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The Things We Carry

Another Old-Timer — The Pack
That Made Duluth a Household Word

By Tamia Nelson

September 26, 2006

I came to paddling by way of mountaineering, and my climbing packs were state of the art. Each of these high-tech wonders boasted legions of pockets, dividers, zippers, straps, and snaps, and all of them were sewn from the latest in coated nylon fabric. You'll understand, then, that every time my Grandad — a part-time Adirondack guide — tossed a week's worth of canned food, an ax, and a blanket roll into a pack basket woven from split ash, and then set off down the trail to one of his backcountry camps, I thought him hopelessly out of date. A real old-timer, in other words.

I soon realized that Grandad wasn't the ultimate old-timer, however. This title belonged to a much-patched Duluth pack that invariably accompanied Grandad on longer trips in his battered Grumman canoe. The shapeless, faded canvas envelope had me scratching my head from the first moment I saw it. Why, I wondered, would any sane canoeist haul his gear in a pack constructed from thirsty cotton duck? But I knew better than to ask. Grandad was a man of few words, most of them profane. "Sensitive" and "supportive" were definitely not in his working vocabulary. And he wasn't disposed to defend his choice of gear to anyone, let alone a know-it-all teenager. Grandad was a great believer in learning by doing. He knew that making mistakes and suffering the consequences burned lessons into a hard head like nothing else could.

So while I spent dollars saved from my meager earnings on a succession of pricy climbing packs, each one of them flashier and more sculpted than the one before it, Grandad contented himself with his pack basket and Duluth pack. Looking back, it's not hard to see why. When Grandad glided easily through the spruce hells and along boggy game trails with his pack basket riding securely between his shoulder blades and hips, I fought for each foot of ground and struggled to keep up, as branches snatched at my pack's frame ends, tugged at zipper pulls, and snagged ice-ax loops, sometimes even tearing the fragile stuff sack that contained my precious sleeping bag. Needless to say, my exertions often came to nothing. Sooner or later, Grandad's form would disappear into the shadows ahead, leaving me to plod on alone. Inevitably, though, I'd meet him further down the trail, sitting on a windfall and smoking, his furrowed face wreathed in a smile that betrayed a large measure of amusement compounded with just a hint of amiable contempt. I'd pull up short immediately, sweaty and panting, welcoming the chance to rest. But Grandad, his khaki shirt still crisp and dry, would silently stub out his cigarette in the Sucrets tin he always carried as a portable ashtray, nod his head in a gesture that combined greeting and farewell, stand up, and then stride effortlessly away, leaving me to follow as best I could.

And follow I did, though my climbing packs often held me back. I was slow to learn, in other words. But the lesson was brought home once again when Grandad invited me to accompany him as he stalked brookies on a remote beaver pond. I loaded my frame pack into the canoe first. It wasn't easy. We'd left the spruce hells behind, but this made very little difference. The ends of the pack frame seemed to reach out to grab the tin tank's thwarts, seats, and gunwales, and the resulting percussion solo echoed from the surrounding hills for long seconds. Grandad watched with growing impatience while I fussed and fumed. When his turn came, he slipped his faded green Duluth pack effortlessly behind the central thwart, adding a caustic remark about the importance of a quiet approach to the success of the day's fishing. My face was still burning with embarrassment when we launched. The message had finally gotten through to me.

Much later, after Grandad breathed his last — the million-odd cigarettes he'd smoked in his life wore him down as no spruce hell ever could — I got a canoe of my own. And when the time came to outfit that canoe for my first Big Trip, a Duluth pack was high on my list of must-have items. What motivated my uncharacteristic return to the age before petroleum-based miracle fabrics? Why did I seek out a throwback, a relic that had barely changed since its introduction in the late 1800s? Anachronism and sentiment played a part, I admit, but so what? Much of the appeal of canoeing and kayaking lies in what Farwell likes to call "elective anachronism." It doesn't matter if our boats are molded from thermoplastic and our paddles bear only the slightest resemblance to an ash beavertail. Once seated in a canoe or kayak, we're forced to slow down. Our shrinking world suddenly grows larger, and familiar waterscapes take on a new richness and intensity. To some degree, carrying our gear in a canvas pack that dates back to a time when the American Civil War was still a living memory furthers this end. And it keeps me in touch with my Grandad, too, I suppose.

Then again, nostalgia isn't what it used to be, is it? The Duluth pack wouldn't have kept its place in outfitters' catalogs for nearly 150 years if its appeal rested solely on sentiment. It's also a very practical pack. It works, in other words. In its simplest, purest form, it's little more than a large, flat envelope topped with a flap that you cinch down with three leather straps. You haul it with a short tumpline, a pair of broad shoulder straps, or both, depending on the weight of your gear, the terrain, and your personal preference. The advantages? The Duluth pack is easy to load. You don't have to struggle to shoehorn bulky items like tents, sleeping bags, and food bags into tiny, form-fitting, zippered compartments. It's easy to stow in a canoe, too. There's little to catch on thwarts or seats. And it's surprisingly comfortable to carry. With the load borne by both shoulders and neck — get your neck muscles in shape first, if you're thinking about tumping! — you'll find that you take many trails at a half-jog, even when you put a second, smaller load (the "baby") on top of the main pack.

The fabric is part of the story. Cotton duck breathes. It's comfortable against your back in hot, humid weather. And the duck's coarse weave has a bit of a "tooth." It doesn't slip-slide around when you're walking fast. It's stealthy, too — a fact not lost on hunters, anglers, naturalists, and other folks who prefer seeing to being seen. Cotton duck whispers quietly through the bush, and its subdued olive-drab color doesn't advertise your presence to every passer-by. Cotton fabrics are also easily repaired. (Grandad's old pack was more patch than pack.) They also smell good. Even the musty pong of mildew is a pleasant reminder that this pack, at least, won't end up as a permanent resident in some suburban landfill. Rot is nature's way of recycling materials, after all. Of course, there are times when even the shyest paddler wants to be seen. Like during big-game season, for instance. That's when I drape a hunter-orange vest over my pack.

What about waterproofing? Isn't this the Duluth sack's Achilles' heel? Yes and no. Treated cotton duck is very water-repellent, to be sure, but it will nevertheless soak through if it sits in a puddle for long. And it's certainly not immersion-proof: the cover flap doesn't even pretend to be a watertight closure. The flap keeps rain showers off the pack's contents, and nothing more. What's the solution, then? Simple. Pack anything that you need to keep dry in waterproof bags ("dry bags") before you stuff it in your Duluth pack. On whitewater outings you can even put the entire pack in a large, heavy-duty dry bag, combining the benefits of waterproof stowage and flotation. But what about the water that sloshes back and forth in the bilges of even well-handled boats on the calmest days? The traditional remedy, a couple of long spruce poles laid parallel to the keel, will appeal to some, but only if they can find suitable poles. (Put the packs on the poles, out of reach of the bilge water.) The rest of us will rely on dry bags or — for optimists only! — heavy plastic liners, folded over at the top.

Do you find the shape of the original Duluth pack's flat envelope too confining? You're not alone, and help is at hand. Even old dogs occasionally learn new tricks. You can now buy boxy Duluth packs with side panels. They stand upright with much more grace than the old-style "flour sacks," and they hold a lot more gear into the bargain. You can even purchase Duluth sacks with large side pockets, blurring the distinction between Duluth pack and rucksack. The pockets are convenient places to stow water bottles and foul-weather gear, I admit, but they also add snag points. It's your choice. Luckily, most paddlers will find that they need more than one Duluth pack, so it's always possible to hedge your bets. Farwell and I own nearly a dozen between us, as it happens. They're all made from cotton and leather, but those are just about the only things they have in common. Some even do double duty as pack-basket covers — there are few better ways to carry cooking pots and other hard-to-pack gear. Of course, we don't always use Duluth packs when paddling. My getaway pack is a German military-surplus rucksack. It works fine for most weekend jaunts, and it sometimes comes along on more ambitious journeys, too.

Kayakers will also want to look elsewhere. Unless you own a big tandem boat, you'll probably discover that even the smallest Duluth pack is too large to stow below decks. Or am I underestimating this old-timer's versatility? Maybe so. After all, on kayak camping trips I still lash a freighter frame to the stern deck of my boat. It portages both kayak and gear. I suppose a big Duluth pack would serve equally well in the latter role for a kayaker who relies on a conventional portage yoke. The Duluth pack could then travel (empty) on the stern deck, stowed in a dry bag to keep it from getting soaked. One thing is certain: Duluth packs are versatile!

With autumn's chill numbing my fingers and the cries of wild geese echoing over my head, I can't resist the urge to shoulder my little pack canoe and spend some time on the ponds and flows around me, saying my farewells to the big, battleship-gray birds before they fly south to brave the seasonal gauntlet of fire. And when I go, the pack in my little canoe is often a simple canvas envelope — a gift from another bird of passage, one who went south many years ago, but whom I still glimpse from time to time in the half-light of an autumn dawn, when a flaw in the wind opens a short-lived gap in the morning mist on some remote Adirondack tarn. As was always his habit, Grandad has taken the lead.

Like a good man, a good pack endures. The Duluth pack is here to stay.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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