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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

When Nothing is Really Something —
The Magic of the Vacuum Bottle

By Tamia Nelson

January 10, 2006

Nature abhors a vacuum.
    Baruch Spinoza, Ethics

Harry Potter, eat your heart out. Long before J.K. Rowling set pen to paper, let alone cashed her first million-dollar publisher's check…er, cheque…I'd discovered magic on my own, and at the kitchen table, no less. I found it in an unlikely place: a humble thermos bottle — or as my Middle European grandmother insisted on calling it, a vacuum flask. By either name, however, it certainly had remarkable properties. Hot chocolate stayed hot for hours when placed in this magical vessel. And cold milk remained cold. Even if there wasn't a hot-plate or an ice cube anywhere to be seen. The magic, I quickly concluded, lay in the bottle itself. So I lost no time in asking my grandmother for one of my own. I was only four years old, but I was already making plans to go places. And I did. But it took me a couple of years to get started…


Parchment-like weed stalks whispered their protests as I bushwhacked my way up the little hill, while rivulets of sweat stung my eyes. Cresting the summit at last, I saw my destination below me: a dense thicket of alders. Going downhill was easier, and the music of moving water spurred me on. Soon I was shouldering my way through the shrubby tangle. Firm ground gave way to muck. And suddenly, there it was! A small pond opened out before me, a beaver lodge at its center. Several freshly-peeled branches caught my eye immediately, their bright wood shining white against the somber gray of the lodge. Leaves still clung to some of the branches. I decided to stay and watch. I wanted to see what might happen next.

I looked around for the old wooden rowboat I'd discovered on my last trip. I was planning to eat my lunch on the few planks that were all that remained of the once-sturdy hull. I'd have to be careful of splinters, I knew, but at least I'd have a dry seat. Then I spotted one of the ribs of the old boat, and I made my way carefully over the sodden ground until I stood beside the weathered boards. I sat down and started my vigil. My stomach now began to growl. First things first, I decided, and I unpacked the metal lunch box I'd lugged up the hill and down again. In it were a peanut-butter sandwich and the thermos that my grandmother had given me. I twisted the thermos' stopper. It opened with a sibilant wheesh. I took the first bite from my sandwich. Then I brought the thermos to my lips and tipped it up. Ice-cold milk flowed down my throat. Mosquitos buzzed around my face as I drank. But I noticed only the cold, refreshing milk. This was magic indeed.


No, it wasn't much of an adventure. Just a walk through the half-wild fringes of the worn-out farm my grandparents had bought when they fled the urban wilderness of northern New Jersey. And my lunch box wasn't a typical explorer's kit. Painted to resemble a red barn — at the time I thought it was a picture of my grandparents' barn — it boasted a thermos-bottle "silo" nestled in the barn's roof and secured with a spring clamp. Even if it could never win me admission to the bar at the Explorers' Club, however, the lunch box was the perfect companion for a child-explorer. For a long time I carried it with me everywhere, and when I set it down too hard once too often and the glass liner of the silo broke, I immediately replaced it. My new lunch box had no cheery painting of a red barn to distinguish it, though. It was a somber workman's black. But it, too, contained a thermos, and this thermos also had a glass liner. To my surprise, I missed the red barn, and when the second thermos broke, I didn't get another. Thermos bottles, I decided, had no place in a real explorer's kit.

Many years passed, and although I sometimes remembered my old thermos when I struggled to loosen a canteen cap on a frigid winter day — only to find that the canteen's contents, too, had frozen solid — I also remembered how easily the glass liners broke. Then foam-insulated bottles started to show up on store shelves. I bought one. It had a wide mouth, and for a while I used it to liven up my brown-bag lunches at work. The thick stews, home-made soups, and spaghetti I carried in it were a welcome change from dry sandwiches and potato chips. But I never bothered taking the bottle on climbing trips into the mountains. Its magic was pretty weak, for one thing. Foam insulation turned out to be a poor substitute for the imprisoned vacuum of a thermos bottle. After only a short while in a warm room, my hot soup would be tepid, and if it sat around for another couple of hours, it would be stone-cold. In any case, no "serious" climber carried an insulated bottle. We had portable stoves and lightweight alpine cookers, after all. Who needed anything more?

