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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Breaking Away

Swiftly and With Style —
The Art of Breaking Camp

By Tamia Nelson

September 5, 2006

What sort of paddler are you? Do you like to linger long over elaborate meals in camp? And once under way, do you pause to fish each promising pool and riffle? Or do you paddle nonstop from dawn to dusk, sustained only by sugared water and energy bars? Or — like most of us, I suppose — do you fall somewhere in between? Kenny, the jovial postmaster in the riverbank hamlet where I live, is a textbook lingerer, and his reasoning is hard to fault. Why, he asks, would he ever be in a hurry to leave camp, with its good food and good conversation, not to mention the novel tucked away in his pack that he never seems to find time to read at home? The rat race, Kenny concluded long ago, is something best left to rats, particularly when the weather's cool and rainy. So he doesn't curse when the clouds roll in. No, sir. Instead, he strings a tarp over the camp kitchen to make the cook's job easier, then fashions a sheltered nook by erecting a couple of large umbrellas on long poles sunk into soft ground. Finally, when the angle of the umbrellas is adjusted to perfection, he settles down with his book and a hot drink, to read and sip and watch the mist swirl around him, a reverie interrupted only by the occasional wail of a distant loon.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And there's a lot to be said for Kenny's relaxed approach to backcountry life. Lounging around camp has been part of the gospel of smoothing it since Nessmuk's day. Then again, if the goal of a trip is to get from one place to another, lingering in camp isn't always possible. Building some slack into your schedule is a great idea, of course, but on travel days a tardy start only means a late arrival and a frantic race to beat the approaching dark. Even if your plan is to take day trips away from a fixed camp, efficiency pays big dividends.

Still, anyone who likes to sleep in or linger over coffee will rebel at the idea of an early start. I know I did. But I came round in the end, after battling the waves and winds of one afternoon thunderstorm too many. There was a reason why the voyageurs broke camp in the half light of a northern dawn at three o'clock: wind. The blustery, ill-tempered "Old Woman" likes to sleep in, too. She seldom causes trouble on summer mornings. Later in the day, however, she often makes up for lost time. The moral of the story? If you want to put a lot of miles under your keel — and maybe even if you don't — get on the water early. Heat drives the wind, and the day gets hotter as the sun rises in the sky. Morning calms are frequently followed by afternoon gales. (A warning: Cold fronts make their own weather, and they don't keep predictable hours. To avoid unpleasant surprises, look at your barometer as well as your watch.) Early starts also permit you to take long lunch breaks. You won't get a better opportunity to brew a pot of tea and make a quick cup of soup, or to dry damp clothes and sleeping bags. You might also want to take a nap while the afternoon wind blows itself out, then get back in your boat for a couple of hours of paddling before setting up camp in the evening.

Are there any other reasons for an early start? Sure. Morning is a great time to catch a glimpse of the local wildlife. Nocturnal animals are just handing over to the day shift, and both shifts are looking for a quick bite to eat — a bedtime snack for one is breakfast for the other. Dawn gives photographers and painters a chance to forage, too. Artists delight in the spectacle of sunrise and the drama of long shadows. Aesthetically, the flat, harsh light of midday is far less interesting.

Don't ignore the logic of simple arithmetic, either. All other things being equal, an early start to the day means an early finish. This is a Good Thing. Setting up camp by the light of the sun almost always beats stumbling around in the dark, a point of particular importance during the short days of the shoulder seasons, and in hill (or canyon) country at any time of year. Getting into camp early also yields other benefits. The air is often less humid in the late afternoon than in the early morning (unless it's been raining recently, that is). Wet clothes and damp bedding dry faster. And there's time for outdoor chefs to fuss over the cooking pots, time for anglers to wet a line in a promising pool, time for swimmers to swim.… In short, there's time to do the things you came to do.

OK. Early starts often make sense. But just how do you…

Rise and Shine?

The short answer? Get organized! Organization and established routine are the keys to getting an early start. Organized folks lose less gear, waste fewer motions, and get on the water quicker. They know where all their odds and ends of kit are, all of the time. Their motto? A place for everything, and everything in its place. Flashlight, reading glasses, knife, matches.… Each has a home port and a fixed mooring. And each one is marked clearly on the organized paddler's mental chart. Becoming an Organization Man (or Woman) is the first step to liberating yourself from the tyranny of the clock.

Of course, routine can become a straightjacket, too. We're all slaves to our good habits. The secret is balance, along with a sense of proportion. Know when you can get away with breaking your own rules, and give yourself occasional time off for good behavior. Solo travelers have the hardest time here. They have to do all the camp chores themselves. Efficiency is doubly important for them. Paddlers who travel with family and friends have it much easier. They can share some chores and rotate others, even taking occasional holidays from group responsibilities. But only if everyone agrees in advance. Once again, it's the Organization Men who fare best and travel farthest.

