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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Life's a Beach

Camping on the Edge

By Tamia Nelson

January 6, 2004

Baby, it's cold outside! At least it is in New York's Adirondack foothills. And when the going gets tough, the tough get going — to warmer climes. But maybe it's not as easy as it sounds. After all, sun and sand can pose a few problems for paddlers more accustomed to snowdrifts and icy parking lots than wave-lapped beaches. Still, you want your life to be a beach, don't you? Then here's what to expect when you go…

Against the Grain

Sand makes a marvelous mattress. It won't let you down in the night, for one thing, and it conforms to every bump and hollow of your personal topography. But it has a dark side, too. Given half a chance, sand gets into everything — your hair, your mouth, even your shorts — and sand in the wrong places will rub you raw. You've heard of sandpaper, right?

And that's not all that sand can do. Of the many tents I've owned, my favorite was a North Face VE-24, acquired back in the days when you needed to take out a mortgage to buy one. It was designed for climbers who were going high and traveling hard, and it was almost certainly more tent than I needed. That didn't matter. I loved it, anyway. But nothing's perfect. The VE-24 had a single entrance, and on one summer trip north of the border I went a beach too far: the storm door's coil zipper, worn down by millions of grains of wind-driven sand, simply gave up the ghost. Luckily, the netting door held fast. If it hadn't, I'd have ended my days a bloodless husk on the bank of an Ontario river.

Nor are zippers the only victims. Sand can jam and scar the metal ferrules of tent poles and break-down paddles, turn binoculars and cameras into expensive paperweights, and block the nozzles of portable camp stoves. Your body's not immune, either. Sand in the stew can test the soundness of teeth and fillings. Ouch! That'll take your mind off the sand in your shorts.

What can you do about it? Good housekeeping is the first line of defense. When you're living on the beach, keeping sand in its place is Job One. Wipe ferrules clean before assembling tent poles and paddles. Store binoculars, cameras, stoves, and other vulnerable gear in waterproof (and sandproof) bags whenever they're not in use. And if you need to change batteries or film, or make minor repairs, do these chores inside your tent and out of the wind.

Above all, try to make your tent a sand-free zone. You won't succeed, but just do the best you can anyway. When entering, don't stand on ceremony. Back in, plant your butt in the entrance with your feet hanging outside, and brush the sand off your shoes. A polytarp doormat just inside the entrance helps, too, as does a small whisk broom. (You can find cheap, light whisk brooms and dustpans in your local "dollar store." Or you can buy the same thing for three times the price from a catalog.) Packing up and moving on? Then be sure to brush or shake your tent, and take time to scrub the sand out of all the zippers. A shaped plastic groundsheet ("footprint" groundsheet in catalog-speak) will help keep the underside of your tent floor clean. Unless you want to swim in an indoor pool whenever it rains, though, be sure the footprint doesn't extend beyond the tent walls. And groundsheet or no, rain and spray will still splash sand higher than seems possible. Wait for the splash to dry, then brush it off.

Much of the sand that gets into your tent hitches a ride on your gear. A tarp makes a handy halfway-house, a place where you can brush packs off before bringing them indoors. You can even use the tarp to ferry items between your boat and tent. Lay the tarp on the ground and pile on your gear, weighing down the edges first. Then bring the four corners together and haul the bundle up the beach to your camp. The tarp not only keeps your gear clean, but it also reduces the number of trips you'll have to make between boat and camp.

If your tarp is otherwise occupied, a large nylon mesh bag can be pressed into service as a hauling sack. You'll see these in the catalogs and at military surplus outlets. You may even find some in the dollar store. Wherever you buy yours, keep a couple of them handy, and use them for corralling the odds and ends that would otherwise end up in piles on the sand. Want to go first class? Then buy one of the huge decoy-transport packs that are sold to waterfowl hunters.

Sand is bad enough when it's in your gear, of course, but it's even more of a nuisance when it's…

Blowin' in the Wind

Ever see a sandblasting crew at work? Well, you'll find the same combination of sand, wind, and water on the beach. You need a break: a windbreak, to be exact. Natural windbreaks are best. Regulations and common sense permitting — and remember that shoreline ecosystems are fragile things — try to site your camp in the lee of a dune. You may lose the view, but you'll gain piece of mind. And speaking of piece of mind, avoid pitching your tent under dead trees and limbs. Be sure to give the coconut palms a wide berth on tropical beaches, too. Even a wind-blown pine cone can raise a nasty lump. A plummeting coconut can kill you.

If the landscape offers no natural shelter, you'll have to make your own. A tarp will offer some relief. So will a strategically-placed (and securely tethered) boat. In a few truly remote places you may also be able to build windbreaks from carefully piled driftwood and cobbles. Even where this isn't prohibited by law, however, such construction projects rarely repay the effort involved. There's also another price to be paid for sheltering behind a windbreak — biting flies seek refuge from the wind, too. You'll have to choose the lesser of two evils. If the windblown sand is worse than the bugs, seek shelter. But if the flies are out for your blood, you'll probably opt for the open air.

