Our Readers Write
Safety First and Last
April 29, 2008
The wheel of the year has swung round again. Spring is in the air in Canoe Country, and paddlers are getting ready to wet their blades. It’s an exuberant time—a time for looking ahead. But it’s also a good time to take stock, and taking stock means learning from past mistakes. Maybe that’s why dangers old and new, dangers survived and dangers averted, seem to have been on folks’ minds in the months since the last “Our Readers Write.” That’s what our mailbag suggests, at any rate.
Staying safe, on the water and in the backcountry—it’s obviously a very important topic. In fact, it could be the most important topic of all. So without further ado, let’s see what our readers have to say on the subject.
Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest,
In the Same Boat
Lightning is Frightening!
Nice article [“Caught Out! Weathering Roaring Wind and Rain”—Editor], with good advice and your experience showing again do more like it.
I know you mentioned thunder, but thunder is the warning to lightning, and even when you’re still in the clear and hear thunder, that means you are within lightning’s striking distance. Above all, when a howler of a storm moans in the distance I fear lightning the most, and I get that helpless sinking feeling starting in my stomach. If lightning doesn’t talk to people, not much else will. The little islands in the rivers seem fair ground for a camp under those conditions.
A good read.
I’m glad you liked “Caught Out,” Dan, and we’re of one mind about thunder. That’s why I included a link to an earlier article on this very subject. It’s called “Anvils of the Gods,” and it was part of our “Restless Air” series.)
Lightning IS a killer, no doubt about it, and smart paddlers keep an eye on the sky at all times. (They also avoid pitching their tents under the tallest tree in the neighborhood, of course.)
Later, Dan wrote again
I went back and read “Anvils of the Gods,” and am surprised I missed it the first time because of my natural attraction to weather phenomena of all types. I’ve been fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) to be in the right places at the right time (or otherwise, depending on your point of view) on many occasions to witness some pretty mean weather situations. What has always amazed and awed me is the power mother nature packs into some of these monsters. Thunderstorms rip stuff apart sometimes, especially when some tornadic activity is involved.
In my part of the country this was once rare, what one could call an unusual occurrence. No more. In recent years there seems to be a pattern forming. Between about 30 miles north to 30 miles south of my home, tornados have been increasing. Last year one touched down five miles from here, and it stayed awhile. About five to six years ago, an F-5 tornado tore through La Plata, Maryland, and devastated that town with a direct hit. Several others now come every year.
Anyway, tornados bother me! I’ve taken a glancing blow from one a couple of times so far, with stuff ripping apart and falling on me. Don’t like that too much, but after the fact, the experience was awesome to recall.
The lesson? When a big squall line comes along, I’m always looking to bail out, but I still think lightning is the thing that gives me that helpless feeling the most.
To which I replied:
Thunderstorms are bad enough when you’re caught out by one, but tornados are nightmarish. Unfortunately, the National Weather Service’s eminently sensible advice (“seek shelter inside a sturdy building”) is mighty hard to follow in the backcountry. All too often, the best that unlucky canoeists and kayakers can do is to find a hollow to huddle in, with no dead trees nearby or overhanging limbs.
Jell-O®—Hot Treat on a Cold Day
I’d like to add something to your list of hot drinks [in “Caught Out.”]
When I took my High Angle Rescue course at SOLO in Conway, New Hampshire, the instructor told us that Jell-O® was a great emergency hot drink. They teach a National Wilderness EMT Course there, and the instructors do a lot of climbing and hiking themselves. As a result, they started looking for something that was easy to carry, good tasting, could be heated, and offered sugar and protein. They didn’t want anything with caffeine in it because it can be a vasodilator—that is, it pushes the warm blood to the surface of the skin. After some research and a discussion with a nutritionist they came up with Jell-O®. It has sugar, protein, is easy to carry, and all you have to do is add hot water and serve. I like the cherry flavor, but I guess it is up to you to figure out what you like.
How could I have forgotten Jell-O®, Bart? It was a regular entry on my menu card when I was a young climber, but somewhere along the line I stopped carrying it. I can’t even remember why. Thanks for the reminder!
You’re right to caution about the physiological effects of caffeinated drinks, too. While the literature on this point is somewhat confused—it seems possible that tolerance may play a role, with habitual tea or coffee drinkers exhibiting less dramatic physiological responses to caffeine—there’s little doubt that neither tea nor coffee is the drink of choice for anyone suffering from frank hypothermia (or hyperthermia, come to that). Still, for those times when the chill hasn’t yet cut to the bone, I’ve found nothing better than hot, sweet tea.
I enjoyed your article [“Bail Out, Shake Out, or Flip? Self-Rescue for Solo Canoeists”—Editor]. A couple of things worth adding: You may want to recommend that canoeists carry a bailer. Also, I often get into my canoes after an intentional swim by climbing over the bow or stern. I hoist my chest over the front or rear deck plate (this would be manteling if you were rock climbing) by kicking strongly and using my arms to propel me up onto the canoe. Once I am stable and resting on my chest on the deck plate, I throw one leg around and into the canoe over the gunwale. It is then a simple matter to rotate the rest of your body into the canoe keeping your center of gravity low. This technique works well in tandems and heavily loaded canoes. I haven’t tried it in my solo Kevlar® OC1, however.
