Monday, October 20, 2014

BLOG 77. How to Make a Tumpline For Your Canoe


Canadians love tumplines. Americans generally consider them torture devices. I just love ‘em! And I wouldn’t own a pack without one. The tump snugs my pack tight against my back and keeps it there—a plus on the level and when ascending hills (it doesn’t work on downhill slopes—the opposite of a hip belt). It takes the weight off my shoulders and transfers it to the strong muscles of my neck. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t stress my neck or hurt at all. I submit that those who badmouth tumplines either haven’t tried them, or they haven’t adjusted them correctly. You can’t just put on a tumpline and go. The strap must be adjusted exactly right for YOU.  Every “body” is different and what works for one won’t work for another. Increasing or decreasing the length of the tump strap by as little as half an inch can make a BIG difference in comfort.  And so does where you place the strap—it goes about two inches above your forehead, not on it. It should not jerk your head back. The “pull” is directly down from the top of your head through your neck.  When I was guiding trips in northern Canada, I always took time at the first portage to show everyone how to fit a tumpline. This paid rich dividends over the long haul. I observed that nine out of ten people who tried the tumpline—and learned to use it right—refused to carry a pack without one.  But some people are like the eighth graders I used to teach: if they don’t get it instantly, it’s not worth learning!

On a similar note, I should add that people in underdeveloped countries have, for thousands of years, carried heavy loads on their heads or in packs supported by tumplines.  The Sherpa’s rely on tumplines exclusively—and these guys portage heavy gear up mountains for a living.  Back in the 60’s, a major pack company gave several high volume mountaineering packs to some Himalayan porters. The porters cut off the shoulder straps and installed tumplines. And of course, African women often carry loads on their heads that weigh nearly as much as them! Need I say more?

What works on packs, works on canoes too. The tumpline described here can be adjusted to reduce the weight on your shoulders from zero to 100 percent.  A 50 percent weight reduction is a comfortable way to go. Unlike rigid leather straps, my trampoline-style tumpline won’t strangle you if you step into a hole. It stays on the boat but it can be removed with one hand in seconds. Here’s how to make one:
Trampoline style tumpline. To remove the tump, reach across your body with one hand and disconnect the front strap (S-hook) and peel the canvas back. That's all there is to it!
You’ll need a rectangular piece of canvas, two rubber truck straps and four steel S-hooks.  Snake the straps through wide sleeves sewn in the head piece, and snap them to holes--or loops of parachute cord strung through holes--in the gunnels, shown in the photos below.  Head piece dimensions aren’t critical: mine measures 12” x 18”.

Shortening the loops of chute cord tightens the rubber straps and transfers weight from your shoulders to your head; lengthening the cords does the opposite.  I adjust the rig to carry about 60 percent of the weight on my head.
If you tire of the tumpline while portaging, just reach overhead and unhook it--and bear all the weight on your “Minnesota” yoke.  You’ll have to set down the canoe to hook up the tumpline again. 
In recent years, tumplines have come under fire, largely by Americans who don’t know how to use them and won’t take time to learn.   However, “head carries” are the rule in third world countries, though shoulder straps and hip belts were here before Rome.  Efficiency is the mother of tradition, as any tump-toting Sherpa will attest.  Try a tumpline on your canoe and see if you don’t agree that things go easier  when you use your head.  


Friday, September 26, 2014

BLOG 76. The Real Dangers of Wilderness Travel Aren't What You think!

BLOG 76. The Real Dangers of Wilderness Canoe Travel Aren’t What You Think!
Cliff Jacobson
Karl Ketter, of the famous "Ketter Canoeing" family once said that the useful life of  a canoe trailer is 7 years. The tongue on this one broke while driving 60 mph on the road to LaRonge, Saskatchewan.  The trailer was 10 years old. 
In 1974, I made my first big river trip in Canada. Five friends and I canoed 200 miles down a network of connecting rivers—Groundhog, Mattagami, Moose—to James Bay, Ontario. It rained every day for 10 days; the river was flooded, the bugs were bad, the rapids were long and difficult and the scenery was unimpressive. One of our canoes (that was not tied up) floated away and went over a 10 meter falls. It was damaged but fortunately, it was field-repairable. There were two capsizes, but they weren’t serious. I awoke every morning fearful that some new death-defying event would emerge that day.  But in retrospect, our problems were due more to our inexperience than to real dangers that lurked around the bend.

Flash forward to 1984 and my first Arctic canoe trip (the Hood). I prepared by reading every canoe book in print, not once, but many times.  I envisioned miles of huge, pounding rapids (there were!), giant lakes with ice cold water, charging grizzly bears, hoof-stomping muskoxen and storms that would shred my tent. I had heard that in the days of aluminum canoes, there was about a five percent death by drowning rate on the barren lands rivers. I didn’t want to add to the statistics! The good news is that we would use Royalex canoes which should provide an edge in rapids. Still, fear of the unknown was always there—so much so, that I considered taking out an extra life insurance policy in the event that my worst fears were realized.
Mouth of the North Knife River, at James Bay, Ontario. We were sitting on top of a decrepit goose hunting shack when we photographed this bear.
Fact is, just about everyone who probes the unknown has some fear (at least at the start) that their skills won’t meet the challenge. “Fear”—call it mild trepidation—is nature’s way of getting one to slow down and think clearly. Mild fear heightens your senses, keeps you focused, keeps you alive!  I’ve seen signs at the head of rapids along some U.S. rivers that remind people to urinate in the water, not on land. Whitewater paddlers jokingly rate the rapids by the number of urination stops: A one pee rapid rates about high Class II, a two pee rapid rates III-IV. Fear decreases with experience and proficiency. As paddle skills and judgment increase, dangers decrease, ultimately they just become a problem to be solved. It’s similar to learning to drive: Whizzing along at 70 mph is scary at first, but the threat goes away as you become a better driver.

Many of my non-canoeing friends think I’m nuts when I tell them I’m going to canoe hundreds of miles down a remote Canadian river where help is an airplane ride away.  They think I will drown in a rapid or get eaten by bear. When I said I planned to canoe the Rio Grande River—and sometimes camp on the Mexican side—they were sure that drug-crazed bandito’s would do me in. And when I announced my plan to canoe 130 miles across the Everglades, I was warned about man-eating alligators and pythons. They were sure I’d get eaten by a snake! 
A campsite along the Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan. It was 9 am when this big boy strolled into camp!
Truth is, what folks who don’t canoe in wild places generally perceive as  “dangers”, aren’t. Drowning in a rapid is unlikely, being killed by a wild animal is even less likely. Sure, it can happen, but it’s so uncommon that it would likely headline the national news. This, when thousands of people die each day while driving cars and barely receive token mention in the press. In all my years of canoeing, the closest my wife Susie and I have come to dying on a canoe trip was: 1) when a float plane nearly ran us down while taking off on the Bloodvein River, Manitoba. He was going too fast to shut down and too low and slow to clear our canoe. He dove for the weeds and a pontoon missed our heads by a yard. (2) We were snugged against a high bank along the Thlewiaza River, in Nunavut, Canada. There were thousands of caribou on the bank above us. The alpha male was strutting back and forth looking for a place to cross the river. He didn’t see us below him when he jumped into the water. His hooves missed Susie’s head by about a foot!
The closest I've come to dying on a canoe trip was when my wife, Susie and I were nearly run over by a float plane along the Bloodvein River, Manitoba. Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring.
Here are the most common dangers you are likely to encounter:
1) A bad storm that threatens to shred your tent or flood your camp. 
2) Falling and getting hurt while portaging—I once broke my wrist and sprained an ankle.
3) Making a long, open-water crossing on a big, cold lake where a capsize will probably be fatal.
4)    Capsizing in a rapid and losing or damaging a canoe or gear.
5)    Swamping—and wrapping--a canoe while lining it down a rapid.
6)    Canoeing in an area where a forest fire rages all around.
7)    Getting lost in a remote area where help is an airplane ride away.
8)    Running out of food on a long trip.
Forest fire along the Seal River, Manitoba. This photo was taken shortly after we landed
The bottom line: DO expect to experience some mild fear when you first venture into the unknown. It’s a healthy feeling, one that will help grow your judgment skills. Your fear will dissipate with each new trip you make, and after awhile you’ll be as comfortable and confident “out there” as you are at home.  

