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Peter's recent post about the evolution of gear in the 1800's, inspired me to think about my own gear evolution.
I got started back packing with my parents in the early 1960's. We had Kelty B4's, REI McKinley bags, air mattresses and slept under a tarp with no ground cloth. We also had Bluet canister stoves. For the time, we were pretty high tech. However, I was interested in how it had been done in earlier times. I read Brad Angier and Townsend Whelen and Cal Rutstrum. I wanted to experience things the way they had done it. In a way, I was a bit like Chris McCandless, but I had no illusions about living off the land without a lot of experience.
In 1971 I paddled the Bowron Lakes canoe circuit with a school buddy. Having read the books I mentioned and others, I knew I wanted a cotton tent. They breathed, right? Eddie Bauer had just come out with a dome tent, in cotton. That was my first mistake. The poles were not shock corded so it took two people to carefully assemble without have the whole house of cards, uh, poles, fall apart. Next the small fly would shrink when wet so that it could not be stretched over the poles.
Our packs were frame packs, mine my trusty B4. Frame packs don't fit into canoes well. I learned that the first day.
For fire building, I took a Woodsman's Pal. An interesting concept, I still have it and they are still made. It does none of its intended uses very well.
The canoe was an Old Town fiberglass canoe. Old Town makes good boats and this was no exception. It was built with hand laid GRP, the deck, seats and gunnels one molded piece that was glued to the hull. It had a balsa core. a sure sign of quality when building a pleasure boat. But it wasn't the right construction method for a canoe. It weighed a published 90 pounds and was probably more. A lot for a 16 foot canoe that was 12 inches deep.
It had no yoke or thwarts. So I had a guy here in Seattle who was a paddler, make a yoke. The problem was, he didn't like to carry canoes and had never made a yoke. It was painful and slid around on the canoe. (It was clamped on).
I wore Filson waxed tin pants, that eventually became wet and didn't dry for most of the trip.
I wore leather hiking boots that stayed just as wet as the pants.
On our first day, we portaged in rain(it was early June) through mud halfway to our knees. We leap frogged with a god of a man who had it all figured out. No half modern, half traditional gear for him. He had a sage green Chestnut, Woods packs and a small canvas tent. He wore rubber knee high boots and lightweight wool pants. And he had an HBC pattern axe and a small folding buck saw.
We encountered him throughout the first half of the trip. He was always across the port before us, sitting in camp, frying some fish, or just relaxing.
I learned that many old methods and gear work because they are time tested. I learned that new gear needs to be carefully designed by people who know what they are doing. I learned that waxed cotton has it's uses, but day after day in the rain isn't one. I also learned that many books, supposedly written by backwoodsmen about outdoor crafts, might make interesting reading, but have little practical value.
And to Clyde Ormond, author of "The Complete Book of Outdoor Lore", wherever he is, I say, "moccasins are not footwear for hiking in the muskeg...PERIOD!"