Canoes, camping, and close calls: An interview with Cliff Jacobson


If you’ve done any amount of canoeing in the past 30 years, chances are that at one point or another you came across a book by Cliff Jacobson. With over 30 titles to his name, Jacobson has instructed and introduced thousands of readers to the joys of canoe camping.

This June, Jacobson released his latest book, Justin Cody’s Race to Survival. It’s an exciting mixture of fiction and well-earned wilderness instruction. We chatted with Cliff about his latest work, his own mishaps in the wild and what’s next for this paddling legend.

Author and canoe legend Cliff Jacobson

Author and canoe legend Cliff Jacobson

Tell us about your new book

Race to Survival is a book intended for young adults, though I think grownups will like it too. It’s about thirteen-year-old Justin Cody, who is failing two classes and can’t put down his phone. He’s forced to take a wilderness canoe trip in Canada with his Grandpa Henry. Along the way, Cody — who knows nothing about canoeing and camping — is thrust into a race for survival.

Along with this story of high adventure and a book that teaches wilderness skills. Young readers will be entertained while they learn practical outdoor skills. Some examples are:

  • How to read a map and compass;

  • make fire when the woods are wet with rain;

  • rig a stormproof camp;

  • what to do when you’re caught in a lighting storm;

  • tips to repel mosquitoes and black flies;

  • important knots;

  • essentials for a stay in the woods;

  • emergency signals;

  • wild foods that you can easily find and safely identify;

  • what to do if you meet a bear or cow moose while you’re hiking—and much more!

Most of the events are based upon real-life experiences—mine or those of people whom I know and trust.

Jacobson’s new book is both a fictional adventure story and a manual on camp craft

Jacobson’s new book is both a fictional adventure story and a manual on camp craft

This book is quite a bit different than your other books. Why did you want to write this?

I’ve observed that most of the people who canoe the BWCA (and beyond) have gray hair. Young people have become an oddity. What to do? I figured that kids who like camping and canoeing will naturally read books about it. And I have a number of “skinny” titles that qualify. But most young people don’t know if they like the outdoors or not. So my thought was to write an adventure novel that would draw them in, and combine it with a “how-to” skills book that would teach them right. Fiction, combined with non-fiction, if you will.

Does this book reflect any experiences you’ve had as a young man canoeing?

Definitely!  The fictional events are really all non-fiction.  Everything in the book “happened” to me or someone I know, at one time or another in my life or that of friends.

Tell us some about your first — or first few — canoe trips

I discovered canoes in a rustic scout camp in Michigan.  There were no PFD’s (life jackets) in those days. The prerequisite for a canoe trip was to pass the “First Class” swimming requirement. On my very first canoe trip—age 12—we went down a wrong passage and had to be rescued by power boat. We were stuck in the dead-end passage for about 6 hours. Henry Borkovitz, our young Junior Assistant Scoutmaster, earned an honorable award for the rescue.  He had to swim several minutes downstream to the nearest house. After that, I went all out and learned how to paddle and just fell in love with canoeing and camping.

Cliff Jacobson canoe

What has changed since you got started?

Canoeing and camping haven’t changed, probably never will.

What has changed is the equipment: lighter, tougher canoes, carbon-fiber paddles, GPS units and satellite phones, better maps, clothing and raingear. Not to mention today’s paddlers are much more skilled than those of a century ago, when techniques like backferries, braces, eddy turns and peelouts were largely unheard of.

BUT, making a successful canoe trip today still depends on good judgment, polished skills and a humble “you can’t beat nature” attitude.  There is much to be gained by reading pre-1950 canoeing literature. Yes, the “stuff” has changed but the art of making a successful trip hasn’t. The old timers didn’t have maps, sat phones and GPS’s to guide the way. But they survived, even thrived, because of their good judgment.

Can you tell us a story about a near miss, or when you found yourself in a tight situation?

Oh my, there are many: Perhaps the funniest one was on the Seal River, Manitoba.  It was a day filled with many rapids and I grew tired of leading, so I asked my friend Herb Hill, an accomplished Class III+ paddler to lead.

Suddenly, I saw Herb hastily ferry to river left. I looked ahead. Nothing!What gives? I wondered. Then, just a dozen feet away I saw the 25-foot falls. I yelled “BACKFERRY” to my wife, Sue Harings. We were too close to the falls to ferry ashore, so we aimed for a Chevy Suburban sized rock midstream just above the falls. To the right and left of that boulder was a runout that ran over the falls. We were about 25 yards from shore and no way to get there.  By now, everyone was on river left and doing a long painful portage around the drop.

What to do?

It appeared that the only way out was to paddle over the falls. We pulled the canoe high on the big rock and got to look. I looked down.

Glory be: at the base of that rock was a big quiet eddy.

We dropped the canoe down into it by the tail line, then carefully climbed down to the quietly awaiting canoe.  We paddled out through the eddy then ferried ashore to await nearly an hour for our friends to finish portaging.


What advice do you have for parents who want to introduce their kids to the Boundary Waters?

Learn some stuff before you go! Like, how to rig a stormproof camp, find your way with map and compass, waterproof your gear so it will stay dry in rain or a capsize, rig a rain tarp. You’ll find that information in books about canoeing and camping.  I suggest they see my video, The Forgotten Skills. If you can do everything in that video you’ll be comfortable and safe, and maybe even a hero to your friends.

What’s your best advice for a young person going into the wilderness?

Trust the Boy Scout motto:  BE PREPARED. Read a few books about canoeing and camping before you go.  That way, you’ll do things right. Most BWCA canoeists have never read a book about canoeing or camping; they started out doing things wrong and continue to do them wrong, year after year.  Experience is the best teacher ONLY if there is prior positive knowledge—and you want get that “just by doing” or by listening to adults who want to buy something to fix their problems rather than learn skills to do things right.

How often do you get to the Boundary Waters these days?

Well, I’ve made well over 100 trips to the BWCA over the years, and I still keep coming back for more.  At least one trip per year, generally two. I prefer early spring or late autumn when the people and bugs are gone.

What future trips do you have planned?

I turn 79 this year and can no longer portage heavy canoes around mean rapids, so I have largely stopped doing Canadian rivers where mean carries are part of the routine. Instead, I am now focusing on American rivers—largely desert and tropical rivers. It’s a new learning curve for me and it’s quite exciting.

Coming up in November is my third trip on the Rio Grande along the Texas/Mexican border.  I’ve done 240 miles of that river and it remains my favorite U.S. river. Earlier this year, friends and I canoed about 150 miles of the Yellowstone River in Montana. All my trips lately have been in solo canoes.

I might close by offering that old age is not a stopper to doing dicey trips. If you’re a young polished canoeist and camper you’ll be an old polished canoeist and camper. Yes, your days will be a bit shorter and less rigorous, but otherwise the rest will be the same. My best advice?  LEARN, LEARN, LEARN to paddle and camp efficiently. As any race car driver will attest: A slow car will beat a fast car if you are skilled at driving it!

Cliff Jacobson's new book

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