July – September 2006

In the Same Boat: July – September 2006

Sometimes you need protection from the elements, even on a day trip. Luckily, you can get along without an expensive, catenary-cut designer shelter. All you need are a simple, rectangular tarp and a poncho. As Tamia explains this week in “Secrets of the Sheltered Life,” it’s not how much you spend that determines how well these two perform. It’s how you fold ’em.

Secrets of the Sheltered Life: A Hint: It’s How You Fold ’em

by Tamia Nelson
July 4, 2006

When I was a kid of four, my family moved from the Big City to an old farmhouse in northern New York. Worried that my wanderlust would carry me beyond the margins of the lawn into the surrounding “wilderness” of wooded hills, stony fields, and tiny streams, my mother took me for long walks around the farm and taught me what to do if I got lost. Job One was to find shelter from inclement weather, and she showed me how. Under her watchful eye, I crawled into hollows made by the low-hanging branches of spruce trees, burrowed below the leafy canes of blackberry bushes, and placed dead limbs against stone walls to create slanting roofs. My mother made a game of this, and in playing the game I learned a little something about the art of improvising shelter.

As I grew up and my horizons broadened, my interest in the subject deepened. I studied everything I could find on backcountry travel and survival. I pored over my brothers’ Scout handbooks, read tattered military field manuals given to me by uncles recently returned from service overseas, and unearthed dusty volumes on wilderness camping in the dark recesses of the local library. I even clipped articles from back issues of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. Nor did I have to go far in search of hands-on instruction. My maternal grandfather, an Adirondack guide of the old school, taught me how to build shelters ranging from simple lean-tos to elaborate shanties, all with no tool other than a sharp axe.

Times have changed, of course. The age of woodcraft is no more, and the days when adventurers like R.M. Patterson could hew a homestead in the wilderness at will are gone forever. To be sure, it never hurts to know how to make a tipi and bed from spruce poles, or build a windbreak from rocks quarried on a treeless summit, but modern gear eliminates the need for such feats of backcountry engineering. Moreover, nature is often less than kind, withholding her help just when you most need shelter. Not only that, but parks and reserves understandably prohibit all such campsite “improvements,” except in dire emergencies.

Is this a problem? Not really. Just …

Carry Your Shelter With You

It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and that’s a good thing, because it’s as important on a day trip as it is on a month-long expedition. The lessons I learned from my mother and grandfather have stayed with me. That’s why I take my getaway pack along even on short paddles. It holds the gear I need to meet emergencies, including unanticipated overnight stays. After all, weather happens, and no forecast is 100 percent accurate. When the gentle breeze that cooled you as you loaded your boat at the put-in builds up into a Force 7 near gale in mid-lake, and waves start breaking over the gunwales of your little pack canoe, it’s good to know that you have the means to wait out the blow ashore — even if it continues through the night. With this, and with the knowledge that you filed a float plan before you left home, you’re ready for most things that nature and Nemesis can deal out. It’s a comforting feeling.

Among the gear I have tucked away in my pack are a military-surplus poncho and a simple, rectangular nylon tarp. Each is useful in its own right, but the sum is more than the parts. To borrow a buzzword from contemporary ad-speak, tarp and poncho combine to form a synergistic shelter system. Yes, there are more elaborate tarps than my old-fashioned fabric rectangle, many of them boasting designed-in catenary curves and engineered poles. And they’re beautiful to look at. But this beauty doesn’t come cheap. Some designer tarps carry price tags like the works of art they resemble. Moreover, function doesn’t always follow form, however seductive the curves. I remember watching one such soft sculpture take flight during a late-summer squall in northern Québec, despite the spider’s web of guys that Farwell and I had been tripping over all evening long, as we stumbled around in the half-light, readying camp to meet the night. Luckily, our own plain-jane tarp remained earthbound, offering our companions a welcome refuge in which to enjoy what remained of their gourmet meal, augmented by bowls of the hot soup that had been simmering on our stove when the gust hit.

My conclusion? Whether we’re talking soup or shelter, simple is good. But simple needn’t mean spartan. All it takes to lift simple ingredients to the level of high art is …

A Little Imagination

You don’t need to be an architect to build an adequate refuge from the worst of the weather, and you won’t go far wrong if you begin by exploring the possibilities of the canoe (or kayak) shelter. It was good enough for the voyageurs, after all. Here’s what it looked like:

Rest for the Weary - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Simple, right? But you can do even better. Your tarp will usually keep the rain at bay, but there’s still the wet ground to contend with. To defeat the rising damp, use your poncho as a groundsheet under your pad and sleeping bag. To avoid untimely (and unwelcome) breaches in your underarmor, however, clear the area beneath your bed of all twigs and sharp stones. This will spare your backside as well as your poncho. Of course, fastidious campers will shrink from using their raingear as a groundsheet, and not without reason. Any gear that’s asked to do double duty is twice as likely to come to grief. Happily, military ponchos hold up pretty well in hard use, though it’s worth bringing repair tape along on every trip. (A hint: You may want to pack a rain jacket and waterproof overalls, too. A poncho is not ideal raingear on a windy lake, and you have to be pretty tired of life to wear a poncho in serious rapids.)

You say you don’t like the idea of relying on your boat for part of your shelter? Fair enough. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier to take a quick paddle around the lake after dinner. What’s the alternative? A little creative engineering, that’s what. Begin by knotting guy lines to each grommet or loop on your tarp, then secure these guys to anything handy: trees, boulders, downed limbs, or aluminum pegs. Now adjust the length and tension of each of the guys with a tautline or trucker’s hitch to eliminate sags. You can also use a staff or a pair of trekking poles to support your roof, and a walking stick or bo can be employed as a ridgepole. Since the possibilities are almost endless, you’ll want to experiment in your backyard at home to see what works best for you. A few general principles are worth remembering, however. Pitch your tarp high for an airy refuge during the torrid heat of a sultry summer afternoon. Snug it down low in windstorms and heavy rains. And carry a light mosquito net in bug season.

Want a few ideas to start your creative juices flowing? Then put yourself in the picture below:

How to Pitch a Tarp - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

You get the idea, I’m sure. And these are only a few of the many possibilities. Keep that business about synergy in mind, too. Use your poncho as a supplementary windbreak or roof extension, or employ it as an awning. (Tie off the neck to prevent leaks.) The poncho also makes a serviceable waterproof cover for sleeping bag, pack, or kayak cockpit.

One more thing: Work with nature, not against her. Pay particular attention to the two elements of wind and water. Take prevailing wind direction into account when siting your tarp, and be sure to pitch camp well above the strandline on any beach. Further inland, avoid camping in a dry wash or on the shoulder of a flashy stream, particularly if there’s lightning in the hills. And whether you’re camping in canyon country or on the seacoast, beware of cliffs and cutbanks. Tarps make great shelters, but even the best of them won’t hold back the tide, let alone keep tons of slumping clay off your head.


Who knows when you might need shelter from the elements? Luckily, all you have to do to prepare for anything from a sudden storm to a worst-case-scenario capsize is to put a tarp and a poncho in your pack — a light burden, even on a day trip. And remember, too, that good field performance doesn’t demand fancy catenary cuts or pricy name tags, just a couple of rectangles of waterproof fabric and the knack of folding ’em. That’s the real secret of the sheltered life.



Exploring stillwaters, backwaters, and swamps is fascinating, but inattention can get you turned around in a hurry. And in a world without landmarks, getting back on track isn’t easy. So how DO you avoid becoming lost when you’re mucking about in boats? This week Tamia offers tips on “Navigating the Heart of Darkness.”

Mucking About in Boats: Navigating the Heart of Darkness

by Tamia Nelson
July 11, 2006

Earlier in the day, the sun had shone golden in a cloudless sky, and a party mood had prevailed among the four friends as they left the dock in their rented rowboat, bent on a picnic on some secluded beach. Now, however, the mood had changed. The four were stranded on an uncharted backwater, all their oars lost overboard in a freak accident, while dark clouds roiled overhead and tendrils of mist from the neighboring marsh writhed around them. Soon their horizon was reduced to a few yards of fetid water. Suddenly, one of the four lost his nerve entirely. He stood up in the boat and screamed, begging anyone within earshot for help. Then, just as suddenly, he lapsed into silence. Still standing, balanced precariously in the gently rocking boat, his face a mask of despair, the man waited anxiously for a reply.

But no voice answered. The only sound was the slap of ripples against the turn of the bilge. As the man reluctantly resumed his seat, a sense of doom settled on the four picnickers.

Seem familiar? Then maybe you’ve seen “Hearts of Darkness,” an episode from the blackly comic — and sidesplittingly funny — television series One Foot in the Grave. Of course, in real life getting lost is no joke. And it can happen to anyone, even on Golden Pond. After all, there’s no mistaking the direction of a fast-flowing river. It’s hard to get completely turned around. But quiet water is a very different world. Beaver ponds, reedy backwaters, river-mouth deltas, swamps and marshes — all these are fascinating places to paddle. The downside? They can also be a nightmare to navigate. Prominent landmarks are few and far between. Currents are either weak or nonexistent. And fog is a frequent visitor.

All these things conspire to make the navigator’s job harder. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Is there a solution? You bet. In fact, there are two: high-tech and low cunning. The high-tech version is simple. Buy a GPS with a good display and load a large-scale map in its memory. If the cartographers and software engineers have done their jobs properly, and if you’ve read the instructions, you’ll find it hard to get lost — as long as your batteries don’t go dead, at any rate. Then again, batteries do go dead, don’t they? Maybe it’s a good idea to have a fall-back position. Call it Plan B, if you want. Or call it low cunning. Whatever name you give it, it’s helped generations of woodsmen avoid embarrassment. And it begins with …

Staying Found

You can’t get lost if you always know where you are. That much is obvious. And you know where you’re starting from, don’t you? (If you don’t know where you are when you put your boat in the water, you’re really asking for trouble!) Now just make sure you know where each paddle stroke takes you as you leave the put-in. It’s easier than it sounds. Just keep track of courses and distances whenever you’re on the water. Your compass tells you the course. Your watch — coupled with a knowledge of your paddling speed under prevailing conditions — tells how far you’ve traveled. Whatever you do, don’t stuff your map or chart in your pack and leave it there until you’re lost. That’s leaving it much too late. Instead, keep it in front of you and record your progress on it, noting course and distance for every leg of your journey and marking down your new position each time your heading changes. At first, the job will seem almost overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. With practice, it becomes second nature. Old salts call this “dead reckoning.” I think of it as staying found.

But a map is much more that a handy place to log your position. It’s also a guide to the landscape. So pay attention to your surroundings as you paddle, too. You may get lucky. Even “featureless” swamps have distinctive landmarks. Remember the tall pine with an osprey’s nest in the topmost branches that you noticed when you were unloading your gear from the car? You won’t find it on any map, but it can still help you make your way back to the put-in at the end of the day. So can power lines and cell-phone towers — and these manmade landmarks are much more likely to have caught the attention of the map-makers.

When all is said and done, however, it’s still disconcertingly easy to lose the plot when navigating quiet backwaters in a canoe or kayak. All it takes is a fraction of an hour spent drifting and daydreaming on a hot summer’s day, compass and chart momentarily forgotten. Then, when you wake from your revery at last, what do you see? Willows hanging low over the water. Rushes and cattails towering overhead. And a promising channel that peters out in a muddy cul-de-sac. It’s a magical world, to be sure, made even more mysterious by the haunting songs of unseen birds. Yet the magic of these secret waters is wasted on you and your companions. Why? You’re lost, that’s why. And the same question is now on everyone’s lips — “What next?”

To begin with, let’s hope that you’ve heeded the counsel of Baden-Powell and the generations of scout leaders who followed him:

Be Prepared

Common sense and a clear head are your most important assets. Without them you’re really and truly lost, even if you never go beyond The Lake in New York City’s Central Park. That said, it’s easier to keep your wits about you if you know you have the tools you’ll need to triumph in adversity. Map and compass head the list, of course, but don’t overlook the importance of the other essentials, including potable water, insect repellent (and maybe a head net, too), rain gear, spare clothing (a warm jacket or sweater and a hat, say), a medical kit, and some food. These things, and a good deal more besides, are always in my getaway pack. It goes with me even on day trips. Because I never know when I’ll need it.

Being prepared also embraces route planning. Study your map before you leave the put-in. If the area is new to you, take the time to orient the map and compare it with the surrounding terrain. Get a feel for the lay of the land. Identify several turn-back points and possible lines of retreat, in case the weather changes for the worse or someone is injured. And don’t forget to leave a float plan with a responsible friend or family member.

So much for preparation. Now it’s time to address the question that’s been hanging on everyone’s lips since you realized you’d gotten turned around: “What next?” To begin with …

Look Up!

It’s only common sense. When the horizon closes in, you’ll need a higher vantage point than your seat if you want to orient yourself. Sometimes it’s enough just to stand up in your boat. (That’s easier in a tandem canoe or sponson-equipped double kayak than in a solo boat, obviously, though in shallow water a pair of trekking poles can give solo paddlers a leg up.) No good? All right. Cast about for a tall tree or a rocky point that you can climb. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

Or maybe you can make your own luck. If you have a camcorder or digital camera in your gear and you don’t mind putting it at risk, you may be able to suspend it high over your head on a paddle or pole while you shoot a 360. Then review the panorama in your camera’s viewfinder to get an idea of what lies just over the horizon. A long shot? Sure. But I can think of situations where it would be worth trying. Of course, you will need a camera.

Still no joy? Then it’s time to drop your gaze and …

Look Down

There’s a current in even the most sluggish river. The trick is finding it, though if the wind isn’t raising a chop and the water’s clear, the submerged stems of pondweed will show you the way to go with the flow. They won’t be much use on a lake, however, and eddies can always confuse matters. No go? OK …

Use Your Ears and Nose

Perhaps you’ll hear the muted roar of distant falls, the gurgle of a nearby brook, the swash of waves breaking on a beach, or the hum of traffic on the closest highway. Make use of any clues that come your way. Farwell once oriented himself on a fog-shrouded mountain peak by taking note of the dogs barking in a faraway village. Smells can guide you, too. Smoke from a fire, the pungent stink of a sulfur spring, the perfume of a balsam wood — any one of these can put a straying paddler back on the map.

Or not. If night is falling or a storm is closing in, it’s sometimes best just to …

Stay Put

And wait for better conditions. Make camp if you can. If not — if the only land in sight is a morass of mud, for instance — you’ll probably want to stay in your boat. This needn’t be a great hardship. A couple in a big freighter can spend a fairly comfortable night in anything short of a hurricane, though a paddler in a creek boat will probably find herself wishing for more room. In any case, make the best of it. A little sleep is better than none at all, and you can always while away the time by exercising your whistle. (You do have a whistle in your kit, don’t you?) Three sustained blasts in close succession is one widely recognized distress signal. Blow your whistle. Listen. Blow again. Repeat until you hear an answering signal — or until you fall asleep. It’s almost as good as counting sheep. In any case, don’t worry unnecessarily. You left a float plan with a friend, remember? When you don’t return on schedule, someone will be looking for you. So there’s no need to panic. Instead, pour yourself a cup of tea from your thermos. Have a snack. Look up at the stars. Listen to the wind in the rushes. Relax. Tomorrow is another day.


