The Hunt for the Perfect Rucksack...
How do Red Oxx bags come to be born? Do they rise from the ashes of former designs, flinging themselves upon the design team like a rising phoenix. Improve us or we are ash. Or are they born from a perception of need, filling a niche in the luggage line, much as was conceived with our C-Ruck Carry-on Rucksack.
In this edition of Jim's Trips, our CEO traveled to England for a cross-pond hunting trip. Along the way the Oxx Prototype Testing Team ran the new C-ruck Rucksack through their travel ringer. So, as you're soon to find out, if many years of searching for the right rucksack won’t produce any results, then by God Jim would create one.
SEARCHING FOR THE SPIRIT OF '76, IN A RUCKSACK
The bag that we loved, we've all had them. You know the one that represented who you were to the world. Battle scarred and well traveled with a few patches sewn on to mend a hole or two. 'Till finally one day it slips away from you, either by disintegrating into a pile of shredded canvas, or slipping into the void somehow and ending up in the back of a second hand store silently waiting to experience a second lifetime of adventure.
My quest for "that bag" began in the summer of '76 as I explored the canyons and off-limits of Camp Pendleton. My father had outfitted me with a vintage rucksack for my daily treks. Loading down my pack with some C-Rats I would head off into the cool California morning before the sun had broken over the brush covered canyons of Wire Mountain. The rucksack was sized and designed to meet the needs of the day quite well. A large main compartment with three outer pockets is the basic premise for a classically styled European rucksack.
Some days were spent setting up Recon posts deep in the brush or even cave or two. Sneaking into the combat towns to scrounge for brass was always an exciting prospect for the kids of the base. Playing cat and mouse with the base MPs as they chased us back into the brush from which we came.
After many years of service it finally gave up the ghost. So, I started looking around for a suitable replacement. I'd check the Army Navy stores every so often. But to my dismay I could never find the "pack." Still time flies and you make do with the equipment you have at hand.
But still I would circle back through the stores and gun shows looking for that special blend of strength and simplicity not found in today’s over engineered outdoor equipment. Spotting a pile of canvas rucks I'd paw through them like a miner for gold. Only to come up with a nose full of musty canvas and a sneezing fit for my trouble.
Still, I would see elements of design that were appealing but more suited for military applications. Then my attempts at making the rucksack would be a slow process with the arrival of fall and another hunting season I would kick it high gear and try another design. Yet after seven years of trial and error I was getting close to determining the perfect size for a new rucksack but still I kept vacillating. Size does matter when it comes to packs and finding that perfect size was getting to be a frustrating exercise.
ENGLAND: SPORTING LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POND
People are drawn to places by a desire to experience things from a unique perspective. Your interests could run from hunting to exploring, fine cuisine or maybe following the tracks of history. One thing holds true, you have to get there to have those experiences in life that inspire the mind in ways that no book can do.
My friends David and Abigail are two such people. Dedicated outdoorsman and world traveling scamps they're not held back by the draconian laws that make it practically impossible to own a firearm in the U.K. While Abigail has pursued her passion for hunting from Montana to Iran, David and I've been meeting up for some adventures of our own here in the states.
Sitting in my living room they were regaling me with the rules and regulations of hunting in England. With each turn of the conversation I was astounded at the level of rules and some of the eccentricities of European hunting traditions. I was floored when then invited me over to have a go at it. Now it was my turn to experience the sporting life on the other side of the pond.
Gathering your kit is has to be the best part of taking a trip. Determining the proper gear and how much of it to take on your travels is critical. Decisions based on expectations and the perceived need have a tendency make you over-pack. Adding an extra leg to the journey had further complicated things by having a need for something besides my hunting clothes. If packing for a trip has a tendency to overwhelm you then I have a great tip for getting ready.
EUROPEAN TRAVEL PACKING PREPARATION TIPS
Simply start by making your bed; this will give you an excellent work area for staging your gear. Then begin segmenting items into piles that have all the same items together. After you have it all on display begin to eliminate any non-essential items. First get each stack down to no more than three items. Then examine what you’re taking and ask the questions:
- Does it have two uses?
- Can it handle more than one weather condition?
- Do you even like it?
As items don't make the cut you're now getting down to the must have pieces. After that it's a simple matter of deciding what bags you're going travel with. My field clothes and boots would easily fit into a Sherpa Jr. with room to spare for any purchases made along the way. The Roadster Mini Ruck was also stowed here for use on day trips around the cities. For my carry-on bags I selected the PR 5 Safari Beano with Tri-fold Toiletry kit neatly stowed in the end pocket. The Gator was stuffed with a Nikon DSLR and Leica 10x42 binoculars safely stored in a thickly padded Bino Case.
Shouldering my load I my over-all weight was well within international limits. My gear all set, I was ready to rendezvous with my wife Amanda in Denver.
DUMPED IN THE MIX: THE HEATHROW ARRIVAL
Seeing David decked out in his business attire I almost didn’t recognize him. London is famous for some fine gentleman’s clothing and Mr. Lacey was sporting some super-fly threads as he rolled up in what has to be the hottest hunting outfit I have had the pleasure of seeing. The BMW M-5 sport sedan is one fine motor vehicle and I almost felt bad piling my well traveled and dusty gear into the boot. David assured me it was no problem and that he used this as hunting vehicle all the time. Sure didn’t look like this rig had seen any rough service.
But "when in Rome" as they say...easing back into the fine leather I was hit hard by the press of traffic and buildings. Centuries of human habitation have left a mark on the land yet it's the bursting of early spring that captures my attention.
Dodging speed cameras and lorries we make our way straight to the heart of central London. We had a scored a room with birds-eye view of Hyde Park a block from David and Abigail's flat.
Scanning the cityscape with my binoculars I feel the subtle undertow of history pulling at my imagination. During the gilded age adventurers spent months getting ready for a safari that began with a Trans oceanic voyage. Then purchasing custom-made luggage and tailored clothing on Bond St.
By contrast, today we fly by jet for a jam-packed agenda. Then swoop out on the big bird barely getting the time to live the experience. While that time has passed some of those venerable brands still exist in some iteration of their former selves. With nothing more than a vague notion of where these shops are today we set out on the Tube. I mentioned to David that I had always wanted to see the British Museum. Quipped David, "It's just a bunch of old rocks and he would see us for drinks at the flat before dinner.
The dry humor of the Brits always cracks me up and I totally got it. On a recent trip he had mentioned wanting to see Yellowstone park and I think I called it a "tourist trap" and mentioned that dinner was at six and have a good time.
Finding the museum was a snap and the lack of entry fee has to make it the best deal in London. Well the "old rocks" were quite amazing as the Empire did a pretty thorough job of collecting up some of the finest works of the ancient world. Today, it's certainly a bone of contention to the Greeks and Egyptians. That said, I was still excited to experience them all in one setting. With a beautiful spring day in the making it was time to get out of this dusty tomb and see the town.
I was not prepared for the onslaught of humanity who all had the same idea. The press of the crowd was unbelievable and my personal security space was continuously being violated. Swimming our way through the crowds we finally made the fabled Bond St. By that time I was done with people touching me.
Cutting off down a side street we make for Hyde Park and some breathing room. With sun cranking and the temp pushing 80 the park was full of Londoners desperately soaking up some sun. Now here is a behavior I can fully appreciate. Slowing down our pace we treasure the afternoon in the park feeling a connection with the disparate population that makes up modern London.
BIG BROTHER AND THE MYSTERY OF THE "HOME OFFICE"
Owning and operating a firearm in the U.K. has to be one of the most controlled rights I've ever been exposed to. Starting with the storage requirements and personal visits from the police. Yet, as a guest I listened closely to the rules and no matter how invasive I still had to abide by them or face the consequences.
Gathering up my assorted paperwork I'm excited to leave London behind and see something of the East Anglia countryside. Heading out through a slow drizzling rain David begins to outline some of the other differences between hunting in England and Montana. The harvesting of game in Montana is something that connects you with the land. Wild game provides a rare bounty of something that has not been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics.
