Here's how I became addicted to the wild outdoors:
I discovered the joys of camping at the age of 12 in a rustic Scout camp set deep in the Michigan woods. It was 1952, just before the dawn of nylon tents and synthetic clothes. Aluminum canoes were hot off the Grumman forms, though I’d never seen one. Deep down, I believed they’d never replace the glorious wood-ribbed Old Towns and Thompsons.
Like most kids my age, I had little money for outdoor gear. What I earned by picking pop bottles off the roadway went for a secondhand bike or a Randolph Scott movie. My camping outfit was carefully assembled from a ragtag assortment of military surplus and Salvation Army store items. I knew only one kid who had equipment that was new.
One Christmas Dad gave me an all-steel Scout hand axe, which came complete with tooled leather sheath and varnished wood scales. For 20 years thereafter I proudly carried it on all my backwoods trips. It was my edge for making fires on a rainy day. Early on, I decided that those who badmouthed hatchets simply lacked the skills to use them right. I still retain that conviction as you’ll read in my books.
Environmental concerns? In those days, there were none. Not that we didn’t care, you understand. We just didn’t see anything wrong with cutting trees and restructuring the soil to suit our needs. Given the primitive equipment of the day, reshaping the land was the most logical way to make outdoor life bearable.
In 1958 Calvin Rutstrum brought out his first book, The Way of the Wilderness. Suddenly, there was new philosophy afield. Calvin knew the days of trenched tents and bough beds were numbered. His writings challenged readers to think before they cut, to use an air mattress instead of a spruce bed. Wilderness camping and canoeing were in transition. New products—nylon, Dacron, stainless steel and vinyl—were already fragmenting the monopolies enjoyed by cotton, wool and canvas. Outfitters sold their cotton tents and joined the nylon revolution.
The emphasis had shifted from skills to things. Everyone needed a plethora of new gear—down sleeping bags and foam sleeping pads, Swiss Army knives with a tool for everything, waterproof boots with Vibram lugs, two-piece rain suits with clever hoods that moved with your head; polypropylene underwear and fleece pullovers; erector-set tents that didn’t need staking; Gore-Tex suits that breathed in the rain.
I felt quite inadequate, like a peasant in Camelot. Calvin Rutstrum summed it up one foggy morning on a mid-September day. I’d driven up to meet him at his wilderness cabin on the North shore of Lake Superior. As Cal poured coffee, I baited him by pulling from its stuff sack a polyester-filled sleeping bag I’d purchased for my wife.
“Whatcha think of these new synthetic bags?” I asked. “They dry really fast—could be a life saver if you get your down bag wet.”
Rutstrum, in his early eighties, rose, his jaw set and eyes poised in anger. “I’ve canoed and camped for nigh on seventy years and have never got my down bag wet,” he bellered. People who get things wet on trips don’t need new gear. They need to learn how to camp and canoe!”
I could have cheered!
Today, high-tech gear and high-powered salesmanship have become a substitute for rock-solid outdoor skills. Chemical fire-starters take the place of correct fire making; indestructible canoes are the solution to hitting rocks; bizzard-proof tents become the answer to ones inability to stormproof conventional designs; GPS positioning has replaced a map and a compass. And the what-if-you-get-your-down-bag-wet attitude attracts new converts every year. In the end, only the manufacturers win. For even the best gear falls short of expectation without proper knowledge of how to use it.
Until 2006, I outfitted and guided canoe trips in northern Canada, usually traveling with a crew of ten. We used float planes to access the rivers, which were extremely remote and difficult to paddle. My northern river experience includes six trips to Hudson Bay and five trips well above the Arctic Circle. In 30 years of guiding canoe trips on some of the toughest rivers on the continent, I am pleased to say that no one in my charge has ever been killed or injured or has experienced serious discomfort. I am convinced that my untarnished safety record is due much more to skill and good judgment than to good gear and good luck.
I have a deep, abiding love for wild places and wild things. I smile at bad weather and the unexpected--these obstacles encourage me to better appreciate the tiny footprint I leave upon the land. Readers of my books discover that many of my methods defy conventional wisdom. Good: misery is the mother of invention, challenges encourage change. It's simple: what works, hangs around, what doesn’t, is discarded by dawn! To this end, I have dedicated much of my life to perfecting procedures that “smooth” the rough edges of the wilderness experience. Camping should be elegant, effortless and fun. My books show you how to enjoy the worst of times on the best of terms.
Happy camping, hiking and canoeing and kayaking,
W10070 State Rd. 29
River Falls, WI 54022
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