Stillwaters, backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands are fascinating places, well worth exploring. But it’s all too easy to get turned around in a world without prominent landmarks. And just what is the best way to avoid getting lost in such places? Easy. Know where you are every minute you’re on the water. And if you ever find yourself becoming “confused,” stop then and there and figure out where you went wrong. Above all, be prepared. There’s no better way to navigate through the heart of darkness.



No matter how carefully you plan, unanticipated delays and unforeseen setbacks are sure to happen sooner or later. And when they do, you’ll be glad you were ready for such exigencies. Even camp cooks aren’t immune. What’s the cure? Being prepared, of course. That’s “alimentary,” and this week Tamia outlines how she’s always “Putting Something By for a Rainy Day,” in camp or on the water.

Alimentary, My Dear: Expect Exigencies — Putting Something By for a Rainy Day

by Tamia Nelson
July 18, 2006

It’s an old joke, and it goes something like this: Three men are shipwrecked on a desert island. One is an engineer. The second, an archaeologist. And the third is an economist. Just as their hunger pangs are becoming unbearable, however, the forlorn castaways find a restaurant-size can of corned beef among the tide wrack on the beach. It’s a little rusty, but it looks to be intact. The castaways rejoice. But their joy turns to despair almost immediately. What’s the problem? They don’t have a can opener.

The engineer is the first to react, grabbing the can and climbing to the top of a towering palm. From this lofty perch he drops his burden, hoping to smash it open. But the sand beneath the palm is soft and deep, and when his companions rush up to gather in the harvest, they discover that the can isn’t even dented. The same can’t be said for the engineer, unfortunately. In climbing down, he falls from the palm and sprains his ankle.

Now it’s the archaeologist’s turn to have a brainstorm. He grubs frantically in the scrubland surrounding an abandoned native shelter, certain that he’ll find a discarded knife or other sharp tool to use in lieu of a can opener. But after half an hour of digging, he has only the blisters on his fingers to show for his trouble.

That’s when the economist gets up from the shady spring hole where he’s been lounging while the archaeologist wore himself out scratching in the earth. The economist smiles a carefree smile and clears his throat. The engineer and the archaeologist wait for him to speak, but he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. The tension grows greater by the minute.

“I have the solution,” the economist suddenly announces, breaking the silence. His tone is confident, and the engineer’s and archaeologist’s spirits immediately soar, the pain of their injuries momentarily forgotten.

Then the economist continues, choosing his words with great care: “First,” he says, “let’s assume we have a can opener. … ”

If only it were this easy to deal with a food crisis in the backcountry. But it isn’t. And the problem can’t be assumed away. No matter how carefully canoeists and kayakers plan, unanticipated delays and unforeseen setbacks aren’t exactly rare. Even good paddlers have been known to swamp or capsize, requiring extended stays in camp to repair boats and salvage gear. Nature sometimes throws a curve, too. A siege of bad weather can force a party to lay up for days at a time. (These are only a few of the reasons why leaving a “float plan” with a trusted friend or relative is a Very Good Idea.) Of course, not all delays are the result of bad luck. Fortune sometimes smiles — like the times when a campsite is simply too near perfection to abandon after only one night. Whether such exigencies are the work of Nemesis or Fortune, though, they can hit the camp cook particularly hard. There are no HyperMarts in the backcountry.

And hold-ups aren’t the cook’s only problem. A torrential downpour in the night can breach all but the best waterproofing, turning the food in one or more packs into a sodden, unappetizing mass. Uninvited guests can also take their toll, as can spoilage. The result? Short rations at best. Missed meals at worst. Luckily, there’s a simple way to avoid either eventuality. Just …

Give Yourself Some Slack

There’s a lot to be said for going light, but whatever you do, don’t skimp on food. If the prospect of an extended stay in a gale-whipped camp without your copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse seems unendurable, imagine how much worse you’d feel if you didn’t have three meals a day to look forward to. Thinking about living off the land? Think again. Not only is foraging for food often illegal, but it’s usually mighty hard work into the bargain. And the reward for your labor can be pretty skimpy — hunters and gatherers can’t always count on eating regular meals. Moreover, we paddlers are guests in the backcountry, and it’s bad manners for guests to snatch food from their hosts’ mouths. After all, the wildlife who live where we play can’t run down to the corner store when we empty their pantry, can they?

In short, if you don’t like missing meals, you have to plan for the times when things don’t go according to plan. My rule of thumb? It’s a sliding scale. On a day trip, I carry enough food to see me through an overnight bivouac in comfort, increasing this to a full day’s worth of extra rations on weekend adventures. Longer trips demand still more, of course, so I budget an extra 20  percent for exigencies, whether of whim or nature. This means that I pack six day’s food on a five-day trip, twelve day’s food on a ten-day trip, and so on. True, I often curse the added weight on the portages — but I bless my foresight whenever the weather turns against me. I think the trade-off is worth it.

Now only one question remains:

What to Take?

But there’s no single, simple answer. To begin with, everyone has her own list of favorite foods, and most of us can think of at least one dish we wouldn’t eat under any circumstances short of outright starvation. Vegetarians won’t thank the camp cook if he makes beef jerky the mainstay of the menus, for example, while meat-and-potatoes types will almost certainly find tofu a bit hard to stomach. So if you‘re the cook, take the time to get to know your companions’ likes and dislikes long before you head for the put-in. That job done, steer the best course you can through the shoal waters of meal planning. You probably won’t keep everybody happy all of the time, but at least you’ll know there’s something for everyone at every meal.

Then, once you have a tentative menu, it’s time to consider your own convenience. If you prize ease of preparation and good keeping qualities, and if price is no object, big outfitters like Campmor stock a wide range of “no-cook” or “quick-cook” freeze-dried and dehydrated meals. These make good exigency stores — they’re the backcountry counterpart to the TV dinner. It pays to taste-test your choices at home or on short trips before relying on them for a three-month-long expedition, however. The same is true of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), the modern military quartermaster’s response to Napoleon’s famous observation that all armies travel on their stomachs. Widely available from outfitters and surplus stores, MREs are undoubtedly an improvement over the C-rations that preceded them, but they’re far from perfect. MREs are heavier than freeze-dried meals, for one thing, and they’re no less costly. Still, they can be eaten as is, hot or cold, with no more preparation than opening the pouch. Or not eaten. And that’s the rub. While hunger is reputedly the best of sauces, MREs aren’t everyone’s idea of a happy meal. Be sure you try a few before you order a case lot — and just to be safe, invite your paddling buddies to dinner when you do.

Is the easy option too limiting? Too institutional? Too costly? No problem. There are plenty of economical alternatives for creative cooks, and you’ll find them as close as the shelves of your local HyperMart. Examples abound. Instant couscous only needs to be stirred into boiling water, covered, removed from the flame, and allowed to sit for a few minutes before it’s ready to eat. Measure dry couscous out into portion-sized quantities, store in doubled plastic bags, and you’ve got the start of many a filling meal. Add flavor by stirring instant soup mix or bouillon cubes into the water as it comes to a boil, just before you add the couscous. Then beef it up with jerky, or add precooked chicken or beef from retort packets. Want a vegetarian alternative? Look for TVP (texturized vegetable protein) and freeze-dried or dehydrated veggies in food co-ops and health-food stores. (Add these to the water at the start, however — before you put the pot on the fire.)

Want something that’s really easy to prepare? Don’t overlook concentrated, calorie-rich foods like hardtack, cereal bars, hard candies, dried fruits, and chocolate. (A hint: Chocolate chips and semisweet baker’s chocolate keep better than most chocolate bars.) Individual packets of instant oatmeal are worth considering, too. They’re not just for breakfast. In fact, Farwell eats oatmeal for lunch all winter. Oatmeal fuels his engine for the long, cold, bicycle ride from his St.  Lawrence valley office back into the Adirondack foothills. One packet probably won’t be enough for a hungry paddler, though. Farwell suggests a minimum of two per meal. This sort of thing isn’t gourmet fare, of course, but it gives you just the boost you need when you’re exhausted, or when the weather is simply too foul to permit elaborate cooking.

Beverages are also important. Remember Jerome  K.  Jerome’s words in Three Men in a Boat? Pack “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.” This is very good advice. Instant cocoa was once a staple food on polar expeditions. It’s still a welcome addition to exigency stores. And while neither tea nor instant coffee contributes any calories to your diet, many paddlers find that these old favorites banish fatigue and lift spirits. I, for one, am not fit company if I don’t have my breakfast java, and that’s no jive. Fruit-flavored drink powders have their fans, as well. Since they’re not made with boiling water, however, and since you probably won’t want to drink the stuff you’re paddling in, you’d better be sure you have a way to disinfect what’s under your keel. In any case, it’s not always easy to build a fire to “bile the kettle,” especially when the wind is blowing a gale and the rain is lashing down.

OK. Once you’ve assembled your chosen foods and stripped them of any excess packaging, only one job remains. You have to …

Stow It

It’s not a bad idea to segregate your exigency stores in doubled, heavy-duty plastic bags, or in one or more vinyl and fabric dry bags, if regular food-storage bags aren’t large enough. Mark these bags clearly to discourage anyone who might be tempted to “borrow” from the emergency rations under way. It’s no fun to find the cupboard bare just when you most need a meal, is it?

Now relax. You’ve planned for the times when things don’t go according to plan. Putting it another way, you’ve made your own luck. Enjoy!


Assuming that you have a can opener — or anything else — only works for economists. (And not very well, at that.) Canoeists and kayakers just can’t conjure up extra food from nowhere, whether or not they have real can openers in their packs, not even if they’re economists during the workweek. The remedy? Expect exigencies and be ready for them. Put extra food by for a rainy day, a second night in that perfect campsite you didn’t expect to find, or a short stay on a desert island you simply can’t resist exploring. You won’t be sorry that you did.



Paddles are no less important today than they were in the days of the voyageurs, but we have a lot more choice than they did — there are now designs to suit the needs (and whims) of every canoeist and kayaker. Yet Tamia still wields a blade that the voyageurs would recognize, if not necessarily approve of. Why? Find out in “This is My Paddle.”

The Things We Carry: This is My Paddle

by Tamia Nelson
July 25, 2006

Like a chef’s knife, a climber’s ice tool, or a woodsman’s ax, a paddle can tell you a lot about its owner. In the days when the whims of European fashion sent brigades of voyageurs crisscrossing the North American continent in search of beaver, you could tell a boatman’s place in his canoe at a glance, not to mention his position in the hierarchy of the trade. Avant and gouvernail (bowman and steersman, or sternman) stood at the head of their profession. These aristocrats of the paddle also stood in the ends of their canoes whenever “white horses” danced in the river ahead, and they wielded formidable seven- to nine-foot-long blades in consequence. Not so the milieux in the middle of the boat, however. They were the commoners in the voyageurs’ ranks, and they contented themselves with much shorter paddles than their betters. Kneeling only inches above the water’s surface, the milieux were compelled to keep up a killing pace for hour after hour. According to historian Peter  C.  Newman, the standard cadence was 45 strokes a minute, though the milieux in express canoes were expected to better this by a third, taking a stroke every second. It’s no surprise, then, that their idea of a perfect paddle was one that was short and light, with a blade only a little wider than the shaft.

No matter. The milieux may have been the humble engines of the early trade’s transport system, but they still had their pride. Forced to paddle in lockstep with their fellow boatmen, each milieu proclaimed his individuality by staining his paddle bright blue or green and then painting it with a distinctive design in red or black. This was only giving credit where credit was due. Today the birch-bark canoe may be the most widely recognized icon of the trade, but it was the voyageur’s paddle which provided the driving force, carrying the valuable pelts all the way from remote arctic rivers and mountain tarns to the North West Company’s warehouses in Montreal, the last stop but one on their epic journey to the London auction houses.

Paddles are no less important to canoeists and kayakers now, of course, and while most contemporary designs bear the unmistakable stamp of their aboriginal antecedents, modern materials have broadened the range of possibilities enormously, with laminated wood and wholly synthetic blades greatly outnumbering ash beavertails on outfitters’ walls. Product engineering and the demands of competition have produced new shapes, as well, shapes that you won’t find anywhere among the teardrops, broad and narrow ovals, and tapered rectangles displayed on the pages of Adney and Chapelle’s Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Bent shafts, spoon blades, dihedrals, variable-offset ferrules — there really are many new things under the sun.

Despite this embarrassment of choice, however, most paddlers play favorites, forging enduring loyalties which may or may not have any rational basis. I’m no exception. I’ve lost track of how many different paddles I’ve owned or used over the years, but when I’m gearing up for a canoe trip, my first thought is always a paddle like the one I used on my first ventures afloat. It’s a simple ash beavertail, nearly identical to the blades once crafted by the Micmacs of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. The name describes the blade’s shape accurately, but for those who’ve never seen a beaver’s tail, the working end of my paddle is a blunt oval some seven inches wide and 24 inches long, a good compromise between power and speed. Best of all, the shaft is just the right diameter for my hands — few things are more irritating than a paddle shaft that’s too big or too small — while the grip is little more than a rounded wedge, never varnished and now polished smooth by years of use. A bonus: Grip and shaft are warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot.

It’s obvious that I’m a fan, isn’t it? And Farwell is, too. We own six beavertails between us. At first glance, they all look alike. But they’re not. One is very long, a true avant‘s blade that sees most use in the bow of a big, slow-turning freighter or when paddling a tandem boat solo. Two more are fairly short, best suited to a quick, eating-up-the-miles pace in a canoe that sits low in the water. The remaining three are almost identical, intermediate in length between the two extremes. Almost identical, that is. Of the three, my hand invariably reaches for the same blade time and time again. It rests in my palms with the easy familiarity and latent responsiveness of a dowser’s hazel wand. The other paddles may look like it, but this one is mine. And I know the difference. On the water, my paddle is my truest friend. In a hard chance, it’s my lifeline. Over many years, my hands and muscles have gradually molded it to my needs. Putting it another way, I have mastered it. Without me, it is helpless, an inert shape lying in the bilge, belying its origin in living wood. Yet though I have mastered it, it also commands me. Without it, I too am helpless, unable to shape my course on the water, fated to be taken wherever the whim of wind or current carries me.

My paddle, though much shorter than an avant‘s, is still unfashionably long — almost as long as I am tall, in fact, yet light in weight for all that. The grain is straight and tight, yielding a beautiful figure on the blade, a figure not unlike that on the sounding board of an heirloom fiddle. And while I’ll never coax a reel or a gavotte out of my paddle, the blade does make music of a sort, thrumming gently as I slice it forward in the water at the end of each stroke, in preparation for the next. The result? As I drive my boat onward from dawn to dusk, my paddle sings to me. Its song is older than the voyageurs, older even than the Micmac, as old as the music that Ulysses’ boatmen once knew when they smote the sounding furrows with their oars.

Romantic twaddle? It could be, I suppose. The music is real enough, however. And there’s no doubt that life’s hardships are a lot easier to bear if they’re tempered by a touch of romantic imagination. Just ask the voyageurs. Why do you think these hard-worked, pragmatic men lavished so much time and trouble on their blades, after all? Was the decoration simply a way to identify their property? Or was it something more — a testament to their own inescapable bondage to the blade that shaped their fates in the cold waters of the headstrong northern rivers, perhaps?

