Originally published at Paddling.net on 14 February 2012
For some time now I’ve been using a broader perspective when trip planning, and there’s something extraordinarily liberating about it. I call it amphibious trekkin. The concept is simple. For instance, haul your boat and kit in a trailer behind your bike, then do some paddling. Another example is to paddle your boat to the base of a mountain, and go climbing. Or how about portaging your boat down an old trail, then wading up a freshet to a secret pond, and do some fishing. If the muscle-powered journey can commence immediately after locking the door to the house, so much the better. Have you ever dreamed of stepping out and just going, without having to load a car first? That’s what I strive for. By breaking down the walls that compartmentalize the approach to exploring outdoors, horizons suddenly seem to expand.
For most of my life I firewalled my recreational activities. I climbed mountains. I rode my bike. I paddled my canoe. But there was little or no crossover. Then a metamorphosis took place, and it was triggered by a chance meeting on an Adirondack lake. I described this revelation and the ensuing evolution of perspective last summer in “Discovering the Freedom of the Hills“:
…This encounter got me thinking, and two things followed in due course. One happened almost immediately: Both Farwell and I bought pack canoes. The second took a little longer to reach fruition, but it was worth the wait. The seed that ripened into the notion of “amphibious” adventures was planted in our minds. The idea is a simple one: An amphibious journey marries paddling with some other form of no-octane travel.…
When considering some of my favorite Adirondack treks, it was striking that they involve more miles of carries (that’s Adirondack for “portage”) than paddling. Some of carries on established trails into small ponds border on scrambling with a boat in tow. But amphibious paddling goes beyond portaging and canoeing or kayaking. I thought back to my youth when I would ride my bike along a rugged jeep track to reach one of my Grandad’s favorite trout ponds where he kept a battered old Grumman I was allowed to use. The going and coming were rich adventures in themselves, even if they weren’t always easy, and I had enjoyed the rides as much as the paddling. I suppose that marked the beginning of my transformation toward…
Becoming a Complete Amphibious Trekker
To make a long story short, the transformation evolved into a modus operandi that makes the most of precious free time. I’ll quote from my earlier article again:
…Mostly, I combine cycling and paddling, hauling a folding boat or inflatable in a small trailer behind my bike. In this way, the trip to the put-in becomes a holiday in its own right.
By minimizing or eliminating the car as a mode of transport to reach the water, the trip immediately expands. Less time is spent hurtling along in a metal box, and more is spent actually doing something outdoors. In this part of Canoe Country, there are so many waterways and hills to explore within portaging and cycling range of home that the possibilities seem infinite.
Of course, for amphibious paddling to work, some adjustments had to be made to the gear list. Gear that’s suitable for long journeys made to distant places in a freighter canoe still has its place. But those kinds of trips are rare, while short journeys are far more common. Day trips and weekend trips are perfect candidates for amphibious paddling.
So, heavy, bulky gear is out and minimalism is in (though some luxuries still do fit). After all, I’ve got to haul, carry, and drag it all. That meant switching to an inflatable canoe or folding kayak for paddling on waterways that are reached by bike. The boat, break-down paddle, PFD, and getaway pack are stowed in a bike trailer and panniers for the commute. For paddling trips that begin on the water a 15-minute portage from home, the pack canoe is a perfect conveyance, and everything else is worn or carried in the getaway pack.
I’ve adopted some of the methods used by my own family. Grandad was the first complete amphibious paddler I knew, though I didn’t think of him that way until recently. He was a fisherman above all else, and he did what was necessary to reach the places where the feistiest, tastiest trout lived. A canoe was his tool for reaching the sweet spots on his favorite ponds. He started early in life, too. As a young adult he discovered a real honey of a trout pond. It wasn’t on the map because the map was older than the pond, which was made and beavers. The brookies grew large in the pond, and as far as Grandad was aware, he was the only guy who knew about it. He wanted to keep it that way.
Grandad’s secret pond was remote and he reached it over a nearly invisible network of old logging roads that for 50 years hadn’t been used by any but the resident wildlife. He cobbled together a two-wheeled hand cart to carry his tackle, his pack basket loaded with camping gear and canned food, and his canoe. With this contraption, Grandad left his cabin and pulled the load by hand for hours on the rough old tracks until he reached the closest point to the pond, half a mile through a coniferous wood. Then he portaged his tackle, camping supplies, and pack basket to the pond, and returned for the canoe. He would spend days at a time at his secret pond, with the birds singing, the beavers patrolling, and the trout (and punkies) biting. Later in life, he remembered his adventures with fondness, and often told me that the trip hauling his gear to the pond was as much a pleasure as the fishing because he heard and saw so much of interest.
My brother has discovered the charms of amphibious paddling, too. His main love is climbing remote summits, the ones without trodden trails traversed by herds of tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day. He often finds that the best strategy for approaching peaks is to paddle and portage to a jumping-off place where he can beach the canoe, set up a base camp, and climb with a light pack carrying only the necessities. He chose his gear with the main goal in mind—hillwalking—and all other gear decisions are secondary. But he enjoys all phases of the trip, and feels that the workout his upper body gets when paddling balances the workout his legs get on the climb. Moreover, he has a big canoe, and can carry a large tent and warm sleeping bags which would be too great a burden if he and his wife had to pack them into base camp on their backs.
Do these kinds of trips sound appealing to you? Are you thinking that amphibious paddling might be something you’d like to try? Then there’s not a moment to be lost! First you’ll have to…
Decide on the Main Focus of Your Trips
The main purpose of the trip guides your choice of gear. If it’s paddling that’s the main goal, everything else supports that. If you want to climb remote summits and need a boat to reach the approach, then you need to gear up to make the climb, and your other gear decisions follow. Are you getting the idea of how this amphibious paddling lark works? I’ll give you a few more scenarios from my list of trips I’d like to take. They include…
Exploring New Waters Whether near or more distant, the main goal is paddling, with the expectation of wading, negotiating muddy shallows, dealing with alder tangles along the shore and banks, carrying around or over beaver dams, and fighting biting flies. On such trips the gear list is headed by NEOS Trekker overboots, headnet, and mosquito net or a tent with bug netting. Reaching these new-to-me waters will sometimes be done by portaging my pack canoe right from home to The River and branching out from there. Other destinations are in more distant locations, and my bike will take me and a portable boat. The bike and trailer will have to be hidden and locked in the woods, and I’ll use my break-down paddles. Two boats, two kinds of paddles, and two different ways to do the same thing—push the boundaries of my world.
Hillwalking Following my brother’s lead, the main goal on this kind of trek is scrambling and climbing after a bushwhack into remote hills. The predominant activity requires sturdy boots, a walking stick or trekking poles, my getaway pack, and protection from biting flies (in season). The boat will get me to the start of the climb. My choice of boat will depend on the location of the hills, which in turn will determine how the boat is transported to the water, whether by portaging from home, cycling or driving to the put-in.
Searching for Historic Remains Whether it’s an abandoned railroad line, a 19th-century mine, or the remains of a burned-out but once-thriving town secreted in the woods, exploring for forgotten historic sites often begins on the water. Why? Because settlement and industry followed the rivers and lakes. These trips will sometimes begin by shouldering my getaway pack and portaging my pack canoe to The River, a 15 minute hike down the road. From there it’s possible to paddle upriver and down, and then wade up tributaries or hike overgrown old roads for the next stage in the trip. On the other hand, some destinations are in another watershed. This is when the bike, its trailer, and an inflatable are needed.
Geologizing It was said that an unusual mineral (for the Adirondacks, anyway) could be found in the face of a scarp on the other side of a pond. Few of my fellow graduate students had ever seen the outcrop, never mind the mineral in situ, because reaching the scarp was a rough trip when made overland. But, I thought, if I could hike to the pond on an infrequently used fisherman’s trail with an inflatable on my back, I could paddle across to the scarp and reach the talus slope that fanned out at the base of the vertical wall where the mineral could be found. This trip relies equally on hiking a rough trail, then paddling, then scrambling. Good boots, a walking stick, an inflatable or folding boat, and geologist’s hammer and chisel are the big ticket items needed to make this trip a success.
Now can you see the possibilities that amphibious paddling offers? In a way, it evokes an earlier age of exploration, when intrepid adventurers didn’t restrict themselves to only one mode of transport. Remember Raymond M. Patterson and his tales of traveling and living in the rugged South Nahanni River valley. He paddled, lined, and tracked his canoes up and down two rivers, he climbed peaks, crossed watersheds on foot, and snowshoed on river ice in winter, sometimes with the canoe dragging behind like a sled. And he began from his cabin doorstep with horse transport. I don’t own a horse, but I do own steel and aluminum steeds, and I own boats, and I have the use of my legs and arms. With little more than these tools, the whole world is at my doorstep.
Our own foray into amphibious paddling began as an attempt to make the most of precious free time, but it’s blossomed into more than that. We live in an age of compartmentalization and specialization, and recreation is not immune. As you plan this year’s outings, why not give amphibious paddling a try? Expand your scope. Be independent. And enjoy the adventure. That’s all a part of becoming a complete amphibious paddler.
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