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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Good Things DO Come in Small Packages

In Praise of the Pack Canoe

By Tamia Nelson

October 10, 2006

It's hard to resist the lure of the exotic. After all, fabled waters in far-distant lands are the stuff of every paddler's dreams. But life, it's said, is what happens to us when we're making other plans, and in real life most of us paddle close to home most of the time. Luckily, this doesn't have to mean settling for second-best, particularly for folks living in Canoe Country, for whom "close to home" can be mighty close, indeed. A case in point: Some time back, a couple of paddlers began a voyage of discovery right on their Adirondack doorstep. One man picked up their canoe. His buddy shouldered the big pack containing most of their gear. Then they started off to explore the headwaters of a nearby wilderness river. This was close-to-home canoeing at its best, and it turned out to be quite a trip, with a little-used 12-mile portage being one of the highlights.

And what boat did these two paddlers choose for their unlikely marathon? A 12-foot-long Old Town Pack Canoe, that's what. Surprised? I was. Two hefty guys and their gear — a total weight of some 380 pounds — are a mighty big load in a one-man canoe with an advertised capacity of only 400 pounds. Yet everything went according to plan. Well, pretty much according to plan, at any rate. Upriver and down, the little boat carried the freight, though the partners had to wade the bonier riffles on the steeper stretches. Indeed, the only real misadventure of the trip came when one man slipped and lost his glasses in the river while wading. (There's a lesson here for eyeglass wearers!) Off the river, of course, the little boat really came into its own. When your boat carries you, you don't really mind a few extra pounds. But when the tables are turned and you have to carry the boat, you'll begrudge every unnecessary ounce. That's where pack canoes shine, particularly when the pack canoe in question can carry two paddlers.

Still, I doubt that Old Town would approve. They intend their Pack Canoe to be a solo boat, after all. And after I read the story of the two guys and their Adirondack marathon, I didn't give it another thought for several years. It seemed little more than a stunt. Then I found myself bobbing on a wind-swept lake not far from where the two explorers had started off. Oh, yes — I was paddling a sister ship of the boat they'd used. It was the little canoe's maiden voyage, and I was impressed. Despite the three-foot rollers and the occasional whitecap splashing against the gunwale, there was no water sloshing in the bilge. My pack stayed dry, and my early skepticism — I was a reluctant convert to the cult of the pack canoe — diminished with each stroke of my paddle. It was obvious that the little ship was as happy in the waves as the pied-billed grebe I'd seen earlier in the day. So I didn't have to think long or hard to find a suitable name for my new boat: I christened her Grebe.

That was a long time ago, however. Since then I've owned and paddled many other boats — from gossamer five-pound inflatables with the lines of a coracle to 100-pound-plus freighters and sea kayaks so long and narrow they resemble barracudas. But first impressions didn't mislead. My little canoe is now my all-round favorite craft for exploring home waters. Secluded beaver ponds, narrow mountain streams, even (when used with a modicum of skill and a hefty dose of discretion) Class II+ whitewater and the sheltered bays of larger lakesGrebe never disappoints.

OK. What is a pack canoe, anyway? The name gives the game away. It's a short, lightweight canoe that's designed to rest easily on the shoulders. And, yes, pack canoes are solo boats. Few are longer than about 12 feet, and some are a lot shorter than that. They're all light. The heaviest — and Grebe tips the scales as a heavyweight — don't exceed 30 pounds by much, thanks in part to state-of-the-art materials. But the pack canoe isn't a new idea. Credit the 19th-century outdoorsman who wrote under the pen-name Nessmuk for popularizing the breed. At 110 pounds, Nessmuk wasn't a big guy, and he wasn't exactly in the best of health. But he didn't want to hire a guide to haul his load for him, either. So he persuaded Canton, New York, canoe builder J.H. Rushton to craft a boat that he could tote over the carries himself. The result was Wood Drake, just 10 feet long and weighing less than 18 pounds. The "go-light" movement was born. But Nessmuk wasn't satisfied, and even lighter boats followed, the best-known of these probably being Sairy Gamp, a real featherweight at a bit over 10 pounds. That's an achievement few modern pack canoes can match, by the way, state-of-the-art materials or not.

