Monday, February 9, 2015

BLOG 83. A Practical Cook-set for the BWCA and Beyond

by Cliff Jacobson

Commercial cook-sets are like drugstore first-aid kits; you get just enough to survive the day, but not enough to enjoy it.   So if your idea of canoe cookery is one pot boilinglop, read no further.  This advice is for those who like good food and are willing to take the time to prepare it. Don't misinterpret: you don't need to slave for hours over a hot  stove to produce tasty meals.  The right tools and 30 minutes will do it.

For a party of four, I carry:
Two nesting pots with covers, the largest of which should hold 16 cups so you can boil pasta without gluing it to the bottom.  Pots may be stainless steel, aluminum, or porcelain-lined carbon steel.   Some studies suggest that aluminum may be linked to Alzheimer's disease and lung damage. But given the light weight of aluminum, and the limited days most of us camp out, I hardly think it’s a problem.  

As a rule, your largest pot should allow a three cup serving per person, plus “two cups for the pot" so you can stir without slopping over the sides. Since the bulk of your cook-set is determined by the size of your largest pot, you might as well fill the space inside with nesting pots and bowls that will fit. You’ll note that a coffee pot or tea kettle fouls up the packing system.  For this reason, I pack my tea kettle separately or, if space and weight are a concern, I leave it at home.

Wire bail handles that lock upright and flip neatly out of the way when not in use are best if you cook on a fire. If you cook exclusively on a stove, a removeable spade handle works fine.
Tea kettle with warming cozy


Coffee pots tip easily and you need two hands to pour.  A wide bottom tea kettle--which can be operated with one hand--is better.  My 16 cup, fire-blackened kettle is ideal for four, especially on rainy days when the "coffee pot is always on".
            Tip: carry fresh onions, green peppers, celery and other crushable vegetables inside your tea kettle.
If there's such a thing as a good lightweight camp skillet, I haven't found it!  I buy a high quality 12-inch diameter Teflon-coated skillet, then I remove the fixed handle and install a removeable one.
Discount store skillet

I like an oven that can double as an extra pot, corn popper, broiler, or food warmer.  For years, I carried a (no longer manufactured) Bendonn dutch oven, which consists of two nesting deep-sided aluminum skillets.  Since I do nearly all my cooking on a stove, I seldom use the Bendonn for baking.  Instead I use the two pans to rig a "triple-pan" oven.

Tripple pan oven
Procedure: You need two nesting skillets (or one skillet and a pie tin), a high cover, and a handful of stones. Scatter the stones onto the bottom of the large skillet and set the pie tin on top. Put your bake stuff in the pie tin and cover the oven. Turn your stove down low and relax; the air space which separates the two pans will prevent burning.
                 Note: To use the triple-pan oven on a fire, just set it on the hot coals.  For quicker baking, pile more hot coals on the cover.  Now you have a "Triple-pan Dutch oven"!

You should have a tight-fitting cover for every  pot and pan you own.  A skillet that substitutes as a pot cover is adequate only when you don't need to fry and boil at the same time.  Each cover should have a metal D-ring or nylon loop so you can easily remove it.
A cover is especially important when you're cooking in frigid weather or for large parties.  Consider this scenario:
                 It's 34 degrees and the wind is howling bloody murder.  You place 18 cups of cold water into your largest pot, dump in the oatmeal, and turn your stove to high.  The intense localized heat of the flame suggests you'd best "stir constantly" to prevent burning.  Fifteen minutes pass and still the porridge hasn't boiled.  Even with a makeshift windscreen, enough cold air reaches the pot to rob it of needed calories.  What to do?
                 Place the water, sans oatmeal, into the pot.  Cover the pot and turn your stove to high.  When the water boils, add the oatmeal.  Quickly stir until the water is absorbed, then cover the pot and set it on a piece of closed cell foam. Snug a wool shirt and jacket or two over the pot.  Now, go watch the sun rise for 15 minutes while your "slow cooker" works. Your makeshift "cozy" saves stove fuel and the displeasure of cleaning caked carbon off the inside of your pot.  Note: For a more elegant approach, make fitted “cozies” for your pots. My books, Basic Illustrated: Cooking, and “Camping’s Top Secrets” shows how.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

