Thursday, August 30, 2012

BLOG 21. Falcon Guides, Cliff Interview

FalconGuides author Cliff Jacobson is one of North America's most respected outdoor writers and wilderness canoe guides. He is the author of more than a dozen books on camping and canoeing and has been inducted into the American Canoe Association Hall of Fame. Here, FalconGuides discusses Cliff's memorable "firsts" in a career highlighted by bestsellers and awards:

Cliff: Tha-anne River, Manitoba, Canada
How did you first get into canoeing? What was it that drew you in and kept you coming back to it time and again?

It began in 1952 at the age of 11 at a rustic Boy Scout camp set deep in the Michigan woods. The canoes were wood and canvas—and magical! Those who’ve paddled wooden canoes will understand. The canoe was a ticket to the wild in wilderness. Yes, one could hike to remote places, but it was faster and easier by canoe. You can carry more gear than a backpacker and thus live more comfortably. On a long backpacking trip you’ll travel super light and “rough it," but a canoe will “smooth” the way.

I read every book on canoeing and camping I could find. I doted on the adventures of the northern explorers. Names like Hudson Bay, Coppermine, Churchill, and and the Northwest Territories called my name. If there’s a “wilderness gene” I have it.

The canoe has a beauty and grace that is unmatched by other watercraft. The same canoe that can carry you on a picnic down a placid river can float you to the Arctic Ocean. Some highlights of trips that keep me coming back for more? Paddling among thousands of caribou, stroking their backs with my paddle; talking quietly to bears, telling them we are no threat; watching seals, which are nearly as long as my canoe, skitter by; paddling among beluga whales; being chased downriver by a polar bear; catching huge lake trout, the size of which anglers dream.
Cliff: Latiseino River, Norway. 14-foot Pakboat®

Tell me a little bit about your first multi-day expedition? What did you learn and take away from that first trip?

It was a 21-day trip from Folyet, Ontario, to James Bay (300 miles), via the Groundhog, Mattagami, and Moose Rivers in Ontario. It rained every day for 17 days; the river was flooded; the bugs were horrendous; the rapids were frightening and the topography wasn’t all that pretty. We didn’t see a soul the entire trip. Of all the northern routes I’ve done, this is my least favorite, and one I would never do again. But it was very adventurous; it tested my skills and it encouraged me to keep learning. I learned that there are few second chances on these tough northern rivers. Doing things sloppy or merely “good enough” is not GOOD ENOUGH! Some of my readers have accused me of being opinionated in my methods. In reality, successful explorers follow much the same pattern of planning and executing a canoe trip. Yes, they may use different style packs or paddles or foods, but they follow strict procedures on waterproofing their gear, scouting and running rapids, portaging, storm-proofing their camp, etc.  It takes years to develop the proper respect for a wilderness river; you can’t rush it. Those that try usually don’t survive very long.

When planning out a new canoeing trip, what is it that first draws you to that trip?

I love remote rivers, especially those in northern Canada and Alaska. On some rivers it’s the challenge of the rapids; on others it’s the wildlife—caribou, musk ox, wolves, dall sheep, and grizzlies. Still others are noted for their intense beauty or magnificent campsites. Recently, I’ve turned my attention to American desert rivers like the Green, Missouri, and Rio Grande (it’s awesome!).  Last year, I canoed two remote whitewater rivers along the border of Norway and Finland. What a rush! Every place has its unique challenges and beauty.

Is there a particularly memorable trip that always pops up first when reaching back into the memory bank? What was so memorable about that trip?
The wedding day: Wilberforce Falls, Hood River, August 12, 1992

Wilberforce Falls
Yes, the Hood River (Province of Nunavut, Canada), north of the Arctic Circle. I’ve done it twice: On the first trip (1984), we encountered nearly 100,000 caribou, some so close you could touch them with your canoe paddle. We also saw over 300 muskoxen and two grizzlies. On the second trip (1992). Sue Harings and I were married at Wilberforce Falls on the Hood River. It is the only recorded wedding at this spot. Wilberforce, by the way, drops 160 feet through a 3-mile canyon; the U.S. Niagara Falls, by comparison, drops 167 feet. The Hood has one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the continent. There are just two ways to get there—by canoe or by pricey chartered bush plane that’s outfitted with tubby tundra tires.

