Archive for the 'In the Same Boat: Canoeing, Kayaking, & Paddle-Camping' Category

Apr 25 2017

On Going Alone: Ten Rules to Go By by Tamia Nelson

If all of us paddlers were invariably sensible, we’d never venture onto the water alone. But we’re not always rational beings, are we? And taken all in all, that’s probably a very good thing. Still, there’s something to be said for setting up a few safety fences before we test the boundaries of unreason, and that’s what Tamia’s tried to do with her “ten commandments.”

All the experts agree: Sensible canoeists and kayakers never paddle alone. Yet who among us is always sensible? If the day dawns bright, warm, and welcoming, and if your work schedule leaves you free to march to the beat of your own drum, you can’t help feeling the tug of the woods and waters, can you? But what if it’s the middle of the week, and your paddling club doesn’t run mid-week trips? Or suppose that your usual partner is unable to join you. Do you resign yourself to a glorious day spent moping about indoors? I know I don’t. And I bet you don’t, either.

We all know the risks. When you’re on your own, you’ve no one to turn to for help when things go wrong. Yes, a cell phone may bring assistance. But then again, it may not. There are still places—not all of them remote—where cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent. And there’s also the “red face” factor. If you’ve shattered a leg or suffered a heart attack, you can put your misfortune down to bad luck. There’s no shame in coming up craps when fate rolls the dice, after all. But what if you just forgot to bring a map? Or spare batteries for your GPS? Do you want to see your name in the paper alongside that of a hiker who called for a chopper because her strapless heels gave her blisters? Probably not. It’s also worth noting that some park authorities now send bills to backcountry holiday-makers who log “frivolous” emergency calls, and it’s a safe bet this will become more common as wilderness rescue budgets get tighter. In other words, you could pay a very high price indeed for leaving your map behind on your desk.

OK. We know the dangers. But we still go it alone from time to time. Well, most of us do, at any rate. That being the case, what can we do to reduce avoidable risks to a minimum? I’m sure you have some ideas. So do I. And here they are: Tamia’s Ten Commandments… Read more…

Tamia's Ten Essentials -- (C) Tamia Nelson

Originally published at on April 25, 2017


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Apr 11 2017

The Secret of Solo Shuttling: Use a Bike! by Tamia Nelson

Solo paddlers and couples who travel in the same boat often discover that the hardest part of a trip is getting themselves back to the put-in. Luckily, there’s a handy gadget that can make the job much easier. It’s called the bicycle. Tamia thinks this is a wheely good idea, and after you’ve read her latest column, you may think so, too.

Back in the days when canoes carried freight on many North American waterways, rivermen often had to go against the flow. But I doubt they ever learned to love the rigors of upstream travel. It was all in a day’s work, to be sure, but it certainly wasn’t fun. Which is why today’s recreational paddlers are no more eager to “climb the river” at the end of a trip than downhill skiers would be to sidestep and herringbone back up the mountain after each run. Of course, ski areas have long since done away with any need for such retrograde exertions. But there are few T-bars or chairlifts on rivers, so paddlers wanting an easy way back to the put-in must turn instead to that beast of all burdens: the family car.

Car shuttles are so commonplace nowadays as to require little description. But they’re a comparatively modern innovation. As recently as 1956, Lawrence Grinnell felt it necessary to devote several paragraphs in Canoeable Waterways of New York State and Vicinity to a detailed explanation of what he called “the private motor ‘planting’ system.” Notwithstanding the clumsy tag, Grinnell’s idea caught on, and for good reason: It works well. At least it does for parties of paddlers with several vehicles at their disposal and a group member who has the instincts and natural authority of a regimental military transport officer (or alternatively, a complaisant, non-paddling “shuttle bunny”). And if neither of these alternatives obtains, many outfitters are willing to step into the breach—for a price. You can also attempt to hire someone local to do the honors. Enquire at the Griner Brothers Garage first.

In other words, today’s paddlers are spoiled for choice. Nonetheless, there will always be a few independent, penurious souls who prefer to do it all themselves, yet who find car shuttles burdensome or impossible—if they have only one car at their disposal, say—and who don’t want to spend the better part of every day on the river struggling against the current. Fortunately for them, there is another way. It’s sweatier than a conventional shuttle, and it’s not without risk, but it works. And all you need to do is get on your bike… Read more…

Over the Hills -- (C) Tamia Nelson

Originally published at on April 11, 2017


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Apr 04 2017

Take a Stow Boat to … Anywhere by Tamia Nelson

Not so very long ago, folding kayaks and inflatable canoes were the paddling world’s unloved stepchildren, widely seen as pool toys or the playthings of eccentric adventurers. But the times they are a-changing. Today’s “stow boats” are eminently practical, do-anything, go-anywhere craft. And that’s why Tamia keeps a couple of them on a closet shelf.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my little Old Town Pack canoe. A lot. And I’d feel the same way even if she weren’t one of the last surviving members of a dying breed now that Royalex is no more. Yet good as she is, the Pack has one glaring deficiency: she’s 12 feet long. Of course, 12 feet isn’t very long as canoes go. My Old Town XL Tripper stretched all the way out to 20 feet. But if you’re hoping to take a bus to your next paddling destination, or grab a cabin on a slow boat to what used to be called Cochinchina, or tow your boat behind a bike … Well, then, 12 feet is something like nine feet too many.