In any case, my paddle does what I require. It reaches out to seize hold of an eddy when I want a breather, acts as a lever to put the current to work in swinging a heavily laden boat around in its own length, and provides a just-in-time brace to forestall many a capsize. It also draws my boat safely toward shore at the end of a long day, just as it brings me within reach of my hat, tugged from my head by a gust of wind in an unexpected quarter — before it swirls away to be lost forever. Nor does the beavertail’s utility end when I’m on dry land. It even helps me on the portage trail, saving me from the trouble of lugging a separate yoke, putting a spring in my step at the same time as it eases the load on my shoulders.

And that’s not all. Mile after mile, day after day, it gradually tones and strengthens the muscles of my back and arms, till they exhibit the same lively elasticity as the beavertail’s parent ash. The paddle’s strength becomes my strength, in other words. My blade also sharpens my senses, propelling me down silent backwaters where wary mink patrol pebble beaches, where moose calves stand drinking in tannin-stained pools, and where speckled trout sip mayflies from the margins of small eddies. Whether talisman or tool or both, however, my paddle deserves the best of care, and it gets it. It hangs in a cool and shady place when not in use, and I’m always cognizant of the difference between use and abuse. Anytime a river runs swift and low among a maze of cobbles, my ash beavertail defers to a sturdy plastic blade — a less elegant tool, to be sure, but one far better suited to the task at hand. After all, there’s magic in water, and my beavertail is the wand that summons the spirits to my aid. I’d be foolish indeed if I were to hazard it unnecessarily.


I’ve lost count of all the paddles I’ve owned and used, and I’ve no doubt I’ll own and use many others in the years to come. But this weathered beavertail, this paddle that’s taken me down (and up) so many rivers, across so many big lakes, and into so many remote mountain ponds, this paddle is uniquely mine and mine alone. The grip bears the impress of each callus on my palm, the blade boasts small scars from the rocks of a myriad of streams, and the shaft is gently bowed by numberless strokes against countless headwinds. In short, this is a paddle like no other. This paddle is mine.



Got a sticky repair problem somewhere back of beyond? Or are things threatening to come unstuck all around you? No sweat. The remedy could be as close as the nearest roll of duct tape. Where would paddlers be without it? This week, in the latest “Things We Carry,” Tamia explores the many uses of this versatile stuff.

Duct Tape: Help for Those Times When Everything Comes Unstuck

by Tamia Nelson
August 1, 2006

There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.

    Proverbs 18:24

Admittedly, it’s most unlikely that the writer who penned these words had duct tape in mind. But it’s a fairly apt description, nonetheless. And duct tape can work miracles, or near enough as makes no difference. Need to mend a split ash rail after a bad day on the water? Duct tape can do it. Want to restore the watertight integrity of a “tin tank” following an unscripted encounter with a can-opener in the shape of a rock? No problem. How about repairing your lacerated dignity when mountain granite has ripped the seat out of your only pair of climbing pants, three weeks into a four-week trip? Relax. Duct tape’s got you covered. And those are just a few examples.

Where would paddlers be without duct tape? We’d come unstuck in a hurry, that’s where. Duct tape makes hard repairs easy, big jobs small, and quick fixes more or less lasting. No great skill is required, and you don’t need any special tools. Duct tape even has history on its side. Like so much modern gear, from the venerable Grumman tin tank itself to the latest in MREs, duct tape was forged in the fires of war. When Uncle Sam needed a way to insure that ammo cans stayed watertight in the steamy heat of the Pacific Theater during World War  II, surgical-supply company Johnson  &  Johnson was the first to find a solution. By sandwiching gauze between a latex adhesive and a waterproof backing they invented a new kind of tape. It was everything the War Department wanted. It was tough. It was flexible. And it kept the water out. Scuttlebutt has it that GIs nicknamed the stuff duck tape, because it shed water just like a duck’s back. Be that as it may — pragmatic historians note that the waterproof backing was originally cotton duck — it wasn’t long before duck tape was drafted to do a lot of jobs besides sealing ammo cans. And when the GIs came home at war’s end, duck tape came with them.

Once it set up shop in civvy street and embarked on a new career as the home handyman’s helper, however, duck tape soon became known as duct tape. (If you like the old name better, don’t despair. You’re in luck. Henkel Consumer Adhesives still markets a trademarked Duck Tape.) And nowadays you can find it for sale almost everywhere, from big-box retailers and HyperMarts to paddling outfitters and convenience stores. It’s had an image makeover, too. You can still buy it in the original olive drab if you look hard enough, but you’re more likely to find it in silver or camouflage today. I’m told that there’s even a clear version, though I’ve never seen it myself.

In any case, duct tape is used by canoeists and kayakers everywhere, and it’s garnered enthusiastic recommendations from most of the entries in the Who’s Who of paddlesport — Eric Dowd, Bill Mason, and William Sanders, to name just a few. Me? I wouldn’t go afloat without it. But beware …

Not All Duct Tape is Everything

It’s Qwacked Up to Be

A rule of thumb: you mostly get what you pay for. Price often predicts quality, in other words. In my experience, name-brand tape has generally performed well, while cheap no-name tape hasn’t. Either the adhesive won’t stick to anything at all, or it sticks to itself too tenaciously, pulling away from the tape backing at the first application of shear stress and then collecting in a gooey ball.

On the other hand, good tape is uniform, with neither bald patches nor blobs in the adhesive layer. While it conforms to complex contours, it also has body. It peels off the roll smoothly and evenly, and it can be torn to size without recourse to scissors. (A sharp blade does a much neater job, however.) Color doesn’t seem to influence quality, except in the eye of the beholder. A hint: Leave it on the original roll until you need it. Don’t try tearing off just enough for a single emergency repair job and wrapping it around some handy object. Not only will you probably need more tape than you thought, but the tape’s adhesive qualities always seem to suffer, too. Instead, just buy small rolls for short or easy trips, reserving the large rolls for long or difficult ones. Large roll or small, however, make sure that every boat repair kit has some.

Once you have your tape, you’ll always be finding new …

Ways to Use It

Here are only a sampling of the many possibilities:

Patch  Duct tape quickly repairs punctures and tears in wellies, waterproof bags, tents, tarps, and ponchos. You can also use it on bug netting, and on cotton and leather items, as well, but the patch usually won’t stay stuck for very long here. It’s still worth a try if no other quick fix is available, though. Whatever the material you’re working on, back each patch up with a matching patch on the opposite side of the mended article whenever possible. Such duct-tape sandwiches are far more lasting than one-sided repairs.

This versatile stuff also mends boats, particularly when the damage is superficial: scratches in ABS and surface cracks in ‘glass, for example. (WARNING! These won’t be permanent repairs. Do a proper job as soon as possible.) The one thing duct tape won’t do is hold air. It’s a mighty poor choice when repairing inflatable boats, float bags, and air mattresses. As before, though, it’s worth a try if you don’t have anything better. I’ve used it to keep leaks in float bags down to manageable proportions on day trips — and as a tire boot on amphibious jaunts by bike and boat, when a sharp stone has ruptured the casing of a tire and allowed the inner tube to protrude. It won’t substitute for a real patch in repairing a punctured tube, however.

Protection  Duct-tape bang strips (aka grunch pads) were once the badge of the “serious” whitewater boater. Now that many boats’ bows and keels are reinforced at the factory, these improvised bang strips are less common, but they haven’t disappeared altogether. Duct tape also protects decks from rubbing and chafe caused by deck rigging and other gear.

Padding  I’ve used multiple layers of duct tape on my touring kayak to protect my knuckles from the hard edge of an outside seam. It isn’t elegant, but it works.

Fitting  Tennis-ball bow and stern fenders were another mark of the gonzo whitewater kayaker in the ’60s and ’70s. And what kept the tennis balls in place? Duct tape, of course. Bows are stronger now than they were in the early days of recreational river-running, but if you make a habit of getting up-close and personal with midriver rocks or concrete seawalls, fenders are still a good idea. Just cut crisscross slits in a pair of tennis balls with a sharp knife and tape them to the ends of your boat. Now you’ve got fenders that even a tugboat skipper would envy!

Splint  Is your beavertail’s blade cracked after a hard knock from a rock? And you don’t have any Skotch fasteners to fix it? Then close the gap with duct tape. Or has a paddle shaft split following a misstep in camp? Duct tape will hold a temporary “fish” (splint) in place, and kinked or broken tent poles can benefit from the same treatment. In both cases, the repair is a bit like splinting a fractured arm: bring the pieces together and straighten out anything that’s bent, then put one or more fish — branches, splits of kindling, even pencils — in place, each one long enough to extend well beyond the damaged area. Now bandage with multiple wraps of duct tape. A caution: This is a temporary repair. Don’t expect it to last forever, or to withstand anything more than moderate strain.

That’s just a start. You’ll think of many other applications, I’m sure. Of course, duct tape can’t do its job unless you know …

How to Make It Stick

The rules are simple. Keep the tape dry and clean until you’re ready to use it. Make sure all surfaces are clean and dry, too. In cool (or cold) weather, prewarm both tape and surface — carefully! Plastic boats can melt, and duct tape burns. Luckily, body heat alone will often do the trick. Neatness also counts. If you have the time, it pays to cut duct tape rather than rip it, minimizing any deformation of the fabric backing. Round off the corners of any patch, into the bargain. A smooth patch with rounded corners holds better and lasts longer. And don’t forget to clean up after the job. Scraps of duct tape can hobble or snare wildlife. Good housekeeping won’t make your repair any better, of course, but it’s a kindness to your hosts.

Is duct tape perfect? No. In fact …

Duct Tape Has a Downside

Every silver lining has a cloud, after all, and duct tape’s no exception. The villain in the story is the adhesive. As duct tape ages, it begins to separate — the backing peels away from the adhesive layer. This happens almost instantly with cheap tape, but even good tape will succumb eventually. And that’s not all. The adhesive cures, leaving behind either a tenacious plaque or a sticky mess. The plaque can usually be sanded or scraped off, but the goo is (almost) forever.

The moral of the story? Duct tape repairs are temporary. Remove the tape and do a proper job as soon as possible, before the adhesive cures. But what if you’ve left it too late? What then? WD-40 will clean up any sticky mess on metal and some (but not all!) plastics; cooking oil does the job on other non-porous materials. Corn oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil will all work. (Save the extra-virgin olive oil for cooking.) Just drizzle a bit of oil on a clean rag, rub it into the adhesive goo, and wipe the sticky mess away with a second rag. Repeat as often as necessary, scrubbing with a toothbrush if a more aggressive approach is required. Sooner or later the adhesive will come off. When it does, finish up by washing the area with a detergent solution.

Fabrics are a problem. They won’t tolerate vigorous scrubbing, and oil often leaves a permanent stain. Sometimes dish detergent and hot water will make the goo go away. Sometimes they won’t. Try ’em and hope for the best. Now you know why professional seamstresses won’t touch any garment with a duct-tape repair.

Other caveats? Let common sense be your guide. Don’t use duct tape to fix a cooking pot with a pinhole leak. And don’t expect it to work well as a patch on a leaky air mattress. It won’t fix a cracked engine block, either. No jack can master all trades, right?


Duct tape is one of the venturesome paddler’s best friends. It won’t really stick closer than a brother, of course, but it’s a godsend in all sorts of real-world sticky situations nevertheless. So if you don’t fancy having things come unstuck under way, make sure you always have a roll (or two) on hand!



Four years ago, Farwell looked at the state of the mart in water treatment. But a reader recently wrote to him, pointing out that things have moved on since then. What was once state of the art is now old news. So this week Farwell’s “Returning to the Well — Again” and seeing for himself the changes that progress has brought in the ways we treat the water we drink, both on the trail and under way. You may be surprised at what he finds.

Returning to the Well Again: Progress Through Technology? Water Purification Brought Up to Date

by Farwell Forrest
August 8, 2006

[W]hat we call “Progress” is the exchange of one Nuisance for another Nuisance.

    Havelock Ellis

It’s hard to warm to a cynic, I admit, but Havelock Ellis may have gotten hold of an important truth here. In an ideal world you’d never have to ask if the water under your keel was potable. You’d know it was, and you’d just dip your cup and drink your fill. But this paradise is now well and truly lost — if it ever existed, that is. Today, the only safe rule of thumb for anyone worried about drinking the water is the well-known Fletcher Principle: If in doubt, doubt. And then disinfect.

So much for general principles. The devil, as we’re reminded almost daily, is in the details. Fair enough. Just how can canoeists and kayakers make sure the water they drink won’t make them sick? Since any trip that takes you farther than you can paddle in one day pretty much rules out carrying bottled water from home — the stuff is heavy, and active people need to drink often if they want to keep going — this is a very important question. And I’ve tried to answer it before, most recently in “Returning to the Well: The State of the Mart,” an article that appeared on these pages almost four years ago to the day. Of course, four years is a pretty long time, a point that wasn’t lost on one reader, who wrote in May to suggest that I revisit the topic. He then drew my attention to the “excellent [ultra]micropurifiers on the market now that filter down to the 0.02 micrometer level,” and noted in conclusion that if I hadn’t been keeping up on the subject, I was sure to be “pleasantly surprised.”

He certainly got my attention. No one likes to be out of date, after all, and I’m no exception. I enjoy pleasant surprises, too. So I immediately went in search of a portable ultramicrofiltration system, the Holy Grail of backcountry water purification — a filter whose pores are small enough to trap the tiniest of waterborne bugs, but which is also field-maintainable and sufficiently compact to stow belowdecks in even the smallest kayak. To everyone who’s struggled to keep a run-of-the mill microfilter free from clogging sediment in the untidy world outside the laboratory, this will sound like a formidable engineering challenge, and I guess it really is. To make a long story short, I searched in vain. I found residential and commercial ultramicrofiltration systems, to be sure, but nothing that a paddler could carry along into the backcountry. Still, my reader made an excellent point. I hadn’t been keeping up. It was high time that I reviewed the state of the mart again. And I did.

Here’s what I found. First, the good news: every system mentioned in my original article is still available, including one portable filter, the First Need Deluxe Water Purifier, that claims to remove viruses. (This, by way of reminder, is where most microfilters fall down. They hold back bacteria and protozoan pathogens, but the much smaller viruses simply slip through the net. “Size-exclusion” microfilters, in other words, do only half the job of disinfecting water.) But the Deluxe is an unusual filter. It doesn’t rely on pore size alone to exclude viruses. Its pores are no smaller than those of other microfilters, in fact — it is not a 0.02-micrometer ultramicrofilter. Instead, the Deluxe makes use of the phenomenon of adhesion. As one research paper puts it, “a combination of hydrophobic and electrostatic interaction” on the surface of an activated-carbon Structured Matrix captures and retains any viruses present in the raw water. Sceptical? I was, at first, to be honest. But the test results look good. Very good. And even the most case-hardened skeptic has to defer to fact. On the strength of the evidence presented in the peer-reviewed literature and accepted by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Deluxe delivers the goods. End of story.

This is old news, however. As I’ve already mentioned, the First Need Deluxe was discussed in my earlier article, and to some extent it anticipates my reader’s letter. It may not be a true size-exclusion ultramicrofilter, but it is a filter. If the cartridge is replaced regularly, no additional chemical germicide should be needed to make suspect water safe to drink. Is this the Holy Grail? It looks like it to me.

OK. Let’s move on. What’s new? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Three novel approaches to water disinfection caught my eye. I’ll take them one at a time.

