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GEAR ARCHIVES 2011

 

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December 30

While doing my usual 12-kilometre workout ski at the Nordic Centre yesterday, I noticed all the Christmas week vacationers shuffling along with town coats knotted around their waists. They were hot, but they didn't have the confidence or experience to leave their bulky clothes in the car. A principle of winter exercise: If you're not cold for the first 10 or 15 minutes, you're too warmly dressed. Admittedly, on arctic expeditions you can stop and de-layer as the warmth of exercise kicks in, but in the interests of efficiency, it's best to just start in the clothes you'll end up in. If it's bitterly cold and you stop to strip down, you'll be cold again anyway by the time you get going.

When sledding in the Arctic, I stop every hour and a half or two hours to pee, drink and eat. Unless it's windy, I try not to layer up, relying on exercise metabolism to keep me warm. It's important to keep the break under six or seven minutes; any longer, and you lose that exercise warmth and it takes 20 minutes to kick in again. The fingers hurt like hell when feeling returns to them. Much better to keep the break short and start skiing again when the blood is still flowing vigorously. I never stop to rest or have a lunch break; during the day, perpetual movement, not clothing, keeps you warm.

Incidentally, that numbness in the fingers that's so common while you're ramping up to full speed feels very different from the numbness that accompanies frostbite or frostnip. The difference is hard to explain, but vital to be aware of: one type of numbness you ignore, the other you deal with immediately. If you can't tell, just keep checking your fingers: eventually you may see the white of frostnip, and then you'll know.

December 15

Have been writing a short magazine profile of Roger Vernon, one of the real talents in the town where I live. Roger's a cameraman who films for everyone from National Geographic Discovery to BBC to Hollywood blockbusters like the Twilight series. Currently he's Director of Photography on the new Jason Bourne film, which is being partly shot in nearby Kananaskis Country.

He uses his iPhone as a working tool and keeps it protected inside a bombproof Otterbox Defender case. His three favorite apps: Artemis, pCAM and Sun Seeker.

December 9

I'm currently preparing the food for an upcoming winter expedition. Cold-weather trips are all about calories, weight and taste. A lot of foods (eg. cashews) lose their taste in the cold. Others, like white chocolate, get all pasty and weird. On the other hand, foods like peanut butter, whose taste and aroma can be overpowering at room temperature, become a lot subtler at -40.

One of the few neutral foods that I always bring on long winter journeys is powdered shortening, from Harvest Foodworks. It's essentially fat in powdered form. It has no taste but is an ideal calorie additive, spiking up soups, freeze-dried dinners, even cereal. Throw a pinch of it into a frying pan to keep pancakes or powdered eggs from sticking. It's a fraction the weight of butter or margarine.

Fat has almost twice the calories by weight of proteins or carbohydrates, so to minimize what you carry, you want as much fat as possible on long trips. Some polar travelers have been tempted to bring too much; the body can't digest more than a certain percentage of fat in the diet (I think around 40%), and the penalty for exceeding those limits is a bad case of the runs.

December 4

A typical hunt for a custom adventure item: I've been looking for plastic washers to reinforce the pulling holes on a new sled and to keep the rough fiberglass edges around the holes from wearing away the tow rope. Suitable washers are hard to find: Acapulka in Norway makes them, but it costs $100 to buy a pair and have them shipped from Europe. One can do better than that.

So I've been prowling big hardware and plumbing stores. Most places are not very helpful: They're in the business to sell things, not to help you solve a problem for a couple of bucks. Even online hunting is not very useful in this case, because I'm looking for something to serve a purpose it's not intended for. Also, it's a real disadvantage when you don't know what something is called. I eventually discovered that I'm looking for something similar to a shoulder washer, but they seem not to make them that big. Also, the industrial suppliers that produce this part usually don't deal with the public; they sell to other manufacturers in orders of hundreds of units.

The other day I went to Auto Marine Specialties in Calgary. It's a boating supply place; I know it well, because they are also the Klepper kayak agent in Canada. Over the years, they've done several artful repairs to my Aerius I.

In their parts bin, I found something close to what I was looking for. It was the plastic insert for a boat's bilge valve. Only problem was, the cylindrical extension was threaded inside and out, and friction would eventually damage the pulling rope and possibly the sled. But the repair guy relished the challenge. He quickly sanded away the threads and inserted some plastic tubing to further protect the pulling rope. Perfect.

Every adventurer needs places like Auto Marine, and repair guys like this enthusiastic problem solver, for that handful of custom-made items.

