Podcast: Game Changing Gear

Deciding what gear to use for Boundary Waters trips can be overwhelming. Cutting-edge, ultra-lightweight, indestructible, weatherproof gear can make a big difference, but the newest and coolest gear might not always be the best gear for you – or your budget.

We’ve turned  to Darren Bush from Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin, to help sort through the options and give us some answers to what makes for the best BWCA canoes, what features to look for in canoes, paddles and PFD’s — and how to choose. Darren also shares his favorite pieces of gear, and ideas for which items might make the biggest difference on your next paddle journey.


Find out how to choose the best gear for your BWCA trips from Rutabaga Paddlesports shop owner Darren Bush.


Game Changing Gear – Darren Bush

Darren Bush: It’s kind of embarrassing, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if you accumulate gear, it’s fine as long as you pass off the stuff that you’re not using. I mean, if I don’t touch it in a year, it’s gone.

Dave Meier: Welcome to Big Red Canoe, the podcast from Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, where we introduce you to captivating people and intriguing stories from America’s Treasured Wilderness. I’m Dave Meier. Grab a paddle and hop on in.

Today, we’ll be talking about a topic that’s a favorite for many paddlers -boundary waters, canoe gear. So whether you’re preparing for a fall trip or coming back from a summer, one thinking. "This trip could have been better with just that one little thing." When it [00:01:00] comes to gear, it’s fun to learn and very fun to dream. And we’re lucky to be joined on the podcast by Darren Bush, from Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin. Needless to say, paddling and gear are a huge part of Darren’s life. So welcome to the show.

Darren Bush: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.

Dave Meier: So Darren, you were telling me you’re not native to Wisconsin. Where are you from? And how’d you get into canoeing and paddle sports. What’s your background.

Darren Bush: I was born through no fault of my own in California and grew up in essentially near Calabasas is Kardashian land now. When I was there, it was actually there were oaks and movie sets, and now it’s pretty much gone. But I grew up in the water. My water was salty, but I lived about eight miles from a really good surf break.

And spent time at the beach a lot and just, just did that. But I never felt completely comfortable there. I think I was a mid-westerner born there by mistake. So I came here in 1984 for my wedding reception.[00:02:00]

I said to my father-in-law, why doesn’t everybody live here? He said, I don’t know. So we moved here two months later and it’s, it’s my home. , so I consider myself to be a mid-westerner. I love Wisconsin, I love Minnesota, I love the up.

How I got into paddling was almost by mistake. When I moved here I’m like, well, there’s no ocean, right? And then I got invited on a Boundary Waters trip in 1986 to go with some, some Boy Scouts and they were not prepared. And I didn’t know what I was getting into. But despite that, I had a wonderful time and it really ignited my love for, for the boundary waters.

And since then, I don’t know how many times I’ve been there, many. And and that just this kind of happened. And then I got into white water because that’s the closest thing to ocean waves. And and I moved away from the adrenaline and more towards the peace. And pretty much I’ll paddle white water when I have to.[00:03:00] But I don’t go seeking it. And I mean, I can still paddle class three-ish, whatever, but I don’t I go out on nice calm lakes and get into that meditative state.

Dave Meier: Do you do mostly Wisconsin or mostly boundary waters, canoeing, or kind of a mix?

Darren Bush: Well I have a theory . So I know a lot of people with limited vacation, right? And it’s like they save up and save up and it’s say, okay, we’re gonna the boundary waters for a week, and they go to the boundary waters for a week and that’s great.

And then they come home and then they go back to work for 51 weeks. And I think that’s just like gorging once a year, right? Just sitting down and just gorging on paddling or whatever. And then waiting and. Going hungry for 51 week. So I’m of the snack rather than gorge kind of person. So I do a couple long trips a year. Usually the boundary waters. And I’ll do like a three or four day trip down the lower Wisconsin River, which is 45 minutes from my [00:04:00] house. So that’s a, that’s a beautiful stretch.

You know, again, I go up north northern Wisconsin, which, you know, it’s, it’s a little known fact that Wisconsin has more lakes than Minnesota. So the land of 10,000 lakes, I think we have closer to 14. If you look in a map of Vila County, it looks like someone took a shotgun and shot it, and then the holes filled up with water.

It’s full of these little beautiful lake from 15 to 500 acres and, and more. But I love my little 200 acre lakes where you just pop in and circumnavigate as, as you can. For a little bit, for some yummies and, and sit on the shore and look at things for a couple hours, and that really can restore me.

Dave Meier: Oh, I believe it. And I love the snacking metaphor for canoe trips. You know, you can’t just load it all into one and it seems like it’s become a way of life for you. So what was that turn for you and how did you end up at Rutabaga Paddlesports?

Darren Bush: Well, it started like this. In 1990 after grad school, I moved back [00:05:00] to Madison and I got a real job. I was a state job. I was working as an epidemiologist for the public health bureau doing breast and cervical cancer surveillance.

And I really loved my work. But if you work for the government, at some point you run up against the, to make more money, you have to be a manager. I was, no, I’m not interested in being a manager, and frankly, they weren’t as interested in having me. ’cause I wasn’t, I wasn’t the kind of person to follow the rules.

So I was, while I was doing that, I worked four, 10 hour days and then there was this little paddle sports shop called Rutabaga that was in an old grocery store just south of campus a little bit. And it was, it was a dump. I mean, it was falling apart. And My joy days, like I did my work, I liked my work, and then I’d go to work on Fridays and, and sometimes Saturdays and go, man, this is, I, I leave work more energized than when I get there.

Right? Because no one comes into the [00:06:00] shop. A problem, like, you know, my toilet’s broken or my car blew up, or whatever. It’s like when they come in, they’re automatically related, they’re automatically friends, right? So I got to talk to people, you know, 10 people a day on, on different kind of paddling stuff.

And it was, it was really fun. And in 94 the former owner moved us into a brand new building. He said, Hey, we need another manager. And I’m like, man, I, I got a pretty good deal here. I get the red and white paycheck every two weeks and you know, money’s not great, but it’s okay. And and the more I thought about it, the more I went, you know what, I am not a not growing person.

