By Tom Watson

(First Published in “Roots” in the July 2021 issue of Kayak Angler magazine)

Gather everyone together who’s ever influenced the technology of the pedal-driven fishing kayak and your guest list would include ancient Egyptians, Chinese, the famed scientist, Archimedes, a robotic tuna at MIT and a guy who basically designed sails for under the boat!

In the evolution of propelled watercraft over several millennia, mankind’s propulsion mechanisms have advanced from outstretched palm to pole to paddle to sail and finally to propellers.  Ancient screw drives and keen observations on how the shape of cloth sails were driven by the wind all influenced innovative ways to make those mechanics work to propel watercraft (and windmills). Taking those observations even further, an alternative to propellers was created based upon watching how penguins swim through the water.

In an incredibly shorter time span of about twenty years, kayaks have added new propulsion systems and pedal-drive mechanisms to their traditional and historic reliance on hand-powered paddles only.  

There are basically two types of pedal-driven kayaks:  A Push-Pedal mechanism requires that pedals are pushed down in an alternating motion to transfer force to a propeller mounted beneath the kayak; A Rotational Pedal mechanism is like a bicycle where the force is applied to pedals in constant rotation to provide power to a propeller below. 

In 1729, the Frenchman Du Quet had proposed that a screw mechanism could propel a ship; nearly seventy years later, Robert Fulton (steam engine fame) experimented with a ship powered by a 4-bladed propeller. Jump ahead two centuries and propulsion mechanisms for kayaks were just getting off the ground.

Working on his Master’s Degree at MIT in 1997, Jim Czarnowski was engaged in research for a fin propulsion system for watercraft – a goal that had also been pursued in Russian, China and others since the 1930s.

“We were working with a robotic tuna; we had cast its structure using the body of a real fish,” explains Czarnowski. The robot swam like an actual tuna while tethered and connected to sensors that could measure thrust. “Those findings showed that a back/forth motion was more powerful than a propeller”, he added. 

His research also suggested that a biological analog was better suited than the tuna design, so Czarnowski’s team looked to the way a penguin moves through the water.  The bird doesn’t move its body, only its flippers, producing speed and power to move through the water. 

At the same time on the west coast, sailing enthusiast Greg Ketterman was exploring the concept putting a sail upside down, under the boat. Ten years later, both he and Czarnowski were on the HOBIE team securing a patent for “…the means of propelling a vessel and more specifically [as] it relates to the design of a thrust producing oscillating fin.” – an Oscillating Foil Propulsion System – and the first step towards HOBIE’s Mirage Drive.

Andy Zimmerman who along with John Sheppard founded Wilderness Systems 1986 remembers, “ I shook my head,” “I didn’t believe it would be successful, I snubbed my nose at it!” Zimmerman recalls that there were many backyard “one-offers” creating “contraptions” using propeller drives but that none were really commercially viable. Most all of these home-built mechanisms used a chain drive to transfer force to the propeller, something Zimmerman wanted to avoid, preferring to focus on an enclosed, chainless drive instead.

by 2006 Zimmerman started Native Watercraft and introduced the prototype for the Propel Drive at the Outdoor Retailer show. It was the second commercially-sold pedal drive on the market, and the first one featuring reverse.

Czarnowski also reflects on the market at that time: “Props were before flipper on kayaks but were never very commercially successful.  The aqua-bike was probably the best selling one.  WaveWalker made the first good prop kayak in my opinion, followed by Native Watercraft.”

The differences were notable, if not all visually apparent. The Mirage Drive was a push-pedal foot mechanism that moved flippers beneath the boat; the Propel System used a bicycling motion to rotate a propeller.  Perhaps a more critical difference, particularly as the crafts became more popular as fishing platforms – the Propel System let the boater move backwards, the early Mirage Drive would not.

Move ahead another dozen years and the two types of pedal drives have pretty much secured their place in the fishing kayak world. 

“Our biggest efforts are on gears and parts,” says Shane Benedict, head of R & D at Native Watercraft, who says the focus is more on refining to where it’s all smoother, more reliable.

Adam Ott of Wilderness Systems, referring to their Helix Pedal Drive agrees,”In the mid-90s there were props at the back of the boat on an attachable transom. That system was adapted to a straight up/down unit that was easy to deploy … and used baffle brushes to reduce air/water disturbances. The next step was to simply make it more efficient, friendly and easy to use.”

Benedict says propellers and pedal drives have stayed pretty much the same noting that the efficiency of pedaling vs. a boat’s hull speed and human power limit a boat’s capabilities regardless whether its thrust is created by even more aggressive propeller blades or fins.

