Except for my first expedition or two, I've always used Berwin bindings on my skis in the Arctic. They allow me to ski wearing soft, comfortable mukluks or kamiks. It's how I can trek 1,000 kilometres and never get blisters. When I see all these novices skiing to the South Pole wearing heavy tele boots and bindings and bemoaning their chewed-up feet and cracked boot soles, I wonder why the hell they're not wearing Berwins, which have been around for over 25 years. (They're actually adaptations of military bindings.) A subtle advantage of Berwins is that they allow you to change in seconds from walking to skiing and back again, as snow conditions vary. You don't want to be walking far in tele or AT boots; that's a recipe for blisters.
Berwins have their disadvantages. They don't offer enough support for kiting or downhill turns. The heel cup presses against my soft boots with the strain of pulling a sled. Over hundreds of kilometres, the heel bone gets bruised. To lessen this, I upholster the heels of my Berwins with thick moleskin and often duct tape a piece of closed cell foam on the heel piece as a pad. Those who use bigger, heavier moon-type boots might not need these workarounds, because the boots themselves have more padding. I just find these boots too heavy for quick walking and needlessly warm.
The tongue of plastic that links the toe and heel pieces of the Berwins is surprisingly sturdy in the cold. They've been known to break, but it's uncommon. As a precaution, however, I replace my bindings every two or three expeditions, so the plastic stays new. If the tongue does break, you can rig a bungy cord or piece of webbing around the spurs on the toe piece and around your heel.
But the main disadvantage of the Berwins is that mechanically they work like the old three-pin bindings. The boot and binding bend under the ball of the foot. Years ago, cross-country skiers switched to bindings that hinge at the toe. They allow a longer stride and are less tiring.
Nowadays a couple of companies (check here and here) do make Berwin-type bindings that lift from the toe like their modern xc counterparts. I have no experience with them, so I can't say how they perform in extreme cold, but they probably do fine. And there's no question they're mechanically superior to Berwins.
Some weeks ago, a reader sent me an e-mail asking for some advice about camera gear. Among other things, he was considering getting a Nikon D7000 and he wondered what I thought about it.
Since I don't have a D7000, there wasn't much I could say, except that I'd heard great things about it from professional friends who'd scooped up some of the first available bodies. Recently Thom Hogan, who produces an excellent blog on Nikon equipment, published a wide-ranging review about it that strengthened some of those early raves.
My piece on equipment for cold-weather photography is in the new issue of Outdoor Photographer. It's also online. It has a dozen or so of my best winter gear tips, including how to power digital cameras in the cold for weeks.
Some years ago, while camping with some Inuit friends, I noticed how they kept one or two Coleman stoves going in the wall tent, except while they were sleeping. A 6" by 6" hole in the ceiling near the stoves vented much of the gas. The hole could be closed with a flap when the stoves were not in use.
Carbon monoxide has often been a silent killer in the Arctic. It's particularly treacherous in an igloo, and I've heard many tales from old scientists and Inuit of near-fatal brushes with carbon monoxide poisoning when the snow house's air hole accidentally plugs up, or when a glaze of ice from stove heat coats the inside wall, so that the snow no longer breathes. The stories are similar: one person collapses unconscious without warning, but one member is able to stagger outside or punch a hole in the wall.
For years, uncertain just how far you could push the boundaries, and unsure how much the carbon monoxide that gloms stubbornly onto blood cells would affect athletic performance the following day, I never cooked in the tent. Now I do. I always keep about one-quarter of the door and tent fly open; that seems to provide enough ventilation. I've never noticed an effect on performance. But I also don't use the stove to heat the tent after cooking. I don't need to: my camp clothing is warm enough.
Still, it's a delicate and somewhat risky act: Gasoline stoves often flare up when they first start, so I tend to keep them outside till the flame turns from yellow to blue. I also keep my stove on an insulating stove board, and rest that on top of a banker's box that fits on my sled, in which I keep my peanut butter sandwiches. The banker's box serves as a kitchen table and, along with the stove board, protects the nylon floor from heat.
I must admit that I've come to enjoy the brief taste of heat while cooking supper. It warms the tent enough to let me write in my journal without gloves, or with just thin gloves. I've done it enough to know that carbon monoxide doesn't build up dangerously, as long as I leave the doors partly open. But I always have the foil windscreen nearby, ready to place it over the flame if it flares, to protect the roof of the tent.
We usually want our gear to work perfectly, but occasionally a malfunction leads to new opportunities. The double windows at the front of our house have a slight air leak somewhere. We'd have to replace the whole unit; it's not worth it for the sake of eliminating occasional condensation between the double panes. Besides, on cold mornings like yesterday, that moisture turns into delicate frost feathers.
None of my cameras was able to autofocus on the frost; but most good cameras include a manual focus setting for situations like this one.
I've been giving some public talks lately centered around my book Arctic Eden. The next one is here in town at the Canmore Public Library on December 7. One image in the presentation shows the camera gear that I carry on expeditions. I didn't include my tripod in the shot, simply because a tripod is so long that it would unbalance the layout of cameras, lenses and accessories.
Besides, depending on the trip, I carry one of three tripods: a big carbon model which weighs 4.8 pounds and is my main unit; a little carbon tripod for day hikes and less photographically important backpacking trips, and weighs 2.5 pounds; and a four-pound aluminum tripod for cold-weather expeditions, since carbon legs tend to stick in the cold. These weights don't include the 1.7 pound ballhead.
