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.
I’ve been working on a sign this week on the CNC. I’ve made a few signs on the CNC, but it’s not something I do a whole lot, mostly because it would be something that would be easy to fall into spending too much time on. Occasionally a project catches my attention, and in this case, it’s a sign for a local ski area. But it’s not what you think of when you think of a ski area.
I’ve never really been able to find the passion for skiing that I have for whitewater. I think a big part of of it is my perception of big ticket prices and lift lines. Most of the mountains around here are in the range of $80 for a day ticket. A season pass doesn’t seem like something I’d invest in, not knowing how much I’d use it. Somehow this winter, my family decided we’d try getting into skiing, and what I’ve found out is dotting the New Hampshire hills, hidden back in remote and unlikely spots, as small community ski areas. Veterans Memorial Recreation Area in Franklin is one such area. Run by the Franklin Outing Club, and all volunteers, it’s an anachronism. Walking into the lodge, it feels like it’s been lost in time since the 70’s. There’s a rope tow and a T-bar. There’s no snow making, so you ski on whatever Mother Nature brings. There are enough working lights on the hill for night skiing on Thursdays, and the City Rec Department brings kids out to the hill. There are familiar faces every weekend. The snackbar is reasonable priced. It’s family focused. There’s no marketing budget, the money is better spent trying to keep the groomer running. There’s a room in the basement full of donated ski gear that Outing Club members can borrow for the season, swapping it as the gear is outgrown. And the cost of a lift ticket? $20, but that’s on weekends when a local business hasn’t sponsored a free-ski day to cover the operating cost for the day. Maybe skiing is something I can actually get into.
And so I find myself making a sign to memorialize the contributions of a long time member of the Outing club. It’s also gotten me wondering how this sort of model could be replicated in the whitewater world? Whitewater is often criticized as being an expensive sport to get into, but I would say the same about the “retail price” of skiing. If you walk into a ski shop, buy skis, boots, goggles, a helmet, etc, you’ll be feeling a similar pain in the wallet as if you do the same in a kayak shop. And then you have to pay again once you get to the mountain. But ski hills like Veterans virtually eliminate cost as a barrier, while also building a community around the sport. As someone who began paddling as a teenager, I can appreciate the benefits of being a part of such as community during the “formative years.” I may be an extreme case but the experiences and relationships I’ve built over the years have put me where I am today. I count the people who picked me up and took me to the river before I had a drivers license as some of my best influences. Canoe Clubs used to offer avenue of building this sort of thing, but with the advent of online trip planning and increasing liability concerns, they seem to be facing the same fate as many of the lost rope tow ski hills. Is it possible to re-focus and build partnerships between Clubs, municipal recreation departments, and local outfitters to help build the next generation of whitewater paddlers?
I guess sometimes I like to do things the hard way. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’m sometimes met with funny looks when I talk about the satisfaction I get from paddling upstream. As someone who came up paddling in the mid-Atlantic, ‘attaining’ rapids was a thing people did. Start at the bottom, see if you can make it to the top. They’ve even got upstream races. But apparently it’s not something people do everywhere, so I figured I’d share why I think you should spend some time paddling the wrong way.
The biggest benefit is it makes you a better paddler in so many ways. It’s great exercise to work against the current; it makes you stronger. Planting your paddle in water that’s moving past the boat forces a higher stroke rate to be effective. In terms of control, you receive instant feedback if your ferry angles are off just a little bit- you’re suddenly blowing downstream instead of making that next eddy. Because of that, I find it’s a great way to dial in a new boat. The mistakes happen quicker and more obviously. But the beauty of it is you get to come back around, reset, and try the move over and over and over until you make it. You can pick out moves you’re not sure you can do, and work them until you can make it. That’s something that’s a lot harder to do while running downstream; you make a mistake, but might not be able to go back and try again.
I also like the puzzle aspect of it. How do I break down a rapid into a series of moves, linked together, following the path of least resistance? Eddy to eddy to eddy. It’s taught me a lot of about reading water. Where there’s a hidden rock that will interfere with a crucial paddle stroke, how to carve up across a wave to the next higher eddy, where there’s a thin thread of slow current I can exploit. And the forced precision of putting the boat’s hull in that thin thread of current and keeping it there while paddling as hard as possible.
Attaining is also good practice for real-world scenarios. Sometimes when things go sideways, it’s important to have the skills to get back upstream in a rescue situation. On the Gauley this fall, I came across an empty raft getting surfed in a midstream hole. It had been there for a while, and was too far from shore to make land-based extraction feasible. There were a couple of small eddies downstream of it, and I was able to eddy-hop and attain back up, and after a few tries, paddle up to the backwash of the hole and hook the raft with my t-grip to pull it out. In this case, the stakes weren’t very high (other than the PBR I helped myself to from the cooler in the raft), but you can see how these sorts of skills are useful for more important rescue situations.
Attaining doesn’t have to be a “put in at the take out” sort of endeavor. You can pick off a series of moves in your favorite rapid and work it a few times before moving down to the next rapid. Eventually you might find yourself linking several of those rapids together going agains the flow, and you’ll be a better paddler for it.
I think this week, we can all agree that Winter is brutal. Even for the most hard core winter enthusiasts, the cold, the snow, the wind, the short days, take their toll eventually. For someone who builds something that people tend to buy in warm weather, the effects are compounded. With sales slow as they usually are this time of year, I tend more toward doing “busy work” around the shop. Things that need to get done, but get put off during the times of year when boats are moving faster, or I’m traveling, or can play outside more. This week I spent a while working on the ol’ canoe trailer, fixing some of the wear and tear from last season. Tuning up the CNC. I spend a lot more time sweeping the floor. On cold days, I find myself sitting at the computer and catching up on bookkeeping. I’m also trying to get ahead on building cooling fixtures for the Mosquito Burrito. And the ever-present snow removal. It’s a lot of the kind of chores you don’t think about when you think about running a canoe company. All things that need to get done, but not really the type of work that makes me want to get out of bed on a cold morning.
Like any boater with a pulse, I love rain. I love the anticipation the sound of rain brings. What will we run tomorrow? We’re talking Garbage’s ‘I’m Only Happy When it Rains’ level of enthusiasm for liquid precipitation. So what I’m about to say might seem strange, or even blasphemous. More