Thursday, March 28, 2019

A tale of river footwear

I’ve got the good fortune to have a Grand Canyon river trip coming up, which means that I get to regale my fellow rivermates with my rant about wearing sandals on a river trip (I’m not a fan).  I’ll share that rant later, but it reminds me of a good story of designing, building, developing, and producing some performance river footwear.

In the mid-90’s I had an opportunity to work for Patagonia to explore the concept of introducing shoes for them.  Obviously they had been killing it in apparel (and have continued to do so) but Yvon Chouinard – as a high-end outdoor adventurer across many diverse activities who, like a lot of high-end adventurers, puts a high value on footwear – wanted to do some shoes.  I was hired to explore the opportunities: the markets, the distribution matrix, the manufacturing options, incorporating shoes into Patagonia’s system, and of course, the products.  One that seemed obvious was whitewater-specific footwear.

Bob McDougall was Patagonia’s paddling product line manager, and Bob was a bit of a whitewater legend.  
Not a great shot, but Bob was famously shy and photo-phobic.  Here he is hand-surfing in a rodeo in the early 90's in a Dancer.
Bob did a pioneering trip down the famous (for it's huge waterfalls) Agua Azul in Mexico that was featured in a National Geographic show. 
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Bob had paddled all over the world doing first descents:

and won acclaim for having done the first “Vertical Mile” in a day by paddling the notorious North Fork of the Payette three times, a feat that has been since surpassed but is still way impressive.  In 1989 Bob was part of a first descent of the mighty Stikine river in SE Alaska (  a river that still is only done by the folks who are on the cutting edge of the sport in far more modern gear than was available to those intrepid early explorers, and  - as happens to us all at one time or another  -Bob took a pretty ferocious beating and swim.  The difference between that swim and most others was that a) Bob came very close to drowning, and later wrote a very provocative piece for a Patagonia catalog called, appropriately enough: “Drowning”, b) he was a thousand feet down in a vertical-walled gorge in a really remote part of the world without a kayak and only big water class 5/5+ raging below, and c) in the swim he lost a bootie. 

Given that his kayak had flushed downstream and reeling from the severe beatdown that he had just barely lived through Bob was loathe to get back in the water, barefoot or not, so he did the only thing possible: he climbed out.   Fortunately, Bob’s other passion was climbing, so he had a leg up - as it were - over most other kayakers who typically only work with gravity, not against it.  However, the climb was over loose and awful rock covered with brush, of course he had no rope and no partner so he was free-soloing, and he did it with one bare foot.  He scratched, clawed, and jammed his way up for hours, sometimes doing desperate moves, but persevered successfully.  Once on the rim he had to traverse downstream through even thicker brush and then find a way to descend back to the river to hopefully reunite with his boat and his pards.  Suboptimal adventuring. 

In short, he made it, but with no small amount of sufferage.  And suffice to say, Bob had plenty of time to appreciate the implications of kayaking hard rivers in remote places in loose-fitting, hot, uncomfortable, and slippery neoprene booties, which were the only things that people used then (and to be fair, a neoprene bootie was better than being barefoot!).  He vowed to create a new type of paddling footwear that would drain water, fit inside a kayak, stay on securely, and allow for scouting, portaging and….escaping.  As a climber his natural instinct was to start with a climbing shoe but make it less-tight fitting, drainable and not leather for quick drying, have a tread on the bottom, come up high enough to protect the ankle, and lace-on so that it wouldn’t come off in a ferocious swim.  Bob worked with Komito Boot in Colorado to make a proto, he used it, liked it, found some flaws, and….not much else happened. 

Until I came along.  Yvon (YC) was also an old time kayaker (who had been part of the team that did the first descent of the notorious Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork in northern Wyoming: )and he too thought that neoprene dive booties were wildly inappropriate and any new Patagonia footwear collection was going to include a version of Bob’s shoes, which was fine with me.  I ended up taking Bob’s tattered pair to a cobbler in Salt Lake City (Gary Mekan, who had a small shop in the Black Diamond complex) and for a week we worked together to create a prototype that took Bob’s concept and his (and my) thoughts for improvements, and came up with a good prototype:

I sent this to my designer (iconic ex-Nike designer Steve McDonald, who had helped me get the job in the first place after meeting YC on a crag in the Tetons) and Steve took this ragged proto and gave it some life in a beautiful rendering, which unfortunately I no longer have. 

