The Rope TrickTracking Your Way Up a River
By Tamia Nelson
June 4, 2002
It was one of those beautifully simple things that any
fool can understandand it was flexible and perfect. With that and a
strong hand on the paddle and the ability to use a pole a man can go
Raymond M. Patterson The Dangerous River
Sound too good to be true? Well, Raymond M.
Patterson wasn't a man who was much given to irrational exuberance. Nor
was he describing some high-tech piece of gear designed by a team of
engineers and constructed of space-age materials. (After all, anything
that was state-of-the-art in 1927 is "traditional" today.) In fact, he
wasn't talking about equipment at all. Instead, he was extolling the
virtues of a particular technique for climbing a riverthe technique
known as "tracking."
And the river he was proposing to climb was no rivulet. Patterson was
setting out to follow the South Nahanni to its headwaters in Canada's
Northwest Territories. It wasn't a walk in the park. In Patterson's day it
was terra incognitaunknown country. Even today, the South
Nahanni is a river worthy of respect. It's remote. It's got cataracts and
gorges. It's got Virginia Falls. A river to reckon with, in short.
So why climb a river, you ask? Good question. Nowadays, anyone who
wants to paddle the South Nahanni need only pick up the phone and dial
1-800-GOTODAY, credit card in hand. A float plane or jet boat will meet
the would-be explorer at Fort Simpson and take her upriver. Once there,
it's a relatively easy ride back to the Mackenzie, going with the flow all
Patterson didn't have it so easy. While in London on business in the
winter of 1926-27, he picked up a copy of Michael Mason's The Arctic
Forests. When he settled down "in front of a blazing fire" to read his
new book, he was intrigued by an empty place on one of the maps. A river
ran through it, and that river was the South Nahanni. Patterson decided
then and there that this river would be his royal road into the
little-known Mackenzie mountains. But it was 1927. Patterson couldn't call
1-800-GOTODAY, and he couldn't charter a Twin Otter or jetboat to take him
upriver. If he wanted to climb the South Nahanni to its headwaters, he'd
have to do it on his owntwo hundred miles against the current of a
mountain river. He wasn't worried, though. He knew that with a long rope,
"a strong hand on the paddle and the ability to use a pole a man can go
anywhere." He was right.
Of course Patterson didn't invent upstream travel. The Hudson's Bay
Company had been using North America's rivers as highways since the
seventeenth century. (They weren't alone. The continent's First Nations
had been doing the same thing long before the voyageurs arrived on
the scene.) And the Company's key to the continent was tracking.
While the idea is probably as old as canoeing itself, the word is a legacy
from the days of canal boats, when barges were pulled by men or horses,
hauling on lines attached to each vessel's bow and stern.
Walkwaystracksparalleled the canals and provided good footing
for the beasts of burden.
The same technique was pressed into service on wilderness rivers of
North America. When the current got too strong to paddle against, and when
the bottom was too deep for poles to get a purchase, the hardy servants of
the Hudson's Bay company broke out their long ropes. Tracking was a sweaty
and dangerous business, but it worked, and that was what mattered.
OK. The Hudson's Bay Company isn't moving bails of furs by water these
days, but there's no reason why you shouldn't follow in their footsteps.
In fact, there are lots of good reasons to go against the flow of a river.
You don't need to shuttle cars, for one thing. Back in the days when
Farwell and I chased the spring runoff all over New York and New England,
we sometimes spent more time driving than paddling. Nowadays, I'd rather
spend my time on the river than on the road. The solution? Climb a river
upstream in the morning and float back to your put-in at the end of the
day. Simple, isn't it?
You learn a lot by going against the flow, too. Heading upstream,
you've got more time to study a river and its ways. If you measure your
trips by the density of experience rather than the number of miles
traveled, there's no contest. Upstream travel wins hands down. Once you've
climbed a river just one time, it's yours forever.
And going against the flow also means that you don't get unpleasant
surprises. There's no danger of drifting over a falls from downstream,
after all. (You can get caught in the reversal below a falls,
though. Use common sense in approaching any hazard, whichever way you're
heading.) And what if you reach an impassable stretch late in the day? No
problem. Point your bow downstream and head back to your put-in.
Sound easy? It is. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone. Upstream
travel is usually hard work, and it requires that you master a number of
complementary techniques. Sometimes you can paddle, though paddling won't
get you far if the water's too fast or too shallow. That's when a pole
comes in handy. But poling, too, has its limitations. It requires a
reasonably firm bottom and water that's not too deep. If there's more than
a couple of feet under your keel, you'll have trouble. Poling is also a
skill that must be learned. You can't grab a pole and expect to master it
the first time out. Or the second. You'll need to practice first.
The art of tracking, on the other hand, can be picked up pretty
quickly. It's versatile, too. You can do it if you're alone, or you can do
it with a partner. As long as there's enough water to float your canoe and
a path for you to walk on, you can track.
