Saturday, November 29, 2014

BLOG 79. Canoe Trip Ethics

BLOG 79. Canoe Trip Ethics
by Cliff Jacobson


A bright summer morning on any river.  A crowd of canoers prepare for a downstream float.  It's 9:30 a.m. and confusion abounds.  "Weren't we supposed to shuttle at 9?" someone asks.  What! You say the shuttle's gone?  I didn't hear any announcement. How'm I gonna get my car to Reedsville landing?"
Between the mix of uncertainty and lack of communication, there is misunderstanding of the day's events.
"They say we'll be done by four." 
"Better be!  Gotta be home by five.  We shoulda left an hour ago.  Where is Robertson (the leader) anyway?"
Finally, the shuttle is done and the pack moves to the water’s edge.  Left behind are soft drink cans, candy wrappers and styrofoam cups.
Once on the river, the fun begins.  The kids have their ghetto blasters, and some of the adults have beer. Lots of beer! Invariably, you can get one for the asking.  
Round the bend is an easy rapid, but for the drinkers it's already a four beer day.  Suddenly, there's a capsize.  Everyone is quickly rescued—but wait.  "Where's the beer?  You mean we lost the whole case? 
A noon lunch is planned, but the undulating mass doesn't reach the appointed spot till two. When the drag canoe finally arrives, the lead boat has already left. The paddlers build a hasty fire, wolf down some charred weiners then beat a hasty retreat back to the canoe. On the run, they kick sand over the determined flames. Is the fire out?  Who knows? They never looked back!

Around three o'clock, a persistent head wind develops and the canoes spread out further.  The gap widens as those in pusher aluminum and Royalex canoes fall behind.  With knowing smiles, Robertson takes the lead in his quick Kevlar cruiser. "We'll teach you slugs what "efficient" canoeing is all about!
The lead canoes reach the take out at 4:06, as planned.  Two hours later the last boats arrive.  Sorry guys, the last car's been shuttled. 
You’re probably thinking: "good story, Cliff, considering you made it up." But I didn't.  Not one word. I have, however, changed the names to protect the guilty. 
Environmental neglect is more often a matter of insensitivity than illegality.  Since the group "leader" is the one who sets the tone, let's discuss him or her first.

The leader:  The problem is, most groups don't have one. Too often, the one who plays the part is inexperienced and disorganized.  Show me a group with a good leader and I'll show you ethical behavior on the river.
Here are the tenets of good leaderhsip:
1.    The leader leads.  No one passes the leader.  Ever!
2.    The most experienced canoeist (next to the leader) paddles "drag".  The drag canoe never passes anyone. Rest stops are timed from the arrival of the drag--not the lead--canoe.  
3.    The end-of-trip shuttle does not begin until the last canoe touches shore!
4.    Each canoe keeps visual contact with the canoe BEHIND it. Rationale: It's easy to drop back but hard to push ahead and catch a fast team.
5.     Emergency equipment (first-aid kit, fire-starters, etc.), folding saw, hand-axe, are carried in both lead and drag canoes.  
6.    In a capsize, nearby canoes rescue the swimmers first, canoe and gear second.
7.    The group leader should make the nature of the trip (slow float, fast cruise, whitewater, etc.) clear before the trip. 
8.    Everyone gets a list of essential equipment and "do's and don'ts", in advance of the trip.
Here are some other expectations:
1. No radios or cell phone calls.      
2. Those who don't have essential items (a PFD, plus appropriate clothing  and rain gear) don’t go.
3. Wear your life jacket! This does not mean "have it available”.  Remove your PFD on a well run club outing and you'll hear about it!
4. Shuttle: Everyone wants his car at the take-out so he can get home quickly.   Those who volunteer to taxi their friends back to the put-in are greatly appreciated!
5. Beer: It's okay to have a beer with lunch, providing you carry out the can.  However, continuous sipping on the river is frowned upon.
6. Garbage: You brought it in, you pack it out!  A plastic trash bag tied to to a canoe thwart is a non-intimidating way to educate others.
7. Human waste: Bury waste away from water, and burn the toilet paper.  Douse the flames with water. Cover the hole with dirt.  Or, use a sanitary “toilet bag” system (Biffy Bag, Clearwaste, etc.).
8. Cruising speed. There is always a fast team who wants to show off and an inexperienced one who lags behind--a scenario that can produce a chain of canoes miles long.  It is impossible to maintain control over a fleet that's spread out.  So, spell out the requirements of the cruise before you set out.  
9. Smoking: smokers please field-strip your cigarettes and carry out the butts.
10. Rowdy behavior:  DO tactfully call inconsiderate practices to the attention of the group. The clown you're addressing might just be educable!
11. Don't play dodge-'em with your canoe.  If you want to see fur fly, crash into (indeed, just nick!) someone's $2,600 Kevlar canoe with a rental tank. Boy, are you in for a surprise!
12. Packing your gear: Everything should be packed in waterproof containers that float. 
I could continue, but these are the basic concerns--all of which may be summarized by two simple cliches: "Take only pictures, leave only footprints."  And respect the rights of others. 


