Wednesday, June 25, 2014

BLOG 71. Best Wilderness Canoeing Footwear I've Found

BLOG 71. Best Wilderness Canoeing Footwear I’ve Found
Cliff Jacobson

If you want to start an argument on your next wilderness canoe trip, just float the subject of boots.  Everyone has his or her own ideas what’s best, and bantering will go hot into the night.  But when the smoke clears, all will agree that there is no such thing as the “perfect” shoe for wilderness canoeing.

In the first edition of my flagship book, EXPEDITION CANOEING (originally titled CANOEING WILD RIVERS) I preferred LL Bean Main hunting shoes (boots) and knee-high rubber “farmer” boots.  In subsequent editions, I preferred Chota Nunavut mukluks, then most recently, Chota Quick-Lace mukluks. The Quick-lace version is slightly lighter and more flexible than the discontinued Nunavut's. For the past two years, I’ve been wearing Chota Caney Fork wading boots with knee-high, neoprene/Gore-texsock waders. This combo is very comfortable and dry even while wading icy water for hours on end—that is, as long as water doesn’t come over the knee-high tops. But if the neoprene socks do flood, I just remove them from the boot and turn them inside out to dry. It takes just minutes on a sunny day. Quick-lace mukluks cannot be turned inside out, so they take much longer to dry.

I recently tried a pair of Chota “Hippies”, which are designed for trout anglers.  Hippies are essentially ultralight neoprene/Gore-tex hip waders. They are identical to the popular Caney Fork socks but can be extended to the hips or rolled down and secured below the knee. Rolling/unrolling takes just seconds and the rolled Hippies stay put even during rugged portages.
I just returned (June 22) from a week long canoe trip on Ontario’s Kopka River, which is one of my all time favorites.  I’ve done this river five times (at various water levels) with groups from the Science Museum of Minnesota. This time, I went with close friends—five adults and three teenage boys. The water on the Kopka was at least four feet higher then my highest previous run. Rapids that ordinarily rated Class I were now II+. Snags and sweepers dotted the river.  Nearly every portage was flooded, non-existent or choked with impassable debris.  We brought two three-quarter length axes and three large frame folding saws—and we used them all. Making “new” portages was the rule of the day. 
Rain on the Kopka River--like four of the seven days!
It was raining when we flew into the river and the rain continued sporadically for the next three days. Day temperatures were in the 40’s and 50’s; high 30’s at night—text book hypothermia weather. Then came two cool but sunny days followed again by three more days of hypothermic rain.   

Fortunately, I chose to wear “Hippies” on this trip. I rolled them just below the knee for the infrequent dry portages, and secured them to my hips for rain and wading deep water. I was the only one in the crew who always had warm, dry feet and legs. Hippies weigh only a few ounces more than knee-high Caney Fork Socks, and they occupy about the same amount of pack space. I brought rain pants on this trip, but I never wore them. The hip-length Hippies were enough. My occasional wet butt was a small price to pay for the comfort, breathability and versatility of the Hippies.
Cliff wearing Digital Camo Hippies. Another flooded portage. The water here is thigh high!
Bottom line: I’ve used a lot of different boots on my wilderness canoe trips, but I think these Hippies are by far the best. If you will wade deep water, paddle in rain and make tough portages, you’ll love ‘em.  

Nitpick: The Hippie sock secures to your belt with an elastic cord.  It’s not secure enough. A Velcro or snap strap is needed. You can easily add one.

Coming up: In a future blog I’ll tell you about a new lightweight, no-sweat (it’s not Gore-tex) rain jacket that I recently discovered and wore on the Kopka River trip. My friend's Gore-tex jackets all leaked when the rainy hours turned to days. My new jacket didn’t leak a drop. Really! I was mightily impressed. Stay tuned!

Cliff Jacobson

Monday, June 9, 2014

BLOG 70. How Reliable are Magazine Product Tests?

BLOG 70. How Reliable are Magazine Product Tests?
by Cliff Jacobson

I am often asked this question:

We’re planning a wilderness canoe trip and want to be prepared with the best equipment. I hear there’s a great new trail stove (tent, rain parka, canoe pack etc.) on the market that is awesome. It was top rated in the last issue of “Serious Camping Magazine”.  What do you think of this hot new stove?  Should I buy one?
            Hightech Harry

Don’t take magazine product reviews too seriously.  Writers work on deadline and are usually paid by the length of copy they produce not the time they spend researching and field-testing.  Time is money, so research and product testing are kept to a minimum.  Bad reviews irritate advertisers, which are a magazine’s life blood.  For this reason, writers are encouraged to tone down criticisms.
Some hard packs that work well over the long haul.  L to R: 5 gallon bucket with  waterproof Gamma® lid (fits inside CCS Quad-pocket pack (yellow); CCS foam-lined food pack; EM Wanigan (no longer made); Barrel with harness; Adirondack pack basket inside #2 Duluth Pack Cruiser.
For example, many tents and garments have small zippers that won’t take serious abuse.  But you’d better not write it that way.  Ever notice how often the word “may”—as in “may fail”—appears in equipment evaluations? You will never see the words "will fail".

In the 1980’s, as a contributing editor for “Backpacker Magazine” I evaluated many products—compasses, tents, trail pads and more. In those days, we called them “evaluations”, not reviews, because that is what they were. The products were scrupulously field tested, often for weeks or months. And the resulting evaluations often consumed a dozen or more pages in the magazine.  But too often, an honest evaluation was a bad evaluation and angry manufacturers responded by pulling their ads. So we changed our procedure from honestly “evaluating” new products to just “reviewing” them—that is, we provided specifications (length, weight, packed size, color etc.) and not much more. This pleased advertisers. And most readers didn’t pick up on the editorial change. 
Cliff fries fish on his 30 year old Optimus 111B stove. No stove is more  trouble-free over the long haul
Frankly, the term “expedition-proven” doesn’t mean much any more because modern canoe “expeditions”  seldom last long enough to prove anything. For example, I once made a 17 day canoe trip where the only rain was a short drizzle.  Needless to say, my rain gear worked perfectly!

The best advice is to carefully examine everything before you buy.  If a zipper looks weak or too small, it probably is. If there’s a plastic knob that can burn off or break, it likely will. How will the product perform in high winds or when it’s caked with mud or soaked with rain?  Will it break if you drop it?  Can you repair it in the field with simplel tools? Does it work as well in sub-zero temperatures as in blistering heat, on a high mountain top and in Death Valley? (The best butane stoves will fail this test.)

Be aware that some of the most highly touted products which work flawlessly over the short haul, fail miserably when the weeks turn to years. So be wary of advertising claims and the testimonials of individuals whose experience is limited. Instead, seek the advice of those who travel wild places year after year. These are the real experts even though their opinions are seldom seen in print.  
CCS "Lean 3" -- A super-reilable, bug-free shelter for four
All this can be summarized in a word—trust!  Why change your current tent, trail stove, sleeping bag or whatever, if it has never let you down?  Conversely, if an item is dangerously worn, or you think something better has come along, try the new replacement for a time—a long time, before you commit to it for a lengthy expedition. Trust doesn’t come in two weeks!

Cliff Jacobson