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The Things We Carry

Putting a Bit of Stick About

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

June 27, 2006

Do walking sticks have a place on canoeing and kayaking trips? You bet they do! Paddlers are only part-time aquanauts, after all. There's a lot of walking on any trip. Scouting, for instance. And portaging. And who among us can turn down the chance to climb a nearby peak, if only to take in the view from the summit? Now and then a walking stick will earn its keep on the water, as well. The nineteenth-century social critic Thorstein Veblen may have dismissed walking sticks as proof that "the bearer's hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort," but what did he know? Very little, I'd guess — about walking sticks, at any rate. Then again, I'd be surprised if Veblen often strayed outside the groves of academe. If he had, he'd have understood. Of course, I'm no social thinker. But I'm a walker, as well as a paddler, and I learned long ago that…

Walking Sticks Are Very Useful

Not convinced? Here are just a few of the many ways they can earn their passage:

  • PUNT. It's a rare canoeist or kayaker who hasn't used his paddle to shove off when launching from a shelving shore, grounded on a gravel bar, or bouncing down a shallow rapid. And many of us have regretted it later, when we surveyed the damage done to the feather edge of a fine ash beavertail. Luckily, there is a cure for this disease — use your walking stick as a punt, instead. Better yet, use two. Seated paddlers in solo boats have been employing pairs of short sticks to negotiate bony riffles for just about as long as there've been canoes and kayaks in North America. At first, the technique seems closer to cross-country skiing than orthodox poling, and it takes a little experimenting to get it right, but it works. In fact, it's made to order for the telescoping trekking poles that are increasingly popular with fitness walkers. So why not give it a try?

  • BOAT HOOK. A boat hook is just a stick with a hook on the end, and there's no need to tell a sailor why a boat hook is a handy thing to have. Still, canoeists and kayakers may need some persuading. Remember the last time you clutched at a slippery shoreline sapling just beyond reach — and missed? Think how much easier it would have been if you'd had a boat hook. Of course, your boat hook doesn't have to be a "real" boat hook. It just has to be a stick with a hook at one end. And the hook doesn't always have to have a sharp point. Sometimes even the crook of a cane will do. (WARNING! If your boat hook does have a sharp end, you'll want to cover it when it's not in use. Get the point?)

  • THIRD LEG. The rest of the animal kingdom is on to something. Two legs aren't always enough, particularly if one of them has a dodgy knee. In fact, even if your knees have never given you cause for concern — lucky you! — mud and scree and cobbles can make any portage or riverbank scout into more of an "adventure" than you bargained for. And what about wading? There's no better way to get a feel for the power of moving water, let alone demonstrate why tripods have it all over bipods in the stability sweepstakes. Just ask any fly fisherman. That's why outfitters who cater to anglers give shelf space to wading staffs. They'll be happy to sell them to canoeists and kayakers, too.

  • BATON. The dog is man's best friend, right? But if you encounter a Rottweiler with an attitude problem running off the leash while you're slogging along the portage trail — or just meet a hyperactive Great Dane who's been rolling on a dead deer — it's nice to be able to interpose something between you and Fido while you consider your options. A walking stick is just the ticket. Hold it across your body like a riot cop holds her baton (practitioners of Kukishin ryu will recognize this as the classic hira ichimonji no kamae defensive stance), or just plant it on the ground in front of you. Either way, you're guaranteeing yourself a little personal space.

  • TENT POLE OR DEADMAN. A walking stick is as useful in camp as it is under way or on the trail. With a stick and a tarp you've got a shelter, and a walking stick buried in sand makes a serviceable deadman to anchor your tent against an onshore breeze. (Works great in snow, too, but not many paddlers are still on the water once the snow starts to drift this deep.)

OK. I'm sure you get my drift. Sticks are useful. But which one is best for paddlers? After all, there are…

More Kinds Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Let's look at a few of the contenders. "Found" sticks. Carved sticks. High-tech sticks. Alpenstocks. Plain-jane canes. And exotica like rattan bos. See what I mean? There's a lot of choice. Found sticks are simplest, of course, and simple is good. Pick one up along the trail when you need it, then discard it when the need is past. What could be easier? On the other hand, wood can be a scarce resource in arid climes, far too precious to be squandered on a walking stick. And even where wood is plentiful, playing pick-up-sticks isn't without its risks. Found sticks don't always have comfortable grips, for one thing, and they're often too long or too short. It's not unusual for dead, down wood to be rotten, too — and a rotten prop is worse than no prop at all. But if you choose carefully when scrounging, you may find a winner, and you can't beat the price.

Ready to make a long-term commitment to a stick? Then sharpen your knife, harvest a suitable hardwood sapling from the "closet of the woods" (only when and where permitted by law, of course), and carve yourself an heirloom. You'll be helping to preserve a folk art. Too much trouble? No problem. Buy a stick from someone who carves them for a living. That's the next best thing to doing it yourself. And some of the carvers' work is truly beautiful.

