Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Seven take-aways from Cliff Jacobson

I remember meeting Cliff way back when… He was an integral piece of the puzzle we used to call Sunsplash.  That was a weekend event that Piragis Northwoods Company conceived to get in touch with our customers, to get gear into their hands and give them three days to test paddle canoes and kayaks… all for free.  It was a weekend full of customer service and customer connections.  It was fun, it was informative, it was special.  One of the highlights of the weekend were the many mini-seminars that Cliff put together. In the darkness lit only by the slide show or overhead projector he seamlessly spun tales that wove the magic of ingenuity and invention together with the practical.

That hands-on stuff that unfolded like the newness of a butterfly’s first wings outside… into knowledge and application, that was the true magic.  Inevitably, it would be, or much of the weekend would be, storm blown with winds, rain and yes, in early May or even late May, snow.  We always had one bright sunny portion of the weekend, and that was reserved for when we were packing up everything and the show was over.  So… into the rain we’d go and gather round while Cliff showed us HOW TO “Light a one match fire in the rain.”  And from the rain soaked wood, the flames would shine forth, reflecting on our awed faces that peeked out from rain soaked hoods even as the rain pounded down on our heads and we smelled the sweet fragrance of North woods smoke.

The key to this exercise and so many others is the thought and preparation that goes into application of the skill.  Keep some dry tinder, keep some dry wood set apart, make some shavings, have a sharp knife or belt hatchet at the ready.  Think about the next steps, where’s the rest of your wood at, what size is it, are you ready for the hungry flames or are you instead prepared only to starve them through your lack of preparation.  What does the forest provide that lights a fire better than liquid fuel?  Birchbark.  Do you have some?  Can you get more?  Are you prepared for the next step?  Do you have firewood at the ready?  Did you bring a good saw that will minimize your energy output?

I’ve seen a lot of campers over the years take brand new gear still in the packaging off into the wilderness.  Now, don’t get me wrong, we sell great stuff here at Piragis and we field test it to make sure it will stand up to the rigors of the Boundary Waters, but if you’re going to use it, you should at least familiarize yourself with it before you hit the trail.  Cliff taught us all that knowing your gear is key to knowing how it can meet your needs in the wild.

For example, your knife needs to be sharp, but it also need to be strong.  Ideally it needs to be tough enough to handle some abuse.  The woods are tough, fallen branches have knots, the ground is full of rocks, in fact, most of the ground out there is rock with a little dirt on top.  You want a knife that can slice through tomatoes and fillet fish if necessary, but you need to have a blade that will survive tough knots of an old cedar branch or a beaver chew and that won’t snap if it slides off your cutting board and hits the granite hard.  If the spine of the blade is thick enough and strong enough you can use another piece of wood to hit your blade and split wood if you need to.  If it is not, you’ll bend your blade and probably hurt yourself in the process.  You need a headlamp that is bright, but also adjustable and adaptable to read with a red light in the tent or outside if your trying to read a map in the dark.  Your rain gear has to maintain your dryness and keep you from getting hypothermia but… it also has to breathe.  You know where the end of the road leads!

You’ve got extra pockets on packs or thwart bags to hold things like a super lightweight wind shirt.  Along with snacks and a camera and compass and your map and an extra pair of reading glasses (if you need them) it should be close and easy to get at.  The weather on the lake when paddling can turn 180 degrees in an instant and if you’ve built up a good sweat, that wind shirt could save your bacon.

I said “seven” takeaways just to get your attention.  I could have said, “twenty-five points” or “50 secrets from a wilderness guide” — all would fit Cliff and there would be no shortage of tips and tricks.  He’s got them, I know, and each one of them is unique and useful.  The point I’m making is that Cliff’s advice is good advice.  It is trustworthy because before he passes it on to you and me, he formulates it, works on it, tries it out, tweaks it and most importantly, Cliff decides if the application of the practical lives up to the magic of invention. Or the other way around.

Good teachers like Cliff make you think.  They inspire you to customize and tweak your own gear.  They demand that you don’t settle for mediocre.  Perhaps most importantly, they show you how much fun it is to get outdoors and learn from your own mistakes.

I remember watching cereal commercials as a kid and begging my Mom to get me a box of the latest greatest sugar coated wonder flavor back when there were prizes inside the boxes.  My Mom was a health-food guru for much of my youth and these pleas usually met with a firm “no.”  Once though, I remember, she got us a box of something new.  The marshmallows were hard little rocks and the whole spoonful tasted like cough medicine.  The kids on the commercial must have strange taste buds… they were not to be trusted in the future.

There was a prize in the box.  Not one I could touch, though I dumped the whole box out looking for one in the end.  The prize was a lesson.  A lesson that Cliff Jacobson would remind me of years later.  Trust plays a huge part in advertising, marketing and most of all advice taken.  Trust is earned through example and application.

