Saturday, December 22, 2012

BLOG 35. Equipment Concerns

Cliff Jacobson

Along the Snake River, high in the Bonnet Plume Mountains

If you take wilderness canoeing seriously, you’ll want the best gear you can afford.  Sure, you can get by with shoddy stuff—a lot of canoeists do—but only if being wet, cold and bug-bitten is part of your good time.
In has classic book, Camping and Woodcraft (Macmillan Press, 1917), Horace Kephart writes: “I come (to the wilderness) not to rough it, but to smooth it!”  
Kepart valued his comfort in the wild outdoors and was always on the prowl for better gear and better ways.  He wrote:  
“To be sure, even though a man rigs up his own outfit, he never gets it quite to suit him.  Every season sees the downfall of some cherished scheme, the failure of some fond contrivance.  Every winter sees you again fussing over your kit, altering this, substituting that, and flogging your wits with the same old problem of how to save weight and bulk without sacrifice of utility.”
Like Kephart, I am always fussing with my stuff.  Here are some tricks I’ve learned over the years—and some things to consider when you buy stuff for the long haul.  Manufacturers please take note!  
Rain jackets and wind-shells should be sized full—like an Inuit winter parka—so they will fit over bulky clothes or your PFD (Technically, you should never wear anything over a PFD.  But sporadic rains demand a compromise).  Sleeves should be clown-like wide (3 or 4 times the diameter of your arm).  Zippers should close high on the neck and so tightly that cold air can’t slither through and chill your chest.  Most modern parkas are cut too wide in the throat.  You need a snap or Velcro tab to seal the throat.  The alternative is to snug the elastic hood cords tightly around your neck-- the hood becomes a tight collar.
Rain jackets and wind-shells should be sized full.  North Knife River, Manitoba
Arm-pit zippers are another peeve; I’ve never find one that doesn’t leak when canoeing in heavy rain!
I never tighten the waist and hem cords on my rain jacket—they restrict ventilation.
Rain pants should be simple: Avoid closures at the ankle—they restrict ventilation and encourage sweat.  Primitive man learned long ago that water doesn’t flow uphill! 
Zippered pant legs are problematic: the zippers clog with debris and, if you’re short (like me), the legs bunch up in clown-like folds.  Pant legs should hang stove-pipe straight (no taper) and be hemmed well above the ankle so they won’t catch on vegitation when you walk.  Wear rain pants outside your boots.
Bibbed rain pants are awkward in sporadic rains—you have to remove your PFD and rain coat to put the pants on or off.  Bibless pants are best for paddlers.
A bonded fabric liner will reduce the condensation of your rain gear.  But an un-bonded liner (especially in rain pants) will tend to droop when damp and absorb the rain.  I hate unbonded liners!
Most rain pants have  a parachute cord belt with a cord-lock closure.  This system is light and compact but it’s not secure enough to hold the pants up when they absorb water (gain weight) from a heavy rain.  A second cord-lock usually provides enough friction to keep the waist cord tight.  But a webbed belt with a nylon buckle is more secure and comfortable.  Manufacturers please take note!
Rain pants for men should have a waterproof zippered fly. Women’s rain pants should have a waterproof zipper that winds around the crotch.  Holler, if you know of any company that makes pants like these.
Long johns are essential in any weather.  Wool has a greater temperature comfort range than synthetics; it’s more breathable and it doesn’t develop obnoxious odors over the long haul.  If you think you’re allergic to wool, you haven’t tried ultra soft Merino wool (from New Zealand).  
I bring five hats: A broad-brimmed Tilley for sun, a wool stocking cap for cold, a Gore-Tex “souwester” for rain, an ultralight nylon ball cap, and a thin wool balaclava.  

Think "diversity" and you'll be in good hands!
If you need a helmet and dry-suit, you should probably portage.
A super-sharp, thin-bladed sheath knife that will cleanly slice salami and cheese and split thick kindling, is more useful than a chunky rescue knife.  Wear your knife in a secure sheath on your hip, not on the front of your PFD, which you won’t wear in camp and when you portage.
Over-heating is as serious as hypothermia. Choose a lightweight PFD that allows your body to breathe.  Be sure it will adjust to fit over bulky clothes.

The bottom line is that single-mindedness can spell trouble on a wilderness river.  Think “diversity” and you’ll be in good hands.   It’s better to be a well-rounded mid-level paddler than a polished professional in one discipline.   Not everyone shares the wilderness dream,  but everyone can contribute to it.

Cliff Jacobson


Monday, December 10, 2012

BLOG 32. USFS/Leave No Trace Video

BLOG 32. USFS/Leave No Trace Video
Cliff Jacobson
The Forest Service video, “Leave No Trace” is required viewing for everyone who goes to the Boundary Waters.  The film contains a lot of good information, but it also has some advice that is silly or dead wrong. Heading the “silly” list is the admonition to leave your axe at home.  The message is that a Swiss Army knife and jack-knife pruning saw are all you need to make a cheery blaze on a rainy day.  If you’ve spent much time in the Boundary Waters you know that on most campsites, all the good wood has been picked over.  Making fire often means splitting a chunk of log to get at the dry heartwood in the center.  For this, you need a full frame saw and a splititng tool (an axe of some sort).

Here are three more “silly points” from the video:

1.  “Don’t trench your tent (I agree); it causes needless soil erosion; besides, modern tents with built-in floors will keep out flowing ground water.” That alone is worth a chuckle.  Wouldn’t it be better to just ask everyone to use a plastic groundcloth inside their tent? (rationale: see blog #2, Old ideas die hard). 