November 7

Details, details: In deep cold, most things hurt to touch: metal, of course, but also plastic, leather, even paper. You feel the bite through the thin gloves that are necessary in order to do things like take pictures, cook, set up camp or make repairs.

Before an expedition, I upholster as many items as possible with moleskin in order to insulate them. This includes thermos, camera bodies, the back of a metal watch and the folding scissors I use for repairs. These details are not a crucial part of an expedition but minimizing the effect of cold lets you do things faster and more efficiently, with less discomfort.

November 2

At -50, the world becomes very alien, more Mars than earth. The cold makes itself felt through every crack. Pee freezes before it hits the ground. Your breath condenses into fine white powder as you exhale.

Gear behaves differently too: Picture a steel zipper tab snapping in your fingers like a toothpick. Equipment that works fine in normal circumstances may be completely unsuitable at those extreme temperatures, which expose weaknesses in design or materials.

My sleeping system is beefy enough to handle those temperatures, but if anything gets cold at night, it's usually my toes. As everyone knows, it's hard to sleep if your feet are chilled. On the most frigid nights, I drape my down parka over the toe box of the sleeping bag for extra warmth. I also wear the thickest socks I can find. A couple of manufacturers make these superthick socks, formerly of synthetic material but now usually of merino wool, which is slightly warmer.

The problem with current designs is that these socks use a contemporary seam called a Lin seam just behind the ends of the toes. This seam is so thin that you can see your bare toes through it, below.

The theory is that this seam prevents bunching around the toes and avoids blisters when used with boots. Frankly, these socks are generally so warm and thick that unless your feet are clinically sensitive to cold, they're overkill for walking or skiing; their only use is in camp. But the seam creates an open window through which extreme cold infiltrates. It's the strangest design flaw that I can only explain by suggesting that the designers have (understandably) never camped in the temperatures for which these socks are made.

All the manufacturers now use this Lin seam. But my decade-old synthetic camp socks have a suitably thick seam in this region, suggesting that alternatives to the Lin seam exist.

For most temperatures, the sock is so warm that a little gap won't make a difference. But at -50, believe me, you'd notice.

October 29

Sometimes called the polar bear welcome mat, these nail boards are common under windows and doors at backcountry cabins along the Labrador coast. Typically, they're put in place when the owners are away, but they may also be left under accessible windows at night. They won't necessarily stop a bear, but they buy the occupants time to hear the disturbance and lay their hands on a firearm.

October 17

Some years ago, for a magazine story, I joined some members of the Canadian military on a winter exercise. Because such group travel does not allow individuals to stop for layering or to treat foot hotspots before they become blisters, most of the group was drenched in sweat and limping after a couple of hours.

Which brings me to boots. Both Alexandra and I use North Face hiking boots -- in part because we have a very sweet pro deal, but mainly because the last they use fits our feet well -- wide toe box, narrow heel. North Face boots don't endure long before the stitching begins to come out, but from day one, they encase our feet in buttery softness. Never a blister.

My first pair of cross-country ski boots were Asolo telemark boots, for a winter ski expedition. I learned later that Asolos were so notorious for creating blisters that the condition was nicknamed Asolo Heel. I don't know if this is still true, but the Asolos certainly afflicted me. It didn't matter how many years I broke them in, they still chewed up my feet. Inexperienced at the time, I just assumed that all boots gave blisters and you just needed to carry lots of Moleskin.

That just isn't true. Nowadays, my feet sometimes get sore while walking hundreds of kilometres, but my heels and toes never blister up. Alpine touring is the one exception. My AT boots are high-end Scarpa F1s that I got for their lightness and ease of transition from cross-country to downhill mode and back. Despite their quality, they create blisters like the Asolos of old. However, I'm not much of an alpine tourer and I assume that I simply haven't yet found a model that works with my foot.

October 12

I buy most of my eyeglasses while traveling in China or Russia. You can get contemporary frames, an exam to determine the correction required, and the lenses, all within an hour, for $30, instead of the ludicrous $400 to $500 comparable eyewear costs in the West. I buy just one pair here in Alberta -- the ones I use in the Arctic, which have a protective coating against UV that are tricky to find in the markets of Shanghai or Ryazan. Even here, I lessen the cost considerably by buying the frames on eBay.

While recently ordering a new pair locally, the optometrist tested my vision. He tried to photograph inside my eyes, but his image came out black. My pupils become too small when he shines the light, he said. He suggested that this is probably why I've never needed reading glasses: Small pupils, like small lens apertures, give more depth of field.