#7 = Cliff has proven himself trustworthy.  Thanks Cliff for your reviews and input, without you we might find ourselves up a creek without a paddle. Or at least without a decent paddle.  Thanks for taking the time and having the inspiration to discover what works, what works better and what doesn’t make sense.

Thank you to our customers at Piragis Northwoods Company and the Boundary Waters Catalog.  Our goal is to provide you with quality lightweight gear that will make a difference in the wilderness.  As we continue to meet this goal for paddlers and campers we enjoy making new friends and we look forward to seeing you all around the bend!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

BLOG 72. Most Waterproof Lightweight Rain Coat I've Used

Reliable rain gear ranks high on my “most important item” list. When I first began to paddle wild Canadian rivers, I relied on a heavy bright yellow foul-weather rain suit, like those worn by sailors and fishermen.  Later, I switched to lighter weight Gore-tex, often wearing two ultralight jackets, one over the other with my PFD sandwiched inbetween. But I’ve long been on the prowl for a lightweight rain coat that works as well as my old yellow rain suit—one that keeps out water no matter how hard and how long it rains, and doesn’t become a sauna  when I’m working hard.

I recently field-tested a Bergans Super Lett Raincoat. I was quite impressed. It is very light, reasonably quiet (not too crinkly) and in more than four days of near continuous, hypothermic quality rain, it didn’t leak a drop. This is the first lightweight rain coat I’ve used that is absolutely waterproof in sustained rain over the long haul.
Rainy days make me smile--that is, as long as I'm dry!
The jacket is constructed from three bonded layers of fabrics: polyester, nylon and polyurethane. The inner layer, called Dermizax®, is similar in function to Gore-tex (repels water, eliminates perspiration) but there are no pores that can clog with oil or dirt. The manufacturer defines Dermizax® as a “hydrophilic, non-porous membrane—i.e., a water loving film with no holes in it.  It breathes by absorbing vapor molecules on one side and releasing them on the other side. The claimed advantage is that during high activity, it can reduce condensation on the inside of the garment. When sweat is transported away from your body, it reaches the cold surface of the outer-shell. If the sweat-vapor condenses to water before it gets there, it will stay on the inside and make you wet. At least, that’s the theory.

 The hang-tag reads:
·      Waterproofness and moisture permeability even in extreme cold.
·      Superb moisture permeability for comfort even in warm weather.
·      Minimizes condensation on the fabric’s inner layer, preventing rapid heat loss.
·      Superior flexibility for improved freedom of motion.
·      Durable fabric which stands up to wear from frequent use of backpacks.
Kopka River, Ontario. Near flood water and constant rain. June 2014
It rained 4.5 of the 7 days on a recent (June 13-21) Kopka River canoe trip in northern Ontario. Not normal rain, mind you, but icy, hypothermic rain that continued through the nights.  Day temperatures were in the 40’s and 50’s; night temps in the 30’s. My seven friends all wore Gore-tex rain coats—different brands and weights. By the end of the first day, they were all were wet. I was completely dry in my Super Lett jacket. Really! This scenario was repeated daily.  They were wet; I was dry. I’ve never used a lightweight rain coat that worked so well.  My wife Susie and I have about a dozen different lightweight rain shells—most of them Gore-tex, but all will leak if it rains hard enough and long enough. Even more impressive is that I wasn’t just sitting around on this trip: I was constantly paddling and portaging and sloshing through wet vegetation. No rain touched my skin. It was quite remarkable. To be honest, I still can’t believe it.
Rain...nearly every day!
Time will tell how this Dermizax® jacket will hold up over the long haul. And, I’ll need some warm summer rains coupled with tough portages to see how well it dissipates sweat. Look for a long term review next year.  

And now the bad news. Retail price on this jacket is around $300—a function of the high cost of everything in Norway.  Still, if you’re going in harm’s way and can expect long, icy rains, this jacket is worth the price.  But for warm summer Boundary Waters trips, there are many less expensive jackets which are adequate.  

Cliff Jacobson


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-tex sock 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 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


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

BWCA Trip [the year of the frogs] by Renee

A young repeat-tripper's journal:

Chapter 1: The Drive to Ely

I was really excited for this year's trip, because for the first time it was just going to be Mom and me.  When we were planning the trip we picked out a special island campsite in Lake One we wanted to try. It was also going to be interesting because there had just been a big fire by that campsite. It started on Pagami creek. We planned on paddling to see where the fire had started.

Our drive was just like every other year. We got an early start and stopped at Tobies, it is our drive to Ely tradition. I usually fall asleep after Tobies, but this year I stayed awake and talked to Mom.  When we were driving through Cloquet we saw Gordy's High Hat Diner. We recognized the diner because it was on the food network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. We need to remember that place for my brother Paul; he really loves that show. The drive wasn't bad; we got to Ely in time for lunch.

