May 22 2017

A Pole-Dancing Primer by Tamia Nelson

No, this isn’t what you’re thinking. But “pole dancing”—using a pole rather than a paddle to dance through shallow rock gardens and climb rivers—is well on its way to becoming a lost art. There are still a few aficionados keeping the flame alive, though, and this week one of them is helping Tamia get the word out.

Once upon a time, when Farwell and I owned two tandem canoes, we occasionally abandoned paddle for pole. We first practiced tandem pole dancing on a lively little trout stream with a wonderfully clean, cobbly bottom. It was just steep enough to provide a challenge when working upriver, and it had just enough easy (Class I-II) rapids to test our ability to check and pivot our big Tripper when running with the current. In short, it offered a perfect succession of aquatic “nursery slopes.” We were pretty clumsy at first—novice pole dancers must be prepared to swim—but by summer’s end, we’d mastered most of the basic moves, and we never tired of seeing the astonished looks on drifting tubers’ faces when they rounded a bend and saw us making our way toward them, dancing upstream from eddy to eddy with (apparently) effortless ease. This was before the stand-up paddleboard had become a common sight on American waterways, of course. Few people had ever encountered a canoeist standing in her boat in midstream, let alone seen one wielding a 12-foot-long pole while climbing the river or picking her way through a rock-garden maze.

So impressed were we with the versatility and utility of poling after our summerlong apprenticeship that we purchased a couple of breakdown aluminum poles to use on wilderness trips. And they gave good service for many years, on the water and off (where they doubled as ridge poles for our tarps). This approach to backcountry travel was something of a novelty in the ’80s and ’90s. Then, as now, most wilderness jaunts were one-way, go-with-the-flow affairs, requiring car shuttles or charter fly-ins. But there was, and is, ample precedent for two-way travel on wild waters. After all, poling was part of the syllabus for any working waterman in the days when canoes and flatboats still carried commercial cargos. If you’re interested, you’ll find an old photo in Eric W. Morse’s Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada that shows two heavily loaded canoes (one of them a birchbark) poling up rapids on the Abitibi River. Even as late as the 1920s, R. M. Patterson made good use of a pole in his Nahanni River explorations.

That said, Farwell and I no longer own a tandem canoe, and our little pack boats and inflatables are too short and squirrelly to make good poling platforms. To be sure, it is possible to pole a pack canoe or kayak upriver from a seated position, using two short poles and adapting the cross-country skier’s double-poling technique to the watery medium. But we’ve never found this expedient to be very efficient, and it can prove exhausting. The upshot? Poling has pretty much dropped out of our personal paddling lexicon.

Which is why I was delighted when reader Stephen Coutts took the time to send me an e-mail on the subject, writing in response to an earlier In the Same Boat column. This required considerable determination on his part, since’s web developer removed the bylines and e-mail addresses from nearly 900 of our articles, including the one that caught Stephen’s eye. Our bylines are now back—well, I think they’re back, anyway; I haven’t checked all 900 columns—but many (most?) of the contact links that made it easy for readers to reach us in the past are still among the missing. Nonetheless, Stephen went to the trouble to ferret out my e-mail address, and I’m very glad he did, not least because we both share an interest in keeping the art of poling alive… Read more…

Originally published at on May 23, 2017


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May 17 2017

The Threat of Tick-Borne Disease to Cyclists, Campers, Hikers, and Paddlers by Tamia Nelson

Global warming and mass tourism are breaking down barriers to the spread of formerly rare diseases born by ticks. If you’re a bacterium, a protozoan pathogen, or a virus, this is good news. But if you’re a cyclist, camper, hiker, or paddler, it’s not so great. Is the spread of tick-borne disease a tick(ing) time bomb?

To make a long story short, in early spring last year I picked up a hitchhiker when on a short hike through deer country. Here she is in situ:

Sister Traveler in Situ

It’s not a great photo, so I’ve outlined her body in the accompanying black-and-white shot to make her easier to see. She’s wasn’t much bigger than the head of a straight pin. The bruise left by her excavations was three times as large as she was. And yes, she was a “she,” a female deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). The proportions of the scutum (the dark dorsal “shield” visible in the photos below) give the game away.

A Parting of the Ways

As you can see, we parted company before she could drink her fill. Her comparatively svelte figure tells you that. Now here’s a closer look at a second tick — Farwell plucked this one from his thigh a couple of years back — displaying the belly of the beast:

A Ventral View

The saw-like hypostome, visible in the upper right of the photo, is the tick’s sheet anchor, and because Farwell’s clumsy surgery left the shielding palps behind — he dug them out of his flesh later — you can get a particularly good view of his wee tormenter’s barbed holdfast. That toothy hypostome also explains why removing a tick can be a rather, er, ticklish job. The sawteeth serve the same purpose as the barbs on a harpoon. But so deft is the little beast that her initial thrust is painless. At least it was in my case.

