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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Our Readers Write

On Heeding the Still, Small Voice,
Deadly Sleepers, a Very Good Book,
and More

March 29. 2005

Every morning now, a big pileated woodpecker hammers on the trunk of an ice-blasted maple outside our bedroom. He doesn't need to be told that the sun is headed north. And neither do we. We only have to look at The River gnawing away at the ice shelves along its banks. In a few short weeks we'll be paddling in home waters again, and our snowshoes will gather dust till next winter.

But some things don't change with the seasons. Whatever the weather or time of year, letters keep arriving in our virtual mailbag, and the four months since the last "Our Readers Write" have been no exception. Here's just a sample. We hope you'll enjoy them as much as we have.

— Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, In the Same Boat



A cousin in Minnesota just sent me the address of, and I've been reading articles ever since. I especially appreciated "Self-Reliance," because I, too, once relied on an overall general weather report on a local TV station, predicting another week of unseasonable "summer-type" weather.

That was two years ago, and I headed to the mountain lake where I love to sail, canoe, and kayak. After two days of great weather, it "turned" during the night. Winter was on its way, and I was camped on a small island over three miles from the boat ramp. I woke to find ice everywhere, even on the sand beach. I hiked to the north end of the island to scope out what the lake looked like. Covered in cloud. Should I stay till the storm passed, which could be days — or months? Then I broke the Second Law of Wilderness Travel, stepping on a log that I should have stepped around or over. Slipped and fell, dislocating my left elbow. Boy, did I feel stupid!

With my one good hand, I managed to rig the boat to get it back to base. Packed the camping gear and sailed thru the clouds, surfing the swells, not knowing exactly where I was going until a small break in the overcast appeared for a couple of minutes and I spotted a mountain to navigate towards.… Forty-five minutes later, I popped thru the clouds just a hundred yards from the cove with the boat ramp.

Loaded the boat on the trailer and unrigged, somehow managing to lower the mast with one arm, then drove home for four hours, unhooked the boat-trailer and drove to the hospital. Biceps muscle pull off lower arm, with a chunk of bone attached, requiring operation the following day. And a year-long recovery, with a promise to the doctor and therapist NOT to do any snowboarding that winter if I wanted to do any sailing, canoeing, or kayaking the next summer.… Good motivation.

What did I learn? Don't depend on general weather forecasts. Carry a barometer. Don't travel in wilderness alone at times of year when NOBODY else is around. And listen to that "still, small voice" — the one that was asking me what I was doing stepping on that log! I was very lucky not to become a statistic or cause Search and Rescue personnel to risk their lives because of my carelessness.

G.F. Kellor
Salem, Oregon

• • •

Farwell replies:

A cautionary tale, indeed, G.F., as well as a wonderful example of self-reliance in the face of adversity. A lesson to us all.

Safer Splices and Sharper Edges

Hi Tamia!

Well, you've done it again. "Putting Splice in Your Life" is a fine how-to piece that everyone should take advantage of learning from.

Of course I have a small observation. Natural-fiber laid lines (manila, jute, cotton, hemp) may be safely spliced (short and eye) with three tucks. Synthetic laid lines must have five tucks for safety.

There are two reasons for this:

The first is stretch. Eighty percent of your synthetics stretch more than natural fibers. When a splice is "worked," as it will be if used for a mooring line, tow line, or even lashing a load in a canoe or kayak, the strands elongate and recover. In synthetics this accentuates the grab and release of the standing parts of the splice which grip the tucked ends. This has the effect of milking out the tucked parts. Whipping the tucked ends won't help too much unless they are lock-stitched in place.

Second: Synthetics are, by their nature, more slippery than naturals. They simply don't grip against themselves as well. The milking action of lines being worked is aggravated by this lack of friction.

So my humble advice is three tucks for naturals and five tucks for synthetics. In either case, the person splicing will also do well to remember to turn back the strand (restore its twist or lay) after each tuck. This will help it retain its shape and provide better "locking" between the standing part and the tucked part.


"Blades for Big Jobs," your recent article about edged tools, is also great. I encourage you to take a look at the Edge Pro sharpening system developed by a fellow in Hood River, Oregon. The Spyderco Sharpmaker system is also worth considering. It is about half the cost of the Edge Pro, and it gives you the ability to effectively sharpen blades that have an extreme inside curve, like hawksbill knives and gut hooks. It also has grooves for sharpening hooks, needles, awls, etc..

