Archive for the ‘#hellyhansen’ Tag

Practical in All Ways   8 comments

What’s the best purchase you ever made and why?

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ponchoI’ve bought a lot of things in my five decades of living from cheap $1 items to a house now inexplicably worth nearly a quarter-million dollars.  It’s hard to inventory all the purchases of my life and come down to “the best” and for what reason. Some things just give me joy. I like the look or feel of them. Other things are practical or were a great investment with a good return on value. It would take a great deal of soul-searching to narrow that most-worthy item down from the thousands of purchases I’ve made in my life. In fact, I am overwhelmed at the prospect because Brad and I are known among our friends as not being very consumer-oriented. Most of our “stuff” is second-hand and we are frequently asked if we ever plan to put furniture in our family room. Maybe … someday … if some neighbor in our garage-friendly neighborhood is looking to sell a sofa for cheap. Does a family room really need furniture beyond a bunch of bookcases and some cushions on the floor?

But not answering the question would be disingenuous, I suppose. Let me tell you a story.

Thirty years ago this summer Brad and I were working for a company that thought it needed our undivided attention, but we needed our annual salmon catch, so when they let us go for three days for the 4th of July holiday, we scrambled to load what we needed into the car and get headed on the 600-mile journey to Chitina Alaska and the red gold that are Copper River salmon. And, I couldn’t find my raincoat. I determined I would do it in a sweatshirt if necessary, even though I knew that would mean a miserable wet weekend.

Brad stopped on our way out of town to buy Meals Ready to Eat — military-issue rations that often find their way into the local military surplus stores. While he was deciding which of the menus to buy this time, I spied a shelf of Army ponchos. Jokingly, I said “These would make great tents.” Brad thought I was serious and he grabbed one and threw it on top of the box. Cost? $10.

The closer we got to Chitina, the darker the sky got. O’Brien Creek was running so hard we decided not to risk driving over it. I donned the poncho before we headed out. Except for the hood, which consisted of a Velcro closure under the chin to keep the rain out and a bill over my forehead to shed it to either side of my face, it fell shapeless to the tops of my Xtra-Tufs. The sides could be left open or there were grommets to hook together by any means desired. I had run lengths of 550 cord through them to form some sort of closure. It was so large on my tiny frame that I put it over my backpack to keep it dry.

We hiked in 2 1/2 miles to “the glory hole” and we caught 45 salmon in 2 1/2 hours. By pulling the 550 cord this way and that, I configured the poncho so that it kept my clothes dry while I clubbed fish to death as Brad was catching them two at a time. And meanwhile, it poured buckets of icy rain from the sky, flung sideways by the glacier wind out of the Wrangell-St. Elias ice fields.

When the fish had been caught, Brad began to load them into his “moose bag” backpack and it quickly became clear that he could only take half the load. I weighed less than the remaining fish. I would have to stay behind with them while Brad hiked the first half to the car.

It was dark and growing darker and I didn’t really feel that brave out there in the forbidding wilderness, but I told him I’d have tea ready for him when he got back. We both knew it would take two hours for him to hike out, at least a half-hour to pack the fish in the ice in the coolers in the back of the car and another hour to hike back to me. A part of being an Alaskan woman is not turning into a clingy suburbanite when your husband suggests he leave you in the rain-soaked forest beside one of the deadliest rivers in the world with 20 salmon and, possibly, grizzlies in the forest. Nope, I’d be fine. I’d have tea ready for him when he got back. I watched his Helly Hansen fisherman’s coat disappear into the darkness and didn’t ask him to come back.

Despite the monsoon-like ice bath occurring in the outside world, it was dry under my poncho. I could do this.

As anyone knows who has ever spent time in the woods, the key to building a fire is dry wood. Did I mention it was pouring and had been for several hours? I hiked around the cluster of wind-tough cottonwood trees, looking for twigs and leaves that weren’t soaked and I found some. Under a cut-bank near the river, I found a sheltered cluster of roots that I could hack off with my knife. Up in the forest, I found a spot sheltered among three trees that was less wet than the surrounding forest. I piled up my fire-starting treasure, sat down on the ground with my back against one of the trees and pulled my legs up into the sheltering tarp that was my poncho, protecting my treasure hoard from the deluge.

Rain dripped off the bill of my poncho, dropping onto my covered knees and rolled out into the wet ground. I dozed, buying time. Occasionally, the tree behind me would bend, groaning in the wind, and I’d be pelted with icy droplets, but my poncho didn’t move and my hoard stayed dry, warmed by the heat of my body. Time passed and stood still. My watch told me two hours had passed. Time to act.

I tied one end of my poncho to one of the three trees, pulled my head out of the hood and tied the other end to my back pack, creating a slanting roof. I knelt under the shelter to scrape sand together into a makeshift firepit and create a little nest of grass and leaves. Using strike-anywhere matches from the chest pocket of my poncho, I started a little fire, feeding dried twigs into it until it wouldn’t blow out at the faintest gust of watery wind. I warmed my hands over its tenacious warm. Smoke rose up to slap into the underside of my poncho and then seep away into the night. I filled the little tea kettle with rainwater as it ran off the edge. I sat with my knees drawn up to my chest, watching for steam to rise and listening to the steady drum of rain on the makeshift roof. Time passed and stood still while my socks dried above the little fire in the shelter of my poncho.

I was kneeling by the fire, preparing two cups of tea when I heard boots scraping on gravel near the trail. I was alone, a woman in the wilderness on the edge of one of the most deadly rivers in the world, guarding 20 salmon in grizzly country. I held my breath until Brad emerged out of the gray dawn, water pouring off his Helly Hansen coat.

“I have tea ready, just as I said.”

We sat on opposite sides of the fire, my poncho as our roof, sipping our hot beverage and eating a breakfast of pilotbread slathered with butter. While Brad caught an hour’s nap with his back against my tree, the weather broke, the rain stopped and sunlight spilled from heaven like liquid gold, sparkling through the wind-tough trees and casting the world in watercolor hues. I knocked the rain off my poncho and bundled it up loosely on top of my backpack. Brad stretched and groaned. I carried the camping gear and he carried the salmon and we turned toward our car that was 2 1/2 miles away, both of us dry and comfortable … because of my poncho.

That chance purchase 30 years ago still lives in my outdoor wardrobe. It is a constant companion, always packed for every expedition, though used only when necessary — as a coat, as a tent, as a tarp, sometimes a blanket to sit on. Once we bundled one of the kids in it on a canoe trip when she got cold. It’s kept backpacks dry, provided some protection from the damp dog that insisted she join us in the tent and been used as a bellows for building a bonfire. It still doesn’t leak and the only maintenance it’s required is replacing the 550 cord closures occasionally. And, thus it is the most useful $10 I’ve ever spent.

 

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