Wow, the past month or so has been really hectic; it’s been a whirlwind. The Mosquito Burrito finally got up and running, I had two river festivals, one of which I helped organize, and I had to get everything set, all the orders shipped out, and everything packed and ready to take a little summer vacation. It always strikes me as kind of funny when I miss out on boating because I’m getting ready to go on a boating trip, but that happens more than I like to admit. It’s time for my yearly pilgrimage to Colorado, and I’m ready for it. As such, I won’t be shipping any orders for the next month or so. I’m particularly excited, and a bit nervous for this trip because it’s first time I’m doing it with my family in tow. I’ve dubbed it “The Mandatory Family Fun Tour.” But it should be good. Colorado is seeing an epic water year, we’ve got boats and bikes and everything else we need loaded up in the van. So it’s time for me to hit the road, relax a bit, recharge, and generally spread the Blackfly Canoes stoke.
It’s mid June, which means here in New Hampshire, black fly season (the bugs, not the boats) has given way to mosquito season. It seems fitting then that the Mosquito Burrito is finally going into production, only about a month and a half after I’d anticipated. You would think that by now, I would have learned that these things take significantly longer than I expect. But alas, that lesson still escapes me.
I originally called this week’s post “Trickle-down” Boat design, but I’m not a fan of “Trickle-down” economics, and I’m hoping that I can show that what I’m talking about is more than a ‘trickle.’ So I’m going with “Downstream flow.” The basic premise is that a well designed boat for running hard whitewater will also benefit intermediate, and even beginning paddlers on easier rivers. Across the board, the whitewater business uses images of paddlers running hard whitewater frequently- too frequently- in our marketing. As a result, I get the question “is this boat too advanced for me?” too frequently. My answer is a hard no- the same things that make it a “shitrunner” will make your day better on any whitewater. More
I flew out to Colorado for Memorial Day Weekend for CKS Paddlefest in Buena Vista. We saw a lot of friends, ate good food, probably drank too much, ran the Ark, and got a day of pretty phenomenal late-season skiing in at A-basin. I kept everything well within my comfort zone, and it was an amazing trip. Reflecting on it, I’m a huge fan of “the intermediate:” The class III, the blue square, the 5.8, the flowy single track.
These are all things you can do fairly proficiently with some modicum of skill and experience. It’s accessible, it’s fun. The pursuit of expert-level proficiency is a certainly a worthy exercise of self growth, but it takes a certain level of dedication. At various points in my life, I’ve pushed myself in that direction, and the pursuit of mastery is an interesting exercise. It leads to a lot of fun and fulfilling experiences. But it also brings it’s share of frustration and cold and wet and pain. It’s overall a worthwhile endeavor, but branching out into other pursuits makes me appreciate those who say “No, I’m good hanging out at this level and having fun.” There’s a level of mastery involved in that as well. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the flow that’s achievable at this level. That flow is rarer for me on steeper grades.
And if you do choose to step up, the intermediate level is that much more important. It’s where you sharpen your skills, hone your technique, get in the physical conditioning, and gain the experience so that you can step up confidently and comfortably. I still enjoy paddling Class V when the opportunity presents itself, but a large part of why I can do that is because of the time I spend ripping flowy long boat laps on Class III or picking out challenging moves. This is where you learn and train and have fun doing it.
So here’s to the intermediate, to those who strive to be better. To paddle better, to ski better, to ride better. But more so, those who strive to have fun.
Trade wars and tariffs have been in the news lately. Soybean farmers are facing losing foreign markets, Walmart says it’s going to raise prices because of it. I know you probably haven’t been lying awake at night, wondering how the current tariff fight has been effecting the whitewater canoe industry in the US. It might seem strange that my good ol’ little one-man made-in-the-USA canoe business out in the woods of New Hampshire is feeling the effects of international trade policies, but I’ll take a shot at explaining it.
Let’s start with steel and aluminum tariffs. A little over a year ago, the Trump administration started imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and in June 2018, extended those tariffs to imports from the EU, Canada, and Mexico. I use relatively little steel (nuts and bolts) and aluminum (footage rails) in my boats, but one of my biggest expenses is boat molds- which, you guessed it, turn out to be made of cast aluminum with a steel frame. But the bigger effects of these tariffs on my business have been the retaliatory tariffs from the EU and Canada. Apparently these countries didn’t like getting slapped with tariffs for no apparently reason, so the slapped back with tariffs of their own on a whole bunch of US made goods. Among those is Harmonized Tariff code 8903.99: Yachts And Other Vessels For Pleasure Or Sports Others; Row Boats And Canoes (not Designed To Be Principally Used With Motors Or Sails) Others. Canada imposed a tariff of 10% and the EU took it to 25%. While the number of boats I exported in years past has been relatively small, it was still a significant portion of my business, which has now all but dried up. Further more, at the beginning of 2018, I was investigating way to expand my distribution in Europe, but with these tariffs, that’s no longer possible in a way that would be profitable. Now for the kicker- The US government has not responded with additional tariffs on imported boats. And guess where my biggest competitors are located…
And then there’s the trade war with China. I’ll start buy saying that I’m still proud to make my boats in the US, I’m a fan of American manufacturing, and I like purchasing goods made in the US when I can. So I’m a little sheepish to admit that I bought the mold for the Mosquito Burrito from China. I quoted it both from the US and China, and I appreciate the idea that the government is ostensibly trying to protect American businesses, but even with the tariff, it turned out to be a lot cheaper to go to China. On a boat that I might someday break even on, having the mold made in the US would have made the project totally unaffordable. I would have felt better about buying an American made molde, but it wouldn’t have happened. The 25% tariff on the mold is now just money I now can’t spend to grow my business in other ways. Maybe the government will spend it on subsidies for the soybean farmers instead, I just don’t know.