I scrubbed the skin around the wound with isopropanol, and the next day I headed off to urgent care for a prophylactic dose of doxycycline. I had more luck than I deserved. A Lyme titer run on blood drawn five weeks later was negative. It seems that Nemesis was content to let me off with a warning. This time.


Or would you rather take steps to avoid trouble in the first place? I bet I know the answer. And you’d be right to prefer prevention to cure.

Previously unaffected regions of the States and adjacent Canadian provinces are no longer a safe haven from Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections. The northern latitudes are warming up fast, and the ebb and flow of global tourism ensures that no infectious disease can remain confined to one location for very long.

Moreover, Lyme disease is far from the most serious tick-borne malady. Rocky Mountain spotted fever has already spread well beyond the bounds suggested by the name, and the Powassan virus — first reported in Powassan, Ontario, this virus can cause a deadly tick-borne encephalitis — is already established in tick populations throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern and midwestern United States. The upshot? We’ll be hearing a lot more about ticks in the years to come. So …


Suddenly ticks were big news. As the world slowly warms up, tick-borne diseases are being seen in places they haven’t been noticed before. Lyme disease-infected deer ticks were virtually unknown in New York’s Adirondack Mountains in 2005. Now they’re commonplace. Their steady northward advance continues, too. In short, we can’t run, and we can’t hide. (Unless we want to live life in a La-Z-Boy, and even then, we’d need to keep a close eye on Fido. Is he Breaking Bad?)

Still, you’re safe while ON and IN the water. Ticks aren’t aquatic. And neither are we. So whenever you need to meet nature’s call by parking your bike, leaving your boat, or stepping off trail to “water the bushes,” chances are good that ticks are waiting to welcome you. Camping in the wild? It’s dinner time for ticks!


The six-legged larvae are smaller than a poppy seed. The eight-legged nymphs aren’t much bigger. Adults aren’t exactly megafauna.

Life Stages of a Deer Tick

The nymphs and adults cling to vegetation with their rear legs, extending their clawed forelegs in what some lyrical boffin has labeled questing behavior. When a suitable host passes by — be he a mouse, a moose, or a man — the leggy tick grabs hold and hangs on. Which is why every prudent person takes precautions. In other words, Be Prepared! You’ll find some suggestions at the CDC website.

In a hurry? Then here’s the executive summary:

  1. Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt when afield. Light colors are best — they make it easier to spot a prospecting tick.
  2. Pull your socks up (over your pants legs), and wear a hat with a wide brim. If you want extra protection, you can get clothing impregnated with permethrin, a highly persistent synthetic pyrethroid that kills ticks and mosquitoes on contact. But it also kills fish and aquatic invertebrates, and it sickens cats.
  3. If you have less enthusiasm for total environmental warfare may wish to eschew permethrin in favor of repellents like DEET or picaridin, a newish alternative.
  4. At day’s end, inspect your body. Give special attention to hairline, ears, armpits, groin, and the cleft between your cheeks. If you’re not a contortionist, you’ll probably need to ask a family member or friend to help. Don’t be shy. Then head for the showers. And be sure to wash your hair.


Remove it. Fine-point forceps will do the job, or you can use a “tick spoon.” (I followed the advice described by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.) Dispatch the tick in the campfire or retain it to show the doc. Owners of alcohol cookers like the Trangia have an advantage here: They have a ready supply of preservative.

Once you’ve dislodged your unwanted guest, it’s just a matter of waiting to learn if you’ve been infected with a tick-borne pathogen. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While the bull’s-eye rash often seen in Lyme disease is now a staple of summer recreation stories in local papers, it’s absent in a large proportion of cases, and the early symptoms of the “malaria-like” babesiosis (an increasingly common co-infection) are subtle and easily missed. That said, if you can see a doc within 72 hours, you can get a prophylactic dose of doxycycline to forestall Lyme disease. But be warned: This will do nothing to protect against babesiosis or tick-borne encephalitis.

Of course, if you’re halfway through a Big Trip, you may be days (or even weeks) from sivilization. The best advice in this case? Get to a doc as soon as you can. Then do as she tells you.