It also helps to get…

A Head Start on Your Early Day

I learned this lesson when I was still a kid. Long before two-career couples were the norm, my grandfather and grandmother both held down office jobs. When I stayed with them on weekends, I couldn't help noticing that they laid the breakfast table before they went to bed. This was a stark contrast with the domestic arrangements in my parents' chaotic household, but I soon came to appreciate my grandparents' methodical habits. They knew from experience that a few minutes' extra time could make a world of difference on a hectic weekday morning, and they saw no reason to abandon their routine on Saturday and Sunday. When I got my first full-time job, I remembered this. I also discovered that the same principle applied in the backcountry, too. It's not hard to put it into practice. Just tidy up camp before turning in, pre-packing anything that won't be needed in the morning, selecting the breakfast menu (and protecting it against against uninvited nocturnal guests), refueling the stove (let it cool first!), and making sure all boats are secured and ready. Some paddlers even go one step further, getting a head start on the actual breakfast preparations, with a little help from a thermos.

Sound like a pain? It is. A bit. But the knowledge that you've got a leg up on the coming dawn is wonderfully relaxing. Even if you have a hard day ahead of you, you'll find that you sleep sounder. Now all that's left for you to do is to…

Get Up With the Birds

Birds greet the sun with a song. What have they got to sing about? Wake early and find out. You'll be glad you did. The dawn world is a magical place — a country of deep shadows, pungent smells, and enchanting sounds. A world of mists and stillnesses. And by rising early, you'll be able to enjoy it. This is where order and method come to the fore. You'll have more time to drink deep of the morning's delights if you're not scrambling around camp looking for your socks. Here's a sample routine you can adapt to suit yourself:

  • The cook brings water to a boil for coffee and the post-meal cleanup, prepares breakfast, and begins putting food packs and kitchen gear in order.

  • Meanwhile, someone else airs the sleeping bags and pads on a line, stringing the line under a tarp if necessary. All clothes not needed on the water are packed away, as are all personal items. (The cook may want to delegate this job to her partner.) When the bedding is as dry as it's going to get, it too is packed. Then the tarps start coming down, as do the tents. Self-standing tents can be upended first to allow the floors to dry.

  • Packs are placed near the boats as soon as they're filled and closed, and the boats themselves are rigged. Paddles, PFDs, and deck gear are collected and stowed, ready for use.

  • After breakfast, the cook's helper cleans up the kitchen area, drowns the fire (if breakfast was prepared over an open fire, that is — not something I'd recommend if you're hoping for an early start), and packs away the gear. Any last-minute calls of nature are answered, teeth are brushed, and hands and faces washed. (Fussiness? No. Common sense. You don't want food odors on paddles and clothing, do you?)

  • Boats are hauled to the water and loaded. In sheltered shallows, wellie-wearers can do this while their boats are afloat, but often it's necessary to load on shore and then drag the boats the final few feet. (Don't try this with an heirloom bark or wood-canvas canoe, though!) Once in the water, no boat is left unattended, even for a minute. Cook's helper now makes a final circuit of camp, collecting any dropped or forgotten gear and policing any trash. If breakfast was cooked on an open fire, the fire is checked for live coals or embers, and if any are found, the helper drowns the fire again. No fire is dead until the charred remnants are cold to the touch.

  • Don life jackets and get under way!


So far, so good. The case for an early start is easy to argue in summer. But what about the shoulder seasons? Specifically, what about autumn? Nights are colder, morning fogs are common, and days are shorter. Surely this makes dawn departures less desirable, doesn't it? Well, maybe not. Admittedly, it's no fun braving a chilly morning, but it's even less fun getting into camp after dark, cold and tired and hungry. Days are shorter now. So adjust your goals accordingly. Rise with the dawn, forgo your lazy summertime lunch break, and plan on reaching camp while the sun is still far above the horizon. You'll cover fewer miles, to be sure, but you'll have time to savor the fall colors, revel in the freedom from biting flies, and marvel at the dramatic skyscapes that accompany the equinoctial storms. You'll also be able to bask in the embrace of a warm jacket or sweater while sipping hot tea and listening to Vs of geese honk plaintively overhead, as chipmunks and squirrels scurry around you, busy collecting enough nuts and seeds to take them through a long winter. And later, as you gaze out over the water for a last look in the direction of the setting sun, what do you see? A family of beavers augmenting their own larders to meet the challenge of the season of hard water. For some paddlers, fall is the best time of the year, well worth an early start.

Forsaking the cozy warmth of a sleeping bag to crawl out into a dank dawn isn't easy for most of us, but early morning is the best time of the day to be up and about, whether you linger near shore to watch the wildlife greet the sun, or churn the still, unruffled waters into froth with your paddle in order to get as many miles as possible under the keel before the Old Woman wakes. Whatever floats your boat, though, the time spent breaking camp and stowing gear is time forever lost. It's better by far to get the necessary chores behind you as quickly as possible, swiftly and with style. After that, the rest of the day is yours.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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