And you don't need special equipment. You do need rope, though. For
easy rivers, your bow and stern painters may be enough, provided that
they're securely attached and at least 25 feet long. Real tracking lines
are 50 feet long, howeverand sometimes even longer. (Patterson used
an 80-foot line on the Nahanni, and the Company often employed lines as
long as 200 feet on big rivers.) Whatever the length of your tracking
line, you'll want it to be at least 1/4-inch in diameter: anything less
will cut your hands.
Material matters, but not much. Nylon and dacron lines are both good,
though nylon is stretchier. Polypro floats, and that's handy, but the
cheaper grades are very abrasive, and they don't hold knots well. That's
not so good.
Back to length: there's no free lunch. Longer lines give you more
scope, but you sacrifice control. The rope's stretch increases with its
length. There's also the danger of tangles. If you get a long line tangled
up in an alder thicket, it's just a nuisance, but if you get
tangled up in your line in a strong current, you could be in serious
trouble. Be sure that you have a sharp knife with you whenever you work
around rope, and be sure that you can get at your knife with only one
Confused? That's not surprising. Tracking lines are always either too
long or too short. What's the solution? Bring several lengths of rope and
tailor your tracking lines to the needs of the moment.
Once you have your lines secured at bow and stern, you're almost ready
to begin climbing a river. Tie your paddles and gear inside your canoe
first, though. And always wear your life jacket, zipped up and cinched
down. It's easy to slip off a wet rock and fall into the river. Is the
water cold? Then don a wetsuit. Wear something protective and grippy on
your feet, too, and watch where you put your feet. Avoid stepping into
cracks between rocks. If the time ever comes when you're tempted to track
your boat up a demanding rapids, consider wearing a helmet. When you take
a header into fast water, a slam dunk is often the result.
That sort of thing comes later, though. You should choose an easy river
for your maiden voyage. Pick one with a noticeable current, but with no
rapids harder than a very easy Class I. There should be a good track, too.
Often you can walk along the cobble beach left by receding spring flood
waters. Begin alone, handling both bow and stern lines. Once you get the
knack, let your partner have a turn at the ropes. When you've both
mastered the "rope trick," practice working together.
Ready? Let's start. Your canoe should be pointed the way you want to
go: upstream. Face the river, holding the coiled bow line in your
"upstream" hand. The stern line, also neatly coiled, should be held in
your other hand. Now shove the bow of your canoe out till it leaves the
shore eddy and catches the current. Let out both lines a little bit at a
timethe bow line a bit faster than the stern, just enough to keep
the bow angled away from you toward mid-river. If the canoe moves too far,
or too fast, let out more stern line till the movement's checked. On the
other hand, if the boat insists on hugging the shore, give the bow line
more scope. Then, once your canoe is riding steady in deep water, start
Be careful. Don't let either line tangle around your feet, and
never wrap a line around your wrist or hand.
Sooner or later you'll encounter an obstacle a mid-stream rock,
say. If you're on a collision course with the rock, pay out more of the
bow line. The boat will angle toward mid-river and move further out, away
from the rock. Keep walking. When you've put the danger behind you, snub
the bow line in just a bit and work the canoe back toward you, keeping
the bow pointing out. You'll have to muscle the boat back in. If you
let the bow swing in toward shore, you'll lose control. You can't push
with a rope.
Simple, isn't it? To move your boat out, away from shore, give the bow
line more slack. To check this outward movement, take the slack in or let
out a little more of the stern line.
Seem familiar? It is. When you track a boat, you're doing an upstream
ferryexcept that you aren't in the boat, of course. The speed at
which your canoe moves away from shore will depend on a number of things:
how fast the river's flowing, how fast you're walking, and how great an
angle your canoe makes with the current. Don't open this angle too
much. If you do, your canoe may broachswing broadside to the
currentand swamp. Stay alert. It can happen very fast.
That's it. Some people recommend using "bridles" for tracking your
canoe, but the additional lashings are tedious and time-consuming, and
I've never felt the need for them. I just tie the bow and stern lines to
the deck or stem fittings instead. It works fine.
There's one other wrinkle you may want to try, though. When Patterson
tracked his 16-foot Prospector up the South Nahanni, he used a
single 80-foot line. One end of the line was tied to the bow of his
boat; the other, to the stern. Then, instead of having to manage two
lines, he only had to pass the single line through his hands: forward to
let the bow fall off toward mid-river, back to check it and bring it in.
It was "beautifully simple," he said, "flexible and perfect." I agree,
particularly if you're alone.
Tracking. Why bother? Why not just dial 1-800-GOTODAY and go with the
flow? After all, there aren't any blank spaces left on the map, are there?
Maybe so. But none of us has seen everything. We all have unknown lands on
our personal maps of the world, and upstream travel is a great way to fill
in some of these empty spaces. Even on familiar rivers, you'll make new
discoveries every time you go against the flow, and Patterson's rope trick
is your passport. Give it a try.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights