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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It (Sometimes) Takes Two

Part 1 — Carrying a Canoe

By Tamia Nelson

June 6, 2006

Summer's come to the northern hemisphere at last, and many paddlers are eager to make the most of the long days. But long days on the water often mean long portages, and while portaging isn't exactly a life sentence, it almost always means hard labor. And hauling the boat is the hardest labor of all. Wheeled carts and good yokes make the job easier, to be sure, but wheels can't be used everywhere and no yoke will lighten the load by so much as an ounce. What's the solution, then? It's simpler than you might think. Don't go it alone. Share the burden with your partner, instead. A load shared is a load halved, after all. That ought to lighten each step you take down the trail!

This clashes with the "hard man, iron woman" school of backcountry literature, of course, but it really isn't a radical idea. It's as old as the voyageurs, if not much older. True, portaging a boat is usually a solo affair, but even iron women (and hard men) often find themselves wishing for a second pair of hands — not to mention a second back to lighten the load. The reasons are many and varied. Fatigue. Injury. Advancing years. Steep grades. Boggy, stony, or deadfall-littered trails. And you can't argue with arithmetic. Suppose your boat weighs in at 80 pounds. This isn't too much for a reasonably fit paddler to haul over a well-maintained path, particularly if her boat boasts a yoke. At least it isn't too much at first. But the burden grows heavier as the portage lengthens and the hills grow steeper. Luckily, though, you don't have to suffer in silence. Sharing the load with your partner cuts it down to size: 40 pounds rides a lot lighter on the shoulders than 80, doesn't it?

Still, doubling up isn't quite as simple as it seems, and there are a few drawbacks to consider, too. Different boats demand different strokes, for one thing. So this time out I'll limit myself to canoes. Kayaks and sit-on-tops will have to wait till next week.

OK. Sharing the load can make almost any portage seem shorter. But safety first. Some shortcuts only lead you into trouble. They're…

False Friends

It's hard to resist the temptation to leave your packs and gear in your boat when you have an extra pair of hands helping you across a short portage, particularly if the boat in question is a "tin tank" or molded from one of the nearly indestructible thermoplastics. And sometimes — just sometimes — you can get away with it. But remember this: boats can carry as much as they do only because the water buoys them up. On land, away from the cradling waves, they're surprisingly vulnerable. Grab loops, decks, and gunwales aren't designed to support heavy, suspended loads, and neither are most folks' shoulders. So ponder long and hard before you haul a heavily loaded boat over even a short carry. If you think it takes a long time to remove and stow your gear, how long do you think it will take to replace a deck, let alone a shoulder?

Of course some things can be carried safely inside your boat. Paddles, life jackets, a canoe pole, light rucksacks , sleeping pads — such items add almost nothing to the overall weight and pose no risk to hull or hardware. But the rest of your gear should travel on its own. Ease the burden on yourself, too. Closed-cell foam can be used to pad yokes and thwarts, and pipe insulation is made to order for gunwales and paddle shafts. Horse-collar (Type II) PFDs also make good pads for improvised yokes. In fact, they make better pads than they do PFDs. (Never use your primary PFD as a portage pad.)

The preceding paragraphs emphasize one of the paradoxes of portaging. Right side up, a canoe out of water is a handy basket — a basket that's far too easy to overfill. Upside down, however, the basket becomes a burden to be carried on your shoulders, and anything in it must be secured before you head down the trail. Each approach has merit. Let's begin with…

Lift and Go

If the distance is short, the way obstructed, or the footing uncertain, this is probably the best way to negotiate a portage. Bearing in mind what I said about false friends, however, unload all but the lightest odds and ends of your gear before you start. When that's done, one person takes up position next to the bow, while the other stands near the stern, on the opposite side of the boat from her companion. Hold onto a grab loop, toggle, deck, or gunwale. Then lift the boat up and scuttle off. It's easy to describe, but not so easy to manage in practice. You'll almost certainly find yourself taking baby steps, and your arm will grow heavier by the minute. It won't be long before you're ready for a break. (That's easy to do, at least. Just set the boat down — carefully.) If the trail is wide and free from obstacles, you can also try walking side by side, carrying the boat between you. But you'll want to be sure the load (if any) is in balance first.

What if the road ahead is a long one, however? Then you may decide to…

Shoulder Your Load

This can be done at any time along the trail, whenever the mood strikes or your hands cry out for relief. Just lift the boat up and place the keel on your shoulder, while you partner does the same at his end. (A hint: Announce your intention to shoulder the load well in advance of making your move.) Now cradle the boat in your nearside arms. Since you'll still be on opposite sides, the load should rest easy. With a little practice you'll even be able to lift the boat to your shoulders on the march without missing a step. Better yet, you'll be following in the footsteps of the voyageurs. They portaged their North Canoes just this way. But be warned — if your shoulders aren't well upholstered, they'll soon protest. When the pain gets too much to bear, it's time for Plan B.

And what's that, exactly? Carrying your boat upside down, of course. This is the way the voyageurs got their 36-foot, 600-pound canots de maître across the killer portages of the Montrealers' mainline. It can work for you, too, though you'll want to experiment a bit at home first. The bowman will probably find it best to balance a gunwale on one shoulder. He can serve as guide. The sternman, on the other hand, will most likely prefer to rest the rear deck, rear seat, or rear thwart on a pad behind her neck. A paddle yoke may take some of the sting out of the load, but she must always be prepared to throw off her burden in an instant if her partner stumbles. She'll also find that the narrow confines of the small end of the boat grow mighty stuffy after a few minutes. So on long portages it makes sense to swap ends from time to time. It's also imperative that the sternman matches her partner's pace. Good communication is essential here.

Stuffy or not, though, sharing the burden beats muscling a heavy boat across a portage alone. At trail's end — and all trails will end sooner or later — give yourself a few minutes to rest and regroup before heading back for the gear. Catch your breath, listen to the birds, and drink deep from your canteen while congratulating yourself and your partner on a job well done. You might even want to sing a few bars of "A la Claire Fontaine."

Portaging doesn't have to mean solitary confinement under an overturned canoe. There are many times when it makes sense to double up and share the burden, whatever kind of boat you favor. The good news? Owners of kayaks and sit-on-tops can lighten their loads, too. Join me next week as I explore the ways.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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