The Third Season Revisited
The Worst of Times?
by Tamia Nelson
Last week I sung the praises of fall
paddling in the northern hemisphere. They're worth repeating.
Silence and solitude. The woods aflame with color. Unparalleled
opportunities to observe wildlife and waterfowl. This week, however,
I'll look at the other side of the coin. There are perils as well as
pleasures to be found in the autumn woods. None of these should
discourage canoeists and kayakers from venturing forth after Labor
Day, of course, but the prudent paddler always heeds the well-known
Scout motto: "Be Prepared!"
Prepared for what, exactly? Well, to begin with, the days are
getting shorter. By late September, every 24 hours is evenly divided
between daylight and dark. Scheduling becomes more important, and it's
goodbye to long lunches and afternoon naps. Camp chores often have to
be done in the dark. The new ultra-light head-lamps make this a lot
easier than it was when the only alternative to a mantle lantern was a
flashlight gripped between the teeth. It's still harder to wash the
supper dishes in October than it was in June, though.
And not only are the days shorter, but the sun is noticeably lower
in the sky at noon. As a result, it's getting cooler. Sometimes it's
downright cold. North of 50, sleet and snow can come in mid-August.
Even in the more temperate latitudes of the northern states, it's not
unusual for snow to fall during the Columbus Day holiday in early
October. Paddlers who leave the put-in on a sunny autumn day, dressed
only in jeans and a t-shirt, can be shivering in ice-cold, wind-driven
rain just three hours later.
Wind-driven. That's another hallmark of fall weather. As
stable summer weather systems break up, warm and cold air masses vie
for dominance along a no man's land that includes much of the northern
United States and southern Canada. Skirmishes and battles rage north
and south. The wind howls through the trees, stripping leaves off the
branches and raising whitecaps out on the lakes. Mariners sitting near
the fire in snug waterfront inns used to talk in hushed tones about
the terrors of the equinoctial gales. If you're out in the middle of a
big lake during a fall blow, you'll know what had them scared.
A blustery fall day is a treat for the eye when seen through the
living-room picture window. It's not quite so pleasant when glimpsed
through a new tear in the wall of your nylon tent, especially when you
can hear the crash of falling limbs just yards away. You did look
around to be sure that there were no dead branches hanging over your
tent-site, didn't you? I hope so. The only thing harder than pitching
a tent in the dark is moving one out of danger in the middle of a
night-time wind storm!
Cold weather means cold water, too, though the change doesn't come
as quickly. As anyone who's tried to hurry a kettle along to a rolling
boil knows, water is slow to heat. It's also slow to cool. Chemists
and physicists say that water has a "high heat capacity." One
consequence is obvious. Long after the air temperature turns decidedly
chilly, the water in many northern lakes is still remarkably
temperate. Not warm enough for comfortable swimming perhaps, but still
warm enough to generate thick fog during the early morning hours.
Called "radiation fog" by sailors, this is most likely after clear,
still nights. It has a certain eerie beauty, but you'll be surprised
how fast you lose sight of shore when you paddle out into it. You
did remember to bring your compass, I hope.
High heat capacity or not, the water at the surface of lakes and
ponds cools slowly throughout the fall. At some point between late
September and late December (the exact date depends on latitude and
recent weather), the water in many northern lakes "turns
over"the cold water near the lake bottom mixes with the warmer
surface water, and temperatures in the top few feet plummet. If you
capsize after the fall overturn, your life expectancy is measured in
minutes, not hours. Every year, one or two duck hunters discover just
how deadly cold water can be. Don't add your name to theirs.
Short days. Cool, wet weather. Cold water. What can you do to be
prepared for these? That's easy.
First, wear the right clothing. Fall is the wool and polyfleece
season. Leave the jeans at home. Wear a warm cap. A wool watch-cap is
good, as is a wool or polyfleece balaclava. And be sure your rain gear
is up to the job. Fall is no time to try to get by with a $1.98
disposable vinyl poncho. Keep you feet warm. High wool socks and
wellies can't be beat for fall paddling. And always wear a good
foam-filled life jacket. Inflatables are great for summer lakes, but
if you go for an unplanned swim after the water turns cold, you'll
need the insulation that only foam provides.
Next, learn to read the weather. The best forecasts often miss the
mark, particularly in mountainous back-country areas. Get a portable
barometer. The Thommen "Everest" series of climbers' altimeters are
excellent barometers, too. They're sturdy, compact and accurate. Pick
up a copy of Alan Watts' Instant Weather Forecasting (Adlard
Coles, 1991), and start really looking at the clouds. Before you know
it, you'll be the world expert on the weather that matters
mostthe weather right where you are now.
Lastly, bring a thermos and a tarp. Fill the thermos with boiling
water every morning before starting out. Then you'll be able make tea
or cocoa each time you take a break. It won't be great tea or cocoa,
but it will be hot and sweetand that's the important thing. Once
you make camp for the night, use the tarp to create a wind-sheltered
area in which to cook and lounge. It's in the autumn that the old
Baker and Whelen tents really come into their own, but few folks
nowadays have either of these old campaigners. In any case, both are
unfashionably heavy and bulky.