I have to keep growing. I have to keep learning. And I’ll do this for a couple years and then I’ll figure out what I’m gonna do next after I stop learning things. And here I am, you know, 25 something years later, still learning things because [00:07:00] when you work in retail, I mean, every day is different. And if you look at the retail landscape in the past 25 years, I mean, the internet didn’t exist when I bought this business.

And all these things that have been disruptors in retail have been a learning experience for me, and it’s been really cool. Sometimes challenging, but cool. So anyway in 2002 I turned 40 and The guy that owned it before me was kind of a difficult person to work for. And right before I turned 40, I made the pro con list.

I said, I’m gonna, I’m gonna quit. I’ll give you the summer and then I’m done. And he said if you do that, I’m screwed. I’m like, eh, not my problem. And two weeks later it happened to be for sale. So I bought it with a partner for five years.

And then 2007 I bought a milk. And here we are. So last year well two years ago, my lease ran out on the building I’m in and I’m like, you know what I. [00:08:00] This building’s falling apart. So I built a new shop and we opened on December 4th. And it’s, it’s so nice to be in a space that is new and clean. For the most part, we are, we are focused on canoes, kayaks, paddles, life jackets, and paddle sports accessories. Fair amount of camping accessories. And that’s mostly, so if someone came in and said, I’ve never done this before. I wanna go to the boundary waters, or I want to go someplace I can give them everything they need to go with.

You know, they just hand me a credit card and they leave with a boat and paddles and PFDs and thwart bags and portage packs and stoves and all that stuff.

Dave Meier: If a customer comes in, how do you help them to find out what gears are fit for them? And what kind of questions are you asking and what are people looking for in a Boundary Waters canoe?

Darren Bush: It’s pretty easy. Actually, we ask almost always the same questions.

Okay. Where are you gonna go? What are you gonna do? If you don’t go [00:09:00] anywhere now, where do you think you wanna go? And you’re doing local streams, big streams, big rivers, lakes. Do you want to go on a trip? Are you tripping? Oh, are you just paddling day paddling? How important is weight? How important is you know, comfort is always important.

And once we get an idea of where they want to go and what they wanna do, it’s actually fairly easy. I’ve been doing this for, you know, 30 years, so it’s, okay, well here are, here are three choices. That would work great. So, for example, if someone came in and said, Hey, I, I wanna, I want a solo canoe. I wanna do small rivers around here, but I also wanna be able to trip with it.

Okay gimme some ideas of body water, bodies of water you go to or want to go to, and that narrows it down. So I’ll say to him, okay, well I could, you could look at for example, you could look at a North star, Phoenix, you know, 14 and a half feet.

Pretty stable. Stable, maneuverable, decent whole speed. Not great, but holds a load. [00:10:00] And you could do that on the local rivers here, or you could take it to the boundary waters. You know, you’re not gonna be the first guy that finished at the end of the day that you know, last one off the water wins. You could look at a swift Wildfire or Keywadin 15, or if you wanna go straight, you can look at a Prism.

So if you want a little bit more durability, you could look at like the Esquif Echo you could look at some of the the Royalex or T-Formex, but Royalex is like Kleenex, right? It’s gonna be hard to get away from that. But T-Formex is the material. So we just give choices and.

Two acre pond behind our shop that has a oxygenator in it. So the water quality there is better than anything else in Madison. And they go out and we paddle around a little bit and sometimes they go alone. Sometimes I’ll go with them in another boat and just kind of talk ’em through it, and then they make a decision.

And we don’t really sell, we just, we give ’em consult, consultation, and then they decide. I had a guy that came in, actually, was it yesterday or the day before who [00:11:00] said, Hey I just bought a used Mad River Independence and he is about my size. He is about 200 pounds. And I said, cool. He said, but its seat’s too high.

And I wanna paddle with a kayak paddle. I said, okay, well come over here. And I showed him some seats and some seat drops. I said, if you wanna do it like an open top kayak, like a pack boat, we can do that. And he’s like, oh, cool. And then he went, I’m a woodworker. I said, take pictures of this stuff. Go home and make it.

And he, and he left and it was like, was that a good sales thing to do? No. Whatever. He had the skills to do it. I said, just promise when you finish, you’ll come back and show me the really cool stuff you built. And and he left. And that’s, he didn’t need anything, so why sell him something? Right. And it was nice.

And he’ll be back. He’ll come back and buy a paddle or something. That’s okay. I mean, I, we try and meet people where at Right. He didn’t need anything, so I didn’t sell him anything.[00:12:00]

Dave Meier: Yeah, that makes sense to me. And that seems like a great holistic approach. You know, both for you know, your customers and, and for you and, and for your shop.

When I was contacting you about coming on this podcast you said you just listened to our previous podcast on 25 Tips for a Better Boundary Waters trip, and you took issue with our own Pete Marshall who said that you don’t necessarily need expensive gear to have a great trip to the boundary waters, which, you know, of course, where we’re coming from is you know, lowering the barrier to entry.

We want people to get out there and not to feel intimidated by. By the gear. And, the example was using a, an aluminum canoe versus a, a Kevlar canoe, which I remember when I first discovered Kevlar canoes who was a total game changer. And, and I know that having a lighter canoe has allowed people like my dad to continue traveling extensively in the bounty waters into their seventies and and eighties.

And for me, it, you know it replacing that aluminum as a scrawny teenager, was a game changer. But on the flip side, I just went up to Sawbill last week with my [00:13:00] two kids in an aluminum canoe and just with a few short portages on that trip.

The aluminum canoe we have fit perfectly into our trip. Its stability was great and you know, if the kids were careless, it got banged up. It didn’t really matter. So it struck me that. The best gear is probably really what’s best for your situation and your needs and your budget. And, and last week for me that was the, the aluminum canoe.

So what’s, what’s your approach to, to gear and when are those you know, nicer pieces of gear? Where can you get those difference makers? Is, is, is that kind of what you’re saying?

Darren Bush: That’s exactly what I’m saying. And I didn’t take issue with buy, you know, get the cheapest stuff you can get if it gets you out there.

I think what you said is it doesn’t really make that big of a difference. Like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Yes, it does. But let me state first that there is, there is a fetishization of gear, right? And there are people that are, that are gearheads. That’s great. I [00:14:00] love them ’cause they always want the latest and coolest and sometimes the latest and coolest is really the latest and coolest.

