Changes in Expedition Canoeing

Canoe & Kayak Web Exclusive
story and photos by Cliff Jacobson

I recently talked with the editor of an online magazine who was reviewing the 20th anniversary edition of my book, “Expedition Canoeing.” He said it would spice up the review if I shared my observations on how canoeing—particularly wilderness canoeing—has changed since 1952, when I took up paddling. That set me thinking.

Changes? There’ve been plenty. And not all have been for the good. Here’s how I see it:

By far, the biggest and most welcome change is how trips are planned. Before the internet, research was mostly done by mail, largely because northern residents had radio telephones that were very expensive to operate.

Locating reliable information wasn’t easy. We wrote everyone who might know about the river we planned to paddle—the Provincial Bureau of Tourism (Canada), chambers of commerce, schools, churches, gas stations, restaurants and stores (notably, the Hudson Bay Company). Hopefully, a letter would reach someone who was a paddler or who knew someone who was a paddler. Northern residents saw no urgency in answering mail, so the letters often sat for weeks unanswered. Researching a canoe trip in a remote region generally took a year or more.

Now, everyone who lives “up north” has a computer online or access to one. Just do a Google search and watch the information roll in. You can often find everything you need in a few days.

Royalex and composite canoes have upped the margin of safety on wilderness rivers. Many of the early accidents (from capsizes and lining) were caused by aluminum canoes sticking to rocks. My first tripping canoe (circa 1967) was an 18-foot Grumman lightweight; the rock-grabbing metal hull and cow-catcher keel were huge concerns. Waxing (we used Johnson Paste wax) helped some but that devilish keel was always there. Today, with Royalex canoes, we confidently run rapids that we once portaged around in our metal boats. Now, we worry more about how to recover a wrapped Royalex canoe than any damage it may have sustained in the wrap.

Northern rivers run cold and the temperature of an aluminum canoe is about the same as that of the river. Some paddlers carried closed cell foam pads to place under their butt and feet. Modern Royalex and polyethylene canoes don’t telegraph temperature.

Spray covers were almost unheard of when I canoed to James Bay (via the Groundhog, Mattagami, and Moose Rivers) in 1974. We portaged many rapids that we would run in covered canoes today. I wouldn’t do any wild northern river today—tandem or solo—without a full splash cover.

The old Clement wooden paddle I used on my early trips now hangs in my garage. Except for rapids, where straight paddles still rule, I rely exclusively on a 12-degree carbon-fiber bent shaft. The convincing argument came in 1977 while canoeing Ontario’s Steel River in my woodstrip solo canoe. I used a “solo
C-stroke” almost exclusively to stay on course. Pain (a tingling/dead sensation in my fingers and hands) set in on day three and intensified to where I could barely paddle.

The following year, I canoed the same river again, but this time I brought a bent-shaft paddle and used the Minnesota switch (HUT!) technique. The results were dramatic: no pain and all gain. Except in rapids, I never use a straight paddle.

In the 1960s, 13 pounds of flotation (the Coast Guard now requires 15.5) was the world standard. These old vests were slim, lightweight, better ventilated and more comfortable than anything available today.

Nearly all of today’s high end PFDs are designed for kayaking and cold water sport boating, not for touring in open canoes. They are cut short at the waist (so they’ll clear a cockpit) which exposes your kidneys to a cold following wind. Their thick foam panels protect from hypothermia but they encourage overheating. Do the designers really believe that every paddler canoes big rapids in the cold spring run-off?

I mourn the passing of the old tubular style PFDs (we called them “life jackets” then) that moved with your body. Thankfully, my ancient Harishok will probably live as long as me.

I recently saw the film “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which I found juvenile and boring, more fit for a 12-year-old than an adult. A British reviewer said the movie had “more money than wit.” Ditto, the majority of new North American tents which require many minutes and an engineering degree to pitch. Most have perimeter seams that are exposed to rain, marginally protected entries and tiny vestibules that will barely hold a pack.

I have yet to find any tent that is as weather-tight and quick to pitch as my 1974 Cannondale Aroostook (no longer manufactured) which, with its permanently attached fly that covers every seam and zipper, double entries and huge (six-foot) vestibules can be set up alone in under three minutes. For solo canoe trips I still use my 1966 Gerry Fireside which weighs less than four pounds and fits into an 8.5- by 11-inch stuff sack.

Today’s (almost exclusively “dome”) tents have better fabrics and zippers and more bells and whistles than the old timers. They are roomy and they look classy. But they are harder to pitch and not as rain-proof as the best A-frame, tee-pee and tunnel types of the 1960s and ’70s. And absurd fire-proofing rules prevent tent makers from using the superlight silicone treated fabrics which are at the heart of the best European tents.