Early in my photographic career, I used a small, light tripod. Like many amateur models, the head and the legs came as one unit. It served decently, but as my eye became more discerning, I noticed that many of my images were not quite sharp, especially those taken with longer lenses. I tried all the usual tricks: pressed the shutter button gently, steadied the camera on the tripod with my free hand while shooting. Nothing worked. Finally I realized that my technique wasn't at fault; my tripod just wasn't stable enough. I went out and bought some Gitzo legs and an Arca-Swiss B1 ballhead, and the sharpness problem disappeared.
When I travel, or even here in the photogenic Rockies, I see many amateur shooters with dinky tripods similar to or even flimsier than the one I originally used. It's as if they realize that a tripod is important, but they don't want to be stuck carrying an albatross all the time. I know how they feel. Their set of toothpicks functions almost as a talisman: It has little real use, but hey, they've committed to carrying a tripod. That's a big step. Surely it must help.
Although I like carbon tripods much of the time, I make sure that they are not too light. Weight is a big part of the stabilizing effect of a good tripod. An eight-ounce high-tech tripod would be all but useless, no matter how sturdy the materials and design. My big carbon tripod is as tall as I am; with the head and camera attached, the viewfinder towers over my head. I rarely need this excess height; it's there mainly to ensure that the tripod has enough weight. I don't want to be constantly hunting for rocks to hang in a mesh bag from the tripod to give it enough mass to minimize camera shake.
The Arca B1 is a fine head and has survived over 15 years of real abuse. But if I bought another ballhead today, it would be the BH-55 from Really Right Stuff. The BH-55 is more squat, so the camera sits closer to the tripod than it does on my Arca, increasing stability; the lever to cinch down the camera is faster than the Arca B1's screw-knob. On modern Arcas, this screw knob does not fall off, but there is no stopper on mine. After almost losing the knob in the middle of a three-month trip in the Russian Far East, I've become meticulous about making sure it doesn't work loose.
Induro carbon, Gitzo aluminum and lightweight Slik carbon tripods. Even the small one reaches almost chest height, so the viewfinder is close to eye level.
The venerable Arca-Swiss B1, left, and Really Right Stuff's BH-55, right.
Tourists come to Banff in winter to ski and in summer to hike, but the most magical time of year is right now. The small mountain lakes have just frozen, and until the first significant snowfall, you can ice skate on them. Sometimes this period lasts a couple of weeks; sometimes it doesn't happen, because the snow comes after the ice has formed but before it's safe. Usually you get a few glorious days of skating; later in the season, the larger lakes and rivers freeze, so other skating windows occur. A local moccasin telegraph lets skaters know by e-mail what's frozen.
Yesterday morning Alexandra and I checked out Johnson Lake, but it seemed a little dicey -- two whacks with the butt end of a hockey stick broke through to open water -- so we drove further west to Herbert Lake, the first lake on the Icefields Parkway north of Lake Louise. The ice creaked eerily underfoot, but it was fine in the shadows along the south shore, below. Further out, in the sunshine, it looked marginal and we avoided it.
You'll notice the yellow cord around Alexandra's neck. The cord's attached to a pair of nested ice picks, below. In case we break through, we can haul ourselves to solid ice hand over hand. Some locals carry ice climbing tools for this purpose, but the lightweight picks are more convenient. These are made by Normark. Some handymen also make a pair of wooden dowels with offset protruding nails, which nest inside holes in the opposite dowel.
We heard later that a friend of ours, more daring than we, skated Johnson Lake yesterday afternoon, so I headed over there this morning. I was still cautious, because the temperature had risen above 0 C in the meantime. Again, the ice was marginal, an inch to an inch and a half thick, and a large patch of open water still lined the sunny side at the narrows. But despite some ominous creaking, the shady side was fine. As I skated, the odd crack formed, and water welled up and over the ice. When I skated back to the beach, near the bridge below, a family of Japanese tourists asked if they could take my picture.
First impressions of the Canon G12.
I've only used one other Canon point-and-shoot before: the S70, and only for one kayak trip. (A secret advantage of these small Canon cameras for expedition use is that Canon makes excellent $200 waterproof housings for them. Usually these housings cost as much as or more than the camera itself.) But as a Nikon shooter, I had to get used to the Canon way of doing things. Calling Aperture Priority Av and Shutter Priority Tv, for example. Av and Tv sound to me like video settings.
There is usually some disadvantage to being an early adopter. In this case, the G12's RAW files are not yet supported by either Photoshop or Lightroom. Until Adobe comes out with its next updates, I have to convert the RAW files to tiff using the supplied Canon software before I can work on them. The same is true for other recent releases, including two of the G12's main competitors, the Canon S95 and the Nikon P7000.
I'd heard about the 14-megapixel G10's troubles at high ISOs: the average consumer thinks that the more megapixels, the better, but when you cram too many megapixels on too small a sensor, you get a lot of noise (digital grain) at all but the slowest ISOs. Canon went back to 10 megapixels for the G11, and the
G12 is same.
The G12 is astonishingly good at high ISOs. I could get away with shooting up to about ISO 1000 and still come away with a professionally usable image, as long as I'm meticulous about shooting with my histogram pushed as far to the right as possible without spiking. The brightest 25% of the histogram holds much of the digital information -- so you don't try to make your histogram look like a perfectly centered bell curve -- to minimize noise, you push the histogram as far to the right as you can. The G12's live-view histogram and handy exposure compensation dial make this easy.
Below, details of two images at 100%. Shot in RAW and converted to jpg. No sharpening. (I usually sharpen my 700k jpgs in Photoshop using Unsharp Mask with a Radius of .5, Threshold 0 and Amount between 65-110.)