At least for my business, this fight is almost entirely negative.
I was on the road last week for Cheat Fest. This year marked 20 years since the first time I attended Cheat fest, and it remains one of my favorite events of the year. It’s remarkable to see the progress Friends of the Cheat has made in cleaning up and restoring the Cheat River watershed over the past two decades. I also get to see a lot of old friends- one pointed out I’m now the age he was when I met him at Cheatfest 20 years ago, and make new friends. And the paddling is pretty good too. Watching people on the water gave me a chance to ponder something I’ve been thinking about a good bit lately. A few weeks ago, Bren Orton posted a video titled “5 Most Common kayaking mistakes.” You can watch it here. That got me thinking, what are the most common things people struggle with in canoeing? What’s the one thing that holds people back, or separates good or great paddlers from not-so-great paddlers?
Scissors cut paper. Paper covers Rock. Rock breaks plastic.
One of my team paddlers broke a boat recently. There’s really unusual about that, it’s sort of part of what they do. They paddle more and harder than most people, so they’re good barometers of how durable the boats are. If there’s an issue with the boats, they find out long before most people would. And that was the case here. This boat was a catastrophic failure. An explosion. Utter destruction. While it was a high-speed-slide-into-sharp-rock sort of impact, it wasn’t the way a boat should break even after heavy use. It was ugly. It might seem odd that I’m saying this, but it happened, and I’ll own it. Something went wrong somewhere along the line with this boat.
Early on, I built Blackfly on a reputation for a durable product. That importance of that is obvious, and I feel that I built that reputation simply by building a durable product; the product speaks for itself. I didn’t do it by talking it up, or by talking down my competitors. Sure, I’ve made some snarky comments around the campfire among friends and others. Guilty as charged. But to be honest, I hate seeing boats break, whether they’re boats I made or not. I know the work and passion that goes into them, I know the people who are doing it are doing the best damn job they can. I know things can go wrong any number of places along the way. I know first hand the frustration and dread and sense of failure that comes when they do. It literally keeps me up at night more than I care to admit. And I know what goes around comes around. Material issues happen. I’d rather not kick a man when he’s down, because I’d rather not get kicked when I’m down. I’d rather just put something out there and say “Here, I made this. See if you like it.” And let that speak for itself.
But I’ve noticed that there are people who think and act differently; generally people with other agendas. Because I have no control over that, all I’ll say about that is it disappoints me to see.
So what am I going to do? First, I’ve already been working with the good, hardworking, knowledgeable folks who mold these boats to identify and correct any issues. Because of their size, the Condors are being molded at a different facility and using a different material from the other boats, and there have been a limited number of issues- mostly with team boats. A few bumps along the way. We’re on it, and I’m confident my reputation for making a durable product to continue. I won’t sleep (well) until and unless it does. And if there are issues, I’ll stand behind the boat and work to resolve them to the best of my ability. I’ve never had a written “warranty policy” because that’s not really the way I like to work. I want my customers to be satisfied- after all, I’ll probably see you on the river at some point. If there’s a problem with a boat because of something I (or my suppliers) screwed up, I need to work to make it right. Putting a timeframe and stipulations on that seems like a cop out to me. Now, if you do something foolish, or you just wear out your boat, you’re on your own. And, by the nature of smashing plastic into rocks, there’s a lot of gray area, but believe it or not, I’ve found that the majority of people are actually reasonable, so when an issue falls in that gray area, I’ll work with you to find a solution that satisfies both of us.
Progress is made by pushing through the bumps and past the mistakes and learning from them, and I’m ever grateful for the people that choose to come along while I do that.
I haven’t kept a paddling log in a few years, but for whatever reason, I decided to this year. It’s a pretty basic list of what river I run on each day, and whether or not I jogged the shuttle. After I finish writing this, I’m heading to the river. Today will be my 30th paddling day of the year. As today is the 81st day of the year, that works out to paddling every 2.7 days. Two to three times a week. It’s a pace that puts me padding 135 days this year. So what?
Maybe I’m bragging about it a little bit, but considering that most (24/30) of those days were winter paddling in New Hampshire, I’d say I’m doing pretty well getting after it. But I feel like paddling is part of who I am, it’s something I live and breathe. For quite a few years, I viewed myself as a whitewater athlete, trying to push myself to be the very best I could be. Work and life got in the way, and I got away from that a bit, but the desire to get out and push myself, paddle until I feel like I’ve really been paddling, and continually challenge myself is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake. I feel like I’ve reconnected with that a bit this year. It’s a fire that doesn’t go out.