In the meantime, I had done a bunch of nosing around the footwear industry and ultimately contacted One Sport, an Italian company that was the sort of parent company of Montrail (though they were involved in a painful divorce at that point).  I exchanged messages with them and asked if we could get together to meet at ISPO, the huge sporting trade show in Munich, and I hopped on a plane to Germany, armed with my prototype and Steve’s rendering.  I blasted straight from the airport to the show, went right to the booth, sat down with them for a coupla hours to tell them the story, show them the proto, and go over the rendering, and we had a deal.  The CFS was born. 

Working with Italians was an eye opening experience for me.  As the president of the recently-divorced Montrail said to me:  “They are terrible about communicating, their prices are way too high, they take all of August off, they are always late, and they wonder why everyone moves production to China!”  And indeed they drove me crazy.  But boy they are great shoemakers, and after too-much time and much cajoling they finally delivered their prototype:

which was actually one of the few samples we made because it was so perfect we moved into production fairly quickly. 

Since I was the catch-all Shoe Guy, I also had the opportunity to market the shoe, which was a fun learning experience for me.  Here's the page in the iconic Patagonia catalog, with me carrying a kayak in to the Headwaters of the Kern river high in the Sierras (this was well before I discovered 10lb pack rafts!)

Despite the fact that the shoe retailed for $120  - a far cry from the $35 booties that most people were using – we only made something like a 30% margin (as opposed to the >50% margin that Patagonia was accustomed to), but at least the volumes were low!  But we had created the world’s first performance kayaking shoe that gave Patagonia some much-needed credibility in a challenging market.  And importantly, YC was quite pleased with it. 

Ultimately, of course, the relationship with the Italians waned due to the aforementioned characteristics, and it was worrisome; we knew that Asian sourcing was the obvious choice, but at our low volumes no factory would even talk to us.  However, ultimately we did find a factory in Korea (in the shoemaking world, the “Italy of Asia”) and we designed a new shoe that built upon the basis of the CFS with some modifications based on what we’d learned from the CFS.  
We called it the “Play Boot”, which was a bit of a misnomer because it was really designed for creeking and that was an unfortunate era of play boats (small kayaks to surf/play in holes) that were super painful to stuff your feet into, but it was a fun name nonetheless.  When I had told the Italians that the CFS rubber wasn't sticky enough they said "No problem; we can make it stickier.  But how will you deal with the $7 price increase?"  I blew a nut.  When I told the Koreans I needed sticky rubber they said "No problem!".....and that was that.  I knew I had found the right vendor.  And importantly, we got it to $99, which – along with the increasing awareness of the need for real footwear for kayaking and a few wannabe competitors coming out  -helped the volume, and the margins had improved as well. 

Ultimately the shoe played itself out and went away, but not before I got a few pairs that I still use (and Ash is almost done with her last pair).  But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Five Ten kept the idea alive for many years:

And these shoes paved the way for the likes of Astral to blend some of the geeky performance characteristics we conjured up with modern skate-inspired styling and make a real business of kayaking footwear:

Ironically, Astral was the second company that Philip Curry started; the first was Lotus Designs, a pfd company that Patagonia purchased, which is why there's a Lotus logo on the Play Boot above.  Phillip started Astral as another pfd company after his non-compete expired, and after he branched out into footwear they are now essentially a footwear company.  

Lots of outdoor companies use taglines like “Born in the Mountains”, “Never Stop Exploring”, “Committed to the Core”, and “True to the Trail” to compel us buy their products that we hope were inspired by employees or at least sponsored athletes, and to be sure Patagonia’s heritage and inspiration still emanates from a guy who has done more than his share of suffering in awful weather on the sides of mountains and walls.   But it’s rare to have such a calamity as a near-death swim and desperate barefoot escape from a gorge in deepest darkest Alaska be the inspiration for an entire genre of footwear.  I’m glad Bob was as innovative as he was tough and that Patagonia was willing to breathe life into a niche-y product.   