I mean, it’s really, really cool and it allows you to do things that you couldn’t do before. You know, the Kevlar carbon sort of lightweight boat thing is a, is a perfect example of that. I think aluminum canoes are great and they’re. I cannot portage one. I mean, I could. But I, I, I choose not to because, you know, I’m in my, I’m 61 and I’ve got some lower back problems.

So having a lightweight boat allows me to continue to paddle and just like your father it doesn’t mean that I don’t have, you know, I’ve got a, a wood canvas boat that’s 16 feet that weighs 80 pounds. I very much do not like portaging that, but more than that, if someone picks it up and puts it on my shoulders, I can, I can do a portage, it’s getting it up and down.

And if I’ve, I can flip the boat up and down or get it off my car 10 times, [00:15:00] 15 times, 20 times, 50 times the 51st time. I’m gonna twist weird and it’s gonna go gok and then I’m done paddling for three months. So I think it’s, it’s the proper gear, not necessarily the lightest or best. You know, we don’t sell carbon fiber, foam core CAG paddles to everybody who comes into the shop.

I mean, are they the best? No, they’re the lightest. And for some people, lightest is best. If you’re paddling shallow water and you want something more durable, that’s fine. What we don’t sell is like a $50 or $40 Carlisle paddle that you can get at the tractor store, because I don’t think that gives you a good experience.

Now, if that’s what you have and, and you’re happy with it, great. You know, go enjoy. But I think some people don’t know it exists, and when you show it to them, they go, wow. And I had a couple come in a couple weeks ago and there’s a new boat from Northstar called the Pearl, [00:16:00] 16 feet 36 or 37 pounds, something like that.

And they were, you know, in their late seventies, early eighties, and they picked it up and they went, whoa. I said, right. He said, this has made it possible for me to paddle another 10 years. I said, and bingo, right? So you can get a less expensive canoe. I mean, you can buy a aluminum canoe for 500 bucks, right in someone’s backyard.

But as I’ll say, sometimes the most expensive canoe is the one you use twice. So you spend 500 bucks for an aluminum boat and use it twice. That’s 250 bucks per paddle, right? If you buy a kevlar boat for $3,000 and use it 20 times, that’s 150 bucks per paddle. So the best value is the one you use the most, and if light helps you use it more, then it’s worth it.

And it tell people, buy the lightest paddle you or the lightest canoe you choose to afford, [00:17:00] because not everybody can afford, you know, $3,500 for a canoe. I understand that, but I also understand that for someone in my age category the lightest canoe may allow them to continue to paddle off for another decade.

Dave Meier: And is that kind of most of your clientele, like what are most people looking for in a canoe?

Darren Bush: Well, it depends on the, on the person.

So, you know, we do have people that are boomers that come in and say, you know, I’ve been paddling the boundary waters for 30 years. I just can’t pick up my aluminum boat anymore. Or my 70 pound Royalex boat, or whatever. Right? And they paddle it and they go, well, not only is it lighter, it paddles better.

There’re you can get designs in composite. You can’t get in aluminum, you just can’t bend the material. Right. But if you’re, you know, often we’ll get in a young family, you know, 40 year old, 35 year old guy who’s got a 10 year old and an eight year old. And that is, that’s a pain point for outdoor people.

[00:18:00] You can’t hike with them ’cause they get tired you know, or backpack you can’t cycle with them because they can’t keep up. So what do you do with an eight and a 10 year old? You put ’em in a canoe because then they’re there, they’re close, you can keep an eye on them, and they have fun. So you can still get outside with a young family, and that, that happens quite a bit.

They, they want something less expensive usually, and more durable. At least, you know, more cosmetically, durable, right? You take some hits and then we look at T-Formex. Or, you know another material from Northstar has IXP and Swift has their Expedition Kevlar, Nova Craft’s got their tough stuff, it’s called. and you know, Wenonah has their expedition layup too, and they have T-Formex as well.

So you choose the boat that works best for you. And not, not the most expensive. Because sometimes the most expensive is actually the worst boat for you.

Dave Meier: , and what would you [00:19:00] say is the most game changing development in canoe making?

Over the last, since Kevlar ?

Darren Bush: It’s more construction. So Kevlar is, it’s not necessarily lighter than fiberglass, it’s just more durable per pound. Right. So you can use less of it. And if you look at how, you know, the outfitters have changed completely from, you know, the old days when it was a stack of aluminum boats to now it’s a racks full of Kevlar because when people rent. They wanna rent light. What has happened over the past? Oh, I’d say 15, 20 years, eh, past 10 mostly is a construction technique resin infusion where the boat is laid up. I pieces are put into the mold dry. And then they put a a vacuum bag on it, and then they pull a vacuum off one side and introduce the resin on the other, and it flows through.

The cool thing about that is you can control the resin saturation down to the [00:20:00] tablespoon. It’s, it’s pretty cool. And so you can get a lighter boat. They’re actually a little stronger because you don’t have resin between layers. That’s, that’s the scariest part of a hand laid up boat, which is where there’s no vacuum or anything because. You can build them, but if you don’t squeegee them right, or something goes a little bit off, you might get a a, a layer thin layer of resin between two layers of cloth and resin has no structural capacity. It’s like brittle, right? If you take well, it’s an example. You take some sugar and you boil it till it’s a syrup and put it on the, let it cool you can snap it in half.

Well, resin when it’s when it’s cured, is pretty much the same. So you want enough resin to hold the layers together, but not so much that it puddles or it gets layers and then not so much that it gets dry. So you wanna balance that. And the people that do infusion are geniuses of that.

Dave Meier: So let’s talk about some of the [00:21:00] other types of gear that are important to paddling. PFDs and the paddles themselves. , what are some of the types of paddles considerations that people are looking at when they’re, um, when they’re coming to your shop and what are some of the good upgrades that people have enjoyed?

Darren Bush: This, this is a case where I say, you know, by the lightest paddle you choose to afford, if you are paddling flat water ’cause you pick your boat up, you know, multiple times a day if you’re doing portages. But if you are, you know, lifting the paddle 10,000 times a day, 15,000 times a day, light will help you from getting tired.

