September 2010


Acorns from a pin oak (Quercus palustris)

Acorns from a pin oak (Quercus palustris)


Today when we got home from work I had Jonathan drop me off at the end of the driveway so I could haul the empty trash can to the garage. As I was hauling, I looked down and noticed several striped acorns. I do not recall having ever seen striped acorns before, so I bent down and picked up a handful for closer study.

This evening I did some searching and found that there aren’t many types of oak that produce striped acorns. These are most likely from a pin oak (Quercus palustris).

Before I looked up striped acorns though, I had some work to do. Today was sunny and warm, and I had four tents in the backyard. I set them up in the rain yesterday, and I was hoping they would be dry by now. We’re supposed to have a tropical weather system moving through here tonight, and it may dump up to three inches of rain on us. There are flood warnings.

The biggest tent (an 8-person) was pretty much dry. There was a wet patch on the underside, so I dried that by hand with some paper towels. Then I rolled it up and put it in the trunk of my car. Tomorrow I will put it back in the trailer.

The 4-person tent was still soaking wet, so I just let it stand where it is. It will get rained on tonight and then get even wetter.

The two 3-person tents were almost dry, and since they are so small, I decided to move them into the garage. I removed their rain flies and hung them from the rafters. Then I moved the rest of them into the garage and suspended them so air could circulate underneath.

This will preclude me from parking in the garage during the ensuing monsoon. Hopefully they will be dry before the weekend is over.

Last night I went to the church to meet Paul. He had towed the Pathfinder trailer to Bar Harbor for us last weekend, and he also towed it back. Last night he brought it back to the church. I grabbed all the tents we had used (at least the ones that belong to the club) and threw them in the trunk of my car. I didn’t get home until after ten though.

The tents were still wet from the rain we had Sunday, and if you let wet tents stay rolled up in a canvas bag in a trailer, they mold. Once they mold, they are pretty much ruined. To avoid that, I pitch them again until they are bone dry.

So tonight I pitched four tents in the backyard. Two 3-person tents, one 4-person tent, and one 8-person tent. Of course it was raining, so they are not going to get dry any time soon, but as long as they are pitched, they won’t mold.

I pitched the two 3-person tents first, and then had supper. I guess pitching them took 30 minutes. I pitched the other two after dinner, and that took about an hour.

We also had to dry out all the camp chairs, so Jonathan, David, and I stopped at the church on the way home from guitar lessons/school/work respectively. We unloaded all the chairs and set them up under the garage canopy. Some of them need to go into the dumpster, and at least one of them made that short trip. There are a few others that need repairs. They might end up in the dumpster too, but I’m not ready to give up on them just yet.

We number all our chairs, plates, cups, bowls, spoons, forks, and knives, and then I assign each camper a number. That works out pretty well, because when I find a dirty plate on a picnic table, I know who it belongs to. Then I make that person wash his own plate.

The dishes all go into mesh bags, and we hang them on a line to drip dry. We used to hang them up in any old random order, but I have found that it’s a lot easier if we hang them in numerical order. David tells me that I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Dish Order. 😀

We numbered the chairs because kids were not taking responsibility for them. They would leave them out over night, and in the morning it would be soaking wet. If they do that now, they get to sit in a wet chair all day. I have several that are as of yet unnumbered, and I plan to number them before we put them away again. That’s why we set them up in order. It makes it a lot easier to see which ones are missing.

In the past I would assign numbers to campers at the beginning of every camping trip. This year, I think we have enough equipment so that if everybody camped with us, they would all have their own stuff. That hasn’t always been the case, and we have never had everyone attend at camping trip. But since I have enough equipment to go around now, I have assigned permanent numbers to everyone. That means that a person will get the same camp chair on every camping trip until next year. Hopefully, that will inspire everyone to take better care of the equipment.

I took 16 Pathfinders (including myself and two other adults) to camp in Bar Harbor, Maine this weekend. We set up the camp kitchen I wrote about last week, and it performed admirably.