But there’s big news afield! Gary McGuffin and I have collaborated with Eureka! Canada to produce a much improved version of the Aroostook tent. Dubbed the “Tundraline 3P (three person),” it will be released this spring. Gary and I both have prototype models, and they are awesome! Photos and description are on Eureka! Canada’s Web site (

Bugs are the one constant on canoe trips. The good news is that today’s repellents are light years ahead of the largely citronella based compounds we had in the 1950s. The discovery of DEET has been a Godsend to paddlers. It is the only chemical I’ve used that (sort of) deters Canadian black flies.

Northern paddlers won’t leave home without a head-net. In 1917, Horace Kephart, author of “Woodcraft and Camping,” wrote: “The best net is of Brussels silk veiling of fine mesh, black, because it is the easiest color to see through.” Most head-nets today are light-colored for style not function. Manufacturers please take note!

Recently, there has been an interest in personal body nets, like the Susie bug net, designed by my wife Sue Harings (see my book, “Expedition Canoeing”), and big-screened tarps like those pioneered by Cooke Custom Sewing in Minnesota. I never carried a body net or screen tent on my early trips. Now, I wouldn’t leave home without them.

Canvas packs and woven ash baskets were the choices in the 1950s. There were no waterproof bags or pack liners. When I was 14 I made my first waterproof pack liner from a rubberized army poncho. I cut it to fit my box-sided Woods portage pack, sewed up the sides and waterproofed the seams with model airplane glue. I made food bags from lightweight cotton muslin. I ironed paraffin into the cotton to make it “water-repellent”.

Waterproofing was a serious issue then—a capsize meant a down day of drying gear. Today, only idiots get things wet on a canoe trip. Roll down a top and clip the buckles, snap the lid on the barrel, cam-lock a wanigan—easy. No longer does one need skill to keep things dry.

The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the tumpline. Learn to use one right and you’ll never go without. I have one on every pack! Canadians need no introduction to tumplines, and despite misguided hype, they’ve never swayed from using them. Americans need more convincing—they prefer to rely on high priced technology—hip belts, sternum straps, and sophisticated pack geometry—to ease the pain of portaging. The tumpline is a better plan!

Going to Canada used to be easy. You simply showed your driver’s license and were waived through with a smile. Things have changed since 9-11. Now, you can expect a delay if you don’t have a passport, more so upon returning to the States. And if you have boats on your car or are pulling a trailer, a shakedown search is probable. Crossing the border isn’t fun any more. My Canadian friends tell me U.S. border crossings aren’t either.

I made my first long canoe trip in Canada in 1973. We paddled from Cochrane, Ontario to James Bay (21 days), via the Groundhog, Mattagami, and Moose Rivers. We had whistles and a heliograph mirror. There was no way to call for help in an emergency.

Now, there are cell and satellite phones, personal locator beacons (PLBs), VHF and CB radios, and global positioning systems. Help, or a simple change of plans, is just a button push away. Accurate positioning is easy—GPS doesn’t lie. Technology has made canoe trips safer but it has also eliminated some of the flavor of high adventure. Modern paddlers have the option to quit when things get bad; in the old days, we slogged ahead and toughed it out.

Fifty years ago, canoeing and camping were largely “permit free.” Now, most of the popular paddling places, from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico to the Allagash in Maine require a permit to canoe and camp. Some heavily used western rivers have a waiting list that stretches for years! Even Ontario crown land rivers, which were once free to canoe, now require foreign paddlers to pay a daily camping fee. And guided groups who canoe in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon need a guiding permit. Naturally, there’s paperwork and a fee. Sadly, local streams, which, in most of the United States, were once free for the floating, are now burdened with access and camping regulations. Bureaucracy has taken much of the joy out of canoeing and camping.


I became attracted to canoes in 1952, at the age of 12, at a rustic scout camp set deep in the Michigan woods. Wilderness, much more than paddling pleasure, was the draw. With a canoe, I could drift down lazy creeks, sneak up on wildlife, fish in places where power boats couldn’t go, and freely camp just about anywhere.

As long as there is water, there will be canoes. But wild places to paddle them are fast disappearing. Most Americans and Canadians have never been canoeing, let alone wilderness canoeing. They don’t understand the importance of wilderness in human development. Richard Louve addresses this concern in his book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louve makes the case that kids are so consumed by TV and video games (they hate “outside” because there’s no electricity to run their games) that they have lost their connection to the natural world—they see no value in wild places and, therefore, no reason to preserve them. I taught eighth grade environmental science for 30 years and I can say he is right on target.

What isn’t is society’s view that kids must be flooded with (mostly useless) information and tested frequently to ascertain their knowledge of it. The result is that teachers have no time for social or environmental concerns or philosophy. They must teach to tests that are designed by those who don’t hike, camp, or canoe or give a wit about wilderness. Teachers who do take their students outdoors without meeting an “approved government objective” are subject to discipline. The result is that we’re raising a generation of youngsters who love malls more than trees. Unless we change our educational expectations, and quickly, I fear that we will continue to lose more wilderness, and more of our sanity.

Americans and Canadians are slow to react to crisis, but when we do we give our all and usually succeed. Hopefully, we will see the light in time to save what’s left.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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