Canoeing the Black River

by Ben N on July 29, 2014

I just got back from canoeing the Black River.

For the past several years, my father, my brothers, and I have been taking multi-day canoe trips as sort of a male-bonding vacation. It tends to be easy-going. The main expense is gasoline and a cooler full of groceries. We’ve canoed several different parts of the state of Wisconsin, and every year have gained a little more experience, and a little more camping gear.

This time, it was my father (Jim), my brother (Wayne), my brother-in-law (Fred), my cousin (Chuck), and his son (Huxley). We put in to the Black River at Black River Falls, and headed downstream for four days. We had three canoes. Fred and Dad both solo’d, and Wayne and I doubled up in the largest canoe. Chuck and Huxley brought a tandem kayak, although tween-aged Huxley seemed to sleep most of the time in front, with Chuck paddling away in back.

This year, I was in charge of food, and I brought three coolers, a dutch oven, and a large sack of dry goods.

We left first thing in the morning to get to Black River Falls around noon and then put in for half a day of paddling. Half a day is pretty easy, which leaves us looking for a primo camp site. The river didn’t disappoint, and we set up on a beach facing a beautiful bluff carved out by the current. Traveling by water means that weight isn’t an issue. While backpackers often every item they carry down to the gram, with a canoe, there’s nothing stopping you from bringing a three-burner cast-iron stove….. Which weighs 68 pounds.

While it takes a while to set up camp, and I don’t love lugging around the heavy gear, it’s pretty luxurious to be in the middle of nowhere and still be able to have Chicken Cordon Bleu, biscuits and gravy with actual fresh-made biscuits, and from-scratch chocolate chip scones. Wayne and I did the cooking and didn’t have any complaints about the food. Wait, there actually was one. My dad said that the trouble with this kind of cooking was that nobody would believe them when they get back…

Paddling was pretty easy. The worst of it is that the Black River is aptly named. It’s so dark that you can’t see into it more than a few inches. Although there were very few snags, they were hard to see coming. Overall, the river is almost all sand through this section. Sand so clean and uniform that you think you are at a public beach. There were a fair number of shallow areas where we had to hop out because of low water, but even then, it was just walking on sand. I nearly never had to put on shoes.

The river twisted and flowed downstream. Bald eagles spotted the sky. We saw both the world’s fastest turtle making a run for the beach, and a high-diving turtle make a “plop!” off a log three feet above the river. We saw a six-foot-long snake swimming across the river, and Chuck, being Chuck, had to immediately paddle after it in his annual snake hunt. The night was clear. The constellations shone down on us and coyotes howled in the distance.

During the day, the most common stop was a location known as “Cookie Island” – which was pretty much anywhere we could take a break and share cookies, chips, and apples. Lunch was sandwiches, including venison sausage, meats, and cheeses.

The weather was generally not too warm and partly cloudy. We got rained on a few times, first while breaking camp (but after we were mostly packed) but everyone had either a rain-jacket or at least an emergency poncho. I was pretty happy with my recently-purchased day-glow jacket that I bought on a whim before the trip. The next day, the weather was manic-depressive and alternated between gusts of rain and gorgeous blue skies.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was camping with cows. We always noticed animal prints when we pulled into an area that we planned to camp at. Usually it was just raccoons, and signs of other humans – old camp fires and empty beer cans. Several times we saw very large dog prints. Chuck managed to convince himself that it was NOT a wolf, but rather a man traveling in a canoe with a very large dog. At one beach my dad pointed to a large curved print and hollered “Look Ben, horse prints!” It wasn’t quite a horse-shoe, but I couldn’t figure out what else it could be. I couldn’t imagine somebody going out horseback riding where we were.

We set up camp. Put up the tents. Set up the stove. “Hey, look over there.” On the north end of the beach was a black cow, wandering out of the woods. She was soon joined by a few more, and pretty soon, there was a herd of cows on the edge of our campsite. With them were several playful calves and…. a bull.

The cows eyed us, and we eyed them. It was a “Mexican Stand-off.” The cows lined up in a row facing towards us, and the bull started stomping the sand, kicking it backwards in the way a cartoon bull does before charging the bull-fighter. We all had been rather quiet since the bull started making aggressive movements. My father had been sitting in a camp chair – his attention fully on the herd, when he finally turned to speak to one of us, only to find that we all had taken one very large step backwards, nearly hiding in his shadow.

