would have thought. 

If you want a little lesson in off-grid living and electricity usage from someone with only 7 weeks of experience, read on. 

The house/lodge uses a combination of solar, wind and generator. All of these things store power in batteries. 

The average US household spends 54% of their utility bill on electricity and uses up to 30 KWH (kilowatts of power for 1 hour) per day. 

We've already told you how we had to give up energy suckers like coffee makers and toasters. And of course no TV. You can consume 1 KWH in 5 hours with a TV! But, this house is large and is a business, so some of what we are learning wouldn't apply to smaller households, or a tiny house, for that matter. 

Conserving electricity when we have guests is tricky; figuring out how much electricity they may use (there are real lights in their bedrooms) and how long we have to run the generator without disturbing them too much. J & I hardly use lights and only plug in our electronics when the generator is on, but there are things that just draw the electricity constantly. 

Let's just say, we learn as we go. As soon as we think we have it figured out, we realize we don't. 

The other thing I like about being so remote is we are doing more and more home cooking. With no grocery store within 3 hours (one way), we have to get creative. With flour, sugar, oil, water & yeast, you can do so many things. After 4 attempts, I finally mastered bread making. (I lie. Mastered is the wrong word. I've failed a few times after that. Bread is so darn weather-dependent!) 

We also pick what we can from the wild and are getting better at foraging for our food (pictured below: chanterelle mushrooms). 

The one area we haven't ventured into is fishing and hunting. We had a family staying here in one of our cabins a few weeks ago and they caught so many fish (perch) everyday from the lake. So many that I think that's all they ate. 

Visitors to the village always have the option to come via float plane! 
And that's my take on off-grid living so far. Just like backpacking, it makes you appreciate the little things even more. I don't mind line-drying our laundry, but I also love the luxury of a dryer. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Currently: August

Currently living/working in: Maine. And not just Maine, but the North Maine woods off the grid, running a small lodge. 
view of Lake House from kayak

Current mood: dreamy …  thoughts of future adventures are burning in my imagination

Currently thankful for: a job in order to plan for our next adventure!

Currently proud of: 2 things 
1) J learning to use iMovie. We've been wanting to make better videos for a long time. I blog and I Instagram. Frankly, I didn't want one more thing to master.  Check out our YouTube channel Wandering La Vignes to see some of our new work.

Currently excited about: new schwag/products from our gear sponsors and new gear to test from Backpacker … it never gets old 

Currently not excited: the return of J's constant sneezing. I might have mentioned once, or 17 times, on this blog that J is the loudest sneezer ever, something he learned in utero I believe. In any case, loud sneezing happens to be a pet peeve of mine. J seems to develop new allergies every place we move. So last summer, he had them bad as we lived in a field of wildflowers. Then, they returned as we "wintered" walking through New Zealand's summer. And now, here in Maine, he seems to possibly have new ones with all the sneezing he is doing. This makes for a full year of loud sneezing. What gives??? 

Currently worried about: flat tires, running out of Internet bandwidth this month and an unreliable mail system (we mailed 4 pieces of mail Aug. 5; no one has received them yet)

Currently amazed by: Chesuncook Lake. Seriously, watching this lake change its current is so entertaining. 

Current confession: I am really missing the ability to pick up my phone and talk to my mom and sister! 

Currently reading: Oh so many books!!! We are voracious readers this summer. J & I plan to do a book report at some point. The village church has a nicely stocked library, so we are making our way through their selection. 

Current guilty pleasure: fresh baked cookies and leftover desserts that we make for our guests. 

Currently watching on Netflix: Nada thanks to limited bandwidth. We have resorted to our binder full of DVDs for movie watching. And with it being my birthday last week, I got to pick all the titles. So we watched a lot of chick flicks! 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Human-Powered Shuttles

Nearly every person we meet in the North Maine Woods spews off something along these lines:

"You don't have a spare tire??"

No, we don't. 