I did use a bigger tarp, and I made sure I had two-foot eaves on either side. We also added side walls.

Camping Kitchen

Camping Kitchen


Another modification was that I took the 3′ cutoff’s from the shorter PVC pipes and slipped the ropes through them to make them more visible. It must have worked, because no one tripped over them all weekend.

We did not actually use it as a kitchen though, but as a combination dining room/living room. I had forgotten about an older pavilion we had that we used to use as a kitchen before we started using the garage-style canopy a few years ago. It is not in perfect condition and required a couple spots of duct tape, but it is still very serviceable. It took half an hour to set up though. The tarps took ten minutes (even with kids helping).

The first night of our campout, the wind was really whipping too. According to wunderground.com (which has historic data), the winds were “only” gusting to 20MPH on Saturday. They were 26MPH at my house when the structure collapsed. However, the ground at the campsite was much more solid than it is at my house (which has 2″ of topsoil over sand). So I think it would have held up even if the winds had hit 35 or so.

I looked at it again late Sunday morning after it had been standing for a while, and it was in great shape. I am very pleased with this design.

Dennis, one of our Area Coordinators just happened to ask me if I had invented anything for camping lately, so I gave him the nickel tour. I have no idea why he would have asked me that though. He also liked it very much, and pointed out one advantage I had failed to consider. If a part breaks on this structure, I can buy a replacement at any hardware store. I absolutely cannot do that with the pavilion thing we were using for our kitchen. Instead, we have to effect any required repairs with duct tape.

When the campout was over, I had the kids take down the tarp structure. It took them about five minutes. It took at least 15 to take down the kitchen. Stake removal turned out to be a job for the adults though. Dennis suggested that I develop a stake puller, and I think I like that idea. Not sure I have the skills to pull it off though.

We didn’t have any heavy rain, but we did have rain. I’m convinced this thing would have shed a downpour with no problems. I did tighten up the tautline hitches a couple of times during the trip, but that is a knot that is meant to be adjusted, and its main use is in anchoring tents anyhow. hose knots are supposed to give in high winds, and somehow that’s supposed to be better for tents. I suppose it is better for the lines to give than for the canvas to rip.

Maybe next time I’ll try the trucker’s hitch instead, but I know that with that particular knot, it would be easy to over-tighten the tarp and rip out a seam and/or a grommet. Because I’ve done that before. :-/

I might experiment with other tarp configurations to see if I can make a larger tent with the same number (or fewer) tarps. I have some ideas, but I need to work the kinks out.

Today I had a dental appointment. I wasn’t sure what time, so as soon as I got to the office, I called the dentist and asked “Is my appointment at 10:00 or 10:30?” She said 10:00. OK.

I checked my watch and the clock on my PC all morning until 9:30. I told myself then that I needed to leave in 15 minutes. And then I accidentally entered “The Zone.” When I’m in The Zone, all my focus is on whatever task I have at hand. It only happens when the task is an engineering endeavor. I don’t know why. I usually cannot control The Zone, but I can say that when I’m in it, Things Get Done. Awesome things. When I’m in The Zone, all other things become non-existent. I forget to eat. I also forget dental appointments.

I exited The Zone at 10:06. I immediately grabbed my keys and dashed down the stairs to my car. I called the dentist again. “I’m running late. I’ll be there in 5 minutes!” She said she wasn’t sure they’d have time to work me in and asked me to hold. “OK.” I continued to the parking garage, got in my car, and put the key in the ignition. She came back online. “Sorry. There won’t be enough time.” Then she made me another appointment in two week’s time.

I went back upstairs. I do not understand how I can do this, but it has happened on many occasions. Once I forgot to pick Va up at the Metro station. On the day her CPA exam results came in. That was not a good day for me (except from an engineering standpoint – it was most excellent in that regard, for I had been in “The Zone”).