And that’s, that’s great. If you’re paddling. You know, six inches deep once in a while, maybe you don’t want the ultra light ’cause you might be, you know, hitting the bottom. But for lake country light’s, great. The other thing is traditional paddles don’t get enough love. Because everybody thinks, oh my gosh, they’re gonna break ’cause there’s nothing on the bottom.[00:22:00]

It’s like, you know what? People have been using traditional paddles for. Hundreds, if not, you know, thousands of years without anything on the bottom to protect the bottom. Well, they’re not for pry bars, right? They’re for paddling. And if you are careful with them, and if you hit, hit occasional rock, eh, it’s gonna scuff or scratch, or it might chip.

Those are easily repaired. And I have probably a dozen traditional paddles and I, and I really like how they feel in the water. They are a little easier to teach people how to do corrective strokes you know, j strokes and things like that. Just because the blade’s longer and extends further behind the paddler and is more like a small rudder.

So it, it does help teach. I had a friend staying with us at the little cabin. It was a friend from Italy. She’s never been any place. It’s just she’s from a, an urban area. She went to fashion school in Milan, [00:23:00] so she was paddling solo within an hour, using a traditional paddle with some techniques that I’ve, you know, I, so like I developed them.

There’s, there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to paddling technique, right? And there’s no right or wrong. There’s just effective and ineffective or less effective. So I think sometimes people get into the, that’s the wrong way to do it. It’s like, well, you know what, maybe. But if it works for you, fine.

Dave Meier: I’m hearing you about the, the number of times you pick it up a day that, you know, if you’re going on long, long trips, that can really make a difference. And but again, I’m in the eight to 10 year old kid set. And so sometimes those wood paddles, it’s just like, here you go.

Darren Bush: Yep.

Dave Meier: If if it, if it breaks, it’s not the end of the world as long as you’re not way out in the wilderness. When that happens,

Darren Bush: You know, it’s, my experience is paddles don’t usually break when you’re paddling with them.

They break when you run over to your truck. [00:24:00] And I, I’ve seen this at Putins and it’s just painful. Don’t set your paddle, don’t lean it against your car, and then it falls over and then you try and close your tailgate and it pinches. So I’ve never broken a paddle while paddling.

Dave Meier: Yeah. Or keep a clean camp. You know, don’t leave your paddles lying around on the rocks in your camp.

You know, as soon as you show up to the camp lean ’em up against something and kind of get ’em out of the way so you’re not stepping on them and, and accidentally breaking them and, and stranding yourself.

Darren Bush: Absolutely. Well, you’re in the carry a spare anyway. I mean, everybody should carry, my opinion is one paddle for every two as far as spares go.

Dave Meier: Well, and, speaking of, of safety that’s also kind of a factor too when you’re choosing gear. You know, it’s, it’s not just kind of about, about comfort and,


and lightness. And then, you know, durability, but also safety. And I think that that’s especially true with PFDs.

And so I kind of grew up not wearing a [00:25:00] P F D and things happen really fast out there and

it can save your life. And, and that, that is critical. And then of course, having kids too so is that a factor too, when, when people are, are choosing PFDs and as kind of a P F D nube what can you tell me about what to look for in a personal flotation device?

Darren Bush: One that you will wear. And

Dave Meier: that’s for that reason I just

Darren Bush: said, right. Well, right, and, and I mean, I paddle solo all the time. And I never go out without a P F D, even if I’m like 10 feet from shore, you know, because, you know, things happen, right? Wave comes up, something tips me over. I hit my head on the gunwhale and I’m kind of confused.

And you know, there’s a, a young person that died on one of our local rivers a couple months ago. It’s a shallow river. It’s very shallow, but it turned a corner in a bend near a big a big bluff. And there was this. Steep spot, and he may or may not have been drinking a [00:26:00] little bit, I don’t know, a little bit of beer, but all of a sudden he went down and he did not come up.

Nobody was wearing a P F D because, hey, why should you wear A P F D? It’s only six inches deep. Well, you can drown in four inches of water, right? And I’m a big fan of not drowning. So the most important p f d, the best one is the one you wear. And, you know, when I started paddling, there were the, the orange extra sports with the big slabs that fit you if you’re a tube shape.

And don’t fit if you’re not, and people didn’t wear them. So the, the game changer for, for us is in, I don’t remember exactly when. It was probably in the late nineties. Philip Curry is the founder of Lotus Designs and took apart his wife’s sports bra and used it as a pattern. To make A P F D and it was a radical idea that instead of making flotation fit your body, you said you [00:27:00] make, make the clothing, make, make the fit, and then make it float.

And for women especially, it was a game changer because there’s a lot more variation in women’s shapes than there is in men shapes. And, you know, unisex back then meant, fits one sex, right? Fits guys, and especially larger busted women. There’s nothing for ’em. When Philip made that p f d it was like, oh my gosh.

And people started wearing them and then other manufacturers started picking up that, you know, not everything has to be a slab. And he sold Lotus designs. So three or four years later to Patagonia, And Patty Goner ran into the ground. I don’t think it was important enough and wasn’t enough of a profit center, but be that as it may, his non-compete ran out and he started in ESAL Designs and continued with his work and his He’s, he’s a revolutionary when it comes to PFDs [00:28:00] and everybody else said, you know what, this is a good idea.

So all of our companies that we carry I don’t carry a P F D that I wouldn’t wear because why should I make someone else wear something that’s not comfortable? So I actually wear a woman’s p f d quite a bit because if it fits a woman, it’ll certainly fit me and super comfortable and You know, the, the, the only downside is if it’s really hot, you’re, you know, you’ve got some R 22 insulation strapped to your body.

Okay, so splash yourself a little bit and being hot’s better than being dead.

Dave Meier: Are all pFDs hot, even the most comfortable ones? Or are there design factors or material factors that, change that comfort factor

Darren Bush: There are, there’s some PFDs that have been designed with A foam on the inside that separates it a little bit from your body using some dimples or some scrim fabric and some holes in it for ventilation.

[00:29:00] So there’s some of that. The other thing is the amount of foam that touches your body is much different than it was, you know, 25 years ago where you had, you know, basically your whole torso was covered. Right. Well, any, any foam above your chest doesn’t do anything. Because it’s not in the water. So over the years, flotation has moved down into the front.

So you have a little bit of a dad bod but you float facing up and it doesn’t get in the way. So there’s no, there’s no good P f D that has a lot of foam on the sides where your arm would rub. And there’s very little, very good PFDs that have foam like above your shoulders. The one case that’s not true is not in paddle sports.