To me, this also explains a lifelong gear preference: I almost never wear dark glasses, even on a bright arctic snowfield. My clear prescription glasses, with their UV coating, are all I usually need. I prefer seeing natural colors, so I don sunglasses only in the most blindingly bright conditions. My pupils must contract enough to render high light levels comfortable.

October 10

As noted above, I've just put together a pdf of my kayaking gear list, which is now available for download from the Store for $15. It lists every item I bring on a kayak expedition in the Arctic, from drybags and GoreTex garments that don't leak to an itemized repair kit.

September 29

It's not on the usual equipment list of skiers, hikers and kayakers, but in the Arctic, a gun is as necessary as a tent or sleeping bag. Polar bears are a real threat, and although you can usually scare them away by non-lethal means, a firearm is a vital last resort. Even a former travel buddy of mine who was a card-carrying member of Greenpeace accepted that reality. I must admit that it was fun to see him armed.

My firearm of choice is, unfortunately, a 12-gauge shotgun. It's versatile -- it'll fire rubber bullets, if that's part of your deterrent protocol -- but it weighs 7 lbs and is awkward to store accessibly in a kayak or while backpacking. A 44-magnum handgun, Dirty Harry's make-my-day accessory, is much more suitable for a self-propelled wilderness traveler. It weighs 3 lbs and fits nicely in a waterproof deck bag or Pelican case, or on your hip. Its small size and weight inspires you to carry it everywhere during an expedition, on day hikes, scouts around camp, to the toilet. But getting permission from the RCMP to carry a handgun is a time-consuming and difficult task in Canada, and you have to go through the same exercise before every trip.

One of the main issues facing arctic travelers today is that more and more of the best areas are becoming national parks, and the ordinary person can't carry a firearm in arctic parks any more than he or she can in Banff. Parks Canada never thought about this before creating reserves like the Torngats or Sirmilik, where polar bear encounters are common. As a result, these places are essentially off-limits. Local Inuit have the right to carry firearms in these new parks, and this summer, the rules were stretched a little to allow tour guides to be armed. But private travelers remain out of the loop. So whereas, for example, a couple of adventurous parties a year used to hike or kayak the Torngats, now the only activity there is the restricted and somewhat superficial experience of sleeping inside a fenced-in camp and day hiking with Inuit guides. Of course, if you want, you can take your life in your hands and travel these parks just with a can of bear spray. But I wouldn't.

September 16

In winter, I use a high SPF lip balm called Anthelios, from La Roche Posay. We tried it in Labrador this summer, and discovered that the lip balm was dissolving the bite nozzles of our drinking hoses! The nozzles must be made of latex, which -- like the latex in drysuit gussets -- is vulnerable to sunscreens. Sasha had a spare nozzle; I repaired mine as well as I could with duct tape.

September 9

Thanks to Aaju Peter, Adventure Canada's multi-talented Inuit resource person, for the idea of recycling old sealskin boots into crafty knickknacks. I fell in love with Aaju's coffee cozy on our recent cruise, so Alexandra created one of our own from an old pair of kamiks that I hadn't used in years.

August 31

In summer, in the buggy parts of the North, a package of insecticide coils is a handy luxury. They're fragile and break into pieces, but a single clothespin stuck into the tundra holds the smoking fragments well. They're particularly effective in the big vestibule of my Hilleberg Keron tent. Normally, black flies and mosquitoes by the thousands collect in the vestibule, but the coil kills/chases away every last one. You may not want to breathe this stuff for the rest of your life, but in a well-ventilated space, or even outside around camp, they make cooking and eating far more relaxed.

June 28

When I walk into an equipment store, including a camera shop, sometimes I run into knowledgeable salespeople, but usually they're just employees who've skimmed the manuals and played around with the items a little in the store. Most of them admit as much, but once in a while you get a know-it-all who is so used to dealing with entry-level questions that he seems to regard an advanced query as provocational. I had that experience in a local shop recently; I've never used the Spot Messenger, and I was curious if it worked in the north. Since its text messaging ran off the Globalstar satellite system, I assumed that that feature was limited to more southern regions, but what about the emergency or location signal itself?

Most communication satellites orbit around the equator. Draw a line from the equator toward the top of the world on a round globe from a distance slightly above the globe and you'll see that the line hits the earth well before the North Pole. Communication satellites are line of sight, so everything beyond that tangent point is in a communications shadow. In other words, most communication satellites don't work in extreme northern (or southern) regions.

