Thursday, September 26, 2013

Boundary Waters Birding

Last week we had a surprise visitor across the street from Piragis Northwoods Company.  A Merlin.  It is of the Falcon family of birds of prey and sometimes seen in town, so it wasn't a huge surprise, but an unexpected one.  Perhaps most appropriately its colloquial name of Pigeon Hawk describes it well, but not accurately as it is not a hawk.  This one stood over the pigeon it had caught and alternated between keeping an eye on me and a lookout for escape.  The dilemma was clear, he wasn't finished with his lunch and I seemed intent on walking past him down the sidewalk.

He resembles the American Kestrel and that seemed appropriate as well since we have a few of those sleek Kestrel kayaks for sale in the canoe barn opposite his picnic site.  He hunts by flying very fast and low, utilizing speed and agility, typically less than a meter above the ground using trees and shrubs as cover.  You may see Merlins "tail chasing" other confused birds like a jet.  They actually capture most of their prey in the air.

Merlins are one of the most agile and able aerial predators and in North America they are well known for fiercely attacking other birds of prey that they encounter (reportedly even adult eagles).  Breeding pairs of Merlins will frequently hunt together, with one bird flushing prey (not unlike a good bird dog is trained to do) towards its mate.

It was a cool way to end my week and I thought you might enjoy hearing the story and seeing the pictures.  After calling Nancy and Steve Schon over, I accidentally spooked him and he flew off, leaving lunch behind.  Schoney drug the pigeon over into the protected brush where the Merlin could return to it later in a more protected setting.

Fall has come to the Northland with some amazing weather.  The reds are popping out of the landscape, but only in rare appearances.  The cool nights should take care of that soon, though, and the horizon will be painted with reds, oranges, yellows, browns and greens soon enough.  Please accept our invitation to come up and visit and bring your cameras.  The paddling, we promise, will be great!

Have a great day from Your Friends in the Great Northwoods,
At the End of the Road,

Tim Stouffer, Marketing Director and
The Staff at Piragis Northwoods Company

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

BLOG 54. One Shoe Fits all in the BWCA

by Cliff Jacobson

Cliff: solo/BWCA
I recently returned from my annual fall solo canoe trip into the Boundary Waters.  My experience began at the Tofte ranger station* where for the nth time, I was asked to watch the seven minute ethics video that is required of all visitors.  I politely told the ranger that I had seen the video at least 100 times, and when I taught school, I owned a copy and showed it to all my classes when I taught the unit on wilderness ethics. No matter; I’d have to watch it again.  Besides, said the clerk, “It will take me seven minutes to process your permit.”  Really?

On a positive note, I see the feds have abandoned the dangerous advice to  “throw rocks at a bear that comes into your camp—and try to hit it!”  We did that once on a canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan and the bear nearly had us for lunch!  I would throw rocks only as a last resort, when human life is in danger!

More goofy things: Firewood should be thumb-thick sticks, breakable by hand, not sawn and split logs. Really? I’ve never seen anyone rely solely on twig fires in the BWCA. Indeed, there’s plenty of good sized, dead, down wood (well away from campsites). The major cause of  wildfires in the Boundary Waters is that decomposition can’t keep pace with annual litter fall, so dead wood builds over time and creates a fire hazard. A big roaring fire in every campsite every night would not measurably reduce the amount of dead, downed wood in the forest, so why this silly rule? Because the government wants one shoe to fit all—what applies to Zion national park must apply to the Boundary Waters, deserts, mountains and swamps—no matter that there ARE important ecological differences.  I once paddled by a campsite occupied by Forest Service workers.  They had a BIG roaring fire going—there wasn’t a twig in sight!
Yes, the Littlbug ( stove is legal in the BWCA.  You must place it next to the fire grate. The split wood here will burn for many hours
Surprisingly, safety on the water is not discussed. There is no stern warning to “wear your life jacket while canoeing”!  Less than half the paddlers I saw on my trip wore life jackets, this despite the fact that almost every year someone drowns in the Boundary Waters.  Shouldn’t the film address this concern?  Capsize in running waves and the wind may quickly blow your canoe out of reach (more so with today’s ultralight Kevlar boats), leaving you with a long swim to shore.  I saw an example of this on my trip. Three people in a Kevlar canoe were paddling directly across Ham Lake. The waves were about 18 inches high and running strong. No one wore life jackets.  The paddlers didn’t have a clue that a capsize could be serious. Why? Because if you’ve never tipped over in waves while wearing field clothes and boots, you can’t appreciate the danger. The saying: “Canoeists always wear their life vests; ‘canoers’ never wear them! Tells all.

Instead of life-saving or practical advice, visitors are told to filter their dish water through a mesh towel. Really? This makes sense for eco-delicate alpine areas but it’s over-kill for the northern coniferous forest where decomposition occurs more rapidly.  Really now, does anyone really strain their dish water in the BW?

You are also told to “carry out your trash—all of it”.  This is idealistically correct.  However, plastic food bags and aluminum foil comprise most trash, and food wastes that cling to the bags WILL attract animals—mice, squirrels and yes, bears!  Best to burn the trash in a good hot fire THEN carry out what didn’t burn.

Wouldn’t our beloved Boundary Waters be better served with common sense regulations and a view towards reality?

*All permit information is now on line so you no longer need to specify where to pick up your permit.  Any ranger station can access the information.

Cliff Jacobson

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

BLOG 53. You Saved Us!

BLOG 53. You Saved Us

This is from Caitlin Looney, a wilderness therapist in Colorado. Caitlin was guiding a group of teenagers and turned a “lost experience” into a confidence-building, inspirational event.  Caitlin did everything exactly right. Follow along on the map as you read her story. Note that her choices reflect an in-depth understanding of backcountry navigation.
Hello Cliff:

I am a wilderness therapist in the Rockies of Colorado. The majority of my work happens front country with kayaking, challenge courses, hiking, and fishing as my modalities. However, once a year I co-lead a trip with 10 eighteen year olds into the backcountry of the Rocky Mountain National Park. The majority of the trip is on trail with the exception of one day when we complete a peak ascent. This year was my fifth year leading this trip and peak ascent (Mt. Orton) in the same region. I always give the students a short orienteering lesson along with maps and compasses before we head up. On the way back down from the peak, I offer them the opportunity to lead for a while (after all, they just have to go downhill, right?!).

Well, this year things didn't quite go as planned! One of the students in the back was having a hard time, so my co-leader and I focused our attention on him. I was subtly aware that we had cleared a ridge and the downhill had begun to take us south when we should have been traveling east, but I wasn't too worried because we had some room for error since our campsite was next to a fairly large lake, Sandbeach Lake. By the time I decided to take back the reins, so to speak, three of the students had picked up their pace to a steady trot and split off in two directions. I matched their pace and got the whole crew back together, all the while becoming aware that in my hustle, I had lost my bearings. But, I saw an opening through the trees that looked like a lake, so we headed for that... Well, it was a lake. But it wasn't OUR lake!

I had never been lost before, let alone while in charge of ten other people! Honestly, what I did next was very stupid. I panicked and focused on hiding our "lost" status from the students. I didn't want to worry them... So instead of opening the whole topo map, I glanced at an area on the folded up map where a nearby lake was and rapidly pointed northeast and began walking. I came to my senses about a quarter mile later and stopped to open the map and discuss with my co leader. Near the "unknown lake" we had found, we had also crossed a southernly flowing stream. There was a north-south river on the map, but I wasn't certain that it was the stream we had crossed. The stream we had crossed was small and the river on the 1:40,000 map appeared to be quite a bit bigger. So now I was in the terrifying position of not knowing if we were southwest or southeast of our campsite. In that moment I experienced fear like I had never known. My mouth went totally dry and I could barely speak to the students. However, I did manage a smile and some reassuring words. It had begun raining and we had two hours of daylight left. My co leader and I began to take inventory of our emergency supplies (we only had daypacks) and make plans for creating a temporary shelter and camping in the forest for the night. Then it hit me! I had read your book, "The Basic Essentials of Map & Compass" (1988), the previous summer. I was on a bus tour vacation and thought it was a good time to learn more than how to read contour lines. I had attempted reading other orienteering books in the past, but they were always too abstract, and honestly a bit arrogant, for me. But your book was so clear, concise, and humble in the way you wrote it. You really normalized the experience of getting disoriented in the wilderness. The line drawings and map examples were so applicable to my experience that I decided to read it twice!

So, I halted our emergency plans and went back to the map. The forest was so thick around us that we couldn't  see anything to triangulate our position. My co leader and I scrambled up to a rock outcropping, but all we could see were ponderosa pines in every direction and a silhouette of the continental divide in the west. So, I knew what Cliff would tell me to do! The only thing I was certain of was north. I looked far north on the map. If we were on the east side of the lake and walked directly north, we would have to pass the lake, but would hit an east-west trail that led into our campsite. If we were on the west side of the lake and used a north bearing, we would bypass the lake by a bit of a distance, but hit a SE flowing river that would also lead us to the same trail. This meant a lot of extra walking for a group of cranky teenagers, but it also meant getting found before dark! So north we went and about an hour later walked directly into an east-west trail. I almost cried! But I didn't because I was still attempting to look competent and certain. I just nodded in a knowing way and turned left onto the trail. After heading west for 20 minutes, we walked right into camp as if it had been there waiting for us all along!

I know you probably get long-winded stories like this all of the time, but I really needed you to hear our tale. Mostly, I wanted to tell you that you saved us because you wrote a humble and accessible book about map and compass. Thank you, Cliff. I will never forget the lessons that you and the Wild Basin taught me that day.

Be well,
Caitlin Looney

Posted by Cliff Jacobson