Nothing embodies progress quite like high-tech circuitry, right? And maybe you’ve been hankering to carry a personal chemical treatment plant around in your pocket. If so, you’re in luck. The MSR MIOX Water Purifier uses an electrical current to break the chemical bonds in a small amount of brine, yielding a potent cocktail of “mixed oxidants” (mostly chlorine compounds, apparently). Once added to raw water, this MIOX cocktail renders pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and protozoa harmless. Even the notoriously resilient cryptosporidia succumb, though only after four hours’ contact time.

Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not. Developed for the US Department of Defense, the MIOX apparently does what it claims. At a price. The upfront cost is around US$130. Steep? Yes, but still US$70 less than the venerable ceramic Katadyn Pocket Filter, and the Katadyn does nothing about viruses. Of course, high-tech circuitry means batteries (two CR123 lithium cells, in this case), and you’ll have to replace these every so often: MSR suggests that treating 50 (US) gallons will exhaust a fresh set of cells. If this is correct, figure on an operating cost of something like 26 cents a gallon of treated water, unless you can find a bargain on batteries.

Cautions? Don’t spill the mixed oxidant solution on your clothes or gear. Carry plenty of spare lithium cells on long trips. And if you distrust electronic gadgetry as much as I do — MSR’s reassurance that “the electronics of the MIOX Purifier are as reliable as a cell phone or GPS unit” fills me with a creeping dread — consider bringing a back-up method for the day when Nemesis strikes.

Minor gripes? I find the treatment process rather fussy. You have to (1) fill the electrolytic chamber with raw water, (2) cap the purifier and shake it 10 times (or more), (3a) check a chart to determine the number of button clicks required and then (3b) press the button the requisite number of times, (4) mix the resulting oxidant cocktail with the raw water you wish to disinfect, and (5) test the final product for free chlorine using the safety-indicator strips provided. Whew! Still, practice should soon make this seemingly complex drill almost automatic, I suppose. If you’re worried about cryptosporidia, however, you’ll also have to wait four hours before you can drink the water, so plan ahead. Lastly, don’t use MIOX-treated water to make coffee. In MSR’s words, it imparts “a strange taste.” Then again, you boil your coffee water, don’t you? And boiling kills bugs. Problem solved.

Recommendations? The MIOX Purifier is the answer to a technophile’s prayer. It also gives you a lot to talk about around the campfire, while you measure, fill, shake, click, mix, and test. But don’t expect all this to come cheap.

Next, let’s look at the other end of the fussiness spectrum. It’s hard to imagine an easier way to treat water than dropping a tablet (or two) in a canteen, shaking, and waiting ten minutes or so before drinking. That helps to explain the enduring popularity of Potable Aqua (tetraglycine hydroperiodide, or TGHPI) germicidal tablets, despite their high per-gallon cost and other limitations. (See my earlier article for a detailed discussion.) But science marches on. Katadyn MP-1 Micropur Purification Tablets offer all the convenience of TGHPI and more besides. While TGHPI can’t be depended on to kill encysted giardia or cryptosporidia, chlorine-dioxide-releasing Micropur Tablets can — and do, though, once again, a four-hour contact time is needed to ensure that any cryptosporidia have gone belly-up. (They’re tough little buggers.) Moreover, chlorine dioxide doesn’t taint water to the extent that iodine-releasing TGHPI does, particularly at the higher (8-16 ppm) TGHPI label doses used by prudent paddlers.

And the price for all this? Ah, yes. The price. You had to ask. Progress doesn’t come cheap. Figure on paying US$1.80 for each gallon of treated water. But at least the upfront cost is limited to the price of a 30-tablet pack: around US$14. That said, it’s important to keep these things in perspective. I’ll bet you drink bottled water at home. How much does this cost?

Cautions? Don’t buy more than you need for one season, and check the expiry date on the package when purchasing. The shelf-life of Micropur tablets is limited to two or three years. And don’t remove tablets from the blister pack until you’re actually ready to treat some water. Never repackage Micropur tablets, either. They lose potency fast when exposed to air.

Minor gripes? The blister pack isn’t easy to open. If you’ve been looking for a use for the scissors on your Swiss Army knife, you’ve just found one.

Recommendations: Simple. Safe. Effective. What more could you ask from any water treatment method? Cheap? Hmm. … Sorry. Nothing’s perfect. But Micropur Tablets come close.

And now for something completely different. The final advance I encountered when reacquainting myself with the state of the art in water disinfection is really a step backward to a simpler time. Back in the day, I had an uncle who supported several wives (and many children) by dealing in used cars. Some of the cars that he sold had less than immaculate pedigrees, I’m afraid, but he wasn’t a habitual villain. Mostly he bought wrecks at auction, got them running again, repainted them, and sold them on. He didn’t extend credit, and he didn’t offer much of a guarantee. On the other hand, his prices were low. Very low. He had his share of unhappy customers, of course, and when one of them brought a car back — or, more often, pushed it back onto the lot — my uncle would invariably promise to fix it. After all, he hated to say no. (Remember all those wives?)

Remarkably, he was a man of his word. When he promised to fix a car, he meant what he said. First, though, he parked the dead car on the lot for three days, and then phoned the purchaser to tell him it was ready for pick up. That was all. He called this happy expedient the “sunshine treatment.” Amazingly enough, it frequently worked. More often than not, when the buyer came round to collect his car, it started up right away — and then kept running at least long enough for him to get it back home. This was good enough for my uncle. He didn’t rely much on repeat customers, either in business or marriage.

What does all this have to do with water treatment? That’s easy. It turns out that one of the simplest ways to disinfect raw water is … you guessed it … the selfsame sunshine treatment. Just park your water bottle in the sun. And wait. Sunlight — more accurately, ultraviolet radiation between the wavelengths of 320 and 400 nanometers, or UVA — inactivates most pathogens. Of course, no one calls this the “sunshine treatment.” It’s known as Solar Water Disinfection, or SODIS for short. Originally developed to meet the needs of rural villagers in what used to be known as the Third World, SODIS also holds great promise for canoeists and kayakers, particularly those paddlers who find themselves returning again and again to the world’s great subtropical and tropical regions, either in fancy or in fact.

Sound interesting? I thought so. You won’t find SODIS gear listed in any catalog, however. Why? The only equipment you need is a set of one- or two-liter plastic soda bottles (PET, or polyethylene terephthalate bottles, are best, and they must be clean, clear, and colorless), along with such efficiency-enhancing options as a lick of black paint, a plastic dishpan, and some aluminum foil. Want to know more? Just visit the SODIS website (www.sodis.ch). It should answer all your questions. In fact, it’s so good that I won’t go into any details here. You’ll find complete instructions at the SODIS site. If you’re curious, that should be your next stop. I will add a few words by way of summary, however.

Cost? Minimal. You probably have all you’ll need lying around your house already. What’s an empty soda bottle worth? Five cents in a state with a deposit law, maybe. Cheap enough.

Cautions? SODIS requires sunlight. It therefore works quickest when the weather’s clear, more slowly on cloudy days, and not at all during prolonged sieges of rainy weather. Furthermore, it’s not for paddlers who are heading up North: it’s most effective at latitudes below 35 degrees. Since it’s best not to agitate water violently during the treatment period (six hours under optimum conditions), it also requires a bit of forward planning.

Recommendations: Are you looking for a low-tech alternative to costly or complicated high-tech water purification systems? Do your travels take you equatorward? Then SODIS warrants serious consideration, if only as a backup (or supplement) to your primary water treatment system. It never hurts to have two strings to your bow, does it?


Progress. To paraphrase an old advertising slogan, it’s humankind’s most important product. But there’s a very different way of looking at things, summarized in another old saying, one attributed to the French writer Alphonse Karr: Plus éa change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they’re the same. And we’ve seen an example in the preceding paragraphs, when one of the latest wrinkles in water treatment turned out to be something as simple as putting your water bottles on the deck to soak up some rays. Who says there’s nothing new under the sun? Not me, at any rate. And that really is a pleasant surprise!



Whether you’re embarking on a weekend adventure or a longer journey, you won’t get far without fat. It may not look stylish if it accumulates around your midsection, but fat’s a good friend when the going gets tough. It makes food taste better, and it’s a superefficient source of calories. That’s why even hard-charging paddlers need to eat of the “The Fat of the Land” — Tamia’s topic for this week.

Alimentary, My Dear: The Fat of the Land

by Tamia Nelson
August 15, 2006

Whether you’re embarking on a weekend adventure or a Big Trip, you won’t get far without fat. It may not look stylish if it accumulates around your midsection, but fat’s a good friend when the going gets tough. It makes food taste better, and it’s a superefficient source of calories. Fat’s a superb fuel for active bodies, in other words, as well as a store of energy for lean times and an essential part of any balanced diet.

Of course, fat’s gotten plenty of media attention in recent years. We hear a lot about “good fats” and “bad fats,” for example — even if the boundary between the two seems to shift subtly with each new study. And not a week passes without some expert, somewhere, decrying the obesity epidemic in the developed world and putting most of the blame on the fat in our diet, while another expert, in another place, challenges the first expert’s data or conclusions. What do I think? I’m afraid you’ll have to include me out of these debates. I’m no expert. I’ll leave the health advice to physicians and lifestyle gurus. Still, it’s not a bad idea to know a little bit about some practical matters, so let’s start by …

Chewing the Fat

Different fats are, well, different. Their melting points vary, often dramatically. Some are liquids at room temperature. These are called oils. Others are solids. These are simply known as fats, though you’ll see some solid fats labeled as shortening on the shelves of your local HyperMart. I’ll use the word “fat” for both. And unless you eat only rice and lettuce, you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid fat altogether. But why would anyone want to? Ounce for ounce, fat has more than twice the food energy of either carbohydrate or protein. It’s the most efficient fuel for paddlers’ engines, in other words. Moreover, many of our favorite foods contain fat in abundance. Nuts and peanuts are fat-rich, for example, as are most meats (and meat sausage) and many fish, along with cheeses, eggs, butter, and chocolate. Some foods are pure fat, in fact — canola and olive oils, for instance.

The upshot? Whatever your menu, and however skinny you are, you’ll be hauling fat into the backcountry on every trip. But fats and fatty foods present the paddler with unique challenges. If a bag of couscous bursts open in your pack, cleaning up should be a snap, but if a bottle of corn oil cracks, you’ll find yourself hoping that your sleeping bag stuff sack is oilproof as well as waterproof. Even fatty foods like cheese often prove slippery customers, particularly in warm weather. Tight lids and doubled bags are a must. Fats can also make quite a mess in the camp kitchen. They drip or flame when heated directly over an open fire. Or they sizzle and pop in the skillet, burning the cook’s hands and face and leaving stubborn stains on clothing that no amount of washing can remove. Is that all? Nope. There’s probably no better way to say “Come an’ get it!” to any passing bear or raccoon than to leave fat-encrusted pots lying around your campsite. Washing up after each meal isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics and hygiene. Unless you like the idea of playing host to a sociable bear when he drops into camp for a midnight supper, it’s plain common sense.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. Let’s go back to the beginning. You’re in your kitchen …

Packing for a Trip

The first principle? Repackage. Not only is store packaging often unnecessarily bulky and heavy, but it’s seldom up to the rough-and-tumble of life in a pack. You might not think so, but fats are fragile. Heat, light, even the oxygen in the air — all of these are threats. Fats left at their mercy become rancid sooner or later, and few people find rancid fat appetizing. “Sooner or later”? Isn’t that a little ambiguous? Well, some fats go downhill faster than others. Oils are typically more stable than solid fats, many of which require refrigeration. Unfortunately, refrigerators are hard to find once you leave the put-in behind you, and while soft coolers and ice blocks will keep foods cool for a weekend, they’re not much use after the ice has melted. And even fats that don’t require refrigeration will suffer if left in the sun. That’s why the best food packs are both opaque and light-colored.

But what can you do about the all-pervading oxygen? How can you keep fats and fatty foods away from the air around us? That’s easy. The answer is the same as the one-word career advice that Benjamin Braddock received from a family friend in the movie The Graduate …


Versatile stuff, plastic. It leaves most other packaging materials in the dust. Glass is heavy and breakable. Moreover, glass containers are prohibited by the managing authorities in many popular paddling areas. What about paper and cardboard? Add a little water, and they turn to mush. Metal? Aluminum butter-safes were once common, but they were heavier than plastic and the seals were prone to rot. Don’t bother looking for one today anyplace except a surplus store. Until the cheap petroleum that’s the feedstock for the petrochemical industry runs out, therefore, plastic has the field pretty much to itself.

Still, plastic isn’t perfect. It’s not completely impermeable, and it’s easy to tear. That’s why it makes sense to double-bag most fats and fatty foods. Ziploc bags (or one of their many imitators) make ideal envelopes for nuts, chocolate, cheese, and some meats. To minimize the likelihood that lightning will strike twice in the same place, stagger the openings when double-bagging. Of course, plastic bags aren’t always up to the job. Butters — whether nut, dairy, or vegetable-oil imitations — travel better in rigid, air-tight plastic containers of the sort made popular by Tupperware and now sold under scores of brand names. So do many meats. (A hint: Be sure to bag the sealed container. Lids have been known to pop off when stuffed in a pack. The bag keeps the resulting mess confined.) Maybe you remember refillable tubes. These were popular in the ’60s and ’70s, and they crop up from time to time in the catalogs nowadays. They’ve pretty much fallen out of fashion, however. And for good reason. The tubes were the devil to clean, and the slide closures had a disconcerting habit of letting go in mid-squeeze. Good riddance, I say.

Thinking about reusing and recycling plastic bags and containers from home? Good idea. But never reuse soiled plastic bags for anything but garbage, and don’t try to reuse rigid plastic food containers for any other purpose than holding food. In other words, once a plastic container’s been used to store food of any sort, it’s a food container for the rest of its days. Scrub all you want. You’ll never eliminate the smell of food so completely that a hungry animal won’t catch a whiff. And do you really want Old Bruin scarfing your first-aid kit? I didn’t think so.

At the other end of spectrum from recycled produce bags are high-tech vacuum sealing systems like FoodSaver. They work well, and they have many fans. The only problem? They can’t easily be resealed in the field. Portion control is therefore a must. High-tech or low, however, rest assured that some fat will find its way onto the outside of every storage bag and container. Don’t give up trying to keep the stuff confined, though. Expel any excess air. Make absolutely sure that all caps and lids are tight. And double-bag all bottled oils. You’ll lose the battle in the end, but at least you’ll have fought the good fight. Nonetheless, sooner or later you’ll face …

Cleaning Up

Prevention, as always, is easier than cure. In addition to double bagging and testing every seal, use only as much oil or fat as you need in cooking, and treat used fat like your own … ahem … solid waste: pack it out in an airtight container or (where permitted) bury it at least 150 feet (30 double-step paces) from your camp and any stream, pond, bog, or lake. This is a minimum distance, by the way. How do you imagine you’ll feel if you waken to find a bear digging up your old fat only 50 yards from where you’re sleeping? And that’s not the only danger. If you cook over an open fire, take care to burn off any fat on grills or fire-pans. A final hint: Wait till hot fat cools before pouring or scraping it into a plastic bag.

