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The Backcountry Soapbox

We all have something to say about the goings on around us, but few of us take the time to do so.

Here's our chance. Our observations, outrageous adventures, lightweight trip reports, etc. -- related to the backcountry -- expressed through prose, poetic verse, philosophical meanderings, or stoical, factual renderings, are what this page is all about.

Submit yours  here  !


U.S. Gear Industry -- Revolving, Evolving, Dwindling

Quest, Montbell, out of business.  Moonstone brought back from extinction by Espirit de Corp.  Jack Wolfskin no longer available in the U.S.   Dana Design closes up shop in Montana and moves to Sri Lanka and Mexico.  Garuda now manufactures in China.  Bibler bought out by Black Diamond and ships warranty repair work to Rainy Pass.  Sweetwater bought out by Cascade Designs.  Soloman SA bought out by Adidas. REI bought Walrus and Walrus bought MOSS. Merrell bought out by Wolverine, ......  et cetera, ad nauseam.

Were you surprised when Dana announced the shut down of all U.S. production facilities and the move off shore ?  The instant that Dana was purchased by Anthony Industries a couple years ago, I knew something dramatic was going to happen -- either ultimate lower quality (at the same price) and/or a move off shore.   The reason that large corporations exist is to make or exceed specific profit margins and specific growth rates, no matter what and, yes, employees and local economies, be damned.

What is happening today, is just the beginning. There's a lot of jockeying around, but the precedent has been set and is being driven by profit hungry companies. Current gear companies that don't have conglomerate affiliation and/or have production facilities outside the U.S. are suspect and their future existence in doubt.

NAFTA opened the door big time for corporations to leave the U.S. and they are doing so, regardless of what politicians may tell you.

Companies like REIN which use off-shore production, produce lower-quality products, yet still attach a relatively high price tag to those products, are the ones that are flourishing. More companies will have to follow suit -- especially those driven by corporate profit demand (generally excessive in my opinion).

In fairness to the companies who are trying to produce legitimate quality products, using high quality materials and workmanship, going offshore may be the only way for them to stay in business. Sure, a Sierra Designs Divine Lightening Tent carries a hefty price tag of $350.00, but Sierra Designs only gets $203.00 of that, whereas the outdoor retailer gets $147.00, a whopping 72.5% markup. Sierra Designs has to bear all cost to get the thing to market (except final destination charges) but only realizes revenue of 58% of the ultimate retail price. Likewise, outdoor shops charge $295.00 for the Mountainlight 4000 backpack. Mountainsmith only gets $171.00 of that, which is, again, 58% of retail and a 72.5% markup for the retailer. These guys operate on narrow margins and, perhaps, in all cases their biggest expense is labor wage & benefits. Going offshore is painful, but from a business perspective, is better than the alternative of going out-of-business.

Does this mean that if a person wants a high-quality, U.S. made product that they should purchase it today, before it's too late ? Well, I don't know, but if there's a particular piece of gear that you really love, well, better go for it !

Charles Lindsey, 10/28/97


Dana Glasgow and The Terraplane

All right now, what's going on, here ?

Dana, Dana, Dana -- the scourge of Montana. Geez ! Geez Louise ! 150 more unemployed. The NAFTA sucking machine strikes the U.S. again !  Prices won't go down, though,  but perceived quality already has. Never fear, insists Dana, I'll be there guarding quality.

I don't know Dana, there's just something about opening up that pack and seeing a "Made in Sri Lanka" or "Made in Mexico" tag that makes me uncomfortable.

The main reason (in addition to other reasons) that I went entirely Dana Design in 1992 -- bought 9 of em for family (I still have Bridger (3-season overnight) and Big Sky (Winter-day hike)) -- was because those packs were " built for backpackers by backpackers " and at every stop along the production line, there was a backpacker's initials certifying the pack as top quality bombproof.  I believed that,  I relied on that,  and I paid for that.

How many thirteen-year old Mexican or Sri Lankan seamstresses have you seen on the trail lately. They will, no doubt, need training. Hopefully, for the sake of anybody who actually buys another Dana pack, those seamstresses will be given a Backpack 101 course BEFORE they're turned loose to sew one together.

Hey, what about the Terraplane. I shoulda kept mine, the resale price of Montana-made Terraplanes is going to go up. I always do that -- buy when I should sell, and sell when I should buy.......