Yvon is also a passionate fisherman - far more so than kayaking - and he told me "all fishing boots are pieces of shit!  I want to do a good fishing boot."  We did make a couple of fishing boots, and the changes that we created in that industry was actually a bit more profound and personally more fulfilling than the kayak project was, even being a non-fisherman.  The story behind the fishing boots is different but also interesting, and I'll try to follow up soon with that story.   

Friday, March 22, 2019

An Ode to Tom Meinholz

Around nineteen hundred and ninety six I had fairly recently moved to California and was keen to paddle California’s legendary rivers but good paddling pards are not always easy to come by, so when Greg Hanlon said he had some work to do in Sacramento I was eager to make the long drive north up the Central Valley to meet him.  We headed into the hills, pawing through the Holbeck/Stanley guidebook and flipping pages in my new Northern CA gazetteer. We were in the Stanislaus area, which has several forks and a lot of infamous dams deep down in forested canyons, and….we were getting skunked.  Even though spring runoff was happening, the damn keepers were futzing with their knobs enough that we got to a couple of potential put-ins and take-outs only to see mere trickles running down the riverbed.  By mid afternoon we were frustrated but still trying, and we honed in on the Donnells run of the middle Stan, parked one rig at the top of a blocked-off dirt road far above yet another dam and reservoir that was at the bottom of the run, and went to the put in, where we were delighted to see plenty of water tumbling under the bridge. 

As we were peering down into the canyon below a big van rolled up and stopped, and poking out the window was an intimidating-looking dude: a big round face framed by a severe-looking black goatee and Terminator shades and a huge gun of an arm perched on the window, but the effect was immediately broken when he very brightly asked “hey, you guys gonna paddle this!?”  Little did I know that chance encounter with Tom Meinholz would change my life. 

Tom hadn’t paddled that section but he knew about it, and he was quite keen to give it a go, since he had somehow missed connecting with his buds and was also sort of sniffing around for a runnable river.  Though Greg’s famous adage of “Adopt-a-boater rarely works out for the best” usually applies, Tom’s confident, yet humble demeanor indicated to us that he was a worthy pard for what was undoubtedly a pretty challenging run based on the description and the relatively high water level we saw rushing below.  But the lack of beta on the exit from the dam to our takeout rig and the late hour made him a bit wary, and ultimately he decided to call it a day and wished us the best. 

As it turned out, it wasn’t the last time Tom had more wisdom than I; the river turned out to be a stomper and it was pretty exhausting to try to charge down a new hard river quickly, but it was fun right to the final plop into the lake, which we hit with relief.   We paddled a few miles across the lake to the dam anticipating a hike back up to the car, only to realize that the reason the road up top had ended was because the hillside below the road became a washed-out vertical cliff.  We dundered around at the base of in the waning light looking for a way up, but 'twas not to be, and we realized the only potential exit was a double track that traversed the canyon high above the river (ie too far for any drinking water).  So we started stumbling along the rough road in the full darkness and….. we walked all night. 

The rest of that tale is the fodder for another story for later, but it worked itself out, and Tom reached out to me a few days later because he had find out how it went, and pretty much laughed his ass off at our folly.  Then, apparently being slightly more impressed with our fortitude than amazed at our stupidity, he invited me to join him the following weekend on one of California’s mega classic class 5 runs:  Kings Canyon.  So a week later there I was driving back up the Central Valley to meet Tom and his crew for a trip down that, and thus began a 20+ year friendship that was cemented by relying on him to be the quintessential river partner. 
This is from a trip to Bhutan with his longtime pal Phil DeRiemer
 For me, and for many folks, Tom Meinholz has been the hub of California kayaking for pretty much a generation.  He showed me the Middle Fork of the Feather, the North and south Yubas, the main section of the Tuolomne and the upper Cherry Creek section, the Clavey, the Cal Salmon area, and introduced me to a ton of other paddlers along the way.  We were a fine team:  comparable skills, comparable risk tolerance, and  -for me – his ability to read and understand whitewater was eye-opening.  He literally could see critical nuances in rapids that I couldn’t….until he pointed them out.  And his innate ability to impart his wisdom didn’t stop there; unlike most of his class 5 friends, he not only loved paddling easy whitewater but made a career out of being a kayak instructor despite having a real career as a transportation engineer, and his ability to impart subtle tips to his students literally sped an entire population of California boaters to competence at an unusually rapid rate.   
And he was even willing to fill in to take gumbies down the South American in a raft!  
There aren’t a lot of folks that I am willing to put complete faith in.  Tom has been one of them.  When I first came to Utah Tom had been living in Salt Lake as Cara was doing her residency, and we went up to one of the first-ever recreational releases on the Bear River.  Tom had already also become the hub of Utah boating, and at the put in I took in the characteristics of the big posse there with a little trepidation because the UT rivers are a far cry from the rivers of CA, and I was wondering if the confidence they showed was a bit of bravado.  I said to Tom “dude, as far as I’m concerned, it’s kinda just you and me here.” To which he responded: “Absolutely!”  I followed his lines that he nailed perfectly while carnage happened all around us, as I had anticipated. 

