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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Show Your Colors!

Are You Bright or Outta Sight?

By Tamia Nelson

October 3, 2006

Paddlers — many paddlers, anyway — are shy folks. We don't like to stand out. We're happiest when we disappear into the landscape. But this isn't always a good idea, a fact which was brought home to me nearly ten years ago when I practically walked down the barrel of a turkey hunter's twelve-bore. I was carrying my pack canoe through mixed second-growth to a local beaver pond, and I didn't see the hunter until I was almost on top of him. But he saw me. And he recognized me for what I was: a paddler, not a turkey. My hunter-orange vest did what it was designed to do.

Yet there was a time when I wouldn't have been caught dead wearing bright clothes in the bush. Or perhaps I should re-phrase that. I could have been caught dead in the bush because I wasn't wearing bright clothes. Of course, I was a hunter myself back then. I hunted with a camera. As an aspiring professional photographer, I wore subdued colors while pursuing the elusive ruby-crowned kinglet and industrious beaver in the wooded hills near my home. I don't imagine that the birds and beavers were fooled, but I persisted in wearing my uncle's olive-drab cast-offs, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

As I grew older, though, I ventured further afield, trying my hand at mountaineering and action photography. And my wardrobe got a makeover. National Geographic made the rules here, and they dictated that drab colors were too, well…drab…a judgment echoed by none other than Colin Fletcher, who reminded his readers that "a single spark of red or orange can electrify an otherwise lifeless color photograph." My remaining military surplus gear now languished in the closet, its place taken by brilliantly colored alpine outerwear, tents, and tarps. I was determined to stand out in any crowd. But the art editors of the major magazines remained stubbornly unimpressed by my new-found color sense, and I eventually channeled my creative energies into paddling and geologizing instead of photography. Still, I kept my colorful clothing.

Then a Christmas Eve fire destroyed my wardrobe, camera, and slides, leaving me with little but the clothes on my back. In the long years before I was able to replace my photographic kit, I discovered watercolors. My artistic sensibility developed apace. I trained my eye to see, and I deepened my understanding of form, composition, and color. As I became a more acute observer, however, I learned that color's importance transcended the aesthetic. Which brings me back to that day in the second-growth when I (almost literally) stumbled on a turkey hunter. The fact that he didn't mistake me for a bird had a lot to do with the color of my clothes. My glaringly obvious hunter-orange vest stood out dramatically against the dark greens, grays, and browns of the late October woods.

Those somber tones make quite a contrast to the brilliant autumn hues that now paint the Adirondack hills. Around this time each year, caravans of tour buses and motor homes disgorge swarms of leaf peepers, the "foliage tourists" whose annual migration is eagerly awaited by every Canoe Country chamber of commerce. These fall peepers wander about the scenic overlooks and picnic areas that dot the roadsides, digital cameras locked and loaded, looking for the perfect shot. Then, just as the last rusty leaves are drifting down to earth, the legions of photographers pack up and head south, leaving the now-subdued woods to the deer hunters. Pumpkin-suited or camouflage-clad according to taste — New York is one of the few remaining US states that do not mandate hunter-orange apparel — the latter-day Deerslayers coax the engines of their ATVs into life and check their night-vision scopes before they, too, pack up and head out into the forest. We've come a long way since the days of Natty Bumppo, to be sure, but leaf peepers and hunters share a common understanding that color is key. And paddlers can take a lesson from them both, whether we're humping a load down a portage trail, hauling an inflatable behind a bicycle on a woods road, or trying to train binoculars on an osprey.

And what's Lesson Number One? That's easy:

It's (Sometimes) Smart to Be Bright

Bright colors help you stand out, on the water and off. It doesn't matter if no one notices the white turtleneck, black fleece vest, and blue jeans you wear as you pilot your Lincoln Navigator to the boat launch at dawn, but an amphibious paddler who's heading the same way with a trailer in tow will be well advised to wear the brightest items in her wardrobe — unless she wants to end her days as an impromptu hood ornament, that is. And even when she's afloat, a paddler can't afford to let down her guard. On heavily traveled waterways she risks becoming fish chum if she isn't seen in plenty of time by the high-octane, go-fast runabouts rocketing down the channel.

Get the picture? However shy you may be when you're back home, there are places where it makes sense to go to great lengths to be noticed. The Gross Tonnage Rule sums this up neatly. One version goes something like this:

If the other guy's boat is big and fast and yours is small and slow, it's your job to get his attention — and to keep out of his way if you can't.

It probably isn't fair, and it certainly doesn't enjoy the sanction of law, but the Gross Tonnage Rule can save a paddler's life. That's what matters most, isn't it? Summer may be over in Canoe Country, but canoeists and kayakers paddle year-round in much of North America, and there are plenty of big boats plying many commercial waterways in all seasons. Going head to head with an ore carrier or jet boat is tempting fate, whatever the time of year.

The upshot? It's up to you to stay safe, and being seen is the first step. Collisions aren't the paddler's only worry, either. Suppose you find yourself living through a worst-case scenario someday. Maybe you'll capsize and see your boat disappear around a bend in the river, or lose your way in a featureless subarctic lowland, or succumb to the temptations of Hubris and suffer the all but inevitable result. There are Deliverance moments enough to go round. None of us is immune. Whatever form Nemesis takes when the black day comes, however, imagine the difficulty of locating a dark green canoe against a gray-green background. Or think about how hard it will be to spot your diminutive form from the air when you're lost in the immensity of a northern waterscape. Emergency signals can help in a hard chance, of course, but brightly colored gear and clothing are always with you.

The message is crystal clear. When trouble strikes or danger threatens, take steps to be seen. Or else. Luckily, it's not hard to do. What bright colors can't achieve, lights and reflective materials can. Some folks stick adhesive reflective patches onto both faces of their paddle blades, and on the fenders of their "amphibious" bikes, their boats, and their helmets, as well. More PFDs are now made with reflective material sewn into them. And you don't have to rely entirely on passive defenses. Make your own light. Stick a headlamp on your helmet, and mount a headlight and taillight on the bike you use to scout possible paddling destinations. You'll want a light for your boat, too. In fact, it's the law. To be safe, review "Farwell's Rules" and outfit your boat according to the regulations governing the waters where you paddle.

Be warned, though: Visibility isn't just a problem at dusk, dawn, and dark of night, or during inclement weather and fog. A canoe or kayak can easily disappear from sight in the glare of a lazy autumn (or winter) sun, as the golden orb dawdles just about the horizon. When that happens, the flash of your paddle blade is often the only indication that you're on the water. Canoeists won't benefit much from this, but kayakers can. With each stroke of a double paddle, the high blade catches the sun's rays, a fact that kayak-borne commandos learned the hard way during World War II. Bad news in wartime, I'm afraid, but a great idea in peaceful waters. Still, it's not enough. For one thing, the sun doesn't always cooperate. When that happens, the best you can do is light your lights and keep your own eyes peeled. Some sea kayakers mount stubby masts on their decks and hang radar reflectors from them, but this does no good if other boats aren't scanning, or if your reflection is masked by scatter from a lively seaway. In any case, it doesn't hurt to…

Err on the Bright Side

But which colors show up best? That depends on your surroundings. At the peak of fall color in Canoe Country, yellows, reds, and oranges are everywhere. These brilliant hues are also reflected in inland waters. Under such conditions, International Orange (aka "hunter orange") may not be the best choice, though it comes into its own later in the year, as the leaves come off the trees. Fortunately, this coincides with the start of the gun season for deer in many places. When the hills are still ablaze with color, however, I've found that "hi-viz" fabric does a better job. It's the electric yellow-green often seen on cyclists' jackets and highway crews' t-shirts. Now it's appearing on some paddling jackets and PFDs, as well. It shows up to great advantage in the subdued light of dawn and dusk, not to mention swirling mist and fog.

The same thing can't be said of fire-engine red, long a mainstay of the hunter's wardrobe. When the light is low — when you most need to be seen, in other words — it simply doesn't deliver, fading to black in the shadows of the forest. And what about the opposite end of the spectrum: white? It's cool on hot days, to be sure, and fairly visible when the sun is high, but it's definitely not recommended wear during deer season. You don't want to end up a trophy on somebody's den wall, do you? I thought not.

Bright colors and bright lights are essential if you want to be seen, but it's also a good idea to…

Pause for Reflection

The reflective patches and piping sewn into some PFDs and outerwear aren't substitutes for lights. They only work when somebody else's light strikes them, after all, and even the best reflective fabrics can't match the performance of a CPSC-rated reflector. But every little bit helps. Even a crossing guard's reflective Sam Brown belt is worth considering under some conditions. If your pockets are deep, you can go the whole hog, outfitting yourself with shell garments made entirely of reflective fabric (illumiNITE® is probably the most familiar name), but don't expect too much from these. Passive reflectors and reflective fabrics are only as good as the lights illuminating them — and they must be kept clean if they're to do their job.

OK. If you need to be noticed, then bright colors, lights, and reflective materials make a lot of sense. But why stop there? There's more to being bright than upgrading your wardrobe. You'll want to…

Give Yourself Every Advantage

The brighter you are, the safer you'll be, but don't rely only on others' eyesight. They may not be looking. Sounding off is always sound advice whenever you want to avoid unpleasant surprises, and making a joyful noise increases the chances you'll be noticed, on land as well as under way. During deer season — and anywhere that big bears roam free — you'll want to be heard as well as seen. Grunting under your load on the portage trail isn't enough. A bear bell or a whistled tune will help you stand out.

We paddlers pride ourselves on our silent passage through the landscape. We're the Invisible Men (and Women) of the world's remaining wild waters. And it is good it to tread softly in the backcountry. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times and places when you'll need to attract attention. Occasionally it's even a matter of life and death. At such times, therefore, and in such places, resolve to cast off your cloak of invisibility. And don't be shy about it. Show your colors, instead — on the water and off. Be bright, not outta sight. It's an idea we all can live with.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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