How far north you can go and still use these equatorial satellites depends on your device's vision to the south, but 80 degrees north is about the maximum. The dish at Skull Point at the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island is at exactly 80 degrees and has an unobstructed view to the south. The satellite is probably a mere one degree above the horizon, but the precisely oriented dish taps into the satellite even at that marginal angle. In most other places, equatorial satellites fail considerably further south because of local obstructions. Many Labradorians, for example, complain about spotty Globalstar coverage, and Labrador's typical latitude is the mid-50s.

The Spot Messenger comes with a map showing how far north it works, but of course, the company would be over-generous in its estimation. It would assume Eureka-like visibility rather than typical visibility. I was trying to express my concerns to this salesperson. Would the Spot reliably send out a signal even at 60 degrees or 70 degrees north? He just kept pointing to the map. That was as far as his knowledge went. He didn't want to actually think about the problem.

Turns out northern travelers don't use Spot. Just as we use Iridium phones, whose satellites are not equatorial but blanket the earth in a low orbit, and so work everywhere, even at the poles, there is a device similar to Spot that runs off the Iridium network. Called Solara, it's a lot bulkier and more expensive than a Spot, but it actually works in northern latitudes.

June 17

Here's a little blog I did on packing for a kayak expedition that appears today on the Kokatat site.

June 8

I calculate the amount of food to bring on an expedition based on weight per day. The weight depends on time of year and activity. On a typical summer kayaking expedition, for example, I know from past experience that I eat about 1.8 lbs/day. But you don't burn a lot of calories when kayaking, and the arctic summer is comparatively mild: The 1.8 lbs would increase to 2.7 lbs/day on a sledding expedition at -50C. Twenty years ago, I ate 3 lbs/day on one of those. Alexandra, meanwhile, eats 1.5 lbs/day on a kayaking expedition. These are steady state figures: Neither of us really gain or lose weight on a trip.

With these figures as my baseline, I make sure I have x breakfasts and x dinners for x days travel. For lunch, we bring what we like: granola bars, peanut butter in my case, nuts & dried fruit for Alexandra. We lay out what seems to be a reasonable amount. Then we weigh everything on our medical-quality scale, which is accurate to 1/10 lb. On this upcoming Labrador expedition, for example, we're bringing 28 days food and together we'll consume 3.3 lbs/day, or 92.4 lbs in all. As long as we have 28 breakfasts and 28 dinners and the total food adds up to 92.4 lbs, we're good.

When I did a preliminary weigh of the food tonight, we were 20 lbs over! That's a lot, but not atypical for two people. I often overestimate food requirements at first, just like most of us start by packing every item of gear we think we may need, then get tough with ourselves and edit it down. Breakfasts and dinners are known weight quantities, so we've gone overboard mainly with the snacks. Time to put half the Smarties and energy bars back in the cupboard for future travels. Then weigh the bags again. More winnowing, more weighing, and eventually the arithmetic adds up.

How do you figure out how much food you need per day on these expeditions in the first place? By doing expeditions, bringing too much food (better than too little!) and noting how much food you have left at the end.

May 20

We have two folding kayaks, a single Klepper Aerius Expedition and a double Feathercraft K2. The Klepper has lasted for 25 years and innumerable expeditions; it's still in perfect shape. It suffered the odd broken piece that needed replacement, but nothing serious. Even the canvas deck has not deteriorated noticeably from UV. Both folding boats can be taken on aircraft and hold a month's worth of food and camping gear.

We bought the Feathercraft second-hand 10 years ago; an outfitter had used it for several years before that. The aluminum skeleton is fine, but we replaced the skin recently; the old one leaked too much. The Klepper sets up easily compared to the Feathercraft, which requires some brute force and skinned knuckles. But once up, the Feathercraft is a modern boat, while the Klepper has changed little since the original model early in the 20th century. The Klepper seat is a piece of junk, hard and uncomfortable, as if designed by a monk deeply into self-flagellation. Even today's models, like the Aerius Quattro, have this absurd seat. I eventually replaced it with a Thermarest-style chair from Long Haul Folding Kayaks, which makes a similar boat. The Feathercraft has comfortable sling seats that suspend from the ribs and gunwales.

Here's a summary of the pros and cons of each. Both boats are high-quality, well-crafted inventions, so no need to state the obvious.

Klepper

Pros: sets up easily; beamy and stable

Cons: horrible seat & backrest; rudder pedals awkwardly positioned for a tall person; inferior rudder; harder to load; burlap carrying knapsack for the skin not well thought-out.