BLOG 82: Review: New From Sealskinz & Accent Paddles

BLOG 82. Review: New From Sealskinz and Accent Paddles
by Cliff Jacobson

Here are some new items that have recently come across my desk. None are “must have”, but they are all pretty cool.
The Sealskinz™Beanie is waterproof and breathable
When I canoed the Hood River in northern Canada many years ago, we paddled in the aftermath of a chilling storm that raged for four days.  The temperature hovered at 34 degrees, it rained off-and-on, and the wind speed (according to my wind-meter) was 20 miles per hour. It was cold. Very cold! The icy wind sliced through my thick wool stocking cap. If I put up the hood on my rain coat to keep my head warm I couldn’t see the rapid ahead; if I didn’t use the hood, my ears froze. I wished I had a warm, windproof hat.

Sealskinz’s™ new Waterproof Beanie takes the sting out of wind. Like all Sealskinz products, it’s waterproof and breathable. But what’s the point of a waterproof stocking cap? Well, it’s waterproof, of course, but more importantly, it’s windproof, which means it will keep your head “warm” in the fiercest wind. The outer layer of the hat is knitted Acrylic; the inner layer (next to your head) is soft micro-fleece, which provides warmth and moisture control and feels luxurious. I haven’t tried the Beanie in summer (it’s -10 degrees F here in River Falls, WI as I write this!), but I’ve worn it plenty this winter. It’s very warm; it defies the Viking wind and it’s lighter and more compact than most stocking caps.  The waterproof-breathable substrate naturally reduces air flow to some degree so the hat may be too warm for summer.  We’ll see. But for now—and future Arctic canoe trips—it’s great!
Sealskinz™ waterproof/breathable, knee-length socks
The waterproof-breathable substrate in most Gore-tex socks is contained between protective layers of fabric—usually, nylon or Polyester. Gore-tex socks are designed to be worn over conventional wool socks. Wearing a second pair of wool socks over the Gore-tex socks will reduce abrasion to the fabric shell.  

Sealskinz’s new mid-weight, knee-length socks are different. Here, the waterproof-breathable substrate is sandwiched between a luxurious layer of Merino wool (next to the skin) and an outer layer of Acrylic/Polyester. The result is a comfortably cushy sock that can be worn alone or with a light wool liner inside your boots. The socks won’t stretch or creep down as you walk. They are much more comfortable and more rugged than other Gore-tex socks I’ve used. 
 2-piece Mitchell Paddle

Accent Octane 2-piece canoe paddle--18 ounces

If you’ve ever used use commercial aircraft to access a remote river, you know the problems: There are baggage size and weight limitations and a fee for every checked bag. A 17-foot Pakboat (folding canoe) will weigh about 55 pounds with its duffel bag and yoke. Remove the yoke or some frames and pack them elsewhere and the boat will make the 50 pound limit. But what about your canoe paddles? They are too long to fit in the overhead compartment of the aircraft. Yes, you can bundle ‘em, roll ‘em in bubble wrap and assign them to baggage—but you’ll pay that ominous $50-$75 fee each way. A two-piece paddle that you can stow above your seat is a smarter way to go.

A few years ago, I was invited to canoe some wild rivers in Norway. We brought Pakboats, which were checked as baggage. Bringing paddles from home was an extra expense we didn’t want so we agreed to use the cheap plastic paddles with aluminum shafts that were available in Norway. Given the choice between paddling a good canoe with a bad paddle or a bad canoe with a good paddle, I might go with the latter. I hate having a bad paddle in my hands for hours on end.  For awhile I toyed with ordering a top end Norwegian whitewater paddle, and picking it up in Norway. But it would have been very pricey. And how would I get it home after the trip? So I asked Mitchell Paddles to make me a two piece whitewater paddle. The price was $300+, and the wait was six weeks.  Nice paddle, but at 33 ounces, it was heavier than I like.

