An Introduction to Charcoal




‘Charcoal by the bushel, charcoal by the peck, charcoal by the frying pan, or anyway you lek!’

“It was an era of charcoal and a time of disappearing trees”

Oh the wonderful things you can find at secondhand stores. My mom was once at a used goods store, and knowing my love for history, bought me a book called A Reverence for Wood, by Eric Sloane, © 1965. It had a price tag of $1, half of its original price of $2. I started reading the book, and was intrigued by the wast variety of wood related subjects covered in this compact but dense manuscript. One of the things that caught my attention was the portion written on the charcoal makers of old.

‘The charcoal burners were always a strange breed, living a lonely life in the forest, almost like wild beasts.’

Charcoal was used widely for a great number of applications. It was utilized for making Iron long before coal was widely employed for the purpose, but it was also used to store meat, make printing ink, gunpowder, and medicines, brush teeth, and even purify water. As you could imagine, something with such a wide variety of possibilities really piqued my interest.

‘At its best, the job of making charcoal was not for any normal human being. The time required for charring a small mound varied from one to two weeks, but with mounds of wood thirty feet or more round, a month was average. During that time, through every kind of weather, the maker of charcoal lived with his mound, sleeping only in dozes for fear a flame might start and explode into a full fire which would demolish the mound.’

Now, if you don’t know what it is already, I’ll try to explain charcoal really quickly.  *Stay tuned to this blog, and I’ll likely post something more detailed about the science of charcoal later on.* Charcoal is different from ashes, which is the grey/black stuff found after a fire dies. I like to think of charcoal as wood that has burned as much as it can without actually breaking down. You’ll see in my instructions below, that all the flammable gasses from the wood burn, but it burns outside of the container and doesn’t break down the wood, leaving it charred, not burnt.

Instructions for homemade charcoal:

You’ll need a metal can and its matching metal lid (any size is great, but the bigger it is, the more charcoal it makes, and the longer it takes) and a bunch of sticks, preferably all the same kind.

Cram the can full of as much wood as you can fit, and before placing the lid on top, poke a small hole in it (the lid). Close the box tightly, and put it in your fire pit with the lid facing upwards. Build a fire around the tin, and keep it going as hot as possible. In a couple minutes you’ll see a small flame pop up out of the hole in the lid. This flame is all the gasses from the wood. As soon as this flame goes out, you can let the fire die down, and once cooled, your charcoal is done. It may take an hour or two, depending on the size of the tin.

This is a fun and interesting project, that costs almost nothing, and is easy to do. And to find out what kinds of wood are best for different purposes, the internet is your friend.

Also, if you try this and use it for something cool, let me know in the comments below.


One final note:  I am interested in finding out the old method of making charcoal in huge mounds covered with sod and dirt.  If you know anyone with information about the old methods of doing it who would be willing to share what they know, please let me know by commenting below.




Lost on a Mountain in Maine


Here are a couple reflections on the book Lost on a Mountain in Main.

Twelve year old Donn Fendler becomes lost on Maine’s highest peak, Mount Kathadin. Donn spends the next nine days trapped alone in a deadly, miserable wilderness with an abundance of cold, rain, bugs, sharp rocks, and lethal precipices.

Throughout the adventure, despite great pain, fatigue, fear, and hunger, Donn shows extraordinary courage and a will to live.

The reader joins Donn in his fight to survive the brutal wilderness as he spends more than a week alone, with no more than the clothes on his back.

Here is an excerpt from the book, which you can buy here:

“… I had come back to the same sign. For a second I was stunned. I just stood there looking at it. I knew now, for sure, that I was lost. I was running in a circle. I didn’t know what to do, so I stumbled around looking for other marks, on that same trail. I guess I went a long way over rocks and over pucker bush and sometimes under it too, searching and hunting for another trail marker. I didn’t find any, but I kept going down. I remember that. After a while, I came to a place where there was a lot of gravel, and boy, was it slippery! That place was dangerous, for a slip might mean a bad fall – maybe a hundred feet or more. I slowed down. I could imagine myself lying there, in the cold and dark, with a sprained ankle. Meanwhile the rocks were getting bigger and bigger…”

Brownie Birthday Cake

img_0124I made my own birthday cake this year. I doubled this brownie recipe, and added some shredded coconut to spice it up a little. I baked it in two square pans. I then doubled this recipe for healthy chocolate avocado icing. Both of these recipes are sugar free and gluten free.

I made a cake platform out of cardboard and aluminum foil, and once the brownies finished baking I put the first one down as the first layer. I then spread some of the icing on it, and lay the second brownie on top as the top layer. I used the rest of the icing to cover up the sides and top of the cake. The result was this nice simple chocolate cake.

Coconut Bird Feeder

img_0103One day my Mom asked me to crack open a coconut she had gotten. I first drilled holes to pour the coconut water out, then used my hatchet to chop off the top. I scrapped all the fruit out of the the shell, then had the idea to make it into a bird feeder.

I drilled more holes in it about an inch apart, and then put a string through the bottom (similar to the way I did the Oriole Feeder) with a couple twigs attached. I filled the coconut up with suet, and hung it with our other bird feeders.


img_0106Not long afterwards birds started showing up and eating the suet through the holes while perching on the twigs tied below.

I realized later that this would be a good feeder especially for when it is warm and you have melty suet – like mine is sometimes 🙂 – because the suet will melt down into the holes. I also recommend not including any seeds or bugs or anything bulky in the suet you use for this feeder, because it could clog up the holes.

This is a great way to make use of your coconut shells after you have eaten the fruit inside.


DSCN1032.JPGKnowing how to make rootbeer from stuff you can find in your backyard is a great skill for anyone, and is something you can pass on to others once you know how.  It’s also a great way to make a healthy alternative to sugar filled store-bought pop, plus you can have the satisfaction of knowing you made it yourself.

I didn’t know how to make rootbeer until a friend from Thunder Bay showed me.  Depending on where you live you can put all sorts of different things in.  Here’s how my friend and I made it:

We started by foraging for Burdock and Dandelion roots.  When we had a little pail full of roots, we then went to a Cherry Tree and got a handful of bark.  We also picked several stalks of fresh Mint (on later batches I have used dried mint, but probably either dried or fresh is fine) and a few bunches of Fennel seeds.  After that we scrubbed the roots clean and pealed the skin off the Burdock.  We diced all the roots up as well as a hunk of ginger which we chopped into fine pieces.

We filled our biggest pot about halfway and set it to boil.  Once it was boiling we dumped everything in as well as about ¼ cup Molasses, and a few teaspoons of cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, and ground cloves.  We let this simmer for a while, maybe 5 or 6 hours.  The longer you leave it the stronger it’ll get.

Once it had cooled we strained out the roots, leaves and bark, and added several tablespoons of Ginger Bug, about ½ cup Honey, a dash of Vanilla extract, and maybe 10 drops of pure wintergreen essential oil (depending how strong your brand of oil is).  We left that to sit at room temperature (in a non-metal bowl with a towel over top – a metal bowl may effect the taste) for about 24 hours, and then poured it through a strainer (to take out the ginger bug) into airtight plastic bottles, where we left it for another 24 hours at room temperature.  After that it was ready to drink and we stored it in the fridge.

Homemade rootbeer does not contain alcohol, but it might if you leave it for a longer time.  It also gets very bubbly so I recommend opening it over the sink or outside.

I have made rootbeer with other plants and roots while visiting friends, and you can experiment around with the edible food in your area if you want.  It would also be a good idea to look up what are some plants that grow in your area that would go well in rootbeer.  Have lots of fun trying different stuff out!



I Got a GoPro!

I first heard about GoPro action cameras this spring.  A friend of my Mom was telling us about a cool video she had seen that had been made with a GoPro.  Later on I looked them up on the internet, and found the GoPro website.

If you have not heard of GoPros, here is a quick intro:

GoPro action cameras are small lightweight cameras that have three modes:  multi-shot, video, and single photo, with many settings and options for each.  You can use them to capture top quality video and photo footage, in a variety of different settings.  GoPros come with a protective housing that protects them from dirt, dust, snow, water, and other conditions that might damage the camera.  The housing also allows you to attach the camera to all the compatible mounts and harnesses so you can film from your head, chest, wrist, bicycle (or unicycle), surfboard, or even your dog!  Click here to see all the different mounts and accessories.

After using a friend’s GoPro to make a video – that I posted here called Off-Road Unicycling – and researching a little more, I decided it would be a good investment to make.  I just needed to decide which one to get!  At the time I was looking there were three available:  the Hero4 Black, the Hero4 Silver, and the Hero Session.  I decided to get the Hero4 Silver because, even though the Hero4 Black has a few better video quality features, the Hero4 Silver has some things I liked more, such as a built-in touch screen.  I got it in the mail a couple weeks after ordering.

I am very happy with the GoPro I bought, and definitely recommend it.  The video above is my first video made with it, and hopefully there will be lots more to come!

img_5479Here is a photo of my GoPro attached to a floating handle.



Baltimore Oriole


The Baltimore Oriole is a very interesting bird.  It is identifiable by its distinctive orange belly and dark back and head.  As with many birds, the female Orioles are generally lighter coloured.  They are brown where the male is black, and lighter yellow where the males are orange.  Their song is similar to a Robin’s, but an observant listener can tell the difference.

If you want to see an Oriole come to your area, a good way to attract them is to set up a feeder.  Here is an easy way to make your own feeder:  Cut an orange in half, and poke a piece of twine through the peel.  Tie one end of the twine to a twig, and tie another twig just above the orange half.  Hang it in a tree or wherever you have other bird feeders.  They’re so easy to make, so it can be fun to make a whole bunch and put them up all over your yard.  If there are orioles in your area, there’s a good chance they will start to come to your feeders.  Just remember to replace them once all the juicy orange is gone.

IMG_7493 Take a look at the picture for an idea of what the feeders look like.  It’s a little blurry, but you get the idea.

If you live in the city, you may see more Orioles in a local park or forest.  They like to nest high in the branches of deciduous trees.  They breed in Eastern Canada and USA during the summer, and spend the winter in Mexico and some of Northern South America and the Caribbean.

Orioles are very neat to watch because of their almost-fluorescent colour!