INTERVIEW: Cliff Jacobson-Wilderness Guide/Author

If you were lucky, someone took the time to teach you to appreciate and respect the beauty of nature. If you were very lucky, someone taught you how to navigate your way through the wilderness and experience the corners of the world that few ever will. If you were lucky and smarter than the average Bear, you figured out a way to make a living doing it. "Cliff Jacobson is one of North America's most respected outdoors writers, wilderness guides, national and foreign consultants, and is the most published canoeing/camping writer of this century..."

The Sporting Life: Where did you grow up?

Cliff Jacobson: Chicago, IL, I regret to say. I hated the city; always dreamed of hiking and camping in some wild place and living off the land.

TSL: What were your hobbies as a kid?

CJ: I’ve always loved camping and the wilderness, and guns and shooting. I still love to shoot. I was on the R.O.T.C. small-bore rifle team in high-school (We had a range in the building) and on the Purdue University small bore team in college. I was stationed in Germany when I was in the Army and I made the U.S. Army Gold National Match (Rifle) team. I still shoot a lot, though now it’s mostly with very high- end precision air rifles.

TSL: What inspired you to start venturing into the wilds?

CJ: I think it’s in the blood. I read virtually every book in print on wilderness travel when I was a kid. I just loved the idea of wilderness, of being alone and on your own. I really do think it’s a gene. I’ve had kids on canoe trips where it rained and was miserable every day—still, they loved it. I’ve had other kids on trips that were picture perfect and they hated every minute.

TSL: What did you learn in the Boy Scouts? What are your fondest memories and experiences?

CJ: The best compliment I have ever received on my writing came from a Scoutmaster who said: “Cliff, I’ve read your books and I don’t know who you think you’re kidding; all you’ve done is taken the old Boy Scout stuff and modernized it.” “Shhhh,” I responded. “Promise me you won’t tell a soul!” Yes, Scouting set the bench marks. Scouting taught me the basics; it was a wonderful way to learn and to experience nature. How I am today is a huge reflection of my long-time Scouting experiences.

TSL: Do you hunt or fish?

CJ: Fishing? No. I just don’t have the patience. This was a big disappointment to my dad, who loved to fish. I do love to eat fish though, and I’m happy to fillet and cook them. I always love to have some anglers on my canoe trips. I hunted a lot when I was younger, mostly rabbits and squirrels. I was into deer hunting for a while but I don’t go anymore, mostly because the woods are too crowded with hunters. I prefer peace and quiet. I still occasionally hunt pheasants, but that’s all. Mostly, I now hunt inanimate objects like “plastic clothes-pins, doo-dads and dandelion heads” in my yard with my air guns.

TSL: Who is your favorite artist, if you have one?

CJ: Don’t have one, sorry.

TSL: What music are you currently listening to? Who are your favorite bands or musicians?

CJ: I love music but I’m not into performers or bands. Mostly, I prefer classical—Mozart and Bach especially—and folk.

TSL: Who are your favorite authors? Who are you currently reading?

CJ: No favorite authors, just favorite books. I prefer non-fiction, though occasionally I’ll wade through a long fiction piece. I recently read the Odessa File—it’s way old but somehow I overlooked it. Perhaps my favorite book of the last decade is “Two Cups of Tea”. I really loved it. I recently read “Daughter, Father, Canoe” by Rob Kesselring. It’s a wonderful book!

TSL: What historical figure do you most admire?

CJ: Daniel Boone, for sure. The best biography is the one by John Bakeless. It’s a big book and very thorough. Boone was amazing. And oh yeah, he didn’t like coon-skin caps; he didn’t have an Indian friend named Mingo; the list goes on. He was a little guy like me, maybe 135 pounds, with blond hair. Read the Bakelesss biography. Daniel was amazing! I also greatly admire Crazy Horse. The book, “Crazy Horse and Custer” really gets into the soul of this amazing Indian hero. Maybe in the next life, I’ll get to hang out with him for a while and learn some serious survival tricks.

TSL: Champagne and Caviar or Beer and Chips?

