A Lust for Lists: Is the Ultimate Obtainable?

Earlier this week, Tamia described her take on the Ten Essentials, those vital items of gear that no paddler should leave home without. And it will come as no surprise that a list lay at the heart of her article. Now she’s revisiting an article from the earliest days of In the Same Boat. The subject? Lists, of course — and the curious delight to be had in perusing them.

A Lust for Lists: Is the Ultimate Obtainable?

by Tamia Nelson | November 10, 2017
Originally published in a different form, and under a different title, on June 21, 1999
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I have a confession to make. I love lists. When I pick up any book of traveler’s tales, the first thing I look for is the author’s gear list, and if I don’t find one, I feel let down. But whenever my search is rewarded, the effect is magical. I’m immediately transported from the here and now to somewhere else — somewhere remote in time or place.

Many years ago, on a visit to my local library in a predictably futile search for a technical monograph, I made a serendipitous discovery, a book that would carry me a very long way from my home in the Adirondack foothills, at least in spirit. The faded cover bore the one‑word title South, and the author was Ernest Shackleton, perhaps the hardest of all the hard men who headed for the high latitudes during the “heroic age” of polar exploration. Intrigued, I took the book down from the shelf and started to read. It proved to be Shackleton’s account of his ill‑fated attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in the years between 1914 and 1917. That expedition — it was styled “The Imperial Trans‑Antarctic Expedition” — failed in its objective, but it was indeed a heroic failure, accurately described by Shackleton himself as “a story … unique in the history of Antarctic exploration.” So compelling was the tale, in fact, that the expedition was the subject of a 1998 best‑seller, Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance.

I was sorely tempted to settle down in one of the library’s comfortable wing‑backed chairs and continue reading (those chairs have now been replaced by computer kiosks, I’m sorry to say), but I had work to do, and I was just about to put the book back when my eyes fell on — you guessed it — The List. It was the inventory of all equipment and stores assembled by Shackleton as he and five companions were preparing to attempt an 800‑mile crossing of the world’s least hospitable seas in a 20‑foot open boat, the James Caird. It wasn’t a long list, mind. Far from it. There were only 25 items in all, beginning with “30 boxes of matches” and ending with “Aneroid.” I was astonished. Farwell and I take more things with us when we go out for a one‑hour paddle on our home waters. But short as it was, Shackleton’s list was long enough. With only those 25 items, he and his companions somehow managed to reach the comparative safety of South Georgia Island.

Needless to say, I was now well and truly hooked. So I borrowed South from the library and read it from cover to cover. I couldn’t ignore any book that boasted a list including “112 lb. of ice” and “some blubber‑oil in an oil bag.” (The ice, by the way, was a store of fresh water.) Since then  — my serendipitous discovery took place in the closing year of the last century — I’ve acquired several copies of South for my own library, in a variety of digital formats suited to my e‑book readers. But I regret not picking up the local library’s copy when it was later “weeded” from their collection. I still prefer the feel of a print volume in my hand.

Of course, my passion for lists didn’t begin with South, and it certainly didn’t end there. I make my own lists, too. Whenever I’m not actually paddling — and let’s be honest, that’s most of the time, isn’t it? — I’m drawing up lists. With the sole exception of the study of maps (see Maps and Dreams), nothing does more to open my mind to the possibilities of “going a voyage.” Nor can anything rekindle the memory of a past trip half so well as finding a smudged and tattered scrap of paper bearing a list headed with the words “Baker tent (mend torn netting)” or “4 lb coffee.”

This love of lists is not a secret or solitary passion, however. Farwell likes lists, too. Good thing, that. We’d never have stayed together if he didn’t. And a lot of other folks apparently share our shared lust for lists. I even remember a quarterly paddling mag offering free copies of what the publisher called “the Ultimate List” as a lure to hook new subscribers. It was an imaginative come‑on, to be sure, but was their list really the ultimate? Certainly not. No such thing exists, and if it did, it wouldn’t be something handed out like a HyperMart flyer. Lists have one thing in common with double shotguns and gents’ suits: You can always get something eminently serviceable “off the peg,” but the very best are “bespoke” — made to order. Unlike shotguns and suits, though, the best lists are the ones you make yourself. They grow by accretion, just like rock&#8209forming sediments. Little by little, line by line, the best lists evolve in step with their makers’ experience, reflecting their developing interests and personal quirks. I won’t embark on a trip without a notebook and sketchpad, for example, and Farwell won’t leave home without a small down‑filled pillow and a pocket edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse. The great Arctic explorer John Rae, on the other hand, always carried a one‑volume Shakespeare and a needle‑case. (Rae was a surgeon, and he never knew when he might be called on to stitch up an injured companion. He wanted to be prepared.)

In any event, every paddler needs a list. But where do you start? Good question. Begin by looking at other people’s lists. Many (most?) books on canoe‑ or kayak‑camping contain one. Then take a sheet of paper — or your smartphone — and jot down what seems most important to you. Keep your priorities straight. Heed J’s advice from Three Men in a Boat: “Let you boat of life be light, packed with only what you need — … enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.” Those are wise words. You can’t have fun if you’re cold, famished, or parched. Clothing, shelter, food, and bedding come first. While it’s true that Farwell feels naked without his Oxford Book of English Verse, he doesn’t expect it to keep the rain out. Which is why he also brings a poncho.

Another good starting‑place is the list of “Ten  Essentials” compiled by the Mountaineers many years ago. A lot of folks have tried to improve it over the years — even the Mountaineers, who now refer to their original list, somewhat dismissively, as the “classic” Ten Essentials — but to my mind, at any rate, none of these would‑be reformers has succeeded. See what you think:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp or flashlight
  6. First‑aid supplies
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

Elementary? Certainly. But more and more people are following the tweet of some pie‑eyed piper into the hills, without ensuring that they have these ten essential items in their packs — if, that is, they bother to bring a pack at all. And while we’re on the subject, how many canoeists and kayakers have you seen unencumbered by PFDs, spare paddles, painters, or flotation? Quite a few, I’ll wager. (The Ten Essentials were developed by climbers, for climbers, and climbers don’t need PFDs or spare paddles. We do. But we also need the Ten Essentials.) In the years when Farwell and I were chasing the spring run‑off around New York and New England every weekend, we soon learned to throw a spare “universal” life jacket and a couple of cheap paddles into the truck. We found takers for them at almost every put‑in.

The bottom line? When you set out to draft your ultimate list, you couldn’t ask for a better starting point than the Ten Essentials. But it’s only a start. Your first overnighter will see you adding more kit (tent, sleeping bag, stove), and by the time you sit down to plan your first Big Trip, your list will have grown well beyond ten items — though if you ever find yourself wondering where you can stow a bag of blubber‑oil, you’ve probably gone too far. Unless your name is Shackleton, that is. ‘Nuff said?

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Note to the Reader  If you’re interested in Shackleton’s list of equipment and stores for the James Caird, ask your local library for South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914‑1917. You’ll find what you’re looking for in Chapter IX: “The Boat Journey.” What’s that? Your librarian can’t help you? I’m not surprised. Public libraries everywhere are pulling dusty old volumes like South from their shelves, in order to make room for hordes of Hairy Potterers, boundless Braids of Grey, and multiple copies of the best‑selling video shooter Borstal Wombat LXIX. But don’t despair. Used copies of South can be had from many online booksellers, and both Gutenberg and the Internet Archive make multiple e‑book editions available for the price of a click.


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