Cliff Jacobson

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two New Campsites on Lake One

The Forest Service has completed something that has been in the works for a while according to our Outfitting Manager, Drew Brockett.  They've added a couple of Boundary Waters Campsites.  Now at the Lake One Entry point, there's easy access when you paddle to your left, to the two new campsites.

The Lake One Area Map below shows the new campsites.  They have been circled. One is in the SW corner of Section 15, while the second one is just above the center of Section 22 near the rapids.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

BLOG 75. Four Things Worth Bringing on a Canoe Trip

 (EXPED or NEMO sleeping pad cover; NEMO Bugout tarp, Woolrich Bering wool shirt,
Fire Dragon)
Exped slip cover
Air-foam sleeping pads all have one thing in common--the plastic fabric that covers them is not breathable. If you sleep bare skin against the pad (and use your sleeping bag as a blanket), sweat will pool against your back. Lying on a breathable surface is much more comfortable.
NEMO Jersey sleeping pad cover
A porous pad cover will absorb insensible perspiration while you sleep, resist tears and punctures, and keep your pad from slipping on the slick tent floor. At home, it’s easier to wash the cover than the pad. Make your pad cover from a cotton or polyester sheet, or for decadent luxury, merino wool or light fleece. Or, if you have an EXPED or NEMO foam pad, you can buy a fitted cover from them.

Exped’s cover is waterproof on the bottom and porous ripstop polyester on top. It is very light, compact and comfortable. Two-way zippers provide access to the mat valves. Nemo offers two different covers—one made from luxurious  polyester microsuede (“Pillowtop”) and one made from ultralight, stretchy, jersey polyester. The ultralight jersey fabric is the clear choice when ounces count. It’s very light and it looks cool. But for decadent luxury, the “Pillowtop” rules. 


NEMO Bugout tarp--pitched as recommended
NEMO Bugout tarp: Lean-to pitch (to defy wind)
This new bug tarp from NEMO is very well made. Stitching and details are first rate. Here are the most important features:
1.  It sets up fast using lines off two opposing corners. Tie ‘em to a tree or use two poles.
2. The black-colored netting is cause for applause. In the early part of this century, Horace Kephart rallied for black netting, emphasizing that it’s the only “color” that doesn’t reflect light into your eyes.  Black absorbs the light and you see clearly through the netting. The tight-mesh noseeum-proof netting used on this tarp cuts visibility and air flow. But, it’s the right choice for a bug tent that may be used where tiny noseeums’s are common (south coast/Florida Everglades, etc.). 
3. The tarp is large enough to rig a hammock inside the tarp. A zipper allows rigging cords to pass through.
4. The tent comes complete with cords, stakes and even a repair patch.
5 The center roof is well reinforced for use with a pole. The pole patch is heavy-duty and has a loop to which you can attach a cord to secure the pole in high winds. This set-up works but it’s not as elegant as the butterfly arrangement, described in my book, “Camping’s Top Secrets”, or the double-loop used by Cooke Custom Sewing.
1. The roof is heavier than it needs to be: silicon-coated nylon would be lighter, more compact and absorb less water.
2. The tent bag is too small.  When this baby gets wet, you’ll need a gorilla to stuff it inside.
3. There should be a zipper at each of the four corners. In high winds you may want to pitch this shelter with one side staked to the ground, leanto fashion. A “leanto” pitch will eliminate one entry.
4. Zippers are the first thing to fail over the long haul and the smaller they are the faster they fail. I’ve never had long term good luck with zippers as small as the ones used on this tent.  
5 .The rigging cords are black (reflective). They show up well in shining light but they blend into a shady forest. Better to use something brighter that can be seen in dim light. Yellow glow-in-the-dark cord is my favorite.
6. The six-inch long “U pound ‘em” aluminum tent stakes that are supplied with this tent are very high quality but you’ll need a hammer or rock to pound them in. Aluminum pins which can be pushed in by hand on most types of ground would be a better choice.   
7. The green color of this tarp is soothing and beckoning. I love the color! The tent is very pleasant to be inside.
8. This 9’x9’ model supposedly fits four people. It easily accommodates six. It’s rare when a manufacturer underestimates crew size.

Bottom line? Darn nice bug shelter. Goes up fast and easy, lots of space. Can be pitched in a variety of ways.  Acceptably compact, high quality materials, reasonably priced.

Trail weight……..4.75 pounds
Floor size……108 x 108 inches
Floor Area…..81 square feet.
Number of doors………2
Fly fabric……Polyester Ripstop
Canopy fabric….Polyester Ripstop
Interior Height…….6 feet

In more than 40 years of canoeing and camping, I’ve never wavered from my love of wool. Except for wind and rain gear, long pants and sun hat, the clothes I wear on my canoe trips—even in the heat of July—are wool. My last longsleeve wool shirt wore out two years ago and I’ve been looking for a reasonably priced replacement ever since. I don’t like wool blends because the synthetic threads (which add shape and durability) allow rain to wick through. A pure wool shirt will ward off a shower for some time without soaking through.

Recently, I discovered the Bering shirt from Woolrich. It’s pure wool—there are no synthetic threads to wick water in rain—and it’s just the right weight for field wear. The fit is generous and the shirt looks and feels good.  I wore it every day on a rainy June, 2014  Kopka River (Ontario) canoe trip—and I was never wet or cold. Wool shirts have largely disappeared from the camping scene—there wasn’t a single one for sale at Canoecopia this year. Thank you, Woolrich, for sharing my belief that “wool works best”.

Home made "fire blower" (from "Camping's Top Secrets" by Cliff Jacobson
Fire Dragon
When I was a boy scout in the 1950’s, I built a home made “fire blower”. It was just a short copper tube with a length of rubber tubing attached. To get a stubborn fire going, I just blew into the rubber tube. The forced air created a bright blaze. It provided an edge when the air was still (no draft) and the wood was damp. This illustration from my book “Camping’s Top Secrets” shows how to make one. You can use copper or aluminum tubing or the barrel from an old metal ballpoint pen. If you don’t want to make your own fire-blower, there’s the “Fire Dragon”, available from Piragis Northwoods Compay. Its large wooden mouthpiece provides more air and therefore, more power than the homemade one I used as a kid.  It’s not a “must” product, but it sure is a fun one. Onlookers will be mightily impressed when a single dragon breath turns glowing coals into fire!


Thursday, August 21, 2014

BLOG 74. Canoeing the BWCA with Steve Johnson and Cliff Jacobson

BLOG 74. Canoeing the BWCA with Steve Johnson and Cliff Jacobson
Cliff Jacobson
Steve Johnson (blue T shirt, front); Cliff: blue T shirt, baggy pants
In 2009, after three decades of outfitting and guiding canoe trips in northern Canada, I threw in the towel, had a huge garage sale and sold off most of my tripping gear. My plan was to start a “new life” of just “canoeing and camping with friends. I’d seen my share of grizzlies and polar bears, musk ox and caribou, wolves, whales, wolverines and seals.  I was 69 and figured it was time to climb a new mountain.
Cliff prepares supper
Steve teaches 13 year old Jordan how to fillet fish
So when Steve Piragis asked if I would lead a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters for him, I said “no”! Then, he baited me with: “What if Steve Johnson guides the trip and you go along for laughs?” I perked right up when he said “Johnson”—for Steve Johnson is Piragis’s top guide. Years earlier he joined me and a Piragis crew on a trip down the Steel River in Ontario. It was unique because there were real rapids and we all paddled solo canoes. I’d done the Steel several times beforet, but now, with Steve along, it would be much easier. Two guides to share the work of one—how wonderful! During that trip I grew to really like and respect Steve and hoped our paddles would cross again on future trips. Johnson is a bull in the woods: he will carry a canoe and the heaviest pack with seemingly no effort at all. He can make a one match fire in the rain; catch lunker fish while others keep casting, and do it all with a great big smile. I’ve known a lot of guides over the years, but I think Johnson is the best.
Pictographs along the U.S. Canadian border
To date, I’ve done five canoe trips with Steve—one on Ontario’s Steel River, and four in the Boundary Waters. Each year, we do a different route in the BWCA. Most recently (our August 9-15, 2014), we began at Moose Lake (with a motor tow to Sucker Lake—thank goodness!) then paddled northeast along the American side of the border to the South arm of Knife Lake. For a different view coming back, we canoed the Canadian side of the border. There were four days of leisurely but determined paddling and relatively easy portages, and one layover day on a picturesque campsite. There were no bugs (not one!) and near constant sun all week. It rained heavily one night but courteously stopped just before dawn. I never took my rain gear out of my pack!
Cliff with CCS tarp, rigged for rain
Steve and I each hang a GPS from the stern thwart of our canoe.  Mine records the route and campsites. Steve’s, I think, notes EVERYTHING, including the position of every school of edible-size fish and dry sticks of wood. Soon as we’re camped, Johnson mysteriously disappears for an hour or so. When he returns, his canoe is filled with fish and tinder dry wood. Fried fish and blazing fires are always part of the daily routine.
Cliff, enjoying the view
At my age (I turn 74 next month), I no longer relish the heavy work of hauling back-killing packs and heavy canoes (fortunately, the Piragis boats are very light!). I can still carry reasonable loads, but my days of slogging 80 pounds on a tumpline are gone.  Fortunately, there’s Johnson! He humps the heavy stuff, fuels fires, fries fish and pontificates on nature. I make gourmet meals, model wilderness skills—rig rain tarps, demystify GPS navigation, teach knots, tell stories and smile a lot.   
Have it your way is the rule on our trips. This participant preferred his hammock to a tent
Steve and I consider our trip together “special”.  Accordingly, we provide the finest food and treats for our crew. There are fresh vegetables from Johnson’s garden, my own scratch-made Italian spaghetti with dried hamburger (tastes just like fresh!), fresh garlic, olives, celery, basil and oregano and two kinds of mushrooms; a popular hamburger/raman/shittake mushroom vegetable stew, and my signature dish-- steam-fried pizza with fresh onions, garlic, pepperoni, zucchini and fresh mozzarella. And when the campfire and stars shine brightly, I pop Orville’s finest corn with organic butter and sea salt—and there’s not a burned kernel in the lot!
One of many picturesque campsites
If you want to learn a lot and have fun a lot, join us on a future Johnson-Jacobson canoe trip.  It happens just once a year, in August. 

The equipment Piragis provides is the finest obtainable.  And it’s all spanking new (each year, Piragis replaces used gear with new). Canoes are ultralight Kevlar We-no-nahs and Bells; tents are high end NEMO’s and Sierra Designs; paddles are $200 carbon-fiber bent-shafts; tarps are Cooke Custom Sewing, ultralight sil-nylon; CCS and Granite Gear packs have waterproof vinyl-coated liner bags. Everyone gets a comfy pillow, Nalgene liter water bottle and an insulated mug, plus a full size folding chair with backrest so you can sit while eating fish and solving the world’s problems. Participants also get a copy of my book, Boundary Waters Canoe Camping, autographed by Steve and I.  
The tarp goes up every night--rain or shine
When we were sorting out stuff at the end of our trip, Drew Brockett asked how much longer I plan to continue these trips with Steve. “As long as I’m alive and can put one leg in front of the other, “ I replied. “And when I can’t I’ll ride in the middle and you guys can paddle me around”.