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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Breaking Away

Secrets of an Escape Artist

By Tamia Nelson

August 22, 2006

So you're planning a trip, are you? Great! Anticipation is one of life's simpler (and cheaper) pleasures. Whether it's just a day away from the kids, a weekend adventure, or a summer-long expedition, paddling excursions are always a holiday from the everyday — a chance to recharge your batteries, an opportunity to get back in touch with the things in life that really matter, a time to relax. Planning is part of the fun. But there's a downside to anticipation, too. Worries can multiply. Anxieties can build. And as the departure deadline looms, you can find yourself running a race that even a rat would dread.

Sound familiar? Then you're in good company. Colin Fletcher wrote of bouts with a mysterious ailment (he christened it "Fletcheritis") that threatened to scupper several long-planned epic walks at the last minute. And writer John Steinbeck, preparing to leave on the landlocked circumnavigation of America recounted in Travels with Charley, noticed that his "warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable" as D-Day approached, and lamented that "to give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and unknown seemed crazy." Nor is the phenomenon confined to Big Trips. It can be just as hard to get under way for a weekend as for a week — or a month, for that matter. Maybe it's because time constraints are much tighter and schedules less flexible. Or maybe it's simply that local trips don't seem to be worth all the bother, especially with Monday casting its long shadow back over the weekend. Whatever the reason, it's not unusual for even the most gung-ho paddler's enthusiasm to wane at the last minute. Breaking away can be mighty hard to do.

Why is this? I suppose inertia is the principal villain. I call this the "slog factor." Unless you paddle for a living — and not too many folks do — a trip is a break in your usual routine. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is obvious. Paddling is recreation, right? Re-creation. Change is good, in other words, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier and many more besides. But the curse is part of the bargain, too. Change is, well, change, and we're all creatures of habit. It takes energy and initiative to climb out of the workaday rut, however pleasing the prospect beyond. Then again, some folks manage to make it look easy. They're the ones who are standing at the door, jingling their car keys, all packed and ready to go, while the rest of us are still rushing around trying to remember where we put our life jackets and wondering if we really wouldn't rather stay home and watch Deliverance, instead.


OK. I know what I'd rather do, and I suspect we're all of one mind here. But it's still no fun running around in circles. What's the early birds' secret, then? I think it's embodied in the Principle of the Six Ps, summarized in the maxim that Proper Planning Prevents Pi…er…Piddling-Poor Performance. Call it a full-dress version of the familiar injunction to "Be prepared," if you want. Easier said than done, of course, especially for family trips, but almost anything is possible with a little practice. Virtue is sometimes rewarded. Organization and forethought yield a quick, stress-free getaway. And here's how to begin…

Make a List

Lists are the foundation of all successful breakaways. Lists of gear. Food lists. To-do lists. Emergency contact lists (aka "float plans"). Possessors of exceptionally retentive memories won't need to write their gear and food lists down, but they're the exception. Most of us will find that there's no substitute for paper and pencil, and even the masterminds will often discover uses for a written list. A few hints: Involve your paddling partners. Show them your list and ask them for suggestions about things to add, things to leave out, and ways to save weight. If the kids are coming along, let them join in the fun, too. Encourage them to draw up their own lists of personal gear. Whether you're planning a family outing or a solo jaunt, however, give yourself plenty of time. Good lists evolve. They can't be rushed. Luckily, the process needn't be traumatic. The "Ten Essentials" form the nucleus for all gear lists, and the lists you draw up for your first day trips will grow to meet your needs as your paddling horizons expand. Big Trips just require more of all consumable items. More food (and sometimes more water, too, though at eight-pounds-plus a US gallon, you can't haul enough for more than a few days). More insect repellent. More toilet paper. More of everything you use everyday, in short.

Evolution. That's the key. So save all your old gear lists, annotating them while the memory of each trip is still fresh in your mind. Then consult these notes when you plan your next trip. There's no better resource.