The dentist called back 15 minutes later. “We had a cancellation. Can you still make it?” “I’ll be there in five minutes.” Back down to the car I went. The hygienist observed that this was not the first time I had done that. I confessed my powerlessness to prevent it from happening. She and the receptionist even remarked about my 8:30am call.

Then she suggested that perhaps I should schedule the next appointment for before I went to work. Thinking that she may have hit upon a solution (at least as far as dental appointments go), I agreed to do that. I do not enter The Zone while commuting, so I stand half a chance. We’ll see what happens in September.

There are several Pathfinder honors with a requirement that can be met by rendering acorns edible. Edible Wild Plants would be the most obvious, but Pioneering, Wilderness Leadership, Wilderness Living, and Flowers – Advanced are a couple more. Since acorns are in season right now, I thought I might share some of what I have learned.

The first acorns to fall from the tree are usually infested with worms or moth larvae. I suppose that’s why they fall first – not from extra weight, but rather, from weakening the stem. Perhaps the oak tree can detect that it has a bad acorn and casts it to avoid investing any more of its energy into it.

I read that bad acorns float, and good acorns sink in water. If this is true, it means that wormy acorns are actually lighter than good ones, which is why I contend that the wormy ones are not heavier (which is another thing I’ve read). When the trees in my yard started dropping acorns, I gathered up about two gallons. It didn’t take long. Then I put them in a tub of water. To my dismay, 80% of them floated to the top. I wanted to see if the “bad ones float” rule was correct or not, so I cracked open ten of the ones that floated and ten of the ones that sank. There were two good ones that floated, and the only ones that sank and were not good, were cracked open already. So I think the float test is pretty accurate (and that was borne out later). Just be sure to toss any that are cracked open already.

I collected more acorns about two weeks later, and as the season progressed, I found the 80%-20% float-sink ratio had reversed. Now only 20% of them float, so I think we can also believe the idea that the first acorns to fall are the infested ones.

You can’t just eat acorns straight out of the shell. Not only are they EXCEEDINGLY bitter, but they are also mildly toxic. They contain tannin, which your tongue will do a good job of keeping out of your liver. Luckily, tannin is water soluble, so it can be removed with varying degrees of effort, depending on how lucky and/or adventurous you are.

The Native Americans would shell and crush the acorns and then put them in a bag which they would then submerge in a swift-moving stream. The water pouring over them would wash the tannin out after a week or so. Another approach – which is far more labor intensive – is to soak them in water for two weeks, changing the water twice per day. That is exactly what I did, and it seems to have worked. I tasted the acorns every day, spitting them out when I found them to be bitter. I only wish I had processed more than a half cup of crushed acorns. It would not have been any more work, but I’d have a lot more to show for my efforts. You can also boil them in several changes of water, but I haven’t tried that. That seems like even more work, and it would use a lot of energy. But it is supposed to be faster.

I thought of another way they could be processed which is a “modern” equivalent of submerging them in a stream. And that was to put them in a bag and submerge them in the back of the toilet tank. My wife didn’t think much of that idea however. Indeed, she was rather vehement in her objections! From my perspective, it made perfect sense. The tank never contacts soiled water, the water is flushed several times a day with no extra effort on the part of anyone, and it doesn’t use any water you weren’t going to use anyhow. After a week or two, voila – no more tannin. Total effort invested: put them in the tank. Take them out again.

I hate it when emotion trumps reason.

The only downside I could think of to this approach (other than the objections of unreasonable people) was that the tannins would tend to discolor the water and probably stain the toilet bowl. With this in mind, I figured it would not be possible to sneak them into the tank when the Mrs wasn’t looking (and get away with it). Suddenly “Total effort invested” expands to include “scrub toilet” and “buy flowers for wife.”

I crushed my acorns in a blender. A food processor would probably have worked better, but I do not have one. Then I put them in a disposable plastic container, filled it with water, and placed it in an out-of-the-way nook in the kitchen. I changed the water several times per day for 14 days, which ended this evening.