Feathercraft

Pros: comfortable seat; optional sea sock keeps interior mostly dry from dumps or breaking waves; faster than a Klepper but also stable; hatches allow easy packing/unpacking of front and stern; easy to get into

Cons: harder to assemble; bend one of the aluminum pieces, and you'll never get it apart or together again, whereas wooden Klepper pieces flex; the newer K2 has such a large cockpit that it's impossible to find good third-party sprayskirts to fit.

In addition -- and this may be a function of my particular models -- the Klepper Expedition hull has several extra strips of rubber on the entire hull to protect against abrasion and puncturing; it has never leaked. The Feathercraft K2 includes reinforcement strips but its hull is thinner and more fragile and needs constant patching.

May 8

A Grade 4 student who was at my presentation in Ottawa sent me a note asking why my partners and I weren't wearing sunglasses in the photos. Didn't we get snowblind? My reply to him:

Snowblindness is not a problem in summer, when there is no snow in the Arctic, but it's definitely something you have to deal with in the spring sledding season. But we weren't wearing sunglasses in my photos because usually I ask my friends to take them off briefly for the shot. It just looks better: People want to see the eyes of someone in a photo.

In winter, the sun is sometimes low enough that you don't need sunglasses. It depends on how high the sun is, and that depends on how far north you go. On Ellesmere Island, you need sunglasses beginning in April. In Labrador, which is much farther south, the snowblindness season begins in February.

Even on Ellesmere, when it's 24 hours of dazzling bright sunshine, you can take your sunglasses off at 8 or 9 every evening. I don't like wearing glasses, so I look forward to this. I can walk under the night sun between about 9pm and 3am without any protection, because the sun is low in the sky. Sometimes my eyes feel a little itchy afterward, though, and then I know I have to wear the glasses a little longer the next day. But I never go without them long enough to get snowblind.

In the south, snowblindness is less of an issue, because trees and buildings cast so many shadows that it's a lot less bright than the Arctic, which is completely white and open. Sometimes in the middle of the arctic day, the sun beating off the snow is so bright that you can get snowblind in an hour or two. I've never been snowblind, but I believe the descriptions of how painful it is, and I make sure to avoid it!

April 16

I've written a few magazine pieces about Gwaii Haanas, and usually traveled there with a kayaking tour group. Kayaking is the best way to see the Queen Charlottes, especially on a longer paddle from, say, Tanu to Nan Sdins. The guide, Bob Sutherland, had been leading trips for years. He had a magical knowledge of the islands; it inspired me to try to get to know the High Arctic like that. It was said that when the Haida wanted to find out something about their culture, they often asked Bob.

Bob not only knew the Charlottes, but had a veteran guide's bag of outdoor tricks. To keep a bandaid on a fellow paddler's hand for days, he painted the skin with Friar's Balsam before applying the bandaid. The sticky compound held like glue. Since then, Friar's Balsam has been part of my medical kit on all kayaking expeditions.

One evening, I noticed him sitting in a camp chair. You know the kind: two pieces of closed-cell foam covered with nylon, adjustable with nylon straps, with aluminum stiffeners along the sides. I asked him about it, since it seemed, well, like a rather effete bit of equipment for a veteran traveler. "That's what I thought," said Bob. "But at the end of one trip, a client gave me his and said, 'Try it.' I've been using it ever since."

I'm not shy about adopting someone's good idea, so on my next arctic expedition I brought one. Having back support while reading or writing or eating was a fabulous luxury. I too have been using one ever since.

March 29

Expedition analysis: Yet another arctic expedition has aborted for peculiar reasons. Two Germans set out a month ago to ski from Qaanaaq, Greenland to Ellesmere Island. The organizer contacted me about a year ago for information. His planned route was ambitious but somewhat vague: One of the notions he had was to cross to Ellesmere, ski to Fort Conger about 200 miles north, cross overland and head southwest to the Eureka weather station, then return to the east coast where he hoped to be picked up by a boat from Qaanaaq. This pickup was not realistic. The conditions are rarely suitable for motorboats to cross Smith Sound, especially in late spring or early summer: Too much pack ice. I advised the fellow that the ice bridge from Greenland to Canada had not frozen since 2006, so he should be psychologically prepared to do an alternative expedition, solely on the Greenland side, if a crossing to Canada proved impossible.