CJ: I rather dislike bubbly. GOOD beer (that means dark brown stout from a revered micro-brewery) is my choice. I dearly love ancient single malt Scotch and an occasional 1920’s formula gin martini. I don’t mean to brag but I do make the best margaritas in the world—all from scratch and with organic limes of course.

TSL: Do you feel that the ease of access to media and information has improved our quality of life, or reduced it?

CJ: The Internet has made it easier to plan and organize canoe trips in areas where help is an airplane ride away. Used to be, we figured on a full year of planning for a canoe trip in the far north. Now, one can put things together in a matter of weeks because getting information is just a few clicks away. GPS units have literally eliminated the problem of getting lost in the bush, even when threading your way through complex deltas, like those near Hudson Bay. And satellite phones and SPOT technology provide instant communication when you need it. Still, the new technology has degraded the wilderness experience. Why? Because if things don’t go well on a trip, one has the option to quit—simply call up your charter float plane and say, “Pick me up”. Before this technology, you had to be where you had to be, when you had to be there.” This often meant paddling well into the night or at times when you should stay put. The alternative was paying the pilot twice if he came and you weren’t there on time. Those were the “real” days of wilderness travel. It really separated the men and women from the boys and girls. Today, weenies can make significant trips and survive.

TSL: What project are you currently working on?

CJ: I just finished revising my book, BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING, for a 2012 release. I’m really proud of this one: it will be larger format, full color (about 75 spectacular photos) and about 20 percent more material. It will be a beauty! I also really enjoy writing semi-regular columns for Scouting magazine. Scouters, more than most, understand that “skills are more important than things.”

TSL: What 5 wilderness skills do you feel best translate to everyday life, or that you feel every person should know?

CJ: I’ve thought about this one quite a bit. Indeed, this topic was the major emphasis of my video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS. In it, I detail what I think are the most important skills one needs to perfect in order to be warm, dry and in command on a wilderness venture.

1. Confidently build a one match fire in any weather.
2. Storm-proof your tent so it won’t blow down, even in a 60 mph wind. Part of storm-proofing is planning for the unexpected (or rather, “expected”), like the ground loading with run-off and water coming into your tent.
3. Tricks for sleeping comfortably on rocky and very uneven sites.
4. Rigging single and twin rain-tarps quickly and so tightly that they’ll stand firm in gale force winds—and so you can rig a smoke-free fire beneath. Knowing the required quick-release knots and hitches so you can set up and take camp down quickly.
5. Edged tools: what you need and how to most effectively use them.

These are the REAL survival skills. That nonsense about carrying a midget survival kit filled with fishing line, hooks, razor blade and other silly tools takes a back seat to deep knowledge of important skills. Anyone who goes beyond the beaten path—or even sticks to the beaten path—should, at a minimum, have on their person at least these four items: knife, waterproof matches or butane lighter, compass, map (a paper version or “map knowledge” of the area in your head). To this, one should review the “Ten Essentials” which you’ll find in every survival book. When I was 22 years old, and a forester working for the BLM in western Oregon, I was marking timber for sale when I became lost in the woods for three days. This was in the very remote Douglas Fir/Rhododendron rain-forest in the Pacific Coast Range. Here, visibility is so limited that if you get 20 feet off the road or trail, you’re in deep, thick woods. People who get lost there rarely get found. On my person I had a pocket knife, lighter, compass, water bottle and sack lunch. I also had a “map of the area in my head”. Three days later I had walked over a mountain and into a little town called Remote, Oregon. I never told a soul about this. Why? Because foresters don’t get lost! You don’t need a special survival kit if you’re lost, but you do need the four items I’ve mentioned, plus a positive mental attitude that says, “I’ll survive”.

TSL: If you could sit down at a dinner table with anyone-living or dead, who would it be? What would you serve?

CJ: That’s a hard one because I consider myself a pretty good cook. I make really great scratch-made pizza using all organic ingredients and four different cheeses. I make the dough one day and refrigerate it over night. I use a baking stone, of course, and a cooking temperature of 500 degrees. The pizza comes out just like those in wood-fire ovens. But if Daniel Boone came to dinner, I’d just get grill some top bison steaks and serve it with Minnesota wild rice and a mixed salad.

TSL: Are you worried about global warming or “climate change”?