And speaking of making camp, remember that you won't be alone in
the woods. Animals ranging in size from chipmunks to bears will be
stocking up (or fattening up) for their long sleep. Unless you enjoy
entertaining uninvited guests, it's more important than ever to keep a
clean campand to be sure to hang your food packs.
Of course, some folks feed wildlife deliberately, particularly
small, "cute" critters like chipmunks. This is a bad idea. You're not
doing them any favors. All you're doing is creating a new generation
of camp robbers. Wildlife is wild. That's its beauty and its strength.
Don't try to tame it.
Not all the animals in the autumn woods are looking for a meal, of
course. Somemale whitetail deer and moose among themare
looking for love. Give these randy gents a wide berth. Even a small
buck can kick you bloody and senseless in an instant; a lusty moose
can trample you into strawberry jam in no time. If you see a male
moose headed your way, go somewhere else. If there's nowhere else to
go, climb a good-sized tree. Life in the raw has dangers as well as
drama. The drama is usually best watched at a distance
There's one more fall species you'll want to watch out for. When
Colin Fletcher wrote that the only animal to put the fear of God into
him was "Homo sapiens nimrodamericanus, the red-breasted,
red-blooded, North American hunter," he spoke for a lot of folks. I've
talked to some of them over the years. They love the fall woods, but
they limit their autumn ventures to roadside picnic areas and national
parks. Ask them why, and you'll get a one-word answer: "Hunters."
This hits hard. I hunted for 15 years; Farwell, for even longer.
For much of our life together, the year revolved around the fall
hunting season. But we have to concede that Colin Fletcher had a
point. To go afield during hunting season is to trust your safety to
the judgement and skill of armed strangers. The institutions of law
are largely invisible under the Hunters' Moon. If you meet up with one
of the legendary bad apples, you're going to be on your own. Even if
you have a cellular phone, you can't call the cops and expect them to
come to your assistance quickly.
The risk of death or serious injury is very small, to be
sure. Only about 1000 folks are shot by hunters each year in the
United States. Of that 1000, only around 100 die. Most of the dead are
themselves hunters. In a country that sees some 40,000 highway deaths
every year, that's not many. Barely a blip on the screen, in fact.
Unless, of course, you or someone you love is among the victims.
And a lot of folks who aren't shot or killed are still harassed or
threatenedor simply put at risk unnecessarilyby hunters of
the type Garrison Keillor described so well in one of his radio
monologues. Hunting season is their chance to be Wild Men, "a chance
to be like John Wayne." These aren't men you want to trust your life
OK. Just how many paddlers and hikers are harassed by hunters? I
don't know. Nobody does. No one keeps track of this sort of thing. It
has to be a fairly large number, though. Farwell and I have both had
unpleasant run-ins with threatening hunters. We've had rifles pointed
at us, and bows drawn down on us. We've even been shot at while we
were paddling. A bored hunter apparently found this an amusing way to
pass the time. Fortunately for us, he was content to shoot over our
heads. At least, we think that was what he intendedand,
thankfully, his aim was better than his judgement.
This sort of thing isn't our idea of a good time. I'm sure it's not
yours, either. What can we do about it? There's always Colin
Fletcher's solution: Stay at home. It's not a solution I'm happy with,
however. Even though I no longer count the days until the start of
grouse season, autumn is still the balance point of my year. There's
no way I'm going to spend it watching the PBS fall fundraiser.
Here's what Farwell and I do to keep safe in the autumn woods. Call
it our Three Point Hunter Safety Plan.
- We stay alert, and we avoid paddlingor walkinginto
- We wear "hunter orange" vests over our clothes from the first
week in September to New Year's eve.
- We always bring a camera.
The last one probably requires some explanation. The camera
doesn't have to be anything exotic. A cheap, waterproof disposable
works fine. Since New York doesn't require hunters to wear back tags
in the state's Northern Zone, and since only a cop can demand ID, a
photograph is the only way for a private citizen to identify a
threatening or criminally negligent hunter. We also carry a pocket
tape recorder. This serves many purposes. We use it to make field
notes and record interviews, for example. But it can also be used to
document threats or harassment. In fact, the mere appearance of the
camera and recorder can work like a magic charm to remind the Wild Men
of the North Woods that civilization has a longer reach these days.
Come to think of it, a camcorder or a cell phone might accomplish the
same thing. Just don't count on the phone to bring the cavalry at a
That's it. The downside of the best season of the year. Don't get
me wrong. I love the fall. For Farwell and meand for a growing
number of other hikers, campers and paddlers, as wellit really
is the best of times. It doesn't ever have to become the worst
of times. With a only a few precautions, you can paddle safely and
confidently right through the third season and into early winter.
Fortune, it's said, favors the efficient. And so it does. Be prepared.
Enjoy. We look forward to seeing you out on the water this fall.
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
We've been writing this column for six months now. Next week,
Farwell looks back at where we've been, and glances ahead to where
we'll be going in the weeks to come. We'd welcome your ideas and
comments. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (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 oneand we will. 'Nuff said.