WOW! The last month has been a whirlwind on steroids. I returned home from Brazil, spent about 8 days at home cleaning gear and visiting family; I also packed for the summer. Next I drove to Vermont for our trip planing weekend, followed by a month long stint with Hurricane Island Outward Bound, I taught some staff trainings, attended other trainings, jumped in a few rivers, played in my boat, and spent almost all my free time on trip prep. There was a four day period in which I placed 4 Amazon orders. It's sometimes hard to remember everything at once. After I finished work, I had 10 days to make trip planning my full time existence. First I sewed then second I packed. Simple right? Let me enlighten you.
Food Bag Production
200 pennies isn't a lot when you count them. 200 M&M's could accidentally be eaten over the course of a day, Holy moly 200 food bags is A LOT of sewing. I thought two people could sew food bags easily in two days. My friend Meganne volunteered to help. Meganne spent 4 hours on her knees expertly cutting 27 yards of fabric into 200 individual pieces- and they were square! I sewed. The next day, I spent 7 hours trouble shooting sewing machines, meanwhile Meganne sewed like a machine! The following day I sewed on all the ties and finished all the bags. Eli's mom, Joanna helped us out by making 40 bags. After three days of food bag production, my butt hurt from sitting, I put a huge dent in my tea collection and ate way to much take out. I dreamed about food bags, more than once.
The morning after the food bags were finished, I headed to the Maine cost to Eli's parents house. Their upstairs had been turned into a food prep room. Eli, Sage, and Steve were all busy over the week end so I took on food pack alone. Eli created our food system and gave me a detailed list of all the ingredients and meals. Sage finished up the details and did the final food shopping. When I arrived to the food room, everything was very organized and easy to find. "Eh food pack will be easy" I thought to myself.
I got to work making food bag labels and creating an organization system. Being organized and systematic is probably one of the keys to a successful food pack, especially a big one. I organized a grid on the floor to separate food by breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks. That was one axis, the other axis separated the food by barrel. Our food is organized so that the first 10 days is packed in a dry bag. The barrels are packed in layers, the top layer for the second 10 days, the third for the 3rd 10 days, and the bottom layer for the last section of the trip. All the barrels contain a combination of breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks- that way, if we forget a barrel on a portage or lose it down a river we wont lose all our delicious oatmeal or chocolate bars.
Food packing took hours. Meticulously weighing everything and then placing it on the grid. So far, I'm pretty happy with the performance of the food bags. The seams are sewn tight enough that flour doesn't dust out the sides!
Working through the lens of a no single use plastic initiative has opened our eyes to just how difficult it is avoid plastic waste. We order a lot of our food in bulk, while this reduces waste and cost, food still comes packaged in plastic bags. Small pallets as still wrapped in plastic, We also order trip gear online and some of those items shipped in plastic bags. Some boxes even contained has air filled plastic bags as packaging material, not to mention the dreaded Styrofoam. On Future trips I'll reduce this by trying to purchase more food items and gear locally. Much of our food was from the Outward Bound 'roadkill' bin. Roadkill is food that went out on a course with participants, was left over, and is still in excellent condition, but for O.B. can't send it back into the field. Many of our grains, pastas, flour, cornbread mix, powered milk and a few other items we from this bin. Those items were still in their original plastic food bags. We repackaged these into our sewn food bags. Those plastic bags are added in to our plastic waste total, even though it isn't new plastic waste. Over all our food pack added 13.2oz to Eli's 9oz of plastic waste from food dehydrating, totaling 22.2oz. We inevitably missed a few things, but our push to buy consciously and use or own food bags greatly reduced what this could have been. Remember- we're not bringing back plastic waste! We will return with 75ish candy bar and energy bar wrappers. We ran out of time to make all of our own bars. Besides plastic, we had one paper grocery bag full of cardboard for recycling (not including a few shipping boxes), and several gallon containers from peanuts, nuts, potatoes, prunes, and cheese powdered. Not zero waste. We tried hard - and this processed open our eyes to just how difficult this is.
