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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Portable Pantry

Planning for a Big Trip—First Things

By Tamia Nelson

January 21, 2003

Some folks have all the luck. Readers in more temperate climes scarcely notice the passage of the seasons. Many are on the water every day of the year. Not us, though. As temperatures plunge below zero in the northern Adirondack foothills, we paddle through the deepening drifts on long, Ojibwa-pattern snowshoes. But what do we do in the intervals between treks across our frozen landscape? We dream of the spring to come—of the liquid song of free-running water, the savory reek of mud-flats and swamps, and the wavering flights of northbound geese.

Fortunately, dreaming needn't be the idle, time-wasting exercise it's often thought to be. Most things that are worth doing have their genesis in someone's dreams. So when Farwell and I dream, we try to dream with a purpose. And more and more often now, our dreams conjure up long journeys far from our home waters. I don't imagine that we're alone. It's a rare paddler indeed who doesn't dream of doing just one more Big Trip—if not this year, then the next. To be sure, though, "long" is an elastic word, and some Big Trips are bigger than others. For many canoeists and kayakers, a week spent circumnavigating a state park's waterways is plenty long enough. At the other extreme, a few vagabond souls set their sights on circumnavigating continents, and still come home restless for new challenges.

But dreams can't be measured out like carpeting or canvas. Nor is the pleasure in their realization simply a matter of the number of miles traveled. Every trip that expands the horizons of your world is a Big Trip, even if it takes you no further than your mailbox. Of course, any trip that takes you away from the grocery store for more than a few days is big in a much more practical sense. Forget something, and you have to do without. Run out of anything, and you have to make do. So it pays to dream practically. This is what most people call "planning."

It's a big subject in itself, and we've touched on it before. But there's more to planning a Big Trip than reading old journals, studying maps and charts, and reckoning tides. We may not live by bread alone, but after a few days on short rations most of us lose interest in everything beyond the next meal. This isn't the happiest state of mind in which to enjoy a trip. So when you dream, don't neglect the needs of your Inner Man (or Woman).

There are only two absolute rules in provisioning for a long journey: take what you know you like to eat, and bring enough. Very long journeys—trips that will last more than two weeks, say—impose additional demands. You need to be sure that whatever foods you take will store and keep well, and that they'll meet all your nutritional needs.

You already know what you and your companions like to eat. That's your best guide to what to pack. Some folks regard food only as fuel. They eat only to live, and they thrive on a diet of energy bars and electrolyte-replacement drinks. These folks have it easy. They'll have very little trouble with menu planning. If you think this describes you, though, do yourself a favor. Try your proposed diet out at home for several days first, before you leave on your Big Trip, and be sure you don't cheat! Farwell still has nightmares about a long trek he once made with no food but a rucksack full of patented Norwegian touring rations. They met every known nutritional need but one—they were inedible.

If you're not one of the food-is-just-fuel brigade, then you've got a bigger job ahead of you. On weekend trips almost anything goes. Steak with baked potatoes, or liver and fava beans with a big Amarone. Dessert can be apple pie topped with whipped cream, washed down with brandy and liqueurs. Next morning, you can start the day with a pancake, egg, and bacon breakfast. Lunch? A waterside picnic with Stilton, water biscuits, and walnuts. (If you're not done paddling for the day, it's best to leave the port in the bottle.) Ah, yes….

But Big Trips are something else. Fresh vegetables and perishable foods aren't on the menu. Even if spoilage didn't rule them out, weight and space would. Fruits and vegetables are often more than 90% water, and water weighs too much for you to cart it along in your food bags. Dried and dehydrated is the way to go.

You say you plan to live off the land? Good luck. Even where this isn't illegal, you're betting your life against house odds, and the house never extends credit to anyone on a losing streak. A fillet of fish or handful of berries is one thing. Feeding yourself day after day is something else. Aboriginal peoples learned time and again that the caribou don't come every year, and that the salmon run sometimes fails. Each time this happened, some of them died, and more than a few explorers suffered the same fate.

OK. Dried and dehydrated it is. You'll still need water, of course, to rehydrate both your food and yourself: 2-4 quarts per person per day to drink—more in really hot climates—and more yet for cooking and washing. At over eight pounds a US gallon, you can't carry it with you. But you can't assume you can drink the water you paddle in, either, however far back-of-beyond your route takes you. You'll have to purify it first. There's no alternative. On any long trip, water's the first essential. Coastal kayakers have another problem. As the Ancient Mariner found out, salt water isn't drinkable, and although portable desalinators are available, they require a lot of pumping. It's much better to get water ashore. Here's where topographic maps (and local knowledge) come in handy, even for paddlers who always navigate by chart.

And clean water's just the start. Like it or not, Big Trips demand that the camp cook make difficult decisions, balancing the weight, versatility, flavor, and storage qualities of each food, while never losing sight of cost and convenience. Often it's a zero-sum game, with every gain offset by a new drawback. There are no one-hundred-percent right answers, I'm afraid, only hard choices.

Cookware, too, requires careful thought. Weekenders can afford to pack a popcorn popper, a cast-iron skillet, and a folding oven. Big Trippers, on the other hand, have to weigh each item—literally, in many instances—and take only what they'll find most useful. Your boat plays a role in determining the limits of the possible. Canoeists can almost always find room for one more item, though the litter along most portage trails suggests that many have second thoughts after they leave home. But kayakers simply can't pile things in and hope for the best. For them, bulk is as important as weight. Food, foul-weather gear, spare clothing, tent and sleeping bag—each of these essentials takes up space. The cook's batterie de cuisine (that's foodie-talk for "kitchen kit") gets whatever room is left over, and not one cubic inch more.

The choices keep piling up, and they don't get easier. Should you take a portable stove or rely on a camp-fire? A portable stove will need fuel and spare parts. Is this too much trouble? Maybe. But before you opt for wood fires only, here are some questions to ask yourself: Is there wood to burn along all of your route? Will you want to take time to gather it? Can you start a fire when it's blowing half a gale and the rain is coming down in buckets? (That's when you'll really want a hot meal, after all!) And what does the law say? Is a fire-permit required where you're going? How likely is it that a drought will make open fires illegal?

The long arm of the law reaches out into other planning areas, too. Many wilderness parks ban all tin cans and glass containers. That will limit your menu. And customs regulations often make importing large quantities of food very expensive, if not altogether impossible. Apart from the expense involved, it's never easy to reprovision (and repack) on the road, so if your trip will take you across an international border, be sure your paperwork's in order.

Decisions. Hard choices. Trade-offs. Whenever "eating out" means feeding yourself for a week or more from the contents of a pack, it's not as much of a holiday as the words suggest. Don't be discouraged, though. I'll have more to say about the subject in future articles. In the meantime, help's only a click away. Dream your dreams and start making your plans. Summer is just around the corner!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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