It would be good to know that effective vaccines were readily available. But the only Lyme disease vaccine licensed for human use in the United States was withdrawn from the market in 2002. (If you’re a dog, however, you’re in luck. You have your choice of three. It’s a dog’s life, right?) There are also vaccines against Eurasian tick-borne encephalitis available in Canada and Europe, but none is licensed in the United States, and the value of these vaccines against Powassan virus is unknown. That’s unfortunate, since Powassan encephalitis kills one in ten afflicted individuals — older people would appear to be at greatest risk — with half of the survivors suffering severe, permanent neurological injury.

This makes rather grim reading, I admit. Perhaps you think I’ve exaggerated the risk posed by tick-borne diseases. And perhaps I have. It’s hard to know. At its best, the epidemiological data we have is spotty and unreliable. For instance, it’s estimated that the number of cases of Lyme disease reported to the CDC is only ten percent of the true number. Which means that, for now, the only useful rule of thumb is what I’ve sometimes called the “Fletcher Principle”:


Consider this: Our knowledge of the distribution of tick-borne pathogens in North America is far from complete, and statistics about the incidence of many tick-borne diseases in humans are little better. And as I said, appropriate vaccines are either hard to come by or nonexistent. So we have no choice: If in doubt, doubt.

Does this mean we should tread fearfully whenever we step foot away from the clear, well-trod path? Good question. For my part, I’m not ready to don a hazmat coverall when I leave the house. But I’m a lot more careful than I used to be. The climate clock is ticking, and it ticks for all of us.

This article was adapted from one originally published on 7 June 2016 at

Further Reading


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May 16 2017

Curry on Camping! by Tamia Nelson

Looking for a good meal for chilly evenings following long days on your bike, on the trail, or on the water? Something that’s quick to throw together, with a bold flavor and warm after-glow? Then Tamia has a suggestion: Dip into a varied and versatile catalog of spicy dishes from South Asia, many of which are now available in an easy-to-transport, easy-to-prepare form. So… What’s stopping you? Curry on camping!

The New Model Climate is making snow a rare treat in much of the northern states and adjacent Canadian provinces, even in winter, but things used to be very different. One August many years ago found Farwell and me on a long, narrow lake in central Québec, struggling in our canoe to make headway against half a gale of wind. This was bad enough in itself, but the wind was driving a wintry mix of snow and sleet before it, and our travelworn foul-weather gear was proving unequal to the challenge. By day’s end we were tired, wet, and cold.

Mugs of sweetened tea helped to thaw our fingers as our supper—canned beef stew—simmered on the stove. The stew wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was quick to heat and easy to prepare. I knew it would both warm us and fill us up. That was enough.

Or so we thought. But then one of our companions poked his head under the tarp. He and his wife weren’t the “tinned stew” sort. They dined every night on home-prepared, home-dehydrated meals, many of which could have been described, without exaggeration, as haute cuisine. (They’d even brought a couple of splits of champaign along for special occasions.) Our friend looked at the bubbling pot. He sniffed the air, heavy with the cloying and somewhat metallic odor of Dinty Moore’s best. His nose wrinkled expressively, but he said nothing at first, and his silence was eloquent. Then he started fishing around in the pockets of his Gore-Tex jacket till he’d found what he was looking for: a 35 mm film canister with a yellow top. “Take this,” he said suddenly. “Stir it into that…” Here he paused, searching for the right words. “Er… Stuff. It might make it…” Another thoughtful pause. “Well, you know, edible.” His tone suggested doubt and hope in equal measure.

I was too tired to be offended by our friend’s less than generous critique of my cuisine. I took the proffered film canister from his hand and opened it. The aroma was as pungent as it was powerful, and my quizzical expression elicited the briefest of descriptions—a single word: Curry… Read more…

Homemade Yellow Lentil and Squash Curry -- (c) Tamia Nelson

Originally published at on May 16, 2017


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May 10 2017

The Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System: Small Is Beautiful by Tamia Nelson

Quenching your thirst is surprisingly difficult, whether you’re cycling through rural country or trekking in the backcountry. You just can’t assume that wild water is safe to drink. Which explains why clever people have devised many ways to disinfect questionable water. Tamia has weighed her options for how to treat wild water, and the winner is… the Sawyer Mini.

Whether I’m heading out on a long bike ride along back roads with no services, paddling a lonely stream, or bushwhacking into a favorite beauty spot, I have one nagging worry: drinking water.

The Adirondacks, my backyard, is a well-watered place, but trekking is thirsty work, and there’s really no way for me to know if wild water is drinkable. The only valid rule of thumb was articulated many years ago by veteran desert walker Colin Fletcher: “If in doubt, doubt.”

Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to find a dented tin cup upturned on a stick alongside a stream or spring hole. And I drank my fill at such informal watering spots many times without any qualms. But times change. Nowadays there’s likely to be a 100-unit second-home development just a mile upstream. Or maybe the last person to pass by thought the spring hole was the perfect place to take a bubble bath. Or the trail might be popular with local dog-walkers, all of whom think pooper-scoopers are for city folk.

Which is probably why you don’t see many tin cups by streams these days — and why I’m left with only Fletcher’s Law to guide me: If in doubt, doubt. And then? Treat the water! It’s not as if there aren’t a lot of options. But before deciding on the best method for my trips, I thought I’d better get a clearer idea…


The answer? Just about anything I cared to name. Pathogenic bacteria. Protozoan parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium. The eggs of infectious tapeworms (Echinococcus). Even waterborne viruses. Not to mention chemical contamination — that devil’s cocktail of subtle, insidious poisons that we regard as the inevitable price to be paid for progress and prosperity.

That said, I’m not likely to find all of these in one cup of water. But who wants to play Russian roulette with her health? If in doubt, doubt, and take reasonable precautions against foreseeable risks. The bad news? The risk posed by the chemical contamination of surface waters and aquifers can’t really be assessed or addressed in the field. While the activated carbon filters found in some portable filters may indeed improve the taste of water,…


Is this a concern? Yes and no. Though there’s not much heavy industry in the Adirondacks, there are mines, commercial forests, farms, and lawns, all of which are fertile sources of noxious pollutants. (Yes, even lawns. Could any McMansion owner forgo having a vast sweep of lawn, maintained with an arsenal of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? Certainly not. What would the neighbors think?) There’s also direct contamination of surface waters by runoff from parking lots and highways, not to mention the oil-rich exhausts of the outboards, jet-skis, ATVs, and snowmobiles beloved of many outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen.

The bottom line? The water flowing brightly under the road bridge, gurgling down the trailside stream, or passing under my keel may well be chemically polluted. And there’s nothing I can do about it, except hope that the risk is small. Or drink only bottled water — not really a practical alternative on long trips away from “sivilization.” Having said that,…


In fact, when it comes to disinfecting water, I have an embarrassment of options. I can boil it. I can dose it with a germicide. I can filter it. I can even zap it with ultraviolet light. That’s almost too much choice, which is why I decided to narrow the field before coming to a decision, weighing the merits and demerits of each method in turn, beginning with …

Boiling.  What could be simpler? Fire up the stove. Bring a pot of water to a good, rolling boil. Then — since I won’t be camping above 14,000 feet — I’m done. But nothing’s really this simple, is it? Boiling water has to cool before you can drink or decant it, and I’d need a big pot (and plenty of fuel) if I were going to boil up enough to see me through a sweaty day. In other words, boiling makes sense if I’m just brewing a pot of tea or making coffee for breakfast, but it’s an awkward and time-consuming way to meet all my drinking water needs.

OK. Boiling’s out, at least for disinfecting water in bulk. But I can always fall back on science, can’t I? What about …

The Pharmaceutical Option?  There’s nothing easier than popping a pill or two in a bottle of water, is there? No, but many devils lurk in the details, nonetheless. To begin with, two old campaigners are off the list. Halazone [4-(dichlorosulfamoyl)benzoic acid], the chlorine-releasing tablets handed out to GIs during World War II and still in widespread use as late as the 1960s, start losing their oomph almost as soon as you open the bottle. And tetraglycine hydroperiodide (the original Potable Aqua), though made of sturdier stuff, with much greater staying power than Halazone, is off-limits for anyone with thyroid disease, a cohort that now includes both me and Farwell. That leaves chlorine dioxide. The upside? Treated water still tastes like water, rather than disinfectant. The downside? Treatment time is four hours. And the tablets aren’t cheap. Moreover, it’s by no means certain that any chemical germicide is effective against the embryonated eggs of hydatid tapeworms, an emerging concern as Adirondack waterways become busier (and doggier) places.

My verdict? The pharmaceutical option was also out. But I thought I might have found my answer in another fruit from the tree of technology:

The Lightsaber.  This is Farwell’s whimsical name for the SteriPEN, a portable ultraviolet (UV) generator that bears a striking resemblance to an electric carving knife. UV radiation doesn’t kill microbial pathogens outright, but it does damage their DNA, limiting their ability to reproduce and thereby preventing them from overwhelming a human host’s defenses. The SteriPEN is an ingenious device, light in weight and easy to use. That said, it isn’t without drawbacks. It’s fragile, for one thing. For another, its efficacy is somewhat impaired in turbid water, and not all Adirondack waterways are crystal clear. But here’s the clincher: I’ve found no evidence that it inactivates the embryonated eggs of the hydatid tapeworm, surely one of the nastier surprises lurking in wild waters. Bad luck, that. Looks like it’s Worms 2, H. saps 0.

And that’s three down, with only one to go:

Filtration.  Portable filters have been around for a long time, and they do a good job holding back pathogenic bacteria, protozoan cysts, and tapeworm eggs. But many that I’ve seen (and used) have struck me as impossibly fussy and rather accident-prone. One of the best, the venerable Katadyn Pocket, is not only breathtakingly pricey, but it also boasts a ceramic filter. The filter is easy to clean, and it lasts a long time in ordinary use, but if you drop it on a rock, you’re back to boiling water. Moreover, like many other portable filters, the Pocket allows pathogenic viruses to slip right through. That said, an MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter has been our go-to solution for bulk water purification for some years now, though we also zap the filtered water with the Lightsaber to hobble any viruses. As the AutoFlow’s name suggests, it has no pump, and that’s a very good thing, indeed. Pumping is always a bit of a nuisance, and the absence of moving parts in drip filters like the AutoFlow eliminates many failure points. Still, the MSR is rather bulky, and packing it up is a little like wrestling an octopus. Ours is also getting a little long in tooth.

Which is why I started looking around for a smaller (and hopefully cheaper) alternative. And I found it on the shelves of the local HyperMart:


Sawyer calls it a “water filtration system,” and I won’t argue, but it’s really just a small filter cartridge paired with a sturdy laminated “squeeze pouch” and a short length of rubbery tubing, plus a plastic syringe thrown in to make backwashing easier. And at around 20 (US) bucks a pop, it’s pretty cheap.

Sawyer Mini Filtration System (c) Tamia Nelson

Photo A above shows the Sawyer Mini in its retail garb. Stripped of its packaging, the entire “system” — filter cartridge (B), rubber tubing, rolled squeeze pouch, and a 60-mL syringe (C) — weighs less than four ounces. Simple it may be, but the Mini is nothing if not versatile. You can …

  1. Use the squeeze pouch to force water through the filter into any handy container (Photo D below).
  2. Attach the tubing to the intake end of the filter — do NOT confuse the intake and outflow nipples! — then immerse the end of the tube in a water source and suck away at the outflow till your thirst is quenched (E).
  3. Screw the filter directly onto a plastic seltzer or soda bottle filled with “wild” water and drink from the outflow nipple.
  4. Mount the filter in the line leading from a hydration bladder.

Sawyer Mini Filtration System (c) Tamia Nelson

I mostly stick to Option Number One. And how does the Sawyer Mini work? I’ve no complaints to date. It’s easy to pack and simple to use. But does it do the job? Good question. Sawyer has lab data supporting the filter’s efficacy against bacteria and protozoan cysts, and the filter itself seems reasonably sturdy.

So far, so good, but…


There are. If a Mini is exposed to freezing temperatures after its first use, it’s toast. That drawback isn’t unique to the Mini, by the way. All hollow fiber membrane microfilters share this vulnerability. And since you can’t inspect the filter element without sawing through the housing, you’ll have to take its integrity on trust. Or not. Which is why I’d be inclined to season Sawyer’s claim that the filter is good for “up to 100,000 gallons” with a fistful of salt. In fact, one preliminary study reports that samples of a nearly identical Sawyer filter succumbed to irreversible fouling (and possible burst fibers) after two years’ household use, with consequent loss of efficacy. That’s why I intend to replace my Mini every year, without fail. Better safe than you-know-what.


The Mini ticks all the boxes: It’s small. It’s light. It’s simple. Keep it warm when the thermometer dips to freezing and below, and carry a box of chlorine dioxide tablets to serve as an emergency backup in a hard chance. The Sawyer Mini’s not perfect, but it will do the job I need done. It might be just what you’re looking for, too.

Sawyer Mini Filtration System (c) Tamia Nelson

Product Evaluations Policy  TN Outside never accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. We write about the food we buy on our weekly rounds, and about the gear and books we’ve purchased, rented, or borrowed (from friends, family, or the public library) over the years. That said, on rare occasions we’ll write a product analysis of something we don’t own and have never used, based solely on the manufacturer’s claims, published specifications, or others’ experiences. But when we do that, we’ll tell you.

This article is an updated and modified version of one that appeared originally at on 12 May 2015.

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