For me personally, that’s all well and good, but what does it matter to you, the canoe buying consumer? If I’m out there paddling every 2.7 days, I want the very best equipment. There’s a lot of great gear on the market right now, and you can choose what you want to use, what the ‘best’ boat is for you. But I don’t get to choose the ‘best’ boat. Instead I’ve chosen to MAKE the best boats. I started designing and building canoes more than a decade ago with that goal in mind. Despite the surge in recent designs since then, I’d do it all again now. I still believe if I want the best boat, I need to make it myself. It’s something I think about and obsess over every time I paddle. And that’s why it matters to you.
The season has ‘officially’ begun here at Blackfly World Headquarters. I know what some of you are going to say, “Where I live we paddle year round, the season never ends.” Yeah, so do I, but I’m not talking about the boating season, I’m talking about the event season. Most weekends from now until I-don’t-know-when, it’s a string of events of one kind or another.
I missed doing a blog post last week because I was helping prepare for rather unusual boating event- The Boat Bash Snow Crash. This event, now in it’s third year, is a fund raiser for Mill City Park and Veterans Memorial Ski Area. If sliding down a snow covered hillside, complete with banked turns, in a kayak or, better yet, a canoe is your idea of a good time, you should check out this event. (Or if you prefer watching other people slide down a snow covered hillside in boats, it’s still a good time.) And it provided me with a warmup and reminder for what’s in store for the coming season. Loading boats, unloading boats, trying to balance paddling (er, sliding) and competing with talking about boats and socializing with friends I might not see very often. Helping organize throws another level of complexity in. And once the crowd moves on, breaking down and cleaning up and the circus moves on to the next town.
I think it ends up being a lot more work than most people realize, but it’s a big part of the reason I do what I do. Sometimes it’s tough to balance work and play at these events, but at the end of the day, when I’m loading boats and cleaning up beer cans, I got to spend my day paddling somewhere cool and hanging out with cool people.
And so I spent most of the week getting things together and loading up to head to ALF. 16 boats, a load of random boat parts, gear, tents, toothbrushes, stickers, etc. Side note: loading boats when it’s 15 degrees is pretty miserable. But I’m heading 1100 miles south, where it’ll finally feel like spring, and getting to see friends I haven’t seen since the “season” ended last fall, paddle some old favorite rivers, paddle some new favorite rivers, get some people stoked on boats, eat some tacos… It’s still a lot of work, but it’s not so bad.
I’ve been fighting with the CNC router lately. I’m trying to finish up the cooling jigs for the Mosquito Burrito, but the machine has been having all sorts of gremlins lately. Mostly just things coming loose, it’s probably at the point where it just needs a good tuneup and tightening of everything. But that’s one of the reasons I chose to build a machine from scratch/from a kit. I know how it’s put together, I know how it works and why it works the way it does. I’m to the point now where I know which hex keys I for which screws on the drives. But the most recent time it started misbehaving was a worn out belt on one of the the motors that drives the gantry. Just about to snap. It’s an easy fix, but it’s dead in the water until I get a new belt.
No matter, there’s always something around the shop to keep me busy. About the same time the belt gave out, my wife came home with a new used dresser for our son. It’s a cute little piece, perfect for a little guy with a little room. Solid wood, the kind they don’t make ’em like anymore, complete with a hideous brown and blue paint job. It took about 10 seconds to decide it would be worth the effort of stripping it down and refinishing it. After a few hours of stripping, scraping, sanding, and staining, it became apparent that was the right decision. At some point, I might make a new top for it, since it’s a little rough. I’ve realized I really like fixing things. Obviously it’s nicer when things just work the way they’re supposed to but, I much prefer putting effort into bringing something old back to life than to buying something new. Partly because, if I can fix it, put it back together, bring it back to life, it’s something that was made to be repairable. It was made to last, not be used and disposed of or planned to become obsolete.
I have a pair of gloves I’ve been wearing a lot this winter. They’re an old pair of Patagonia gloves I found abandoned at a campsite while on a scouting hike years ago. It looked as though something burned though one of the palms and they were cast aside. I aqua sealed the hole and one other worn spot and have been wearing them ever since. This winter, skiing rope tows with them has taken it’s toll, but they’ve held up a lot better than most gloves. (If you’ve ever skied a rope tow, you know how real the struggle is). So I’ve spent a couple evenings sewing and glueing them, and they’re still going strong. They’ve got a story. I’ll be disappointed when they get to the point I can no longer put them back together, not because they didn’t last, but because they did.
So next week I’ll get the belts replaced and the CNC back up and running and the dresser finished and put back together, and I’ll probably have to patch my gloves after skiing again. And despite the imperfections, I’ll take satisfaction in all of it, knowing that I fixed it.
I hope that that ethos comes through in the products I make.