This is less of a Miles Paddled story and more of a personal tale of achievement, but it’s paddling-related and sure to be of interest to paddlers the world over (totally kidding of course, maybe a couple zip codes at best). It’s taken me awhile to write this because I was hoping to give the story its deserving arc – beginning to end. Well, the end isn’t here. It’s really more of a “to-be-continued,” but at least this covers the beginnings and in-betweens to present day.
Last fall, Northstar Canoes hosted a t-shirt design contest. The prize? A canoe, but not just any canoe. It was legendary paddler/author/outdoorsmen Cliff Jacobson’s wood-trimmed Bell Flashfire, a beloved cult boat in the paddling world.
So I took a shot at it and submitted three designs. One that garnered me a Northstar paddle and another that ultimately added a new boat to my fleet. I was pretty stoked. Bear from Northstar Canoes called me on the phone to give me the good news. He had found me online and made the connection to Miles Paddled which led to further discussion about how the boat and I would eventually make acquaintances.
“Drumroll! After extensive feedback at an outdoor show, on social media, and from friends and family we’ve made our decisions. It was really hard. We received a great range of designs and want to thank all the artists. Most of all we thank the artists for their willingness to have their creativity and art critiqued by paddlers the world over. It should come as no surprise that the winning designs came from paddlers and graphic designers. Congrats to Barry Kalpinski on his first place design with Northstar in script overlaid on 5 canoes. He is the new owner of Cliff Jacobson’s BlackGold, wood trimmed Flashfire! Barry is a graphic designer and creator of Miles Paddled, a great resource for river paddling in Wisconsin.”
I was beyond excited. I mean, not only was this boat owned by a living legend, but it’s run a lot of water and has numerous stories tied to it, no doubt. So I reached out to Cliff who congratulated me and offered some wise words.
“Again, my congratulations. It’s an early model Flashfire—I think around 1996. The Flash was the darling of the FreeStyle crowd; you’ll see why when you paddle it. I’m guessing you’ve seen the boat—it was on display at Canoecopia last year. It’s been “tuned” a bit by me as you’ll discover. The seat is set very high—how I like ‘em. If you find the boat a bit tippy for you you can always get new seat drops from Northstar and re-rig the seat. But before you do that, I encourage you to paddle the boat awhile. You’ll get more comfortable with each mile you paddle and eventually, you’ll like the high seat. Canoe makers put their seats low for just one reason: most people can’t paddle for sour beans and will simply capsize in a high seat. But accomplished paddlers all string their seats right up near the rails. PS. There’s a photo of your new canoe in my book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition on pp 86 and 201. My friend, Jim Mandle is paddling it on the Steel River, northern Ontario. Yes, you can run some nice rapids in this little boat.
Best to you,
He also offered up some maintenance tips to keep the boat tight and shiny but I’ll keep those “trade” secrets to myself for fear of breaking some sort of paddlers clause/karma (ha ha).
Bear suggested that Canoecopia seemed like the perfect place for me to pick up the boat. There, they would unveil the t-shirts and best yet, I would be presented with the canoe by none other than Mr. Cliff Jacobson himself.
They even took it up a notch on social by laying it on real thick that I kayak more than I canoe:
“Come to the Northstar booth at Canoecopia this Friday night at 7:30pm to watch Cliff Jacobson convert an avid kayaker into a canoeist. Cliff will present his canoe to Barry Kalpinski, the winner of our T-shirt contest. Barry is the creator of a Wisconsin river resources website called Miles Paddled, and spends too much time on the floor with a wet butt.”
Those canoers… they really like to jab those folks who paddle those new-fangled contraptions called kayaks. 😉 But all that talk did lead to a wonderful encounter at Canoecopia.
It was amazing. I was actually nervous to meet Cliff – I’m not sure why, but I think most paddlers would be. And the boat? It was in beautiful condition – you’d have no idea it was as old as it was. And you’d never expect it to weigh 28lbs. Light as a feather, she is. I was humbled by the whole experience. (And certainly embarrassed to leave with most beautiful boat at the show without paying anything for it.)
Not only did all that happen, but Northstar also invited Miles Paddled to hold a couple Meet-and-Greets in their booth which was beyond cool and a very generous gesture.
After heading home with the boat, I immediately had to add onto the recently-built canoe rack behind my garage. You see, I had just purchased a family canoe the previous year which is why I built it, but I hadn’t planned on needing even more boat storage so soon. But now my fleet had suddenly grown to three kayaks and two canoes (we’re one canoe away from having a full Brady-children situation on our hands). Cliff’s boat though, I decided she stays in the garage – so one of our kayaks ended up on that rack addition.
Anyway, to close the loop on this story, it took me months to get this boat out on the water for various reasons, but I knew I had to get it out on the water before years end. Luckily, weather took a turn for the better during an abnormaly-weathered fall, and I found an opportune time to take it to a special place to me personally, Devil’s Lake. And true to my word, I planned on giving the boat its due – not adjusting the seat until I gave it a couple miles. It was an easy promise to fulfill in a fitting setting for such a special reward.
I’ll admit, the boat was tippy and challenging, and it will probably take me some time to find a comfortable balance on moving water, but it sure was a fun to get it out there on a relaxed wake beneath the towering bluffs of Devil’s Lake. And since this is only the beginning, I see it as a personal challenge.
Cliff offered this up on his last followup; “And by the way, if ever you want to sell that boat, it will be gone almost instantly.” While I do know that to be true (it would be easy to sell this beauty), it would be a shame if I didn’t try to take this boat to wherever I’m heading next. It’s more than a conversation piece. Boats are important. Boats carry not just people, but memories. I’ll hold onto it, learn from it, and put some more miles beneath its hull before giving up on a tippy boat (or my poor balance – that part I need to figure out for myself).
If Cliff Jacobson believes this is how a boat should be rigged, I’m not going to second guess it. Afterall, he knows a few things about paddling.