When one thinks of warm lightweight high-tech jackets, names like North Face, Eddie Bauer, and Patagonia likely come to mind.
Chances are no one has ever heard of Royal Marmot. For good reason. The brand no longer exists. In fact, it took a magnifying glass to read this name on a faded label inside my all-time favorite jacket.
For decades, and in fact centuries, wool has been the outdoor fabric of choice. Its natural fibers retain warmth even when wet. Woolwich’s famous jackets were the standard for Cordova fishermen from the outset. Its famous “Halibut” jacket, which included a pair of exterior pockets, came in green, red or grey, and those hues marked the streets of Cordova and the decks of vessels.
I still have one of each color in our attic, as well as a pair of classic Woolwich wool bibs, which elicit interesting comments when worn while ice skating. They are a bit bulky, which provides extra padding when taking tumbles in ice cracks on the otherwise smooth surfaces of Sheridan Lake.
Ironically, Royal Marmot was one of the brands that stumbled onto synthetic fill to replace wool as an insulator.
My dad, Don Shellhorn, spent the days of his youth hunting and fishing on the pristine Kenai Peninsula near Seward starting as a tyke in 1915, and was always on the lookout for better ways to stay warm out in the wilds. As a co-owner of the Cordova Commercial back in the 50’s, he managed the clothing side of the business, and continued that quest.
In 1959, the year we built our duck shack on the Copper River Delta and started freezing our butts off chasing massive flights of widgeon at Walhalla, he discovered a new brand of quilted underwear that looked like garments the Chinese wore during the Korean War.
He ordered a couple experimental sets for us and hunting partners Kenny Van Brocklin and Randy Bruce.
“It was an odd-ball light tan color but quite toasty,” said Bruce. “In fact, you could work up a sweat just going to the outhouse.”
Soon Royal Marmot followed with an olive-drab jacket designed for the outdoors; and 58 years later, I am still wearing the same model that Dad gave me for our fall duck hunts beginning in 1960.
There’s a saying about aging that goes: “If I had known I was going to get this old, I would have taken better care of myself.”
The same can be said of this jacket. It has been used for all kinds of activities, as various holes, stains, and rips testify. Yet every time I go to the closet and run my hand down a ridiculous panorama of options, when it’s time to do some work outdoors, this jacket comes up the winner.
To say it is in rough shape would be to put it politely. Why, I would take it off before going in the bank lest I be mistaken for a panhandler.
One day, I was wearing my Royal while fueling my truck. Cordova, by the way, is a one-stop, three-pump town, so every vehicle, four-wheeler, RV or trailered boat that needs gas or diesel fuels up at Shoreside’s station on Main Street.
Stella Muma and Stephanie Ann Cutler take turns doing an amazing job running this operation, which includes filling propane tanks. The two of them could probably organize the fueling of the 7th Fleet. And with no backtalk from even the most wizened sailor.
Not surprisingly, exchanging chitchat is part of this passing gas operation, and both are very good at it. In fact, it matches the post office as great place to pick up material for these features.
Stella, CHS Class of ’69, is a lifelong Cordovan, and is not the least bit reluctant to speak her mind, candidly and colorfully, on topics of the day. For example, I am sure she has heard and handled complaints about the price of gas in Cordova, of which she has nothing to do with, in very efficient style. Personally, I am happy to pay a dollar more than Anchorage prices, just knowing I might not get rammed or shot at as soon as I leave the pump.
Stella and I have exchanged barbs and pleasantries over the years, and our banter through the little glass window is a free transactional-bonus that is part of small town living.
So after I fumble through the self-pump operation on a blustery day, and then say hi while signing a check, I hear: “Jesus Christ, how long have you had that jacket?” (The ripped and frayed seam on the right shoulder received particular critical appraisal.)
And then: “Give me the damn thing, and I’ll sew it up for you.”
You don’t argue with Stella. I drove off coatless. Thank goodness I didn’t have a big rip in my pants.
A day later the phone rings, and it’s Stella. If you’ll swing by Shoreside, I’ve got something for you.
I couldn’t find a single rip or hole in my rebuilt Royal Marmot. Amazing. Why, I might even wear it into the bank.
Surely, it won’t last another 58 years, but then again, neither will I.
But it may make it for the day Dad and I once again hunt at Walhalla.