Two-piece kayak paddles are widely available, but two-piece canoe paddles are not. Until now, if you wanted one, your choice was a custom built paddle like my Mitchell or a make-it-yourself project. Recently, Accent Paddles (Minneapolis, MN) has come forward to fill the void. Their new two-piece “Octane” canoe paddle is lightweight, stiff and acceptably balanced. It has a carbon-fiber reinforced shaft that is identical to the one on my Mitchell. The scooped, composite molded plastic blade is off-set eight degrees and has a thick reinforcing spline in back. The rolled-over carbon grip is nicely done, similar to that on Bending Branches carbon-fiber paddles. The two-piece disconnect button is smartly located low on the shaft--below where most people will place their lower hand. This was accomplished by reversing the usual connector locations—i.e., the male pin connector is on the upper shaft and the female receptor is on the lower shaft.  Most two piece paddles have it the other way around.

Admittedly, I’m not crazy about the scoop blade or the spline or the eight degree off-set—I’d much prefer either a dead straight blade (for rapids) or a 12-degree one for cruising. And anyway you cut it, splines don’t make for dead-quiet running.  Still, the blade works fine in moderate whitewater and flat. The scoop adds some catch and the spline discourages the molded plastic blade from fluttering. From a performance-racing standpoint, an eight degree bent shaft provides little if any advantage over a similar sized straight blade—and bracing off the backside of any bent blade is at best, awkward. Still, the “Octane” blade is straight enough to allow reasonably efficient off-face braces—essential for stability in rapids. But the real beauty of this paddle is its light weight, price and utility. The 56 inch paddle pictured here weighs 18 ounces (shorter sticks will weigh less). Retail price is $144.95. A one piece version (the “Max Carbon”) costs $129.95. There are two blade shapes—a conventional tear-drop with hard edges and a Zaveral-style lollipop racing model. Both are nice. The conventional blade has less surface area than the lollipop and is slightly lighter and quieter in the water. But the bigger blade has the advantage in aerated water.

Admittedly, this Accent paddle can’t compare in weight, balance or in-water smoothness to a top shelf 12-degree carbon, bent shaft racing paddle. But that’s not its purpose. Instead, it offers reasonable lightweight, acceptable stiffness and all-round utility in a handy two-piece package. Frankly, 18 ounces is pretty light for a canoe paddle, especially a solidly built one like this that can double for fast cruising and moderate whitewater. Even the best wooden paddles generally weigh more than one-and-one half pounds. And none of them come apart! If you want a reasonably light, acceptably-balanced, take-apart paddle at a reasonable price, look hard at this new stick from Accent.



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Winter in the Northland

The coldest days of the year are upon us.  Yesterday morning as I walked to work and my beard rapidly froze solid, it felt a lot like 50 below zero with the wind.  It was a strong 26 degrees below.  The ice was popping all night outside as the hot water registers and wood stoves inside got hotter and hotter.  Just last Saturday we were graced with about 8 - 10 inches of the beautiful white stuff that makes winter work.

We needed snow, it was looking bare around here for skiers, snowshoers, and winter campers.  Now we've got a perfect amount for the trails.  The pike are biting on frozen ciscos and the occasional light northern sucker live minnow.  They are still visiting decoys in the darkhouses, too.  Until the cold front dropped by early Sunday morning, all the fishing reports were good.  Shagawa lake and many small lakes surrounding Ely had 16 inches plus of good solid ice.

Winter cold brings with it a delightful and dangerous beauty.  Being prepared physically and mentally for the low temps and windchill factors is essential.  That includes having the right gear, even if you're just going out for a hike or ski.  A day pack with lighters, waterproof matches, fire starter tinder, extra dry clothing, water, waterproof matches, quick energy food/snacks, cell phone, emergency survival blanket, something to signal for help with, you get the drift...  It is vital to go into the woods prepared no matter what time of year, but this time of year especially.  The safety ice pics that allow you to pull yourself out of the lake if you fall through the ice - those are essential as well.  If you're prepared, being outdoors during the deep freeze is awesome.

