04 February 2011

Sometimes old is better than new...

For a number of years my primary field pack has been the Barta Stalker made by Eberlestock, it has been out of production for a few years now. It's built off their base Halftrack model which is still in production. Regardless of the season I've made that pack work, though sometimes when fully loaded it isn't the best solution, especially for winter camping.

Before the Stalker I was using a large ALICE pack and I was satisfied with it for the most part. Still, it just didn't click with me the way I wanted it to.

There are times when idle curiosity and timing come together and from this mix solutions happen. I'm a sucker for waxed canvas and old school packs and other products that time seems to have forgotten. While looking over Whelen Tarps online, as I'm looking to upgrade my lean to shelter types I hit a link for Frost River's Whelen Tent. After spending some time looking over their products I shot them an email asking if I could visit their shop. They are located in Duluth Minnesota and I often travel south of the homestead and drive right by them.

I got a response to the email very quickly, even though I'd sent it well after midnight, with a welcome to drop by during business hours.

Well I did drop by with the intent of looking at one of those Whelen shelters. When I walked through their door which opens into an office first, I was immediately greeted with the warm aroma of leather and canvas, unmistakable and the kind of smell that just makes me feel at home. A rifle case was on the desk and the whole scene reminded me of my own workshop at home. Thoroughly enjoyable for a man like me.

What was going to be a ten minute stop over turned into a lot of time spent with Mark, one of their craftsmen. We talked shelters, packs, portages and all manner of backwoods stuff. Mark was very knowledgeable, polite and helpful. In the process of talking to him I started looking at their Timber Cruiser Pack, they had a demo model up front but he invited me to look at one he had just completed that was in the back.

It isn't often in this world that a man gets to see where the products are built that he's going to buy. With our 'Global Economy' as it is we never really know sometimes where what we are buying comes from, what it's made from or by whom it is made. Frost River is a company that still operates on the old world rule set, I was able to see the process, their materials, their small staff and just how they turn out some great products.

I wish I had gone prepared for this but I wasn't expecting it, I didn't have my primary camera with me, just my Blackberry so the pictures are not the best in the world by any stretch of the imagination. It was great to see how much hands on is done in the process, very little automation, so much hand work involved, real old world craftsmanship.

I bought the Timber Cruiser model as the size and design was an excellent fit for the way I like to pack and the kind of things I like to pack.

I'm not an ultralight junkie, I am an ultra-functional ultra-durable junkie. Most of my applications are around moderate back country use, canoeing and such. No so much expedition back packing.

This pack is built like a tank and has all the right things in the right places. Once I got it back to the barn I decided to pack it with what I've been carrying in that old Eberlestock pack, which I must say when fully loaded with winter camping kit was a bit unwieldy.

First, all this stuff was in the pack, I tossed it all out on the USGI modular sleep system and thermarest mat.

When it was all packed up the sleep system was strapped to the bottom and the Thermarest mat on the top. Wetterlings axe slid into the slip pocket on one side with a tarp shelter stowed in the pocket and a Trail Blazer Buck Saw in the slip pocket on the other side. I used the two long pockets on either side to carry shelter, ponchos, wool shirt.

Not exactly the ideal set up but I was making it work, it's the pack I was using for all of my recent outings. I knew there was a better way and I found it at Frost River. Before I show the end result of all that let's take a look at the Timber Cruiser unpacked.

From Frost River:

Features include tough 18 ounce wax canvas construction, adjustable padded leather back straps, tumpline and internal map pocket. Basket has its own shoulder harness: use it alone for a tremendous blueberry harvest! Comes standard with two roomy side pockets. Brass buckle closures keep all your goods secure. This is a box-style pack with a double canvas bottom. Size: 23"x 21"x 6", 5,790 ci.

Absolutely bombproof construction, reinforcement at all the right places, fine stitching, just all around excellent craftsmanship.

So here we go with the load out, I wanted everything in the pack and nothing strapped to it. So I started by putting the Thermarest inside the pack but unrolled, this gives the pack some form so it'll stand upright for the rest of the packing.

The I put the USGI modular sleep system inside of that on the bottom.
Here is how much room is left after the sleep system goes in.

These dump pouches carry enough food, coffee, and condiments for four days. Noodles, rice, summer sausage, block cheddar cheese.

Coffee pot and cook set, yes, I am also a sucker for Jurassic size camp coffee pots. I also use it to melt snow and boil large volumes of water.

MSR water filter, for the most part it only sees summer time use.

This pouch holds multitool, fire tender, hand sanitizer, flashlight and head lamp, spare fire steel, camp hygiene,  and a few other odds and ends, it slips in with still plenty of space left over.

Extra wool long hunter shirt.

Lashing the load in with the flaps.

All closed up and ready for the trail. The side pockets also have a slip pocket between the main bag and the external flap pocket. Perfect for the trail blazer bucksaw and my axe. The side flap pockets hold my ponchos, two of them. One I use for a ground cloth and the other, as seen in my Winter Overnight videos, has a reflective mylar blanket attached to the inside to reflect heat back into the bedroll. The other side pocket has a cheap 9x11 tarp. It isn't the best tarp, I was using it to play with that size in order to determine what I ultimately want in a tarp. Story for another day...

I'm quite impressed with the pack so far.  Much cleaner appearance and a lot more functional that my previous set up.

I'll get some field images up soon and then do a follow up after some serious use.


  1. That looks really durable. Canvas and leather really go together. I love old canvas stuff and just discovered waxed canvas a few years ago. Thanks for posting this. I look forward to seeing pics in the field.

  2. Old-School leather and canvas. That is a fantastic pack. I love how clean it is when packed too.

    Also love that it was made HERE. Love the pics of the workshop.

    Another really great post.

  3. Thats a pack indeed, i could offer my pinky toe for one.

  4. I met a thru-hiker on the AT in October in Maine who was carrying one of these packs. As I was talking to him, I also noticed that he was wearing wool pants and looked remarkably cleaned up. Turns out he was doing his thru wearing 50's gear and clothing and not any high tech stuff. His trail name was Mr Clean or something to theat effect.

    Love your site, BTW. I do wish you'd let me leave my real blog URL however with my name. I think it's a setting somewhere on google.


    Philip Werner

  5. I'd be interested in seeing an article on the extra long hunting shirt!

    Been contemplating a wool anorak myself.

  6. Not a bad idea Crane, actually been meaning to do something on wool in general. You can find that shirt at the below address, for a reasonable price in my opinion.


  7. So, does this mean Frost River shouldn't be selling to any other countries? If you want to by American Products, I would assume that a Norwegian would feel the same and buy Norwegian made products. After all, how could an American company understand the soul and history of Norway? Similarly, a Canadian should never buy something made in Minnesota. How could Frost River understand what it is to be Canadian. The more I think of this, I think Texans should be buying Frost River packs because as Texans, we understand what it is to be Texans and Minnesotans wouldn't understand our history. Of course, there are real Texans and those fake ones in Austin so maybe we should limit ourselves to buying packs made in our own town. I think that is best.