How did it feel to be inducted in the American Canoe Association hall of fame?

It was quite an honor, naturally. I remain surprised though because, frankly, I don’t consider myself an expert canoeist. I’m decent but not in the league with today’s top paddlers. Good judgment, more than paddle skill, keeps me out of trouble.

Cliff: Boundary Waters Canoe Area
I know you’re an avid outdoorsman with many pursuits. If you could impart one piece of advice to the next generation of avid outdoorsmen (and women) looking to make this their lifestyle and work, what would that advice be?

My best advice is to always remember that “skills are more important than things.” You can get by with mediocre gear if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’re in serious trouble, even if you have the best gear. Learn first, buy second!

Knowledge makes the difference. Read every canoeing and camping book you can find, even those that are long out-of-print and belong to the last century. There are things you can learn from the old-timers; don’t dismiss old knowledge as bad knowledge. New isn’t always better; it just sells well. Case in point: In the early part of this century, Horace Kephart, in his book “Woodcraft and Camping,” wrote that insect headnets should be colored black so you can see through them. Today, most tent screens and bug nets are in colors other than black. These colors reflect light into your eyes and reduce visibility. For the same reason, automobile steering wheels and dashboards should also be black. Manufacturers would be wise to reflect on proven ways.
Cliff: North Knife River, Manitoba

To learn more about Cliff Jacobson and his many books, check him out here or on his website,

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

BLOG 20. Ah...Comfort! By Cliff Jacobson

BLOG 20. Ah…Comfort!
by Cliff Jacobson

It’s the end of a rainy paddling day and you’re camped at last. The tent is pitched an a crackling campfire beckons you to sit and relax.  But where?  There is no stump or “sitting log” nearby, and the ground is wet from rain.  What to do?  You can:

a)    stand or squat near the blaze—hardly a way to relax.
b)   you’re tough—just sit on the wet ground.
c)     place a plastic sheet on the ground then sit on the sheet.
d)    set your “sit-back” folding canoe seat on the wet ground and sit on it.

When I was much younger I chose options a and b.  With age, I smarted up and brought a plastic “sitting sheet”.  When I discovered the Crazy Creek® camp seat, I ran right out and bought one.  It was acceptably comfortable and it didn’t weigh much or take up  much room in my pack. But the seat was packed away and a hassle to get to for snack and lunch stops.  And sitting on the ground had these serious negatives:

1.    When preparing meals and doing stationary camp chores, a high stool or chair is more comfortable than sitting on the ground.
2.    You are part way through a damp, sweaty portage; your back is killing you and you need to take a break.  If you have a folding stool with backrest (more on this later) you can just whip it out and sit.  Without it, you must crash on a damp cedar log.
3.    You stop for lunch at a gravel beach. The river reaches 50 yards into the beach. Your “sit-on-the-ground” folding canoe seat is no good here, but a stool that has legs that won’t sink into the ground, is ideal.
My favorite camp stool: It folds flat for packing, bungees to a pack, has a comfy backrest and storage pouch; the tubular aluminum legs won't sink into the ground.   Available from Piragis.
There are dozens of styles of folding chairs and at one time or other, I’ve tried them all.  Some take too much time to put together; others have heavy steel legs (they should be aluminum) or pointed legs that sink into the ground; still others are flimsy or have waterproof seats and backs (I prefer porous material) that are sticky when it’s hot.

When I was on the army rifle team back in the 1960’s, every shooter was issued a folding stool.  The stool had thick aluminum legs and a comfortable canvas seat.  There was a zippered compartment for shooting glasses, ammo and cleaning gear and a sling for carrying.  Years later, while leading canoe trips in northern Canada, I yearned for one of those stools.  I looked everywhere but couldn’t find one. Then, one day, while rooting around a military surplus store, I discovered some.  I bought two then shared my find with Piragis NWC, who rooted out the source and added them to their catalog—CLIFF's FAVORITE CAMP STOOL item # R0280002 / $36. My folding stool is the one thing I would miss most on a canoe trip, more so now that my tender teenage years have long slipped by.
Green River, Utah

I pack the following inside the zippered compartment of my stool:
·      A foot square piece of (rolled) closed-cell foam. The foam piece provides a warm, dry seat if the chair is wet. The foam will also float the stool in a capsize.
·      An extra insect head-net (one can never have too many head-nets on a canoe trip)!
·      Small bottle of bug dope.
·      Cigarette lighter in sealed Zip-lock bag.
·      Some parachute cord.
·      A lightweight plastic bag to place over the backrest if the backrest is wet.
·      My stool is camouflage color, which is hard to see in the woods, so I tie short streamers of brightly-colored plastic surveying ribbon to the frame.

