Wednesday, October 24, 2012

BLOG 27. Best Woodburning Trail Stove on the Planet

BLOG 27. Best Wood-burning Trail Stove on the Planet!
by Cliff Jacobson
Littlbug Senior stove: BWCA (yes, it's legal when placed next to the fire grate)

One of the perks of being a writer is that I get to try new products. I’ve spent enough time in the woods that I can often assess field performance without exhaustive testing. To some, this may sound egotistical, but those who’ve spent serious time in the bush pretty well know what works and what doesn’t.  For example, small zippers are the first to fail on a garment; plastic knobs on cookware and stoves break or burn; tents that don’t have enough stake points blow down in high winds, etc.

Thus, I was not impressed when I received a Littlbug® ( wood-burning stove for review.  It was simple (too simple)—just four stainless-steel parts that snap together. I viewed it as nothing more than a “take-apart” charcoal burner. I set the stove aside with the intent of testing it later. Much later.
Stainless steel parts snap together in seconds!

Ultimately, I got a call from the manufacturer asking if I had tried his stove.  I made up some excuse, promising I’d get to it soon. I didn’t. A week later, another call and another excuse.  This pattern continued for a month, after which, I’d had enough, so I reluctantly went outside and fired up the stove.
Parts snap together easily and nest for travel

Minutes later, I was hooked. The stove burned hot and clean, with very little fuel. I heaped on more wood and watched the base turn cherry red. I filled my tea kettle with water and set it on the pot supports—eight cups of water came to a rolling boil in just under seven minutes. Impressive!  Unlike other small wood-burning trail stoves, the Littlbug will accept big wood. Logs up to about three inches in diameter---and as long as you like—can be loaded through the top slots—just stack ‘em in like inverted tipi poles. The Littlbug doubles as a campfire, but it uses far less wood. Want a bonfire? Build a pole tipi around the stove or stack wood “log-cabin” style on top of the burner and you’ll feel the heat a dozen yards away. 
Littlbug burns hot with very little fuel

The stainless steel parts consume almost no space in a pack.  No other wood-burning trail stove is as compact.

My friends and I have come to love the Littlbug stove. When used with a deep-sided steel oil-drain pan or pizza pan, it qualifies as a government-approved “fire within a fire-pan” (the pan must measure 12” x 12” with a 1.5” lip). If you’ve hiked or boated out west where fire-pans are required, you’ll love the Littlbug stove. Unlike the heavy, bulky pans most boaters carry, the stove and pizza pan will fit easily into a solo canoe or kayak.
Rio Grande River, Texas: Littlbug stove and pizza pan

There are two models (Littlbug Senior and Junior):
•    Senior: Weight: 19 oz / Junior: 5 oz
•    Senior: 9” x 8” diameter / Junior: 6” x 5.5”
•    Assembly time: about 15 seconds
•    Senior 1 quart water boil time:  3-5 minutes / Junior 4-6 minutes
•    Vent holes in the base can be turned towards or away from wind.
•    The stove can be fired with an alcohol burner like the one that comes with the popular Trangia stove.

Littlbug Senior with hanging chains and FireBowl

Accessories (extra cost): 
•    Pot sling: allows the burning stove to be hung (by chains) from a limb or hook—ideal for snow camping or where a ground fire might be dangerous. Sounds unstable but it isn’t.
•    FireBowl: a compact, ultralight, three piece stainless steel fire-bowl. The parts snap together to create a fire-pan that contains ash and embers. Unfortunately, the FireBowl does not meet federal government specifications for fire-pan size. But it is very effective—the feds should make an exception here. Note: there are two FireBowl sizes—Senior and Junior.
•    Nylon tote bag (envelope).

Optional Use: The sides of the assembled stove (sans the two pot supports) can be used as a wind-screen for a gasoline or butane trail stove.
Cliff and Littlbug stove: BWCA

In summary: The Littlbug stove ( provides an edge on rainy days and where wood is scarce or where a closely contained fire is essential. When canoeing above the tree line we fuel the stove with dead willow twigs—provides cheery heat and a way to burn trash. The stove burns hot with very little wood; it doubles as a cook-stove and campfire. It’s simplicity belies its effectiveness. In a word, it is “awesome”!

