top of page
  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Grizzly. Camp along the Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan 13. NOT FOLLOWING THE TRIP LEADER'S EQUIPMENT LIST Good trip leaders provide a detailed equipment list which should be rigorously followed. The leader will review personal equipment and clothing before the trip and approve safe alternatives. But some people are stubborn and "after inspection" delete or sneak in stuff. My friend, Larry Rice once organized a 10 day canoe trip on the Noatak River (above the Arctic Circle) in Alaska. A lot of charter flying was involved so this was a very expensive trip. Larry told participants that they must have wool socks and waterproof footwear. Two people showed up in sandals. Within the hour their feet were wet and cold and they were miserable. The next day they called (satellite phone) a charter float plane service and flew back to Fairbanks then home to Missouri. I've had similar shoe problems on my Canadian trips. Fortunately, my wife, Susie always brings two pair of waterproof boots. She was never happy to loan one out.

Steel River, Ontario. Bell Wildfire solo canoe

14. NOT WATERPROOFING GEAR FOR A CANOE TRIP Many times, I've encountered paddlers whose packs--and everything else--were soaking wet from rain or a capsize. Twice, in the BWCA, I have observed unprotected sleeping bags sloshing in water in the bottom of a canoe. Not planning for rain or a capsize is both dumb and dangerous.

Bring tools to make fire and to clear a portage! 15. NOT BRINGING A SAW AND HATCHET/AXE ON A WILDERNESS CANOE TRIP If you have to make fire on a rainy day, in a place where all the good wood has been picked over (read BWCA), you'll need an axe to split the wood (to make dry kindling) you cut to length with your saw. And if you're going where portages are not maintained, an axe and saw may be needed to clear the way. 16. SECURING PACKS INTO CANOES BY CLIPPING THE SHOULDER STRAPS AROUND A THWART. This is dangerous! Scenario 1--Capsize in a rapid: The loosely tethered packs flop out of the canoe and snag on obstacles (rocks, branches etc.). The canoe broaches to the current and wraps. Scenario 2--Capsize far from shore on a windy lake. Packs bob out and act like anchors which make swimming the canoe to shore impossible. Moral? Tieing packs into canoes is wise only if they are water-tight (and will float) and will stay put in a capsize. Mental test: If you turn the canoe upside down and the packs don't budge, you've done it right. 18. NOT TRUSTING YOUR WATER PURIFIER. All my friends have water purifiers. But strangely, they seldom trust them. How do I know? Because they "carry" water on most of our canoe trips. One gallon of water-- one person's needs for a day--weighs 8.3 pounds. On a 10 day trip that's 83 pounds per person in your canoe! Except where chemicals and heavy metals are a concern, purified river water is safer to drink than most rural well and bottled water.

Bears climb trees! Very well! And they will chew through ropes. 19. TREEING FOOD PACKS IN BEAR COUNTRY. Black bears climb trees. Very well! Indeed, bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park hybernate in nests they build in trees! Federal authorities don't care if a bear gets your food or damages your car. But they DO care if a bear gets you! The simple solution is humans "here", bears "there"! Rangers in the western U.S. parks call treed packs "bear pinatas"! Want more? See my flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS 5th edtion.

A tundra tarp saved my marriage. Hood River, Nunavut, Canada 20. CHOOSING DRAB-COLORED CLOTHING AND GEAR. Blending with nature is part of what wilderness camping is all about—and for many, this means dressing the part. The rule—widely encouraged by federal authorities—is to avoid bright colors that take the “wild” out of wilderness. Go instead with gentle green, olive drab and autumn brown. This is fine if you’re on a beaten path where campsites dot the trail. Color the tents blaze orange and suddenly you’re in Camelot! Yes, bright colors can diminish the outdoor experience. But they can also be a safety factor, as these examples illustrate:

Cree River, Saskatchewan, canoe trip: A forest fire prevented us from reaching our take-out spot. We camped instead on an island five miles upstream. The sky was smoky yellow, visibility was hardly better than none at all. We had little hope that our bush plane would find us in the morning. At 7:45 AM we heard the roar of an engine, and seconds later a single otter swooped out of the sky and chugged to our doorstep. “It was that checkerboard tarp that caught my eye,” said the pilot. Gull River, Ontario: I lost the trail part way through an undefined and unrefined portage. So, I set down my grass-green canoe to scout the way. I found the trail shortly, but it took an hour to locate my boat. Right then, I vowed I would never own another “camouflage” canoe! A tundra tarp saved my marriage! On August 12, 1992, Sue Harings and I were married at Wilberforce Falls along Canada’s Hood River. The wedding was nearly aborted ten days earlier, when I discovered that I had left the “wedding pack” (a white Duluth pack that contained Susie’s ermine-trimmed wedding dress and all the wedding treats) at the float plane dock in Yellowknife, NWT, 400 air miles away. When Susie learned the pack was missing, she wanted to postpone the wedding. Really! But flying out behind us (headed for a different river) was Canada’s famed canoe man, Michael Peake. Mike put the pack aboard a twin otter bound for Cambridge Bay, and asked the pilots to “find Cliff”. They did—the co-pilot pushed the pack out the door at an altitude of 300 feet! It fell like a missile (no harm done) and the wedding was on again! Neither pilot saw our five overturned red canoes or our five red and yellow tents which were clustered together. It was our Cooke Custom Sewing multicolor rain tarp that saved the day! The full story is in my book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition. Moral: a patchwork color pattern beats one solid color. Color your packs "visible". I tie streamers of yellow plastic surveying ribbon to those that aren’t.