It’s in like, you see water skiers and wakeboarders and stuff have a P F D that’s got much more flotation on it and a lot of, a lot of flotation above, above the shoulders, right above the armpits above. That’s because they’re gonna hit the water at 30 miles an [00:30:00] hour. So they need that. For, for paddlers, we don’t really need that impact resistance.

Dave Meier: I ordered one online and the fit is terrible and it’s uncomfortable. And I think your point is really well taken about having one that can, that, that fits you and is, is more comfortable and, and, and that you would wear. ’cause that’s something, that’s something I need to do.

Darren Bush: And talk to someone who’s had 30 life jackets on, right?

So, you know, getting one on the internet is all well and good if you’ve got return privileges.

But also there’s adjustability factors and people often don’t know how to fit a P F D. And if you get ’em from the factory, sometimes all the, all the straps are cinched up tight just to make it. You know, ship easier and look better on the hanger. So the first thing I do when I fit A P F D is open everything, all the straps, all the way out, and then put it on somebody and then start at the bottom and work your way up.

Dave Meier: That makes a ton of sense. And I [00:31:00] think getting fit for a better PFD is at the top of my list for this off season. We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be back with Darren Bush.

NARRATOR: The boundary waters is more than a stunning collection of pristine water, trees, and ancient rocks. It’s the people, the memories, the life-changing experiences that make this wilderness such an important part of our lives. Connect with this special place by subscribing to Friends of the Boundary Waters Newsletter or following us on social media visit.

www.friendsbwca.org to learn more.

Dave Meier: So besides paddling, you also do, canoe camping and that’s, that’s a big part of the trip for you. Do you have any favorite pieces of camping gear? What’s your favorite piece of camping gear for a paddle trip or your top three?

Darren Bush: So if I’m not portaging cast iron, I.

I love an eight inch [00:32:00] Dutch oven and I love baking. So the other one is we’ve got a company we found in Germany called Petromax. Petromax is it’s a German company. They, they make some stuff that is really cool. They’re mostly known for their They’re lanterns. You know, the ones that can blind you, you know, like it’s like a 500 watt bolt.

They’re amazing. The Amish use them a lot actually ’cause they’re indestructible. But they also make some cook year. They make a thing that’s, it’s like a shallow pa pan with three legs on it. The legs screw off. You can cook, you know, I cook, cook bacon or sausage on it, and then when it gets too much grease, I just tap a corner of it and lower it in the sand and the grease runs off into the fire and burns.

And you can adjust it by dragging it in and out of the fire. And, Move it over and have a cool spot and a hot spot. I’ve made, you know, roti, which is, you know, basically an Indian pita bread [00:33:00] and any butter chicken, you can, anything you can make on a griddle you can make on that thing. As you might guess from my responses, I kind of like food.

I think it’s important to eat well. I also have a reflector oven them that I love dearly. Actually I import them from Sweden, from the sweet little old guy in Sweden who makes ’em. And It’s, they’re very small, very light. And you know, I’ve made eggplant Parmesan before on the trail, which is, it was stupid, but it was fun.

But baking, you know, making little pizzas, things like that, there’s nothing better than a reflector oven. ’cause you can watch the whole thing happen. And once you understand how to position it and how to. Make temperature wise, then you can make anything with it. As far as cooking stuff I really like cook Custom selling makes some really nice like seat pads.

I mean, they’re known for their portage packs and their portage packs are [00:34:00] indestructible. Right. I have one, the first damage that was to it it’s probably 10 years old, was a chipmunk chewing a corner off of it because. It’s amazing how fast they can chew. And it wasn’t, I didn’t, it wasn’t, I wasn’t hanging it ’cause it wasn’t, it wasn’t night, it was just sitting in camp and I look over and there’s this hole.

But he also makes like seat pads. And he makes one that I think everybody should have if it fits your boat, that they, the space between the edge of the seat and the, and the boat. There’s that little rectangular gap right on on most boats and there’s little pockets that fit down in there. And, It’s perfect for, you can leave it open and put a water bottle sitting there, or you can, you know, throw in what you’d put in a thwart bag and have it right there for you. . It uses dead space and I mean, that’s Dan, right? I mean, he’s always, Thinking about stuff. ’cause he’s a, he’s an engineer and, and I could tell [00:35:00] Dan’s stories that’ll blow you away about stuff that he, he’s invented not in his in his paddling life, but in his work life.

He’s a, he’s a total genius. But I love those I like, I like thwart bags. I think everybody should have one just because it’s like a glove compartment for your canoe, right? It’s right there in front of you.

One thing I do like is I, I’ve got a, a twig stove and I. I’ve never had anybody gimme a straight answer If twig stoves are okay during fire bans, right, because it’s contained, right?

I don’t know ’em, so I don’t use ’em when there’s a fire ban, but it’s a, it’s titanium, it’s little, it’s called Emberlit. And it’s, it’s a backup, you know, ’cause things break. Right. But you can still cook with it. Petro Max also has a, a called a fire kettle that is a chimney, kind of a chimney stove.

It’s got a, you put your, your water in the outside jacket and then you put it on a little, little pot and then the fire goes up to the middle and you can use pine [00:36:00] cones or whatever. And it boils water really fast. And so, What most people do when they cook, the first thing you want is boiling water. Right.

Because you wanna make your, your coffee or, or whatever. Right?

Dave Meier: Yeah. Or if the, the sun’s going down and you gotta hang the bear bag and you need to boil the water and do the dishes

Darren Bush: well. Right.

Yeah. Yeah. And there’s a lot of new stoves out that are really cool. You know, BioLite makes a twig stove that uses a fan, so there’s like almost no smoke. I mean, the reason I did bring up stoves is I have like nine of them already. And if I do have one gear fetish, it’s stoves.

And I still have this VEA 1 23 R that I got when I was a boy scout in, you know, 1976 or something like that. And it sounds like a, you know, like a rocket taking off. I. So it’s kind of loud for wilderness, but if I dropped it and it went down a 50 foot cliff and hit a boulder on the bottom, I could try still cook with it.