First of all, we had no idea what the roads were like in northern Maine (to be fair, our AWD car is delicate). Second of all, we actually didn't realize that we would be shuttling cars for people canoeing the West Branch of the Penobscot River several times a week. We knew shuttles would be part of our summer, just not a large part of our summer. 

But, indeed, we are. We do 2 types of shuttles: one which is 19 miles one way, and one which is 34 miles one way. You may say that's a breeze, but the 19 miles takes 1 hour and 15 minutes and the 34 miles takes 1 hour and 30 minutes. 

People put canoes/kayaks/boats in at these spots and take out a few days later here at the lake. We drive the vehicles back to the lake, all the while finding 1-2 French-speaking radio stations and 1 English-speaking station for the long drive. 

Our car, Big Bird, is traveling on a wing and a prayer. We have looked to buy a full-sized spare, but have no luck so far. So no spare tire. 

We talked with the owners and figured a way we could BIKE the 19-mile shuttle! 

It is amazing how many hills you don't notice when driving though. Also, we can't ride bikes on logging roads, so we take snowmobile trails through the woods with a 1-mile extremely gnarly section where we have to carry our bikes and sludge through mud/water. 

The canoe season is wrapping up, but we are happy to have tested out human-powered shuttles. Big Bird is happy too. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Currently: Birthday Edition at 37

I turn 37 on Friday and thought it would be fun to pay respects to my 36th year!

Home: I (we) called 6 places "home" this year. We started in Oregon (running RimRock Inn), went to Colorado for a few weeks, then flew to New Zealand for 6 months, returned to Colorado in April, spent a few months in Danville, VA, went up to New Jersey for a few weeks and are now in northern Maine. 

Number of Long Road Trips:  3  

Plane Rides: 5

Miles Hiked: Approximately 2,200 miles

Countries Visited: 3

States Visited: 20 - California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine

Obsessed With This Song: Freaks by Timmy Trumphet and Savage

New Addiction Discovered: Mountain Biking (and I really want a better mountain bike now)

Saddest Moment: Losing McKinley (our cat who my parents adopted when we became nomadic)

Proudest Moment: Reaching Bluff, the southern tip of the South Island in New Zealand

Favorite Book: The Martian by Andy Weir

Favorite Movie: What Happens in the Shadows (a New Zealand movie) … it was available for $0.99 to rent on iTunes this week … check it out if you can!!

Favorite Place Visited: The entire country of New Zealand. I miss it everyday. 

Hardest Decision: Selling our house and deciding where we should work/live next

Biggest Lesson Learned: Learning when to stand up for myself and when to back down (still working on this). 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Te Araroa Gear Review

Today we are coming to you with a review of the gear we used on Te Araroa in New Zealand. We realize it's been 4 months since our trek ended, but there are lots of people prepping for the TA right now and asking questions in the forums, so we thought no better time to offer our review. 

We wrote up a gear review at the midpoint of the trail after we finished the North Island and you can read that here, but this post will address 3,000 kilometers of use. 

A reminder: the TA and elements in NZ are different than what we've ever experienced in the US, so a lot of usage was based on this fact. In other words, we wouldn't characterize this as "normal usage." Also, we only consider ourselves semi-lightweight because we like some luxuries when we are in the backcountry. 

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2
Our midpoint gear review addressed all the updates made compared with the 2011 version of the Copper Spur we used on the Appalachian Trail, so we won't get into that here. Although, we did add an extra gear loft for the South Island … the Copper Spur has a great organization system, but you just can never have too many pockets in a tent! 
What we want to address is TA-specific usage. We ended up sleeping in our Copper Spur for 71 nights. It came off the trail with only a few minor holes and tears considering how rough the TA is. We did not start with a footprint (ground tarp), and that wasn't a good choice for our tent floor. It got really beat up on the North Island, but once we added the footprint, there wasn't as much wear and tear. 