Go light paddlers will rightly scoff at my stool which, when outfitted, weighs just under four pounds. But I think the weight is worth it for the “ah…comfort” it provides in camp.
Noatak River, Alaska
The beauty of this camp stool is that there are no parts to assemble. Just unfold it to sit, fold to store. A length of shock-cord secures my stool to a pair of carabineers attached to the side compression straps of my pack.  Simple and fast—the stool releases and “clips on” in seconds.



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

BLOG 19. Fresh Food Tricks, by Cliff Jacobson

BLOG 19. Fresh Food Tricks
by Cliff Jacobson

I like to eat well on canoe trips.  Pre-packaged, freeze-dried meals, like the ones you buy at camping shops don’t cut it.  My food comes exclusively from grocery stores and where possible, it is organic.  I dehydrate hamburger, chili beans and salsa then vacuum-seal them for the long haul.  I carry fresh vegetables—onions, peppers, celery, carrots, potatoes—and fresh eggs (I despise powdered eggs!). The veggies will last about 10 days on a canoe trip if they are properly prepared.  Eggs will keep for weeks if they’re fresh from the farm and their shells are intact.
Cliff cooks "pita pizza". Kopka River, Ontario
Potatoes and onions need no treatment.  I just wrap them individually in a sheet of paper toweling (to prevent bruising) then pack them in a porous (don’t use plastic!) cotton bag. 

Peppers, celery and carrots are washed in clean water than allowed to soak for three minutes in a solution of water and chlorine bleach.  How much bleach? The old Boy Scout method for purifying drinking water was to add 4-8 drops of chlorine bleach per quart of water.  The water was then allowed to stand for 30 minutes, after which, it was aerated by pouring back and forth from one canteen to another. Most of the chlorine gas evaporated during mixing.  I use a similar procedure but with more chlorine.  I simply fill my sink with cold water then add about one-fourth cup of bleach (it’s not rocket science). The bleach kills surface bacteria and molds.

Serving supper
When three minutes have passed, I pick out the veggies (with very clean hands!) and dry them with paper toweling.  Then, I wrap each veggie (separately) in a sheet of paper toweling. The paper-wrapped vegetables are then placed in a cotton bag. Treated this way, they’ll keep for about ten days, if they aren’t bruised in transit. 

To prevent bruising, I place the cotton bags at the top of my woven pack-basket or a #3 Duluth pack.  The type of pack doesn’t matter as long as it’s an “upright” unit—that is, one that sits upright in the canoe.  Packs that are laid flat while canoeing then turned upright for portaging jostle the vegetables when the packs are turned.  Still, they’ll work if you’re careful.

To use the vegetables for a meal: Use very clean hands and a very clean knife and cut off just the amount of veggie you will use for your meal.  Re-wrap the cut vegetable and return it to its cotton bag.  If you are very fastidious and want to keep your veggies “healthy” as long as possible, sterilize your knife blade in boiling water before you begin.
Cliff prepares supper.  Note the fresh salad in the Zip-lock bags (lower right) and the cozy-covered cooking pot.

The dangers of chlorine:  Yes, chlorine is a carcinogen if it is taken internally in large amounts.  And, chlorine gas will certainly kill you if you inhale it.  But the chlorine you soaked your veggies in has long evaporated.  Still, if you are concerned, simply wash the part you cut off.  Be aware though, that local surface waters contain microorganisms.  Unless you’ll be cooking the vegetable in boiling water, you’re probably better off not to wash it.

