Anna's Animal Facts: Leeches



Did You Know:  There are 70-1,000 different species of leeches in the world.

Did You Know:  Every continent on the planet has leeches, except Antarctica.

Did You Know:  As leeches fill themselves up their bodies grow and swell to many times their original size and they can survive losing up to 9/10 of their bodyweight.

If you’re a backcountry enthusiast, or even just a person who enjoys nature, you have probably encountered leeches.  Most people find leeches attached to their skin after a swim in the lake and regard them as a nuisance, but leeches are actually pretty cool creatures.  For starters, most leeches appear black or brown, but if you look closely, some leeches have intricate markings on their bodies. The common North American leech has a greenish-grey body with orange stripes on its sides and orange dots on its back, and there are other leeches you may see that have reddish markings on their bodies.

One of the most well-known facts about leeches is that they suck blood, but not all leeches are bloodthirsty vampires looking to suck the very life out of human beings.  Although the majority of leeches are hematophagous, meaning that they feed on blood, there are very few leeches that are interested in human blood. There are even a few species of leeches that eat dead plant material and small insects.


Different species of leeches vary in size and most commonly are 0.3 to 3 inches in length, however a species of leech called the giant Amazon leech lives for 20 years and grows up to 18 inches long. That’s a leech that grows to over a foot long!  Luckily, the giant Amazon leech does not live in North America.  Different species of leeches have different lifespans, with some living for upwards of ten years.

Although you might not like leeches, catfish, dragonfly larvae, and largemouth bass all love them.  Walleye or Pickerel also like to eat leeches, so many fishermen will use leeches as bait.

Anyone who has been bitten by a leech will know that the bite is painless and the leech can often go unnoticed.  When a leech pierces its prey’s skin it produces an anesthetic that reduces the pain and makes it easier for them to suck the blood.

If you have ever found a leech stuck to you, you probably noticed they are hard to get off, but there is no need to panic.  Over the many years that my family has been camping we have found that the best way to get a leech off of you is to take it Auntie Lisa.  She is a leech whisperer and coaxes them to let go by gently pressing their heads to the side and breaking the suction with her fingernail (we used to pour salt on them, but then we read that this can make them regurgitate (i.e. throw-up) into the wound and besides being dangerous, that's just plain gross).   Once the leech is safely removed you can throw it back in the lake, stream, pond, or whatever body of water you happened to pick up the leech from.

You can find a diagram of how to remove a leech here.  

More than just the outdoors....

Our kids love to be outdoors, but they have numerous other interests too. 

After months of keeping us all well-fed with her baking, Eva decided to start her own blog:  ForEvaBaking - Because Kids Can Bake!  

Anna is a multi-instrumentalist and has started a YouTube channel, Anna Smilek Music, to showcase some of her work.  She will be posting more in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

Hopefully we wil get some more outdoor posts up soon, but until then, here's some music :)


Don’t want your kids to need glasses? Send them outside!

Myopia, more commonly known as near-sightedness, is on the rise. The rise is rapid and alarming.

Writing for one of the top scientific magazines, Nature, in 2015, Elie Dolgin [1] mentions the following shocking statistic:

“Sixty years ago, 10-20% of the Chinese population was short-sighted. Today, up to 90% of teenagers and young adults are. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5% of 19-year old men are short-sighted.” (p.  276)

Dolgin goes on to say that there have also been staggering increases in rates of myopia in Europe and North America and that at the current rate of increase, by 2020 one in three people in the world might have myopia.

If you are like me, the obvious question that immediately comes to mind is: Why?


The next set of perhaps equally obvious questions are: Can myopia be prevented? And, if so, how?

First the 'why'.

There is strong evidence suggesting that the development of myopia in children and in youth can be blamed at least in part on bad genetics that are passed from parents to their children.  Myopia tends to run in families [2] and it is more likely to co-occur in genetically similar twins [3].

However, recent changes in incidents rates seem to be occurring too quickly to match the timescale expected if weak genetics were the only contributor. Rapid increases in incidents of myopia in the Canadian north [2], and in China (as noted above), are good examples of changes that seem to outpace known heritability mechanisms [1].  In addition, data from Singapore suggest a strong link between the occurrence of myopia and the highest level of education reached, which can’t easily be accommodated by a genetic account. [3]

So, researchers began to focus on exploring environmental factors.  According to Hammond and colleagues [4], the “ . . .recent dramatic increases in the prevalence of myopia, particularly in the Far East,  have moved the focus of research toward environmental causes, particularly close work.” (p. 1232).