Our sleeping surfaces included sand, mud, tree roots, gravel, and many others. We were happy to have a freestanding tent that only needed staking for the rainfly for this reason. We watched different hiking partners with lighter tents/tarps spending so much time finding a good spot and creatively staking out their shelters. Not to say it didn't work for them, just saying we were happy our setup was less than 5 minutes. 

Another thing to note is that the air in NZ is very moist, as you are never far from the sea. Given this, we can count on one hand how many nights we were able to sleep without the rainfly. Constantly using the rainfly did make our sleeping quarters a bit hotter, but the tent has great ventilation. One of its best features, though, is its weather protection. We got caught in some typical NZ rainstorms overnight and always stayed dry. Even when we were camped on wet ground or on an angle where groundwater could potentially flow our way. And the separate vestibules kept our packs dry as well. Nearly every day we were packing up a wet tent, whether from dew or rain, and thankfully, it always dried out quickly. A true testament to its stellar design. 
This was one of the RARE times we were without a rain tarp. You can see the environment was very arid in this section. 

Therm-a-rest X-Lite Sleeping Pads for both, Therm-a-rest Antares HD 20-degree bag (Patrice), Therm-a-rest Auriga 35-degree blanket (Justin) and Nemo Fillo Pillow (Patrice)
There is not much to say about our sleep system that we didn't say in the midpoint review. You have to know your own temperature ranges, and even though a 20-degree bag is on the warm side and not needed on the North Island, I (Patrice) was happy to have it on the South Island. We definitely had cooler nighttime temperatures. One thing to note about using blankets. We slept in 22 backcountry huts, mostly on the South Island. The huts mean you don't need your sleeping pad because there is a mattress on the bunks. However, J needed his sleep sack because otherwise, he'd be sleeping directly on the mattress that so many others have slept on (and some of those mattresses were in need of replacing!). 

MSR Microrocket stove, GSI Halulite MicroDualist
We couldn't be happier with our cook system. The microrocket stove attached to a canister fuel of 80/20 blend of isobutane and propane. These were very easy to find on both islands and reasonably priced; we usually carried the medium size canister (8 ounces/230 grams) and we went through 4 for the whole trip. It boiled 1 liter of water in about 3 minutes. We ate mainly dehydrated meals requiring only boiled water, but a few times we cooked in our MicroDualist 1.4 liter pot (fits up to 2.5 cups of food/water). We were very happy with the simmering and cooking time. Tons of people had alcohol stoves out there, but honestly, the weight difference was minimal in the long run and our food was always cooked faster than those with alcohol stoves. Plus, we could cook on any surface without fear of damaging the hut tables or starting a fire!

We also carried the Kung Foon made by GSI, quite possibly J's favorite piece of gear. We got so many looks every time we brought these out. The spoon/fork is made long by attaching chopsticks to the handle.  This allowed us to eat our backpacking meals with ease, getting to the bottom of the bag and not making a mess on our hand.  It also allows you to stir your boiling water without burning your hand.  

Hi-Tec Ohio Boots/Zuuks (Patrice) and Hi-Tec Altitude Lite Waterproof Hi Tops/Rio Adventure (Justin)
Superfeet Insoles for both
We both went through 2 pair of shoes. I (Patrice) used the Ohio Boots the whole time, while Justin changed from Altitude Treks (low tops) to the Altitude Lite (hi tops) for the South Island. The Lites were not as rugged as the Treks and got beat up a lot faster! We can't say it enough how rugged the terrain is. Footwear is a personal choice, but we both were happy to have a "beefier" shoe and go through fewer pairs for the whole trek than others with lighter shoes did. 
The other thing is we crossed 200+ rivers on the South Island. We typically switch to our camp shoe or go barefoot, but when you are crossing 50+ rivers sometimes in one day, that's just not realistic. So we crossed in our boots. Sometimes, it would take a few crossings before our feet would get wet, depending on how shallow it was. This wasn't true for our hiking partner who had trail runners  his feet were soaked after the slightest moisture on the ground. And his shoes were torn up quicker from all the crossings than ours were. Amazingly, our boots almost always dried out overnight, which surprised us. 

