Friday, July 27, 2012

BLOG 17. Selective Environmentalism, by Cliff Jacobson

by Cliff Jacobson

At the outset, I should make it clear that I am an environmentalist.  I taught environmental science at a Minnesota Middle School for many years.  I deeply believe that we are stewards of the earth and it’s our job to take care of it and to pass a caring attitude on to the next generation. 
Cliff: Bell Yellowstone Solo canoe.  Along the Frost River, BWCA
This said, I take issue with selective environmentalism. Selective environmentalists mean well but they lack the knowledge and/or experience to make smart decisions.  Here are some examples:

There are, of course, sensitive environments where you shouldn’t make a campfire, and Federal and State authorities have pretty much defined them all.   But properly maintained campfires don’t harm the northern forest environment—the BWCA.  Those that say they do need to have a long talk with a forester.  Gathering fallen wood for campfires does not impact  the northern confierous forest. If anything, it benefits the area by removing dead wood which builds up and compacts the “litter layer” on the forest floor.

There’s also the argument that campfires produce carbon-dioxide that causes global warming.  Evidently, it’s okay to drive 400 miles round trip to the BWCA and burn 340 gallons of gas in your car.  Let’s see now;  40 gallons x  6 lbs/gal =240 pounds of hydrocarbons.  Compare this with the weight of dead, downed wood you’ll burn in your campfire.

The first edition of my book, “Basic Illustrated: Camping” came under fire because the cover photo showed a tent that was pitched close to a lake.  Frankly, I see no problem here unless one urinates into or near the water or throws left-over food or garbage into the lake. The real danger is rising water or a very unlikely “land wind” that could blow the tent into the lake. There are lots of campsites in the BWCA that are close to the water’s edge.  Most campers consider them “treasured spots!”

The solution to pollution is dilution.  One hundred and fifty feet is a long ways.  Where did the feds come up with this obscure number? I can’t believe that a quart of soapy water dumped 50 feet from shore is any more problematic than one dumped another 100 feet away. We’re talking about a very small amount of contaminant here. Fifty feet is reasonable as long as you don’t pour the water down a barren rock that slopes to the water. I once knew a whacko backpacker who swallowed his toothpaste—he said that spitting it out would harm the enviroment.  Evidently, it didn’t register that what went in one end of his body came out the other!
 Federal authorities recommend you wash up 150 feet from water--but that's a very long ways.  Some people may get lost in the woods going that far!
 Show up with an axe on a canoe trip and you can expect some stares.  But axes don’t damage trees; people do! In fact, saws cause most of the damage done to trees in the BWCA these days. The best way to protect the environment is to educate, not legislate—the point is that you should use the axe to split dead, downed logs, not cut living trees!
BWCA campsite.  Littlbug stove (yes, it's legal!) burns hot and saves fuel. Gransfors mini-hatchet
Yeah, and so do campfires and burning gasoline in your car and trail stove.  When you compute the amount of hydrocarbons burned by just one jet plane flying from LA to New York, your campfire is small potatoes.

Well, generally yes, but there are exceptions, most of which depend upon the situation and where your are.  Some examples:
1.    Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan, 1979. I was hoping to get a nice photo of my Old Town canoe set against a spectacular background.  So I set the canoe near the edge of a high falls and was ready to snap the picture when I observed a tiny seedling blocking the T in Old Town.  I snipped it off and took the photo, after which, a man laid into me for cutting that tiny tree.  Later that day, a float plane chugged up to our camp. The pilot said that a survey crew would soon be arriving by helicopter.  If we would cut out a landing spot for the plane—about 150 feet by 150 feet—he’d give us all the porkchops we could eat and beer we could drink. We complied.  And the man who swung the machete the hardest was the one who chided me for cutting that little seedling.
MacFarland River, Saskatchewan.  We had to cut hundreds of trees to clear this portage
2.    The last three miles of the MacFarland River (Saskatchewan) are characterized by impassable falls and rapids. The river is very remote; hardly anyone ever canoes it, hence, portages are not marked or maintained.  The seldom used portage was choked with trees—there was no way to get canoes across. Good thing we had two full-framed saws and two axes: we had to cut over 1000 trees to clear the three mile trail!  Naturally, this practice would be unacceptable in the BWCA.  But this was northern Canada and as remote as it gets. The point is that what is acceptable behavior in one environment is often not acceptable in another. Boundary Waters portages are cleared by federal authorities; Canadian ones are not!  Blanket statements, like “zero tolerance” are always bad ideas!