Our buddy Rocky Contos had been doing a lot of solo river exploring in Mexico and had his eye on one in the Copper Canyon area that was steep enough to warrant a strong team.   I’ve done lots of trips with Rocky that have had a variety of success rates, so when I realized that Tom was in I signed on.  As it turned out, the river was extraordinarily difficult; it took us 6 exhausting days to go just 22 miles, with hours of portaging and running dangerous rapids. 
Portage wear on the shoulder
Rocky and I come from endurance backgrounds and are strong in a skinny sort of way, but it was this trip where I saw someone with incredible power can be just as effective.  At one point I was on top of a boulder straining to pull my loaded kayak up onto it inch by inch, when suddenly the boat literally levitated from below and sailed up onto the rock.  I sort of stumbled out of the way in amazement and peered over the edge, and there was that huge smile coming out of the huge face perched on top of the huge chest that held two huge arms, and Tom said “looked like you needed a little help!”  Indeed, I needed help, and got it.  And for that interminable trip, he kept his head together and kept us all laughing the entire time. 
high above the Copper Canyon, happy to be done safely.
Part of Tom’s strength came from being a cheerleader at University of Wisconsin, and his tales and athleticism gave me a whole new respect for that activity.  Tossing human beings around catching them before falling is no small feat, which came in handy for Ashley once when we were canyoneering; she was struggling in a slot, and suddenly she came flying out, with a beaming Tom looking on below. 

Over the last 10 years we haven’t done as much together; I haven’t been paddling as much, California’s had a ferocious drought, and the truth is that Tom’s best paddling partner has become his 16 year old daughter who’s a lot cuter’n me!  (that didn’t keep him from telling me every year to come join him at to the Feather River Festival, where I knew that he would know everyone).   I worked hard on him to have his family join us on our recent river trip to Argentina but they couldn’t make it, but it gave me some chances to chat with him.  I asked him if his daughter was getting an attitude as she got into her teens, and he exclaimed:  “she’s just so nice!  She’s getting great grades, running fast in track and cross country, mtb racing above her age group and with the boys, loves kayaking, and she is always telling us how fortunate she is to have such great parents!  The only problem is that not enough of her friends like to kayak class 4!”  Clearly Tom’s – and Cara’s – genuinely nice and enthusiastic demeanor has (so far) been able to transcend the typical teenage demeanor.  

And thus it was an absolutely crushing blow to hear this week that our iconic and ebullient Superman of a friend had died.  Many years ago Tom and Cara had bought their dream place; a rambling house and property high above the South Yuba river.  But being in the woods and being in California the concept of Fire always loomed large, even before the drought.  In an email to me a month ago he said that a Cal Fire guy said they were at risk since the area hadn’t burned since it was clear cut in the 19th century.  So on Monday he was trying to create a fireline around his house when the wind shifted, the flames leapt into the adjacent Manzanita scrub, and he tried to fight it too long, got too much smoke inhalation, and succumbed despite valiant efforts by the local rescue and ER folks, proving that a incredible Force of Nature can only be overcome by another force of nature.

In a recent email to me he recounted a few weird things that had happened recently: a 6-week bout with the flu that had created deafness in one ear, then he broke his thumb, then he “popped” his knee and could barely walk.  But the flue ebbed, the thumb healed up enough to be able to ride a new snowmobile and the knee healed up enough to use it to access new backcountry ski terrain.  He gave me another update on his lovely wife and daugher, and he closed his email with this:  “I am a very lucky guy to be so blessed.”

Tom, we are all very lucky to have been blessed by you.