Cordova Chronicles: These Are a Few of My Favorite New Things

Cable ties, Velcro, toe/hand warmers and climbing skins make life better

Have you ever sat down on a rainy day to ponder some of the unique inventions that have impacted the way you do things?  Here’s a few of my favorites.

Cable ties:  These simple strips of nylon have countless uses.  At our duck cabin, we have a whole box of different sizes.  They fasten down the rain gutter that fills the water barrel so winds roaring down the Copper River won’t blow it away.  They secure a wire along the peak of the roof that keep seagulls and their deposits off the roof that provides the water that drains into the rain barrel.

One of my all-time favorite entries in our Cabin Logs was written in 1962 by ADF&G fisheries biologist Rae Baxter, who stopped off at the cabin in early May to overnight:  “This cabin water makes the damnest coffee.  It tastes like seagull poop.”  Duh.  The wire that kept the birds off the roof was still dangling off the side we when arrived later that month.

Cable ties, also know as zip ties, were invented by an electrical company named Thomas and Betts in 1958, under the brand name Ty-Rap. Engineer Maurus Logan designed them to fasten bundles of wire in aircraft manufacturing.  The ubiquitous ties are now used everywhere, even adapted as handcuffs by law enforcement officers.  One time I used them to repair a ski binding cable that had broken while atop Eyak.  It would have been a long walk down.

Velcro:  This clever touch-fastener was invented by Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral in 1941, after taking a walk with his dog.  He wondered if the burrs that clung to his trousers – and dog – could be turned into something useful.

Velcro has two components, a fabric strip with tiny hooks that mates with another strip with smaller loops.  The name Velcro comes from the French words “velours”, which means velvet; and “crochet”, which mean hook.

Remember all the time spent teaching your kids how to tie their shoes?  Well, most shoes for little ones now come with Velcro straps.  As do countless items of outdoor apparel, especially on the sleeves and collar.

Velcro was an important component of the space suits used by American astronauts who walked on the moon, and in more modern suits used in the Space Shuttle and space walk programs.  And who can ignore Velcro Jumping, made famous by David Letterman in his Late Night show in 1984.  The game involved people wearing Velcro-covered suits taking a running jump against a wall to see if they could stick, and Velcro sales skyrockets immediately after.

Toe/Hand Warmers:  These single-use air-activated heat packs provide up to 8 hours of continues warmth, and are a “must have” for Alaska winter activities.  They are based on an oxidation reaction that produces heat  which was developed by Japanese inventor Niichi Mtoba in 1923. The prototype was named “HAKUKIN-kairo”, which means HAKKIN warmer.  Over 94 years have passed since it’s invention, and over 45 million are sold each year.

Modern toe warmers have an adhesive on one side, to help keep them in place when attached to socks prior to insertion in boots.  I use them in ski boots, ice skates, and especially chest waders when duck hunting late in the fall.  More than once, before their development, I can remember pouring the hot coffee from a duck blind thermos over my boots to thaw out toes while waiting for those big four-curl Northern mallards to show up.  Many outdoor gear manufacturers now make gloves or mittens with slots  in which to insert hand warmers;  I prefer to stick toe warmers inside, with the glue side attached to the upper part.

Climbing Skins:  Those lines of snowboard and ski tracks seen on the top ridge lines of Eyak each winter are the result of this ingenious device. They are strips of fine-nap waterproof nylon that fasten to the base of skis or snowboards, and allow you to climb up inclines without sliding backwards.  They stick to the base of the skis by fasteners on the tip and tail, and an adhesive on the bottom of the skin.   Once atop the mountain, peel them off, stick ‘em in your pack, and off you go.

They are called skins because they resemble sealskin, from which the first ski skins were made.  Technology has made them better with the years, and snowboarders who used to climb on small snow shoes while carrying their boards now use split boards, which create two short fat “skis” that accommodate skins for climbing, and then can be locked together into a single board for the run back down.

Either way, the Mantra is “Earn Your Turns”, and the hike up through glistening snow and unspeakably blue skies is just as rewarding as the dancing curves back down.

So these are a few new things that help me enjoy many favorite old things, including a song from the 1965 classic movie “Sound of Music”,  performed by Julie Andrews, with lyrics:  “Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,…Silver white winters that melt into springs,…these are a few of my favorite things.”

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.