Just imagine the impact this is going to have on the young packers who've been saving their pennies for the day when they can plop down U.S. $450 (or more) for a Terraplane, just so they can say with pride,   "I own a Terraplane, best darn pack in the world !"   If they utter those words, now, it, most likely, will be with tempered pride.

Where the heck is Sri Lanka, anyway ? Isn't that the country where people retire when (and if) they reach the age of twenty ?

Charles Lindsey, 11/01/97


Lightweight in The Dolomites !

Wow, our trip to the "Old Country". It seems so long ago now. We returned around October 10th ......... this was our second trip to the Val Gardena area of the Dolomites. Talk about a lightweight trip (Compared to what we generally do up here in AK), we only took 1 carry-on each for the 3 week trip !

We traipsed and climbed from hut to hut for 12 days with packs weighing no more than 8-10 pounds each (with food & water). Certainly, it's not a wilderness experience (lots of litter bugs there!), but it is quite the adventure and VERY relaxing; what with the huts, sunny weather, fresh pasta and beer, no bears or bugs. We used a lot of sun screen this year!

It's very civilized (sometimes good, sometimes bad) compared to the trips we usually do up here. The nice part is that you don't have to lug your: stove, pots, sleeping bag, pad, tent, food, etc. We just took a minimal amount of scrambling gear for the via Ferrata (cabled climbing routes).

This was the trip we took our La Sportiva Trango Pluses. They were fantastic on the rock and trails! I think my wife is going to give up her Makalus next summer in favor of her Trangos. Trangos are much lighter. The boots edge extremely well, stick to the rock, and provide excellent lateral stability. We scrambled on low grade 5th class climbing routes (up to 5.5) and over passes to 10,000 feet. We'd get up about 5am, have tea and java, hit the trail. Lunch either on the trail or at some mid-way hut. We'd reach our destination around 5pm for the night! Oh, we've been using the Platypus Hosers all summer long. They're fantastic and the trip to the Dolomites was a perfect application for them. I wouldn't use anything else now! We got some interesting looks from people trying to figure out what the hoses on our shoulder pads were. When they figured it out they were pretty impressed too.

All of the huts were around 100 years old and generally sleep 40, 50, or more. Some sleep 100. Lots of sing & snore Germans! The huts are more like alpine hotels, although since it was late in the season we ended up sleeping in the dorm rooms in all the huts except one, even though we had made reservations for private rooms. The food was great: hot and fresh. We made the trip even cheaper by getting "hut stamps" from the American Alpine Club before we left. We saved about 50 percent on huts and food.

We planned the trip so we'd be there the week before the huts started closing, figuring there would be fewer people. We were right. One day we didn't even see another person until we got to the next hut. We were told there was fewer people this year because of the terrible weather they experienced last fall. Two years ago, on our last trip there, it snowed on us. So, you've got to be prepared for the elements. We took our Patagucci Stooper Pluma jackets and pants, Synchilla snap T's, lt. wt. and mid wt. capilene shirts. Michelle took a MountainSmith Tyrol pack (the newer model - improved). I took my Black Diamond Mixed Master pack. It turned out to be a little large, but I needed the room flying over. Our Leki poles were very useful, and fit in our packs for the flight over.

After the adventure in the Dolomites, we jumped in our little car and zipped down to stay with friends in Florence. During that stay, we sneaked off for a four-day hike from Montalcino to Montepuciano. We only got lost once (a farmer plowed over the trail) and chased by feral dogs once (Leki poles are good protection). We stayed in real hotels and pensiones (with showers - I must be getting soft in my old age). We never saw another person on the entire trail for 4 days! Really! I'm still shaking my head in wonder.

Kevin Turinsky, 12/30/97


But, We Stayed Dry !

I was (recently) talking with an old friend about how we managed to camp in a declared "natural disaster area" when we were in high school.

It had rained for about a week straight, let up, and rained again. The forecast was for clear weather for the next 4 days. We hitchhiked to mid New Hampshire, Newfound Lake, I believe, which at the time, boasted some of the cleanest water in the world, and pitched camp. We usually took turns at picking/pitching. This time, I picked the site, and my friend pitched our 9'x12' (or more) thin plastic "auto cover" as a looong tarp.