The next step in the prep process was packing everything in barrels and bags! We have checklists months in the making and most things were checked three times. Our food barrel packing session showed that we only missed one item (mung beans, impressive right?). It did enlighten us that our original plan of fitting all our food into 4 barrels was a distant dream. We had to add in an old 110L seal-line dry bag. Our barrels are full to the brim!
We filled 43 containers from sQuishloc with varies wet ingredients and spices, like maple syrup, olive oil, jelly, lemon juice, molasses, honey, salt, cumin, garlic etc. We double checked all of our gear item by item. We packed repair kits for sewing, patching dry bags, fixing and patching boats, repairing bug mesh, and patching dry suits. We triple checked our first aid kit. We debated about if we really needed to bring a wooded spoon. We set up our tents and tarps and counted tent stakes. In the end all of our gear fit into one granite gear food bag and Duluth pack.
Next we sorted through our own gear. Between the porch and backyard at Steve's house common questions were, "How many pairs of socks are you bringing? Should I bring my wind-stopper fleece or my cozy comfy fleece?" "Shit, where are my neoprene socks?" Final decisions were made and clothes, and sleeping bags are tucked away tight in our dry bags. We will make a last minute gear store stop in Burlington on our drive north- never found those neoprene socks!
Last step- the final check and loading the van!
And, with all of that- Beth and Steve are heading north! They will meet Eli and Sage in La Grande, Quebec on July 1st. The team flies to Umiujaq on July 3rd. We may check in on Facebook so like our page if you want to follow our progress. Thanks to all of you who have contributed in many different ways to make this trip happen. We'll be back at the end of August!
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Somehow I lucked out and became a 27 year-old guy with strong organizational skills. Don’t worry, though, it doesn’t apply to all aspects of my life. I couldn’t tell you where to find my own wallet right now but could pull up a document that tracks every single penny of our food budget. So far, that is 35,747 pennies. I know where they all went, so I feel like that is pretty good.
To wrap up my two weeks of full-time food prep, I estimated the cost of all our remaining food, made a shopping list with specific amounts, and estimated how many food bags we will need to pack all forty days worth of food (200 was the somewhat educated guess). All we have left to do this spring is buy dry ingredients and pack food bags. It will probably take a few days, though. The only exception is that we still need to dehydrate the fatty foods (jerky and eggs) in the spring, since they won’t last as long. It feels like I’ve done a lot, but all I have to show for it are a few (9 to be precise) pounds of vegetables and about 6 dozen glass jars filled with dehydrated food, all labeled with their weight and contents.
Here are a few updates on the constraints I mentioned in my last post:
-Minimizing or eliminating the use of one-time use plastics:
Our original goal was to create no landfill waste. After a winter of food prep, I was left with 9 oz of landfill trash. When squished down, it was pretty close to the size of a softball. This trash included stickers from fruits and vegetables, a couple pieces of plastic wrap I experimented with early-on in the dehydrating process, plastic bags food had come in, and 5 pieces of parchment paper. All other waste ended up in my town’s single-stream recycling program (plastic and glass jars, boxes, cans, etc.), in my parent’s compost pile (lots of banana peels, pepper stems, and onion peels), or in my belly (kale stems, for example).
To be honest, some of this waste was produced simply because even though I’ve been super organized with this whole food pack, I can still be very spacy. On three separate occasions, I simply got distracted by an awesome deal and forgot to seek out foods that didn’t come in plastic. I discovered that parchment paper can be used over and over in a dehydrator. That was an accidental and awesome discovery. I used the same 5 sheets of parchment paper for at least 7 rounds of dehydrating. They ended up in the trash after I tried to dehydrate cheese on them (don’t recommend it).
The largest portion of landfill trash was intentional and conscious. I have discovered that it is really hard to buy some ingredients in anything but a plastic bag. The simple explanation is that a sealed plastic bag preserves food well. Nuts are a great example of this. Even when you find nuts in the bulk food section of a grocery store, those nuts were originally in a plastic bag. Produce is also transported in waxed cardboard boxes. The wax coating shifts these containers from the recyclable pile to the landfill category. When I started to put all these pieces together, I began to be more liberal with purchasing foods that came in plastic. My thought behind this was that I wanted a landfill waste number that accurately reflected how much trash had been produced during this food pack and didn’t just ignore the plastic I never saw because it was removed before I purchased a product.