ISO 800 -- still pretty good. The leaves look soft, but that's the breeze moving them. I could submit this quality of image to an agency.
ISO 1600 -- things are softening up. You're getting mush in the car door now. But still remarkably good. Look at those tiles. And minimal noise in the dark roof gutter.
Some other early impressions:
1. The AUTO setting is pretty impressive for happy snaps. Exposure is so good. Too bad this, like so many of the fancy aspects of this camera, does not work with RAW. RAW works only with the Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual settings. You can autobracket in RAW (3 frames, up to + or -2 stops) but since you can't shoot in tiff on the G12, there is no high-quality HDR. The HDR feature gives you a jpg. Likewise, the camera can't combine overlapping RAW scenes into panoramas. Because I shoot in RAW, many of the brilliant features of the G12 I will never use.
2. Some photographers used to carry dozens of filters with them -- hard-edge grads, soft-edge grads, reverse grads, strip grads, blue-yellow polarizer, Serengeti filter, color enhancing filter...it goes on and on. Even I used to carry an entire CD wallet of Cokin-type filters. Now there are only two outdoor filters whose effects can't be duplicated digitally: a polarizer and a neutral density filter. (The ND slows down your shutter speed under bright conditions so you can get those shots of soft moving water, for example.) You can use filters with the G12, but avoiding vignetting (dark corners) at the wide end of the lens takes an expensive and elaborate workaround. Here's photographer Darwin Wiggett's solution for the similar G11.
Just ordered the new Canon G12. It'll arrive tomorrow, in time for Alexandra to get used to its controls before she heads off to Peru on Saturday. She's wanted to visit Machu Picchu since she saw a photo of it when she was 14. Now she'll finally see the real thing. I'm tending the home fires.
We look for a few things in a point-and-shoot. First, as many controls as possible. Ten to 12 megapixels, no more, no less. The ability to shoot RAW. Video capabilities. A lens that gives at least a 28mm wide angle. And finally, a swivel screen. These are great for low angles, overhead shots and self portraits, such as the one below.
The Canon G-series has been popular with pros for years; friends rave about the G11. The G12 has a few upgrades, including hi-def video and a second scroll wheel that lets you quickly tweak both shutter speed and aperture without having to work through a menu.
The camera has just a couple of minuses, besides its $500 price. (Anyway, in photography, you get what you pay for.) First, the camera battery is supposedly poor in the cold, so it's not a model for winter or spring arctic expeditions. Second, and this is not specifically the G12's fault, when you shoot in RAW format, the camera takes a good long second to process the file before you can shoot again. I'm used to banging through auto-bracketed high-dynamic range sequences in quick bursts, and this sluggishness drives me crazy. But it's a current limitation of all point-and-shoots that do RAW.
A swivel screen on a point-and-shoot lets you frame self-portraits.
Emergency aerial flares sold in outdoor stores are usually pen flares. The tiny flare screws onto a pen-sized launcher that has a spring-loaded firing pin. It's light and pretty convenient, though sometimes I've had to fire the pen several times before the flare actually launches. Some pens are center-fire, others are rim-fire, so you have to buy the right replacement flares, because a center-fire pen doesn't work with a rim-fire cartridge, and vice versa.
If you're using emergency flares for the purpose they were designed for -- to signal planes or searchers -- then pen flares are fine. But I carry flares primarily as polar bear deterrents. They work much better than noisemakers. Apart from the noise of their deployment, bears don't like the red meteors sizzling in front of their paws. My success rate with flares is 100%, though with a sample size of only a dozen problem bears, I can't say that my results are statistically significant.
Flares are not ideal for black or grizzly bears, because the flares are so hot that fired horizontally, they start fires easily. As such, they're best used above treeline -- even above brush line -- in polar bear country.
As deterrents, pen flares are not suitable. Many bears take more than one flare to scare away. One stubborn bear required seven flares. With pen flares, you have to unscrew each spent cartridge, screw on a fresh one, then fire it. You don't want to take your eyes off the bear for an instant, let alone do such time-consuming fussing with every round.
So instead, I carry Skyblazer flares from Orion. These powerful flares fire with the pull of a tampon-like chain. They're waterproof, and an easily removeable cap sits over the chain, so the flare can't be triggered accidentally. Before going north, I remove the unnecessary safety sleeve that doubles the weight and bulk of the flare.
Depending on the part of the Arctic I'm traveling, and the length of the expedition, I carry up to 30 of these flares with me. I've never used more than 10 on one trip, though.
In the early years, I organized my arctic expeditions out of an apartment in Toronto. For two or three weeks before departure, gear would take over the place. But that wasn't the hardest part of apartment living. Outdoor gear gobbles storage space. My one storage locker in the basement eventually expanded to three. Luckily, the crooks who tended to break into those apartment building lockers never seemed interested in outdoor gear.
Even our current two-car garage is now loaded to the rafters with gear. Alexandra and I do a lot of different activities, so apart from arctic expedition dunnage, there's gear for kayaking, day hiking, backpacking, trail skiing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, and climbing. We have 10 sleeping bags, five tents, clothing for all seasons and locales, and too many pairs of boots to count. We have a dozen pairs of skis, six or seven pair of snowshoes, photo props, tripods, several camp stoves, a big tub of freeze-dried food and enough repair and maintenance material to almost fill the brown cabinet in the photo below. We also have two folding kayaks. Since sleeping bags, tents and down parkas should not be stored tightly stuffed, for longevity reasons, they are kept loosely in giant cotton storage sacks. Parking our vehicle inside the garage in winter when it's -30C is barely possible.