Shortly after that, Fred had started cracking dirty jokes about cows and bulls, and as if offended, the lead cow turned her head and walked off towards the woods. The rest of the herd soon followed.

Of course the rest of the evening was spent making up ghost stories about cows.

The next day involved more paddling, and my dad found and old bocce ball. We improvised a beach game that was half lawn bowling and half “jarts”, tossing the ball towards a circle in the sand with a shell in the middle. After my father destroyed one shell , shattering it in half with a game winning toss, we switched to crushed aluminum cans, still calling the target a “shell”.

Our final day was an easy paddle down river and taking out at a boat launch. Our other adventures of the trip included stopping at North Bend, a town so small it nearly qualified as a ghost-town. We also ran into a group of canoeists who only paddled far enough from the bridge they put in at to get around the bend and set up camp on the beach. We were impressed by their ratio of three beer coolers per canoe – far more than we had brought. We also had a few minor scares of tipping. Fred got soundly stuck on an invisible log, and Wayne and I risked tipping every time we had to get back in the canoe, which was often, as our cargo barge was the first boat to bottom out, get dragged across the sand, and have to try to get back in at the edge of a drop off. Once, the sand sucked off my shoe, which started floating down-stream. (Thanks for catching it, Dad!)

The annual canoe trip is always interesting. It’s a chance to get away from the city and the stresses and responsibilities of daily life. We balance simplicity with technology. We gaze at the night sky and see the stars, but also man-made satellites, and even here we can see the glow of the cities. Time slows and we all have to do our own share of chores, setting camp, finding wood, cooking, washing.

Finally back home, I’m glad to have a hot shower and the ability to go to the bathroom without being bitten by mosquitos. Even with our modern conveniences, there’s nothing quite like being on a beach just off the river, staring at the night sky, counting the stars…. and out blessings.

Keep paddling…



Screen Printing

by Ben N on July 6, 2014

This weekend, I finally got to learn how to screen print.

About a week ago, I was over at my sister’s house and saw that she had her screen printing supplies out. Amy has a fair amount of screen print experience and has sold custom t-shirts with original designs for some time at local art studios. I’ve been wanting to learn screen printing and figured that now was my chance if she was working on some more soon. So, I spent WAY too many hours this weekend learning by doing but have a few t-shirts to show for it!

To start with, we need the actual SCREENS to print with. The screens are just an artificial “silk” stretched over a simple wood frame. Amy’s husband, Fred, works at an art studio where there was some (bad) student artwork that was left behind but the paint was too thick for simple painting over. We stripped some of these old canvasses off the frames, then pulled out the staples and got back to just the plain wood. Next, we cut pieces of the cloth the size of the frames and stretched them out with pins. Then, we pulled on the silk while stapling it down to the wood. When done, the cloth is stretched extremely tight and even on the frame. This sounds simple, but recycling frames and stretching cloth seven or eight times ends up taking a LOT more time than you think it should!

Next, we had to cover the stretched cloth with emulsion. The emulsion is a photo-sensitive paint-like material that will create the stencil in the frame. Right after it’s mixed up, it can be in light, but then has to be transferred to a dark room to dry. Amy’s house happens to have a sauna on the property which isn’t used much in summer. The door on it seals tight to keep the heat in, but we thought it would work well to keep light out as well, so I set to work converting the sauna into a dark-room. I filled in the single window and covered it with black tag-board and tape. There was also a small area of glass block I covered, and I closed the small air-vent for the wood stove. When I was done, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I was pretty sure it would be dark enough for the screens.

Back in the house, we set up an area in a hallway (away from direct light) to mix up the emulsion. We used a Speedball Diazo emulsion kit. It includes two bottles that you add a little water to and mix together. It makes a great icky green paint to spread on the screens. The trick here is to get a nice even coat and not have it be too thick. It also helps to wear gloves and cover everything with newspaper, because this stuff gets EVERYWHERE if you don’t watch what you are doing. Using a squeegee really helps applying the emulsion to the screen. Once we had the screens done, we took them to the sauna-turned-darkroom, set them inside, to sit for 24 hours to dry.