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Introducing The Boundary Waters Belt Knife

We are always searching for the next piece of great gear.  Late this Autumn, I met a fellow canoeing and outdoor enthusiast whose full time job now consists of making knives.  Karl is from Minnesota and man oh man, does he have skills!  Right away, we hit it off and after looking at his work in person, I knew that we had to collaborate on a new knife that would stand up to anything the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness could dish out.

The result is a workhorse.  THE BOUNDARY WATERS BELT KNIFE.  It is a piece of art.  It is a (very) sharp blade -- tough enough to conquer all your cutting needs.  It can slice and dice a tomato and carve up your first nights steak even after making firewood kindling, whittling up a few tent stakes and setting up camp for you all on its own :)

It is hand forged from simple carbon steel and designed with a full tang. The craftsmanship that goes into it is top notch.  On the forge, the steel has been formed to shape a natural finger guard below the blade.  This is a knife that just feels right in your hand and fits on your belt like no other.  In addition, each leather sheath is crafted by hand to fit your knife and only your knife.

I convinced Karl to take time out of his busy schedule and make us four.  That's right, we've only got four of these beauties.  Two with brown curly maple handles and two with black curly maple handles.  We are offering them to you here first.  First come first serve.  I'm not sure if we'll be able to get anymore before Christmas, I suspect not.  He's making knives daily and if he gets time off, he makes something else, like the canoe below.

You can get more information on the pages of our online catalog.

Watch our blog for more great gift ideas from gear, to books and jewelry.  We're putting new items online daily.  Just because you've seen our paper catalog, doesn't mean you've got your finger on the pulse of everything new at Piragis Northwoods Company.

We promise to keep you updated on the latest and greatest, right here.

Take care, Tim Stouffer, Catalog Director

Saturday, November 8, 2014

BLOG 78. Nine Adventurous But Not Death-Defying Canoe Trips

Cliff Jacobson

When someone asks me to share my favorite places to canoe, I usually hesitate.  After all, one person’s treasure is another’s trash. I like my rivers brimming with wildlife and rapids. And the more remote, the better. But not every paddler shares my love of adventure. Most prefer quiet, easy routes without death-defying rapids and grizzly bears.  So, as a nod to them, I offer these beginner/intermediate level routes which are remote and adventurous but seldom death-defying. Naturally, high water, low water or no water can change the difficulty. The routes are arranged in order and rated (my rating) on a scale of 1 to 10 for difficulty. By comparison, Arctic rivers like the Hood, Burnside and Coppermine would all rate 10.

1.    Buffalo River, Arkansas: Picture the river in the film “Deliverance” and eliminate all rapids that rate above low Class II (advanced beginner).  Add beautiful sandy beaches,spectacular vistas and free-roaming elk. The Buffalo is a federally protected river and one of the few U.S. rivers that allow you to camp and build fires (no fire-pan required) anywhere. There is no development along the route, which will be enjoyed by all skill levels. Canoe rentals are available. You must do this river in early spring if you plan to canoe the upper part near Ponca—which is the most interesting part and the only section that has rapids. Cliff’s rating: 1
Buffalo River, Arkansas. Typical small rapids
Buffalo River, Arkansas
2.   The Frost River, Boundary Waters Canoe Area . The Frost River flows out of Frost Lake, which is accessed off the Gunflint Trail. If you follow the main river (my book, “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping” details the route), and take only essential portages, you’ll enjoy a very remote and satisfying experience. The river flows into Little Saganaga Lake. From there, you can circle east and south back to Round Lake and your awaiting car. The river is narrow and shrouded by bluffs—well protected from wind and ideal for solo canoes. There are some small rapids that may be canoeable.  Portages are rigorous but short. Of all the trips I’ve done in the BWCA, the Frost is by far, my favorite. Important! You must do the Frost early in the season when the water is high. Go in low water only if you like to walk. And bring a lightweight canoe! Cliff’s rating: 1
Frost River, BWCA
3.    The Steel River is located in northern Ontario, about 15 miles from Terrace Bay. It empties into the north Shore of Lake Superior. I first paddled the river in 1974, with three friends. We had home-built wood-strip solo canoes with two-piece spray covers. The trip is described in my book, “Expedition Canoeing”. There’s a perfect mix of large and small lakes and meandering streams and rapids—and they can all be safely paddled in small solo cruising canoes. Most Canadian rivers are too big and powerful for the little canoes I love to paddle. The Steel is “just right”. You can do the river as a circle route (Santoy Lake to Santoy Lake) or end at the bridge that spans the Deadhorse road—about 30 miles above the Santoy take-out (recommended). A car shuttle can be arranged in Terrace Bay. Be aware that some of the portages are killers—notably the first one from Santoy to Diablo Lake. A lightweight canoe that is capable in rapids is a MUST! None of the rapids rate over Class II, though some are very long. If you love solo canoeing, the Steel will challenge but not overwhelm. A “Steel River Circle Route” trip guide is available from the Ministry of Natural Resources in Terrace Bay. Cliff’s rating: 3
Steel River. Jim Mandle, left; Cliff, right. Cr. Gary McGuffin

