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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Expect Exigencies —
Putting Something By for a Rainy Day

By Tamia Nelson

July 18, 2006

It's an old joke, and it goes something like this: Three men are shipwrecked on a desert island. One is an engineer. The second, an archaeologist. And the third is an economist. Just as their hunger pangs are becoming unbearable, however, the forlorn castaways find a restaurant-size can of corned beef among the tide wrack on the beach. It's a little rusty, but it looks to be intact. The castaways rejoice. But their joy turns to despair almost immediately. What's the problem? They don't have a can opener.

The engineer is the first to react, grabbing the can and climbing to the top of a towering palm. From this lofty perch he drops his burden, hoping to smash it open. But the sand beneath the palm is soft and deep, and when his companions rush up to gather in the harvest, they discover that the can isn't even dented. The same can't be said for the engineer, unfortunately. In climbing down, he falls from the palm and sprains his ankle.

Now it's the archaeologist's turn to have a brainstorm. He grubs frantically in the scrubland surrounding an abandoned native shelter, certain that he'll find a discarded knife or other sharp tool to use in lieu of a can opener. But after half an hour of digging, he has only the blisters on his fingers to show for his trouble.

That's when the economist gets up from the shady spring hole where he's been lounging while the archaeologist wore himself out scratching in the earth. The economist smiles a carefree smile and clears his throat. The engineer and the archaeologist wait for him to speak, but he doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry. The tension grows greater by the minute.

"I have the solution," the economist suddenly announces, breaking the silence. His tone is confident, and the engineer's and archaeologist's spirits immediately soar, the pain of their injuries momentarily forgotten.

Then the economist continues, choosing his words with great care: "First," he says, "let's assume we have a can opener.…"


If only it were this easy to deal with a food crisis in the backcountry. But it isn't. And the problem can't be assumed away. No matter how carefully canoeists and kayakers plan, unanticipated delays and unforeseen setbacks aren't exactly rare. Even good paddlers have been known to swamp or capsize, requiring extended stays in camp to repair boats and salvage gear. Nature sometimes throws a curve, too. A siege of bad weather can force a party to lay up for days at a time. (These are only a few of the reasons why leaving a "float plan" with a trusted friend or relative is a Very Good Idea.) Of course, not all delays are the result of bad luck. Fortune sometimes smiles — like the times when a campsite is simply too near perfection to abandon after only one night. Whether such exigencies are the work of Nemesis or Fortune, though, they can hit the camp cook particularly hard. There are no HyperMarts in the backcountry.

And hold-ups aren't the cook's only problem. A torrential downpour in the night can breach all but the best waterproofing, turning the food in one or more packs into a sodden, unappetizing mass. Uninvited guests can also take their toll, as can spoilage. The result? Short rations at best. Missed meals at worst. Luckily, there's a simple way to avoid either eventuality. Just…

Give Yourself Some Slack

There's a lot to be said for going light, but whatever you do, don't skimp on food. If the prospect of an extended stay in a gale-whipped camp without your copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse seems unendurable, imagine how much worse you'd feel if you didn't have three meals a day to look forward to. Thinking about living off the land? Think again. Not only is foraging for food often illegal, but it's usually mighty hard work into the bargain. And the reward for your labor can be pretty skimpy — hunters and gatherers can't always count on eating regular meals. Moreover, we paddlers are guests in the backcountry, and it's bad manners for guests to snatch food from their hosts' mouths. After all, the wildlife who live where we play can't run down to the corner store when we empty their pantry, can they?

In short, if you don't like missing meals, you have to plan for the times when things don't go according to plan. My rule of thumb? It's a sliding scale. On a day trip, I carry enough food to see me through an overnight bivouac in comfort, increasing this to a full day's worth of extra rations on weekend adventures. Longer trips demand still more, of course, so I budget an extra 20 percent for exigencies, whether of whim or nature. This means that I pack six day's food on a five-day trip, twelve day's food on a ten-day trip, and so on. True, I often curse the added weight on the portages — but I bless my foresight whenever the weather turns against me. I think the trade-off is worth it.

Now only one question remains:

What to Take?

But there's no single, simple answer. To begin with, everyone has her own list of favorite foods, and most of us can think of at least one dish we wouldn't eat under any circumstances short of outright starvation. Vegetarians won't thank the camp cook if he makes beef jerky the mainstay of the menus, for example, while meat-and-potatoes types will almost certainly find tofu a bit hard to stomach. So if you're the cook, take the time to get to know your companions' likes and dislikes long before you head for the put-in. That job done, steer the best course you can through the shoal waters of meal planning. You probably won't keep everybody happy all of the time, but at least you'll know there's something for everyone at every meal.