It is important to keep the leaching process going. My research on this topic says that if you stop leaching them, they will mold – quickly. Once you’re done leaching them, you have to dry them out. I did this tonight by spreading the acorn “flour” on a cookie sheet and popping it in the oven for 90 minutes at 250 degrees F. I opened the oven and stirred it around a bit for two reasons. First, opening the oven door allows the moisture to escape. Second stirring it around exposes buried surfaces for more even drying.

Now all I have to do, is make something with the flour. It does taste a million times better than the raw acorns, but since I only have half a cup, I have to be careful when choosing a recipe.

While the acorns were roasting in the oven, I shelled a bunch more. I have two cups of raw acorns now, and they are soaking in a large glass bowl. All of these sank, and none of them were bad, so that’s another point for the sink/float test.

This time I ground the acorns more finely and put them in the toe of a clean nylon stocking. On the first go-round the flour was just loose in the container of water. No telling how much I poured down the drain, and I was never able to completely drain out the water for fear of losing even more. Some people recommend using a pillow case, but I did not have one on hand (that my wife would let me use). She did allow me to have a pair of nylons though.

In two weeks, my club will go camping and we will work on the Pioneering honor. I will have them gather, shell, crush, and soak some acorns. Once they have them in the water, I will pull a Martha Stewart “swap-out” maneuver, and produce the acorns that I am soaking right now. We will roast them over the fire and then cook something with them.

I’m guessing Martha Stewart would probably NEVER leach acorns in a toilet tank though.

In the past, my Pathfinder Club has used an “instant” garage canopy as a kitchen for when we camp. However, the one we’ve been borrowing is in tatters now, so we needed to do something different. I looked into buying a new garage, but most of the ones I’ve seen take about three hours to put up, or they cost $600 or so. Ouch.

So I decided to engineer my own with stuff I mostly had on hand. Last year I bought eight 10′ PVC pipes marked at 1.25″ diameter. I imagine that’s the inside diameter, as that’s a more useful measure in the plumbing industry. We needed these for a Pathfinder activity that was postponed twice and then cancelled. I don’t think that activity is coming back, so I had eight lengths of fairly sturdy PVC to work with. I decided that if I had some end caps, washers, bolts, and nuts, I could turn them into nice poles that would slip into the grommets of a large tarp (which the club has plenty of). So I went to Lowes and bought six of each.

Step one was to cut four of the PVC pipes down to seven feet long. Then I drilled a hole in the center of each end cap.

The purchased items

The purchased items


The bolt is 2″ long by 5/8 inch diameter. Unfortunately, the nuts were metric, and I didn’t notice that until I got home. I was able to round up three 5/8 nuts, but that was only half of what I needed, so I went back to Lowes and got a few more. While there, I found that they did not have any 5/8″ flange nuts in the drawer where the 5/8″ bolts were stored. They had metric nuts, metric bolts, and the 5/8 bolts I bought. Grrr. I ended up getting regular galvanized 5/8″ nuts instead of the flanged ones.

Then I slipped the washer into the end cap and popped the bolt through the hole.

End cap with washer

End cap with washer


Then I fastened the nut on the outside.
End cap assembled

End cap assembled


I tightened the nut on with a socket wrench (had to use a deep socket to accommodate the bolt). Then I slipped it onto the PVC pipe:
Onto the pipe

Onto the pipe


The thought here was the the bolt would go through the grommet on the tarp, and then a rope would slip over the bolt to hold the whole thing in place like this:
Post, tarp, and rope

Post, tarp, and rope


The hat trick was in pitching the structure. I wrestled with it for 20 minutes or so all by myself and managed to get it to stand up. The other thing I bought was a half dozen steel stakes, each 18″ long. I drove those into the ground to anchor the ropes to. Here’s what it looked like when it was finished:
Outdoor Kitchen Shelter

Outdoor Kitchen Shelter


I don’t think I can really describe how I got the thing erected. I started with the two center poles, staked and tied them, accidentally let them fall, raised them again, moved the stakes, let them fall again, rinse, repeat. Finally I managed to keep them standing while I anchored one of the corners and then another. Still, I was able to put it up in about 20 minutes alone. I expect that with kids helping, it might even go up quicker (but kids being kids, this might not be the case).

