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A Matter of Principle

By Cliff Jacobson

In 1971, I outfitted and guided three wealthy Chicago men--the least affluent of which earned a quarter million a year--on a five day canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. I was told to provide the finest food, equipment and hospitality--whatever it took to ensure a good time. In return, I'd be well compensated for my services.

For months I worked on assembling the menu. Supper the first night would consist of Minnesota wild rice and mushrooms and the most expensive twelve ounce fillet mignon's I could find. After that, I'd resort to the best dried foods money could buy. I mail ordered freeze-dried pork chops, ice-cream, salisbury steak and hamburger. I carried an assortment of the best cheeses and packed fresh garlic, onions, basil and olive oil. Just wait till these guys sampled my linguini! Each night before supper I'd lay out a small linen tablecloth on which I'd serve brandy in long-stemmed plastic glasses. For dessert there would be popcorn (Orville's finest!), fresh-baked pie and hot-buttered rum. The food would be a knockout!

And so would be the equipment. I would furnish 54 pound Kevlarô canoes, light weight racing paddles, comfort-styled life vests and commodious Cannondale Aroostook tents. Cost was no object: these guys would have the very best!

As I viewed the mound of high-tech gear before me, there arose a gnawing concern: not one item in the pile smacked of wood smoke. Perhaps a well worn canvas pack or two and a round of tin cups would add ambience to the event. So I meticulously substituted some traditional Duluth packs for nylon ones and replaced all the insulated plastic mugs (except mine) with cups of enameled metal.

Confident an impeccable experience lay just ahead, I packed the van, picked up the guys at the airport and headed north to the Boundary Waters.

Disaster struck at the first portage. In the confusion of teaching my crew how to carry the boats and gear, I inadvertently left my camera sitting on a rock at the canoe landing. An hour later I discovered the loss and regretfully told my friends I would paddle back alone and get the camera while they waited at the next portage, which was just ahead.

"No way, Cliff; we ain't goin' back and we ain't waitin' here," said one man, authoritatively. "How much was your camera, anyway?"
"Ninety-five bucks," I called loudly.
In a flash, the guy unleashed his billfold and ripped out a crisp one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me with a grin. "This should cover it," he said. "Now let's get goin'."

Momentarily, I stood there dumbfounded, my eyes transfixed on the C-note. The money be damned: I would not leave my camera behind! Instead, I'd teach this man some "wilderness values".

"Sorry, Barry, your money's no good in the wilderness," I beamed, and thrust the bill back at him. But before he could answer, an elderly couple pulled up to the landing in a beautiful wood/canvas Seliga canoe.

"Anybody here lose a camera? smiled the man.
"I did, I did," I rejoiced, aware that I'd just lost my chance to teach Barry an important lesson. Oh well, perhaps I'd have another chance to redeem my plan.

Later that day another opportunity presented itself when I suggested we camp for the night. Eagerly we searched the shoreline of the lake for a vacant spot, but every site was occupied. Momentarily, I squinted at the map then regretfully reported that all the campsites were taken: we would have to portage into the next lake.

"Wait a minute," said Barry, withdrawing his wallet again. "I've got 40 bucks here; that should buy us a campsite."
"Your money is no good in the wilderness: we're going on!" I decreed.

The words were barely out of my mouth when we came upon a spectacular unmarked campsite. Located high on a rocky point, it commanded full view of the five mile lake. And behold, there was fresh cut wood and enough level space for both our tents.

"Wonder of wonders, " I mused. Foiled again!

Around supper time, the sky darkened as gray cumulonimbus clouds began to roll in. I knew I had only a few minutes to batten down the camp and rig a snug rain tarp. I worked quickly, secure in the belief that these guys would be duly impressed when I served them steak and cocktails before a roaring fire in the midst of a thunderstorm.

The camp secured, I back-logged the fire so it would throw heat into our shelter, put on the tea kettle and set about preparing supper on my two gasoline stoves.

"How's about a hot-buttered rum," piped Barry.
"You bet!" I quipped. "Give me hand, will you, and pour a double shot of Pusser's (Pusser's Rum) into those tin cups. Soon as the water boils, add a spoon of brown sugar, pat of margarine, dash of cinnamon and some grated nutmeg. You'll find everything you need in that green bag over there."
"Uh, Cliff, there are only three cups here. Where's yours?"
"Here," I replied, handing him my double-walled insulated plastic mug.

Barry took a long look at the plastic mug then pointedly asked why everyone but me had to drink from a tin cup. Taken aback by his blatant disrespect for my colorful enamelware, I politely mumbled something about "tradition".

"Tradition hell," bellowed Barry. "Your cup's better. How's about selling it to me?"

Aha! I replied, suddenly aware that another golden opportunity had just presented itself. Then, deliberately I said: "Sorry, Barry, your money is no good in the wilderness!"

At that, Barry reached into his billfold and withdrew some money. "Here, Cliff; will you take five bucks for that cheap plastic cup?"
Grinning proudly, I reiterated my position: "Sorry Barry, your money is no good in the wilderness!"
Undaunted, Barry pulled out another five and threw it on the ground. "How's about ten?" He asked.
Again, with great delight, I repeated: "Sorry Barry, like I said, your money is no good in the wilderness!"
Then, with a proud twinkle, I smiled broadly and smugly sipped my Pusser's.

Unmoved by my perseverance, Barry slapped another five dollar bill on the heap. "Fifteen," he said, grinning from ear to ear.

At this, I stopped the supper and took a long hard look at the three five dollar bills before me. Fifteen dollars was, after all, a great deal to pay for a plastic cup that cost me less than a dollar.
"What the hell," I shamelessly announced. "Sold!"

With that, my friend rose up like a gallant knight, and with a mischievous air pronounced, "You know, Cliff, I was prepared to go twenty!"


Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.

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