4.    The Fond du Lac River is located in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan, just below the Northwest Territories. The draw is trophy fishing, spectacular campsites—many of which are on sandy eskers that run for miles—easy to moderate rapids and few portages, and no other canoeists. The country is fairly open so you can hike for miles without getting stopped by thick forest.  Charter float plane in and out. Northern Saskatchewan rivers are noted for their generally light rainfall and minimal bugs. And the water is warm enough for swimming—or for safety if you capsize. Paddlers should be competent in (long stretches) of class II rapids. As northern Canadian rivers go, the Fond du Lac would be ranked as “easy”. The Fond du Lac is a great “starter route” for those who want to experience the flavor of the far north. Cliff’s rating: 5
Manitou Falls, Fond du Lac River
5.    Cree River, Saskatchewan. Located just below the Fond du Lac, the Cree offers similar scenery and phenomenal fishing. It's not as pretty as the Fond du Lac but it is more remote. The Cree is basically “all river”—only a few scattered ponds provide a flatwater experience. The big plus is that there are no portages. Not one! Rapids rate from riffles through Class II. Some continue for more than a mile. Spraycovers aren’t needed; it’s generally easy canoeing, but you must have basic whitewater skills.  Begin at Cree Lake (headwaters of the Cree). End at Wapata Lake or Black Lake. Charter float plane in and out. See my article, “Canoeing the Cree For Trophy Fish”, on my web-site,   Cliff’s rating: 5

6.    The Rio Grande River, Texas is not at all like the pictures of it you’ve seen in western movies. The river flows through the Chisos mountains in Big Bend National Park.  Huge hills and deep canyons abound.  Camping and open fires (a fire-pan is required) are permitted anywhere.   There are a lot of rapids on the Rio Grande, some are huge! Go in February when the water is low and the whitewater is manageable in well-paddled open canoes. You can drive to the put-in and the take-out.  Nix worries about Mexican bandits; electronic American eyes are on patrol! Note: Rob Kesselring and I will be guiding a trip on the Rio Grande, Feb. 4-11, 2015. Rob has done the river ten times! Contact Rob ( for details. Cliff’s rating: 5

Mariscal Canyon, Rio Grande River/Rob Kesselring paddling

Rio Grande River
7.    Noatak River, Alaska.  Here’s a remote river for those with limited whitewater skills. Expect spectacular scenery, easily canoeable rapids and no portages. The river flows through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) so expect to see caribou, muskox, grizzlies, wolves and more.  Access and egress is by charter airplane from Beetles or Cold Foot Alaska.  Pilots won’t carry hard-shelled canoes on the pontoons of their airplanes so you’ll need a folding canoe or raft. The Noatak is well above the Arctic Circle so the weather can be dicey. High water changes this ordinarily easy river into one that will earn your respect. Plan accordingly! If you paddle the lower river to Noatak Village when the salmon are running, encounters with grizzlies are common. You would be wise to bring a gun.  Note: Rob Kesselring and I will be guiding a trip on the Noatak River, July 18-26, 2015. Contact Rob ( for details. Cliff’s rating: 6

Noatak River, Alaska

8.    The Kopka River is located about 100 miles north of Thunder Bay, Ontario.  Access by float plane (15 minute flight); egress by car. The draw is the spectacular scenery and magnificant waterfalls (11 of them!) which are more characteristic of Alberta than Ontario.  The Kopka is small and narrow, with excellent campsites and fishing.  Rapids usually rate Class II or less. Portages are infrequent and not too difficult, but they are very interesting.  For example, one requires you to drop your canoe 75 feet down a broken cliff face on a mountaineering rope. A new rope was recently (2013) installed. Bring lines for each end of the canoe and a few carabiners. The lower Kopka terminates in what my wife Susie calls “The Land of the Lost”. It is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring places on the planet. I’ve canoed the Kopka eight times—it is one of my favorite rivers. Paddlers should have a practiced back-ferry and be capable in technical Class II rapids. Portages aren’t marked or maintained. You must know how to read the river! Cliff’s rating: 7
Kopka River. Looking upstream at the Falls that flows into the "Land of the Lost"
Kopka River/upper river
North Knife River, Manitoba--trophy class fish!

9.    If you’ve ever wanted to canoe to Hudson Bay (what paddler hasn’t?) the North Knife River (Manitoba) is the one to do. Begin your trip on North Knife Lake 160 miles from the Bay.  From the river’s mouth, arrange boat or air transportation to Churchill, 35 miles away.  Warning:  Canoeing Hudson Bay is very dangerous!  Expect trophy fishing and polar bears (!).  Bring a satellite phone and a gun! Highly experienced paddlers only.  Access is by float plane from Thompson, Manitoba; egress by train from Churchill. The North Knife is the toughest of the rivers on this list. I've canoed it three times and it is one of my all time favorites.
                 Cliff’s rating: 8