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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Waterway Rambling

Part 3—Oh, for a Short Ship! Boats for Ramblers

By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

You'll find the earlier articles in this series in the Archives. The next will go on-line on March 12th.

February 12, 2002

It was one of the first waterway rambles to be described in print, and in many ways it's never been equaled. "On Saturday, the last day of August, 1839," Henry David Thoreau and his brother John embarked on the cruise that was to form the narrative framework for Henry's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

It wasn't a wilderness trip. The Concord flowed through farm fields and small towns, and the Merrimack was a largish commercial river, its descent from the White Mountains to the sea checked again and again by mill-dams and locks. No matter, though. The "wilderness" that Henry sought was always near at hand. In describing another excursion on the Concord, he later wrote, "I never voyaged so far in all my life." These words could easily have been applied to the brothers' 1839 odyssey. Few river trips have taken two explorers farther afield, however short the actual distance traveled.

Yet A Week was not a success. Unable to interest a publisher in the book, Henry had to pay the printing costs out of his own pocket, and only 300 of the first 1000 copies were sold. The rest were eventually returned to the author, who thereafter joked that he had a library of a thousand books, seven hundred of which he'd written himself. It's easy to see why A Week failed to sell. It meanders as often as the rivers it describes, flowing from straightforward description through great loops of elegiac poetry, and then on into reflective backwaters choked with musings about friendship, fishes, and the soil-enriching properties of graveyards. Nevertheless, for any modern paddlers blessed with the patience to navigate the frequent oxbows, and the determination to force their way upriver against an occasional adverse current, the book amply repays the effort of the journey.

It's also a good, commonsense guide to waterway rambling. Despite having the best education that Harvard could offer, Henry was a practical man, and it was a good thing that he was. When he and his brother decided they wanted to float down the Concord and continue up the Merrimack, just to see what they could see, they faced an immediate obstacle: they had no boat. This didn't hold them back for long, however. "A week's labor in the spring" resulted in a boat "like a fisherman's dory"—a double-ended craft, near enough to a canoe so as to make no difference to any paddler—"painted green below, with a border of blue, with reference to the two elements in which it was to spend its existence."

Happily, the dory proved equally at home in both worlds, serving the brothers well under sail, oar, and paddle. Only when they reached the last of the locks in the Merrimack did they wish for something lighter and handier, a craft better suited to being "dragged around the long and numerous rapids." Not the sort of men to be easily discouraged, Henry and his brother continued along the riverbank on foot, but their journey had reached its climax. "This," Henry wrote, "was the limit of our voyage."

Are you attracted to the idea of exploring your neighborhood by water? Then you have the same problem that confronted Henry and his brother. You need a boat. Most paddlers already have a canoe or kayak, of course, and if you're one of these lucky folks, your problem's already solved. Even if your boat isn't perfectly suited to local waterways—if, for example, it's a highly-rockered creek boat, while the nearby rivers are all placid, slow-moving streams—you can usually make do with what you have. And you should, at least at first. "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes," Henry wrote elsewhere, in another book. It's still good advice today.

But suppose you don't own a boat. Or suppose that you've already taken your boat out on local waters and found it wanting. What then?

The answer is simple: build or buy the boat you need. Building will appeal to do-it-yourself types with a minimum of good tools, a place to work, and time on their hands. If this describes you, go to it! You won't save much money, but you'll find many other rewards along the way. On the other hand, if you're not a do-it-yourselfer, or if you live in a small apartment, or you have to work sixty hours a week, then buying a boat's probably your best bet. There's nothing wrong with this. It's most people's choice, after all, and for very good reasons.

OK. Build or buy, you're set on having a new boat to begin a new season of waterway rambling. But what sort of boat? That's the real question, isn't it? Unfortunately, there's no hard and fast answer. Individual preference, personal experience, and availability all play their part in persuading folks to choose one boat over another. Even fashion has a role. A few general principles still apply, however, and several types of boat stand out as being particularly well-suited to the needs of ramblers.

