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!