Carrying fresh eggs:  Farm-fresh eggs will keep a month or more if the shells remain intact. I buy locally raised, fresh organic eggs. Where possible, I select small eggs—they have thicker shells than large eggs.  And I specify cardboard, not Styrofoam containers.  I wrap each cardboard egg carton in a few sheets of newspaper, taped down at the edges.  The carton then goes inside a large zip-lock bag (insurance against a broken egg). This unit is placed at the top of a pack. I’ve packed and carried my eggs this way for decades, on trips that lasted a month.  I can’t remember when I’ve had a broken egg!
No-cook lunch.  Along the North Knife River, Manitoba
Warning! Do not break eggs into a plastic bottle as recommended by some “authorities”.  Eggs are among nature’s most perfect food and bacteria will wildly attack them. You can become seriously sick, or worse, by eating eggs that have been broken into a bottle!

Cliff Jacobson


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

BLOG 18. Maps For the BWCA, by Cliff Jacobson

BLOG 18. Maps For the BWCA
by Cliff Jacobson

Until recently, three major map companies have serviced the BWCA--Fisher, McKenzie and VoyageurTo this list, one can now add National Geographic.  Their maps are beautifully executed—complete, precise and accurate.  Here’s how they differ from the competition:

The entire Boundary Waters are contained on just two waterproof, folded sheets (both sides of the page are printed).  Map #753 covers the western half of the BWCA; #752 the eastern half. The scale is 1” = 1.1 miles which, I think, is ideal for trip planning and navigating. Some people, who are used to the 2-4 inches per miles scale of other BWCA maps, argue that this scale is too small. But it’s only slightly smaller than the 1:50,000 (1.25 inches = 1 mile) Canadian topo maps you’ll use if you canoe in Canada. A scale of roughly 1” = 1 mile allows you to eye-ball distance on the map without using a ruler or dividers. The printing is  typical “National Geographic Society” ultra-crisp, so what you lose with a smaller scale you gain in clarity.  Naturally, all the campsites and portages are marked. Contour lines, elevations, magnetic declination and everything you need to set up your GPS is given. These maps contain everything of importance you would normally find on a USGS or Canadian topo map.

If you use a GPS you’ll love these NGS maps because they have UTM coordinates printed on the face, and these coordinates align perfectly with the UTM numbers in the map margins. Canadian topo maps have been doing it this way for decades; American maps are slowly following suit. Coordinate-matching numbers enable you to plot a precise fix on your map even if your GPS does not have a built-in map. Voyageur and McKenzie maps also have UTM coordinates but unlike those on NGS maps, the numbers and coordinates don’t line up.

Waypointer: Latitude/Longitude "Roamer"
Plotting a fix using a GPS is easy.  Simply set the unit for UTM (Universal Trans Mercator) and read the satellite fix (numbers on the screen). Then read “right and up” along the map margin, i.e., first plot the easting coordinate, then plot the northing coordinate.  You are where the two lines cross.  What could be easier?  Note: to avoid error you must pre-set your GPS to the correct zone and datum.  You’ll find this information in the margin of the map.

Why not forget UTM and just plot your position as latitude/longitude?  Because lat/lon is not a rectangular grid—the distance between longitude lines changes as you go north or south. To locate a Lat/Lon point you’ll need to use a plastic “roamer” like the one pictured—it’s a hassle, impossible from the seat of a bobbing canoe. UTM coordinates, on the other hand are perfectly rectangular, so plotting a fix is as simple as dividing the distance across a square into 10 equal parts.  Try the following practice problem:
Problem: The UTM numbers on your GPS read: 062910 529120. Plot these numbers on the map below:
NGS BWCA Map: Read UTM coordinates "right-up"
 Answer: You are located at the southeast corner of Lois Lake.

Check out the new National Geographic Boundary Watersmaps.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. You can even get a discount when you buy them as a bundle of two from Piragis.

Cliff Jacobson

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What I Love about the Boundary Waters

I love that as soon as we hit the water, I forget my passwords to my gmail account.  I love that as soon as we get to a campsite my oldest daughter baits up and gets a fish on the line with her first cast before I've got the tent out of the canoe.  I love that before camp is set up we are cleaning fish together for a fantastic first night's dinner.

I love that the hammocks go up first and our dog wants to get in one right away.  In our family, everyone works and helps to unload, get our new home-away-from-home set up and everyone also gets to relax whenever they want.  For me there is no point to going on vacation unless you can feel rejuvenated and free.  We like to start early enough in the day that afternoon finds us with a nice campsite and plenty of time to unpack and get organized.  For us it is base camp, so we make sure it is awesome and has possibilities for day trips.