The principles first. Put briefly, for most ramblers, most of the time, bigger is not necessarily better, and weight is more important than strength. Wilderness canoeists need to haul hundreds of pounds of food and gear. Expedition sea kayakers need craft that can be controlled in the breaking seas kicked up by Force 7 blows. Whitewater paddlers need boats that will withstand the hard knocks that are part of their sport. For hard-core boaters like these, bigger usually is better, and strength is at a premium.

Ramblers, on the other hand, will seldom carry more than a few days' food and a light camping kit, and only a handful—experienced boaters, hopefully—will venture onto rivers more difficult than an easy Class II. And what happens when the wind blows a gale? The sensible rambler will be reading a good book by a bed-and-breakfast fire, downing a pint at a local pub, or curled up under a well-secured tarp. For ramblers, going light is always right, and comfort is always king. Nessmuk, the patron saint of American waterway ramblers, summed it up neatly: "Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment."

This is as true of your boat as of any other piece of gear. If your local waterways—or any other waters that hold the promise of a pleasant ramble—run to little rivers and tiny ponds, with frequent portages along the way, you can't do better than to follow in Nessmuk's wake. A short, light pack canoe is a joy to paddle, and it's almost a pleasure to portage, too. The larger pack canoes run to 12 feet and 35 pounds. The smallest are several feet shorter and half the weight. Expensive? Yes, particularly the Kevlar featherweights. But ideal for a skinny, well-heeled rambler who wants to travel light and fast. It was Nessmuk's choice for the Adirondacks, and nearly a century and a half later, there's still no better boat.

But suppose you're eyeing bigger water: a mid-sized or larger lake, say, or a slow-moving river, or even a sheltered stretch of seacoast. Whichever one of these you've got your eye on, it's no place for a pack canoe. So what's the right boat for you now?

Easy. Just look back to the future. In the last half of the nineteenth century, when recreational paddling was in its infancy, the "canoe" of choice was 13-15 feet long, decked, and propelled by a single paddler wielding a double-blade. John "Rob Roy" MacGregor, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the American dentist Charles Neide used boats like these to explore waterways from the River Jordan to the Mississippi. Their books were best-sellers, and an international canoeing craze was born. But then, as quickly as it had burst forth on the scene, the decked Rob Roy canoe disappeared, to be replaced on most American waterways by the now-familiar open ("Canadian") canoe. The Canadian canoe was cheaper and better suited to family outings, and that was enough. By 1900, the Rob Roy was all but forgotten.

Almost a hundred years later, though, in the late 1990s, a "new" boat suddenly made its appearance in the catalogs. It was decked. It was 12-14 feet long. And it was driven by a single paddler with a double-bladed paddle. These touring (or recreational) kayaks were, in fact, modern incarnations of the Rob Roy. They're still in the catalogs, and there's still no better boat for exploring slow-moving rivers, mid-sized lakes, and sheltered seacoasts. If that's where you want to ramble, then you've found your ship!

But what if there are two of you? What do you do then? You have a couple of choices. You can get two of whichever boat you've decided on, pack canoe or touring kayak. Or—if big water's your thing—look for a tandem touring kayak. These are rare beasts, but they're wonderful boats for open water. You can talk to your partner without shouting, and take turns catching your breath without coming to a dead stop, yet you can move out with surprising speed when you have to. You can also rig these big boats with sails and discover what it's like to have the wind working for you for a change.

Is there a downside? Always. Weight, for one thing—though most tandem kayaks weigh less than two recreational solos. Limited storage space, for another. (Go light!) And price. (At least your wallet will be lighter.) Is the trade-off a good one? Only you can decide that.

Winter's loosening its grip on the land in the northern hemisphere, and hints of spring are in the air. Are you dreaming of waterway rambles in a short ship of your own? There'll never be a better time to begin. Pack canoe, touring kayak or tandem, it makes no difference. One of these will fill the bill for nearly every rambler. The pleasure's in the choosing—and the using!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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