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”.


Monday, August 4, 2014

BLOG 73. How to Get a Good Deal on a Good Used Canoe

Cliff Jacobson
Canoes depreciate about ten percent when they leave the store, another ten percent when they get their first scratch.  The downward spiral continues as dings pile up.  Age of the craft means nothing.  Condition is everything!

In time, even the best kept canoe will incur some nicks that will drive its value down.  You’ll save big if you buy a good used canoe and let someone else take the initial hits.  Be aware that here’s an inverse relationship between high performance (paddling pleasure!) and durability.  Lightweight, fine-lined Kevlar composite canoes are more easily damaged than Royalex or polyethylene craft.  But they are easier to repair.  Indeed, a badly damaged composite canoe can—in a few hours--usually be repaired to cosmetic new. Royalex and aluminum canoes mend solid but the patch is a glaring reminder of the rock you hit.  A badly damaged polyethylene canoe is best destroyed.  You’ll find detailed repair procedures for all types of canoes in my book, EXPEDITION CANOEING (A completely revised, full-color, 20th Anniversary edition will be released in April 2015).

The best canoes are not advertised in newspapers.  They’re sold by word-of-mouth and listed in canoe club publications, and on canoeing web-sites. Is it safe to buy a used canoe on the strength of an ad? Usually, yes. Selling a good canoe is like parting with a vintage Porsche that you’ve driven for years.  Accomplished paddlers love their boats, even those they are about to part with. With rare exceptions, they’ll tell you the truth.
Suppose you buy a canoe in Minnesota, and live in Pennsylvania.  Isn’t it frightfully expensive to ship a canoe from Viking land to the Keystone state?
Yes and no. Some small transfer companies will carry canoes on a “space available” basis.  But to keep the cost down, you must be willing to accept delivery at a place that’s convenient to the trucker.  I’ve had two canoes shipped to me by truck: in each case the charge was under 150 dollars. I once bought a canoe in Maine and had it shipped to my Minnesota home by rail. Transit time was 27 days and the shipping cost was 75 dollars. 

Option #2 : Contact your local canoe dealer and ask if any of his suppliers also deliver canoes to the state where your used canoe is located.  Companies that have their own delivery trucks may drop ten canoes in Harrisburg, PA, fifteen in Chicago, twelve in Madison, Wisconsin, then finish out in Minneapolis.  It’s unprofitable to dead-head back to the factory so they often haul a competitor’s boats to retailers which are en-route to their point of origin.  If there’s space on their trailer--and they’re going your way--you may be able to work a deal. 

Option 3. Buy a used BWCA rental canoe from Piragis Northwoods Company, in Ely, MN, then sit tight. Piragis has a unique plan that pays fellow paddlers (who are going your way) to deliver your canoe.  Call the store for availability and pricing.
A good, used canoe is the smart way to go if you’re on a budget. Thirteen hundred dollars will buy an exquisite Kevlar cruiser that will turn heads. Six hundred is a fair price for well-maintained Royalex, $400 for polyethylene. Add $100-$200 for wood trim. If these prices seem high, consider that someone else has absorbed all the depreciation.  Do a little fix up work and five years down the road you may be able to sell your canoe for more than you paid for it! 


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 water-logged 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