Then I saw a steel vacuum bottle, and it was love at first sight. The steel thermos kept coffee hot — really hot — right through a double shift at work. But it still didn't occur to me to pack it along on backcountry trips. Until I discovered instant oatmeal, that is. Before then, I'd often breakfasted on coffee alone, anxious to make the most of my too-short weekends. And I'd paid the price later, when my blood glucose plummeted and my starving muscles simply refused to do any more work without some food. With my steel thermos, however, I could mix up a batch of instant oatmeal at suppertime and eat it at dawn, enjoying a hot breakfast without leaving my sleeping bag. My muscles rejoiced. I traveled further. Paddled harder. Climbed higher. And if I happened to drop the thermos on a rock in the dark, so what? My battleship-gray Stanley vacuum bottle was as tough as…well…a battleship. Soon I owned two: one with a narrow mouth, for coffee and other hot drinks, and one with a wide mouth, for soups, stews, and, yes, oatmeal.

The magic of my childhood was back. Hot cocoa stayed hot for hours after my midday "mug-up," warming my body matchlessly as I stopped halfway across a frozen lake to watch the milky light of a January day give way before the advancing shadows of ancient Adirondack pines. And six months later, on the same lake in July, that same magic kept cold liquids cold, quenching my thirst even as I swatted bloodthirsty bulldogs (aka deer flies). But not everyone I traveled with agreed. Dan, for instance. Now, don't get me wrong. Dan was a nice guy, but he was also a man of strong opinions, and when he saw me tucking my battered, battleship-gray thermos into my pack, he was astonished. He told me in no uncertain terms that no real paddler would be caught dead with a thermos. I didn't bother to argue with him. I merely shrugged my shoulders and cinched down my pack. Maybe he'd learn. Maybe he wouldn't. Time would tell.

We moved out. I took the stern seat in Dan's canoe, while Farwell ranged alongside in his Seda touring kayak. Our route followed a small stream that wound sluggishly through the marsh below Hawk Ridge. It was late fall. The swamp maples' scarlet fire had guttered and gone out long ago, leaving only the golden needles of the tamaracks to touch the blue-green wall of spruce with color. A brisk northwest wind swept down the valley, gusting to gale force and sending showers of needles drifting down onto the black water. The wind was as cold as it was muscular. My hands, protected only by waterlogged leather gloves, soon lost all sensation except a dull ache.

After an hour or so, the three of us were chilled through and ready for a break. As luck would have it, however, the stream widened into a broad pool just then, so we sought shelter from the wind behind a swampy point of land. Dan stood up in the bow of the canoe, scanning the watery ground for a place to build a small fire. To no avail. Then it began to rain. Dan sat down abruptly, tucking his hands under his arms and bowing his head. His back was a study in patience — and misery. Meanwhile, I'd opened my pack and extracted my anorak and thermos. I poured hot tea into three metal cups. Farwell pulled up alongside the canoe and took one, while I reached forward to tap Dan's back. When he turned round, I silently handed the second cup to him. He smiled his thanks. I nodded in acknowledgment. Neither of us said a word.

Later that week, Dan showed me his new thermos. No one said anything about "real" canoeists then, either.

As the years went by, I discovered that there was still more magic to be found in my vacuum bottle. It warmed me when stormbound on the beach in autumn, and refueled me as I struggled to hold my boat in a surging eddy in a maelstrom of spring whitewater. It also kept homemade stew hot until dinnertime on the first night of a spur-of-the-moment weekend adventure. It even welcomed me back to my car at the end of a grueling day on the water — and the start of a grueling shuttle. And that's not all. Away from the water, a light, slim thermos — all gleaming stainless steel — now slips easily into one of the bottle cages on my bike. It holds hot, sweet tea on cold rides. Never again will I find that all the water I've brought for a two-hour trip in sub-freezing temperatures has turned to ice. Nor is this the last of the little bottle's magic. It holds chilled Newt Nectar in summer, making the long, sweaty haul that precedes many amphibious trips a lot more fun. Winter, spring, summer, and fall. Whatever the season or the weather, a thermos earns its keep.

Of course, there are ways to improve on any good idea, and every magic has its secrets. Preheating a thermos with boiling water (or precooling it with the coldest water available) stretches the time it can keep its contents hot (or cold). Adding an insulating sleeve of neoprene or other foam extends that time still further. Even an old wool sock is better than nothing. In fact, that's just what I use. Lastly, don't take chances. A dirty flask is a great incubator. So be sure to clean your thermos thoroughly after each use, particularly if it's held milk or milk products.

Vacuum bottle, vacuum flask, or thermos — by whatever name you know them, they are magic, and they're neither too bulky nor too heavy to carry along on most trips. With one of these versatile vessels in your pack, you're never more than a twist of the wrist away from a hot drink on a cold day, a hearty no-cook breakfast in bed on a remote mountain river, or an icy draft of chilled tea on a sultry summer afternoon. That's why you'll almost always find a thermos among the things we carry. Whatever Nature's opinion may be, smart paddlers adore a vacuum!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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