But they lucked out. This year, for the first time in five years, the ice bridge froze over. It formed early: By the time the sun came back and the first satellite images were available in early March, the ice bridge was in place. (see Ellesmere March 9 entry) It remains in excellent shape:

The best crossing point would be around the Ice bridge lettering on the above image; to the north of it, the frozen-together pack ice, though solid, would be rough going. You can see a little open water at Pim Island, but this is unquestionably a good year. Traditionally, you can sometimes cross at the latitude of Pim Island itself (the American explorer Donald MacMillan did so in six hours in 1914), but it's much more common to cross around the latitude of the Bache Peninsula.

Yet for some reason, these two encountered open water. Their online map isn't very good, but it seems they tried to cross much too far south, before that part of the North Water froze. Here's the sat picture from March 10, around the time they tried:

The properties of the North Water are well-known to the elders in Qaanaaq, and it would be surprising if the two Germans were not advised of the need to travel far enough along the Greenland coast before attempting a crossing. They, in fact, eventually reached a place from which they could have crossed -- but by that point, they had long given up and were looking to return to Qaanaaq.

They had other problems: Their stove didn't work properly. Shit happens, but it is strange how none of the good arctic travelers I know have ever had to end an expedition because of a malfunctioning stove -- while this is a very common excuse/problem among the high-publicity types, most of whom are beginners or near-beginners. Stoves do more than heat your supper: They melt your water, which is vital. You either need to be able to dismantle and repair a stove as competently as a Marine field strips his rifle, or you need ample backups. Preferably both.

Finally, one of the Germans even had problems with a climbing skin coming off. Sledders use climbing skins because wax does not give enough grip to pull a heavy sled. Reportedly, he had to limp along on only one ski because of this issue. This is the strangest of all, because there are many ways to juryrig an impromptu climbing skin on a ski. Here's one common trick used by backcountry skiers, but there are others:

It's unfair to claim, based merely on a satellite photo, that an expedition messed up. But when avoidable troubles mount to epidemic proportions, you have to wonder.

March 9

In the More Than You Need to Know department: Running briefs often include a windproof nylon front panel. But the briefs are a little, well, brief for arctic use. On cold-weather expeditions, I prefer geriatric-style waist-high underwear, the better to tuck in an undershirt. The undershirt tends to come untucked from low briefs, especially when sitting in a tent. With the waist-high version, I sew a nylon panel in front. This peter protector isn't necessary with windproof shell pants, but I try to get away with black running tights as much as possible. Even on windless days, if you're walking forward at 3mph, you generate a 3mph headwind. In bitingly cold air, you feel this, believe me.

As a ps: The warmest arctic conditions come with a slight tailwind that is going precisely at your walking speed. This happens more often than you'd think. It's also true at higher wind velocities: Once, while snowmobiling on Ellesmere with some Inuit friends, we had a 20 mph tailwind, our exact speed. It felt like we were driving through a vacuum.

March 1

Nothing to do with gear (sorry about that -- one of those entries that doesn't really fit anywhere) but we awoke to -36C in Canmore this morning. A perfect time for the old boiling-water-in-the-air trick:

 

Why can't you use cold water? Because molecules of boiling water are largely separated from each other, since they're about to fly off as individual gas molecules. The separate molecules flash-freeze dramatically. Meanwhile, when you throw a cup of cold water in the air, the molecules are all clumped together as blobs of water and don't freeze as spectacularly.

February 18

The profession of inventor used to be one of those romantic callings in which a misunderstood genius tinkers in his garage or workshop on some visionary Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that will change the world. Thomas Edison was your iconic inventor. Sherwood Anderson wrote a fine novel, called Poor White, about such an inventor; loved that book. Inventors were part of the industrialization of America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But for every guy who invented the cotton gin, there were a dozen laboring on wacky ideas. We've all seen those classic films of early aircraft:

 

During the Golden Age of Polar Exploration, famous explorers often got suggestions from these would-be Edisons on devices to advance their expeditions. One wrote to Peary about building a pipeline to the North Pole through which hot soup could be pumped to sustain him during the long trek to the top of the world. Another suggested using dynamite to propel the sled forward over the ice.

Every so often, I read about some plan to build a pulk, or sled, that doubles as a shelter. To someone who has never sledded, this may sound like a fine idea. Surely a solid structure would be more comfortable than a frail nylon tent.

Alas, this is one of those inventions that's more soup pipeline to the North Pole than cotton gin. Why on earth would you want to convert your sled into a small house?? The condensation would be horrific. It would be cold, and difficult to cook in because of the problem with ventilation.

Once, while on a two-month sledding expedition on Ellesmere Island, I met up with Paul Schurke, who was guiding a dogsled tour in the area. While his clients slept in big tents, Paul opted to curl up in one of his deep-dish dogsleds. Paul was relatively short; the dogsled relatively long; it seemed to work well for him. That's about the only sled-as-shelter that makes any sense.

February 16

Folding kayaks have been around for over 100 years, since Johannes Klepper marketed a kayak based on a traditional Greenland design. My first kayak was a Klepper Aerius I Expedition, and I still use it over 20 years later. Alexandra and I also have a Feathercraft K2 for paddle journeys together. The Feathercraft is a more modern boat: its sling seat especially is in a different category altogether from the hair-shirt seat on the Klepper, which seems cleverly designed for maximum misery. Almost immediately, I threw my Klepper seat away and after some experimenting, I now use a Long Haul seat. Long Haul makes boats similar to the Klepper but with a comfortable ThermaRest-type seat and back.

The Feathercraft can also come with a waterproof sock that the paddler sits in and which functions like a bulkhead, keeping water largely away from the gear in the bow and stern. Its bow and stern hatches make for easier packing. The Klepper, however, is easier and quicker to assemble than a Feathercraft, but its design has not changed much in a century.

Two other modern folding boats are worthy of note: First is the PakCanoe. Like the Klepper and the Feathercraft, it's a serious boat usable on long expeditions. Canoes are superior to folding kayaks where the route includes portaging or whitewater.

The second portable craft is even more revolutionary, and I've mentioned it here before: the packraft weighs just 5 lbs, inflates in five minutes using a lightweight nylon bag, and folds to about the bulk of a sleeping bag, so it fits nicely in a pack. It gives you the ability to cross lakes and rivers on what is mainly a hiking trip. I even carry it on some sledding expeditions, in case we run into a High Arctic polynya or lead that needs crossing.

Left: Packraft on a fiord lake in the Mealy Mountains, Labrador. Lunch stop with Feathercraft on the coast of northern Labrador, right.

Alexandra kayaking with Klepper on Axel Heiberg Island.

February 8

In my recent article on cold-weather shooting in Outdoor Photographer, the editors tweaked my text slightly for the benefit of their advertisers. The published sentence read, "Many nature photographers prefer a carbon-fiber tripod in the cold, but the legs of my carbon-fiber tripods stick in the cold..." What I had actually written was, "The legs of many carbon tripods stick in the cold..." Their editing change made it seem as if my problem with carbon tripods in the cold was a little quirk related to the brands I was using.

I've tried three well-known makes of carbon tripod; all had problems with legs sticking in the cold. By cold, I don't mean the temperature you get on a cool day in northern California; I mean below 5-10F. Since I haven't used every carbon tripod out there, I can't say that the problem obtains for all models -- hence my qualifying word "many" -- but it is a general issue.

I mentioned this once to a friend here in town who films for many Hollywood movies, from Unforgiven to the Twilight series. He's also done a lot of stuff here in the backcountry, and in Alaska. "Carbon video tripods also stick in the cold," he said. "I never use them."

February 4

Strictly speaking, a thermos-type water bottle isn't necessary on an arctic sledding expedition. For years, I used a one-liter Nalgene for drinking during the day. At first, I kept it on a loop around my neck and inside my shell jacket to delay freezing. Later, I just tucked it inside my down parka, which sits underneath the bungee cords on top of the sled. Even at -40, the water doesn't freeze for hours, as long as I take the precaution of starting with boiling water. It's important to use a wide-mouthed bottle, because small-mouthed flasks form ice plugs too easily.

Nevertheless, an insulated bottle is a nice luxury, and I usually carry one now. It also makes breaking camp quicker, because you can melt the water the night before, and then just warm it up quickly in the morning. No more sleeping with a Nalgene bottle that starts out as a hot-water bottle but which by the middle of the night feels like a partner's popsicle feet.

Finding the right thermos for an arctic trip is not easy. Few brands come in one-liter sizes; some cheap ones do, but they don't insulate very well. It's possible to find humongous thermoses in China, for example -- everyone uses them to keep tea water hot for repeated infusions -- but they're useless in real cold. Other bottles insulate well but they're made of stainless steel and weigh a ton.

After trial and error, I've come to rely on the one-quart Stanley outdoor vacuum bottle. The Sigg 1.0-liter vacuum bottle also works. Both keep liquid unfrozen all night even at -60F, and the fluid stays warm almost all day. To make handling the cold plastic more comfortable, I insulate the bottle with a combination of moleskin and 1/8" closed-cell foam.

January 25

In the field, I shoot most of my panoramas using a standard ball head, then stitch them together with Autopano Pro.