'Close work,' refers to work that involves close viewing of objects like books, televisions, computers and hand held devices.  On the close-work account, the recent increase in myopia can be blamed on increases in time spent viewing objects up close [5].  The recent increase in close work might be partly due to increases in educational involvement by a wider segment of the population, and partly due to the well documented rapid increase in the use of technological devices that involve close viewing (e.g., TVs, computers) [6].

Yet, recent findings seem to point to a different explanation, and it has to do with the amount of time children spend outdoors.  It turns out that there is a strong relation between time spent outside and the incidence rate of myopia, such that the more time a child spends outside, the less likely they are to develop myopia.  In fact, a recent meta-analysis [7] of the available data supports the claim that there are “. . . 2% reduced odds of myopia per additional hour of time spent outdoors per week, after adjustment for covariates . . .” (p. 2141).  The relation between time spent outside and myopia occurs even when the amount of close work is accounted for.

While the exact mechanism linking time spent outdoors and the development of myopia remains to be determined, it might have something to do with the amount of light hitting the eye [1]. To understand why the amount of light matters, it helps to know that myopia results from a slightly misshapen (slightly elongated) eye ball which prevents the light from optimally focusing on the light receptors at the back of the eye.  It turns out that healthy eye shaping during development depends on the presence of chemicals in the eye that are released in the presence of light. The idea is that reduced exposure to light early in life might prevent proper eye shaping. The fact that the eye is exposed to more light when a child is outside than when she is inside, explains the link between time spent outdoors and the likelihood of developing myopia.

Another possible mechanism concerns the amount the eye has to accommodate objects located at different depths [1].  Outside environments include objects at a greater variety of depths than do inside environments, which means the eye has to work harder to accommodate objects outside than inside. As time spent indoors during development increases, the eye has to do less work accommodating objects at different depths, and so it doesn’t get the stimulation and exercise it needs to attain its proper shape during development.

This leads to the next two questions: Can myopia be prevented? And, if so, how?

The fact that there is an environmental contributor to the development of myopia suggests that it could be prevented. Of course, because genetic factors are at play, not all cases will likely be eliminated.  However, the evidence does clearly suggest that increasing a child’s time playing in the wild might have a protective effect. 

In fact, the authors of the meta-analysis discussed earlier [7] conclude the following:

“The overall findings indicate that increasing time spent outdoors may be a simple strategy by which to reduce the risk of developing myopia and its progression in children and adolescents.” (p. 2141)

So, the verdict is in.  Let’s get those kids out of the house and into the great outdoors!



1.     Dolgin, E. (2015). The myopia boom. Nature, 519, 276 - 278.

2.     Saw, S.M., Katz, J., Schein, O.D., Chew, S.J., Chan, T.K. (1996).  Epidemiology of Myopia. Epidemiologic Reviews, 18(2), 175-187.

3.     Tay, M. T., Au, E. K., Ng, C. Y., & Lim, M. K. (1992). Myopia and educational attainment in 421,116 young Singaporean males. Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 21(6), 785-791.

4.     Hammond, C. J., Snieder, H., Gilbert, C. E., & Spector, T. D. (2001). Genes and environment in refractive error: the twin eye study. Investigative ophthalmology & visual science, 42(6), 1232-1236.

5.     Young, F. A. (1977). The nature and control of myopia. Journal of the American Optometric Association. [CLOSE WORK AS A REASON]

6.     Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generations M2 media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

7.     Sherwin, J. C., Reacher, M. H., Keogh, R. H., Khawaja, A. P., Mackey, D. A., & Foster, P. J. (2012). The association between time spent outdoors and myopia in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ophthalmology, 119(10), 2141-2151.


Teaching Kids Photography

From early on our kids have been interested in photography and over the years their skills have steadily improved.  


Disposable Waterproof Camera - circa 2008

Disposable Waterproof Camera - circa 2008

When Anna and Josh were little digital didn't really exist.   They would each get a disposable waterproof camera when we went on a trip.  We would carefully monitor usage so that they didn't blow through the entire roll of film at once.  The lack of immediate feedback made it hard to teach them about things like composition, etc.

The advent of digital photography and the quality of cameras in iPods and iPhones opened up a whole new world when it came to teaching kids about photography.  


Ages 8 and Under

With our younger kids we tend to stick to the cameras on their iPods or our iPhones.  We know that more than likely the devices are going to get dropped, so we put them in Lifeproof cases and we haven't had one get ruined yet.  At this age we really just want photography to be fun, so we don't do a lot of formal teaching.  I've read a lot of articles online where the authors talk about the importance of teaching kids not to take "too many shots", however I have yet to find a way to stop kids in this age range from taking "too many shots".  Since we no longer have to worry about film, we let them take as many photos as they want.  Informally we will point out a good shot, talk about getting the horizon straight or not cutting someone's head out of the photo, etc., but for the most part we keep things fun and let them have at it.


