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Classic Kit | The Pelican Case

Dear Meriwether,

Here are a few things I’d like for you to do while you’re out West: Explore the Missouri River, map it, take a look at its southern tributaries, find a Northwest Passage, establish friendly relations with the natives, study the soil, the animals, the geology, the climate, the plant life. Oh, and find the source of the Mississippi River, and while you’re at it, figure out how those pesky Canadian traders are getting from the Mississippi to the Missouri. If you make it to the Pacific Coast and encounter a sailing vessel, send a couple of your trusty men back with a copy of your notes. And, one more thing, look into the fur trade out there. Write home when you can. Warm regards, Tom Jefferson.

Under the ambitious instructions, liberally paraphrased above, of US President Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis up the Missouri River in 1804 to explore the unknown (to the Americans) territory of the brand-new Louisiana Purchase. Among the kit they carried in their keelboat and two pirogues (dugout canoes) were mathematical instruments, arms and accoutrements, camp equipage, provisions, “Indian presents,” and medicines. To assemble these goods into portable packs, Lewis commissioned “sheep skins taken off the Animal as perfectly whole as possible, without being split on the belly as usual and dress’d only with lime to free them from the wool; or otherwise about the same quantity of Oil Cloth bags well painted.”

In July 1806, as the Corps returned from its 8,000-mile journey, Lewis retrieved a cache of documents and specimens he’d left at the Great Falls of the Missouri River (in presentday Montana), and found that every botanical specimen painstakingly collected between Fort Mandan and the Great Falls had been destroyed.

“Had the cash opened found my bearskins entirly destroyed by the water, the river having risen so high that the water had penitrated. all my specimens of plants also lost. the Chart of the Missouri fortunately escaped. opened my trunks and boxes and exposed the articles to dry. found my papers damp and several articles damp. the stoper had come out of a phial of laudinum and the contents had run into the drawer and distroyed a gret part of my medicine in such manner that it was past recovery.” –from the journal of Meriwether Lewis, July 13, 1806

In that moment, what would he have given for a Pelican case? Could the chunky plastic hexahedrons we take for granted have saved Lewis’ precious cargo? Fifty years later, Randolph B. Marcy, US Army Captain and intrepid explorer of the American Southwest, published the Gen 1 guide to overlanding, The Prairie Traveler. In its pages, he addressed a problem common to long-distance travelers of the day, that of fording rivers.

“A small party traveling with a pack train and arriving upon the banks of a deep stream will not always have the time to stop or the means to make any of the boats (previously) described. Should their luggage be such as to become seriously injured by a wetting, and there be an India-rubber or gutta-percha cloth disposable, or if even a green beef or buffalo hide can be procured, it may be spread out upon the ground, and the articles of baggage placed in the centre, in a square or rectangular form; the ends and sides are then brought up so as entirely to envelop the package, and the whole secured with ropes or raw hide. It is then placed in the water with a rope attached to one end, and towed across…If hides be used they will require greasing occasionally, to prevent their becoming water-soaked.”

Would that Marcy could have advised his audience of West- bound settlers simply to buy some Pelican cases. Through the ages, long-distance travelers have been challenged to protect sensitive goods from the elements. The ancient craft of waterproofing has involved the treatment of barrels and seagoing vessels with tar or pitch, the manufacture of containers from natural materials like rubber or gutta-percha (a substance made from latex that resembles rubber but contains more resin and is now used mostly in dentistry), the waxing of canvas, and eventually the use of plastic. Today, solutions abound for protecting fragile items in transit from both moisture and impact, and their origins can be traced to a southern Californian named Dave Parker who, in the 1970s, pioneered Pelican Products. But safeguarding the equipment of travelers wasn’t the problem he started out trying to solve.

An avid scuba diver, Parker and his wife, Arline, founded Pelican in 1976 in their Torrance, California, garage. Their first patented product was the Pelican Float, a subsurface marker for scuba divers. (This float is still manufactured and favored by technical, research, commercial, and law enforcement scuba divers.) A first aid kit for divers soon followed. But why “Pelican”? The story goes that the Parkers were trying to come up with a name for their new business, and nothing was striking their fancy. While boating together one day near Catalina, Arline saw two pelicans fly by and exclaimed, “Pelican. That’s what we should call our business, Pelican!” And so it was.

“Dave Parker is really an idea guy,” said Sharon Ward, Pelican’s Director of Public and Media Relations and a 30-year employee. “It was his idea to make a first aid kit for divers. He was selling them in 1978, and people said, ‘You should make a Pelican case without the contents. You can put anything in the Pelican case to keep it safe and dry.’ We would build a case, and people would find ways to use it; we didn’t have to dictate that, so we saw a lot of success in cases.” More than 50 sizes of injection- molded cases were soon being produced and by 1981 the SabreLite was introduced, bringing a bright, rugged, submersible flashlight to the market.

Forty-three years after its inception, Pelican produces cases, flashlights, coolers, and travel gear for consumers and governmental agencies. They have also developed a biothermal division, providing temperature-controlled cases to the pharmaceutical market for shipping vaccines and transporting other temperature-sensitive substances like plasma. Product literature describes Pelican cases as “watertight, crushproof, and dustproof.” To achieve such lofty standards, Pelican starts the manufacturing process with an industrial injection molding machine, melting a proprietary blend of polymer pellets, and injecting the molten blend into a solid steel mold. The material then cools within the mold to form the main Pelican case parts. Robots remove the cases from the machine and drop them to line workers, who add hardware and other components.

To qualify as waterproof, Pelican cases feature a male/female groove around the edges of the top and bottom pieces. A polymer O-ring is wedged into the groove that forms a watertight seal when the two halves of the case are pressed together, then “tough-as-nails” latches maintain the seal while the case is closed.

In the crushproof department, Pelican’s injection molding process allows the case to have thick areas where needed for impact protection and thinner areas to reduce weight. An open cell-core wall construction creates a tough yet lightweight structure, and their special polymer blend rebounds with impact to dissipate energy. Structural ribs protect the hinges and latches from shearing and impact. Foam also aids in the protection of case contents, and Pelican provides an innovative online mechanism allowing purchasers to customize foam for the interior layout of their cases.

Pelican’s success has been so pervasive that one might consider the company’s name a generic term for any plastic case that claims to be water- and impact-proof. “Pelican-like,” so to speak. But, as with Coke, you may want the “real thing,” and given Pelican’s propensity for acquiring its competitors, that may not be difficult.

Dave Parker, now in his early 80s, sold the company in 2004 and retired in 2006, turning over the reins to current CEO Lyndon Faulkner. Pelican’s annual revenues currently run about $450 million, thanks initially to organic growth through new product launches, new market segments, and expansion of geographic reach; then, under Faulkner’s leadership, Pelican’s acquisition of six companies similar in market and product, including Hardigg Industries, one of their biggest competitors, in 2009. The company, still headquartered in Torrance, has manufacturing facilities in the United States, Europe, and Australia, and sales offices worldwide.

For overlanders, one of the most colorful chapters in Pelican’s history involves the Camel Trophy, the now-legendary four-wheel-drive competition occurring from 1980 to 1998 in which teams from around the world negotiated difficult terrain in exotic places. The first year, three German teams drove Jeeps along the Trans-Amazonian Highway from Belém to Santarém in Brazil. But beginning in 1981 it became (and remained) a Land Rover event, and in 1990 it showcased Land Rover’s new Discovery 200 Tdi. Duncan Barbour, of Barbour All Terrain Tracking, Wildtrackers, and 7P International fame, was the event coordinator that year.

“When Land Rover decided to supply us with Discos for the event,” said Barbour, “there was less room in the vehicles. Customized roof racks were made to carry four Pelican cases, two jerry cans with fuel, and two with water.”

Pelicans were selected because, according to Barbour, “The vehicles ended up in very deep water. The height of the snorkel was within three inches of the top of the windscreen, so we wanted to have a waterproof container. Pelican was the only product out there fit for the purpose, and it had a lifetime guarantee. The cases were absolutely watertight. In fact, when taking them on an airplane, it required a valve to release the pressure after flying.”

A two-person team was selected from each participating country for the Camel Trophy, and each member received two Pelican cases for the event, embossed with the event logo. Pelican’s United Kingdom distributor, Peli UK, supplied 200 of the Pelican 1600 cases for the Camel Trophy every year in the mid- 1990s. “It wasn’t a sponsorship deal,” Ward said, “Camel bought the cases outright.”

The cases were put to some creative uses: “Camel Trophy participants would put their dirty clothes in their Pelican cases, fill them with water and laundry soap, then drive around to get the movement going,” said Ward. “The movement acted as a washing machine agitator.”

The strength of the Pelicans was also tested in unexpected ways. In 1991, the Camel Trophy retraced the trail of Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone from Tanzania to Burundi. Bill Burke was a member of the US team that year and said that one “special task” required driving over a stack of palm trees. “The earlier teams had to build ramps, and it required us to utilize only vehicle-installed items,” he said. “The sand ladders were just aluminum aircraft landing pads and needed some support to keep them from folding up; therein came the Pelican Cases we were issued. We placed the cases under the sand ladders and drove up and over the logs.”

Today, those vintage Camel Trophy Pelican cases are collectors’ items, but many Camel Trophy veterans are still actively using theirs. “I still have my cases,” said Duncan Barbour. “They are well used; I’ve taken them all over. We all have Pelis from back as early as 1990,” he adds, referring to several Trophy colleagues. “The fact that they’re still in use for carrying gear decades on is testament to the brand and the product,” said Barbour.

Pelican’s website is full of testimonials, survival stories. A Pelican case lost at sea, washed up on the rugged New Zealand shore a month later with the contents intact and all stored electronics working. A military helicopter in Iraq destroyed by missiles, the only thing salvageable a Pelican case containing satellite phones, radios, a camera, and a block of C-4 explosive—nothing damaged. A Pelican case containing a Hasselblad camera and other expensive photo equipment carried on horseback during a trek in northern India. The horse fell, dragging the case underwater, banging it against rocks, and out again. The contents were dry and unharmed.

Lewis and Marcy would be green with envy.

Susan Dragoo is writer and photographer; runner and backpacker; lover of history, travel, and the outdoors; and combines all those elements into her adventures at every opportunity. Visit susandragoo.com for more.