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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 most—the 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 sweet—and 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 camp—and 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. Some—male whitetail deer and moose among them—are 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 threatened—or simply put at risk unnecessarily—by 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 to.

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 intended—and, 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 paddling—or walking—into trouble.
  • 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 gallop.

That's it. The downside of the best season of the year. Don't get me wrong. I love the fall. For Farwell and me—and for a growing number of other hikers, campers and paddlers, as well—it 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 (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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