Ages 7-10

Usually around the age of 7 or 8 our kids start to show an interest in shooting with DSLRs.  By this age they have the attention span for more "formal teaching", although the vast majority of the teaching is really done informally around the campsite. 

We put a lot of emphasis on proper care of the camera and the kids don't use the DSLRs unsupervised.  We teach them to keep the camera strap around their necks and to keep both hands on the camera.  We also emphasize little things, like latching the camera case shut as soon as the camera is taken out so that lenses don't get spilled out and dirt doesn't get kicked into it.  I used to worry about the cameras getting damaged or broken, but so far we haven't had any mishaps.

Dan spends a lot of one-on-one time with the kids reviewing their shots and talking about composition and framing, holding the camera level, how to pick a point of interest, the rule of thirds, direction of light, etc.  At this age the kids can understand the shutter speed, but grasping concepts like aperture, ISO, is a bit beyond them (especially at the lower ages), so Dan manages the settings or they shoot in auto mode.


Ages 10-13

By the time our kids reach this age they are typically ready for their own DSLR (the girls all have Nikon D3300s).  The instruction becomes more formal apprenticing where Dan will teach them about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.  He explains what settings they should be choosing and shows them how to set them.  When shooting on their own they aren't ready to go fully manual, but they can make use of the aperture priority and shutter priority modes.   

Ages 14+

This is relatively new territory for us, but so far we've found that at this age the kids can fully understand the basics of exposure, focal length, white balance, composition, etc.  Since Anna tells me where I've gone wrong with my settings, critiques my composition, and takes much better photos than I do, I'd say that by this age you can have a full-fledged photographer on your hands.

Probably the best thing about teaching the kids photography is that it gives us a chance to see the world through their eyes.  Really, how else would we have gotten shots like these?

This infographic from Katchup is a great quick reference that you can use to introduce the basics to your kids.


What are your tips for teaching kids outdoor photography?



EOG V3 Pocket Bellow

Getting a fire going in wet weather can be tricky.  We should know because we've been on a lot of rainy trips.  This pocket bellow makes starting a fire a lot easier.  It's also great for increasing the heat when you want to get water boiling quickly or burn off garbage.

The EOG V3 pocket bellow is made of stainless steel and packs small.  They are a staple in our fire kits.  

You can pick them up at Canadian Outdoor Equipment for $19.95.

Let's get the kids to make breakfast!

One of our goals on our trips is to get our kids as involved as much as possible.  This year Eva took it upon herself to become our breakfast cook.  In today's post she explains how she makes breakfast when we're in the backcountry.

When we are camping we have oatmeal for breakfast and guess what!  I make it!

I go under the tarp and make breakfast for everyone, even when it is raining.

It is really fun to see everyone's faces when I hand them breakfast.  Usually they are sitting under the tarp as I make breakfast.  Sometimes I even make breakfast for some of my cousins. 

It is so much fun.

Grace enjoying breakfast.  Photo and breakfast courtesy of Eva.

Grace enjoying breakfast.  Photo and breakfast courtesy of Eva.

So how do I make breakfast? 

The night before Mom and I put instant oatmeal packages in the breakfast cooler.  We also put in packages of hot chocolate and coffee.  Then we boil water and put it in the Stanley thermos.  

The next morning when I get up I get the breakfast cooler that has the breakfast food in it.  I also get the thermos.   Then I take out the day’s breakfast and ask the kids what type of oats they want, but before I make the oats I make the hot chocolate. I pore one package of hot chocolate in each cup then I add hot water and I mix it up.  Then I add a bit of cold water to cool it down. 

Then I make the oats.  We use instant oats and the flavours we have are peaches and cream, apples and cinnamon, maple and brown sugar, and regular.  I pour whichever type of oats, let’s say Josh wants, into the bowl and then I add hot water and mix it up.  Then I add cold water, so it’s not too hot, and mix that up and then give it to Josh.  That is how I make breakfast.

Eva enjoying her hot chocolate after making breakfast.

Eva enjoying her hot chocolate after making breakfast.

Turtle Rescue

On our last camping trip in Algonquin Park we rescued a turtle. The turtle was found while Dad, Uncle Dave, and I were canoeing close to shore filming Josh soloing his canoe. Josh spotted the turtle and noticed that there was something stuck on the turtle’s right forefoot. It was a clam!