Personal hygiene enters the picture, too. Sloppy eaters frequently find themselves entertaining uninvited midnight guests. After all, a single sausage sandwich can leave smears of grease on paddle, clothing, boat and packs, and each smear advertises the availability of a free meal. The moral of the story? Good housekeeping is as important in the backcountry as it is at home. And a perfunctory swipe with a hand towel isn’t enough. You need soap or detergent to remove fat from pots and hands. Towelettes work for quick on-water clean-ups, but be sure to pack used towelettes out in a tightly sealed container. In camp, you can afford to be more thorough. Just be sure you set up your kitchen sink well away from your tent. ‘Nuff said?


Fat isn’t an enemy. In fact, it’s a good friend to active canoeists and kayakers. And where would paddling anglers be without an occasional fried shore lunch? Condemned to endure a lean and hungry — and rather pointless — semiaquatic ritual, that’s where. We may be creatures of the water, at least part-time, but we can never afford to forget that we need to eat of the fat of the land. In moderation, of course. But then that’s the secret of most things, isn’t it?



Do you have a hard time getting out the door at the start of every trip? Do your friends stand around jingling their keys and looking at their watches while you rush about trying to find your spare socks? If so, you’ll want to learn the secrets of “Breaking Away,” and this week Tamia offers some tips to get you going.

Breaking Away: Secrets of an Escape Artist

by Tamia Nelson
August 22, 2006

So you’re planning a trip, are you? Great! Anticipation is one of life’s simpler (and cheaper) pleasures. Whether it’s just a day away from the kids, a weekend adventure, or a summer-long expedition, paddling excursions are always a holiday from the everyday — a chance to recharge your batteries, an opportunity to get back in touch with the things in life that really matter, a time to relax. Planning is part of the fun. But there’s a downside to anticipation, too. Worries can multiply. Anxieties can build. And as the departure deadline looms, you can find yourself running a race that even a rat would dread.

Sound familiar? Then you’re in good company. Colin Fletcher wrote of bouts with a mysterious ailment (he christened it “Fletcheritis”) that threatened to scupper several long-planned epic walks at the last minute. And writer John Steinbeck, preparing to leave on the landlocked circumnavigation of America recounted in Travels with Charley, noticed that his “warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable” as D-Day approached, and lamented that “to give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and unknown seemed crazy.” Nor is the phenomenon confined to Big Trips. It can be just as hard to get under way for a weekend as for a week — or a month, for that matter. Maybe it’s because time constraints are much tighter and schedules less flexible. Or maybe it’s simply that local trips don’t seem to be worth all the bother, especially with Monday casting its long shadow back over the weekend. Whatever the reason, it’s not unusual for even the most gung-ho paddler’s enthusiasm to wane at the last minute. Breaking away can be mighty hard to do.

Why is this? I suppose inertia is the principal villain. I call this the “slog factor.” Unless you paddle for a living — and not too many folks do — a trip is a break in your usual routine. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is obvious. Paddling is recreation, right? Re-creation. Change is good, in other words, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier and many more besides. But the curse is part of the bargain, too. Change is, well, change, and we’re all creatures of habit. It takes energy and initiative to climb out of the workaday rut, however pleasing the prospect beyond. Then again, some folks manage to make it look easy. They’re the ones who are standing at the door, jingling their car keys, all packed and ready to go, while the rest of us are still rushing around trying to remember where we put our life jackets and wondering if we really wouldn’t rather stay home and watch Deliverance, instead.

OK. I know what I’d rather do, and I suspect we’re all of one mind here. But it’s still no fun running around in circles. What’s the early birds’ secret, then? I think it’s embodied in the Principle of the Six Ps, summarized in the maxim that Proper Planning Prevents Pi … er … Piddling-Poor Performance. Call it a full-dress version of the familiar injunction to “Be prepared,” if you want. Easier said than done, of course, especially for family trips, but almost anything is possible with a little practice. Virtue is sometimes rewarded. Organization and forethought yield a quick, stress-free getaway. And here’s how to begin …

Make a List

Lists are the foundation of all successful breakaways. Lists of gear. Food lists. To-do lists. Emergency contact lists (aka “float plans”). Possessors of exceptionally retentive memories won’t need to write their gear and food lists down, but they’re the exception. Most of us will find that there’s no substitute for paper and pencil, and even the masterminds will often discover uses for a written list. A few hints: Involve your paddling partners. Show them your list and ask them for suggestions about things to add, things to leave out, and ways to save weight. If the kids are coming along, let them join in the fun, too. Encourage them to draw up their own lists of personal gear. Whether you’re planning a family outing or a solo jaunt, however, give yourself plenty of time. Good lists evolve. They can’t be rushed. Luckily, the process needn’t be traumatic. The “Ten Essentials” form the nucleus for all gear lists, and the lists you draw up for your first day trips will grow to meet your needs as your paddling horizons expand. Big Trips just require more of all consumable items. More food (and sometimes more water, too, though at eight-pounds-plus a US gallon, you can’t haul enough for more than a few days). More insect repellent. More toilet paper. More of everything you use everyday, in short.

Evolution. That’s the key. So save all your old gear lists, annotating them while the memory of each trip is still fresh in your mind. Then consult these notes when you plan your next trip. There’s no better resource.

With your final gear, food, and to-do lists in hand, you’re already edging toward the door, but you’re not quite there. Now you have to pack. And efficient packing is a lot easier for …

The Organization Man

Or woman, of course. This is where a lot of us fall down. Shoving your gear into a dark corner of the garage — or worse yet, a dank corner of the basement — won’t make it any easier for you to get under way the next time. Instead, keep your stuff in plain view, somewhere that’s both well lit and well ventilated. A place for everything, and everything in its place, as my grandfather used to say. And be sure to make any necessary repairs as soon as possible after you get home from a trip. Don’t fall into the trap of putting them off till tomorrow. As Janis Joplin once observed, “tomorrow never comes.” She knew what she was talking about. If you don’t want departure deadlines to become dreadlines, don’t put gear away on the shelf until you’ve verified that it’s clean, dry, and ready to go.

Consumables are another potential fetter. There’s nothing like the prospect of a frantic dash into town to buy food or repair items to make the notion of weekend TV look attractive. Wal-Mart can afford to embrace just-in-time inventory management, but unless you live next door to a large outfitter you probably can’t. The moral of the story? Avoid the Friday rush at the HyperMart. Keep generous inventories of staple foods and stove fuel on hand throughout the paddling season, along with such important extras as water disinfection tablets, maintenance medications, batteries, and duct tape. You won’t find these items in stock in every backcountry convenience store, after all. Check use-by dates, too, rotating your reserves so that you use the older stores first. Time-consuming? Yes. A bit. But worth it. And there’s a bonus. Your camping stores will double as disaster supplies — no small matter in an increasingly uncertain world.

We’ve got our foot on the threshold now. There’s only one thing left to do before we can head out …

Pack Up!

Take it from a veteran of far too many midnight scrambles — it pays to get the packing done early. A day or two of lead time is enough for a weekend trip. (Cold food is the exception here. Keep it in the fridge till you’re ready to leave.) A week in advance isn’t too long for an expedition. One thing’s for sure, anyway. Having your boat already lashed on the rack and everything loaded makes D-Day a much more relaxed (and enjoyable) affair. To avoid tempting larcenous passersby, however, it’s wise to lock both boat and car securely. The only thing worse than a flurry of last-minute packing is the sickening realization that your boat has fallen prey to a modern-day pirate during the night!

Expeditions involve further complications, but aside from river permits and similar administrative hurdles, they’re no different for a paddling trip than for any other long vacation: cleaning out the refrigerator, making certain that your car is in top shape, arranging for someone to pick up the mail and keep the lawn in check, taking Fido or Fluffy to the kennel, and so forth. Whether you’ll be gone all summer or only for a day, though, don’t forget to leave a copy of your float plan with a trusted friend or relative. That could be the most important thing you do.

Now it’s the night before you’re scheduled to leave. You check you list once more, put out your traveling clothes, make sure your keys and wallet are where you can find them, and lay out the breakfast things. Then it’s time to get some sleep. It’s been a lot of work getting ready, but you’ll reap your reward when the big day arrives. You‘ll be the cool and collected one for a change, the quiet eye in the storm created by your less well-prepared companions’ frenzied scrambles. Don’t gloat, though. You don’t want to catch Nemesis’ eye, do you?


And when the trip is over? What then? Do you just dump your dirty gear and garbage in the garage and sit down at the kitchen table to go through your mail? Not if you’re smart, you don’t. The day you get back from one trip is the best time to begin preparations for the next. To make things easier, make your last day on the road a short one. You’ll need to buy food for supper (and tomorrow’s breakfast), pick up Fido and Fluffy, unload your car, and unpack your gear. None of these jobs will be easier after sixteen hours on the road. You’ll also want to make a detailed list of everything requiring repair or replacement. So start getting things ready for your next trip right now — today, not tomorrow. Because tomorrow never comes. It’s always today.


For too many paddlers, D-Day — departure day — is a day to dread. But deadlines don’t have to be dreadlines, and breaking away doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be easy. The secret? Proper planning prevents piddling-poor performance. That’s a fail-safe recipe for making a quick getaway. Just ask any escape artist.



Summer’s tenure is waning fast in Canoe Country, even if many places still bake in a searing sun. Days are noticeably shorter, and cold nights, foggy mornings, and autumn colors are just around the corner. Summer seems to have come and gone as quickly as ripples on a quiet lake, but it’s left a trail of letters in its wake from the folks who read “In the Same Boat.” Want to know what they’ve been thinking? It’s easy. Just check out “Our Readers Write.”

Our Readers Write: Catching Up as Summer Winds Down

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
August 29, 2006

To err is human, goes the familiar refrain — to which many of us now add, silently or otherwise, depending on the circumstances, but to really foul things up requires a computer. This is probably going too far. Truth to tell, we’re often tempted to excuse our own mistakes by attributing them to our electronic helpmeets. After all, the computer can’t complain, can it? Still, there’s no denying the power of the microchip to compound and propagate human blunders. A case in point: The In the Same Boat team has had its share of computer problems over the last year, ranging from a proliferation of sticky keys to multiple hard-drive failures to home network crashes. But we never lost any data. Or so we thought. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered a treasure trove of unanswered mail recently during a routine bout of housekeeping. At first, we were tempted to attribute this lapse to a computer failure. That excuse didn’t hold up for long, however, and we were soon forced to admit that the culprit was old-fashioned human error — a simple mistake in labeling a mail folder after a system crash. So be it. To err is human, right?

Of course, this leaves us with a stack of unanswered letters, many of them a year or more old. What to do? Answer them, obviously. Which brings us to the latest installment of “Our Readers Write,” our periodic attempt to keep abreast of our column correspondence. The last time we showcased readers’ mail, summer was only just beginning to touch the northern reaches of North America. What a difference three months can make! The summer solstice is long gone, and the days are already noticeably shorter. Weeks of searing hot weather have given way to cold nights, foggy mornings, and the first hints of red in the maples. School vacations are coming to an end, and paddlers are poring over the pictures from their holiday adventures. Summer seems to have ebbed as quickly as ripples on a quiet lake.

Luckily, this is as good a time as any to catch up. We’ve got a lot of old mail to answer, and new letters keep coming in. So beginning this month, we’re going to mix old and new, until we’ve worked our way through the backlog created by our blunder. Here goes!

Cooks, Too, Adore a Vacuum

Dear Tamia,

Have you experienced the magic of thermos cooking? While preparing a hearty breakfast you can also slow-cook wild rice or a lentil stew as you paddle toward lunch. Simply preheat that stainless wide-mouthed vacuum wizard with boiling water for a few minutes, then use the “cooled steam” — the preheating water — to make hot drinks. Now place lentils, rice, or another slow-cooking food inside the thermos, followed by a second batch of boiling water. Upon opening four or five hours later, discover wonderfully cooked contents that are moist and never burned. (Warning! If you wait until dinner an even greater surprise awaits — over-cooked mush.) This method not only saves a ton of time at stove-side, but a considerable amount of cooking fuel, too.

Gloria Fox

• • •

Tamia replies:

You’re making my mouth water, Gloria. I’ve made oatmeal in a thermos, but nothing more ambitious. I’ll have to give your suggestion a try. Thanks for the tip!

Hoarders and Tinkers

Dear Tamia,

An excellent article [“Hoarder’s Treasure — A Water Bag That Costs You Nothing” -Ed]! I have made water carriers from the plastic bags that creamer comes in — these can be found at some convenience stores — and from the bags that milkshake mix comes in (usually obtained from burger-in-a-box places). My wife and I are both teachers, therefore we have a seemingly unending supply of tote bags which I use to hold the plastic bags. I wind up with a $25 water carrier for free.

By the way, I think a distinction should be made in the “hoarder” category. All tinkers — folks who make “new” items from discarded ones — are hoarders, but not all hoarders are tinkers! I’ve got an old wheelchair that is begging to be turned into a collapsible canoe-kayak cart. I’m just waiting for the idea to finish developing in my mind! After I make the hauler, I’ll send you drawings and/or pictures.

Thanks for your good articles.

Art Denney

• • •

Tamia replies:

Yet another good idea, Art. My parents owned a small diner, and they bought milk in large five- or ten-gallon plastic bags with long nozzles. These would have made good water carriers or float bags — though getting rid of all traces of milk would have been a big job. You’re right in thinking that not all hoarders are tinkers, too. My grandfather was a hoarder, but he was no tinker. Good thing his father (my great-grandfather) was a machinist. Great-granddad put a lot of his son’s “junk” to good use over the years.

It’s always a pleasure to get your letters, Art. We look forward to hearing from you again. …

 … And We Did!

A New Use for Water Seal™

Dear Tamia,

Another excellent article, this one on maps and map cases. I have used brush-on waterproofing compound for some of my maps with good success. The best-known brand name is probably Thompson’s™ Water Seal™, but store brands work just as well. After the liquid penetrates the map and dries, the map can be folded as usual and written on with a pencil. The Water Seal™ seems to give the map added strength, but I have not tested that idea to prove or disprove it.

Thanks again for the articles.

Art Denney

• • •

Tamia replies:

You’re welcome, Art. And many thanks for your letters. I’ve never used Thompson’s™ Water Seal™ on maps, but I’ll certainly give it a try now.

Batteries Not Included —

The Case for Staying Found

Dear Tamia,

I just read your article about loving maps, learning to read them, and waterproofing them. It was great to hear someone else fighting the technology which is invading the backcountry.

I am always amazed at how limited is the navigation knowledge of the average outdoor enthusiast. I always thought that the point was to get back to the simplicity of surviving (comfortably) with the “home in your pack (or boat)” attitude. I guess that gearheads have been around since the early ’70s when new technology was beginning to make inroads into the outdoor sports’ world, but it is getting a bit out of hand now. Stores even market — and I guess that people buy — little plastic clips to attach a rope to a tarp. Haven’t these people ever heard of a pebble? Most of the folks I have been out with are still amazed that I know more than one kind of knot, not to mention how useful this knowledge is. (This has become a bit of a rant, I suppose, but your article hit a nerve with me, and that nerve runs through my whole outdoor experience.)

I am still goofing around with the ultimate map system, but my bane is the folds. Everything of importance on every map or nautical chart is bound to be obliterated by a worn fold, you know. So I am trying to scan my maps (purchased) and then print them with overlapping sections on small pages for the Ziploc bag. This is not great for open water where you have to fix a point in the distance and need to open a full-sized map, but it gets rid of the folds.