While Alexandra has a sense of order -- she organized the area shown in the top photo -- giant friendly heaps of crap, piled helter skelter, line the other two walls. In the old apartment storage lockers, that mess served a purpose: It discouraged thieves. Here, it is perhaps less justifiable. I've watched a lot of outdoor films and slide shows over the years. Many of them deal with expedition conflicts, but no one ever mentions the issues that arise from the space that outdoor gear demands at home.
Alexandra & I did a little dayhiking in Waterton Lakes yesterday, the Carthew-Alderson trail: about a five-hour hike, plus in our case about an hour and a half for photos.
Because Waterton is four hours away, we drove there the night before & camped in the town campground. I used my North Face VE-25 for the first time in a few years. I've used this tent and its predecessor, the VE-24, for ages, but recently I've gravitated to Hilleberg's Keron tents. Both models are good, but like every item of gear, each has strengths and weaknesses.
The dome-shaped VE-25 has more space inside: more headroom, and each person has ample space to store personal gear in the side apices of the hexagon. The tent itself is a little short for tall people lying down. This is not an issue on brief trips or in summer, but in winter, when I've mostly used the VE-25, the foot of the sleeping bag presses against the door. Because frost forms on the inside skin of the tent at night from breath moisture, the foot of the bag can get wet over time. I have to drape an extra item of clothing over the foot to protect it.
The other big issue with the VE-25, compared to the Hilleberg tunnel tents, is wind performance. The VE-25 is difficult to set up in a strong wind. Solo, it's even harder. (I like to use a two-person tent in winter because once it's up, life is cozy inside, even with bulky clothing.) If the winds are really strong, say 40 or 50 knots, even a well-staked-down VE-25 struggles. I have to line the inside of the tent with heavy rocks to secure it. This is difficult or impossible in winter, because rocks are frozen to the ground. Sometimes I've had to use large hunks of sea ice instead.
Finally, the VE-25 takes a long time to set up, since tent and fly are separate entities in this comparatively old design.
Meanwhile, the Hilleberg Kerons (I have both a Keron 3GT and a Keron 2) set up in a flash, since tent and fly are one unit. You can even attach the tent's footprint, or ground sheet, so that everything is together. Wind is no problem for these super tents. They set up easily in any wind, even if you're solo. Once up, even a 50-knot wind just slides off. But the tent requires a little more tweaking: I find myself tightening and re-tightening the guylines two or three times within the first couple of hours before everything is permanently drumtight.
The Kerons are wilderness tents: because of their long length, they fit poorly on those tent platforms you are forced to camp on in many parks. On tight, rocky sites, they are also harder to find room for. They are plenty long inside, but the roof is a little lower and, at least for two people, even the 3GT is a little cramped in winter compared to a dome tent like the VE-25. The Keron vestibules, especially the giant front vestibule, give plenty of space for gear storage, however.
The Kerons are not free-standing like the VE-25; they need to be solidly staked down: This is an issue in places like soft sand beaches, where stakes don't grip well and rocks are nonexistent. Finally, the Kerons are harder to keep clean. You can just pick up a VE-25 and shake it clean of debris and snow every day, but the Kerons must be swept.
Tale of the tents: Hillebergs, below, rule in a wind; dome tents are cozier.
I'm experimenting with two protective Kindle covers, a standard M-Edge leather booklet that fits over the Kindle, and a lightweight nylon sleeve which Alexandra designed and which includes two layers of flexible plastic cutting board material to shield the Kindle's vulnerable face against the rigors of the trail.
The M-Edge looks good but increases the weight and bulk significantly. The combination is not as heavy as an iPad, but the cover still propels the Kindle into a different weight class.
Kindle: .6 lbs. About half the thickness of a commercial DVD movie case and not much heavier.
Kindle & M-Edge cover: 1.1 lbs. Doesn't sound like much but feels very chunky. It wouldn't fit my waterproof fanny pack very easily.
Kindle and homemade cover: .8 lbs. Ideal solution if it works; combo remains thin & light.
iPad: 1.6 lbs (not counting recharging accessories). Worth the weight if you could trick it out in a waterproof case, download all your topos on it and use it to replace both paper maps and GPS. Unfortunately, waterproof hard cases don't seem to exist for the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, because of their touch screen. All that's available are heavy-duty Ziploc-type bags.
Paperback copy of True North, the best-written Labrador book: .9 lbs
Paperback copy of Moby Dick: .5 lbs
Nice thing about the Kindle is that it's light, about the weight of an average paperback, and it lasts for ages on one charge. Its price has also dropped another $50 and is now available for $139. I've devoted several entries to nattering on about the Kindle because there's definitely potential there, if its fragility can be circumvented.
I had hoped that Amazon's Kindle would be the perfect expedition eReader. (see earlier entry) Alas, it proved much too fragile. I kept it in a zippered compartment of my waterproof camera waist pack, along with the journal I wrote in. Within two days, the Kindle's screen was toast. I suspect that my journal pressed against the screen and damaged it. The device itself seems to be functioning, but the screen has gone mostly black, streaked and totally unreadable, with a big light blob in the upper LH corner. The journal wasn't jammed unreasonably against it, but I assume that there was enough pressure to disrupt the delicate technology behind the screen.
The good news is that Amazon is replacing it. In a last attempt to incorporate the Kindle into my travel system, I ordered a leather case for it. The case, which arrived today, doubles the weight and the bulk, beyond what you want to carry backpacking. But one way or the other, the Kindle needs armor to endure the realities of the trail.
One messed-up Kindle.
Just prepping my maps for the upcoming trek in Labrador. My 25-year-old topos of the route indicate a compass declination of 32° W, but that was decreasing annually. What's the current variation? Luckily, a Geological Survey of Canada site lets you plug in lat/long and get the updated figure anywhere in the world: http://geomag.nrcan.gc.ca/apps/mdcal-eng.php. It lists a current declination of 22° for that part of Labrador. That's a big enough difference to cause confusion, at least in flat country.
Off to Labrador in a week and a half until at least mid-August. Two outdoor projects: a magazine assignment and a trek that will be included in a future book on Labrador: Partner Philip Schubert and I will be backpacking Leonidas Hubbard's entire 1903 route from the Susan River to Windbound Lake, about 240 km as the crow flies. Figure three weeks or so.
Because these are literary projects as well as physical journeys, I need to bring a certain amount of reference material with me. This is hard on a backpack trip, where ounces count more than while sledding, canoeing or kayaking. In the past, I've toted as much as 8 @#&$*+#@ pounds of books, photocopies and old prints with me. Together with 15 pounds of camera gear -- my minimum -- this weight can make the trail a sufferfest even when the route itself is not.
I've wanted to use an eReader for some time, to be able to carry my digital reference library and other documents with me. When the price of the Kindle dropped below $200 yesterday, I ordered one. It arrived within a few hours. I was aware that I was buying soon-to-be-outmoded technology. E-Readers are not there yet. The iPad is in many ways the best around, but it weighs a lot more (1.5 lbs compared to the Kindle's featherweight .6 lb), and needs frequent charging. On this trip, I wanted to avoid having to carry my solar panel & chargers. An iPad would also cost $800, because if you're going to buy a fledgling piece of technology, you try to delay antiquation by getting one of the higher capacity models. Of course, the iPad is also more than an eReader. Among other things, it would serve on expeditions for electronic journal writing.
Consider this a first impression of the Kindle as an adventure travel tool, based on a few hours of messing around.
1. Lightweight. The Kindle really adds nothing to the load and its slim profile fits effortlessly in a zippered compartment of my Sage waist pack.
2. Long battery life. My expectation based on research is that one charge will last the entire month-long trip. The Kindle will be on for a while in the evenings and during weatherbound days.
3. Many old explorers' books from digital libraries such as archive.org may be downloaded for free in Kindle format as well as more standard pdf.
4. Newer Kindles can also read formats like pdf and Word documents. Amazon will also shrink pdfs for you, to reduce hard drive usage. You email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they automatically email you back the shrunken document.
5. Great to have a portable electronic library.
1. Alexandra and I switched our computers to Macs three years ago; we also have a few iPods in the house. We have become used to products that have been designed not to frustrate. The Kindle frustrates. Obvious features are missing, some deliberately, and the navigation methods are 10 years old. No track pad, no touch screen, no ability to enlarge type without going into menu trees. You're talking Windows 95 here.
2. While the Kindle does read pdfs, Amazon doesn't want it to read these files very well. The Kindle is trying to be Amazon's cash cow -- their version of the iPod. The business model is the old razor/razor blade one: profit on the hardware is secondary to the fact that Amazon can sell Kindle owners ebooks, emagazines, etc. like iTunes sells music. Pdf books are typically free, and they don't fit the plan. Amazon clearly does not want to make its hardware so highly desirable that the spinoff ebook sales come by default.
3. You can listen to music on the Kindle, but with little control, apart from the ability to pause songs or skip to the next one.
4. These days, a 2 gb hard drive is a joke. SDHC cards go to 32gb and could easily fit in a Kindle. Again, no proof, but one suspects that the limited storage space thwarts attempts to turn the Kindle into mainly a pdf reader. Pdf books are much larger than Kindle-format books: say 25mb vs 1.5mb for the same book.
5. Not the Kindle's fault, but so many digitized books leave annoying little text tags throughout the book. See image 3 below. Pdfs, however, are clean.
Great to be able to carry a library of all the classics related to a wilderness destination, and a novel or two to read in the tent.
You can underline key passages and even type marginalia via the keypad. Too bad about all the "Digitized by" gobbledygook breaking up the document, though.
No pdf can be enlarged by zooming. Your close vision had better be pretty good. Or you'd better be able to find the same book online as a text file, right.
You can put your topo maps on the Kindle as jpgs, but navigation is a nightmare. The upper map is too small to read, and you can't scroll the detailed map below (created via several clicks with a five-way button). The Kindle cries out for screen or trackpad navigation, and for a Mac's two-fingered zoom feature.
Summer in the High Arctic does not require any special gear, except perhaps a quality tent for the occasional big wind. From the last half of June to mid-August, the temperature rarely skims the freezing point. 5 °C is pretty common during the night hours, but that's no colder than summer in the Rockies at timberline. There's only so cool it can get with the sun well above the horizon all the time. So essentially, you bring much the same gear as you'd bring on a backpack trip in the alpine in July-August. Minus a headlamp.
Unless you're in the national park, a gun is essential. Polar bears can appear at any time, though they're uncommon in summer in tourist meccas such as the Alexandra Fiord area. (In spring, however, it's another story: I see a bear on average once every three days around those inner fiords.)
One item needed in most places, especially Quttinirpaaq National Park, is neoprene booties for river crossings. Even the most stoic camper will not get used to crossing icewater streams barefoot. It's not so much the cold as the shooting pains in the legs engendered by the cold. If the feet are protected, the legs can be submerged without pain.