-Budget: As far as my double-checked estimations and triple-checked calculations are correct, we are right on budget, perhaps even a little under.
-Weight: It seems a little mind-boggling to me right now, but we have 9 pounds of vegetables that are supposed to last us 40 days. It seems like nothing. But when you consider that it was over 100 pounds to start with, it doesn’t seem so bad.
-Space: I have drawn complicated diagrams that so far I have not been able to explain to any of my expedition partners. The complicated packing strategy minimizes the amount of food bags we need, decreases the amount we have to dig through the barrels, and maximizes our safety if we lose a barrel. The goal is to fit everything into our four 60L food barrels. We will be baking every day, which decreases our food volume drastically. If you don’t understand why this is true, measure out 1 lb of flour (our 1-day ration) and compare its size to about 8 servings of your favorite cracker.
-A complex palette: So far, almost everything I’ve made has tasted good to my front-country taste buds. I think the exceptions to this are a couple of bean accidents. One batch had waaaay too much cilantro and another had waaaay too much hot pepper. Whoops. They’re both going in the field with us. My mom recently told me a story about how her Hood River expedition team unanimously decided to throw all of their hummus powder into the wind when it made everybody’s farts unbearable. I hope we don’t have to do that. I quadruple rinsed all the beans. I hope that was enough.
For the most part, I would consider the winter’s food prep a success. There were a few interesting learning experiences, though. Here are some of the highlights:
-Most of the fruit leather turned into fruit crisp. I guess the perk is that it will probably last longer, since it has a lower moisture content.
-Dehydrated cheese is absolutely not worth it in my unprofessional opinion. If you are going to try this, do yourself a favor and put your grated low fat-content cheese on a mesh rack and be prepared to clean up cheese grease out of the bottom of your dehydrator.
-If you’re going to buy a dehydrator, get one with a timer. It makes a world of difference.
-Poblanos and chipotle peppers are two very different things. Read the labels before you just dump a couple cans of chipotles in your shopping cart and later into your beans thinking they are poblanos. They aren’t.
Sage and I have moved out of our food prep mansion and are on our way to North Carolina to instruct two different semesters, 50 and 35 days respectively. Beth arrived in Brazil yesterday to instruct a semester course down there. Steve will be cuddling with his cat during all of his free time for the rest of the winter. Actually, I don’t think he really has any free time this winter. So for now, trip prep is getting put on hold. Our prototyped food bags are going into the field with Beth, Sage, and I. We are keeping our fingers crossed, since we already bought the fabric. And thirty-five thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven pennies worth of food is being stored in my parent’s basement.
Farewell for now. Check back in the spring for more updates.
Eli Walker, Food Guru
Let's face it, it is hard, impractical, and almost impossible to escape from using plastic. My PakCanoe has plastic parts, my favorite fleeces contain plastic fibers, most of my back country travel gear contains some kind of plastic synthetic material. I'm not ready to trade my cozy sleeping bag for an elk skin or my lightweight rain pants for a heavy waxed canvas pair. I am ready to be conscious of my one time use plastic consumption; the things I buy that only get use once and tossed.
Food packing for expedition travel often looks like taking food out of its original grocery store packaging (usually plastic) and putting in an easy to open and close plastic bag. Things get packed by meal, organized so that each meal and its ingredients are bagged individually. In the backcountry this means that food stays dry and organized, but each meal produces several plastic bags that get thrown away at the trip's end. I am tired of bringing groups back from expeditions and throwing away trash bags full of plastic bags. As innovative, conscientious, adventurers, we can do better. The outdoor industry can do better. Leave no trace ethics should extend beyond picking up food waste at our campsites. It should raise the question: What is the overall impact of my expedition?
The Task. How do we pack 40 days of food with no one time use plastic? How do we purchase food when trying to minimize waste?
Stay Tuned for Canoe Ungava food packing updates.