Tuesday, September 17, 2013

BSA 574 Yucca Pack

For me the BSA 574 Yucca pack will always be "the" pack. A timeless classic that has carried gear unimaginable miles on countless treks through urban and wilderness environments alike. It's a simple design with only two pockets, one internal and a smaller external is for the most part adequate. I have two vintage Yucca packs, an early one for the 1930's and a later model made in the 1960's that are of nearly the same design and both still in usable condition. Though not exclusively, I've carried canvas packs and bags most of my life, the Yucca being one of the first I remember using for Scouts as well as non-scouting adventures.

Diamond Brand built the first Boy Scout Yucca packs way back in 1931 and they remained in use for decades, both durable and versatile, especially with the addition of an external frame. Many scouts built frames themselves using everything from metal tubing to scrap wood and occasionally even saplings or tree branches. When packed lightly the Yucca is more than adequate for as much as a week on the trail depending on how much food you pack in, with a frame they are good for most any length expedition if you accept them as they are and don't expect them to perform in the same ways a modern rig built from man made materials will. If you follow the same simple rules scouts of generations past did, a Yucca pack will serve you well and outlast many of their modern counterparts. Personal experience with canvas packs and sea bags leaves me noting that I have used the same canvas duffels for years while theoretically better bags have succumbed to the scrap heap due to everything from broken zippers to torn cloth that wouldn't take a patch. Unless canvas molds and rots, it can be repaired. The Yucca in particular is pretty accepting of most repairs from replacing grommets to sewing torn fabric and seems to riveting on new leather parts. 

Canvas isn't hard to care for but it does have a few special needs. It isn't waterproof though it will shed water for a bit and will do a pretty decent job in the rain if you Scotch Guard it. I have also used either a rain poncho big enough to cover my pack or covered it with a black lawn and leaf bag. Either method works fairly well. All in all, water is not a friend of canvas. So, rule 1 is keep it dry. That means let it hang and air out at night, don't set it on the ground and if it gets rained on, hang it up and let it dry. There is usually a handy tree branch to hang things on. If not you can use a tent pole or run a line and hang it from that. 

This leads to rule 2, keep it clean. repeating the mention above, don't set your canvas pack on the ground. It'll get dirty. Dirt can get in between fibers act as an abrasive and cut them leading to holes. Dirt also often contains components other than "soil", food and other sticky things often attract bugs and other animals that will damage the canvas. So, avoid that as well and if your bag gets dirty, wash it and hang it up to dry. It's canvas after all, not hard to clean. I've washed Yuccas by hand in the past and more than once successfully in a machine using a mesh delicates bag followed by line drying the pack. Just do your best to look after a Yucca and know they are not hard to clean if they do get dirty. 

In spite of these rules, I have also seen a heck of a lot of dirty beat up packs that have gotten rain soaked, spent time on the the ground and been generally abused but keep on going just fine and still provide years of service before being retired to end up as "art" on a wall or hall tree.  

As of this writing I was finding serviceable examples, some with frames, on eBay for as little as $12 and $15 plus shipping. I have seen a few of the 1307(D), 573 haversacks as well but the 574 is  more common by far. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Small Batch Canning

When I was growing up in the Midwest we had very stereotypical canning adventures each harvest season.Tomatoes, pickles, peaches, apples in several forms, jams, jellies, even cherry pie filling. It was great and most of it came from our family orchards and gardens or from some place nearby. Now that I'm out in San Francisco both the getting/growing and the amount of canning is a bit different. We're also not trying to feed eight or ten people until the next harvest. One of the things I like about my new canning adventures is opportunistically putting up small batches, even just a jar or two of preserves from the last chance sale bins at the market. For one it takes a lot of pressure off of production and since it's just a small amount, it's safer to try something random or new. This year it's been a lot of peaches and wild berry preserves and since we just finished the last jar of okra pickles, we'll be making more of those soon as well.

Canners aren't always terribly expensive, some are as little as $20, $5 for the occasional garage sale find. Truth be known, you don't even need a canner for the small jobs, it's really just a deep stock pot after all. As long as the water covers the jars you're good to go for fruits, preserves and other acidic foods. A starter pack of jars is often less than ten bucks or again, available at garage sales and thrift shops for next to nothing and once you have some you can reuse them indefinitely with new lids. With everything on hand an opportunistic jar or two is well worth the effort.

So, keep your eyes open for fruit on the trail, your neighbors yard and of course local farm markets. If you barter well you might even trade fruit for canning, provided you can get yourself to part with some of your stores. In addition to the fun, having the best things on hand when you need them and being able to take pride in making things yourself, in this day and age of over processed everything, you control the production. You know exactly what went into your jars and you can feel good about making what ends up being both a frugal and healthy choice. Between, health, frugality, creativity and entertainment value, canning is an art that shouldn't be lost for any number of reasons all of which are good on their own and undeniable in combination.

Friday, September 6, 2013


The Northern Midwest of my youth was often like living in a time capsule or living diorama of life a century out of date. Growing up under the care and tutelage of great grandparents born in the late 1800's no doubt added to the time warped towns, woods and country roads I was free to roam. Beyond things still being taught in Scouts and summer camps, volumes of seemingly ancient guidebooks and Victorian wisdom still in active memory was the tail end of an age where it was common to allow children to learn how to use tools safely by way of self injury. A world less fettered and free to act as both home and hands on learning lab. It really was great and while some of those skills are no longer terribly PC, they remain useful.

Even if you weren't blessed with that sort of environment there are numerous books like Wildwood Wisdom, first published in 1945, still on shelves and websites. One of my favorite books is a 1967 edition Scouting Fieldbook For Boys and Men that first served my uncle through his scouting years and then mine. My elders didn't call it "survival" by the way. It was simply, "camping". If you were merely surviving you were clearly doing several somethings wrong and shouldn't be out in the woods in the first place. I suppose that's what inspired me to write this post, the idea that there are many kinds of camping and not all of them rely on much gear or even any high tech gear and that doesn't have to mean you are "roughing it". In some ways, roughing it is a state of mind. So, a minor re-framing of "the great outdoors" and the addition of a handful of basic skills changes the experience of being out there quite a bit.

I like "glamping" as much as the next person and having a big tent you can stand up in, a propane grill and cooler full of food is great when you aren't packing it in but the bulk of my camping has been with far less, often little more than an army blanket and a pocket knife. The big secret isn't that someone handed me a pocket knife at age five and said, "Try not to cut yourself." (I still have a scar on my thumb from that day), It was probably just being outside and getting used to it, out there, somewhere beyond the power outlets, pavement and climate control, just hanging out. Beyond a pocket knife and blanket, the radical improvements in comfort offered by an old sailboat mainsail, a coffee can and a metal spoon are exponential. A wine bottle makes a good water bottle once it's viniferous contents are gone. It can be amazing how far simple things go when you embrace how little humans "owned" in the past, how little we actually need and acquire a handful of skills.

I'm revisiting a book I haven't read in years but, like countless readers before me, have found lasting value within its pages. To paraphrase Thoreau, I support the idea that a [person] should be able to walk into the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their back and feel like they left something behind. That idea holds meaning for me both in terms of being open to the idea that our natural surroundings are enough as well as the idea that we should be able to look after ourselves beyond mere survival. In essence, short of overcoming an injury, being lost in the wilderness can, and should, actually be fun.