Nov 12 2015

Weathering the Storms of November — and Beyond

Stormy Weather

Sultry days and firefly nights are now but a memory throughout much of northern North America. The sun has fled the field, leaving General Winter in unchallenged possession of the ground. But at least the mantelpiece clock is once again in harmony with heaven’s great dial. That’s something. And what of our boats? They repose quietly in their cradles, awaiting the quickening of the waters in the spring to come. Last week I described how we stowed our trekking gear in preparation for the enforced idleness of winter. The implication of my words was unmistakable: Our mothballed kit was now surplus to requirements, and it would remain so until the sun once again climbed north of the equator.

But was this true? Not entirely. Winter means more than leafless trees and chilly nights. It also means storms. And since most of the country relies on wires strung from poles to carry electrons from place to place, winter storms often spawn power outages. Many of these last only a few hours, but some endure for days or even weeks. And those of us who don’t live “off the grid” must also endure, coping as best we can until the lights come back on.

That’s where we campers are in luck. The gear on our shelves (and in our closets) stands us in good stead when the grid goes down. Colin Fletcher characterized a long‑distance walker’s impedimenta as “the house on your back.” In much the same way, a paddler’s camp kit constitutes the house in your closet… Read more…

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Nov 05 2015

Making Ready for Winter

Where Will it All Go?

It’s no secret: By the time you read this, General Winter’s advance guard will be marching into Canoe Country. Days will be short, nights will be cold, and a skim of ice will already have formed on many bays and ponds. The upshot? Though some hardy canoeists and kayakers — not to mention the folks living in Canoe Country’s southern reaches — will be venturing out on the water well into December, many of us will be thinking about hanging up our paddles for another year.

And while winter has undoubted charms, opening up hitherto impenetrable woods and marshes to web‑footed exploration and cloaking familiar landscapes in a dazzling white mantle, its onset is always a somewhat bittersweet occasion. It’s also a busy time, since all of the paddling year’s impedimenta now needs to be stowed safely away to await the next quickening of the waters. But the job doesn’t have to be an onerous one. The secret to a smooth seasonal transition can be summed up in advice my great‑grandfather once gave to me, as I sat wide‑eyed in his shop, watching him shape metal blocks and rods into many wondrous and useful things:

Take good care of your tools, and your tools will take good care of you.

He spoke from experience. Pop — for that was the name I knew him by — had been apprenticed to a master machinist when he as still a boy, back when the last century was still new. He nearly saw that century out, too, and he was busy at his workbench on the day before he died. By that time he’d been a master machinist himself for something like sixty years — and he’d mastered a half‑dozen European languages in the process, a feat that I still marvel at, struggling as I do to come to grips with only one.

Anyway, Pop knew a thing or two about taking care of tools. He’d kept his in good order throughout a long life, notwithstanding the inconvenience imposed by two world wars and several hurried changes of address, when occupying armies much less benign than those of General Winter repeatedly reshaped Europe’s political landscape.


By the time I got to know him, however, Pop’s travels (and travails) were over. He had a settled life in a new land. But his tools and his workbench followed him across the Atlantic. And though he wasn’t a paddler himself — neither was I in the days when I sat spellbound in his shop — his modest maxim still guides me in caring for my “tools,” particularly in this time of transition.

Here, then, is my plan of action for the change of seasons… Read more…

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Oct 29 2015

Hanging Out With Chipmunks, or Adventures Among the Dryodytes

Working Without a Net

Paddlesport cries out for its Thorstein Veblen — a modern‑day counterpart to that acerbic chronicler of the iconography of human foibles, whose Theory of the Leisure Class added the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to the English language. Don’t get me wrong, though. Canoeing and kayaking are among the most democratic of recreational activities. Though he grew up in an urban tenement, Farwell was navigating sewage‑flooded streets and fetid river backwaters while he was still learning his multiplication tables, in canoes he’d hammered together from discarded orange crates, years before he could afford to buy a horse‑collar life vest, let alone a “proper” boat. And it’s still possible for would‑be canoeists to kit themselves out for no more than the price of an iPad knockoff — if they’re willing to spend time combing the classifieds and sorting through the miscellaneous dejecta in yard sales, that is.

But conspicuous consumption plays an important part in our sport, nonetheless. Whether consciously or not, we compete to outdo each other in acquiring the symbols of status: trophy trips to the most distant destinations, the newest and shiniest boats in the showroom, the coolest clothing, the most gossamer gear… And nowhere is the competition for standing and status fiercer than in the matter of animal encounters. Who among us boasts of having communed with a common — the name tells you all you need to know — toad? But a fleeting encounter with a barren‑ground grizzly is something altogether different. You’ll have bragging rights on that one for years, particularly if you’ve captured your prey in pixels.

I’m not suggesting this is bad, by the way. The pursuit of trophy trips and gorgeous gear fuels an industry that provides jobs for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of good folks around the world, including a few impecunious hacks like me. And to my mind, that’s a Very Good Thing, indeed. Yet something important is lost in the relentless pursuit of the biggest and the best. Call it innocence, if you like. Or wonder. Or even reverence.


In any event, I try to keep my sense of wonder alive, even when I’m distracted by the temptations of the latest new big thing. And how do I do it? By taking time to look closely and carefully at what I see around me every day. You could call this a celebration of the commonplace, I suppose. Which brings me, after much hemming and hawing, to my subject: the eastern chipmunk… Read more…

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

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