And, as we said in our midpoint gear review, we were happy with our camp shoe choices (Hi-Tec Zuuks and Rio Adventure Sandals) because they were multifunctional for camp, town, and road walking, but still lightweight enough to carry on the trail.

No matter the shoe choice, we recommend an insole, a really easy way to upgrade your footwear. We each went through 2 pair of Superfeet insoles through the whole trek. I (Patrice) used the Carbons and Berrys, while Justin used the Carbons and Coppers. Both were great in comfort and quality. We never tried to buy insoles in NZ, but fellow TA hikers kept telling us there was not a great selection and they were crap quality. Just something to keep in mind! We sent our second set of insoles to our Havelock mail drop (1400K into the trail) and it was the perfect time to switch out. 

Outdoor Research Wrapid Gaiters (Justin) and a really old pair that OR no longer makes (Patrice)
We feel gaiters are a necessity while trekking thru NZ.  You walk thru so many different types of terrains and you want to keep debris, mud, sand and everything under the sun out of your shoes. Plus, on the South Island, the plant life is deadlier than any animals. Between spaniard grass and tussock, some days would be very bloody. I (Patrice) wore my gaiters religiously and was so glad to have them.  Mine are an older pair that OR no longer makes and are in surprisingly good condition (used on the AT too). Justin used his brand-new OR gaiters on the North Island and would have continued to use his the whole trip, but, as we mentioned in the midpoint gear review, the velcro on the Wrapid Gaiters failed. So he was without gaiters for the South Island and somehow survived. Still, a definite recommendation. 

Princeton Tec Vizz headlights
The most important feature we look for in our headlights is long-lasting battery life. Guess what? We carried extra batteries during our 123-day trek and never had to change them in our headlights. The days were getting shorter as we hiked south in NZ and the huts were dark, plus we did some night/early morning hiking, giving our headlamps a run for their money. The Vizz has a battery life that will last 150 hours, with 3 settings (maxbright LED, an ultra bright LED and a red LED). It probably helps that it has a lock options for the on/off button, so the light would not turn on in your pack and waste the battery. Another cool thing about all PTec lights  they include batteries with your purchase! 
Photo courtesy of Kevin Gallagher - Goat Pass Early Morning Hike thanks to the Vizz

Gregory Baltoro 65 Liter (J) and Gregory Deva 60 Liter (P) - 2015 models 
We felt we had PLENTY of room using 60-liter packs. More often than not, our packs were not full. On the AT, we took the tops off when we were carrying less to save the weight (due to summer supplies and shorter distance between resupply). We didn't do that here, but it was always good to have the extra space when we had to carry more food, which happened more often on the South Island. Not only were we eating more, but there was at least one stretch that we carried 10 days worth of food just in case weather kept us stranded. We both got up to the 30-40 pound range with those loads. The key features of the Response AFS suspension stay and EVA foam hip belt allowed both backpacks to carry the heavy loads VERY comfortably. We also loved the independently pivoting shoulder harness and hip straps let that allowed us to tweak the fit according to load and weight loss. Justin, once again, got to the point where he couldn't tighten his hip belt any tighter because of his weight loss. We didn't do this, but with these new models, you can switch out the hip belt for a different size. 

The thing we have always loved about the Baltoro & Deva packs is the organization. We had plenty of pockets to keep things separate and have a system going. For example, there were 2 hip belt pockets - 1 weatherproof for electronics and 1 mesh for snacks. Another upgrade from the older versions was the removable internal hydration bladder bag, giving us a bonus day pack that we used often on this trip. 