Whether you shelter behind a windbreak or not, don't forget to secure all your gear against the light-fingered breeze. If your boat blows away in a gale, you'll have a long walk home to brood about it. Cover kayak cockpits, too. Not only does this give the wind less to grab hold of, but it keeps crabs and other creepy-crawlies out of your life. (Sharing a kayak cockpit with an inquisitive crab is a treat you'll want to avoid.) Don't store food inside your boat, either. No cockpit-cover made will deter a hungry animal from taking advantage of a free lunch.

Tents, boats, other gear — you'll have a lot of stuff to tie down, and there's no such thing as too many guy lines. So bring plenty of sturdy nylon cord along with you to the beach. You'll want at least a few deadmen, too. Tent stakes seldom hold well in sand. (You don't fancy turning metal-worker? Then see Alan Reid's letter in the latest "Our Readers Write" and get the scoop on his flexible friend, a do-it-yourself fabric anchor.)

Sand, wind, and sun. They go together. At least they do in the fevered imaginations of snow-bound northerners. But even if we don't like to admit it, we can all get…

Too Much in the Sun

And that's no fun, either. Shade's a scarce commodity on many beaches. Chances are you'll have to make your own.

Here's another job for your tarp. It's probably overworked, in fact. Better bring two. Then all you need are a prop — an extra tent pole or spare paddle, say — and a "sand shoe" (a pie pan, a flat rock, or a slab of driftwood will do fine), and you've got yourself a sun shade. Just be sure that the guy lines are securely anchored. Better bring more deadmen, too. And don't forget the rest of your beach kit: sunglasses, brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and something to cover your feet. Feeling the sand between your toes is romantic, but a sunburned foot is a misery. Moreover, a thorn in your sole is a pain in the fundament, and thorn bushes are common in the tropics. Not planning on traveling quite that far? You'll still want something on your feet. Sad as it is to contemplate, the oceans are now the world's garbage dump. Few beaches anywhere escape unscathed, and some of the garbage on the shore is truly nasty stuff. It's better to wear shoes than to spend your time pulling sharp things out of your toes.

The sun can sting, too. Sunscreen and lip salve are always a good idea, and it's important to stay alert for the first signs of heat illness. Thirst is also a dangerous thing. Which brings us to the…

Water of Life

On the sand, and in the sun, you'll want lots of clean, fresh water. That's "fresh" as in non-salt. Sea kayakers need to plan ahead. Portable desalinators are fussy things, and they require a lot of sweat equity. (Cynics will quickly conclude that the amount of fresh water produced by pumping just about equals the amount of sweat lost in the process.) Solar stills work, but they require time. You're better off relying on natural sources. Carry as much drinking water with you as you can, of course, but remember that water is heavy: one US gallon (a little less than four liters) weighs more than eight pounds. Use it wisely.

Storage problems? The catalogs are full of lightweight hydration packs. If you want to save a few bucks, you can recycle the plastic bladders from box wines. They're sturdy, and there's a bonus — you get to drink the wine first. Sooner or later, though, you'll need to refill. When the time comes, use caution. Fresh water isn't always safe water, and water of any sort can be hard to come by on arid coasts. Some folks are tempted to cut corners here, begging water as they go along and relying on the kindness of strangers. It's not a strategy that appeals to me. There are still places in the world where a visitor's request is a debt of honor, and people who make their homes in harsh environments are often living on the edge. To be sure, a generous gesture will usually mean no more than a slight inconvenience. Then again, it could mean suffering, or even death, for your benefactor and his family. It's better not to ask.

Drinking water isn't your only concern. Seacoast paddlers have to keep their eyes on the tide, and boaters on big lakes aren't immune from fluctuating water levels, either. Seasonal floodwaters and seiches (a sort of side-to-side bathtub slop on a grand scale) can drown an ill-chosen campsite as surely as any tide or storm surge. So pay close attention to the high-water mark when deciding where to pitch camp. How can you tell the high-water mark when you see it? Look for the strand line, or tide wrack, a line of debris — driftwood, seaweed, and, yes, human garbage — which runs parallel to the water's edge some distance up the beach. Unless you enjoy midnight swims, site your camp well above this line. No, it won't guarantee that you'll never be washed out of your sleeping bag. A rogue wave or a distant earthquake can send water surging far above the strand line. But it's still a pretty good bet you'll sleep high and dry, and that's enough for me. Nature doesn't offer better odds.

Sand and water, sun and wind. Whether these are the ingredients for a great time or a preamble to a bad trip depends on you. Do everything in your power to make sure that only good things happen. Get the right gear and use it well. With any luck, you'll find that life can be a beach. That sure beats a snowdrift, doesn't it?

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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