Ely's a special place, year round, and if you'd like to experience winter camping, we've got the winter rental gear you need from sleeping bags, to pulk sleds and canvas wall tents with ultralight wood burning stoves.  If a motel is more your speed, then come up and visit us and do some day tripping on a pair of our rental skis or snowshoes.  The annual Ely Winter Festival is coming up (February 5-15, 2015).

If you're holding out for the soft water then we'll still wish you a Happy New Year and be expecting you next summer.

Tim Stouffer
Piragis Northwoods Company


This is what I dream of when I walk to work and it is 20 plus degrees below zero with a windchill factor of -40. Boundary Waters summer days, by the lake in my hammock with my dog and a good book. Bobber floating, fire waiting.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

BLOG 82. Packing Tips For the Boundary Waters

BLOG 82. Packing Tips For the Boundary Waters
by Cliff Jacobson

I recently took my daughter Clarissa on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. It was raining hard when we put in and the temperature was in the forties. But no matter; we were dressed warm, had good rain gear, and everything was secured in waterproof packs.  But others were not so fortunate. At one portage, we saw a canoe with an unprotected (soaking wet) sleeping bag on the bottom. Without thinking, I quipped, “Hey, I guess you guys don’t believe in waterproof bags!” A man mumbled back, “We’re on our way out so it doesn’t matter”. As soon as they cleared the portage, my daughter said “Daddy, you were really cruel to that man; they’re doing the best they know how.” “Yeah,” I replied. “The problem is they don’t know how and don’t care to learn!”

An hour later, we found a nice campsite on a high hill, rigged twin tarps and built a cheery fire. Clarissa told me again that I was out-of-line. 

It rained almost continually (an ice cold rain!) for the next three days, so we stayed put under the tarps, venturing out only for water and firewood. We were camped along a popular route--canoes cruised by like trains, each searching for a place to camp. We watched them through binoculars. There were wet clothes draped over thwarts, packs with their flaps ajar, unprotected tents and sleeping bags. The show was quite entertaining!

On the fourth day of our trip, the sky cleared—just in time for us to head home. As we rounded a bend, we passed a canoe going our way. Déjà vu—there was a drenched sleeping bag on the floor of their canoe.  “Guess you guys don’t believe in waterproof bags,” blurted Clarissa. I stared at her in disbelief—we both broke out laughing!

Admittedly, I’m a belt-and-suspenders man. I pack much the same way for trips in the Boundary Waters as for those on whitewater rivers in Canada and Alaska. It takes very little time and effort to do it right. And when the weather turns sour, the pay-off is huge. Here’s my procedure:

I place rigid and breakable items (axe, saw, eggs, stove, repair and first-aid kit etc.) inside a waterproof barrel or wanigan with a secure lid. Personal gear (clothing, sleeping bag, tent etc.) goes in soft packs. Any soft pack will do if you waterproof it right. The CCS (Cooke Custom Sewing) Pioneer is my favorite (with a tumpline, of course), but I also like #3 canvas Duluth packs.
Some terrific hard packs. L to R: 5 gallon pail with waterproof gamma lid seal; CCS Quad-Pocket Barrel Pack; CCS foam-lined food pack; EM Wanigan (no longer manufactured); 60 Liter Barrel with Ostrom Outdoors harness; Adirondack pack basket inside #2 Duluth Pack Cruiser (extended flap)

I begin by lining each soft pack with a large yellow waterproof pack liner, available from Piragis Northwoods Company. The seams of the liner are electronically welded, and the roll and clip closure is 100 percent reliable. The bag is absolutely waterproof even with a compressed load. If you capsize you’ll be glad you have one! 

Next, I set a 4-mil plastic bag of similar size inside the yellow liner.  Its purpose is to take the abuse of stuffing gear (which can abrade the WP coating of the yellow liner) and to separate the tent—which may be dirty or wet—from clean, dry gear.  Alternatively, you can substitute a giant 4-mil plastic bag for the yellow liner (I did it this way for decades)—but only if you are very meticulous in sealing both bags. 