I used a figure-eight on a bight to form the loop that goes over the bolt, and then used a tautline hitch around the stake. Since I had several short lengths of rope on hand, I had to tie several together to get long enough ropes to reach from the top to the stakes, and for that I used sheet bends. I may bring different rope when we camp next weekend though.

Penny was outside bringing me sticks to throw for her about every thirty seconds the whole time I was working on it. Once I had it up, I threw one for her and she whirled around and ran smack into the center pole head first. The whole tent shook, but it stood fast. Penny shook too, and then tore across the yard after the stick as if nothing had happened. I was pleased that it withstood her collision (which was pretty substantial), and I was also pleased that she recovered so quickly. She might have a sore head tonight though. I suppose I could ask her if she did, but smart as Border Collies are, I don’t think she’d answer.

What I like about this other than the cost (about $15 for the six stakes, and maybe another $10 for the end caps and hardware) is that I should be able to use it with a nearly any size tarp, depending on how big I want the kitchen to be. We have a much bigger tarp that I will use when we get there, and that should make for a bigger kitchen. I may try it with more tarps to form side walls which should keep out the rain more effectively, or I might sink another $80 into a new tarp. But that part of the investment may come later.

Yesterday before I ate my lunch I headed out the office for a walk-about. It had been a while since I made the rounds, so I decided to just take a lot of pictures. This was one of the first photo-worthy things I encountered.

Rose Hips

Rose Hips


I don’t usually take photos of cultivated flowers, but made an exception here because rose hips are edible. Moving along, I found some butter and eggs.
Butter and Eggs (Linarea vulgaris)

Butter and Eggs (Linarea vulgaris)


These are very common around here. Indeed the species name vulgaris means “common” so I suppose it is aptly named. I really like the shape of the blossom.

I almost missed this next one. There were two blossoms poking up through a tiny patch of mowed grass in amongst a huge patch of grapes, goldenrod, and Virginia creeper. I guess if it hadn’t been mowed, these would never have had a chance.

Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria)

Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria)


Pinks (Deptford and Maiden) are both stunning flowers. This one looks as though it had seen better days, but this late in the season, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After I took this shot, I turned my attention to the weedy section surrounding the pinks and was met by this.
A Collage of Color

A Collage of Color


The purplish berries are Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and the red ones are wild cherries (Prunus spp). There was also some pokeweed right in there among the cherry & creeper, but I didn’t manage to get a good shot with all three in there.

Next up: yarrow:

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)


I often find crab spiders on yarrow, but this one was an arachnid-free zone. This is a bloom that tends to persist well into the autumn.
Unidentified Flying Object

Unidentified Flying Object


Next I saw this lepidoptera hanging out near the railroad tracks. Maybe it’s some sort of skipper, but since I don’t know my butterflies, that’s really just a guess. I took a quick look through my Kaufman’s Field Guide to Butterflies, but didn’t spend enough time with it to even be sure it was a skipper of any sort. I bought that particular book in June, and this is actually the first time I’ve cracked it open. I should be ashamed (hangs head).
Creeping Bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides)

Creeping Bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides)


This Creeping Bellflower was struggling not too far from the railroad tracks. I think it was on its last legs. This happens to be an alien species from Eurasia, and is probably a garden escapee.

I ended my journey by going into Market Basket to buy something to eat for lunch. While I was in there I saw one of the employees who I kind of know. He lives near my house (near Sandogardy Pond), works near my office (Market Basket), and shares my first name (Jim), so we do have a few things in common. He had seen me crouching down with the camera pointed at a pile of weeds thirty minutes before we greeted one another in the store. I showed him some of the pictures I took, and he seemed to appreciate it. I know I always enjoy talking with him.

With food in hand and photos in camera, I headed back to the office.

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