After lunch we went to Piragis to pay for our canoe, lifejackets, paddles and of course to see Drew. Drew had set-up a room for Mom and me at Canoe On Inn. After we checked into our room, Mom and I got some time to paint our nails for the wilderness. It's another Boundary Waters tradition. I even heard that painting your nails protects the skin underneath from the sun's rays. We are two of the three “girls in the mist”.  The "girls" always paint their nails fun colors.

Chapter 2: Put in Lake 1
We got up early to begin our adventure. Our tradition is to go to Brittons. This year we wanted to get an earlier start, because we were after that island campsite, so we broke our tradition. We tried Subway instead. It was good, it was satisfying, and it was fast.  We got our sandwiches and we were on our way to Lake One.

When we got to Lake One, Mom and I found out that taking the gear off the car was hard with just the two of us.  As we were putting into the water we saw some ladies taking pictures and we asked them to take a picture of us. 

It was a perfect day to paddle: no wind, sunny, warm and calm. Even Paul would probably enjoy it. He doesn't like rough water. We tried to find the island campsite. We talked to two canoeists who had just left it. They told us that they had left firewood stacked there. I was excited, my campsite was open and I wouldn't have to collect wood!  As we were looking for the site everyone we passed gave us different directions: "Go this way", "Go that way", "It's just over there". I felt tired, frustrated, and confused all at once. I wanted to get to a campsite soon! Then suddenly we saw our campsite from last year. We decided to go there instead of to the island one. I felt relieved because I was finally at a campsite. I also felt disappointed because I wasn't on an island and I had to get firewood. Then I saw utility rock [the big rock where we kept our utilities last year] and I felt content. 

Chapter 3: The Creatures
Because we have to, we set up camp. The camp hardly changed except that there were many more trees that blocked the paths to the peninsula. Even the latrine had a tree that blocked the short path. We set up our tent in the exact same place as before and we gathered firewood. 

After all that work, I went to the water's edge and found a little pond-like area with a couple of rocks protecting it from wind and stuff.  I found a little frog. When I tried to grab him, it was hard because he was slippery and kept squirming out of my hand.  After catching him a few times, the frog got used to me and he would sit in my hand for a while until I let him go. He probably liked my warm hand. I sure liked him. There was another frog that swam in the pond, and I played with him, too. I spent a lot of time playing with the frogs, because I really like animals. 

Speaking of paddling, the next day we found the island campsite that we had been looking for.  Wouldn't you know it, it was empty and the wood was there!!! We screamed, “NOOOO!” My mom marked the island in her GPS so that we have a chance to go back some other year. 

The canoe parking lot was really nice and sandy. We pulled right in nice and smooth. There were a ton of things to see on the island. We had lunch there and walked all around. The campsite had a lot of chipmunks and they were after our lunches. Some of them were fearless, almost sitting on our laps! With difficulty we managed to eat our lunches with out any of it getting stolen. The next day, we found two more campsites that looked good. We decided it was fun checking out new, cool campsites. 

Chapter 4: Other Times and Challenges in the BWCA
Each day was perfect. Sunny and calm and hardly any wind. The water was so calm it was like glass. The windiest day was probably 5mph the day we came out. Everyday was really fun but still had its challenges.  After we left the island campsite, we started paddling into Pagami Creek. Two ladies told us they had paddled through and it was fun. But when we tried, we got stuck in a lily pad forest. No matter how hard we paddled, we couldn't pass the pads. Either the ladies lied, or we took the wrong direction, or maybe we're weak! Either way, we turned around and head for our camp. 

The other challenge, which I hinted at earlier, was “Mr. Roots.” Mr. Roots is a humungous tree trunk with roots coming out the bottom. Mom and I had to climb over him and other trees to get out to the peninsula at our campsite.  All the climbing was worth it, because the peninsula has the best view of the lake.

My mom also had challenges setting up and keeping the fire going. Poor Mom. : (  But she tried really really hard.  I think next time she'll be able to do it.  Luckily she brought a camp stove so we had hot chilly dogs without a problem.

Chapter 5: Back to Ely
The paddle back to the car was easy since there was such little wind, and my mom remembered a short cut that Ms. Greger had shown her the year before. Then we had to put everything in and on the car. That was hard. Especially the canoe!  Part of it is because I'm still young and don't have my full grown-up strength yet, and because we're both so short. We had a hard time lifting the canoe over our heads. Again, Mom remembered another way to do it that Ms. Greger had shown her.  So, even though Ms. Greger wasn't there this year with us, she still helped us.  

On the way back to Ely, all we could think about was our hot showers and Dairy Queen. Because for three nights, all we had to clean ourselves with was warm water from a pan and some wipes.  First we headed back to Canoe On Inn and took LONG showers. After taking a shower, it felt like I was a new person. Next we ate at the Dairy Queen. Then we went to Piragis to tell Drew about our trip. Mom took a picture of me with Drew, another one of our trip traditions.