Pack in horizontal layers.  Why horizontal? Because horizontally placed items form to the curve of your back; vertical uprights don’t.
Waterproof way to pack a pack (from Canoeing & Camping, Beyond the Basics, by Cliff Jacobson)
Pack things in the reverse order you need them.
1.My sleeping pad goes at the bottom of my pack. My rolled foam sleeping pad goes on top. If the route includes serious rapids, I “sandwich pack” my sleeping bag as follows: sleeping bag goes into a stuff sack (which need not be waterproof); this stuff sack goes inside a plastic bag--the mouth of the bag is twisted and “goose-necked” then secured with a loop of shockcord; this unit goes inside a second nylon stuff sack (which need not be waterproof). Note that the waterproof plastic bag is protected on both sides by abrasion-resistant nylon. For lake country canoeing (BWCA), the double-bag security system is over-kill.

2.The stuff sack that contains my extra clothes and toiletries goes next. I prefer to use a zippered CCS food bag instead of a conventional stuff sack for this purpose because the zipper provides easier access than a draw-string.

3. Next: Camp shoes in a plastic or nylon bag.

5. Next: Sweater or jacket and sundries.

6. Next: Tightly roll down the plastic “abrasion liner” then set the tent (sans poles and stakes) on top. Place the stake bag inside the tent pole bag and set the pole bag on top of the tent. Roll down and seal the yellow waterproof bag. If the poles are too long to fit crossways in your pack, set them under the pack flap and secure them as illustrated. Note that your tent—which may be wet or dirty—is separated from the clean, dry gear below.

About Food:  One partner may carry the tent while the other packs food. I prefer NOT to pack food in a special pack because: 1) The pack will be too heavy, and possibly impossible to rescue in a capsize; 2) it’s unwise to put all your eggs in one basket. Better to spread good things around. All my food is vacuum-sealed, water and odor proof. I divide food equally among my crew so that the trip can continue if a pack is lost or damaged. Food bags are placed at the bottom of the pack, followed by personal items. The diagram illustrates the procedure.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BLOG 80. A Smart Survival Kit For the Northwoods

BLOG 80. A Smart Survival Kit For the Northwoods
by Cliff Jacobson
Stuff happens: Steel River, Ontario

My first job after college was as a forester for the Bureau of Land Management in Coos Bay, Oregon.  It was 1962, long before GPS and cell phones. One rainy January morning I was re-marking the cutting line that defined the area of a timber sale.  It was Thursday and I had Friday off and big plans for the weekend, so I hurried to get the job done.

Space doesn’t permit details other than to say that in my haste, I became hopelessly lost. And lost in an Oregon rain forest is a very big deal.  Here, huge trees cloud the sky and downed trees and winding vegetation limit walking to at best, one mile an hour. Visibility is measured in feet; only occasionally can you see the sky. Walk a few yards off a beaten path and you may become hopelessly lost...and never found! 
Stuff Happens: Kopka River, Ontario
Since it was Friday, no one from the BLM would look for me until Monday when I didn’t show up for work. So instead of waiting for help, I decided to find may way out. I had these “survival items” on my person:

·      A Thermos of coffee and lunch
·      Matches and a Zippo cigarette lighter
·      A Silva Ranger compass
·      A sturdy pocket knife
·      A roll of yellow surveying ribbon (to re-mark the sale area)
·      A red cowboy bandana
·      Pencil and spiral notebook

I was wearing a cotton T-shirt, a medium-weight wool long sleeve shirt and a Filson cruiser’s vest; Filson tin-pants, a two-piece rain-suit, metal hard hat, and corked boots for safety while scrambling over logs. The air temperature was about 50 degrees with occasional light misting.

Most important, I had a “mental map” of the area: For example, I knew that highway 101, which parallels the ocean, was about 20 miles west of me.  If I headed west, I should make the highway in a few days. I thought about backtracking to the winding, unimproved mountain road where I’d parked the Jeep (about a mile away) but decided against it.  Without a proper compass heading, my chances of intersecting it were small. Besides, the road did not run parallel to my position.