Then, once you have a tentative menu, it's time to consider your own convenience. If you prize ease of preparation and good keeping qualities, and if price is no object, big outfitters like Campmor stock a wide range of "no-cook" or "quick-cook" freeze-dried and dehydrated meals. These make good exigency stores — they're the backcountry counterpart to the TV dinner. It pays to taste-test your choices at home or on short trips before relying on them for a three-month-long expedition, however. The same is true of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), the modern military quartermaster's response to Napoleon's famous observation that all armies travel on their stomachs. Widely available from outfitters and surplus stores, MREs are undoubtedly an improvement over the C-rations that preceded them, but they're far from perfect. MREs are heavier than freeze-dried meals, for one thing, and they're no less costly. Still, they can be eaten as is, hot or cold, with no more preparation than opening the pouch. Or not eaten. And that's the rub. While hunger is reputedly the best of sauces, MREs aren't everyone's idea of a happy meal. Be sure you try a few before you order a case lot — and just to be safe, invite your paddling buddies to dinner when you do.

Is the easy option too limiting? Too institutional? Too costly? No problem. There are plenty of economical alternatives for creative cooks, and you'll find them as close as the shelves of your local HyperMart. Examples abound. Instant couscous only needs to be stirred into boiling water, covered, removed from the flame, and allowed to sit for a few minutes before it's ready to eat. Measure dry couscous out into portion-sized quantities, store in doubled plastic bags, and you've got the start of many a filling meal. Add flavor by stirring instant soup mix or bouillon cubes into the water as it comes to a boil, just before you add the couscous. Then beef it up with jerky, or add precooked chicken or beef from retort packets. Want a vegetarian alternative? Look for TVP (texturized vegetable protein) and freeze-dried or dehydrated veggies in food co-ops and health-food stores. (Add these to the water at the start, however — before you put the pot on the fire.)

Want something that's really easy to prepare? Don't overlook concentrated, calorie-rich foods like hardtack, cereal bars, hard candies, dried fruits, and chocolate. (A hint: Chocolate chips and semisweet baker's chocolate keep better than most chocolate bars.) Individual packets of instant oatmeal are worth considering, too. They're not just for breakfast. In fact, Farwell eats oatmeal for lunch all winter. Oatmeal fuels his engine for the long, cold, bicycle ride from his St. Lawrence valley office back into the Adirondack foothills. One packet probably won't be enough for a hungry paddler, though. Farwell suggests a minimum of two per meal. This sort of thing isn't gourmet fare, of course, but it gives you just the boost you need when you're exhausted, or when the weather is simply too foul to permit elaborate cooking.

Beverages are also important. Remember Jerome K. Jerome's words in Three Men in a Boat? Pack "only what you need — …enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing." This is very good advice. Instant cocoa was once a staple food on polar expeditions. It's still a welcome addition to exigency stores. And while neither tea nor instant coffee contributes any calories to your diet, many paddlers find that these old favorites banish fatigue and lift spirits. I, for one, am not fit company if I don't have my breakfast java, and that's no jive. Fruit-flavored drink powders have their fans, as well. Since they're not made with boiling water, however, and since you probably won't want to drink the stuff you're paddling in, you'd better be sure you have a way to disinfect what's under your keel. In any case, it's not always easy to build a fire to "bile the kettle," especially when the wind is blowing a gale and the rain is lashing down.

OK. Once you've assembled your chosen foods and stripped them of any excess packaging, only one job remains. You have to…

Stow It

It's not a bad idea to segregate your exigency stores in doubled, heavy-duty plastic bags, or in one or more vinyl and fabric dry bags, if regular food-storage bags aren't large enough. Mark these bags clearly to discourage anyone who might be tempted to "borrow" from the emergency rations under way. It's no fun to find the cupboard bare just when you most need a meal, is it?

Now relax. You've planned for the times when things don't go according to plan. Putting it another way, you've made your own luck. Enjoy!

Assuming that you have a can opener — or anything else — only works for economists. (And not very well, at that.) Canoeists and kayakers just can't conjure up extra food from nowhere, whether or not they have real can openers in their packs, not even if they're economists during the workweek. The remedy? Expect exigencies and be ready for them. Put extra food by for a rainy day, a second night in that perfect campsite you didn't expect to find, or a short stay on a desert island you simply can't resist exploring. You won't be sorry that you did.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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