CJ: It’s not something I worry about, but I am concerned. I’ve canoed in the Arctic, talked to local Inuits, saw the receding glaciers, was shocked to see polar bears coming off the ice in early July well north of Churchill, Manitoba. The Inuits in Arviat said they have to go like 500 miles north now for good hunting. The ice is breaking earlier than ever, and farther north than ever. Anyone who thinks this is a joke should go see the changes for themselves. We are already seeing huge climatic changes in the world. But people who never learned proper science in school ask “how can there be so much cold and snow if we’re having global warming?” The problem is that they don’t understand the difference between weather and climate! The warming earth puts more moisture into the air, which causes weird weather everywhere.

TSL: If you could own any car, what would it be?

CJ: Yeah, yeah, I dearly do love cars. If I had the bucks I would probably drive a BMW M3 with manual transmission. I’ve always loved two-seater roadsters. Over the years I’ve owned a 60 MG-A, 68 Fiat 124 Spyder, and I now have and cherish a mint 96 BMW Z3 with 72,000 miles. Years ago, I got into buying used high end cars. You can often get them real cheap because people are afraid of them (maintenance expenses). But most of these cars are garage queens that have been impeccably maintained. I am embarrassed to say that we have four vehicles. They are: 1. 2002 Subaru WRX wagon…great little car. Good gas mileage, lots of room and pretends she’s a Jeep in the snow. 2. 2001 Chevy Suburban—hides in the garage till it’s canoe trip time then happily hauls everything. 3. 1996 BMW Z3—we’ve driven this toy to Nova Scotia, Los Angeles and literally all around the country—top down all the way. 4. 2001 BMW 330i. The devil made me buy this pristine, barely driven Beemer. It had just 54K miles on it and I got it for just 13K. The car is mint, not a scratch or flake of rust. I’ve had it for two years now. All it needed was new brakes. I think I have enough cars for now.

TSL: What is your greatest extravagance?

CJ: Susie and I love good food. We buy only organic produce and grass-fed beef. We spend a lot of money on organic food, but it’s worth it, especially at this point in our lives where our ages indicate there is gray at the end of the tunnel. We don’t drink soda (pop) and only very occasionally do we do junk food. Our grocery bill is huge. I also spend a lot of money on my hobbies, canoeing and camping, and guns. Some people think that we writers get all our camping stuff for free. Hardly. Yes, occasionally there are perks, like a free test product or a discount. But mostly, I buy my stuff over the counter. We also have some terrific solo and tandem canoes. On the other hand, our house is pretty low tech. It stands on a two acre wood-lot and was built in 1895. It’s a simple French colonial farm house, worth maybe 175K today—far from extravagant. Our furniture and TV is more than 20 years old. We buy new “house stuff” only when it breaks, never for show. Our carpeting is dreadful, largely because I haul firewood into the house while wearing dirty boots. Really now, isn’t Susie a terrific wife?

TSL: What are your favorite meals to prepare in the wild?

CJ: The easiest and fastest is a mix of Oriental Raman soup with dehydrated hamburger, dried shitake mushrooms and mixed veggies. Everyone loves my garlic-cheese-oregano "pita melts", which are usually served as an hors d’ouvre. The most exotic is steam-fried "pita pizza" (see my book, "Basic Illustrated Cooking")

TSL: What are the essential tools of wilderness cooking?

CJ: Basically, there are three: 1) Intense preparation, 2) Dehydrated hamburger, beans, tomato powder--with these, you can make almost anything, 3) The "cozy" system I developed--it saves stove fuel, shortens cooking time, prevents burning and keeps food hot enough for seconds. My book, "Basic Illustrated Cooking" has the details.

TSL: What tool/gear do you always carry with you on your trips?

CJ: There are many: my Idaho Knife Works, sheath knife ("Cliff" knife), Gransfors hatchet, wood-frame "Fast bucksaw", Leatherman original tool, Suunto compass, Garmin 400T GPS, compact Zeiss binoculars--and oh yes, absolutely always, an interior ground cloth for the tent I'm sleeping in.

TSL: What is the top 5 rules of wilderness canoeing?

CJ: Sorry, I could only think of 7. They are: 1. Underestimate your ability. Example: you have the skill to paddle the rapid ahead, but it's a tough one. Best chicken out and portage or line. It's a long walk out if you mess up and wrap your boat. 2. Be a good navigator--don't get lost, 3.Be able to make a fire quickly and efficiently in any weather, 3. Know how to storm-proof your tent so it won't blow down in a gale, and you'll stay dry no matter how long or hard it rains. 4. Be able to rig rain-tarps that keep water out and won't blow down in wind. 5.Be a good cook--if everything goes sour at least they'll remember the food. 6. Be patient--don't take chances with your life even if it means you'll miss your float plane or won't make it home in time for work. 7. Know how to "backferry" a heavily loaded canoe. You won't get down a tough northern river if you can't!

TSL: What is your favorite canoe & paddle?

CJ: My Bell Yellowstone Solo canoe (black and gold). I'm addicted to Zaveral carbon-fiber paddles. I have two 12-degree bent-shafts and two straight paddles. One is a beefed-up model for moderate rapids. The shaft has blue and silver "sparkles" for high visibility in the event it's lost in the gathering flow during a capsize.

Notice the "sparkle" paddle.

TSL: If you could live in any era, when would it be?

CJ: Pretty much now, for these reasons. They are:

1. I’ve had some health issues that would have been problematic 100 years ago.
2. I could not abide living at a time in a country where slavery was allowed. I think I would have been like John Brown and been hung before I could write a single word.
3. We stole land from the Indians and Mexicans. I would not want to have been part of that.
4. Living 100 or more years ago sounds romantic, but I’ve spent enough time in the woods, stoking a smoky fire to know that “real comfort and the easy life” is in the cities. If you want to work hard, and constantly, take to the woods.
5. And really now, how could I possibly live without my computer?

TSL: If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

CJ: If you had asked me this ten years ago, I would have said Ely, MN. We wanted to move there when I retired from teaching in 2001 but real estate was too pricey. Now, both my daughters live in LA, and I have a cute new grandson there so I’d consider moving to the west. But never LA—I dislike cities. I could be happy in northern CA, or maybe the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming or Utah. Still, I love the clear blue water of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The water out west is like chocolate malt. It’s a tough choice. I’ll probably stay here.

TSL: What else are you into? Bullfights, Polo, Horse Racing, Motorcycles, F1, Rally, Croquette, Bocci, Skeet Shooting, Reading on the beach?

CJ: Don’t hate me, but spectator sports bore me. And so do traditional vacation choices, like lying on the beach, hanging out at fancy hotels etc. I am a gregarious person, but still, my greatest pleasures are canoeing and camping in a beautiful place where help is an airplane ride away, and driving my little red roadster, top-down, on a gorgeous winding road.

TSL: What country is your favorite to visit/live?

CJ: I loved Norway and Sweden. I loved the people, the food, the culture, the environmental attitude: There are no bill boards! They recycle everything, hardly anyone lives in poverty, and yes, the women really are drop-dead gorgeous! Viking land is cold, clean, beautiful and well-organized.

TSL: What has been your most memorable trip/expedition?

CJ: The Hood River in Nunavut, Canada, of course. Susie and I got married at Wilberforce Falls on that river in 1992. The story is in my book, EXPEDITION CANOEING.

TSL: What’s your idea of the perfect lunch?

CJ: I rarely eat lunch. Mostly, a big breakfast of oatmeal, mixed nuts, berries and yogurt and a couple hard-boiled eggs—keeps me till supper. On canoe trips, I do eat lunch, but it isn’t much.

You can keep up with Cliff at his website. LINK

*Bonus points if you can pick him out of the Boyscout photo.


  1. Great article!

  2. The guy just to left of the guy in the middle front. Great article Cliff.

  3. Great interview. Cliff is a great guy. I had hoped to attend his spring seminar but yet again life got in the way of fun. I did run into him at the Midwest Mountaineering Canoe Expo.

  4. Interesting that immediately after discussing "climate change", high-end cars as a hobby are then mentioned. Al Gore would be proud!

  5. I got in to camping late in life (50). Almost all of my knowledge and skills came from Cliff's books and video Forgotten Skills. What I wouldn't give to be on a canoe trip with the master.