Some weeks ago I bemoaned how there's no waterproof camera fanny pack on the market. There are waterproof backpacks, like LowePro's DryZone system, but what do you do when you're already carrying a backpack? You need a waist pack in front to carry your camera and an extra lens or two accessibly. On long treks, it needs to be waterproof, so you're not trying to find room in your already stuffed backpack when it rains.
In the past, I've used one of those LowePro waist packs that includes its own little stuffaway rain cover. The cover is waterproof, but the part of the pack that sits against your belly is not. Rain runs down your jacket, into the foam of the waist pack, and eventually into the interior. I've almost totaled the contents of a pack while wearing it during an all-day rain.
It turns out that there is a waterproof fanny pack, except it's made for fly fishermen, not photographers. Who'd have known? Sage makes the DXL Typhoon bag. It has welded seams and two zippers. One zipper is totally waterproof and one (the one into the larger compartment, unfortunately) is water resistant. But the bag itself is waterproof, and with a rain cover (either a large shower cap or a bike pannier cover) shoring up the merely water-resistant zipper, the bag is impervious to any downpour.
I bought the Large size. For photographers, the fanny pack isn't perfect: I wish they had used a second waterproof zipper for the main compartment. Since it's not a camera bag, it doesn't come with foam dividers. But most of us have old camera bags that can be pilfered for spare foam pieces. Finally, although it's quite large, a full-sized camera with both a motor drive and a lens doesn't quite fit. I either have to remove the motor drive or remove the lens and use a body cap on the camera, then put on the lens after taking both out of the bag. That's slow, and a lot more opportunities to get dust inside the camera body and eventually on the sensor. (I use a supplementary motor drive because it gives more flexible battery solutions on long trips.)
Still, the DXL Typhoon solves the problem of carrying both a backpack and a camera bag. And although it's plenty spacious -- it can hold a DSLR camera, a winder, two lenses and a flash, with lots of room left over -- it's not so big that it can't function as a waist pack. Some waterproof camera bags -- eg. from an Alaskan company called Sagebrush -- look a little too large to wear with just a waist belt.
Sage's waterproof DXL Typhoon waist bag
This is old news to advanced photographers, but some lenses are sharper than others. I don't just mean the expensive manufacturer's lens vs the cheap off-brand version. Some Nikon lenses are sharper than other Nikon lenses. I shoot perhaps 80 percent of my shots with an 18-200mm lens. I'm well aware that this is not one of the greatest lenses on earth, but the results are adequate. My agencies accept images shot with this lens, and the results look fine when printed. The other lenses in my kit are noticeably sharper, but the 18-200mm is so light and compact and covers so many shooting situations that it's hard for me to resist. Nikon's 24-70mm is far, far sharper (and has less chromatic aberration), but it weighs a ton and only covers a fraction of the focal lengths.
Sharpness often depends on price, but not always. When I used to shoot film, my $1,000 35-70mm f/2.8 was not in the same league as the 75-150mm Series E lens, which cost $150. This amateur manual zoom is one of the sharpest pieces of glass Nikon ever made. The results used to leap off the light table. I don't think Nikon meant to make it that sharp; it just turned out that way. This lens was a secret weapon for a lot of portrait shooters.
Even identical lenses -- same brand, same focal length, same model -- can vary significantly in sharpness. I used to own a Nikon 80-400mm lens. It's a great all-in-one telephoto zoom -- short enough for portraits, long enough for wildlife. Such long lenses are also useful for certain types of scenics. But whenever I shot scenics with the lens, the results were never sharp enough for my liking. I performed the usual tests -- taping a newspaper to the wall and shooting on a tripod at different apertures, then photographing textured scenes with a lot of depth and scrutinizing them at 100% in Photoshop. The 80-400 wasn't sharp enough at any aperture.
As a final test, I shot it side by side against another Nikon 80-400mm that some friends owned and liked. And no wonder they liked it: Their lens was noticeably sharper than mine. Luck of the draw.
I sent my lens back to Nikon and asked them to fix it. They sent me back one of those maddening bureaucratic letters, saying that my lens fell within acceptable tolerances, and they couldn't do anything to improve it. I sold it the following week.
Some favorite photography information sites:
Bythom: Nikon shooter Thom Hogan posts great gear reviews and overviews.
Strobist: Amazing technical info on using flash. Can't believe the site is free.
Rob Galbraith: New gear & reviews, software & firmware updates, company rumors. Essentially, a daily industry newsletter.
Ken Rockwell: Rockwell is more gearhead than top pro, but he understands the technicalities of equipment.
Luminous Landscape forums: As with everything online, it's buyer beware in the information department: some is great, some merely opinionated. But worth coming here if you're looking for an answer about some technical problem.
Dan Heller: A business photography blog, boring and unsuitable for anyone not actually making part of their income from photography.
Travel & Outdoor Photographers Alliance: You need professional creds to join this group, but the bar is pretty low. Used to be more active; mainly, it's a place where pros and semi-pros kvetch about rates. But there is helpful info on what specific magazines pay for imagery.
Part of the expedition art is getting stuff cheap. Mountain Equipment Co-op charges $11 for a pair of AA lithium batteries. REI charges $6 a pair. You can get them for $2 each here. Vistek, a Canadian camera store, charges $170 for a particular Nikon camera battery; B&H in New York sells them for $106. I buy Asian knockoffs on eBay for $25, and they work every bit as well. I carry 10 of these batteries to power my camera on long winter expeditions.