Or maybe you're a "form follows function" sort of person. If so, high-tech may be the way to go. Check out any outfitter's catalog. You'll find page after page of walking staffs and trekking poles. (Staffs are usually solitary; poles come in pairs.) With their aluminum or carbon-fiber shafts, plastic grips, and wrist straps these look a lot like ski poles. Most telescope down, too, allowing you to adjust the length to suit your height and stride, or to collapse the pole completely for storage or transport. Some even have antishock springs. And what about accessories? These warrant a catalog in their own right. Rubber feet for rock. Spikes for earth. Baskets for snow. Compasses for staying found. Mounts for steadying a camera or binocular. Even padded forks to convert your staff into a unipod for a rifle. Expensive? Yes — unless you find a bargain in a Big Box retailer. But many trekkers think they're worth it. You may think so too.

Alpenstocks aren't often seen today, but they were the nineteenth-century mountain tourist's version of the trekking staff. No one who was anyone ventured into the Alps without an alpenstock. But they were more than wardrobe accessories. An inspired combination of ice ax and walking stick, the alpenstock was the Swiss Army knife of portable props. The spike helped you keep the alpenstock where it was planted, while the adze and pick at the other end performed a variety of chores, from self-rescue on icy slopes to lowering a pot into a snow pool to fill it for afternoon tea. It's a pity they're so hard to find today. There'd be no better companion for would-be boatpackers — pedestrian counterparts to bicycling amphibious paddlers — who want to carry a light inflatable into the high country. (To avoid being let down unexpectedly, however, these far-ranging explorers will want to cover the spike, pick, and adze while they're in their boats.)

Of course, there's pedestrian, and then there's pedestrian. The common cane definitely belongs in the latter category. Mine is a legacy of the summers I spent working in my parents' catering business in cattle auction barns. It bears a deathless legend, "REGISTERED HOLSTEINS: BREED OF THE TIMES" — a sure-fire conversation-starter in farm-country diners. No spindly stick, this. Designed for controlling anxious livestock in cramped quarters, it's fashioned from oak, the same stuff they made warships from in the age of sail. And it's never let me down, serving me faithfully for year after year, especially when an old skiing injury acts up. Better yet, it's easy to stow in the smallest kayak or pack canoe.

That leaves the exotica. Bamboo and rattan bos are more often seen in martial arts dojos than on backcountry trails, but they make excellent walking sticks, nonetheless. Just protect the ends with rubber crutch tips. A bonus: bos are cheap.

Too much choice? It's not hard to narrow the field. Kayakers will prize easy-to-stow telescoping trekking poles or old-fashioned canes. (To avoid misadventures in a capsize, be sure to cover any sharp bits before packing your stick away.) Penny-pinchers will also favor canes, although found sticks and bos can be had even cheaper. Canoeists with deep pockets have the greatest range of alternatives. For them, almost anything goes — even an antique alpenstock.

Length? Longer sticks make better punts, though the seated, two-stick technique works best with short poles. On the trail, use whatever length feels good, but if you'll spend much time wading, you'll probably prefer a longer stick to a shorter. Of course, owners of telescoping poles can adjust to suit conditions. There's a lot to be said for high-tech!

Have you made your choice? Then it's time to…

Put a Bit of Stick About

There's an art to using a stick, but it's not very demanding. Mostly, walking (or wading) with a stick is a no-brainer. Practice makes perfect, in other words. A few cautionary words are probably in order, though. As a former downhill skier who's suffered too many sprains, I don't like wrist straps. They keep your stick from straying, to be sure, but they can also trap your hand if you fall. They can even dislocate a shoulder. One way to reduce the chances of injury is to slip your hand through the loop from above, rather than below. Another is to place only your fingers through the loop and keep your thumb outside. In any case, don't assume that having an extra leg (or two) guarantees that you'll always stay on your feet. When the going gets tough, plant your stick carefully and test it before putting your full weight on it. Even then, be prepared for the tip to slip. Spikes hold well in soft ground — a small basket will prevent the pole from sinking too deep in spongy soil — but a spike is useless on rock. That's when you'll want a grippy rubber tip. If your pole has both, you're in luck.

Don't wool-gather on the trail, either. For example, if you're listening to the birds and straining your neck to see them flitting about in the trees, it's all too easy to swing your stick through your own legs as you walk along. It sounds like a surefire slapstick comedy turn, but believe me, it's no laughing matter, especially when you're carrying a heavy pack. You've been warned.

Few canoeists and kayakers take walking sticks along on their paddling trips. Maybe more would do so if they knew just how useful these simple tools can be. Why not try it yourself? The ghost of Thorstein Veblen might scoff, but so what? He was no paddler. You be the judge. I'll bet you'll be mighty glad you put a bit of stick about. And that's all that really matters, isn't it?

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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