Helinox Passport Series
We insist that trekking poles should be taken on long-distance hikes, especially the TA. Not only is the terrain uneven, rocky and steep, but we crossed 200 rivers on the South Island. You are taking care of your feet with proper footwear, so take care of your knees and give yourself a little more support and balance. Our poles weighed in at just 11 ounces for the pairs (made of the same DAC technology of your tent poles). Amazingly, out of our 4 poles, only 1 broke. These add so much support to your knees and keep your balance. 
Photo courtesy of Kevin Gallagher - Tackling Takitimu Forest on the South Island

Sawyer Mini Filter
Everyone said NZ water is the cleanest in the world, but we take no chances and always filter. Especially when we saw cows and sheep making it their business to "crap" up  the water source. In any case, we have used just about every filter from the pump, to the pen, to gravity and drops/chemicals. Nothing is as lightweight (2 ounces), reliable (filters up to 100,000 gallons of water) or easy to use (fill a bag with dirty water and squeeze through a filter to your bottle/bladder) as the Sawyer filters (they make a bigger one that is just 3 ounces). We always made sure to backwash the filter in towns to ensure maximum flow. One caveat would be that we broke a few bags. The "dirty" water bags come in several sizes (16 oz, 32 oz, 64 oz). We always carry 2 bags and broke 3 bags along the way. We just find it to be inevitable and admittedly, are not gentle with our squeezing. 

PowerTraveller PowerMonkey 
Our solar charger is probably the piece of gear we got the most questions and comments about, as it hung strapped to the back Justin's pack everyday.  A lot of people carry those backup batteries, but we carried the PowerMonkey Solar Charger. When we started the trek, we didn't even need to buy a power plug adaptor because we used the solar charger for everything. Then, we had 10 days straight of rain, so we needed the plug. Otherwise, it was a lifesaver the whole rest of the time. I (Patrice) used my Garmin GPS watch almost daily from Auckland on and that would use a full battery some days. After a full day of hiking with the solar charger soaking up sun, it powered up the watch within an hour (1% every every minute). When the iPhone needed charging, it would charge up around 20-40% from the leftover power.  On a full charge it would power up the whole cell phone.  On a full charge it would charge the iPad mini about 20-30%.

We carried the SPOT Gen1 Satellite Messenger as our personal locator beacon (thanks Fire Marshall for letting us borrow it). We paid the 1-year plan price ($100). At every town stop, we went into the system and changed the message ("The Wandering La Vignes are checking in from Nelson Lakes National Park") and sent it out while in the backcountry. We set it up to be e-mailed to 10 people and it would also automatically share on Facebook. Thankfully, we never needed it for emergencies, but we were very glad to be carrying it. NZ bush is no joke and there is no cell service, let alone towns. We knew more than one TA hiker to be rescued in the NZ backcountry and it is definitely a good safety item to carry. 

I (Patrice) wore a Garmin Fenix device as my watch, but also to GPS our days. We learned sometime during the North Island that the mileage listed in the trail notes/maps was off by a kilometer or 2 everyday. That was frustrating. So we started tracking our daily progress to give a little more piece of mind. Using the GPS feature drained the battery daily, but as I said, our PowerMonkey charged it up fully in no time. If you don't use the GPS feature, the battery lasts several days. The watch face is a little bulky, but it never bothered me. 

We mentioned this in our midpoint gear review, but J's favorite piece of clothing is his Mountain Hardwear convertible pants, which now have 6,000+ miles on them and are STILL going strong. These pants may be indestructible. With all the trudging through rivers, mud, Spainard grass and tussock on the South Island, I'm not sure how they are still going strong. 

I have 2 favorite pieces of clothing: my Big Agnes Shovelhead Downtek jacket and Buff Headwear. I am a sucker for getting to camp and getting comfy. Nights (and sometimes days) on the South Island were much cooler than the North Island and I got my use out of this poof jacket. Amazingly, it shows no wear and tear for the 50+ nights I wore it. I love 2 main features: the hood and Downtek material, which can (and did) get wet, but still keeps me dry. As for my Buff, it goes on every backpacking/hiking trip I take. It is so versatile (hat, headband, etc.) and I literally can't live without it in the backcountry.