So the, the [00:37:00] thing about the, the efficient stoves, like the jet boil or the Reactor from MSR is a lot of people take canister fuel and they can. Triple the amount of time you get out of a canister just because they’re so efficient. And there’s, you know, the religious discussion about whether you should use, you know, canisters because, you know, you create waste, you know, create metal or use, you know, liquid fuel.

And, you know, there’s, there’s positives and negatives. You know, if you spill a couple capsules of white gas into the water and the boundary waters, you’ve just polluted. A lot. Right, right. And canisters don’t do that on the, on the other side you have to pack out canisters, but you can recycle them. So I, I use both.

I don’t often use gas like white gas stoves in the butter waters, just because I’m, I’m clumsy and I don’t wanna spill white.

Dave Meier: That makes sense. Yeah, [00:38:00] I’m still rocking a Coleman dual fuel from my younger days, which got me across the country and back. ’cause I could just fill it up with unleaded at the at the gas station.

And it was easy wherever you were to have fuel when I was living outside for a couple months.

Darren Bush: Well, the MSR stove you know, the Whisperlite and the XGK stove and all those have dual fuel capabilities, the one white gas stove I use a lot is, I’ve got a Coleman, I think it’s a 5 0 3. And basically what it is, the bottom of it looks like, like a like a, like a Coleman lantern.

The top looks like one of the burners of the two burners. And I don’t know how long they made them, but I came across one in a garage sale and I snapped it up and it wasn’t working. It was $5. I put a new generator in it and it’s, it’s great. It’s probably the best one for cooking because the burner’s big and super adjustable, so I can make an omelet, right?

It’s hard to make an omelet with the, with a, a more modern stove, right? Because they just right put out so much [00:39:00] heat and you burn it before you cook the top. But yeah, we could do a whole show on stoves, right? Yeah.

Dave Meier: Well, all that gear sounds really exciting and hopefully that’ll get people thinking about gear that could help them on their own trips.

So what’s it like for you having access to all the gear in, in one place? Is it tempting? Is it like a kid in a candy store and then how do you navigate that in terms of your own personal supply?

Darren Bush: I mean, the first four years when I was working part-time at the shop, I don’t think I ever took home a paycheck.

I was in graduate school and broke and had no money and then all of a sudden I have, you know, a little bit of, little bit of pin money and was able to get, you know, a couple boats and, and another boat and, and paddles and my jackets. So I got a lot of my gear the first four years I worked there.

And then when you do it, Professionally. I do some product design for some of our manufacturers. I’ve been involved with some paddle designs with Bending Branches so those show up, you know, as samples because we’re going back and [00:40:00] forth trying to figure out what we’re gonna do as far as, you know, blade shape and things like that.

Plus people just give me stuff to try and just tell me what you think. And then it, it, it just kind of accumulates. So I have more gear than I need. One of my former employees, a young kid who just moved, said, I want to get into paddling more. And like I don’t have any gear. ’cause you know, when I was here, I was in school and.

And so we went down to the basement yesterday and just kind of picked through stuff and found him a cook kit and found him a couple dry bags and a little six inch cast iron pan, which I really didn’t need. ’cause I have a seven inch cast iron pan. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s kind of embarrassing, but I’ve come to the conclusion that.

If you accumulate gear, it’s fine as long as you pass off the stuff that you’re not using. I mean, if I don’t touch it in a year, it’s, it’s gone. [00:41:00] And I don’t sell it because frankly I didn’t pay anything for it. A lot of that stuff is samples and I, you know, why should I get $20 for a cook kit that costs $50 five years ago?

It’s like, here, take it. So my younger staff and my younger friends and people that are just getting started, We go shopping sometimes in the gear room.

Dave Meier: So Darren, in talking to you about your store, it really comes through that you’re there to work with your customers and, and to support people, um, not only as customers, but also as part of the paddling community. Can you tell us about your experience with the paddling community and then also, you know, your work with Canoecopia, which, for people who don’t know is the big conference in the spring, in the Madison area.

Darren Bush: I can tell you what I say all the time, and it’s all about community. Nothing else matters. Zero. Our mission statement says that Rutabaga Paddlesports exist to create and foster communities to help enjoy the outdoors. Help enjoy and protect the outdoors. [00:42:00] You’ll notice what’s not mentioned in that mission statement.

There’s nothing about paddling, right? Right, because paddling is the mechanism by which I create communities. And I, if for some reason paddling disappeared tomorrow, ’cause, you know, someone waved a magic wand and we’re not allowed to paddle I’d find another way to create communities. That is, that’s what I do.

And there’s a, you know, E.M. Forrester quote from Howard’s End that says, only connect and connections between people is what keeps us human right. I. We, we create communities and foster communities, so the, the paddle sports community already exists. My goal is to make sure that those people can talk to each other and can find ways to connect.

And I have some of my best friends in the world. I met through the shop and it’s. I mean, they walk in the door. We already have a [00:43:00] connection because we already love the same things. Even if they’re brand new, they have a desire. Right. And I’ve, I, I had a gentleman come in four or five years ago and he just hit it off, right?

He and his wife and just a wonderful guy and his brother had been been ill, and I just said, well, what’s the worst thing that can happen? He said he could die. I said, right, and we all die. And he just kinda looked at me and he said, you know, what’s the worst thing that can happen? There’s a really good mantra and because it’s never gonna be the worst, right?

What’s the worst thing that can happen in the boundary waters? You know, someone gets, you know, terminally ill, but that doesn’t happen very often. What’s the second worst thing? Someone gets food poisoning, breaks a bone, or something like that. What’s the third worst thing? Their canoe blows away. All this stuff is preventable.

Right. Except for the health stuff. You know, I had a heart attack last year, four days before we opened the shop. I’m not gonna spend my life [00:44:00] within 10 minutes of an er. I’m not gonna do it. Right. He can’t do that. Anyway, this gentleman was just, we just hit it off. He’s probably about my age and last year his wife passed away.

She had cancer, and we’ve talked on the phone like four or five times since then, he’s coming to the shop. He hadn’t bought anything for me for like five years, but I mean, so what? You know, and he walked into the shop recently and just threw his arms around me and we started crying and I said, I’m so sorry.

And he said, Hey, you know, I’m sorry too. So I’m kind of helping him through his grieving process just because he’s my friend and you know, if he never bought anything from me ever again, that would be okay. He probably will. Right. Another story I can tell you real quick is a woman came into the shop three or four years ago and said, I’ve got these four wood canvas canoes and I’ve had ’em for a long time.