Back home that night, I worked on creating my artwork. Some time back, I had seen a neat graphic on the web that I saved for future use, say, as a T-shirt design for example… In Photoshop, I sized and rotated the image and cleaned it up a bit. This rustic anvil with a quote on it seemed to fit well with a lot of the D.I.Y. and save-the-planet work many of my friends do. I figure it would be a popular image. I wasn’t able to learn who originally designed this image, but I hope whoever did doesn’t mind me making a few shirts based off of it. Once I had the work looking the way I wanted, I printed it out onto clear acetate on a laser printer. I also created a simple logo for my clean transportation blog at, and printed that out as well.

The next morning, I was back over to Amy’s house for Round Two of screen print work. This time, we would photographically expose the screens, rinse them, dry them, and if all goes well, make a few T-shirts.

The first thing was to prepare an area for exposing the screens. The directions call for using a certain amount of light at a certain distance from the screen for a certain amount of time. We set up in an inside hallway three clamp-lamps with 100-watt light-bulbs twelve inches off the floor. We put down a black packing blanket on the floor and had a zig-zag of two other packing blankets that would prevent light from coming in down the other side of the hall. We went to the sauna and slipped inside to grab our dry-emulsion-covered sceens, threw a black cloth over them and then returned with them to the dark hallway. We set the acetate artwork on top of the screens and then placed those under the lamps (doing all this in the relative dark) and placed clear glass over the top. (The glass keeps the acetate from moving off, especially if there is any air-movement nearby.)

With that, we turned on the three lamps and let them expose the screens. In effect, we had built a photographic enlarger that would do three contact prints at a time. We left, and set a timer for forty-five minutes.

Once the screens are photographically set, they need to be rinsed until all the emulsion under the black areas of the artwork comes off. This takes a fair amount of water, so we decided that this would be done in the front-yard with the garden hose. I grabbed my two screens and Amy grabbed the single one she was working one. Both of us armed with hoses, we attacked the screens with blasts of water. After minutes of spraying, I could see my pattern starting to emerge, and “” began to appear, and eventually become negative space against the remaining green screen.

I started on my second piece, spraying the screen with water. Spraying and spraying and spraying. Nothing seemed to be happening. No amount of water would dissolve out the design. Amy’s turned out just fine, so what was wrong with mine? After fooling around with the screen for some time more, we finally decided that I brought both screens outside and that in the few minutes that I was rinsing the first design, the overcast daylight SET the entire other screen, essentially negating the pattern that I had burned into it.

I already had HOURS of work put into that screen. Needless to say I was more than a little disappointed to have it turn out useless. The upside was that we already had extra screens prepared, and I could easily expose another one.

This time, we exposed the screen through the artwork for only 30 minutes, instead of 45. When the exposure was done, I took the screen straight to the hose and immediately began washing it. The artwork quickly started to appear. Woohoo! This time, I got it right.

Next, the screen has to completely dry. Toweling off the screen is a good idea to make it dry quicker. That is, unless you get a towel from a cat-owner. Do NOT dry your screen with a cat-hair-covered towel. Luckily, I had a lint-roller handy. After de-linting, a hair-dryer helped speed drying the screen.

With both the anvil and screens now dry, we could do some test prints onto paper. I did notice a few spots where the screen wasn’t perfect. Edges and big areas could be covered with masking tape. However, there was an area by the ‘g” in .org that didn’t turn out so well, and required some detail. I fixed this by painting in with some pink acrylic paint and letting it dry.

My sister had a supply handy of several colors of paints, although for this I really only wanted black and white. I set the screen over some paper and then applied some paint to the squeegee. Dragging the squeegee across the screen, the paint gets squished through the non-masked areas of the “silk” and down onto the cloth (or test paper) below. The first test wasn’t so good, and I had to wash the screen, touch it up, dry it, and try again. On the second attempt, it worked much better and I made a bold black web address on the test paper.