Kayak anglers appreciate speed to get to into position during tourneys, but efficiency, smooth cadence and maneuverability are more important, says Benedict. 

Phillip Dow joined HOBIE in 2005 , “Theres a whole other level of sophistication and manageability” in developing and refining products.  “Our Pro Angler took six years from concept to production,” he says.  The Mirage Drive 360 “ has further advanced the fin mechanism by enabling it to maneuver in all directions now. He likens  the evolution as: Paddle…Mirage…“360”

Historically, the principles of the mechanism used to pedal power fishing kayaks today reach back thousands of years of human history and influenced by millions of evolutionary years biologically to get where it is today. 

The family tree is pretty much evenly branched with well defined twigs. Still one question remains ripe for debated: Which evolved system is best? Benedict uses the Tortoise/Hare analogy:  The propeller is slower but more efficient over the long haul at leisure pace versus the [flapper/fin] with higher initial speed but hard to maintain over the long haul. Seems both have settled into subtle, satisfying differences.

Welcome to winter camping…

Winter camping may be a stretch for some and an adventurous cold weather outdoor experience for others. The shift in seasonal camping can be made in increments from the milder shoulder seasons of late fall and early spring. As one gains more experience, overnight camping trips in the middle of winter can extend your camping adventures throughout the entire year.

Check out these tips below, from how to make simple, inexpensive change-overs from summer gear, to winter tent pitching tips, to how to stay comfortable and warm in your sleeping bag.

Compacted ground snow provides insulation, snow up sides of tent blocks wind, grasses beneath floor provide warmth.
Converting your summer gear to cold weather use can be as simple as adding a fleece/flannel liner to your sleeping bag.
Special snow stakes – either nature “deadman” anchors or special snow stakes help you secure your tent on snow-covered ground.
Dutch ovens are great for creating one-pot-meals. Bowls keep food warmer than do plates. Always have some hot water in a pot on the edge of the fire for a quick ‘warm-me-up’ drink. Also, use hardwoods for maintaining a lasting hot bed of coals.

Other tips include how to make adaptations to your liquid containers and how to use snow to keep things from freezing.

Adding small amounts of snow to liquid water in bottle melts it without needing a fire or heat source.
The insulating quality of snow (small air spaces between the flakes) can be used to keep things from freezing, or protect from heavy accumulations of falling snow.

Lastly, consider spending your first winter campouts in a camper cabin. It’s a warm, cozy base for sleeping yet lets you venture outside to cook, enjoy the campfire and explore on foot, XC skis or snowshoes. It also helps you try out different types of layered and insulated clothing that you will need to wear during your future winter camping adventures.

Minnesota camper cabins are located in state parks, forests and county parks across the state. This book describes everything you need to know to select a cozy cabin for your first adventures into overnight winter camping.

As aways, Be Smart; Be Safe; Have fun!

Recycling dried up fire starter pastes/gels

Going through some old camping supplies I came across an old tube of fire starter paste I hadn’t even used beyond a field test or two. It was at least five years old. I split open the metal tube and crumbled the dried, yellowed gel into granules and sprinkled a little onto a surface where I could throw a spark onto the “crumbs”. It ignited instantly! I then used a cotton ball to wipe the film of powder from the inside of the tube and then worked a few crumbs/powder into the cotton ball. Again, the sparks ignited the cotton instantly. It’s common to incorporate some vaseline into the cotton to extend the burning time (it’s not needed for the spark to ignite)…Using the crumbs of the dried fire starting paste was simply an aid to ensure a quick light and good burn with the cotton. These can be kept in a waterproof container as part of your fire starting kit.

Honing Your Skills – practicing how to “be Prepared”

You should never go hiking with a brand new pair of boots without breaking them in first. Likewise, you should never expect to rely on any survival tips you’ve read about but never actually have practiced. It’s always best to check out gear or new techniques in a controlled environment before you go afield and may have to rely upon them in a real, less forgiving situation.

Whenever I am going to be out enjoying the outdoors, be it on a car camping trip or even an afternoon hike, I try to practice a survival or back-country skill that I might need to draw upon in a critical situation. I also like to try out new or improved pieces of gear before I have to put them to a more rigorous, extended test.

Walking sticks/staffs provide additional, stable flowing support to one’s hiking gait. The smooth, wooden tip of the shaft can sometimes skid upon contact with rocks or used to balance support over larger logs. They are mostly useless without grabbing/biting power on bare ice.