Momentarily, I panicked and ran a few feet. Then I sat down under a tree, poured some coffee and formulated a plan. I decided to go for the highway even though it was two days away. I figured I could make about eight miles a day. It was January (the rainy season) so there was standing water everywhere. I wouldn’t be thirsty. And I had packed a big lunch—enough for two days if rationed.

I set my compass for due west and started walking. When it became dark, I cut some Douglas fir boughs, piled them up and crawled between them. Surprisingly, I was reasonably comfortable and not cold. I headed west as soon as the sun came up.
Impassable rapid + no portage around it  = bushwhacking!
On the morning of the third day I intersected a logging road which I followed to the tiny town of Remote, Oregon. There, I hitched a ride back (on a logging truck) to my jeep which I drove home.  I never told a soul. Why? Because foresters don’t get lost!

A commercial “survival kit” would not have helped me. It’s what I had in my pockets that saved the day! A positive mental attitude (PMA)—knowing you’ll survive—beats any commercial box filled with clever stuff. That highway 101 was within reach was the fuel that kept me going. Without this belief, the most complete survival kit would have been useless. Indeed, in a real emergency, a kit (box or bag) may be left behind or lost in a canoe capsize. More than likely, you’ll have to rely on just “what’s in your pockets”.

Commercial survival kits commonly contain these items: waterproof matches and fire-starters, a single-edged razor blade or cheap knife, a near worthless miniature compass, a lightweight space blanket, fish-hooks, fish line, aluminum foil, signal mirror, whistle, sewing needle and thread, band-aids. Maybe energy bars and salt. And of course, an “instruction manual”.

Contrast this with what wilderness  paddlers should always have on their person:
·      Waterproof matches and/or a waterproof butane cigarette lighter (I carry two butane lighters).
·      Sturdy knife—fixed or folding blade (in a sturdy sheath or on a lanyard)
·      A seriously good compass, preferably with a mirror (for signaling)
·      A paper map—or at least a mental map of the area
·      Large colorful cowboy bandana
·      Insect head-net (if tripping in the north country) and bug dope
·      whistle

Assume you're solo canoeing a remote northern river where help is days away. Here’s what I would carry. All will fit into a small fanny pack that buckles around the waist:

In Your Fanny Pack:

·      SPOT satellite messenger. Extra batteries. All sealed in a Loksak® waterproof plastic bag.
·      A few heat-tabs (fire starters)
·      Disposable butane lighter—sealed in plastic wrap (this is in addition to the lighter(s) in your pocket)
·      50 feet of 1/16” inch diameter nylon cord, cut into 10 foot lengths. 
·      Two Band-Aids
·       3 feet of duct tape or Gorilla tape wound around a pencil stub.
·      Two sheets of paper torn from a small waterproof notebook.
·      Two fish-hooks and one jig. 50 feet of high-test fishing line.
·      2 ultra-compact space blankets (each, about the size of a pack of cigarettes)
·      Small roll of bright orange or yellow plastic surveying tape.
·      Small stainless steel or titanium cup—a Sierra cup is ideal.
·      Some bouillon cubes in a Loksak® waterproof bag.
·      Optional: small coil of snare wire
·      One or two energy bars if space permits.

On Your Body:
Knife, matches/lighter, compass, multi-tool, head-net, bug-dope, bandana, whistle

Add the above items (which should be on your belt or in your pockets)” and you’re good to go. Note that I prefer the SPOT over the DeLorme inReach for use in a survival kit. Why? Because SPOT is lighter, more compact and less expensive to buy and operate. If the weather permits a good fix, it will bring rescuers fast. Use the surveying tape to create a trail rescuers can follow if you wander. Boil water and prepare bullion soup, spruce or fireweed tea in your metal cup. Fish you catch can be hung from a tripod over the fire, grilled over green sticks or boiled in your cup. The space blankets can be taped together and rigged to provide shelter.  An insect head-net can be used to catch crawdads and minnows.

If you’ve ever been lost or, as Daniel Boone once said, “I was never lost, just confused once for three days!” I’d love to hear your views on survival stuff.

Cliff Jacobson