I was quite surprised to learn that anything I took was not going to be on the nightly menu. It was destined for the world's largest wholesale market Rungis and then to the restaurants of Paris. Dreams of grilled venison are suddenly gone as I stare out the window in silence feeling a bit depressed by my situation now fueled by the rain.
THETFORD, LAND OF BUNNIES
Rolling into Thetford we cruise the High Street past buildings all covered with rocky nodules. The nodules are all of flint, a local stone in abundance and one that was a great source of income in another century. After settling in at Brandon House, I slip the bolt from the rifle and set out to find something to eat in the tiny village. With only a couple of choices we opted for the curry which seemed totally out of place in this rural setting. David explained that I would go on a series of "stalks" with a ghillie twice a day. That left me with the rest of my day free to explore some of the surrounding towns.
The Thetford Warren Lodge was built in the 1400s for the Prior of Thetford and rabbit farming was a lucrative business for several centuries.
Making our way to the forestry headquarters early the next morning we passed by the Thetford Warren Lodge. These ancient buildings are cloaked in old growth forest and moss. Slowly transforming to match the surroundings they've occupied for the last 600 years. The old rabbit warrens slowly decaying as nature undoes the workings of men. I can barely discern them in the morning mist as they now appear to be a natural part of the landscape.
At the height of the industry, tens of thousands of rabbits were raised per year and provided a great source of income for the Prior of Thetford. A whole game keeping culture existed in rural England of which only a small amount remains today. After checking in with the powers that be, Dudley and I headed over to the range to check the zero on the rifle. Originally a military range it has been in use since the flintlock rifle era.
No flintlock for me, I would be using a classic European hunting set-up with a Steyr Mannlicher in .308 equipped with a Schmidt & Bender scope. After a quick brief of the various safety considerations we were ready to do some "stalking"
WHAT HUNTING MEANS TO A MONTANAN
For some hunting is about trophy racks and SCI (Safari Club International) records. I'm more practical when it comes to the sporting life. Sometimes in the midst of nature's wonders I tend to forget to pull the trigger. I can be swept away by some gleaming color or the smell of brush burning in the twilight. Putting yourself out there and making that connection with the natural world is a way to live in the moment.
While I would not be hunting for my dinner table I would be looking to feed those starving across the channel. With the non-indigenous game running amok it was time to get down to dealing with them in the most judicious way. Dudley explained that we were working on balancing the herd. We spent the morning working through the timber and managed to bag a couple before it was time to break until the evening stalk.
With this schedule I was going to have time to explore the surrounding countryside and then return each evening for another stalk. All very civilized and ordered. This is quite a departure from heading up into the hills of Montana so far out into the country that you’re checked well off the grid.
EXPLORING ENGLAND BY RAIL
The rail system of the country which was built during the zenith of the Victorian age is still a fast and convenient way to explore. The trains of East Anglia have a bit of a functionally obsolete feel as opposed to the London Tube that's brimming at capacity. One system slowly decaying by lack of use while the other is not fit for cattle transport by E.U. standards and is pushed to the brink of collapse.
Cambridge represents 800 years of academia and is undeniably a pillar of western education. The university system has always been a seductive path on which one could spend their life on. An environment like this leads to inspiration and great achievements. While no scholar, I relish the discovery of something that inspires me to create. Fantastic architecture has the power to move the mind and that is something that Cambridge has. It's the inverse expression of what's going on inside the corridors and classrooms of this temple of learning.
Amanda opted for the Roadster Mini Ruck for the day while I had my trusty Gator bag pulling duty as a camera bag. With just enough time for a lunch and punt I would still make the evening stalk. Up early again the following morning I hear the crunch of the tires in the gravel as Dudley pulls in the tiny forestry vehicle. The little Ford had been cleverly retrofitted for the harvesting of game.
Hunting this close with the rangers or "ghillies" as they're known in the U.K., plays an important role in the health of the forest. Sections of which were planted by Polish workers in the 1920s and since then the Corsican Pines have matured magnificently creating a maze of bark and loam. The even spacing in the old timber creates a shadowy underworld of moss green in which the dog-like deer lurks.