2. Avoid brightly colored gear—it takes the “wild” out of wilderness.  Yeah, and it also complicates emergency rescue and makes your photos not worth viewing.
Choose brightly colored gear for safety.  Noatak River, Alaska

3. Tree your food packs every night. Ok, enough; we’ve run this one to death in previous blogs and writings.

Completely wrong, is the recommendation to throw rocks at a bear (“and try to hit him!”) that comes into your camp.  We did this once on a canoe trip down the Fond du Lac River in Saskatchewan and that bear nearly had us for dinner.  She chased everyone out of camp and forced one man into the lake(!). Then, after we’d put to sea and had rounded a point, we saw her perched on a rock, chest-deep in water, clacking her teeth and woofing at us.  I believe this bear would have killed us had we stayed around.  Yes, there IS a time to throw rocks at a bear, and that is when the bear is attacking someone—i.e., human life is in danger.  Otherwise, don’t do it!  The personality of bears, like humans, runs the gauntlet from “gentle and nice” to “extremely mean!” Antagonize  a mean-spirited bear and he may come after you!
Noatak River, Alaska.  Note the ugly steel "bear barrels" in the background
If you canoe the Noatak River, which flows through ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), you’ll be treated to the Alaskan version of the “Leave No Trace” video. The film begins by telling you to camp on “durable ground”—that is, ground that won’t be flooded by heavy rain.  But the camp that’s pictured in the video is pitched on a gravel bar which is definitely not a “durable” surface.  Indeed, durable sites on the Noatak are a long ways from the river. Unless you are willing to haul your gear 100 plus yards up a high hill, you’ll camp on non-durable gravel close to the river.  

Here’s the recommended procedure for campfires, as given in the video:
1.    Make your campfire on gravel, close to the river.
2.    First, place a large square of plastic on top of the gravel then pile a thick layer of gravel on top of the plastic.  Build your fire on top of the gravel.
3.    Allow your campfire to burn out completely then lift the plastic and toss the ashes into the river so as to leave no trace.  Pack the plastic and keep it handy for future fires.

Okay, picture yourself doing this for every campfire you build. And who’s the lucky one who gets to pack the sooty plastic sheet that may be wet and sloppy from rain or a water-doused fire?  I doubt that any feds who canoe the Noatak do this!  Wouldn’t it be better to simply say: “Burn your fire down as much as possible, then before you leave, toss the burned remains into the river.”  Given the small amount of traffic on the Noatak, and the fact that spring rains will completely flood the gravel bars, there is little basis for this recommendation.
Camp on "durable surfaces".  This gravel bar isn't one of them.  Notice that it's nearly a quarter of a mile hike to a government-approved "durable surface".  No, the fire is not built atop a plastic sheet!

Then there’s the heavy steel food barrels that paddlers are required to carry. These “bear barrels” are not waterproof and they don’t have carrying handles or grab loops. They are awkward, slippery, cold to the touch and they roll around. There is no way to portage them, save for throwing them up on your shoulder, pirate style. Two barrels at most, will fit in a 17-foot canoe and each barrel will nearly fill the space between the yoke and closest thwart. I admire those who will tote these heavy, food-filled metal barrels 100+ yards up a hill to a “durable surface” campsite.
Another example of camping on a "non-durable" surface

Federal authorities mean well and they try to do the right thing.  Indeed, most wilderness regs make sense and should be taken seriously.  But silly “feel good” rules are quite another matter. 

Cliff Jacobson

The lakes are calling and I must go!

I always dreamed of living somewhere close to water.  Close to lakes, to be precise because I grew up near the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois.  Back home I would ride my bike over to the Honey Creek on gravel roads that meandered into town the long way; the back way.  I could sit there, when I got the chance, for hours watching a bobber or flipping a Mepps spinner over and over again.  Occasionally Dad and I would park our car near the dam in town, walk down the bank and stand on the rocks to cast for walleye in the rushing water.

We swam in the town pool with enough chlorine to turn your hair green on long summer days.  Those days only made me long for a country of lakes even more.  Just to be able to sit by one.  To cast a line when I wanted, to jump in when it got too hot.  To listen to its songs after the darkness fell.

My dream wasn't huge… I didn't have to own property on a lake or a second home/cabin with my own beach.  I just wanted to be nearer to water than I was.  Preferably water that didn't have its own perfume of "river".  

For many people, Ely, Minnesota is the personification of that dream.  When they think of such a place as I did during my childhood, they ultimately see a green sign with only three letters: "ELY".

As I grew older I thought about how great it would be to leave work at the end of the day and go fishing somewhere.  To grab a canoe and just go.  In my mind I saw only water and endless possibilities.  That was my Ely.  More lakes than I knew what to do with.

Somehow I made it here and began life all over again as a husband and then a new father and life itself got busier and busier.  The dream stayed alive, but now that I was living it, it changed to encompass Little League and ballet and church and friends and family and a career and traveling and art and new books and more art and antiques and hobbies and…

The lakes are calling and I must go.  Yes, it is a take off from a John Muir quote, but it is a fact.  A fact of life.  They call.  Loudly.  So now, I answer the call.

One of the most exciting things is to go to work with the knowledge that when your work day is over a canoe trip awaits.  Portage packs full, family ready, dog ready, canoes on the van, Zups Polish in the cooler, fishing rods and hammocks -- check, check.  I can hardly wait.

When I am loaded up and the afternoon sun is tattooing its mark on the back of my neck as I stretch my paddle to the campsite up ahead, then I relax and think, how lucky I am to be living my dream.

Do the Lakes call you?  We're going to make this design into a t-shirt for next year.  Look for it in a catalog coming to you in March!  Answer the call!