My big beef with navigation is that most of the land and river instruction that you can get in books is useless unless you are up in the mountains. The texts invariably tell you how to locate obvious landforms and take bearings on them to triangulate your position. I live in Ontario and the bush comes to the edge of the river and you cannot see 100 feet away. I learned to read maps in Scouts, in geography class in school, in the military on land, and then learned to navigate ships as a naval officer. The best thing to do most of the time is to use a watch and get a sense of how fast you travel on a lake, on a river, or on a trail with your pack — and then just dead reckon! Apparently, though, this involves too much effort in remembering to note how fast you traveled across a lake or up a trail with a pack.

Let us hope that not too many high-tech, extreme adventurers die after getting lost in the wilds when their GPS packs it in. I also hope that the value of gaining knowledge and practicing like you did “at your grandfather’s knee” will be recognized, and that it will motivate others to earn their right to be out there, independent and secure. The instant gratification trend is flawed. We all know we treasure what we have worked at and earned.

Keep talking about the map and compass and maybe more of us will find happier trails.


Steve Coutts

• • •

Tamia replies:

We’re of a mind about maps, navigation, and the value of learning basic map-and-compass skills, Steve. Though I’ve acquired my share of electronic gadgets over the years, I prefer to keep things simple. As you suggest, knowledge and attention to detail are the keys to staying found, particularly in low-relief environments. The elements of dead reckoning belong in every paddler’s skill set.

The Peripatetic Ponchos

Dear Tamia,

Great piece on ponchos. We paddle in the rain a LOT in my part of the world. (I’m weird. I actually love to paddle in the rain, with the sound and pattern of raindrops — but only if I am comfortable.) You got it right. Ponchos are the best way to go by far for dry protection and ventilation, and as you said, versatility. I won’t risk using mine for a groundsheet, however, due to the chance of poking holes. But that’s a personal decision, easily changed if need warrants.

For backpacking in forest with no wind, I sometimes put two small sticks extending forward from the upper corners of my pack and attach the corners of my poncho to them. That makes a tarp-like roof over my head extending out in front a bit, that runs back and down over my pack. It extends out to the sides enough for considerable protection. In summer rain this allows me to backpack in shorts and T-shirt and stay dry, fully ventilated, and unencumbered.

Len Cowan

• • •

Tamia replies:

A fondness for paddling in the rain isn’t weird, Len. Rainy days are wonderful times to be out and about, particularly if you want to avoid the madding crowd and catch a glimpse of the local wildlife. Your point about the hazards of making a poncho do double duty is well taken, too. Luckily, I don’t often have problems, and when I do a duct-tape patch keeps the water at bay till I can make a more permanent repair. This probably explains why I like military-surplus ponchos. They stand up to abuse — and they’re cheap!

I find your idea for improving ventilation when hiking in the rain intriguing. It’s something else I’m going to have to try. Thanks for writing!

Braking News!

Dear Tamia,

Regarding your articles on car-topping [see “Landlocked: Taking Your Boat on the Road” and links -Ed]: You show a less than satisfactory example in one illustration, where bow and stern lines are both pulling forward on a canoe. The lines are still useful in that they do prevent the boat from tipping fore and aft, but control under braking can be enhanced by adding one additional line from the front of the canoe to the forward crossmember of the roof rack or foremost roof rail, in order to take the strain while braking. This will make the boat pretty secure — provided the roof rack is up to it, of course.

Thanks for the brilliant articles.


• • •

Tamia replies:

Sounds like a good idea to me, Jef, and a useful addition to the discussion in my follow-up piece for Guidelines. Anything that improves the security of a car-topped boat under hard braking gets my vote.

Little Trips, Big Rewards

Dear Tamia,

I just read your “KISS and Tell” article. Nicely done. I’m relatively new to paddling and eagerly looking forward to a Big Trip. The reality is I probably will be lucky to do one every year or so. The good news is that I live in Southeast Tennessee where we have numerous opportunities to paddle, from huge lakes to almost pristine rivers. I’ll keep your advice in mind and enjoy more “Little Trips.” Thanks for putting things in perspective.


Gary Farlow

• • •

Tamia replies:

I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Gary. With so many beautiful paddling spots in eastern Tennessee, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opportunities for weekend adventures while you make plans for your next Big Trip.

The Simple Life

Hi, Tamia!

I’ve been enjoying your articles for years, but I just wanted to express my appreciation for your article on simplicity. I too have done the Big Trips, carried a pack I could hardly lift, lugged an ammo box with a big camera, and also felt like I was looking at life through a viewfinder. Now looking at water lilies with a grandchild in my favourite canoe gives me as much pleasure as swatting blackflies on the Thelon ever did.


Dave Purkis

• • •

Tamia replies:

Thank you for your kind words, Dave. It’s hard to exaggerate the virtues of simplicity, isn’t it? And I’ll bet your grandkids will long remember their days on the water in your company. Happy paddling!

We couldn’t end on a more cheerful note, could we? After all, passing along our passion for paddling to a younger generation is certainly rewarding, even when the destination is as close as a pond in the backyard. As always, our heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who took the time to send us their comments and questions, not to mention the many helpful hints and tips. Keep it up. After all, it’s “Our Readers Write.”



What sort of paddler are you? Do you linger over elaborate meals and stop to fish at each promising pool? Or do you paddle nonstop from dawn to dusk, sustained by sugared water and energy bars? Or maybe you fall somewhere in between. No matter what your answer, the time you spend getting under way each day is lost to you forever. So this week Tamia offers a few tips on breaking camp “Swiftly and With Style.”

Breaking Away, Swiftly and With Style: The Art of Breaking Camp

by Tamia Nelson
September 5, 2006

What sort of paddler are you? Do you like to linger long over elaborate meals in camp? And once under way, do you pause to fish each promising pool and riffle? Or do you paddle nonstop from dawn to dusk, sustained only by sugared water and energy bars? Or — like most of us, I suppose — do you fall somewhere in between? Kenny, the jovial postmaster in the riverbank hamlet where I live, is a textbook lingerer, and his reasoning is hard to fault. Why, he asks, would he ever be in a hurry to leave camp, with its good food and good conversation, not to mention the novel tucked away in his pack that he never seems to find time to read at home? The rat race, Kenny concluded long ago, is something best left to rats, particularly when the weather’s cool and rainy. So he doesn’t curse when the clouds roll in. No, sir. Instead, he strings a tarp over the camp kitchen to make the cook’s job easier, then fashions a sheltered nook by erecting a couple of large umbrellas on long poles sunk into soft ground. Finally, when the angle of the umbrellas is adjusted to perfection, he settles down with his book and a hot drink, to read and sip and watch the mist swirl around him, a reverie interrupted only by the occasional wail of a distant loon.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And there’s a lot to be said for Kenny’s relaxed approach to backcountry life. Lounging around camp has been part of the gospel of smoothing it since Nessmuk’s day. Then again, if the goal of a trip is to get from one place to another, lingering in camp isn’t always possible. Building some slack into your schedule is a great idea, of course, but on travel days a tardy start only means a late arrival and a frantic race to beat the approaching dark. Even if your plan is to take day trips away from a fixed camp, efficiency pays big dividends.

Still, anyone who likes to sleep in or linger over coffee will rebel at the idea of an early start. I know I did. But I came round in the end, after battling the waves and winds of one afternoon thunderstorm too many. There was a reason why the voyageurs broke camp in the half light of a northern dawn at three o’clock: wind. The blustery, ill-tempered “Old Woman” likes to sleep in, too. She seldom causes trouble on summer mornings. Later in the day, however, she often makes up for lost time. The moral of the story? If you want to put a lot of miles under your keel — and maybe even if you don’t — get on the water early. Heat drives the wind, and the day gets hotter as the sun rises in the sky. Morning calms are frequently followed by afternoon gales. (A warning: Cold fronts make their own weather, and they don’t keep predictable hours. To avoid unpleasant surprises, look at your barometer as well as your watch.) Early starts also permit you to take long lunch breaks. You won’t get a better opportunity to brew a pot of tea and make a quick cup of soup, or to dry damp clothes and sleeping bags. You might also want to take a nap while the afternoon wind blows itself out, then get back in your boat for a couple of hours of paddling before setting up camp in the evening.

Are there any other reasons for an early start? Sure. Morning is a great time to catch a glimpse of the local wildlife. Nocturnal animals are just handing over to the day shift, and both shifts are looking for a quick bite to eat — a bedtime snack for one is breakfast for the other. Dawn gives photographers and painters a chance to forage, too. Artists delight in the spectacle of sunrise and the drama of long shadows. Aesthetically, the flat, harsh light of midday is far less interesting.

Don’t ignore the logic of simple arithmetic, either. All other things being equal, an early start to the day means an early finish. This is a Good Thing. Setting up camp by the light of the sun almost always beats stumbling around in the dark, a point of particular importance during the short days of the shoulder seasons, and in hill (or canyon) country at any time of year. Getting into camp early also yields other benefits. The air is often less humid in the late afternoon than in the early morning (unless it’s been raining recently, that is). Wet clothes and damp bedding dry faster. And there’s time for outdoor chefs to fuss over the cooking pots, time for anglers to wet a line in a promising pool, time for swimmers to swim. … In short, there’s time to do the things you came to do.

OK. Early starts often make sense. But just how do you …

Rise and Shine?

The short answer? Get organized! Organization and established routine are the keys to getting an early start. Organized folks lose less gear, waste fewer motions, and get on the water quicker. They know where all their odds and ends of kit are, all of the time. Their motto? A place for everything, and everything in its place. Flashlight, reading glasses, knife, matches. … Each has a home port and a fixed mooring. And each one is marked clearly on the organized paddler’s mental chart. Becoming an Organization Man (or Woman) is the first step to liberating yourself from the tyranny of the clock.

Of course, routine can become a straightjacket, too. We’re all slaves to our good habits. The secret is balance, along with a sense of proportion. Know when you can get away with breaking your own rules, and give yourself occasional time off for good behavior. Solo travelers have the hardest time here. They have to do all the camp chores themselves. Efficiency is doubly important for them. Paddlers who travel with family and friends have it much easier. They can share some chores and rotate others, even taking occasional holidays from group responsibilities. But only if everyone agrees in advance. Once again, it’s the Organization Men who fare best and travel farthest.

It also helps to get …

A Head Start on Your Early Day

I learned this lesson when I was still a kid. Long before two-career couples were the norm, my grandfather and grandmother both held down office jobs. When I stayed with them on weekends, I couldn’t help noticing that they laid the breakfast table before they went to bed. This was a stark contrast with the domestic arrangements in my parents’ chaotic household, but I soon came to appreciate my grandparents’ methodical habits. They knew from experience that a few minutes’ extra time could make a world of difference on a hectic weekday morning, and they saw no reason to abandon their routine on Saturday and Sunday. When I got my first full-time job, I remembered this. I also discovered that the same principle applied in the backcountry, too. It’s not hard to put it into practice. Just tidy up camp before turning in, pre-packing anything that won’t be needed in the morning, selecting the breakfast menu (and protecting it against against uninvited nocturnal guests), refueling the stove (let it cool first!), and making sure all boats are secured and ready. Some paddlers even go one step further, getting a head start on the actual breakfast preparations, with a little help from a thermos.

Sound like a pain? It is. A bit. But the knowledge that you’ve got a leg up on the coming dawn is wonderfully relaxing. Even if you have a hard day ahead of you, you’ll find that you sleep sounder. Now all that’s left for you to do is to …

Get Up With the Birds

Birds greet the sun with a song. What have they got to sing about? Wake early and find out. You’ll be glad you did. The dawn world is a magical place — a country of deep shadows, pungent smells, and enchanting sounds. A world of mists and stillnesses. And by rising early, you’ll be able to enjoy it. This is where order and method come to the fore. You’ll have more time to drink deep of the morning’s delights if you’re not scrambling around camp looking for your socks. Here’s a sample routine you can adapt to suit yourself:

  • The cook brings water to a boil for coffee and the post-meal cleanup, prepares breakfast, and begins putting food packs and kitchen gear in order.
  • Meanwhile, someone else airs the sleeping bags and pads on a line, stringing the line under a tarp if necessary. All clothes not needed on the water are packed away, as are all personal items. (The cook may want to delegate this job to her partner.) When the bedding is as dry as it’s going to get, it too is packed. Then the tarps start coming down, as do the tents. Self-standing tents can be upended first to allow the floors to dry.
  • Packs are placed near the boats as soon as they’re filled and closed, and the boats themselves are rigged. Paddles, PFDs, and deck gear are collected and stowed, ready for use.
  • After breakfast, the cook’s helper cleans up the kitchen area, drowns the fire (if breakfast was prepared over an open fire, that is — not something I’d recommend if you’re hoping for an early start), and packs away the gear. Any last-minute calls of nature are answered, teeth are brushed, and hands and faces washed. (Fussiness? No. Common sense. You don’t want food odors on paddles and clothing, do you?)
  • Boats are hauled to the water and loaded. In sheltered shallows, wellie-wearers can do this while their boats are afloat, but often it’s necessary to load on shore and then drag the boats the final few feet. (Don’t try this with an heirloom bark or wood-canvas canoe, though!) Once in the water, no boat is left unattended, even for a minute. Cook’s helper now makes a final circuit of camp, collecting any dropped or forgotten gear and policing any trash. If breakfast was cooked on an open fire, the fire is checked for live coals or embers, and if any are found, the helper drowns the fire again. No fire is dead until the charred remnants are cold to the touch.
  • Don life jackets and get under way!

So far, so good. The case for an early start is easy to argue in summer. But what about the shoulder seasons? Specifically, what about autumn? Nights are colder, morning fogs are common, and days are shorter. Surely this makes dawn departures less desirable, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. Admittedly, it’s no fun braving a chilly morning, but it’s even less fun getting into camp after dark, cold and tired and hungry. Days are shorter now. So adjust your goals accordingly. Rise with the dawn, forgo your lazy summertime lunch break, and plan on reaching camp while the sun is still far above the horizon. You’ll cover fewer miles, to be sure, but you’ll have time to savor the fall colors, revel in the freedom from biting flies, and marvel at the dramatic skyscapes that accompany the equinoctial storms. You’ll also be able to bask in the embrace of a warm jacket or sweater while sipping hot tea and listening to Vs of geese honk plaintively overhead, as chipmunks and squirrels scurry around you, busy collecting enough nuts and seeds to take them through a long winter. And later, as you gaze out over the water for a last look in the direction of the setting sun, what do you see? A family of beavers augmenting their own larders to meet the challenge of the season of hard water. For some paddlers, fall is the best time of the year, well worth an early start.


Forsaking the cozy warmth of a sleeping bag to crawl out into a dank dawn isn’t easy for most of us, but early morning is the best time of the day to be up and about, whether you linger near shore to watch the wildlife greet the sun, or churn the still, unruffled waters into froth with your paddle in order to get as many miles as possible under the keel before the Old Woman wakes. Whatever floats your boat, though, the time spent breaking camp and stowing gear is time forever lost. It’s better by far to get the necessary chores behind you as quickly as possible, swiftly and with style. After that, the rest of the day is yours.



Many beginners buy sit-on-tops, and there are a lot of reasons why SOTs make good first boats for novice paddlers. But a good boat can still be the wrong boat for YOU. What about it? Are you thinking about buying your first SOT? Then Tamia has a few suggestions. Her advice? Don’t rely on chance when you go shopping for a SOT. Make “Your Own Beginners’ Luck,” instead. It’s easier than you might think.

