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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Out of the Heart of Darkness

Bushwhacking Basics

By Tamia Nelson

November 7, 2006

The rapids in the little canyon were unrunnable. But a stairstep falls and slime-slick cobbles made lining, lifting-over, and wading just about as dangerous as staying on the river. And as none of us really wanted a Deliverance experience, we opted for Plan B: we decided to portage. Not that this would be easy. The map showed a trail beginning on the left bank above the falls. No matter how hard we searched, though, we couldn't find any sign that one had ever existed. Dense stands of spruce pressed right down to the river's edge, and there was no trailhead to be seen anywhere.

We weren't exactly overwhelmed with attractive options. We eddied out, made our canoes fast to overhanging branches, and bulled our way into the spruce hell, hoping to stumble across the old portage trail. Suddenly we saw light ahead. Things were looking up. Or so we thought. But then we emerged into a wasteland of logging slash. The spruce thicket was only a "beauty strip." Beyond it we found a nightmare landscape of chest-high stumps, pockmarked with piles of spiky slash and crisscrossed by deep gullies that might once have been haul roads — before snowmelt runoff and spring rains had done their work, that is. Nonetheless, we had to move on, whether or not we managed to find a vestige of the old trail. We were running behind schedule as it was. Turning back at this late date was close to impossible. The upshot? We'd have to bushwhack our packs and canoes around the canyon, clearing a way through the slash with only a compact saw and a little Hudson Bay pattern ax to help us.

Before we could get started surveying a likely route, though, one couple in our group opted for a "Just Do It!" strategy. They didn't want any part of trail-clearing. They wanted out. Now. So they loaded up and began to clamber over the slash any way they could. And guess what? It didn't take long for Nemesis to strike. Gary was inching his way tentatively along a small log that bridged a towering slash pile when he slipped. He went down instantly, with 80 pounds of canoe and a like weight in gear helping him on his way. He didn't fall very far, however. The fact that his legs came together at a single point stopped him. I guess you could call it the ultimate wedgy. His scream of pain was probably heard over the noise of traffic in faraway Montréal.

Needless to say, Gary had time to rethink his approach to bushwhacking while his wife was inspecting the damage to his tackle. Not surprisingly, both he and his wife belatedly decided that slow-and-steady made sense. What about you? If you paddle off the beaten track, you'll find yourself bushwhacking sooner or later. (In fact, bushwhacking can be defined as "traveling off the beaten track.") So you might as well start preparing now. And the first lesson?

Bushwhacking Isn't for Sissies

The name gives the game away. Whacking a path through trackless bush is slow, sweaty, arduous work under the best of circumstances. If at all possible, therefore, leave your ax and saw in your pack. There are a lot of reasons why this makes sense. In many places — in almost all parks and reserves, for example — cutting trails is illegal, and it's definitely at odds with the ethic of No-Trace backcountry travel everywhere. (Of course, if the loggers got there first.…) Bushwhacking can also be exhausting, even without the added chore of cutting a trail. You can prove this to yourself, if you want. Just travel a mile on a well-maintained (and reasonably level) trail through a forested area, carrying a heavy pack. Now leave the trail and bushwhack back to your starting place, without doing any cutting. Which leg was easier? Next, repeat the exercise carrying a canoe.

I rest my case. I'm betting you'll be convinced. And I'll bet you, too, will turn to trail cutting only as a last resort.

But if bushwhacking is this hard, why would you want to do it? You know the answer already: because no established path leads were you need to go. Nature reclaims portage trails quickly when they're not used, and paddlers who try to avoid the crowds will often find that a trail shown on the map is now a tangle of second-growth — if it can be found at all. And when the missing trail was also the only way around a killer falls, bushwhacking may be your only option. Even when you're exploring close to home, you just might find yourself wanting to check out someplace where no trail goes. Once again, bushwhacking is the only way in.

Just to set the record straight, only a small minority of bushwhacks require that you take your ax or saw out of your pack. But there's one tool you'll always need:

You Gotta Have a Map

If you're going off-trail, you need a map to stay found. Period. Even in the GPS era, there's no substitute for map and compass. For the record, Farwell's been experimenting with a state-of-the-art GPS for a couple of months now. It's no bigger than a cell phone, yet it holds all the 1:100,000 quads for the US in its memory — including those for Alaska and Hawai'i. His verdict? It's wonderful! But there's a catch. It doesn't always work. And that's when Farwell is glad he has a paper quad and a compass with him. A hardcopy quad also lets him see more of the surrounding country than he can hope to see on a screen that's not much larger than a commemorative postage stamp. Bushwhackers will appreciate this.