The finished composite usually comes out pretty well, as long as you're careful, eg, by shooting verticals rather than horizontals so you have plenty extra for cropping. It's maddening to do a sequence and then discover you're missing a little piece on the top or bottom to complete the image.

But for more precise work, such as indoors, there's nothing like a real pano setup, such as this one from Really Right Stuff, which let me build the 360-degree image below.

January 22

On expeditions, I write in a journal for at least an hour a day. It's all longhand -- pencil in the cold, pen when the ink is not frozen. When you don't blog from the field, such traditional implements work fine.

It took me several years to find the right notebook, but I've been using the same brand for ages: Clairefontaine from France, 9x14 cm, 96 lined sheets, which means almost 200 pages to write on. (On shorter trips, I bring their 48-sheet version.) The clean, white pages register pencil lead well, even in deep cold, when lead transfers faintly. The cloth spine doesn't crack. The pages are wide enough and open flat.

Not long ago, I bumped into another excellent notebook, from Moleskine. It's much more cleverly marketed: Each one comes with a history of the notebook in several languages. Hemingway, Van Gogh and especially travel writer Bruce Chatwin were allegedly devotees. The original company went out of business but a Milan firm resurrected the brand. Size and sturdiness are similar to the Clairefontaines. The pages of the Moleskines aren't as white, but who cares? The Moleskines have three little extras lacking in the Clairefontaines: an accordion pocket on the inside back cover that can hold a credit card or two, an integral ribbon bookmark and an elastic that holds the covers together when not in use. This keeps credit cards or slips of paper from falling out of the notebook, but otherwise just gets in the way.

On its website, Clairefontaine touts its famous users as well, but somehow Carla Bruni does not have the same authorial panache as Ernest or Bruce.

January 17

Some months ago, I went to a presentation by some arctic travelers. They commented how while crossing an ice cap during a white out, the lead skier had to struggle with only one pole, since the other hand had to hold the compass for navigation.

When you're in bad visibility in the Arctic, you often see next to nothing. It's like skiing in skim milk. Even irregularities in the snow are hard to make out. In such poor visibility, you need to confirm your bearing every few steps. If the compass dangles from a cord around the neck, you must keep stopping for this fresh measure. It's ridiculously inefficient.

So experienced arctic travelers, which these presenters were not, rig a compass tray. It's a little homemade device on which the compass sits at waist or chest level. It allows you to hold both your bearing and your ski poles. It's a little surprising that such a simple device is not available commercially, since backcountry skiers -- who far outnumber arctic travelers -- would also use it.

January 11

It's -18F here in the Rockies this morning -- one of those half dozen or so great days every winter for testing gear in the cold. I put my Canon G12 outside to see how long its battery would survive. From previous tests, I know it's better than the EN-EL3e batteries in my full-sized Nikons, but still not a useable winter battery, unless you keep it warm inside your clothing.

In the 2-1/2 hours the camera sat outside in the shade, the temperature rose to -10F. I was still able to shoot 5 frames, after which the battery, fully charged at room temperature, went dead. As my earlier tests suggested, you can coax a few frames out of the camera in cold temperatures, but you can't really rely on it.

January 5, 2011

For years, rubber boots -- also called Wellingtons -- were the bane of my summer journeys. They're heavy, cold, don't pack well, and socks always slip down inside them. It's true that because they're tough and waterproof, Inuit still wear them up north. They buy an oversized pair and insert knee-high duffle liners for warmth. These boots are fine for tramping a muddy village or standing around in a boat, but not for walking.

These days, for kayaking or sledding meltpools, I use neoprene mukluks. But for backpacking or soggy snowshoeing, I now swear by Neos overboots. The Trekker model, shown here, reaches the highest -- just below the knees.

The coated nylon shell with its lightweight yet solid rubber sole is 100% waterproof. It'll even handle stream crossings. Of course, if you wear them all day, your inner footwear gets soggy from transpiration, but not squishy wet.

They're tough; once while spring snow camping with some Innu friends, my job was to dequill a porcupine for supper. Although discarded quills littered the ground around my work area, somehow the Neos boots didn't puncture. They resist sharp rocks too, though eventually they begin to leak. I replace mine every two or three years, depending on how much I use them and where.

The beauty is that you can wear anything underneath them -- hiking boots, running shoes, skin mukluks. The top of the Neos boots bellows open, so they slip on easily over bulky boots. And they fold flat, so they take little space in a pack. I also carry them when lecturing on arctic cruises, for Zodiac landings.

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