Finishing up the morning stalk I stop to chat with the owner of Brandon House and he offers me the keys to his Rover and points me in the direction of Bury St. Edmunds. Making our way cross country I eventually encounter a roundabout and the local hand signal for tourist drivers. Slightly chagrined I manage to get us to our destination in one piece without any more incidents. Little finds along the way can sometimes make a trip and Bury St. Edmunds is one of those. There's a little pastry shop there that serves up one of the finest short bread cookies I've ever tasted. Dense and crispy with a light coating of sugar held in place by just enough shortening to keep them moist.
I always expect to tap into a local cuisine that's different and tasty. Sadly, the novelty of bangers and beans only goes so far. But they do make an excellent biscuit that compliments well with an Earl Grey tea. Searching through the detritus in the antique stores is great pastime and can give you a glimpse of how things change. Some items are forever useful and easily recognized.
My quest for the perfect rucksack has led me to many such places. It is the unidentifiable items that oddly mark a major paradigm shift in technology or social convention. I like to pause over these items in silent requiem hoping to find a new use and validate its existence again. More often than not I am unable to find a new purpose and regretfully place it back on the shelf.
This is one reason why Red Oxx seeks to make relevant and durable products with a classic design. Planned obsolescence is something that I am not a big proponent of.
Whether by design or poor quality raw materials some products can do more damage by striving to be low cost with no eye to the future.
GOOD THINGS REALLY DO COME IN THREES
Another early morning and another early stalk. By this time I was just getting into the rhythm of the trip. Learning to spot the small roe deer was at first challenging but the more time I spent in the forest the better I was getting. Sounds and shadows giving up secrets to the patient observer.
Walking along the edge of a clear cut I hear the unmistakable clatter of their horns. Working our way around a clear cut in the timber we spot two roe bucks and cautiously advanced as they continued to fight. With each pause in the action Dudley and I would freeze until the battle started again with renewed frenzy. Taking two bucks in quick secession I spot an incoming challenger approaching through the timber.
The spotted light catching him in mid air as he bounded in to join the fighting. I never missed a beat as I cycled the bolt. The crack of the rifle caught Dudley by surprise and he wondered what the bloody hell I was shooting at. With each shot carefully accounted for over the last several days this was something out of the normal routine. When I explained the third buck he was even more surprised since he had never taken three bucks at once. I concurred it was also a first for me as well.
After returning our catch to headquarters for bar coding and shipment it was time to visit another footnote in history. Arriving by rail across the flat country you see the huge Ely Cathedral looming over the surrounding Fens. The massive cathedral and small town seem out of place in the in the surrounding farmlands. This was one long term construction project as it took over 250 years to complete.
On a whim I had decided to bring my 10x42 Leica Binoculars along to inspect the more intricate details of the masonry. While these are outstanding optics they come lacking a decent case.
Scanning the details and stained glass, I was glad to have them along on this outing. Walking into the forest early the following morning for the last time, I see what appears to be a moving soda can. On closer inspection it turns out to be a tiny hedgehog with its head stuck in a plastic container someone had carelessly discarded. After a couple of minutes Dudley and I were able to secure its release and send it on its way.
We spent the morning working our way through the timber musing about the differences between the two hunting cultures. I had come from Montana with its wide open access and large hunting community. While Dudley was continuing on a tradition more like the game keepers of old, keeping a very close hold over the land. ~ Cheers, Jim Markel
And so the trip tested the mettle of our new Rucksacks as they passed with flying colors. And Jim came away with a greater appreciation for the freedoms our great country grants us.
One of our readers contacted us after reading this article and said, "Bury St. Edmunds is famous for 2 things, Magna Carta and the Greene King Brewery. When the Barons were riding to Runymede to force King John to sign Magna Carta they stopped at the Abbey in BSE and swore an oath that the King would sign or they would die in the attempt. Alternate years the Magna Carta celebrations are held in Runymede and Bury St. Edmunds. Greene King is one of the best breweries in the country and I hope you had a chance while there to try Abbot Ale, an awesome brew."
Chris Boughton ...(Suffolk lad exiled in the Philippines)