One of them I went on my, [00:45:00] my honeymoon in and I want to, I want to dispose of them. How much are they worth? And I said, well, It totally depends on their condition. But something about me said that’s not the question she wanted to know. The question she wanted to know is how can I get rid of these, right?

And I said, so do you want the most money for them or do you want ’em to go to the right homes? And she actually walked behind the counter and put her arms around me and said, I just want them to go to the right people. I said, well, I can do that. So I looked at all the boats and then I started thinking about it.

So who would benefit most from these boats? And there’s an 18 footer, big 18 foot old town. And I said, you know, our old town rep is a gem. He’s got a big family. This would be perfect for him. So we got it to him and he was just beyond himself. He was so happy. And I said, the only thing you need to do is take pictures and send them to the original owner.

He said, I can do [00:46:00] that. Right. And this happened with these four boats. I just, it, it just happened because I have a large community and I know a lot of people it just presented itself, right? It’s like, okay, here’s the right place for this boat. And you know, one was a grad student who had a young family who loved to fly fish and loved to be outside, but he couldn’t afford a boat.

And he got one of ’em. And he was just like, I mean, he was crying and his kids, he got pictures of him and his, he’s got a, at that point, a four year old and a. Six or seven year old and she got what she wanted, right, which was to connect to other people to find the, find the people that would take that gear and take it to its next level.

And I have friends that, that went on their honeymoon to Canoecopia. They, and they go every year on their anniversary. So I think you’re getting the point here.

It’s not about stuff, it’s not about commerce. It’s not about making money. Do I need to make a living? Yeah, I do. And, and I do. I do. Okay. [00:47:00] Some years better than others. Right. And but I don’t care. I just, I’m sitting here smiling right now ’cause I’m so happy that I can tell this story and yeah, I need cell gear, but what I really want is connect people together because that’s what keeps this community vibrant and growing.

That’s what gets the 30 year old with the six year old and the eight year old. Then the 40 year old with the 16 year old and the 18 year old go into the boundary waters. Right? And that’s what gets the mentors. ’cause there’s a lot of wisdom out there. So that, that’s, this is why I do what I do. Right. I keep learning, I keep growing and I keep connecting people and that’s what my passion in life is.

Dave Meier: That’s beautiful. Thank you for that. And what do you see that other people can do to strengthen the paddle community?

Darren Bush: Share your knowledge. Don’t be dogmatic. Don’t think you know everything ’cause you don’t. But if you’ve been at a place where you see someone coming into, like, you know, if you’re 50 and you took your kids through the 40 year [00:48:00] old phase and you’re talking to a 30 year old, just say, you know, this worked for me, this is what I did and it was great.

And you know, like I share a lot of, of. I don’t wanna say wisdom, but experiences like Darren’s rule is 15 minutes for every year of age for a kid. So if they’re three, you got 45 minutes, we have to get out. If you’re four, it’s an hour. And that way you want them saying, oh, I wanna get back in the boat.

If they’re crying after an hour and a half, you’ll never get ’em in there again. So my friends with four year olds are like, okay, we’re gonna go in the river for an hour and then we’re gonna get out and we’re gonna play in the sand. We’re gonna do whatever, and then we’ll do it again. And I found that with my kids that worked really, really well.

And obviously every kid’s different, but you know, it’s if people wander, you know, how do I do this? It’s like, well, there’s a good place to start, right?

Dave Meier: Can you just briefly tell me what Canoecopia [00:49:00] is and who participates?

Darren Bush: So Canoecopia is it’s the largest paddle sport event in the country. Possibly the world. I don’t know of a visual one. But it’s a hundred thousand square feet of floor space plus another 60,000 feet of lobby and, and the speaker rooms.

So basically it’s three things. And first it’s a rendezvous. And a friend of mine said if someone came back, if a Voyageur came back in forward in time and woke up at, could called you like, oh, I ready to rendez-vous, right? So it’s first thing is it’s a gathering and second, it’s an educational.

We have a hundred, a hundred speaker slots with people from everything. Like how to paddle with your kids to, I went to the Noatack River, to how to cook, how to pack. I mean, if you wanna learn, it’s the best place to go and learn. ’cause there’s just so many people that are willing to share their knowledge.

And we have one speaker that talks about how to paddle, you know, how old’s too [00:50:00] old? How do you paddle till you’re in your eighties? And it’s packed because people wanna keep going. You know, there’s things about cooking. We do Aluminum Chef, which is basically Iron Chef with camp gear from MSR, and we have a couple of experienced outdoor chefs and then outdoor, you know, chefs.

And then we have one professional James Beard nominated chef that comes in. And he loves to camp. And you know, Luke’s a dear friend of mine. He owns a really nice restaurant. And he goes off against these guys like Marty who’s a former park ranger in the St. Louis County, down in in St. Louis.

And then a woman, Mona, who dehydrates a lot of her own food. So you get these different perspectives, right? And so that, that educational component is super important to me. The third thing is, is it’s commerce, right? I need to, I need to sell stuff to pay for the haul, right? It costs six figures.

And but I, I love the ability for [00:51:00] customers to talk directly to the c e o of the company. It’s, it’s pretty cool when they talk to the founder and you know, they go to the Northstar booth and there’s Ted Bell, right? They go to the Swift booth and there’s Bill Swift and they go to Wenonah booth and there’s Mike Chenowski.

So they can talk to the people that started, you know, that company. But the other cool thing is the people that that worked at Booth, some of them see customers like never. And we had, Wenonah brought a couple guys a couple years ago who worked building boats and you know, they’re not sales guys, but people’s like, Hey, this is a cool boat.

He’s like, yeah, I. Whoa, you built that. It’s like, yeah, I built that. Let me show you how this works. And these guys just grow. You can just see their chest swelling and the buttons popping off their vests, right? Because they get to talk to someone who actually caress what they make. And it’s not just an assembly line where I make this widget and it goes out to, you [00:52:00] know, who knows?

So, That sort of connection again between the person that makes the stuff and the person that uses the stuff is super powerful. So that allows us to sell gear, which is great. And, you know, things are on sale so people can get a little bit of a deal. And again, back to what I was saying before, it’s community.

That’s all that matters.