It started raining. It rained all night. We then discovered that it is not a good idea to pitch across two ropes, as we had to wake up every 30 minutes and push out the gallons of water that were bulging over our head, between the two ropes! We had an AM radio, and discovered that we were in the center of a flood zone. We were high enough to be above the rising lake, but had to dig a ditch around the tent for the water running down the hill to miss us. Believe it or not, we stayed dry !

The next day, we went hiking in the rain. We couldn't go up the trail that we wanted to traverse, as water was running down it, and had formed a stream. We walked for about 4-6 hours, and upon recrossing the 'trail/stream' discovered that it was deep, and with such force, that we couldn't walk across it! We found a downed tree, and used it to cross. The downed trees provided some nightmares that night, as we could hear them falling in the woods, a couple fairly close. The next day, we walked down to the road, and discovered it was covered with water. The pond had risen such that gas fillup stations on the pond were completely submerged. We walked a ways, and finally hit an intersection and managed to get out of the area. Except for the danger, a fun trip.

Staying dry... ...What a concept !

Mark Damish, 01/13/98


No Bears, But...!

While backpacking in the Trinity Alps, I had an experience that I will never forget.

We made camp at an old hunters' camp. We took advantage of a fire pit that was previously dug next to a large boulder. The 3 foot tall and 10 foot wide boulder was sheer on the fire side, to make a heat reflector and gradually sloped to the other. After dinner, I placed my stove and fuel at the base of the far side of the rock.

We went to bed when the fire died. It was smoldering with occasional short 4 inch flames, but the wood was gone. This is bear country, and in my experience, bears will stay clear of the site if there is a slight fire. NO big deal, right? Wrong!

During the night, I believe a hot coal popped from the fire onto the top of the rock and rolled down the rock onto the plastic bag that contained my fuel (there was evidence of this). The bag lit and my Apex canister exploded. I awoke to an explosion and flashing fireball.

Fortunately, we were near a stream. I rushed to pour at least twenty gallons of water on the area to put out the fire. After the fireball, the ground was lit and was burning like a medium/small campfire, but it was about 5 feet around. The burn area was large and we were lucky. In addition, after all that water, the ground still smouldered the next day and would occasionally lite up again.

I guess the white gas soaked into the ground (about 8 inches deep). I stirred the bedding and soaked the ground with water, again and again.

We had to stay the next day, because I wasn't sure that the fire was out. What a wierd deal. Now, I keep my fuel far away (from the fire) and I pour water on the fire before (going to) bed. Period. I suggest that you do the same. All in all, I feel we were very careful and this was a rare exception, but bad things do happen when you least expect it.

Paul West, 01/18/98


El Nino' !!

Well, I don't know if the Northwest is being effected by El Nino, but I can say for sure that Florida has been getting a very wet winter.

You see, in Florida, Jan. Feb. and March are the best months to hike the Florida National Scenic Trail. Well, someone talked me into doing a section of the trail known for its wetness.

To make a long story short, by the morning of the second day we were up to our hips in freezing cold water when we tried to pass Taylor Creek ( Named after the Pres. ). BURR. Needless to say the creek was so high that the rope bridge which usually goes over the creek was mostly underwater. It made for some interesting pictures. By the way, the boots were in my backpack for about 1/2 the hike. You begin to rely on some lightweight sandles after a while, a good addition to my pack.

Well, this was only part of it. We had heard from the grape-vine that part of the trail which usually runs onto on a dike, next to the St. Johns River, was taken out. But, we had to go check it out. We followed the dike out for 50 yards, slopping through mud and water (knee deep) when we came to the end of the line. The dike was indeed gone. The funny thing was that some guys working on the power/phone lines came by in their small work boat. I'm sure you can imagine how silly we looked, but we did indeed find that the dike was not hikable.

In other areas of the trip, the trail was acting as a small creek. The trail had several inches of water flowing in it.

At the moment, trail conditions are not getting any better. Several sections of the Florida Trail have reported flooding. Just about anywhere near water.

I think I'm going to make a T-Shirt that says:
"I swam the Florida Trail".

Jeff Walters, 02/19/98


It Could Be Worse... !