"Zoom" the turtle trying to swim with a clam stuck to his right forefoot..

"Zoom" the turtle trying to swim with a clam stuck to his right forefoot..

Luckily Josh had his fishing net with him, so we scooped the turtle up and I grabbed it out of the net. The turtle wasn’t too happy to be picked up and held in the air, but Dad quickly pried the clam open with his Griptilian knife. Once the clam was off, the turtle (who we named Zoom) calmed down and we were able to take some pictures of him (we could tell he was a male by his long front claws).  

We also removed a couple of leeches that were attached to his shell.  Zoom was then released and swam off to hunt and be a happy turtle. 

In hindsight we think that Zoom had actually asked for help.  Normally turtles swim away from people, but Zoom actually swam towards Josh's canoe and circled around the canoe until we scooped him up in the net. Also, after the clam was pried off he didn’t freak out and struggle to be put down. Instead he was calm and allowed us to take pictures of him. Afterwards, he didn’t swim frantically away like a frightened turtle would, but stayed around the canoes for a little while before swimming off. Overall this was a very exciting adventure!

Zoom waves goodbye as he is released back into the water.

Zoom waves goodbye as he is released back into the water.

What About the Bugs?

One question we get a lot about camping is, "What about the bugs?"  I used to worry about how my kids would handle being out in the wilderness during bug season.  Would the bugs drive them crazy?  Would they end up hating the wilderness?  Would they refuse to come out of the tent?  Would we accidentally burn their skin off with Deet?  

It turns out that camping with kids during bug season isn't as bad as I thought.  For the most part the kids are on the move so much that they don't notice the bugs and the bugs tend not to follow us out onto the water.  We do however, have a few tips for wilderness camping during bug season.  

Tip # 1 - Suck it Up :)

If you are backcountry camping in Canada there will be bugs.  Since kids learn by example, if the adults can suck it up and have a good time in spite of mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ems, etc., the kids will too.


Tip #2 - Prevention

We keep the kids in river pants and long-sleeved shirts, socks and shoes or Bogs.  They wear Buffs to protect their necks and hats to protect their heads.  This means that there is very little exposed skin for the bugs to get at.  The odd time when things have been really bad they have worn bug shirts, but typically they find them too hot and don't like how they obscure their vision.

Dave and Chloe tried the vitamin B patches one year.  These are patches that slowly release vitamin B1 into the dermal layer of the skin.  The vitamin B is then slowly released through the pores and is supposed to produce an "invisible, odourless shield" that only mosquitos and black flies can smell.  Apparently the bugs don't like the smell and although they might land on one's skin, they will leave before biting.  Dave and Chloe spent the week walking around smelling like the cotton from the top of a vitamin bottle.  This attracted a lot of health conscious bugs, who apparently did not mind the smell of Vitamin B.  Unfortunately for Dave and Chloe, the health conscious bugs were not vegans.  


Tip #3 - Bring a Hanging Mosquito Net and/or Bug House

Onsight Hiker's Mosquito Shelter from MEC - photo from

Onsight Hiker's Mosquito Shelter from MEC - photo from

If you can justify the size/weight, you might want to consider purchasing a large bug shelter like MEC's Hootenanny, North Face's Homestead Shelter, or the REI Screen House Shelter.  We have had our eye on Cook Custom Sewing's Silicone Tarp Tent for awhile, but so far haven't been able to justify the expense.  

We always bring this mosquito net with us.  It's lightweight, but big enough for two or three kids to sit under and .  We have a couple of kids who really attract bugs and this net gives them a nice reprieve when they're eating, reading, or drawing.  We also used it extensively when we had babies, both for nursing under and for draping over the canoe or hammock during nap time.  


Tip #4 - Get Kids in the Tent Before Dusk

As much as possible we try to get our kids ready for bed and into the tent before the bugs come out.  This protects the kids and helps keep the bugs out of the tent.  


Tip #5 - Stop the Itch

Toothpaste is my secret weapon when it comes to dealing with itchy bites!  A small dab of toothpaste rubbed on a bite will stop it from itching more effectively than products like Afterbite or calamine lotion. 

Dave and Lisa use the Therapik with their kids and have had good success.  It works by increasing localized blood flow to the bite and neutralizes the venom by heat.


Luke and Noah - covered in bites and still smiling!

Luke and Noah - covered in bites and still smiling!