Dave Meier: Well, I really hope I get to go this year and, meet some of those people myself. And can you tell us kind of how people can get in touch with or where can people find you? Canoecopia and rutabaga.

Darren Bush: Canoecopia.com works also rutabaga.com, and then click on the, you know, events button or the Canoecopia button.

That that will show who’s attending, it’ll show who’s speaking and all that. One of the other things that I didn’t mention is we actually, we sell booths. To people that aren’t directly related to the shop. So outfitters and Guides. There’s people that make kind of cool gear [00:53:00] that isn’t really commercially viable for like retail or for a shop, but it’s cool.

And so we let them come and sell their stuff and, you know, does it compete with us directly? I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter because it’s cool and, you know, help help young people grow. Ottawa is one, one. Brand that I love. It’s a, they make axes and saws and now they’re just expanding. And it’s two guys from from Canada who make really cool stuff.

And I think they started coming as direct vendors and then they got into retail. So we started buying the stuff and selling it there. So it’s, again, part of the community is it’s not so much about, well, I don’t want people to sell stuff that competes against me. I want people to, I want customers to find the cool stuff, right?

So that, that works. And again, that helps pay for the whole a little bit. But if you want to go to pretty much anywhere in the upper Midwest, you’re gonna find an outfit or two. I mean, the [00:54:00] Boundary waters is well represented there. You know, Steve from Spirit of the Wilderness is, is always there.

Most of the chambers of commerce from, you know, lake and Cook County and from Northern Wisconsin Center are there. So we actually have a pretty sizable Iowa contingency that comes because Iowa has some really cool paddling in it that no one ever pays attention to and they want people to know, so, Outfitters from outside of the country, people from, you know, do trips in Baja.

So if you wanna get educated both from the, the speakers, but also from the exhibitors and they’re just there to help. Right. Do they wanna sell a trip? Yeah. But really they just, they’re excited that you’re excited.

Dave Meier: Yes. And friends of the Boundary Waters loves being at Canoecopia and we’ll be there this year and you know, we’ve connected with you at, at Canoe Copia over the years and what do you like about Friends of the Boundary Waters And, and what about our work resonates with you?

Darren Bush: Well, I mean, the biggest one obviously is your advocacy work [00:55:00] for, you know, anti-mining. And, you know, I’m not anti-mining. I’m anti-mining in stupid places, and that’s one of the stupidest places to ever put a, you know, hard rock mine.

And to prove it first Is a, a beautiful piece of legislation. I hope it goes through, I don’t know if it has yet,

Dave Meier: Yeah, that used to be a law in Wisconsin. And it’s a law we’ve proposed in Minnesota where before risky sulfide mining would move forward, there should be at least one example in the United States where it’s been done safely. And we’re still working on that and spreading the word.

Darren Bush: you guys spend a lot of time and a lot of money on, on advocacy for keeping the boundary waters the boundary waters and that’s worth it. You know, we we’re, I’d say significant donors but everybody should be, I mean, if you got 50 bucks in your wallet, Send it to the friends and, you know, this is an unsolicited testimonial.

You guys do great work. And I like the fact that it’s called Friends of the Boundary Waters [00:56:00] because again, that gets back to my thing about community. It’s, it’s about everybody getting together who love the boundary waters and kicking in whatever they can. Right. And that, that’s, that’s one thing.

The other thing is just your passion for the boundary waters comes through in everything that you do. And making it an educational experience for people. You want people to know more about it, and that’s so they’ll enjoy it when they go, but also so they’ll protect it when they go. So I’m very appreciative and grateful for what you do.

Thank you

Dave Meier: Darren, and thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and hearing your stories and, and also picking your brain about gear. It’s been really fun. Thank you.

Darren Bush: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me. It’s been great.


Dave Meier: And thank you everyone for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend and leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be covering a wide range of recreational topics this season, [00:57:00] from hiking trails to tips and tricks, and we’ll meet some great personalities from the B W C A along the way.

So be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss a thing. Big Red Canoe is a presentation of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Original Music by Surge and the swell. I’m Dave Meier and we’ll see you next time on Big Red Canoe. Thanks to the dedication of people from across the nation, we’ve made incredible victories in the fight against copper sulfide mining. For now, we’ve stopped this polluting industry from putting a shovel in the ground, but the threat is still there. That’s why we’ve been working to pass a prove it First bill.

In Minnesota, the law is simple. Before a copper sulfide mine in Minnesota can be permitted, the prove it first law would require independent scientific proof. That just one copper sulfide mine has operated in the United States for at least 10 [00:58:00] years without causing pollution, and that one mine has been closed for at least 10 years without polluting.

It is common sense. Let’s protect our clean water. Let’s pass the prove it first. Bill.[00:59:00]

The boundary waters is more than a stunning collection of pristine. Water, trees, and ancient rocks. It’s the people, the memories, the life-changing experiences that make this wilderness such an important part of our lives. Connect with this special place by subscribing to Friends of the Boundary Waters Newsletter or following us on social media.

Visit www.friendsbwca.org to learn more.[01:00:00] [01:01:00]

With over 1200 lakes and hundreds of miles of trails, it’s no wonder that people spend a. Lifetime. Exploring the boundary waters. With so many possibilities, it can be daunting to figure out where to go. Whether you seek adventure, solitude, or want to reconnect with others, friends of the boundary waters has extensive online resources.

To help you get the most out of your Boundary Waters experience, visit www.friendsbwca.org/explore for more information.

No copper sulfide mine has ever operated without polluting the surrounding water sources. [01:02:00] It’s the most polluting industry in the United States and an existential threat to the boundary waters. That’s why friends of the boundary waters is championing the Prove It First law, the prove it First Law is simple.

Before a copper sulfide mine in Minnesota can be permitted. The prove it First law would require independent scientific proof that just one copper sulfide mine has operated in the United States for at least 10 years without causing pollution. And that one mine has been closed for at least 10 years without polluting.

Let’s protect our clean water. Let’s pass a Prove it first bill.

Additional Resources

Rutabaga Paddlesports



On the Friends of the Boundary Waters podcast, we bring together people who share a love of the incredible BWCA wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. The podcast will features scientists, political figures and experts in outdoor recreation and wilderness skills to help you learn new facets of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the most visited wilderness in the United States.

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