A lot of manufacturers help by giving me gear free or at a significant discount. There is a responsibility to accepting free gear. You have to provide something in return, something more than just feedback. Often I trade photos. Getting discounted gear is a more casual matter. Most outdoor manufacturers have a professional program, where guides and others who make a living in the outdoors may buy stuff directly. The idea, I presume, is that the average guy sees us hardcore types with a particular item and buys it for himself, because he figures it must be good. Some of us go so far as to recommend gear we like. Nothing wrong with that: I'd rather pay full price than use a piece of junk, and I only ask for equipment that I know is reliable.
The discounts save us dirtbag types major coin. Wholesale in the outdoor world is typically 40% off retail; and some pro programs give a further 20% off wholesale. Sometimes I pay $22 on the $100; sometimes $40. On the other hand, I typically use a GoreTex jacket on one or two major trips, then retire it to town or long weekend use. As a rain garment, GoreTex is only good when it's pretty new. So I like GoreTex, because in summer I only use it when it's at its sparkling best. In the clean, non-abrasive, dry winter environment, it lasts forever.
The quality of outdoor gear available today is fabulous, limited only by one's ability to pay for the high-end materials and product development. You can buy a titanium wood stove for traditional winter camping here, a $200 pair of long underwear (bottoms only; tops are another $150) here, and the specialty Berwin bindings that I use on my arctic ski expeditions here. It's not often that I feel the need for a product that doesn't exist.
Then why, I wonder, is the waterproof camera bag in such a primitive state of development? Plenty of us take our camera gear out on multi-day summer treks, where it can be exposed to all-day torrential rains. No one backpacks with a Pelican case. The only truly waterproof soft camera bags, Lowepro's clever waterproof series, are too big to be carrying in addition to a backpack. They need to add a waterproof fanny/chest pack and some lens bags to that line. For now, a waterproof waist pack just big enough for a camera, an extra lens and maybe a flash seems not to have been thought of -- a strange oversight.
In the past few years, new problems have afflicted North Pole trekkers. Not long ago, the three reliable reasons for giving up were 1) radio/sat phone conks out 2) sled damaged 3) back injury. Of these, the only problem that seems a real risk for well-organized expeditions is sled damage. It happened to me once in a minor way, when a polar bear cracked my sled hull open while I slept, but the damage wasn't severe and I continued on fine after chasing the bear away. But on the Arctic Ocean, bashing a fully laden sled down mounds of pressure ice again and again is a serious threat to equipment.
Recently, stove failure and fuel leaks have taken over as the weak link in an expedition's best-laid plans. I addressed the first of these in an entry last year: There is little excuse for allowing stove failure to ruin an expedition that's months or years in the planning. As for the second, when fuel leaks and pollutes your food, there is really nothing you can do. Gasoline-tainted food is inedible, no matter how stoic you are. But a leaking fuel container getting to your food is a preventable calamity.
My one experience with gasoline as food additive occurred when a fuel bottle leaked near the end of a trip and tainted a single bag of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. My partner and I tried to stomach the poison concoction, but couldn't, even though the gasoline taint was very slight.
The leak had been mere sloppiness; I hadn't screwed a fuel bottle cap closed tightly enough, and it worked itself loose during the bumps of travel. The peanut butter sandwiches were expendable at this stage, but I don't keep the fuel containers anywhere near most of my food. The fuel cans sit near the front of the sled, the food duffle at the rear. The cans are padded and pressed together securely so they don't move around, with a wedge of foam between each four-liter can. Usually there are only one or two four-liter cans; the rest of the fuel is in 700ml titanium fuel bottles. This has worked fine, but if I was doing an expedition that involved a lot of crashing down tall pressure ridges, I would put all gasoline in waterproof kayak bags or keep the food itself in these super-secure puppies. As it is, all my food is double-bagged in Ziplocs, in garbage bags protected in a nylon duffle, a long way from the gasoline.
My seminar in Calgary on Ten Tips for Expedition Photographers is now running on Sunday, April 11, at 3:30pm. See here for details. Those who read this website know I deal in good information, and it's cool to have an excuse to organize my thoughts and collect so much together in one tight seminar. Below, a teaser piece I wrote for The Camera Store's newsletter, giving a precis of one of those tips: the art (and gear) of self-timed imagery.
If I only traveled with a backpack, I probably wouldn't travel much. Backpacking in the Arctic is hell. You have to carry so much. By default, I'm toting 18 pounds of camera gear (close to 30 pounds in the film days). An 8-pound shotgun for protection from polar bears. Big-load packs weigh 6 or 7 pounds themselves. That's 33 pounds before a single item of camping equipment or food. Figure 25 pounds of food for even a two-week trip. Little wonder that my load is rarely under 90 pounds. At least, I don't have to carry a headlamp, because the sun's above the horizon all the time. Small favors.
A little over a year ago, I pointed out that the Bora 95 pack from Arc'teryx carried big loads well. Few backpacks do. Realistically, how many backpackers carry 100-pound packs? Manufacturers have little incentive to develop such products.
My first expedition backpack was an external frame pack from The North Face, called Back Magic. It supported humongous loads so well that with rare foresight, I bought three of them. I still use it. Trouble is, it doesn't have much volume, so half the load ends up being strapped on to the outside of the pack. It's a little inconvenient, but it works.