Standard disclaimer: I don't own any stock or get any special favors from these companies. Also, if you buy one and cut yourself please don't sue me.

Keep writing. I'll keep learning!

Whit Patrick
Newport, Oregon

• • •

Tamia replies:

It's very good to hear from you again, Whit. I can't say I've had much trouble with my three-tuck splices unraveling — well, not since I learned the hard way to leave long tag ends! — BUT my experience is limited to "mountain nylon" (in non-climbing applications, I hasten to add), Dacron, and a relatively "hairy" three-strand polypro. The mountain nylon has a very high elongation at failure, but a comparatively low stretch under normal working loads, while the polypro and Dacron are both relatively low-stretch lines. Maybe that's why I've been getting away with only three tucks. Then again, maybe I've just been lucky. One thing at least is certain: anytime your gear (or your life) hangs on a line, a couple of extra tucks is pretty cheap insurance.

Thanks for the tips about sharpening systems, too. I'll have to give one of these a try. And no, I won't sue you if I cut my fingers. My hands are already about half scar tissue, anyway. I'm careful — very careful, in fact — but I work with knives every day, and as you know, a sharp edge doesn't forgive any errors of judgment, however rare. It's one occupational hazard that carpenters, cooks, and watermen all have in common, I guess.

The Best Camp Cookware Ever?

Dear Tamia,

I am writing in response to "Family Jewels — Pots and Pans for Paddlers." I have two pans that I bought back in the late '70s. They were originally intended to be an aluminum Dutch oven. (Bendonn Dutch Tote Oven.) They are about 10 inches in diameter and look like frying pans with wire handles. One nests inside the other, and the larger pan had a metal rim welded to the bottom that was supposed to hold coals when you used it for a Dutch oven. Fortunately, the metal rim fell off early and got lost. The larger pan is about four quarts and the smaller pan is about three. I use them with an old two-quart coffee percolator for heating water, and a lid from a Boy Scout troop mess kit. These are the best camping pots I have ever seen. They make great frying pans and are deep enough to make a pot of stew. They are fire-blackened on the outside and inside, and nothing sticks to them. I still use them as a Dutch oven from time to time. They make great cake pans, too.

Kenny Christenson
St. Paul, Minnesota

• • •

Tamia replies:

I also have a Bendonn oven, Kenny, and I agree: it's as versatile a piece of "jewelry" as you're likely to find anywhere.

Surf Zone Slot Machine

I just read "Making Waves" and thought about some information that you might find of interest.

Years ago I was a ranger at Sonoma Coast State Beach in California. Our park experienced huge waves that took beachcombers off the beach and often caused their death. The phenomenon was called a "sleeper wave." I thought about what caused one wave to be larger than the others and finally came up with the answer:

There are many waves from separate storms headed towards the West Coast at any given time. When they reach the shore they can be out of phase (i.e., the peak of one sits in the trough of another) and cancel each other out, or they can be in phase (the peak and trough line up) and become a huge sleeper wave. This situation becomes even more complex when you have several waves traveling at different speeds cancelling each other out or adding up in height, as chance dictates. There may come a moment when, say, five waves all line up in phase and then break on the beach, catching everyone sleeping.

A model for this effect might be a slot machine. You put in your coin, the wave-wheels turn, and they don't stop till they hit the beach. Some of the waves are in phase and cause large breakers, but nothing unusual. Then all the peaks hit the shore together. A sleeper-wave jackpot!

Dan Winkelman

• • •

Farwell replies:

A fascinating observation, Dan. I can't think of a better illustration of the oceanographer's "law of superposition." The surf zone is always lively, and it can be mighty dangerous, too, at least now and then. It's certainly no place for any paddler to be caught napping.

A Do-It-Yourself Tumpline?

Dear Tamia,

I greatly enjoyed "Using Your Head," your column on the tumpline. At the end of the article you said that a tumpline is easy to make. I would very much appreciate seeing your design. Even with a hip belt I find that carrying a large, heavy pack on a portage is hard on the back, and I'd like to try a tumpline. Thanks very much.