Twenty miles from LaRonge, Saskatchewan. 21. BORROWING EQUIPMENT FOR A WILDERNESS CANOE TRIP. Fine for gentle trips like those in the Boundary Waters, but often problematic in places where help is an airplane ride away. Stuff takes a big beating on remote country wilderness trips; occasionally, things are damaged beyond repair. And the borrowers aren't always willing to pay for repairs or replacements.

Manitou Falls (Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan) is located at the red arrow, NOT where it's indicated on the map. 23. NOT TAKING MAPS AND TRIP GUIDES SERIOUSLY Modern maps are largely made from aerial photos which reveal small details. With rare exceptions, they accurately show the obstacles canoeists are likely to encounter. Experienced paddlers profile their routes and mark potential dangers--rapids, falls and the safe trails around them. Not taking maps and guides seriously is dangerous! 24. TAKING MAPS AND TRIP GUIDES TOO SERIOUSLY. Maps aren't perfect. River channels change, debris moves around. And very occasionally, cartographers make mistakes. Most maps were last field-checked on the ground decades ago. In the past, several drownings on the Missinaibi River, Ontario were traced to a map that showed the location of the portage around a dangerous falls on the wrong side of the river. That map has since been corrected. Best stay in touch with your senses. If something looks or feels strange, check it out from shore before you continue.


Long before the white man discovered the recreational value of rivers, native North Americans used them as highways. Families often traveled together, with their elders, children and dogs. By today’s standards, their boats were fragile and their paddle skills marginal. Certainly, there were accidents. But native accounts don’t dwell on them, any more than we do when we drive our cars. How is it then, that even poor paddlers usually got down-river safely? The answer is “patience”—a commitment to not take chances!

Most modern outdoorspeople don’t have much patience. They offer these reasons why:

1. Bad weather/behind schedule--gotta keep truckin’ or we’ll lose our layover day at the big falls.

2. A macho attitude. Other parties paddled these difficult rapids, climbed the high mountain, so can we!

3. We’re prepared for the worst! Dangerous rapids, difficult climb, bad weather ahead? No problem; we have superior equipment.

Here are some examples of how patience pays:


The wind was blowing bloody murder when we arrived at Otter Lake (Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan) so we put ashore around noon to wait it out. The waves continued through lunch, so I suggested that we camp and try again tomorrow. We were snuggled under a tarp, sharing hot buttered rum and popcorn, when we saw two canoes—wind in their face-- plugging towards our camp. I waived them in and suggested they share our camp. They said they were behind schedule and had to keep going.

The wind quit around noon the next day and we paddled off with a smile, determined to make up lost time. The sun sets around 11 PM at this latitude (590), so we agreed to canoe until dark. Around 2 PM we passed “their camp”. Everyone was asleep. We logged 31 miles that day and 29 the next, which put us ahead of schedule. We never saw the other canoe party again.

Moral? Nature rules! Stop when you must; run when you can.


The MacFarlane River (Saskatchewan) rushes through a three mile canyon just before it breaks out into Lake Athabasca. There’s serious water here—you have to be nuts not to portage. But where? There was no sign of a portage on river left so we crossed to the right and took out at a narrow trail that ran up a steep bank. There was a tree with an ancient axe blaze on top. Aha. The portage!

Hardly. The trail ran a quarter mile along the canyon rim then petered out. Perhaps it continued in the woods? Four hours of searching revealed nothing.

We were shot so I suggested we “sleep on it” and have another look tomorrow. We did, and drew another blank. Bickering began. Pressure grew to canoe the canyon, dangers be-damned.

I suggested we pair off and keep looking. Shortly, someone found an old animal trail that went in the right direction. But it was overgrown with young trees—canoes and packs could not be carried through.

Sure enough, it was a portage, albeit one that hadn’t been used in many years. It took us more than a day to clear the route and complete the carry. Our patience paid off.

BIG BEAR (see lead-in photo)

We had just finished breakfast when I heard someone yell, ”Bear! Big bear!” Sure enough, a huge cinnamon-colored black bear (or maybe it was a grizzly) was circling our camp. I hollered and blew a whistle. He didn’t even look up. So I grabbed my rifle and amassed everyone into a tight group. He circled closer. When he was 50 feet away I fired a warning shot over his head. He just sniffed the air then ambled down the bank and came in from another direction. He paused behind a large rock and stood up to see us better. He was just 20 feet away!

I was plenty scared, even with a powerful rifle in hand. But I did not want to kill this gray-whiskered old boy. So we talked. I looked unthreateningly into his eyes and told him I didn’t want to hurt him, that we’d be gone soon, and he could have his way. I said I respected him and wanted him to go on living. But I calmly emphasized that I would shoot him if he came over that rock.

We stared at one another for some time. I could sense the wheels turning in his head. There was no fear or animosity. Only the question of what to do next. Then, after what seemed like an eternity (I learned it was barely one minute) he turned and proudly walked away. As soon as he was gone, some crew members said they would have shot him before he got so close. But as the fear wore off, all agreed that my patient plan was the right one.

Patience is like a secure eddy in the middle of a raging rapid. It’s gives you time to formulate a plan before you dash dumbly downstream.

*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."

*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!

*My 90 minute video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS details the most important camping skills. If you can do them all you'll be a hero to your friends!

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page