Eventually I found a Gregory pack that I hoped would replace the Back Magic. It was a truly gigantic storage locker, 120 liters in the Large size. It held everything that I could possibly fit into it for a month on the trail. Unfortunately, it didn't carry the weight well. Like most internal frame packs, its support system turned to mush after about 80 pounds. It was like carrying a potato sack. This was disappointing, because unless you plan on using it to transport 120 liters of foam peanuts, such a high-volume pack should be expected to bear more than 80 pounds. So it was back to the Back Magic for a few more years.
I'm not particularly good at big loads. Those who are, I've noticed, tend to be more barrel-chested mesomorphs than ectomorphic beanpoles. But a lot of hard travel has to do with the ability to suffer cheerfully, and arctic travelers are pretty good at that.
Hiker crossing stream in Kyrgyzstan with the Back Magic
I don't write much here about expedition food, because taste is so personal. One sledder I know loves cornmeal bread; I can't abide it. Another enjoys pemmican, and makes his own. A third can't live without coffee. Unless you do instant, that's a real commitment on a winter expedition. So although I drink espresso at home, I leave the habit behind when I set out. Incidentally, out of all the brands I drink, only Starbucks leaves me with withdrawal headaches. Clearly, they spike their beans with extra caffeine.
My favorite expedition comfort food is hot chocolate. It's portable, quick and caloric. Unlike tea or coffee, it's not just flavored water. I've tried a dozen kinds, from the thin, watery Carnation variety you get at diners -- and which most campers also use -- to the mostly milk in some good restaurants, to the admirably rich hot chocolate served at a backcountry lodge in Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains, made from hot milk and 50 -- count 'em -- disks of melted chocolate per mug.
Here's a near substitute to the Chic-Chocs variety, in a form that's usable on expeditions: Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Hot Chocolate powder. One 16 oz. tin makes 11 mugs of hot chocolate. To two heaping tablespoons of hot chocolate powder, add 3/4 tablespoon of whole milk powder. I premix everything beforehand; it adds up to 5.5 lbs of hot chocolate mix for a 50-day expedition. Two super-heaping Mount Everest-shaped tablespoons of the mix go into each mug.
Because of its fat content, whole milk powder doesn't reconstitute well in boiling water, so first you have to add a small amount of cool or warm water to the powder in the mug and mix it into a thick slurry. Then add the boiling water on top of that.
The concoction won't suit everyone -- it's very rich. One ascetic friend stretched out the two-day sample I gave him over 10 days. But it comes close to the 50 discs of melted chocolate.
Icebreaker has become one of my clothing providers. I don't seek out a lot of sponsors, and the ones I do all make gear that I would buy retail if I had to. I'd rather pay the full price for something that actually works in extreme conditions than get an inferior item for free.
No one manufacturer makes gear that's perfect for all occasions, which is why my arctic kit has competing manufacturers' products. It includes clothing from The North Face, Patagonia, Outdoor Research, Icebreaker, Banff Designs and Chlorophylle. Some stuff, frankly, is pretty interchangeable; and every company has a couple of signature items that are just great.
Icebreaker clothing is warmer than synthetic stuff of comparable weight, and I'll be using it in colder conditions while continuing to rely on synthetics for spring expeditions. Around home, my favorite item is their Tech T Lite T-shirt. Anyone who likes T-shirts knows how quickly the neck on most of them becomes loose and floppy, relegating otherwise perfectly good T-shirts prematurely to the rag cabinet. But I've put a couple of solid months on these Icebreaker T's already and the neck is like new.
When I began doing expeditions in the mid-1980s, the most recherche equipment catalog was not the early Patagonia one, with its high-quality grunge look, but one put out by a quirky ex-NASA engineer named Jack Stephenson. He had a cottage business called Warmlite specializing in ultra-lightweight gear, and he was an early proponent of vapor barriers for winter use. What made the catalog so intriguing was that Stephenson and his family and friends modeled the gear buck naked, illustrating his company motto, "We can bear anything nature gives us." The text-heavy catalog showed wholesome New England girls with names like Billee, wearing his backpacks and nothing else. They seemed to have come fresh from a 1970s commune.
A nudist's equipment catalog sounds like an oxymoron, but the gear was very imaginative -- two-pound tents, vapor barrier shirts and a sleeping bag so good it became the one I've used on all my cold-weather expeditions. His son now runs the business, and you can still get the catalog here. The online pdf is a little toned down, but the print version may well be the original.
On April 3, I'm giving a seminar in Calgary on Top Ten Tips for Expedition Photographers, presented by The Camera Store. Here's the link.
In the FAQs at the bottom of this page, I talk briefly about the issue of getting sleds. Here's more detail: there are simpler solutions than spending $5,000 for an Acapulka.
My first sleds came from Nord Hus in Minnesota, and I learned recently that proprietor Erling Hegg, now 85, is still producing them. Good on him. For years, I used his six-foot sled, which holds up to a month of supplies comfortably. The sled costs $690 + shipping and can be ordered here. The only reason I moved away from his sleds is that I do a lot of 6 or 7-week expeditions, and the 6' sled is too small for that length of journey, while his 8' model, at 33 pounds, is unnecessarily beefy. My current 7' sled carries 50 days of supplies easily and weighs only 19 pounds.
Erling built a lightweight Kevlar sled for me once, but he wasn't used to working with that material and the gelcoat kept flaking off. Then a polar bear cracked the hull one night. I've stuck with fiberglass since then.
The major expense with sleds, besides the purchase cost, is flying them north. Because of their volume, they cost as much to ship to the Arctic as they do to purchase! So while some guys have a girl in every port, I have sleds in every port. It's more cost-effective to buy a new one for a trip to a different destination than to ship an old one south again from somewhere like Resolute.
Back to GEAR