John Highland

• • •

Tamia replies:

Glad you enjoyed my article, John. You'll find what you're looking for in "Making a New-Fashioned Tumpline." In truth, though, it isn't much of a job. A tumpline is only a strap, and a lot of folks in the world's less prosperous corners make do with just a length of rope, plus a scrap of canvas for the headband. The tricky bit is training up your neck to take the strain. The process can't be hurried. Now that I no longer haul water every few days, I begin preparing a couple of months before I anticipate tumping a load, and I start out VERY light. You may even want to get a medical OK before you put your neck on the line, particularly if you've ever suffered a whiplash injury, or if you have active arthritis. As long as everything checks out, however, I'm betting you'll find the tumpline a great help on the trail. I know that I do.

Another Take on Tumplines

I wonder how much experience you have had using a tumpline, Tamia. I often do voyageur reenactments. When I backpack, I wear a hip belt tied to my basket so the weight of my pack basket is borne mostly on the hips. I assume this works as well for packs with frames. Let's call this School of Thought Number One: carry the weight low and on your hips. A tumpline attached to such a load will only increase torture, in my experience. The neck is not built for that chore.

Approach Number Two is to carry the pack weight high. I have found this approach unbalancing and dizzying, but many backpacking "experts" recommend it. I would venture that here is where a tumpline could help. Carrying one fur bale on a tumpline is torture. Making a higher load by carrying two fur bales produces miraculous balance. As you lean slightly forward, the weight of the bales is borne mostly by your hips and back, not by your neck. I have even readily carried another man, when he hangs on to two light fur bales on a tumpline. It appears to me that a tumpline is only good for rigid loads, like a pack basket or pack with frame. And only when the weight is distributed evenly or else high up.

Cal Lamoreaux
Orangeville, Michigan

• • •

Tamia replies:

Thanks for your note, Cal. It's said that experience is the best teacher, but it often teaches different folks different things. For more than ten years I hauled two 6-gallon jerry cans filled with water from a spring a quarter-mile from my home. I did this two or three times a week, and — except when there was enough snow on the ground to pull a sled — I used a tumpline. Add three decades of tumping loads ranging from sheet-metal stoves to Duluth sacks over hundreds of miles of portage trails, and you've got the sum total of my tumping credentials. Not up to voyageur standard, certainly, but a nodding acquaintance at the very least. And I usually carry the weight fairly low, with the bottom of the load resting on a handy shelf that nature provided. This is just about where I carry a heavy rucksack, come to think of it. I suppose you could say I build each load from my bottom up, topping it off with a small bundle (the "baby") whenever it will save me an extra trip over a portage. I also place the headband high on my crown, and lean forward only as much as necessary, grabbing the tump just behind my ears to minimize sway.

This means that — in the absence of shoulder straps — my neck does most of the work. I'd have to totter along with my upper body jackknifed at a forty-five-degree angle before the weight supported by my hips equaled that borne by my neck. And while I agree wholeheartedly that the human neck wasn't "built for" such work, it's also true that human legs aren't really built for propelling loaded touring bicycles up 30-percent grades, or human shoulders built for toting 105-pound freighters over three-mile portages. Nor, for that matter, are human heads built to carry immense bundles of firewood and 5-gallon pails of water on hour-long treks. No surprise there. Canoes, bicycles, and plastic buckets are comparatively recent innovations. Even ceramic pots haven't been around for more than an eyeblink in geological time. The human frame predates them all, probably by a million years or so. Yet folks ride bikes and portage canoes every day, and women can be seen balancing containers of water on their heads almost everywhere outside the developed world.

The secret to transcending our species' design limitations lies in training and practice — along with the use of appropriate technology. I've already outlined my approach in my reply to John Highland. It's certainly not the only one, but it works for me. That being the case, I'll leave resolution of the high-load versus low-load question to others, more expert than I. In the meantime, I'll muddle along as suits me, wearing my rucksacks low and carrying my frame pack high and using a tumpline whenever possible on the portage trail. And I'll probably never feel the urge to use a hip belt with a pack basket. Does this prove anything? Yes. It proves that experience is the best teacher, even if it seldom teaches any two people exactly the same lesson.

Don't Drink the Water?

Greetings, In the Same Boat gang. Just spent several hours reading some (not all) of your articles. Really great reading and very informative. Found many, many little hints on ways to do things better or at least more simply. One question re water purification. Do you have a formula for using iodine crystals in a saturated solution? How much per quart or gallon?

At present, I use a First Need® water filtration system which has an iodine back-up to a super-fine filtering system. Works great, but takes a lot of work (pumping). Also, as with other filtration systems, I have found that even in high elevations with "crystal-clear" water sources, algae (almost undetectable, visually) in the water will plug the filter after pumping less than a gallon, necessitating disassembly and a thorough cleaning. Thusly, even in high, relatively pure water sources, I've found problems with filtering. I was therefore interested in using some other method of purifying water, and saturated iodine seemed like one possible alternative.


Loveland, Colorado
Poudre Paddlers

• • •

Tamia replies:

Glad you've found our articles useful, Nick. There's a thorough discussion of water disinfection with a saturated aqueous solution of iodine — also known as the Kahn-Visscher method — on pages 63 and 64 of the current edition of Medicine for Mountaineering and Other Wilderness Activities (5th ed, edited by James A. Wilkerson; The Mountaineers Books, 2001). Most good libraries will have a copy; earlier editions also discuss the topic in some detail. I've used the method in the past, but I no longer do so. Here's why:

  1. The solution freezes. This is a nuisance in cold snaps or on early-season trips. It also has to be stored in a 1-oz (30-mL) glass bottle. Plastic won't do: too reactive. And I always seem to drop the bottle on a rock sooner or later.

  2. It's fussy — at least it's fussier than plopping a tablet in a water bottle — and any stray crystals will stain everything from skin to sleeping bags.

  3. Elemental iodine is toxic. Ingest two or three grams at one sitting, and it just might be the last meal you ever eat. This shouldn't be a problem if you always travel with normally prudent adults, but if your party includes one or more children, it's a worry worth worrying about.

That said, the Kahn-Visscher method is both cheap and effective (two grams of USP iodine will disinfect more than 500 US gallons of water), though it's important to note that no iodine germicide can be relied upon to kill cryptosporidia or giardia. If these organisms are a concern — and they're present in most surface sources — you'll still have to filter any water that won't be boiled. A prefilter may help to extend the maintenance interval on your First Need®, however. Many are now available commercially. In a pinch, even a coffee filter or bandanna is better than nothing. And when you tire of pumping, there are gravity-feed microfiltration systems that dump the pump altogether. The Katadyn Camp is perhaps the best known, but there are others.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Great Riverbank Reading

Dear Farwell,

The next time you're looking for a little off-season reading, you might want to take a look at Shantyboat by Harlan Hubbard. I was born in Brent, Kentucky from whence Harlan and his wife Anna launched. My father knew Harlan. We lived on the banks of the Ohio river, and there were many shantyboats in that area.

In 2002 I moved to Peaks Mill, Kentucky, on Elkhorn Creek, a very popular whitewater run. My next-door neighbor, a violin maker, is 80 years old and in excellent health. He reminded me of Harlan both in looks and attitude. I was talking with him shortly after I moved in and told him this. To my pleasant surprise he had known Harlan and had visited with him on a regular basis at Payne's Hollow on the Ohio River near Milton, Kentucky, Harlan and Anna's permanent home. Harlan had given him a few of his paintings and he had also purchased several, all of which he has on display in his home.

I have all of Harlan's books, including his journals, some of which were edited and published after his death. He and his wife were quite a couple. Great reading.

Keep up the excellent work!

C. Houston "Hoot" Ebert
Peaks Mill, Kentucky

• • •

Farwell replies:

Many thanks, Hoot. We'll do our best. A good few years have passed since I read Shantyboat, and it's high time I renewed the acquaintance. I've added the volume to the tottering pile next to my desk — and just to be sure I get to it before the next Ice Age, I've put it on the top.

That's it for now. Our heartfelt thanks to everyone who took the time to send us their questions, comments, and book recommendations. Keep telling us what's on your mind. After all, it's "Our Readers Write"!

Editors' note: No letter appears in "Our Readers Write" without the author's permission, and all letters are subject to editing before publication. We receive many more letters than we can reprint here, but we do our best to answer each and every one we get. We sometimes fall behind, though, and mail occasionally gets lost in transit. So if a couple of weeks have gone by since you wrote, and you haven't heard back from us, don't give up. Send us a heads-up, instead. We'd appreciate it.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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