No matter if our trip is early, later in the Fall or during the dog days of Summer... I love swimming.  In fact along with sitting by the campfire, it is one of my favorite summer pleasures.  After the first leap, my body adjusts quickly to the water temperature and I find it hard to leave.  I'm usually up before anyone else at camp and I'll take an early morning swim while the coffee is brewing.  This last trip we found a perfect place to jump off the big granite rocks.  (Make sure you check the lake bottom for depth and make sure there are no rocks)  We found a huge drop off along the cliff's edge that went down really deep into the water and provides hours of FUN - better than any watermark I've ever been to.

Camping in the Boundary Waters is filled with one fantastic photo opportunity after another.  Early morning light and evening sunsets provide some of the warmest, most beautiful times to remember in the wilderness.  The intricate colors on the bark of a red pine are amazing as the sun's rays ripple over their heights and limbs.  The wind and light on the water is magical.  Ever notice how the prow of the canoe, its shape pointed like an arrow invites you to join in whatever adventure lies just around the bend?  Sometimes I like to take pictures and sometimes I like to save these spectacular memories as just that:  memories.  Vacation in the Boundary Waters is a great time to "clean out" your files upstairs.  You know exactly what I mean.  We've all got too much useless knowledge and pieces and pixels up in our brains.  I like to mentally download that stuff to my "trash" or "recycle bin" if you prefer windows.  I'm a Mac guy, so I prefer to toss it and "secure empty" my trash at that.  Having freed up some memory, I take a few mental shots like this and store them away in my happy place.  It is good practice.  

I love the fact that I always know where my dog, Sebastian, is because he is always wearing his "Bear Bell".  Not that I really need to listen, because he is usually right wherever I am at the time.  Since he was a 6 week old, he has always been right next to me whenever we are together.  I always wanted a dog like that when I was growing up.  I will generally bring a couple of good novels and blank notebooks to the Boundary Waters.  "What a waste of wilderness time," some of you might retort, but I beg to disagree.  An hour or two a day spent napping and reading, taking notes and making journal entries, especially if you can relax in a hammock, are extremely valuable and reenergizing.  Did I mention naps?  This is what I mean by everyone gets a chance to do the things that they like most when we go camping.  For me I love the Boundary Waters because it brings us closer together as a family.

I love the Boundary Waters because it is wild and FULL of everything.  No shortage. Longing for trees?  It has them and then some.  Like beaches?  Enjoy the breeze off the lake in your face (better than air-conditioning)?  Like to fish?  Long to swim?  Like to try out and utilize your favorite pieces of camping gear?  Like to practice survival skills?  Enjoy eating fish freshly caught from your campground and want to paddle everyday?  BWCAW is perfect for all these things and plenty more.  There's no shortage of fun in the Boundary Waters.  Wildlife sightings are common, everyday experiences.  The days seem longer and the nights seem more refreshing outdoors.

In today's fast paced world, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to get the family together in one place for a meal, for an activity or just for a fun afternoon together.  And... if you manage to do so, it could very well cost you an arm and a leg for meals and entertainment away from home.  I love the Boundary Waters, because, although you have to carry them on your back, the amenities and food are wonderful around the campfire or camp stove.  I believe everything tastes better in the woods and with a little imagination you can turn everyone's favorite foods into traveling delights.  I don't know about you, but I like saving money and I'd rather have a Smore in the Boundary Waters than a $15 Tiramisu any day.

I love the Boundary Waters, because even on a budget, you can have a true outdoor adventure in style.  True fun is what we make of it anyway.  The last trip, my kids picked up pine needles, bark, sticks, rocks and found objects to make a little village one afternoon on the forest floor.  They've even dug clay from the lake bottom and made little figurines and sculptures that dried in the sun before trips end.  Everyone finds and fashions their favorite walking stick.

It's a time when a responsible kid can carry a knife or multi-tool everywhere and not be questioned.  When finding toads in the evening and early morning and listening to their croaking, squeaking songs rates higher than an afternoon at the amusement park.

I love the Boundary Waters because the bottom line is this.  I never want to leave and I always want to go back.  I often feel more at home than I do when I'm at home.

Send me your comments about why you love the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness!