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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Off-Season? No Way!

Weathering Winter in Style —
More from the Home Front

By Farwell Forrest

December 28, 2004

The new year is right around the corner, and General Winter's in the north country to stay. What's a paddler stranded in the frozen latitudes to do? There are only three choices. Fight on through the ice, flee to warmer climes, or embrace the enemy. And if, like me, you've tried both fighting and running in the past, maybe you're ready for something new. Luckily, there's still the Third Way. The secret? It's hidden in plain sight. Last week, I described how Tamia and I met the enemy on the home front. But there's more to tell. When I finished up, we were in the library. Now it's time to get out our maps and gather…

Around the Dining-Room Table

Maps? Yes. Maps. There's nothing that quickens my pulse like a map of a place I've never seen — unless it's a map of a place I know well, that is. Most of the trips that Tamia and I take get started on a map. There's no better way to rekindle memories of past journeys, too. This may explain why we have three filing cabinets filled with topographic maps, not to mention dozens of atlases, at scales ranging from 1:24,000 (one inch equals four-tenths of a mile) to 1:13,500,000 (one inch equals 213 miles). We've also collected hundreds of road, trail, and route maps, along with scores of nautical charts. We even have several file folders filled with maps and charts we've surveyed and sketched for ourselves.

Of course, no one needs file cabinets today. With the right software package, you can literally have the world — including all its waterways and oceans — at your fingertips. Despite this, I've yet to succumb to the siren song of the body electric. Maybe the fact that I'm the last person on the globe to use a computer with a monochrome monitor has something to do with it. Or maybe it's simply that no monitor can match the display I get when I spread a half-dozen quads out on the dining-room table. Low-tech or high, though, most paddlers discover that maps and dreams are inextricably linked, and winter's the perfect time to dream purposefully. OK. What are you waiting for? Get maps of waterways near and far. Read the accounts of travelers who've gone before you. (Or talk to your neighbor, just back from a quick paddle round the Horn.) Make lists of equipment. Plan your meals. Then order whatever new gear you think you'll need. Thoreau may have chided his readers to beware of any enterprise requiring new clothes, but he sent his laundry out to be cleaned and mended, even when he lived at Walden Pond. One era's luxury is another's commonplace. And vice versa. Thoreau had a washerwoman and a seamstress. We have catalog outfitters. Times change. Some enterprises require new clothes.

Other things stay the same, however. What with inspecting maps, ordering gear, and dreaming, you'll find that winter flies by. If you start today, you'll probably still have a few things left on your to-do list in June. And you may be surprised along the way. Planning a trip can be almost as much fun as taking one. There aren't any blackflies or mosquitoes in your living room in January, for one thing, and the prospect of slicing your foot open with an ax or going for an unplanned swim on the lip of a falls is comfortably remote.

You say there's no place in your budget for a Big Trip next summer? Not even for a new paddling jacket? No problem. Explore your home waters, instead. And if you can't afford to buy new gear, just make it from scratch — or take what you already have and make it better. To do this, though, we'll need to leave the dining room and move over to…

The Workbench

Make-and-mend was once part of every waterman's workday. The voyageurs spent long hours tarring the seams of their bark canoes and stitching up rents in packs, sails, and clothing. Drudgery? Yes. And not many twenty-first century paddlers would choose to live as the voyageurs did. Yet there's real satisfaction to be had in making your own gear, even if the final product lacks the showroom gloss of the latest offering from the factories of Tianjin. It's handy to know how to restitch a pack pocket that's come adrift, too, and if you ever plan to venture far off the beaten track, you'll be glad you can put a broken boat back together without any help from a factory technician. Such skills come only with practice, of course, but the rewards are many. Independence, for one thing. Artistic expression, for another. Need proof? Look at the scrimshaw drinking horns, detailed ship models, and meticulously sewn ditty bags that came from the work-hardened hands of nineteenth-century sailors. When they needed something, they needed it right now. They couldn't fax an order to L.L. Endsmor from the Roaring Forties. So they made do with the materials they had at hand, and their pride in a job well done is still evident today.

You probably won't be shipping out around the Horn any time soon, but that doesn't mean you can't share the sailors' sense of accomplishment. Your first project can be as modest as a ditty bag — it's the traditional way to learn to use a sailmaker's palm, as it happens — or as ambitious as a boat. I've built boats from both fiberglass and bark, but it's been many years since I had the pleasure of shaping a seaworthy craft from either material. Lately, though, I've been thinking how nice it would be to have a light open boat that could be paddled, rowed, or sailed. A boat a little like an umiak, perhaps, or an Irish curragh, but with a skin made from something other than a green hide. And though I can't afford to buy such a boat ready-made, I think I can just about manage to build one. There's no better time than winter to begin.

But what if my nerve fails me at the last moment, and my curragh remains a dream boat for another year? Well, I've got a pile of torn clothing and ripped packs on the floor next to me. Each item is too badly damaged to use in its present state, yet all of them are much too good to cart off to the landfill. And anyway, what paddler would want to throw out a pack that's hauled his gear for twenty years, or discard a parka that's kept him warm in all weathers for longer than he can remember? Not me, at any rate. So even if my curragh never gets built, I've quite a few hours of pleasant and profitable work ahead of me, mending what I have and making what I need.

And speaking of making and mending, what about the item of equipment of most importance to any paddler or other no-octane sports enthusiast: his (or her) own body? It also needs regular maintenance, with the emphasis on regular. No canoeist or kayaker can afford to spend all of the winter months slouched in front of the television or reading in an armchair by the fire. The obvious answer is to head outside and play in the snow. But sub-zero temperatures aren't everyone's cup of tea, and there are always days when even the most enthusiastic skier or snowshoer will want to stay at home. What then?

That's easy. Head for…

The Health Club

Not literally, of course. Not unless your wallet's fatter than mine. Maybe not even then. Driving for an hour to walk on a treadmill for thirty minutes doesn't make much sense to me, particularly when the roads are sheathed in ice or covered in drifting snow. That's why I make do with a modest inventory of compact, inexpensive home fitness equipment instead. An exercise bike for my legs. (Every paddler has to walk occasionally!) A rowing machine for my arms. And a remembered repertoire of government-issue calisthenics, just to remind me that something can hurt and still be good for me — so long as it doesn't hurt too much, that is, and provided that the pain is the right kind of pain.

Taken in daily doses, these do the trick, keeping my machinery ticking over nicely, even when a blizzard's howling outside or ice is bending the tops of the birches down to the ground. But this isn't enough by itself. Neither grinding out pushups nor making my feet go round in endless circles (while the rest of me goes nowhere) will ever do much for my soul. For that, I need to leave the confines of four walls behind me, if only for an hour or two. Not every battle can be fought and won on the home front, after all.

The struggle to love winter to death begins at home, but it doesn't end there. It's time to look at some of the many ways that snow-bound canoeists and kayakers can take the fight to the heart of the enemy's territory. And next month, that's just what we'll do. I can't think of a better way to begin the new year, can you?

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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