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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Joy of Lists

Looking for the Ultimate List

by Tamia Nelson

I have a confession to make. I love lists. When I pick up any sort of travel book, the first thing I do is look for the author's gear list. If I don't find one, I feel cheated. When I do find one, though, the effect is magical. I'm immediately transported away from the here-and-now to somewhere remote in time or place.

Just the other day, I was in the stacks of a local library, grubbing about in search of a technical monograph. I wasn't having much luck, and my back was starting to ache. I stood up, stretched, and looked around me. Then my eye fell on a book. It had a one-word title, South!, and the author was the celebrated polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Intrigued, I took the book off the shelf and flipped through the pages. It was Shackleton's own account of his ill-fated 1914-17 attempt to cross the Antarctic continent. The expedition failed in its objective, but it was a heroic failure, accurately described by Shackleton himself as "a story which is unique in the the history of Antarctic exploration." So compelling is the tale, in fact, that it's the subject of a recent best-seller, Caroline Alexander's The Endurance.

That was all well and good, but I had work to do, and I was just about to put the volume back when I came to—you guessed it—The List. In this case, it was a list of stores assembled by Shackleton when he and five others were preparing to cross 800 miles of the world's least hospitable seas in the 20-ft-long open boat JAMES CAIRD.

And what a list it was! From the first item ("30 boxes of matches") to the last ("Aneroid"), it held my interest as nothing else could. Only twenty-five items in all. Just imagine that. Farwell and I take more things with us when we go out for a one-hour paddle on the 'Flow.

From that moment on, I was well and truly hooked. I kept the book with me and checked it out. It's now sitting on the bedside table, ready to take me away to the great Southern Ocean for a few minutes every night. Any book with a list that includes "250 lbs of ice" and "some blubber-oil in an oil bag" simply can't be left unread. (The ice, by the way, was a store of fresh water.)

Of course, my passion for lists doesn't end here. I make my own lists, too. Whenever I'm not actually paddling—and let's face it, that's most of the time, isn't it?—I'm drawing up lists. With the exception of maps (see "Maps and Dreams"), nothing opens my mind to the possibilities of a voyage like a list. Nor can anything rekindle the memory of a past trip half so well as discovering a smudged and tattered scrap of paper headed with the words "Baker tent (check netting)" or "4 lb Lapsang Souchong tea."

And I know that this love of mine is not a solitary passion. Farwell likes lists, too. Good thing, that. We'd never have stayed together if he didn't. In fact, a lot of folks apparently share my love of lists. One quarterly paddling publication even offers a free copy of what the publisher calls "the Ultimate List" as a come-on to new subscribers.

That's a good idea, but is this really the Ultimate List? I doubt it. Lists are like double shotguns or suits. You can always make do with something you buy "off the peg," of course, but the very best are "bespoke"—made to order. Unlike shotguns and suits, however, the best lists are made by the ultimate user. They grow by accretion, just like sedimentary rocks form. Little by little, line by line, the best lists grow as their makers' experience grows, reflecting their developing interests and personal quirks. I won't go anywhere without a notebook and a box of watercolors, for example, and Farwell takes a small down-filled pillow and a pocket edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse. The great Arctic explorer John Rae, on the other hand, always carried a one-volume Shakespeare, a book of sacred poetry, and a needle-case. (Rae was a surgeon.)

"OK, then," you say, "but where do I start?" Good question. Begin by looking at other people's lists. Nearly every book on canoe- or kayak-camping has one. Then take a sheet of paper and jot down what seems most important to you, but keep your priorities straight. Remember what J. says in Three Men in a Boat: take "enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing." That's good advice. You can't have fun if you're cold, hungry or tired. Clothing, shelter, food and bedding come first. It's true that Farwell won't leave home without his Oxford Book of English Verse, but you can be damn sure that he won't forget his sleeping bag either. He did once. He'll never do it again.

One good starting-place is the list of "ten essentials" compiled by The Mountaineers many years ago. A lot of folks have tried to make it better, but to my mind at least it hasn't been improved upon. On any trip longer than a walk to the mailbox, be sure to take:

  1. Map(s)
  2. Compass
  3. Flashlight
  4. Matches (in a waterproof container) and firestarter
  5. Sunglasses
  6. Sunscreen
  7. Knife
  8. Extra food and water
  9. Spare clothing
  10. First-aid kit

Of course, you won't forget your boat, paddles, life-jacket(s) and other paddling gear, will you? A lot of folks do, though. In the years when Farwell and I were chasing the spring run-off from stream to stream every weekend, we soon learned to throw a spare "universal" life-jacket and a couple of cheap paddles into the truck—and we found takers for them at almost every put-in. Oh, yes, don't forget the eleventh essential: an extra set of car keys!

It's not so hard, is it? Start with a list of things for a day-trip or an over-night at first. Add to it as your trips get longer. Change it as your experience dictates. Just don't expect that you'll ever stop, and don't imagine that you'll ever be satisfied with somebody else's idea of the Ultimate List, however impressively packaged. When all is said and done, there's only one ultimate list, and that's the one you make yourself.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

We've been getting a lot of mail from folks who want to know how to get started in paddlesport. Next week, look for the first part in a two-part series on "Starting Out." In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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