Cliff Jacobson

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

BLOG 26. Wilderness Wisdom, by Cliff Jacobson

by Cliff Jacobson
Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan

Most mechanics rely on systematical trial and error to solve problems. They figure that if they replace enough parts, they'll eventually find the difficulty.  At the other extreme, are a small number of experts who, like my friend, Chic Sheridan, have the uncanny ability to correctly diagnose  problems on complex machines they've never seen before. For example, I once purchased an old Ford Pinto at an auction for next to nothing.  The car had a horrible clanging sound which was diagnosed as stuck valves. Repairs would cost hundreds of dollars!

I drove the beast over to Chic's house, hopeful he could provide a less costly solution.  "Add a quart of tranny fluid to the crankcase every time you change oil," he pronounced.  "Old mechanics trick--should free those valves in minutes: works much better than anything you can buy."

Chic's advice was sound:  I  drove the old Ford for two more years then traded it for another beater. On another occasion, a friend asked me to ask Chic about a clutch problem my wife Susie was having with her 1980 Saab.  The clutch wouldn't engage properly and the car wouldn't shift right.  A local foreign car repair shop told us the throw-out bearing and clutch plate were bad. "About 600 bucks," grinned the youthful mechanic.

Chic never owned or drove a foreign car.  A strong union man all his life, he supported "buy American", and a belief that domestic cars were, as he put it, "better than the trash that comes across the sea".  So it came as quite a surprise when he agreed to look at the old Saab.

The engine compartment of the Saab was a nightmare of wires, boxes and hoses. I was certain it would take a trained Saab mechanic to find the clutch, let alone fix it.  Chic peered wistfully under the hood, then asked if the clutch was mechanical or hydraulic.

 "Hydraulic," I said.

"I see someone just put a new master cylinder in here," he drawled. "Yeah, two weeks ago," I affirmed. Then there was a long silence, followed by..."Well I'll be damned, the idiot never hooked up the hydraulic line!" Chic shook his head in disgust, grabbed some tools, and a few minutes later the car shifted fine.  Cost of repair?  Two beers and a "thanks, good buddy!".

Chic was also an inventor and master welder.  He made me a stainless steel grill which I use on canoe trips, and a quarter inch thick aluminum griddle that fits on my trail stove. He also designed the best canoe trailer I ever owned. For Christmas one year, he gave all his canoeing friends collapsible, wood frame bucksaws which he built in his own shop.

Chic earned his living as a maintenance chief at the St. Paul, Ammonia plant in Minnesota.  He hated the work, often saying that he wished he could have gone to college and become a forester or wildlife professional.  Chic's heart and soul were in the forests of northern Minnesota and Ontario.  He fished, camped and canoed with his friends every chance he got.

Socially, Chic lived in two worlds--the strong blue collar environment of his work place and the stressful white collar atmosphere of his college educated canoeing friends. Chic valued education and was envious of our advanced degrees, even though we never mentioned them. On every trip he would remind us that he had been a poor student in high school, then question why we included him in our lofty group.  At this, we'd go into our routine, and like little kids, reinforce the obvious:

"Because we love you and respect you and think you're wonderful," we chorused.  Then we'd pass around our guarded store of Peppermint Schnapps and toast the most important person on any backwoods trip --the one who could keep the truck running, fix the trail stove, mend broken equipment, and keep us entertained with bad jokes for hours!  "To Chic," I would call!  At this, everyone would shout, "Here, here," and the bottle would go around again.

Chic didn't cuss very much.  Except for an occasional "dammit," or "sonufabitch", he was clean lipped. This was in stark contrast to two members of our fraternity who swore constantly. Chic never said anything about the foul language--that is, until the day he gave us "the shower bag".
Fond du Lac River, Inukshuk

We were about to canoe the Fond du Lac River in northern Saskatchewan when a family emergency developed which caused Chic to drop out. There was time enough to find a replacement, but it wouldn't be the same.  Besides, we knew how much Chic looked forward to these annual canoe trips. So we took up a collection and  bought him a new Stearn's life jacket--a brilliant gold "Deliverance" model which, in 1979 was state-of-the-art for paddling whitewater.

Chic was touched by the gift, and a week later, he presented us with one of his own.  "It's a solar camping shower," he grinned. "Now you guys can finally 'clean up your act!' "

The apparatus consisted of a black plastic bag, a long delivery tube and shower head.  You could fill the bag directly with hot water or set it in the sun for a few hours.  The shower seemed like a good idea, so we agreed to take it  along.
Fond du Lac campsite
The unit worked as advertised, that is, when we could find a solid support for it. Five liters of water weighs over ten pounds--an uneasy, slippery load that had to be raised above our heads each night.  First, we'd look for a high rock ledge that was wide enough to hold the bag. Failing that, we'd search for a strong tree limb. Tall pines and birches were abundant on the eskers, but otherwise were nonexistent.

What to do?  In desperation, we lashed together a tripod of canoe paddles, then carefully balanced the bloated water bag on top. Since the bag was barely three feet off the ground we had to stoop low, or lie down to get enough water pressure to produce a steady flow.  The procedure worked okay when the bag was full of water, but not when the the supply was half exhausted.  Once the shower bag lost its shape, it came splashing down.

After several frustrating trials we decided that the only way to ensure adequate water pressure--and our own safety--was to have one person hold the water bag on top of the tripod while another took a shower.  This method  proved reliable so we adopted it as policy.  After a week of this silliness, we gave up on the shower, agreeing never to let Chic know how much we hated it.
Manitou Falls, Fond du Lac River
A few weeks after the trip, we gathered at Chic's house for a party and  slide show.  As we flipped through the pictures, we paused extra long on those which showed the shower.  Finally, we came to our tripod, and proudly asked Chic what he thought of it.

Chic knocked the ashes out of his corncob pipe and took a long deep draw on his Michelob. Then, with dead pan expression he asked: "Why didn't you guys just put the bag on the ground and step on it?  Then, you wouldn't have to build that silly thing every night!"

Addendum:  Shortly after we returned from our Fond du Lac River trip, we learned that Chic had contracted ALS.  He died six weeks later. 

Cliff Jacobson

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

BLOG 25. Tools You Need and Toys You Don’t! by Cliff Jacobson

BLOG 25.  Tools You Need and Toys You Don’t! By Cliff Jacobson

Anyone can enjoy canoe camping without spending a lot of money. Indeed, the more stuff you bring on a canoe trip, the more stuff you’ll have to portage. But it takes experience to learn what you need and what you don’t. The result is, that many people spend their camping dollars on things that are fun to have but not essential. Top choices include LED lanterns; bulky Gore-tex parkas that are better for mountaineering than canoeing; sleeping bags that are too warm for summer camping; quick-boil stoves that can’t be used for real cooking; folding saws that fit in a fanny pack but won’t cut thick logs, and pricey butane torch lighters.

These things are nice, but not at the expense of what you need to stay warm, dry and in command.  Here, in no particular order are the things I value most on my canoe trips:

1.    A lightweight rain tarp is the first thing that goes up in my camp. It provides a protected place to cook and relax. It’s If it’s raining and the tent has a separate fly, the tent is loosely pitched under the tarp then moved to the proper spot. This procedure keeps the sleeping compartment dry during set-up.
Twin rain tarps in the BWCA. These are from Cooke Custom Sewing

2.    A roomy tent with one or two attached vestibules (for gear storage) and two covered entries.  Why two entries? Open both and the airflow will exhaust the bugs; if a zipper fails on one door, you have the other. Don’t forget a plastic groundcloth for inside the tent.

3.    A full-size folding saw and hand-axe. The Boundary Waters are among the hardest places to make fire on a rainy day, because all the good wood on campsites has been picked over. Saw an arm-thick branch off a dead, downed tree and split it with the hatchet to get at the dry heartwood.  In minutes, you’ll have a cheery flame. Try this procedure with a flimsy triangular aluminum saw and discount store hatchet then switch to a full frame saw and a Gransfors™ axe (any model!) and you’ll say wow! 
An axe, saw, fixed-blade knife and Leatherman tool, covers all

4.    A powerful gasoline stove: You’ll use about 0.1 Liter of fuel (gasoline) per person per day. You can easily check the contents of your fuel bottle to see if you’re on track. With a butane stove you won’t have a clue—and, you’ll have to carry out spent fuel containers. If a butane cartridge springs a leak when it’s disconnected from your stove (it happens!) and empties its contents while you paddle, you won’t know until it’s too late. Butane stoves lose efficiency as the temperature drops;  gasoline stoves don’t! A typical butane canister costs about five dollars and burns for about 45 minutes. A gasoline stove will consume about a dollar’s worth of Coleman fuel in that time. 

5.    If you rely exclusively on instant freeze-dried slop (just add boiling water), an  insulated butane stove (like the “Jet boil”) that heats fast may be right for you. But, if you prefer “real” food, you’ll want a more versatile cooker. 
6.    An insulated trail mattress that inflates and deflates fast, and a lightweight, summer-rated sleeping bag. Tent temperatures typically run about 10 degrees warmer than outside so a 40 degree-rated bag is usually warm enough. If it gets below freezing, put on a knitted hat and long johns. Or maybe just wax your skis and leave your canoe at home.
Get a trail pad that insulates and inflates and deflates quickly.  This one doesn't!

Note:  I’ve always used a down sleeping bag on my canoe trips and I’ve never gotten it wet. If you pack as I suggest in my books, you won’t either. Down bags are lighter, more compact and have a much wider temperature comfort range than synthetics. They don’t smell when used over the long haul and they last decades longer than synthetic bags.  For example, I recently replaced my tired 40 year old Trailwise down sleeping bag—the down was fine, the nylon shell wasn’t.  Down bags are more expensive than synthetics, and worth it!

7.    A good orienteering compass with a built-in declination adjustment. I used to prefer the Silva Ranger; now I’m won over to the Suunto MC-2. The woods are filled with novices who have expensive GPS units and don’t know how to use them.  A good compass, plus navigational knowledge, should be a prized essential. A compass remains the tool of choice for navigating the small lakes in the BWCA.

8.    A waterproof GPS. For several decades I found my way around the Canadian north just fine with only a map and compass.  Now I’m spoiled: I love my GPS, but I ALWAYS carry a compass! Warning! It’s essential to understand traditional map and compass navigation before you commit to a GPS.  Those who question the wisdom of this advice WILL, one day, become lost!

9.    A lightweight rain-suit.  Gore-tex is nice but a simple, polyurethane-coated suit is lighter, more compact and less expensive.  Why pay for pockets you won’t use or for zippered closures at the ankles?  Primitive man learned long ago that water doesn’t flow uphill! Leg closures simply restrict ventilation.

10.    A fixed blade knife that’s strong enough to split kindling and long enough to reach to the bottom of the peanut butter jar.  If you have to split kindling into fine slivers to obtain ignition, you’ll want a knife that won’t break or fold in your hand when you hammer on the spine with a piece of wood. The best inexpensive sheath knife I’ve found is the “Mora knife” (Mora kniv) which you can find on line. Choose the carbon steel—not stainless—model!  It comes to you razor sharp (really!) and costs about 12 dollars. It’s not pretty but it is an amazing knife for the price.
Using the sheath knife as a light axe--just pound the blade on through!

11.     A folding stool with a built-in back-rest. This is pure luxury!  Friends will laugh at your extravagance, only to wish they had one once they try it.  I think I’ve tried every folding stool on the planet but my favorite is the one in the Piragis catalog, for which I personally campaigned.
Folding stool: Note attachment to pack at right

In summary, toys are nice but not at the expense of eliminating tools you really need. This said, I sometimes don’t follow my own advice and bring things I shouldn’t. The judgment call comes during the first portage, after which I wish I’d left them at home. But the wonderful thing about canoeing, is that the only one you need to please is yourself.  So best forget this blog and simply do what makes you smile.

Cliff Jacobson

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fall Catalog Covers Anyone? Comment and vote below.

The last few weeks have provided some excellent opportunities for photos.  The autumn leaves were of outstanding color and although they've been knocked down with the recent wind, rain and snow, they were memorable indeed.  Fall is a short-lived season in the beautiful Northwoods, but it is vibrant.

We're asking your opinion on some shots we'd like to use for catalog covers next fall season.

You can visit the Online Catalog Here.

You are invited to comment on the blog comment section below this entry and vote for your favorites.

Your comments will be published the following day or after the weekend (so you are aware of why they don't appear right away).  Thank you and enjoy!  Let us know what you think.

Fall Cover Option #1
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Fall Cover Option #2
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Fall Cover Option #3
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Fall Cover Option #4
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Fall Cover Option #5
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Fall Cover Option #6
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Monday, October 1, 2012

Autumn in the Boundary Waters: An Interview about rules and such with Drew Brockett

Interview with Drew Brockett, Outfitting Manager for Piragis Northwoods Company

Drew, what's going on in the Boundary Waters right now?  We've had some fabulous weather the past week or so.  Now that you're not quite so busy, can you catch us up a little.

DREW:  You're absolutely right, the weather was great and the cooler nights have really brought out the Autumn colors that pop off the horizon.  We've been putting some great pictures up onto our Facebook page.

Are you still renting out canoes and outfitting clients with gear and food?

DREW:  You bet.  Right now we've still got canoe rentals on the books for much of the month of October.  We're open from 9 in the morning until 5 pm each day.

What about the fire restrictions and campsite closures, are those still in effect?

DREW:  The fire restrictions are over and all campsites that were closed as well as areas that were closed due to the September 2012 fires are open.  The wilderness is open for business as usual.  (there are still some closed campsites in the Lake Three through Insula area as well as Isabella Lake. Not all sites were able to be opened after the Pagami Creek Fire last Fall.)  That being said, it is super dry here.  Many marsh and bog areas are dry enough to walk on.  That's not good.  With the winds up and leaves blowing around everyone should be extra-careful in the woods.  Keep fires small and make sure they are completely out with water before you leave.  Never leave fires unattended.

When do you call it quits for the year?

DREW:  We don't.  We may be the only outfitting business in Ely that is open year round.  We rent to hunters and fall campers as long as there is open water.  Canoes, camping gear, SAT phones and even shuttles are popular services we provide every Fall.  When the lakes freeze and the snow flies, our retail staff takes over the rental operations and we supply canvas wall tents, wood stoves, pulks, skis, snowshoes, sleeping bags and more.  Adam and I spend the winter booking trips and planning routes for next summer's outfitting clients.  At least one of us is here to answer the phones 7 days a week.

Will you get out for a Fall trip this year?

DREW:  Yep, I've got one planned in a week or so.  Adam is out paddling with Vidmar and his friends as we speak.  It is a great time to go canoe camping.  You have to be prepared for cold, rain and snow, of course, but being prepared is part of any trip.  It is definitely time to pack the long underwear and think about smart layers.  You don't want to be out without a fleece, good shell or extra socks.  It's a great time to enjoy meals like atomic hash browns and trail chili, that's for sure.

What about permits?  Do you still need one to go?

DREW:  As of October 1st, entry permits for the Boundary Waters are self-issue at each entry point.  You do not have to reserve one.  Just go to the entry point and fill out the permit in the box.  You will keep one copy with you on the adventure and put one copy in the box at the entry.  Remember that all rules and regulations are still in effect.

Give us a call to reserve a canoe, pack, shuttle, phone, etc and we’ll make a reservation for you.  That way, we know you will be showing up on a certain date and we’ll have everything ready for you.

Please feel free to call Drew or Adam if you are looking for any help with an October journey up here.  800-223-6565.  Hope you can get one more paddle in.