 3.  Steel River, Ontario: A long dead tree leaned precariously over the best tent spot in camp.  A good wind could send it crashing down on us.  So we cut down that tree and sawed it up for firewood.  
BWCA trail: Cr. Larry Ricker
Park yourself along a mucky Boundary Waters portage at the height of the traffic flow in July, then note how many people take this recommendation seriously.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to wade through a foot of mud if I can sneak along the edge of a trail and stay dry.  Slopping through mud when you can walk around is advice only desk-bound campers take seriously.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Storm Clouds Roll In

Dinner Light Show at Underhill Farm Last Night

Photography can be demanding of time, patience and pure will but last night the clouds lit up and photos appeared between sips of a really pretty darn good cabernet and bites of a really damn good organic roast just off the grill.

Here's what I shot of the clouds from our homestead while Nancy and I sat eating a lovely dinner on our deck.  We were on the northern edge of some severe weather that was passing by us just to the south and changing flashing bold colors and patterns, changing by the second.  Wish you all could have been there.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BLOG 16. What Can You Learn From the BWCA? by Cliff Jacobson

By Cliff Jacobson

You’ve made many successful trips into the Boundary Waters. You’ve never gotten lost—maybe just confused for awhile; you’ve weathered storms, made fire in the rain, never capsized or been threateningly cold.  After each trip, you’ve come home smiling. Now you dream of canoeing a wild river in Canada or Alaska. Does your experience in the Boundary Waters qualify you for a remote northern adventure? Yes and no! Here’s what you can learn from your years of canoeing the Boundary Waters.

Rivers that flow into Hudson Bay are terribly confusing as they approach the Bay. Here, the delta sprawls amidst a mix of islands and dead-end channels. The flowage changes from year to year so maps can’t be taken too seriously. Still, navigating the Boundary Waters can be equally confusing. Why? Because even the best BWCA maps are no match for the detailed 1:50,000 scale Canadian topos. The Boundary Waters has plenty of islands, bays and channels to confuse you. In short, if you can read a map and compass well enough to confidently canoe the BW’s most complex lakes, you’ll do fine in Canada. However, you’ll need to understand magnetic declination and contour line interpretation and, if you bring a GPS, the UTM system of positioning. 

The Littlbug stove burns hot and clean and uses very little wood. It's the lightest and most compact wood-burning stove available.
The ability to make a fire in any weather marks you as an expert.  If you can make fire on a rainy day in the BW you can do it anywhere. Indeed, it’s more difficult in the BWCA than in most other places because  all the good wood on the established campsites has been picked over. On the other hand, fire-making in Canada is easy—there’s so much dead, downed wood everywhere that you can just throw a match into the woods and yell “fire”!  Barrenland trips are the exception, of course.  Here, you may want to bring a littlbug™ stove and rose clippers so you can snip dead willow branches and burn your garbage.
Canoeing a big lake like Saganaga or Brule when the wind is up is similar to canoeing a big lake in Canada, with one exception: arctic waters are bitterly cold--a capsize is deadly! You just can’t take chances.

Boundary Waters paddlers often paddle straight across a lake, making a beeline from portage to portage. This procedure can kill you on a wind-tossed northern lake. It’s difficult to estimate distance on the tundra because there are no trees for reference—a  shoreline that appears to be a few hundred yards away may be a mile or more! You must consult your map before you commit to open water crossings!
Meal preparation and cooking is the same up north as in the Boundary Waters, with one exception: northern waters are very cold so your stove will use much more fuel. Two gasoline stoves are mandatory. You’ll burn about one-tenth of a Liter of fuel per person per day. Pot “cozies” save the day.  See my book, “Expedition Canoeing” for details.

Some of the portages in the BWCA are as tough as anything you’ll find in Canada. The difference is that Canadian trails are not cleared or marked. Bring tools to clear a portage (axe and saw) and some bright-colored plastic surveying tape to mark the way; and always scout the route before you carry anything across.  Carry the canoe last, which is opposite of what most people do in the Boundary Waters!

It takes years to develop good judgment, but you can speed the learning curve if, when you canoe the BWCA, you get off the beaten path. For example, most paddlers blindly take every portage without checking the flowage into the next lake.  Sometimes, you can line or wade your canoe through the connecting rapid. You won’t know if you don’t look.  And by looking, you’ll develop skill and judgment to handle the unknowns you’ll face up north.

A capsize in the Boundary Waters is usually just a laughing matter; on a cold northern lake, it may be fatal.  When the weather turns sour in the BW, you can just hole up and wait for sun, later shortening your trip to make up for lost time.  On a northern river, you’re generally committed to a time frame: you must be at a certain place at a certain time or your charter float plane won’t find you. This means you may have to travel when you’d prefer to camp, which increases risk. Yes, you may be able to change your itinerary if you have a satellite phone—if it works!  Rental phones are often problematic because their batteries (which are in constant use and re-charge) may not hold a charge for very long.  Campsites, rapids and portages are not marked on northern rivers so every day is exploratory, and exploring slows you down. Indeed, the rule of travel “up north” is to allow “one day down in every five” for bad weather and the unexpected.
The rapids can be long and difficult.  Cliff: 14-foot Pakboat (folding canoe)
Call Steve Schon 1-800-223-6565 to order a Pakboat Folding Canoe or get your questions about them answered.

You absolutely MUST be confident in Class II-III technical rapids. Portaging and lining aren’t always an option. You can’t learn whitewater skills by paddling lakes in the BWCA.  Best take a class; you can learn a great deal in just one day. The “backferry” is the most important technique. Stress this to your instructor! You’ll also need to practice “lining” your canoe around obstacles. There are some opportunities in the BWCA, but only if you have ropes attached to the ends of your canoe and get off the beaten path.  
Cliff: Lining around a difficult rapid.  14-foot solo Pakboat (folding canoe)
You need a seriously good tent, plus the skills to keep it standing in a major blow. Long tent stakes that dig deep and grab hard are essential. The best I’ve seen are 12-inch long arrow-shaft stakes which you can get from Cooke Custom Sewing (you can special order these through Piragis).

Sandals and sneakers which work for the Boundary Waters are worthless on cold northern rivers. You need knee-high rubber boots, warm insoles and wool socks.  Camp footwear should be tough enough for serious hikes.  Clothes should be wool and nylon.  Reliable rain gear is essential. Provide back-ups for everything. Packs must be waterproofed to the nth degree. The sloppy packing you see in the BWCA won’t cut it up north. A canoe spray-cover can be a life-saver.

Transitioning from the BWCA to a remote northern River requires learning some new tricks.  Except for whitewater and lining skills, you can learn much of what you need to know from books and by attending seminars by those who’ve “been there, done that”. And you can practice your new skills in the BWCA and on local rivers.

Cliff Jacobson

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Man Rescues Friend in Boundary Waters

Stroke victim rescued by friend and paramedics on Hegman Lake earlier this year.

The complete Story can be viewed here at Albert Lea Tribune:

Man rescues buddy in wilderness

Published 9:48am Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fifteen miles from Ely and more than a hundred miles from Duluth, Scott Pirsig pushed his canoe away from the shore of South Hegman Lake in the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He had just left his buddy Bob Sturtz behind in the tent at their wilderness camp.

He wasn’t quite sure what happened to Bob, but he knew medical help was needed. To make matters worse, fog engulfed the lake. Could he find the portage on the other shore without getting lost?
An inspiring story and a help to all of us, because this could happen at anytime.

The complete Story can be viewed here at Albert Lea Tribune:

Monday, July 9, 2012

BLOG 15. What's Wrong With Today's Gasoline Trail Stoves, by Cliff Jacobson

BLOG 15  What’s Wrong With Today’s Gasoline Trail Stoves?
by Cliff Jacobson

My favorite trail stove is the long defunct Optimus 111B.  Known for its power, simplicity and reliability, the B still retains a strong following. One of my B’s is over 50 years old and though it’s been hammered to death on scores of northern trips, it still runs fine. I can’t say the same for some modern “tinker toy” (two-piece) stoves I’ve used.  Here’s why:
Ciff frying fish on an Optimus 111B stove.  Fond du Lac River, Saskatchwan
Two-piece stoves have a separate fuel tank and armored fuel line. You must connect the line to the tank every time you use the stove—then disconnect it afterwards. This constant connect/disconnect cycle wears the connector and/or O-ring and in time, fuel may leak here. Foreign matter can also become lodged in the valve or connector when the stove is packed away. If this happens, it’s game over—you’d best know how to build a fire!  Some years ago, my MSR XGK sprang a leak while running hard.  Gas flamed five feet high! Fortunately, the stove was sitting on a rock near the lake. I kicked it hard and it went sailing into the water, never to be seen again. George Drought, a Canadian paddler of some fame (George invented the “tundra tunnel”, featured in my book, “Expedition Canoeing”), had a similar experience on the Back River in Canada’s arctic. He suffered serious burns and had to be air evacuated out.

This said, two-piece stoves are remarkably safe. Those that report problems tend to cook for large groups, which means bigger pots, longer running times and hotter tanks.  Still, given equal materials, a one piece stove will be more trouble-free than a two piece stove. 
Cliff: Primus Omni-fuel stove.  Note pot cover used for stove support

The idea of splitting a stove into two parts—burner/fuel line and fuel bottle/pump assembly—began as an advertising gimmick. Let’s say that each of the two parts weigh one pound. The manufacturer can (will!) list only the weight of the stove but not the weight of the tank and pump. Twisted thinking? Yes. But lightweight sells and most buyers won’t have a clue.

The advantage of a two-piece design is that the stove can have a long fuel delivery tube that will keep the tank away from the hot burner. This is a good thing, especially, if you use large pots that reflect heat onto the tank. Ironically, most fuel lines are too short—they don’t allow enough space between the burner and tank—so for safety, you should ALWAYS use the aluminum wind-screen that separates the two. Aluminum liter bottles (tanks) are not as strong as the heavy brass and steel tanks of yore.  Over-pressurize one and it may blow—which is what happened to George Drought on the Back River.

Some self-contained stoves, like the Optimus 111B, 8R and Phoebus 625 have a mechanical jet-cleaning device. Turn the adjuster knob and a gear-driven needle pokes up through the jet and removes carbon build-up.  Compare this to the engineering “marvels” used on modern “tinker toy” stoves:  

L to R: Wire jet-cleaner, "Magnetic MIracle", weighted cleaning needle
·      The “magnetic miracle:  A magnet pushes a weighted cleaning needle through the jet. Works great. That is until the needle shaft carbons up and the needle begins to stick. If it sticks while the stove is running hot, the needle may weld itself to the burner. It’s happened twice to me with two different stoves from the same manufacturer!  I removed the needle and now use the manual cleaning tool pictured above. 

·      The “shaker jet”: Vigorously shake the stove and a weighted needle slides up and down through the jet.  Same problem as above—if the stove carbons up the needle may stick and weld.

Magnetic cleaning devices and shaker jets are handy but they may not have enough power to push a heavily carboned cleaning needle into position. They are fine for casual use, but can be problematic on expeditions where stoves take a beating.

·      The old brass and steel tanks on Primus and Optimus stoves had a spring-loaded safety valve in the cap. If the tank became over-pressurized by heat, the safety valve would blow. I’ve experienced this several times with my 111B and Primus 71 stoves. It’s not a spectacular show—a thin stream of gas squirts from the safety hole in the cap, that’s all. The remedy is to turn off the stove and allow it to cool. The valve cap will re-set itself in a few minutes.  Tinker toy stoves don’t have re-settable safety valves!

Just turn off a one-piece stove, release the pressure, then pack it way. No need to unhook a fuel line (and get gas on your hands) or to fold carbon-black burner supports.

The old self-contained stoves had real windscreens. Modern two-piece stoves have flimsy aluminum-foil deflectors that catch grease and fly well in wind. 

The old one-piece stoves were heavier (weight could be reduced with modern materials) than modern two-piece stoves but they were more rugged and reliable. They didn’t have to be assembled, disassembled or cushioned from impact in transit. There was no danger of foreign material getting into an open connector or valve. They had fewer parts and were easier to maintain in the field. Some self-contained models, like the Optimus 111B and 8R were encased inside a hinged, metal box. Just open the box, pull out the burner and you were good to go.  What could be easier? 

Cliff Jacobson

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sometimes Simple Ideas are the Best: New Canoe Anchor Bag

What do you do when you want to stay in one spot and fish?  Perhaps your paddling partner "treads water" for you :)  You could throw down a float buoy and keep trolling by.  Where's an anchor when you need it?  Where's rope when you need it?  Remember Sam in the Lord of the Rings knows he'll need rope because that was the one thing he forgot to bring... sure enough.  He needed it and was gifted rope by the Elvish Queen.  Magic rope.  We're not going that far, but hear me out.

Some people just take rope and tie four ways around a shoreline rock.  Often the rock slips out.  Some folks prefer one of our anchors that packs down small or flat and virtually disappears into your pack.  In our humble beginnings we sold a simple mesh bag with enough line to let you anchor your canoe if you found a honey hole.  You filled the mesh with rocks of various sizes.  It was a good idea, and eventually we upgraded to the flat style below that is basically a coated plastic tough pocket that lasts longer.

The other day a local guy came in to see us with an idea that he had turned into a product that he thought we could use.  He was right.

Right about now you might be asking yourself, "why so many options?"  It is just an anchor bag.  Well, we asked ourselves that question and we've asked it many times before about other products that are similar.  We simply want to continue the quest to bring you the best, the lightest, the BOMB!

  1. Our customers are diverse.  You don't all like exactly the same things.
  2. We like to support local businesses and entrepreneurs.
  3. Some people have requested a simple canoe anchor bag like this.  It does have the ability to fill with more rocks than other bags in case the wind is blowing roughly and you want to stay on your fish.
  4. It is field tested to release from the bottom easily and not snag.  Don't fill more than necessary (or with more rocks than you can pull up :)
  5. IT IS NEW and old-school at the same time.
With twenty-five feet of durable, high-viz rope, the bag itself is made from something that might look familiar (think final four).  It will go anywhere in your pack.  You just supply the rocks.  If you really want to get someone with a practical joke you could "help" them pack for their trip and make sure you pack their "favorite anchor rocks" (in their personal pack).  Otherwise, you won't notice it is along until you need it!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.  If you're looking for a nice gift for someone going on a fishing trip or who likes to take their canoe fishing at home, you can make them happy for less than an Andrew Jackson with our Boundary Waters Anchor System from Piragis Northwoods Company.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Another July 4th Storm

Reminiscent of 1999 and the infamous Blowdown, the Fourth of July skies open up, or rather rolled up yesterday with what threatened to be a vengeance.  Eerie, uncanny clouds rolled in as if they were waves just when the  Parade was ending.

Storm rolling over Ely, July 4th, 2012

Despite all the rain of late June, we were suffering from hot temperatures like the rest of the country (well admittedly we are spoiled, we're talking temps in the 90s when others are suffering with mercury over the century or even 110 degree mark).  Anyway, we were thankful for the promise of rain after a week or more of drying out.  We raised heads and eyes to the sky with doubt and not too little thoughts of deja vu.

Back in 1999, I watched the wind pick up a dumpster from in front of the community center and shove it all the way across the street to the Senior Center parking lot.  The wheels were locked.  No small display of strength.  When I got home the wind grabbed my crank out windows, yanked them wide open and then shoved them shut, blowing my screens off the inside and stuff across my living and dining rooms.  I was inside, there were plenty of folks in the wilderness when the flatline winds took out a path of trees 7 miles wide and 25 or more miles long.  Suffice it to say:  When it looks like this over Ely on the Fourth of July, we take notice around here.  It might not just be another summer thriller.

1.6 inches of rain fell nearly all at once yesterday in a downpour.  Some branches blew off trees, a few came down and quarter sized hail was reported in some places.  Outskirts of Ely and elsewhere on the Iron Range power failed and went out.

8:30 p.m. brought the end of the rain and I saw the sun peek out.  I began to hear fireworks (amateur style) going off and I knew it was going to be a beautiful night.  Indeed by the time darkness rolled in to envelope what was left of the storm clouds the city fireworks display began on schedule.  In my opinion some of the best coordinated, choreographed fireworks I've ever seen with a real Grand Finale.

Sometimes the shadows and dark skies hold just as much promise as the bright sun-filled ones do.  Sometimes more.  It is good to be prepared for the worst, but is also good to be prepared for the unknown that can be much, much better than we ever imagine.  Don't let fear rule the day is a good motto.  Embrace the undiscovered country...