Our Readers Write
On Heeding the Still, Small Voice,
Deadly Sleepers, a Very Good Book,
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 Paddling.net, 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.
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
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
Well, you've done it again. "Putting Splice in
Your Life" is a fine how-to piece that everyone should take advantage of
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.
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,
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!
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?
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,
St. Paul, Minnesota
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
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!
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
Hope this helps. Good luck!
Great Riverbank Reading
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
Keep up the excellent work!
C. Houston "Hoot" Ebert
Peaks Mill, Kentucky
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