As I slowly put my backpacking gear into the plastic storage containers in my garage, I reflect on the recent camping trip that went from bad to worse within the span of what? 24 hours! But as I inhale the musty smell of the campfire smoke which lingers on the equipment, I can't help but think to myself, "It could be worse."

I guess I should have seen the bad omens telling me that this trip should not be undertaken, but I had waited all year for this short vacation with my good friends, Vern and Bruce, my son Robert and nephew James. The plan was to hike six and one half miles to Ostrander Lake in the Yosemite National Park, and do some serious trout fishing. The year before had been a great experience and we were all (with the exception of my nephew who was joining us for the first time), anticipating another fun trip.

Two days before our departure, I went to my local sports store to purchase our fishing licences. After waiting in line for some twenty minutes, the lone cashier finally finished serving everyone ahead of me. I waited as he slowly went through the fishing license box, looking for two, two-day licenses. Finally he tells me that they are "all out of two-day licenses." He asks me if I want to purchase a year-round. I tell him no and thank him for his time. I figured, "Okay, no big deal. I'll get them tomorrow at the Walmart", by my place of work. The next day I visited three different places before I was finally able to find the damn licenses. That should have been the first sign.

The group pulled out of my driveway around five-thirty in the morning and started the three and a half hour trip to Yosemite. Everyone was excited. As we traveled along highway 99, the van suddenly lost power. I was able to pull off the road safely but the thought of a broken timing belt kept creeping into my mind. The same thing had happened to me with my old Mitsubishi and they wanted twelve hundred dollars to fix it! As I slowly began to turn the key, I recited prayer after prayer; asking the Great Creator in the Sky to PLEASE let it start. Varoom! The van started up and sounded as normal as ever. That should have been the SECOND SIGN. Still we continued on. Soon that uncertain moment seemed merely a freak occurrence.

We arrived at the Wawona entrance ranger station in Yosemite, as instructed per our wilderness permit confirmation letter, to pick up our permits. I walked in and handed the ranger on duty, Greg, my letter of confirmation. As he read our destination he softly said, " oh, oh. The trail to Ostrander Lake was closed because of the recent forest fires." THE THIRD SIGN.

Without missing a beat, I asked him if there were any other trails that we could take. After all, we had traveled over three hours and planned for eleven months for this. I wasn't about to simply turn around and go home. Perfect opportunity to have done so, but, no. Ranger Greg, suffering from a tequila hangover from the night before, suggested we take the "Chihuahua Falls" trail - not the actual name of the trail, but we couldn't remember the real name so that's what we called it. I think it should have been called the Devil's Staircase To HELL trail!

Still, we decided to take our dear friend, Ranger Greg's suggestion...I can't help but think that perhaps Greg WAS the devil himself! As we approached the trail, we immediately had to climb up for several hundred yards. Stone steps had been set into the side of the mountain to "make it easier to climb ...TO HELL! ANOTHER SIGN. How many is that so far? Five?! Yet, like fools, we continued on.

The skies were somewhat cooperative by being slightly overcast. As we trekked onward and upward, we jokingly told each other that, "It could be worse." The line used by the late comic actor, Marty Feldman in the Mel Brooks film, Young Frankenstein. It softly drizzled on us as we hiked up the trail, which was refreshing and helped cool us down. The devil's way of enticing us to continue on, which we did.

To make it a bit more exciting, or simply to mock us, the devil himself appeared in the form of a rattlesnake. Slowly, quietly and deliberately, the snake made it's way across the trail and into the fallen pine needles and wood, as we watched . Okay, so it wasn't the devil. It was a beautiful species and reminded me that we were out in it's domain and needed to take care and not destroy, but enjoy our surroundings. We continued on once the snake had disappeared into the brush.

I looked skyward trying to determine, not if, but, when the impending storm was going to hit us. It looked as if it would wait until we reached our destination, wherever that might be, before it would let us have it. As I s-l-o-w-l-y crept up the trail, following the endless zig-zags, I questioned why I felt it necessary to fill my new backpack to the limit. Yes, it was great. Lots of room - Too MUCH room- which I felt I needed to take advantage of, so I did. It felt like I was carrying a hundred pound sack of cement. But it wasn't the pack's fault for weighing so much, it was the dummy who packed it - ME!