With your final gear, food, and to-do lists in hand, you're already edging toward the door, but you're not quite there. Now you have to pack. And efficient packing is a lot easier for…

The Organization Man

Or woman, of course. This is where a lot of us fall down. Shoving your gear into a dark corner of the garage — or worse yet, a dank corner of the basement — won't make it any easier for you to get under way the next time. Instead, keep your stuff in plain view, somewhere that's both well lit and well ventilated. A place for everything, and everything in its place, as my grandfather used to say. And be sure to make any necessary repairs as soon as possible after you get home from a trip. Don't fall into the trap of putting them off till tomorrow. As Janis Joplin once observed, "tomorrow never comes." She knew what she was talking about. If you don't want departure deadlines to become dreadlines, don't put gear away on the shelf until you've verified that it's clean, dry, and ready to go.

Consumables are another potential fetter. There's nothing like the prospect of a frantic dash into town to buy food or repair items to make the notion of weekend TV look attractive. Wal-Mart® can afford to embrace just-in-time inventory management, but unless you live next door to a large outfitter you probably can't. The moral of the story? Avoid the Friday rush at the HyperMart. Keep generous inventories of staple foods and stove fuel on hand throughout the paddling season, along with such important extras as water disinfection tablets, maintenance medications, batteries, and duct tape. You won't find these items in stock in every backcountry convenience store, after all. Check use-by dates, too, rotating your reserves so that you use the older stores first. Time-consuming? Yes. A bit. But worth it. And there's a bonus. Your camping stores will double as disaster supplies — no small matter in an increasingly uncertain world.


We've got our foot on the threshold now. There's only one thing left to do before we can head out…

Pack Up!

Take it from a veteran of far too many midnight scrambles — it pays to get the packing done early. A day or two of lead time is enough for a weekend trip. (Cold food is the exception here. Keep it in the fridge till you're ready to leave.) A week in advance isn't too long for an expedition. One thing's for sure, anyway. Having your boat already lashed on the rack and everything loaded makes D-Day a much more relaxed (and enjoyable) affair. To avoid tempting larcenous passersby, however, it's wise to lock both boat and car securely. The only thing worse than a flurry of last-minute packing is the sickening realization that your boat has fallen prey to a modern-day pirate during the night!

Expeditions involve further complications, but aside from river permits and similar administrative hurdles, they're no different for a paddling trip than for any other long vacation: cleaning out the refrigerator, making certain that your car is in top shape, arranging for someone to pick up the mail and keep the lawn in check, taking Fido or Fluffy to the kennel, and so forth. Whether you'll be gone all summer or only for a day, though, don't forget to leave a copy of your float plan with a trusted friend or relative. That could be the most important thing you do.

Now it's the night before you're scheduled to leave. You check you list once more, put out your traveling clothes, make sure your keys and wallet are where you can find them, and lay out the breakfast things. Then it's time to get some sleep. It's been a lot of work getting ready, but you'll reap your reward when the big day arrives. You'll be the cool and collected one for a change, the quiet eye in the storm created by your less well-prepared companions' frenzied scrambles. Don't gloat, though. You don't want to catch Nemesis' eye, do you?



And when the trip is over? What then? Do you just dump your dirty gear and garbage in the garage and sit down at the kitchen table to go through your mail? Not if you're smart, you don't. The day you get back from one trip is the best time to begin preparations for the next. To make things easier, make your last day on the road a short one. You'll need to buy food for supper (and tomorrow's breakfast), pick up Fido and Fluffy, unload your car, and unpack your gear. None of these jobs will be easier after sixteen hours on the road. You'll also want to make a detailed list of everything requiring repair or replacement. So start getting things ready for your next trip right now — today, not tomorrow. Because tomorrow never comes. It's always today.

For too many paddlers, D-Day — departure day — is a day to dread. But deadlines don't have to be dreadlines, and breaking away doesn't have to be a chore. It can be easy. The secret? Proper planning prevents piddling-poor performance. That's a fail-safe recipe for making a quick getaway. Just ask any escape artist.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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