I had brought several old T-shirts with me to print on. I sort of figured “why bother” with new ones when I had a pretty good chance of making them “not-so-perfect”on my first attempt. Before printing, the shirt is placed over a piece of plexiglass, non-corrogated cardboard, plastic, or any other flat and rigid material to make a flat surface to press the screen against AND keep the ink from bleeding through. I set up a couple of shirts over various materials and got ready for my first official T-shirt screen-printing.

I started with the web address, and it turned out pretty well, simple black lettering on a white T-shirt. I seemed to get the “knack” for it pretty well. Ink has to be on the right place on the edge of the squeegee to make it through the screen. Getting the right amount of ink, in the right place, and how fast the squeegee moves over the screen is one of those things that just has to be tried. I could try explaining it, but it really is best learning simply by doing it.

Emboldened by my good experience with the first shirt, I was ready to try the one I really wanted, the anvil logo in white on a dark shirt. The white paint was a little thicker than the black, more like frosting, while the black ink was like chocolate syrup. I prepared my shirt, put the screen on top, and squeegeed the ink. With my breath held, I lifted the screen to see…….. It looked great!

The bright white really popped on the dark blue cotton! I did four T-shirts in total before I had to clean up and leave for an appointment. All that’s left is to let the shirts dry and then iron them to permanently set the ink.

Learning to screen-print is fun and exciting. Above all, I realized how much time and work goes into creating an original screen. Especially when you have to REDO the screen. Although it can be pretty disappointing when things don’t turn out as expected, it’s pretty great when it all turns out in the end.

So go ahead. Get your hands dirty. Learn something new. In the mean time, I’ll be ironing my T-shirts.

‘Til next time,


{ 1 comment }

Mother Earth News Fair Roundup

June 11, 2014

Recently, I got to travel to the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA to give presentations on electric vehicles and DIY projects. While I was there, I also got to check out a few presentations as well as booths and vendors. What I really seemed to notice as a theme this year was very [...]

Read the full article →

Magnetic Knife Block

April 8, 2014

For some time now, I’ve owned a santoku , a Japanese-style kitchen knife. It’s great, I love it. It’s become my favorite knife, but the problem is that I’ve had no good place to put it….. until now.
When I got back home the other day, doing something with this knife ended up being on my [...]

Read the full article →

DIY Yogurt

March 23, 2014

The last couple of days, I’ve been playing around with “Sous-Vide”, a cooking technique that depends on carefully controlled water temperature.
What other things really like just the right temperature? How about yogurt-making!
I made yogurt once before, just following some basic recipe on the web, which goes, essentially:
Heat 1/2 gallon milk to 200 degrees F.
Chill it [...]

Read the full article →

DIY Sous Vide

March 23, 2014

Recently, I started playing around with “Sous-Vide”.
For those of you who don’t know, this is a cooking technique where food is sealed in a vacuum bag and then cooked in hot water AT THE TEMPERATURE YOU WANT TO FINISH IT AT. That means it’s pretty much impossible to overcook your food, and it’s great for [...]

Read the full article →

Lock Your Truck with a Wrench

March 20, 2014

Today, I decided I was going to clean up my garage a bit. It’s finally starting to feel the slightest bit like spring, and I felt my time might be best used by being outside, moving around, and DOING something.
I quickly got distracted by my pickup truck. I had some ugly decals on the cap [...]

Read the full article →

Etched Glass Pi Pie Pans

March 11, 2014

Recently, I’ve been doing some work sandblasting. Since Pi Day is coming up (March 14 – 3.14), and I just happen to have a stack of Pyrex pie pans handy, I thought I’d go ahead and try making my own custom Pi Pans.

I started by designing a logo in Illustrator. Well, that’s not quite right. [...]

Read the full article →

DIY Oil Lamp

March 1, 2014

I was wandering through the thrift-store this morning, looking for materials for projects, and I was amazed at the variety of glass ware. There was everything from beer glasses to sundae cups to every variety of  vase you could think of.
I had recently seem some photos of some nice oil lamps, and figured it would [...]

Read the full article →

Soup Can Forge

February 25, 2014

A few days ago, I attended UMBA’s winter blacksmithing event with a friend. We saw blacksmithing demonstrations and got to talk with a whole lot of interesting people who make amazing things. All of this really left me wanting my own forge. As a member of the Milwaukee Makerspace, I have an LP forge available [...]

Read the full article →