Of course, a map won't be much help if it's just a handful of sodden pulp. Don't forget that paper and water don't mix. Use a map case, or treat your maps with a waterproofing compound that you've tested and found to live up to its claims.

OK. You need a map and compass. And you need to know how to use them.

What Else Do You Need?

Good vision helps. Nature and your optometrist determine the limits of the possible here, but you can protect what you have — and you should. Wearing sunglasses on sunny days is a no-brainer, obviously, but not everyone realizes that off-trail travel is just as much of a threat to vision as UV radiation. I know. I've gotten a twig in the eye more than once when I was bushwhacking, and Farwell would be flying blind today if it hadn't been for a pair of safety glasses. That's why my outdoor wardrobe now includes two pairs of wraparound specs with impact-resistant polycarbonate lenses. One pair has smoke gray lenses. The other, clear. The smoke gray pair is the one I wear on sunny days on the water. The clear lenses take their place whenever I leave the beaten track on land. I carry spares, too.

Now that you've safeguarded your vision, you'll want to be sure you can see your companions, even when you're all moving through a spruce hell on a dark day. "Hunter-orange" or Hi-Viz outerwear does the trick, and survey tape in the same colors makes it easy for you to retrace your steps when you need to. A couple of hints: Orange and yellow tapes don't show up very well in deciduous woods in autumn. Use Hi-Viz instead. Contrariwise, lime-green Hi-Viz may disappear into the background in the spring. Use hunter-orange tape then. And stripes or polka dots can sometimes be seen when nothing else can. Whatever you do, though, don't carry white tape during deer season — and always remove your tape markers on your last trip over the trail. Even the biodegradable stuff hangs around for a long time. (One good way to get lost in a hurry is to follow someone else's tape.) If your bushwhack will take you far, or if you're surveying multiple routes, it's worth the effort to write your bearing and destination on each strip, along with the date and time. This reduces the possibility of confusion later. And be sure to place each tape where it can be seen from the last one, at about shoulder height. Make it long enough, too: 12 to 18 inches is about right most of the time.

Got all your bushwhacking tools in hand? Then you're ready to…

Step Out

Staying found is Job One. Always know where you are before heading off into the heart of darkness. Then log your position on the map as you move along. A GPS makes this easy (most of the time, anyway), but you can also do the job with just a compass and pace counter. This is the landsman's equivalent of the sailor's dead-reckoning navigation, and it's an essential skill. Learn it before you need it.

To reiterate: Bushwhacking is hard enough at the best of times. Don't make it needlessly difficult. Leave the canoe and heavy food pack behind at your jumping-off point. (Hang the food bag in bear country.) A light pack containing the Ten Essentials is all you'll need on your first trip through a trackless area. And unless there's a very good reason to do otherwise, keep your friends around you when you venture off the trail. If you can't see your companions — or at least hear them moving through the bush — it's time to reestablish contact. Be especially careful in difficult country. It's not hard to bog down in swamps, and spruce hells often live up to their name. If in doubt, stop before you reach the point of no return, then backtrack to your last survey tape and brainstorm an alternate route.

This brings up a final point:

Your Brain is the Ultimate Bushwhacking Tool

What's more important than a level head, after all? Nothing, that's what. Without clear judgment it's all too easy to go astray in the heart of darkness. Remember Gary, howling in pain while straddling a felled spruce in a wilderness of logging slash? It's a lesson I'll never forget. (I'll bet he won't forget it, either!) When in danger or in doubt, don't shout and scream and run about. Take a little quiet downtime with your buddies, instead. Collectively engage your brain housing groups. Think through any problems, rather than trying to bull your way through them. Then proceed coolly and confidently toward your goal. That's the best way to avoid a starring role in a Worst-Case Scenario. Get the picture?

If you spend enough time in the backcountry, and if you like to wander far from the madding crowd, bushwhacking comes with the territory. It can be an invigorating challenge, but it can also be very hard work. It can even land you in big trouble. So be prepared. File a float plan before you leave home. Always. Make friends with your map and compass. And most important of all, don't leave your brain housing group at the put-in. Now relax. You may be bushwhacking into the heart of darkness, but you've got all the tools you'll need to find your way back into the light. That's a good feeling, isn't it? You bet it is!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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