As Leave No Trace educators, we find it very important to dispose of waste properly. There were not many outhouses along the TA, so digging holes was a necessity. The GSI trowel weighs in at 3.1 ounces and takes up no room, but it allows you dig the proper hole (6 inches) to bury your waste.  It even has measurements on it in both inches and centimeters and cost $5. The use of the TA is increasing year after year and we saw a lot of improper waste disposal. This is the simple solution to ensuring future hikers can enjoy NZ's beauty as it should be--pristine and unspoiled. 

Sun Lotion & Bug Repellent
You are closer to the sun in NZ, so you better keep lubed up. Sunblock in NZ is expensive. We brought lots over from the states and sent them to our various mail drops. We used Sawyer Stay Put 30 SPF.  We liked this because it was water repellent and stayed on as we crossed hundreds of rivers.  The sand flies are hit and miss in NZ and we hit them.  Keeping them away from us was a must and we used Maxi-Deet and Picaridin, both made by Sawyer. We also treated our gear with Permethrin before we left. All of this helped to keep us mostly bite-free. 
Dozens and dozens of sandflies trying to reach our blood

iPhone 5c
Our Apple iPhone had many uses for this trek. We picked up a SIM card at the airport via Vodafone and were grateful for phone and internet service. A lot of people just used their smartphones for access via WiFi, but WiFi in NZ is not always free. Vodafone offered great 2-month plans (2GB data, 100 texts to other NZ numbers and 100 minutes of international call time). We didn't call the US all too often, mainly used FaceTime, but our calling minutes were especially helpful for arranging shuttles and making reservations at hostels (we found hostels book up quickly on the South Island unlike the North Island).  Service was spotty in the bush, so there were large stretches without any on the South Island, but still, we were glad to have it overall. We also used the phone A LOT with the "I Hike NZ" app. It worked on the satellite, so no service was needed. We also took all our photos with our iPhone, just like we did on the AT. 

iPad Mini
We blogged along the way and when we did the AT, I used my iPhone, which was perfectly fine. But, we decided at the last minute that having a second Internet-capable electronic device would probably be important in NZ since hostels didn't have community computers to use like hostels on the AT had. So either only one of us could use the Internet, or we should bring the Apple iPad Mini. Turns out, that was a killer choice. Not only did it make blogging easier (I used to type up my blog posts on the iPad in the tent a little each night, then share photos from our iPhone to the iPad when we got to town and upload). You have to buy Internet cards from the hostels, so usually we would each buy our own. Occasionally, we would just buy one and share it. 

Disclosure: We received product from Big Agnes, Gregory, Therm-a-rest, Hi-Tec, Superfeet, Sawyer, GSI and Princeton Tec for the purpose of our hike. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Scenes From Chesuncook - Week 2

Hope you enjoyed our first batch of pictures, because I have a second batch!

Our life is still full of peace and quiet, but we've had more guest activity lately, which, of course, is good. However, our moose count is still higher than our guest count.

Moose number 5, 6 and 7 reporting for duty:

In other wildlife news, the baby robins are growing fast and ready to fly any day now!

We haven't been able to get out on our bikes again since a piece broke off on J's valve. Considering our lack of a mail system, it may be the end of the season before he can fix it. But, we did a quick overnighter to east side of Gero Island in Chesuncook Lake. The lake has a lot of mood swings. We see a lot of white caps. Our return trip from the island was a white cap kind of day. 

heading out into the white caps!

The lake is very entertaining to watch. Within a minute, the current can change from east to west, and within the next minute, it can't decide, so it is colliding and swirling. We find it is at its calmest in the early morning and late at night, unless a storm blows in, which happens often.
 This full arch rainbow was the result of one such spectacular storm the other day. 

I think one of the pros of this lifestyle is that we get to experience all of these new places not just as tourists, but as temporary locals. We have been getting to know the Chesuncook villagers little by little, but most villagers really only stay through August.

I'll leave you with a picture of the full moon over Katahdin the other night. Until next week …