Still, a lot has changed since 1880, the year that Wood Drake first parted the waters of the Moose River. But some things have stayed the same. Then as now, pack canoes encourage spontaneous exploration. They're not suited to hairy whitewater, open-water crossings, or extended expeditions, but they're ideal craft for many weekend adventures, particularly on routes that involve as much portaging as paddling. If you want to stay close to home but still get off the beaten track, there's no better boat. And don't be deceived by the pack canoes' diminutive size. They're not wimps. Grebe has taken more than her share of hard knocks, but she's come through them all with no more lasting scars than a legion of superficial scratches. And though she's a heavyweight among pack canoes, she's still light: my getaway pack often weighs more than she does. Best of all, pack and boat together add up to a single manageable load. With two ash beavertail paddles doing double duty as a yoke, I can cross every portage in a single trip. Bliss!

Of course, she's no freighter. The first time I stepped into Grebe she seemed tender, even "tippy." But once I made myself at home in her and spent a few minutes putting her through her paces, working an English gate near shore, she was feeling more like an extension of my body. Tippy? No, though if you plan to put a pack canoe at the mercy of wind and wave, you'd better be sure of your braces. Lively, then? Yes. "Lively" is about right. Not to mention "nimble." And seaworthy, too. Grebe rides over rollers and powerboat wakes with aplomb, pivots like a top to take breaking waves on her bow quarter, and tracks as well as some boats I've paddled that were half again as long.

Do you get the impression that a pack canoe can be a far more versatile boat than the name suggests? You're right. Pack canoes aren't just for packing into remote ponds. They're ideal for messing about at the end of your dock, poking into sloughs or swamps, eddy-hopping up small streams in pursuit of trout, or stalking birds with binoculars and paintbrush or camera. And with adequate flotation, many pack canoes even make passable creek boats, at least for paddlers with modest ambitions.

Best of all, having a pack canoe at your beck and call means that a spur-of-the-moment urge to spend as little as an hour paddling won't entail a numbing burden of logistical complexities. And the fewer steps between inspiration and launch, the more likely it is that your yen to wet a blade will be fulfilled. It's the KISS principle in action. Grebe sits on a rack only a minute's walk from my desk. Another five minutes brings her to The River. I always have a rucksack packed and ready for a quick escape, along with clothing suited to the season. The bottom line? Total time from wish to realization is sometimes as little as 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes at most. Trips don't get much easier than that. Of course, not everyone lives only a five-minute walk from paddleable water. But the principle is the same, even if you have to drive an hour or more. A light, small boat is a lot easier to maneuver on and off a car rack than a heavy, big boat.

Grebe and her sisters stand out in other ways, too. When put-ins and take-outs are steep or cloaked in thick brush, and the water near shore is too deep to wade, it's a lot easier to launch a short boat than a long one, particularly if the long boat is also decked. Kayaks have many virtues, but they're not at their best hauling over beaver dams and negotiating bony shallows. Then there's comfort to consider. Do your knees and back sometimes feel out of joint? Mine do. But because Grebe lets me choose whether to sit or kneel, it's a rare day when I can't get a comfortable position. And I can change at the first sign of a wooden leg or sore bum. This is important, after all. Nessmuk was right on the money. We don't want to rough it when we're in the backcountry. We want to smooth it. And a pack canoe is about as smooth a craft as you can find.

On first acquaintance, a pack canoe may not inspire confidence. But appearances can deceive. Though Grebe wouldn't be my first choice for every trip, she's a perfect boat for much of Canoe Country. She's nimble in twisty channels, capable in lively riffles, and seaworthy on choppy ponds and lakes. And when it's time to haul her out of her natural element, Grebe rides easily on my shoulders, whether I'm carrying her up a steep portage trail or bushwhacking into a remove beaver pond. Pack canoes live up to their name: they pack a lot of utility on their short keels. Good things, it seems, really do come in small packages.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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