An easy solution is to attach some form of ice cleat to the tip. I added a triangle of Ice Spikes
to my staff and used it against rocks and logs on a recent hike and found that the staff bites firmly into both surfaces allowing me secure support and increased balance when leaning into the staff as I walk through or over such obstacles.

Using a watch face to find North is a classic, almost parlor trick, technique familiar to most back-country adventurers. What many don’t quite understand is that it doesn’t matter if your watch is analog (with hour/minute hands) or a digital read-out. All that matters is what time it is.

On a recent outing, I had a notebook in my pocket, and knew the time from an old flip-phone style cell phone. By drawing a circle on the paper, using a stick to cast a shadow from the edge of the circle so it fell through the center of the circle, I knew that the stick marked 3 pm on my dial face. Knowing the process of halving the distance between the current hour and noon, I could create a south to north line from that point on the circle. This entire process took about 30 seconds.

I carry a minimalist survival kit with me at all times, and I mean bare essentials only: a Swiss army knife, a very simple ‘flint’ and steel fire starter, and a signal whistle, all coupled together with a small carabiner. These tools would enable me to crate a shelter, light a fire and sound a signal when rescuers are within earshot.

Oftentimes while relaxing while on a hike, I’ll look around for potential spark-catching tinder, testing various
dried leaves and seed tuffs to see what catches the tender sparks thrown from the fire starter kit. Practice honing your fire-starting skills while learning what natural resources (mixed with the lint from your pockets, perhaps) makes the best tinder.

Even your backyard can be the testing lab for new products or recently-learned methods. The key is to be prepared, knowing the limitations/challenges of a technique you expect to rely upon and then honing your own skills to a level you can count on when it really matters.

Be Safe; Be Smart; Have Fun!


An alternative to a bird “house” in winter is a “roost” structure that provides protection from the elements. Designed like a house with a few important differences: 1) a lower entrance hole prevents rising warm air generated by the birds from flowing out from the hole; 2) Using styrofoam panels as a liner helps insulate the structure; 3) perches within the interior gives birds room to utilize the space without crowding too tightly on the floor area only.


Originally Posted:https://guide.sportsmansguide.com/eat-snow-yes-no/

You don’t need to have any backcountry experience to know – “Don’t eat the yellow snow!” But what about snow in general – particularly in winter emergency/survival situation? The partial answer is “No” and “Yes”!

Caution reigns for both options. Because snow is about 70% air,  a fist-sized clump of snow is only going to yield about one-third that volume in liquid. That meager amount will require an expenditure of calories that could be used more efficiently for other metabolic bodily processes – especially in a cold environment.

Swallowing clumps of snow or even repeatedly drinking very cold melted snow water tends to cool down your core temperature, too – readily contributing to the onset of hypothermia.

From those perspectives: “No”, do not eat snow!

However, in terms of protocols for consuming snow that do work, “Yes”  you can eat snow – figuratively – in a couple of ways.

Compacting the snow into tight balls to the point they are semi-frozen spheres, you could literally let one melt in your mouth while you were exerting energy around your camp – generating heat to compensate for the loss of heat due to the oral snow-to-water conversion going on in your mouth.

The melting of snowfall from accumulations of ice on branches and other surfaces often produces icicles that contain more water than a clump of snow of the same volume. While your body must use up calories to melt the ice, the volume of water converted is much greater.

It’s important  to treat melted snow water before drinking it. Because some chemical and mechanical purification processes/appliances don’t work so well in cold conditions, boiling is the best way to decontaminate water – even water from fresh “pure” snow as particles of dust and other airborne contaminants are often attached to the snow crystals.

It’s not necessary to stoke up a camp stove or build a fire to melt snow into water.  For a large volume around camp, sure – add scoopfuls of snow to a big pot and melt and decontaminate at the same time. 

 However, in the field, snow added to your partially-filled water bottle will melt as it is dropped into that already liquid water (presumably kept from freezing by being stowed in an inner pocket). While this refilled water should be boiled, it nevertheless can be collected and melted without an external heat source.

Remember, too, stow your water bottle upside down. Should the water start to freeze, it does so from the top down meaning your screw-on lid or spout is at the bottom and not prone to icing up on you. [TIP: wrapping duct tape around a metal/plastic container reduces the ‘sting’ when grabbing with bare fingers]

Snow is a good source of water in the winter, the key is processing it properly. It’s vital to maintain hydration in cold weather, so making snow a water resource just requires safe and efficient protocols.