After about four and a half hours of huffing and puffing, Robert, Vern and I finally reached the top of the lower part of the falls. Bruce and my nephew James, had long ago left us behind - show offs. Vern contacted them on the two-way radio to ask where they were and what it looked like in terms of campsites. They reported that they were at the very top but there was not much room to pitch a tent, nor were there any decent fishing spots. I decided that I had gone far enough and was not going to continue climbing if there was no place to set up camp or areas to fish. While Vern and Robert rested by the beautiful pools of water left by the small stream from the water fall, I walked a short distance up the trail without my pack. I immediately saw a "perfect" spot to set up camp. I had Vern call the guys and tell them to get back down to where we were.

Within a short time, we had our tents up, gathered some downed wood for the evenings campfire and I had built a fire pit. A while later, Wayne, whom we had passed up earlier on the trail, came huffing up. We invited him to set up his camp next to us, which he wisely accepted. Everything was ready for a nice enjoyable stay. Jokingly, I tell the guys, "It could be worse...", but before I could finish my statement, the rain drops started to pelt us and the wind kicked up. For the next several hours, we huddled around in our ponchos, trying to enjoy ourselves. "It could be worse, it could be snowing," I said. "Shut up!" everyone yelled.

When the weather let up a bit, I built a fire, but soon the rain and wind started up again. I secured an extra poncho over the fire, to shield it from the elements. Off in the distance we could see the sky clearing, but not nearly fast enough for us. I desperately tried to convince the two young boys that not all camping trips are this uncomfortable - I don't think they were buying it though- in fact, I bet they both felt like rolling me over the edge of the rocks we were on and yelling down to me as I plummet to the ground, "Hey, it could be worse!" But instead, they showed class and respect. Still, I didn't turn my back on them, just in case.

The rain finally stopped; the wind slowed down considerably and we were able to enjoy our dinner. Stars began to appear in the early evening sky as we laid more wood in the fire to keep warm. We enjoyed the wine that we had carried up with us, specifically for this moment. I brought out my guitar and we spent the next hour or two, singing oldies and making up silly verses about our experience. The moon showed itself for a brief time then snuck behind a cloud, which we took as a cue to hit the sack.

The morning was beautiful. Completely opposite of the day before. By eight in the morning, we were in our shorts and tank-tops, as we prepared our breakfast. We decided that this trail was not worth continuing on and that we'd head back down. After breakfast we broke camp and started down the trail, making a brief stop at the lower falls to enjoy the view and take pictures, because we had all agreed that we were NEVER coming back up this trail AGAIN! To hell with "Chihuahua Falls! Ranger Greg was going to pay dearly for having recommended this trail! "Get Greg. Hurt Greg, KILL Greg...", was our rallying cry that helped us survive the night before and that day's hike down.

To add to my hate towards Ranger Greg, I slipped on a wet rock as I climbed down from the little water fall. I bruised my left rib and I cursed that tequila-drinking ranger. With my pride more bruised than my ribs, I donned my pack and we set our sights on our van. By the time we reached our vehicle, everyone was too damn tired to even think of ranger Greg. We just wanted to get to the tiny grocery store and get something to drink.

We dove through the valley so that my nephew could see the magnificent beauty of Yosemite before heading out. As we drove past the park exit, we decided to at least try some fishing along the Merced River. Looking for a promising spot as we headed home, we finally spotted a "perfect" pool. We pulled off the main road and prepared our poles. Within minutes we were casting our lines out and eagerly anticipating our first bite. But remember, this is still the trip through HELL. Shortly after we started fishing, the local game warden decided to add one last handful of salt to our already painful, open wounds , by requesting to see our fishing licenses. My nephew and I had ours, but Vern and Bruce could not find theirs. They were either stuffed way down deep in their backpacks or sitting on Vern's Ford Blazer dashboard parked in front of my house. Though we tried to convince the good ranger that they did indeed have them, he issued each of them a citation. We quietly pack up and drove home, hoping that was the last bit off bad luck to hit us on this trip.

Now, as I pack the last pieces of camping gear away, I stop and thank my creator for such a memorable trip. Though it was not quite as we had hoped, we did experience nature in it's full powerful, yet, beautiful glory.

Through the bad weather, rough terrain and endless other sore points, my good friend Vern captured it perfectly up on that mountain when he said, "It could be worse. We could be - at work."

Noe Montoya, 09/02/99


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