The upshot? Bigger isn’t always better. And there are times when even hardcore hardshell boaters will find that it makes sense to take a stow boat, instead.… Read more…

Pakboat Good to Go a Tamia Nelson Photo

Originally published at on April 4, 2017


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Mar 28 2017

The Shape of One Hand Paddling: Make Your Own Hand-Paddle
by Tamia Nelson

A film projector—remember those?—clattered in the back of the darkened classroom, throwing a shaky black-and-white image on the screen. The class was Anthropology 411: Northern Peoples, and the film we were watching had been shot by the guest lecturer, a man who’d spent much of his life living and working among the Waskaganish, then better known (to government bureaucrats, at any rate) as the Rupert House Cree.

The film consisted of short vignettes of northern life. In the last of these, a Cree canoeman rummaged through the storm wrack on a rocky shore. He selected a wave-polished spruce limb, carried it to a nearby boulder that served as both carpenter’s bench and seat, and removed a crooked knife from a pouch hanging at his side. Then he set to work, shaping the wood with a succession of deft, rapid strokes. In a matter of minutes—the film had been edited—he stood up, holding a slim paddle in his hand. He grinned at the camera, spat a stream of tobacco juice through the gap left by a missing tooth, and walked out of shot. The lights in the room came on.

I was reminded of this long-ago day only recently, as I studied a length of furring strip I’d picked up at a local big box “home improvement” store. I was planning to carve a small paddle from it, and I was wondering how best to proceed. I had several advantages denied the Cree canoeman, of course—I had a selection of woodworking tools at my disposal, for one thing—but I lacked his skill and sureness. Still, fortune favors the brave… Read more…

A Paddle-Shaped Object

Originally published at on March 28, 2017

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Mar 22 2017

Alimentary, My Dear: Break(fast)ing Bad—and More by Tamia Nelson

I have a confession to make. Farwell and I don’t buy many “outdoor” books these days. Having now written the equivalent of something like 30 hardcover volumes on paddling, camping, and related en plein air activities, we’re likely to turn to something completely different when we feel the urge for a relaxing read: history, say, or biography, or a title from that broad and rather amorphous grab bag called “literature.” Still, there are times when one of us hankers for what used to be called a busman’s holiday. But even then we’ll probably reach for a book that was first published many years ago.

It isn’t that contemporary outdoor writers don’t have something to say. They do. And many of them say it very well. It’s just that we’re drawn to earlier writers when we’re in search of rest and relaxation. Which is why I was leafing through the old camping books on our shelves a few weeks back, looking at the authors’ food lists. How things have changed! With few exceptions, the old lists relied on the three B’s—beans, bannock and bacon—or on some predictable variation on this theme. Lard and sugar (lots of sugar!) figured prominently, too. All in all, it was enough to bring joy to the heart of any cardiac surgeon’s stockbroker.

At first I was inclined to shake my head in wonderment. After all, I’ve absorbed the messages of the “healthy eating” school. And I’m truly found of greens, groats, and garlic. Yet I can’t forget the days, not so very long ago, when SPAM fritters were a rare and keenly anticipated treat. Hunger, it’s often said, is the best of sauces, and anyone who has ever relied on an ash breeze to get across a big lake knows this to be true. That may help to explain why I sometimes yearn for a few of the forbidden fruits of the table, a sort of gustatory nostalgie de la boue.

But before I make a public display of my secret appetites, I must utter the statutory warning: If you should be so misguided as to follow me into folly, on your own head (and heart) be it. I will not answer for your conduct to your grieving spouse, and I will leave your lawyer’s summons unopened on my desk.

Now, with that burdensome, though necessary, warning attended to, allow me to reveal my hidden yearnings, most of them quarried from food lists that were already showing their age when I first shouldered a pack. And I’ll begin with a backwoods icon: Coffee … Read more…

Roasting Hot Dogs Alongside the River

Originally published at on March 21, 2017


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Mar 14 2017

A Primer on North Declination & Variation by Tamia Nelson

A magnetic compass is a simple instrument. Or so it appears. A needle or card, a graduated housing, maybe a lanyard ring… And that’s that. It doesn’t beep or chirp, it boasts no colorful map display, and it won’t tell you how far it is to your lunch stop. But twist and turn the compass as much as you like, and the needle (or card) continues to point toward the north. Magic? No. Magnetism. And before some physics Ph.D. takes me to task for playing fast and loose with the truth, I should add that the compass needle doesn’t really “point” north. Its orientation is determined by the north-south lines of force established by the earth’s local magnetic field. Still, the result is the same. The needle…er…points north.

What’s that? You’re not impressed? You say your GPS can do this, too, plus show you exactly where you are on the map? Right—though unless your GPS also incorporates a fluxgate (electronic) compass, it will lose track of north just as soon as you stop moving. Nonetheless, by comparison with the all-seeing, all-knowing GPS, the magnetic compass is a one-trick pony.

But what a trick! This simple, trembling needle—a Chinese invention, by the way—gave medieval Europe the key that eventually unlocked all the rooms in Gaia’s great house. That’s no small achievement. And the compass still has a place in paddlers’ packs—or better yet, on their decks and in their hands. A compass is self-powered and self-contained. It doesn’t depend on satellite coverage or batteries, and it’s not subject to sudden, inexplicable crashes. Every electronic device I’ve owned has failed me sooner or later, almost always without warning. No compass has ever let me down.

As simple and straightforward as a compass appears, however, it holds a dark secret. Its north is not the cartographer’s “true” north. Its needle doesn’t point the way to the soon-to-be open waters lapping around the North Pole. And therein lies a story: the story of the other north pole… Read more…

Two Norths

Originally published at on March 14, 2017

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