Tip #6 - Take Comfort

In the end, when all else fails, we take comfort in the fact that we're building character in our kids :)

Making a Canoe Yoke in the Wilderness

Ray Mears has said that, "one of the key skills if you're making a canoe journey is being able to replace a paddle if it gets lost or broken."  But what happens when you're in the backcountry and the yoke on your canoe breaks?  We found out this past summer.  Thankfully Josh was up to the challenge!

LittlBug Senior: A Wood-burning Stove for the Whole Family

By Uncle Dave

Over the last few years, our families have become very interested in fire cooking using wood burning stoves.  In this post we want to share with you the wood burning stove that we recommend for backcountry families.

The wood burning stove category has exploded over the last decade and there are all kinds of wood-burning stoves on the market. Most of them are geared to the solo hiker or hiking pair sharing a cook kit. The vast majority of these are too small to do any meaningful cooking for a group.

One stove that stands out from the crowd is the Littlbug Senior. The senior version of the Littlbug is large enough to hold a 4-6 L pot or even a 12” Dutch oven making it possible to cook meals for the whole family.

The Littlbug consists of 4 curved panels made from stainless steel, which stack together, and nest nicely around your pot set. Littlebug Enterprises sell a separate envelope style nylon pouch that is handy to keep soot off the rest of your cook kit and we recommend purchasing it with the stove.

The Littlebug can be used as is in an existing fire pit or with the optional fire pan to practice leave-no-trace and avoid leaving a fire scar. We have the old fire pan, which was basically a steel pie plate type unit. The old fire pan was heavy and prone to rusting, and we really can't recommend it. However, Littlebug Enterprises now have available a new fire bowl which appears to be modular and made of stainless steel. Once we've had a chance to test out the new fire bowl we will report on how well it works.

Besides the optional storage pouch and fire pan, there is available a chain for hanging the stove off the ground while cooking - an option which we don't consider viable with small children ambling around camp. There is also available a pot sling designed to lower your pot deeper into the stove for use with an alcohol burner - an option which we haven't tested.


Assembling the stove is easy and intuitive. For wood-burning mode, simply attach the pot supports to the upper closed slots in the stove sides, and then connect the sides together making sure all three edge tabs go inside the stove and all three assembly rivets enter their respective holes. 


When lighting the stove there are several options. Since the stove has no bottom one can simply light the tinder bundle, place the stove on top and then continue feeding it from the top. In case of a strong wind one can place the tinder bundle in the stove, light the stove while it is on its side, and then tip it upright once the fire has started (my preferred option). With a long match one can also light the loaded stove through one of the air holes along the bottom. In all these scenarios there is no need to stick your hand down from the top while lighting the stove - a definite plus.

The Littlbug will accept all manner of fuel collected from around camp from small twigs to pinecones etc. Our boys love splitting wood to make fuel for the stove and since the fire is nice and controlled we don't mind letting the kids get close to put sticks in to keep the fire burning.

Our main use for the stove is to boil water, purifying it for drinking, washing dishes, rehydrating meals, and, of course, for the required hot beverage on cold mornings. The stove is fast and effective at boiling water thereby saving a lot of fuel for our white gas and canister stoves as well as saving wear on our water filters.

With practice one can learn to control the heat output quite effectively and when I don't mind the extra work of operating the stove (vs. canister/white gas), I enjoy using it to cook my morning eggs. The stove is definitely capable of serving as your primary stove if your fire skills are up to the task. In practice, we use the Littlbug as a supplemental and backup stove to our white gas or canister stoves, and it fits that role nicely.


If there are any downsides to the stove they are the typical ones associated with this whole category. One must possess sufficient fire starting skills to light and sustain a small fire - no small feat when it has been raining for days and all available fuel is wet. The stove needs a steady source of fuel to keep it going but is considerably more fuel efficient than an open fire. Also, fire cooking is inherently messy as your pots will get blackened with soot and there will be a little soot on the pot support panels of the stove. In the event of a fire ban the stove would likely be classified as an open fire, relegating it to serving as a pot support for an alcohol burner. More specific to the Littlbug: since the top of the stove is open it is not possible to cook your day's catch directly on the stove without some sort of additional grill.


That said, the Littlbug is a joy to use. Besides its practical cooking capability, the Littlbug easily provides that uplifting campfire ambiance when there is no time to collect large quantities of wood for a larger fire, and it provides a surprising amount of heat on a cold and dreary day. We love the way the little bug engages the kids in meal preparation and how it provides a controlled environment to teach the principles of fire starting and fire cooking. At 585g (including storage sac) it can easily save you that much and more in white gas/canister stove fuel on a longer trip, and it provides a maintenance-free backup in case of gas stove failure. Over the years this stove has earned a permanent place in our tripping kit.