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The Practical Paddler

Making a New-Fashioned Tumpline

By Tamia Nelson

November 23, 2004

My Grandad had a nine-to-five job, but the job he liked best was the one he did on his own time: guiding fishermen and hunters in the Adirondacks. And when he wasn't showing his "sports" where to find the big ones, he was exploring the nearby woods and waters on his own. Like many backcountry guides of the time, he had a string of temporary camps a day's hike from his home. These were usually located near a stream, pond, or lake, where Grandad often cached a canoe or rowboat. He also built a fireplace, a plank table, and a washstand, and he rigged a ridgepole for a tarp. A tin cup always hung on a branch close to the water, and Grandad buried a large tinplate box somewhere nearby. Proof against the efforts of hungry mice and locked against the depredations of two-legged borrowers, this box held all the staples of a balanced north country diet: canned bacon, beans, coffee, condensed milk, sugar, and flour.

Hauling canned goods into the backcountry wasn't easy, of course. Grandad used a pack basket. Although these are still popular with many trappers and ice-fishing enthusiasts, they aren't as common as they once were. Here's what one looks like.

The green straps are part of the pack's nylon webbing suspension system. (Grandad's pack baskets had leather slings.) The shoulder straps are on the other side, and the top of the basket is open. An ash grab loop helps in lifting the pack up to your shoulders. It's needed. While most pack baskets are about the size of a squat canoe pack, their rigidity makes them perfect for hauling awkward, heavy, sharp-edged things like canned food, axes, and cast-iron skillets — not to mention chainsaws, ice augers, and tip-ups. A loaded pack basket is seldom light, and Grandad's certainly wasn't. At first he slung it from the shoulder straps. But his back soon protested. Then he saw a rival guide carrying a heavy pack with a tumpline, and Grandad decided he'd give tumping a try. But he never bought anything that he could make for himself. So he crafted a tumpline out of scrap leather.

It was as simple as a tumpline could be — just a headband with two long tails — and it worked. After he'd used it a couple of times, however, he got tired of lashing the tumpline to the pack at the start of every trip. Instead, he fastened the two tails together with copper rivets, making a large loop, and slipped the loop between the wood runners on the pack basket's bottom, threading it under the harness. That put an end to the need for lashing the tumpline. Now only one thing remained for him to do. As hard-headed as Grandad was, he saw no point in suffering needlessly, so he placed a folded towel under the headband. It was the final touch. All in all, Grandad's tumpline wasn't much different from those used by the voyageurs, though they toted bales of fur and kegs of brandy instead of Adirondack pack baskets, and they didn't often attach a tumpline permanently to any load. But Grandad was happy to sacrifice versatility for convenience.

Are you hankering to give a tumpline a try? If your neck's up to the job, there's no reason why you shouldn't. In fact, you can buy a canoe pack with a headband already attached. But what if you've already got a pack, or if you want to tote a large dry box or big duffle across a portage? Then you'll probably have to make your own tumpline. The good news? It's not hard to do. Eight to ten feet of flat nylon webbing — or leather strapping, if you can find a long enough piece — should be enough to do the job. Just knot it to length and pad it where it goes over your head. Knots not your thing? No problem. Simply make a loose overhand knot at the end of one tail. Then thread the second tail through the formed loop from the other direction and pull taut. Be warned, though: while the resulting knot is secure, it will also have an annoying tendency to jam. (You'll find more about knots in "Knots to Know!" and "Second String.")

Want something a little more sophisticated? A new-fashioned tumpline isn't much harder to make than a simple strap. Here's what you'll need:

  • 10' of 1" flat nylon webbing

  • 18" of 2-3" seat-belt webbing, leather, or heavy-duty nylon packcloth. (Seat-belt webbing and packcloth are stronger, but leather is less slippery. For the best of both worlds, line seat-belt webbing with leather.)

  • 1" Ladderlock buckle (or equivalent)

  • Heavy waxed-nylon thread. (You can substitute copper rivets and washers if you'll be joining webbing to leather. You'll want 6-8 of each.)

If you know someone with a commercial sewing-machine, you're ready to begin. If not, a sailmaker's needles and palm will do the trick. (You'll need a hammer and awl, as well, if you're setting rivets in leather.) A Speedy Stitcher will also do the work of palm and needles. I own one, and I use it for big projects. It's a bit fussy for small jobs, though. For those, I use my palm.

Ready? Good. Using a hot knife or sharp scissors, cut an 8-10 inch length of 1-inch webbing. (If you cut the webbing with scissors, heat-seal the cut edges so they won't unravel.) Now sew or rivet the webbing to the headband. Allow at least a 2-inch overlap. If you're riveting webbing to leather, melt undersize holes for the rivets in the webbing with a hot awl and back up the rivets with copper washers. Now sew the Ladderlock buckle onto the other end of the short length of webbing.

Next, fasten the long length of webbing to the opposite end of the headband, once again overlapping by at least 2 inches. Finally, thread the bitter end of the 1-inch webbing through the Ladderlock buckle, making a large closed sling. Congratulations! You're now the proud owner of a new-fashioned tumpline.

Get the picture? This ought to help.

A New-Fashioned Tump

OK. It's time to try out your new tumpline. Drop the bight of the tump under your pack and take up the slack near the headband in one hand. Then shoulder the pack and place the headband on your crown. Now use the Ladderlock buckle to draw up the loop until your shoulders and neck are both happy with the division of labor. If this sounds a bit tricky and trouble-prone, that's because it is. Until you've taken up all the slack, the bight of the loop will seize every opportunity to slip, as will the headband. It takes practice to keep everything in place, and a heavy, awkward load makes the job that much harder. To gentle the learning curve, keep the load light at first. If possible, have a friend standing by, ready to help in case of need. Canoe packs and pack baskets are the easiest burdens to tump, seldom slipping or shifting once you've taken up the slack in the loop. But dry boxes and barrels require greater care.

That's not all. If your burden doesn't have shoulder straps, you'll want to add webbing "ears" or tabs along the sides and bottom to anchor the tumpline. In fact, any load will benefit from a couple of supplementary girth lashings. Experiment. You may prefer two long tails (7-8 feet each, say) to a closed loop. Then you'll be able to lash your tumpline securely around each load. It's an easy modification to make. You may also want to add a second Ladderlock buckle on the other side of the headband. Whatever design you settle on in the end, however, always take care to balance your load well. And never forget — if you slip, dump the tump. You don't want to be strangled by your headband! (For more on the art of tumping, see "Using Your Head.")

The first time I saw Grandad rig a tumpline, I was skeptical, if not downright scornful. I didn't have any use for "old-fashioned" methods. I was a material girl, with an eye for the cutting edge and a closet full of gear to match. But a single portage through a spruce hell toting my frame pack convinced me to take a second look. Every time a stray branch snatched at a frame end, I remembered my Grandad's effortless progress through the same country, paddle in hand and tumpline on his head. At the end of the trail, as I struggled to fit the frame around the thwarts of my canoe, I already knew there was a better way. I was a convert.

To Grandad's credit, he didn't say, "I told you so." He just said, "Good idea." I'm betting you'll think so, too.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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