Making Your Own Beginners’ Luck: Tips for First-Time SOT Buyers

by Tamia Nelson
September 12, 2006

Let’s face it, not everyone who wants to mess about on a hot day needs a hot boat. Take my friend Connie, for example. Years ago, when I was just starting college, we shared a rambling old farmhouse. At the time, Connie’s idea of a perfect day on the water was paddling an inner tube languidly around a small island in a big lake, basking in the sun. I never could get her into a canoe (“Too hard to paddle!”), let alone a kayak (“Too tippy. What if it turns over?”). I tried reasoning with her at first. Then I tried an on-water demonstration. Neither approach worked. Connie was determined to have nothing to do with either canoes or kayaks. But what about a sit-on-top (SOT, for short)? That would have been an easy sell — if SOTs had been around back then, that is. Just look at all the pluses I could have pointed to. SOTs are stable. They’re easy to paddle. And they’re nearly unsinkable. Best of all, there’s no deck to trap a panicky novice in a capsized boat. With all that going for me, how could I have missed? If Connie had ever had a boat built just for her, it would have looked a lot like a SOT.

But SOTs weren’t an option then, and Connie’s fears kept her out of canoes and kayaks. She wasn’t alone, of course. Many would-be paddlers still think that canoes and kayaks are only for experts and risk-takers, as a brief encounter outside a local big-box store proved to me recently. I was hunkered down, examining the seal on the hatch of a recreational kayak, when I caught sight of another shopper. He wasn’t interested in the kayak, though. He had eyes only for a stubby, rainbow-colored SOT. The boat was small — very small — and he wasn’t, but it was obviously a case of love at first sight anyway. I didn’t think that the PRICE SLASHED FOR QUICK SALE sign was the only reason, either. “Real nice boat, i’n’it?” the Happy Shopper stammered, when I stood up suddenly and he realized he wasn’t alone. And before I could even grunt in agreement, he continued his unasked-for explanation. It sounded to me like he was rehearsing what he’d tell The Wife, if and when. Maybe he was. “I’d sure have fun in this boat, fishin’ the lake up t’ camp,” he said. He paused for a second while he studied the kayak I’d been inspecting, then delivered the clincher: “Don’t like them — Whaddayacall ’em? Kayaks, right? — too much, myself. You tip it over, and you better hope you don’t get stuck in that little hole there.” He gestured toward the boat’s cockpit to make sure I got the point. I did.

Admittedly, Happy Shopper wasn’t exactly a lightweight. To tell the truth, it looked to me like the rainbow SOT would be riding mighty low in the water with just him aboard, let alone a heavy tackle box and a full cooler. And maybe he could have gotten stuck in the kayak’s cockpit. It didn’t seem very likely to me, but I remembered worrying about exactly the same thing the first time I slid my legs under a deck, even though I wasn’t in Happy Shopper’s weight class. I also remembered Connie. Still, I didn’t think that Happy Shopper’s budding romance with the rainbow SOT would survive the honeymoon. As luck would have it, however, I’d noticed another SOT further down the line, half hidden behind a swing set and a wading pool shaped like a giant turtle. This second SOT was a longer, beamier boat in lime green, and it boasted a well for the cooler, a couple of drink holders, and a rod bracket. Best of all, it too was on sale. “You might want to look at that one, while you’re looking,” I ventured, pointing to the lime-green SOT. “Seems to me like it has Fishing Machine written all over it.”

And I guess he agreed. When I left the store half an hour later, it was clear that Happy Shopper had closed the deal. He and a bored-looking clerk were jockeying the green boat into the bed of his pickup for the trip home. Happy Shopper wasn’t bored, though. Not one bit. When I walked past him, he beamed at me like a kid on Christmas morning. It looked to me like the start of a beautiful partnership between man and boat. The only cloud on the horizon was The Wife. I hope she was in a generous mood.

OK. Did Happy Shopper’s story have a happy ending? I think so. But suppose he’d left the store with his first choice, the little rainbow-colored SOT. What would have happened then? His story could have turned out very differently, and there’d have been one more ready-made recruit for the Bassin’-‘N’-Gassin’ brigade.

And what about you? Are you a Happy Shopper? Are you looking at the end-of-season sales and dreaming of a SOT? Wonderful! Few boats are more versatile. But take a hint from me: a good boat can still be the wrong boat for some folks, including folks like you. Of course, you want your story to have a happy ending, too. So here’s …

The Straight Skinny on Shopping for a SOT

Call this a virtual personal shopper: ten tips on how to pick a SOT that’s right for you.

1. Learn to Paddle  SOTs are ideal boats for beginners, but they’re still paddlecraft. You’re the motor. You won’t have much fun in a SOT if you can’t make it go where you want it to. And you can’t learn to paddle by reading about it or watching a video, though some preliminary reading certainly won’t be wasted. Next, find an instructor. Ask around. A friend or co-worker may agree to take you out on the water for a little informal “taster.” Or join a paddling club — many offer instruction for beginners. Or take a course at a school, university, or outfitter. The bottom line? However you do it, do it. There’s simply no substitute for on-the-water experience under the eye of a competent mentor, and your experience doesn’t start till you pick up a paddle. Even a couple of hours spent in the warm shallows of a sheltered bay with someone who knows how it’s done will pay big dividends, now and in the years to come.

2. Get Good Advice  If you’re in the market for a SOT, ask a relative, friend, or co-worker who’s been paddling for a while to come shopping with you. No good? You don’t know any paddlers who can spare the time? Then do a little homework before you head for the nearest Big Box. Paddling.net is a good place to begin. Read the Reviews to get real-life paddlers’ take on the SOTs they’ve owned and used, and for more general advice don’t neglect In the Same Boat. Good outfitters can help a lot, too. Though they usually can’t compete with the Big Boxes on price, their expert staff can save you a lot more than money.

3. Know Thyself  Romance certainly has its place, but that place isn’t on the water. If you buy a boat designed for circumnavigating Greenland and then use it to fish for crappies on Golden Pond, you’re probably doomed to disappointment. Ask yourself a few hard questions before you go shopping, beginning with this one: What do I want a boat for? And answer the question as honestly as you can. Will you be paddling solo most of the time, or do you have a paddling partner who’s as keen as you are — and who has the same work schedule? (WARNING! Novices don’t belong on the water alone. Ever. Not even on Golden Pond.) How much do you weigh? Will Fido be coming along? How about the kids? Will you be hauling fishing tackle, snorkeling gear, or a cooler? Will you be happy with a lazy paddle in sheltered waters, or do you itch to know what’s over the horizon? Will you use the boat only on calm, sunny days? Or do you plan to go into harm’s way, mixing it up with big waves and gusty winds? In short, keep the difference between dreams (Romance) and needs (Utility) in mind. Then buy a boat that meets your needs.

4. Color Isn’t That Important  Bright is right in heavy traffic, of course, and drab is good when you don’t want to be seen, but for most of us, most of the time, other things are far more important. Like what, for instance? Like …

4. Getting a Good Fit  No, you probably don’t need to tell the sales clerk your inseam and sleeve length, but size does matter. All other things being equal, big folks need bigger boats than short, skinny paddlers. On the other hand, too big a boat can overwhelm a smaller paddler. Manufacturers’ capacity ratings are a good starting point, but nothing beats knowledgeable advice. Ask you buddies. Check the Reviews. If possible, take a boat like the one you’re thinking about out for a test paddle. And speaking of maiden voyages …

6. Your PFD Is as Important as Your Boat  In fact, it probably ought to be your first purchase. You’ll need a PFD if you go out in a friend’s boat, for example, or if you take a used boat for a test drive, like I just suggested. And you don’t get a pass simply because you’re a good swimmer, not even if you’re the champion of the local swim club. Dehydration and heat can sap your strength, as can cold, and rough-water capsizes can leave even the strongest swimmer feeling like she’s trapped in a washing machine’s spin-cycle. A wild river or surf zone is a far cry from the gym pool. So buy a comfortable, properly-fitted PFD — and then wear it. Always. “Deliverance moments” are best enjoyed in the comfort of your living room. They’re no fun when they’re happening to you.

7. Buy Two Paddles  Yes, even if there’s only one of you, you need two paddles. (In fact, if there’ll be two of you in your SOT, you need three paddles. And four would be even better.) You don’t want to find yourself up the proverbial creek, do you? Well, if you only have one paddle, it’s all too easy — and once you drop that one paddle and watch helplessly as it drifts away, you’re no longer a paddler, are you? You’re a drifter, instead. Not good. You think it can’t happen to you? You’re wrong. I’ve found other people’s paddles on just about every river trip I’ve been on. I hope the folks who lost them all had spares. Break-down double-bladed paddles are ideal for most SOTs, but even a stubby single-blade is better than no spare at all.

8. Comfort Is Not a Dirty Word  You’ll probably spend hours in your boat at a stretch, and padded seats and backrests leave you sitting pretty. Just be sure that the foam isn’t the type that absorbs water. (Not sure? Ask.) Drip rings on double paddles reduce the amount of cold water that finds its way into your armpits, too. They’re worth having. A rudder also makes sense for longer boats — and for any boat that will be used where strong crosswinds are likely. Nothing wears you out faster than fighting to keep your bow pointed the right way in a hard blow. A rudder is a great help here. And don’t forget plenty of waterproof bags or cases. SOTs are wet craft, and the “watertight” seals on storage compartments don’t alway live up to their claims.

9. Chill Out  In the store, that is. You want to stay warm — but not too warm — on the water. Don’t be hurried or hassled into a making a hasty, ill-considered choice. Better to miss out on a sale than buy the wrong boat. You’ll be living with your decision for a long time, after all. Take a little time now to get it right. Then, once the deal is done …

10. Take Care of Your SOT  Have a safe place to store your new boat once you get it home, and look after it on the road, too. (A hint to Happy Shopper, if he’s reading this: The bed of a pickup is not the best place to transport a SOT.) Whatever you do, don’t leave your new SOT out in the sun all summer, or let ice slide off the roof onto it in winter. A good boat is an investment that’s bound to yield big dividends in pleasure, but only if you take steps to protect your asset. ‘Nuff said?


Are you a novice paddler? Or are you an experienced boater who’s thinking about buying his first SOT? Either way, this is a good time to go shopping for a sit-on-top. As Canoe Country days grow shorter and the waters cool, “End-of-Season Sale” signs are popping up like so many late-summer wildflowers. But don’t let the promise of big savings lead you astray. A good boat at a good price can still be the wrong boat for you. Luckily, it’s easy to avoid making big mistakes. Just be guided by the secular decalogue of shopping tips I’ve outlined above. With that and a little common sense, you’re almost certain to find the SOT that suits you best. See you on the water!



Whether you’re an aspiring backcountry cordon bleu chef, bent on whipping up a shore lunch worthy of a star in the “Guide Michelin,” or just Cookie for a Day in camp, hoping to do better than canned pork-and-beans, you need to know something about meez. What IS “meez”? If you’re scratching your head and wondering, check out this week’s column. In “Just Between You and Meez,” Tamia reveals all.

Alimentary, My Dear: Just Between You and Meez —
The Camp Cook’s Indispensables

by Tamia Nelson
September 19, 2006

Spend a little time around a busy professional kitchen and you’re sure to hear the word meez sooner or later. And like as not, it will be intoned, not spoken — mouthed reverently, with a sort of quasi-religious awe, almost as if it were a key element in a culinary liturgy. OK. You’re probably not a professional chef. But whether you’re an aspiring backcountry cordon bleu, bent on whipping up a shore lunch worthy of a star in the Guide Michelin, or just Cookie for a Day in camp, trying to do better than canned pork-and-beans, you, too, need to know something about “meez.”

Beginning with what it is, I suppose. No problem. It’s shorthand for mise en place, kitchen French for a chef’s inventory of indispensables, from her personal knives to a long list of staple foods, all of them arrayed around her workstation like a surgeon’s instruments on an operating-room cart. I’ve written about knives elsewhere. Today I’ll restrict myself to edible meez, the basic ingredients without which no camp cook, however skilled, can hope to work any magic. First things first, though. Are you wondering how to say “meez”? That’s easy. Pronounce it like it’s written. In classroom language tapes and CDs, mise en place comes out something like meeze awn plasse, with the words running together in much the same way as smooth, warm chocolate sauce flows. In a busy kitchen, though, it’s just meez. Short and sharp and to the point, exactly like a chef’s favorite paring knife.

Of course, a backcountry fireside lacks most of the amenities of a modern kitchen, and a camp cook’s meez is very different from her meez at home, let alone a restaurant sous chef’s long list of essentials. Chiffonaded parsley, perfectly sliced fresh chives, Normandy butter, sel gris, and truffle oil aren’t found in many paddlers’ packs, after all. Nonetheless, a few well-chosen ingredients can elevate camp food above the ordinary. A pinch of dried herb, a grind of black pepper, a dash of red-wine vinegar — these are some of the things that can make even Survivalists into passable cooks. Remember this: despite the fancy name, meez is just good food, staple items that you probably use every day, maybe even at every meal. They’re foods you’d be very unhappy doing without, in short. But why go without? It’s easy to …

Assemble a Meez That Pleases

Begin by taking stock of your favorite foods. Every cook is different. Your meez and my meez won’t be the same. Do you hanker after Tex-Mex in the backcountry? Then you’ll want one or more varieties of hot-pepper sauce in your meez, along with some of the dried hot peppers themselves. Or are you longing for the taste of Provence? Then dried Provenéal herbs will figure prominently in your bag of tricks. Or maybe you favor fusion, with a Southeast Asian twist. If so, fermented fish sauce is a must. Or are you a “just give me some plain American cooking” type? You are? Then you won’t want to leave the tomato ketchup at home. Get the picture? Your meez should reflect your tastes and those of your paddling buddies, not someone else’s.

Having said all this, a few items show up again and again on good cooks’ meez, whatever their culinary bent. Here’s one list …

Salt  Most processed foods are plenty salty taken right out of the can, box, or packet, but if you make many meals from scratch — or if you bake bread in camp — you’ll want salt in your meez. I prefer Kosher salt to plain table salt; its coarse texture and lack of a metallic aftertaste set it apart. Plain or Kosher, however, salt is perhaps the most nearly universal seasoning. (Many public health experts lament this fact, and for good reason, but active paddlers may need salt more than sedentary folk. Ask your doctor if you’re in any doubt about how much salt to add to your food under way, particularly if you have a family history of hypertension or heart disease.) The reason for salt’s popularity is simple. It makes almost everything taste better, from cooked cereal and eggs to pasta and potatoes. Unless you’ve been told it’s medically proscribed, therefore, don’t leave home without it.

Coffee  Not instant coffee, mind. Only the real thing will do. Long before Arabian crude became the life’s blood of the world economy, the “wine of Islam” lifted Western spirits and quickened life’s pace. Need I say more? Well, now that I come to think of it, I have. Make mine Columbian.

Tea  What evening campfire at the water’s edge would be complete without “the cups that cheer but not inebriate”? Coffee may stiffen my resolve to greet the dawn, but I depend on tea to get me through the long day that follows. My favorites? Gunpowder green when the sun is high. Earl Grey as the shadows lengthen. And I don’t use teabags. Ever.

Cooking Oil  Another don’t-leave-home-without-it staple. For utility, give me corn oil or canola (rapeseed) oil. Neither imparts a noticeable flavor to food, and both have high smoking points — an important consideration in open-fire cooking.

Butter  Or a butter substitute with better keeping qualities than the real thing. It’s mostly for flavor and savor, not cooking. Uses? Pancakes, oatmeal, stewed fruit, breadstuffs, and desserts. For the ultimate in portability, however, try substituting extra-virgin olive oil (see below). It may not be as versatile as butter, but it’s probably better for your arteries. And fresh-baked bannock dipped in olive oil is a treat fit for the gods.

Nonfat Dry Milk  You’ll never mistake this for the thick, rich liquid that comes right out of the cow, but it’s not too bad. Just be sure that the water you use to reconstitute it is clean. Use it in all the places where you’d use milk at home: hot and cold cereals, coffee and tea, pasta sauces, and baked goods. And don’t forget your bedtime cup of hot cocoa. If you make it from scratch, you’ll need milk as well as cocoa powder (more about this later) and …

Sugar  I use the plain granulated stuff for most purposes. Spoonful for spoonful, it’s sweeter than brown sugar. Still, brown sugar — dark or light — has a flavor which can’t be beat. You may find it worth carrying. Farwell, taking his lead from the old woodsmen who swigged sweetened condensed milk straight from the tin on hard days, now drinks a mixture of sugared, reconstituted nonfat dried milk whenever the going gets tough. He says it tastes like cheap soft ice cream. I’m not convinced, I’m afraid, but he likes it. And it does seem to recharge his batteries.

Spices and Herbs  First, a warning. Used with too heavy a hand, spices and herbs can make great food almost inedible. And now the good news: Used judiciously, the same herbs and spices can enliven even the drabbest fare. That’s why every cook has a roster of favorites. I’ve listed some of mine in an earlier column, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that a well-stocked spice kit will go a long way toward transforming one-pot dishes into memorable meals.

Garlic  Whole cloves only, please! Garlic powder — or worse yet, garlic salt — is a delusion, a mockery, and a snare. Luckily, fresh garlic travels well. And so will you, if you use it in your meals.

Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour  Bread is the staff of life, and you need flour to make it. All-purpose flour does the job, and more besides. Much more. I use bread flour at home for most breadstuffs, but I’ve never bothered to take two kinds of flour into the backcountry. Fortunately, all-purpose flour lives up to its name.

That’s my basic meez. But when space permits and the meals promise to be the highlight of a trip, rather than a sidelight, I’ll add some other items, including …

Olive Oil  I’ve mentioned this already as a possible butter substitute, but it’s far more versatile than that. To be sure, it’s not a great frying oil — the smoking point is too low — but the subtle yet distinctive flavor of extra-virgin olive oil complements everything from pasta to pizza.

Balsamic Vinegar  No, it’s not just for dressing green salads. Are satays on your menu? Then be sure to add balsamic vinegar to the marinade. Or drizzle it into stews and soups, where the assertive, complex flavor of balsamic vinegar is almost always a plus. Want more? Then try it in pasta dishes. Delicious!

Cocoa Powder  Before the days of instant everything in little foil packets, folks made hot cocoa from scratch, using only milk, sugar, and … you guessed it … cocoa powder. And do you want to know a secret? It tastes better than instant, even when you make it with nonfat dry milk. Try it and see for yourself. Moreover, cocoa powder can also be used in desserts. Or sprinkle some on apple crumble, hot coffee, or buttered bannock, or mix it in pancake batter. Versatile as well as delicious, eh? Sometimes it pays to go back to basics.

Mustard  An underutilized condiment, mustard is a welcome addition in salad dressings, dipping sauces for meats (including sausage), and in marinades and stews. In fact, the best mustards, like grainy English or fine Dijon, are delicious all by themselves. Just spread on bread and enjoy.

Brandy  Alcohol doesn’t belong on the luncheon menu, but a nip at the end of a long day warms both body and soul. (WARNING! The warmth imparted by brandy is an illusion, alas. Alcohol has no place in the treatment of hypothermia.) It also enhances many desserts and hot drinks, and even improves some stews. Try a dash in a creamy potato soup mix, too.

Now that is the lot. But it’s my meez. Don’t treat it as gospel. Yours will be different. Be guided by your own tastes and preferences. Then, when you’ve finished assembling your meez, it’s time to …

Pack It In

Unless you pack carefully, much of your meeze will be mush by the time you get into camp. Double-bag each dry item, and carry liquids in small plastic bottles with leak-proof caps (test them before you leave for the put-in). Belt-and-suspenders types will also want to double-bag the bottles. Refillable plastic squeeze tubes — they look like large toothpaste tubes — were much in evidence years ago. Now they’re rare, probably because the clip-on closures often slipped off, releasing the contents. This happened to me once too often, and I never trusted them to keep liquids contained for very long. I have found them useful for storing dry staples like nonfat dry milk and sugar, however. You might want to try them yourself (if you can find them, that is), though I’d still double-bag the filled tubes, just to be safe.

Since my meez is used at almost every meal, convenience and efficiency dictate that it travel in a bag of its own, along with separate bags for breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. A single waterproof sack will hold all the food bags for a weekend adventure, and this fits nicely on top of the gear in my rucksack. On longer trips, however, there’s just too much food for one sack to hold — dry food for one person for a week weighs in at nearly twenty pounds when packed, with a volume to match. Each meal bag therefore gets a waterproof sack of its own, as does the meez bag. All of the sacks are then collected in Duluth packs or large dry bags for transport.


Meeze. Now you know. It doesn’t matter that you’re not a Foodie or an aspiring backcountry cordon bleu chef. In fact, even if you’re only Cookie for a Day, you need meez. So jot down your own list of indispensable ingredients and start stocking up. Between you and meez, nothing else will contribute more to good eating, both in camp and under way. That’s worth a little time and trouble, isn’t it? Sure it is. Bon appétit!



Outfitters’ catalogs display page after page of wonderful packs, embodying the latest in materials and technology. They’re light. They’re colorful. And they boast a dizzying array of tailored pockets and compartments. Many are even totally waterproof. So why would any paddler want to lug around a simple, unadorned envelope of cotton duck? To find out, read Tamia’s latest column: “The Pack That Made Duluth a Household Word.”

The Things We Carry: Another Old-Timer —
The Pack That Made Duluth a Household Word

by Tamia Nelson
September 26, 2006

I came to paddling by way of mountaineering, and my climbing packs were state of the art. Each of these high-tech wonders boasted legions of pockets, dividers, zippers, straps, and snaps, and all of them were sewn from the latest in coated nylon fabric. You’ll understand, then, that every time my Grandad — a part-time Adirondack guide — tossed a week’s worth of canned food, an ax, and a blanket roll into a pack basket woven from split ash, and then set off down the trail to one of his backcountry camps, I thought him hopelessly out of date. A real old-timer, in other words.

I soon realized that Grandad wasn’t the ultimate old-timer, however. This title belonged to a much-patched Duluth pack that invariably accompanied Grandad on longer trips in his battered Grumman canoe. The shapeless, faded canvas envelope had me scratching my head from the first moment I saw it. Why, I wondered, would any sane canoeist haul his gear in a pack constructed from thirsty cotton duck? But I knew better than to ask. Grandad was a man of few words, most of them profane. “Sensitive” and “supportive” were definitely not in his working vocabulary. And he wasn’t disposed to defend his choice of gear to anyone, let alone a know-it-all teenager. Grandad was a great believer in learning by doing. He knew that making mistakes and suffering the consequences burned lessons into a hard head like nothing else could.

So while I spent dollars saved from my meager earnings on a succession of pricy climbing packs, each one of them flashier and more sculpted than the one before it, Grandad contented himself with his pack basket and Duluth pack. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. When Grandad glided easily through the spruce hells and along boggy game trails with his pack basket riding securely between his shoulder blades and hips, I fought for each foot of ground and struggled to keep up, as branches snatched at my pack’s frame ends, tugged at zipper pulls, and snagged ice-ax loops, sometimes even tearing the fragile stuff sack that contained my precious sleeping bag. Needless to say, my exertions often came to nothing. Sooner or later, Grandad’s form would disappear into the shadows ahead, leaving me to plod on alone. Inevitably, though, I’d meet him further down the trail, sitting on a windfall and smoking, his furrowed face wreathed in a smile that betrayed a large measure of amusement compounded with just a hint of amiable contempt. I’d pull up short immediately, sweaty and panting, welcoming the chance to rest. But Grandad, his khaki shirt still crisp and dry, would silently stub out his cigarette in the Sucrets tin he always carried as a portable ashtray, nod his head in a gesture that combined greeting and farewell, stand up, and then stride effortlessly away, leaving me to follow as best I could.

And follow I did, though my climbing packs often held me back. I was slow to learn, in other words. But the lesson was brought home once again when Grandad invited me to accompany him as he stalked brookies on a remote beaver pond. I loaded my frame pack into the canoe first. It wasn’t easy. We’d left the spruce hells behind, but this made very little difference. The ends of the pack frame seemed to reach out to grab the tin tank’s thwarts, seats, and gunwales, and the resulting percussion solo echoed from the surrounding hills for long seconds. Grandad watched with growing impatience while I fussed and fumed. When his turn came, he slipped his faded green Duluth pack effortlessly behind the central thwart, adding a caustic remark about the importance of a quiet approach to the success of the day’s fishing. My face was still burning with embarrassment when we launched. The message had finally gotten through to me.

Much later, after Grandad breathed his last — the million-odd cigarettes he’d smoked in his life wore him down as no spruce hell ever could — I got a canoe of my own. And when the time came to outfit that canoe for my first Big Trip, a Duluth pack was high on my list of must-have items. What motivated my uncharacteristic return to the age before petroleum-based miracle fabrics? Why did I seek out a throwback, a relic that had barely changed since its introduction in the late 1800s? Anachronism and sentiment played a part, I admit, but so what? Much of the appeal of canoeing and kayaking lies in what Farwell likes to call “elective anachronism.” It doesn’t matter if our boats are molded from thermoplastic and our paddles bear only the slightest resemblance to an ash beavertail. Once seated in a canoe or kayak, we’re forced to slow down. Our shrinking world suddenly grows larger, and familiar waterscapes take on a new richness and intensity. To some degree, carrying our gear in a canvas pack that dates back to a time when the American Civil War was still a living memory furthers this end. And it keeps me in touch with my Grandad, too, I suppose.

Then again, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, is it? The Duluth pack wouldn’t have kept its place in outfitters’ catalogs for nearly 150 years if its appeal rested solely on sentiment. It’s also a very practical pack. It works, in other words. In its simplest, purest form, it’s little more than a large, flat envelope topped with a flap that you cinch down with three leather straps. You haul it with a short tumpline, a pair of broad shoulder straps, or both, depending on the weight of your gear, the terrain, and your personal preference. The advantages? The Duluth pack is easy to load. You don’t have to struggle to shoehorn bulky items like tents, sleeping bags, and food bags into tiny, form-fitting, zippered compartments. It’s easy to stow in a canoe, too. There’s little to catch on thwarts or seats. And it’s surprisingly comfortable to carry. With the load borne by both shoulders and neck — get your neck muscles in shape first, if you’re thinking about tumping! — you’ll find that you take many trails at a half-jog, even when you put a second, smaller load (the “baby”) on top of the main pack.

The fabric is part of the story. Cotton duck breathes. It’s comfortable against your back in hot, humid weather. And the duck’s coarse weave has a bit of a “tooth.” It doesn’t slip-slide around when you’re walking fast. It’s stealthy, too — a fact not lost on hunters, anglers, naturalists, and other folks who prefer seeing to being seen. Cotton duck whispers quietly through the bush, and its subdued olive-drab color doesn’t advertise your presence to every passer-by. Cotton fabrics are also easily repaired. (Grandad’s old pack was more patch than pack.) They also smell good. Even the musty pong of mildew is a pleasant reminder that this pack, at least, won’t end up as a permanent resident in some suburban landfill. Rot is nature’s way of recycling materials, after all. Of course, there are times when even the shyest paddler wants to be seen. Like during big-game season, for instance. That’s when I drape a hunter-orange vest over my pack.

What about waterproofing? Isn’t this the Duluth sack’s Achilles’ heel? Yes and no. Treated cotton duck is very water-repellent, to be sure, but it will nevertheless soak through if it sits in a puddle for long. And it’s certainly not immersion-proof: the cover flap doesn’t even pretend to be a watertight closure. The flap keeps rain showers off the pack’s contents, and nothing more. What’s the solution, then? Simple. Pack anything that you need to keep dry in waterproof bags (“dry bags”) before you stuff it in your Duluth pack. On whitewater outings you can even put the entire pack in a large, heavy-duty dry bag, combining the benefits of waterproof stowage and flotation. But what about the water that sloshes back and forth in the bilges of even well-handled boats on the calmest days? The traditional remedy, a couple of long spruce poles laid parallel to the keel, will appeal to some, but only if they can find suitable poles. (Put the packs on the poles, out of reach of the bilge water.) The rest of us will rely on dry bags or — for optimists only! — heavy plastic liners, folded over at the top.

Do you find the shape of the original Duluth pack’s flat envelope too confining? You’re not alone, and help is at hand. Even old dogs occasionally learn new tricks. You can now buy boxy Duluth packs with side panels. They stand upright with much more grace than the old-style “flour sacks,” and they hold a lot more gear into the bargain. You can even purchase Duluth sacks with large side pockets, blurring the distinction between Duluth pack and rucksack. The pockets are convenient places to stow water bottles and foul-weather gear, I admit, but they also add snag points. It’s your choice. Luckily, most paddlers will find that they need more than one Duluth pack, so it’s always possible to hedge your bets. Farwell and I own nearly a dozen between us, as it happens. They’re all made from cotton and leather, but those are just about the only things they have in common. Some even do double duty as pack-basket covers — there are few better ways to carry cooking pots and other hard-to-pack gear. Of course, we don’t always use Duluth packs when paddling. My getaway pack is a German military-surplus rucksack. It works fine for most weekend jaunts, and it sometimes comes along on more ambitious journeys, too.

Kayakers will also want to look elsewhere. Unless you own a big tandem boat, you’ll probably discover that even the smallest Duluth pack is too large to stow below decks. Or am I underestimating this old-timer’s versatility? Maybe so. After all, on kayak camping trips I still lash a freighter frame to the stern deck of my boat. It portages both kayak and gear. I suppose a big Duluth pack would serve equally well in the latter role for a kayaker who relies on a conventional portage yoke. The Duluth pack could then travel (empty) on the stern deck, stowed in a dry bag to keep it from getting soaked. One thing is certain: Duluth packs are versatile!


With autumn’s chill numbing my fingers and the cries of wild geese echoing over my head, I can’t resist the urge to shoulder my little pack canoe and spend some time on the ponds and flows around me, saying my farewells to the big, battleship-gray birds before they fly south to brave the seasonal gauntlet of fire. And when I go, the pack in my little canoe is often a simple canvas envelope — a gift from another bird of passage, one who went south many years ago, but whom I still glimpse from time to time in the half-light of an autumn dawn, when a flaw in the wind opens a short-lived gap in the morning mist on some remote Adirondack tarn. As was always his habit, he’s taken the lead.

Like a good man, a good pack endures. The Duluth pack is here to stay.

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