The pack barrel's story goes back to the mid-1980s when a group of canoe guides from Ottawa, including Wally Schaber (one of Bill Mason's canoe buddies), experimented with packing their food and gear in olive barrels picked up at delicatessens and yard sales. The intention was to see if the watertight containers would keep everything dry while paddling extreme northern rivers in Quebec. They did. Now you can pick up 30 and 60 liter barrels at most outdoor stores.
The plastic olive barrel is today's waterproof version of a Wanigan. It even fits more snug in the canoe. Just like using the traditional Wanigan, however, it's a love and hate relationship. The barrel has all the advantages of the conventional wooden box - even having the lid second as a cutting board - but in no way is the thing comfortable to carry. At least it doesn't rely exclusively on a tumpline system. The barrel also comes with shoulder straps or can be slipped inside an old canvas pack. I strongly recommend, however, you pay the extra cost for a high-quality barrel harness, like Ostrom Packs' Voyager model. You'll thank me when you hit the portage.
When purchasing a barrel make sure the O-ring seal and the metal snap-ring that fastens the lid on is not damaged. Also, get the ones that come with handles. They make it a lot easier to get the barrels in and out of the canoe. Also, watch out for used barrels. Some are fine, and they're a bit cheaper then brand new ones. But there has been issues in the past where stores have sold used barrels that previously stored hazardous chemicals. Here's a company that sells brand new barrels and are highly regarded by paddlers and retailers: www.recreationalbarrelworks.com/
You can also pick up smaller surplus olive barrels by visiting any place that buys olives in bulk (ie. large-chain grocery stores, delicatessens, or restaurants). Either ask for them or wait until garbage day and pick them out of their recycle bin. Two of them, resting side by side in a regular canoe pack, works' well. I also place my sleeping pad between the barrels and my back for more comfort. They have a screw-on top with a rubber washer, making the container waterproof. But the opening is a little too tight for my liking.
The one thing I despise about barrels used for storing food is that you're always having to look through the entire contents of the container before finding what you're looking for. To help eliminate the stress, try to organize everything in separate colour coded bags. For example: breakfast is blue, lunch is yellow, and dinner is red. That way you'll at least know which bag to start with prior to searching for the elusive peanut butter. You can easily make your own storage containers but have a look at Ostrom's "Barrel Buckets" for storing food in barrels. The company has even perfected a rounded (and crushable) cooler bag that fits perfectly into a barrel.
Some canoeists have opted to use barrels for keeping their food safe from critters. They're a great system to keep everything dry and relatively odor-free and they can come in handy when traveling in the far north where there are no tall trees to hang your food from. But in no way should they be considered "bear barrels." In the last few years there has been numerous reports about campers who have placed their food "bear barrel" right beside their tent and been woken up to a bear smashing it to pieces. Remember, if a bear can break into an automobile with one swing of the paw, then a thin plastic barrel is no match for it.
Kevin Callan is the author of 15 books including "The New Trailside Cookbook" and "The Happy Camper" A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.