I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Robert. I’ve used a similar manteling (or “mantelshelfing”) technique myself, though only when I was reentering a beamy freight canoe. The initial reach up to the deck was a bit of a stretch—my arms are probably shorter than yours!—but once I connected it worked well.
As for bailers, I did mention them in passing,
though I probably should have given the subject more prominence. At least I didn’t forget to include a link to an earlier article on the subject [“Dry It! You’ll Like It! The Indispensable Bailer and Sponge”—Editor]!
Continue shaking till you’ve got as much water out as possible, and then use your bailer to finish the job…
A Whole Lot of Shakin’
I loved your article [“Bail Out, Shake Out, or Flip? Self-Rescue for Solo Canoeists”—Editor], and I thought I would add something I first learned at “Canoe School” as it was called in the 1970s in Ontario. It was a 10-day certification course focused mostly on those pretty ballet solo skills of the Algonquin Park heritage, if you know what I mean. At any rate, we would flip out of our canoes regularly as we spent most of the 10 days sitting on the tumblehome of a bunch of wood-canvas Prospectors trying to maintain about an inch of freeboard while imitating swans. The two big lessons that I learned about shakeouts were to get as much water out of the boat as possible before you start to shake it. You can stand on one of the decks so that the other end pops out of the water and then propel it forward and upward like one sees in the movies when a submarine has to do an emergency surfacing. Depending on the boat design you can get half of the water sloshing out the back (your) end before you begin to shake. The great thing about this is related to the second point, which is if you can’t shake out a canoe in less than a minute, you might as well give it up. You will waste a lot of energy, and I saw lots of people who couldn’t get back into their canoe when it was empty. (Oh, yeah…do it empty.) We had a 20-second time limit for an inch of water, I believe, but the spaces between the ribs where they pass between the gunwales make wood-canvas boats easier to shake out than other kinds.
I don’t know if you want all of this unsolicited feedback from every reader who thinks he knows more (actually, you probably know this but are constrained by the length of your articles), but I live to learn (which I have from your writing), so I feel obliged to share.
Share away, Steve! We learn new things from readers every week. We’re all in the same boat, right? Sound, time-tested advice is always welcome.
And speaking of “time-tested,” your Canoe School sounds a lot like the one my grandfather attended back in the ’30s, though his was organized by a summer camp on Brant Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. In any case, the method you describe for “popping” the water out of a swamped canoe by standing on the deck was also a favorite trick of his. It’s a small world, isn’t it?
Now for something completely different. My article “Ten ‘Nonsentials’: Some Very Bad Advice from BACKPACKER” moved many of our readers to comment. Here’s just a sample:
A Cautionary Tale from the Trail
Thank you, Tamia, for bringing to our attention how important it is to know why we bring the things we do while outdoors. It’s a good reminder of how easy it is to be complacent and dwell on non-essential things while packing for a trip. Or in not packing what is needed for an afternoon outing.
Several years ago I planned a solo hike from Twin Lakes, Colorado, up to the top of the state’s highest peak. Since the family owned a cabin near the lake, I supposed it would be just a long walk. Little did I realize how quickly weather could change—from mild and sunny August temps, to drizzle, and finally to sleet as I got above tree line. This changed my plan for the day, since I had not prepared for an overnight stay on Mt. Elbert. An early walk back to the cabin was rewarded by a change from sleet to mist, and finally, by a warm place to think over what could have been a bad choice. Map, but no compass. Jacket, but no cold weather gear. A snack, but just for the afternoon only. No first aid kit. No light. No prior planning. Thinking: it’s not just for breakfast anymore!
Thank you for presenting a reminder of why trips should be planned out in advance.
Just wanted to say I enjoyed your article. I have been a subscriber to BACKPACKER for many years and have watched as the magazine (in my opinion) has strayed. Seems that they push GPS and tech gadgets too much, as well as going light. Next up will be how to backpack in the nude—oh, wait, they already did that!
Glad to see I am not the only person that has noticed the change. Thanks for the great article.
A Teachable Moment
Just wanted to say thank you for the “Ten ‘Nonsentials’”! What a fantastic article. I am sure to use many of your tips and comments when teaching our Cub Scouts the fine art of packing for any outing.
Going to Extremes
Hooray! I interact with many a hiker. We are at the gateway for the Florida Trail in the north of the state. All the hikers are great people who love the outdoors as much as we paddlers do, but on the “lite” thing many are being almost cultish. (Is that a word?) Well, anyway, they go to any extreme to cut an ounce. I agree with you 101 percent. BACKPACKER’s 10 tips will maybe be good to start a fire…
John L. Vassar
President, Suwannee River Outdoors
I really didn’t enjoy your mean-spirited tirade against BACKPACKER. Can’t you present your own views without putting the other guy down? You obviously haven’t read that magazine much. They like to travel light. They’re backpackers (hence the name), not kayak campers. They shave off every ounce possible and then take out some more. To other like-minded travelers, their advice is sound. This doesn’t have to agree with your viewpoint. You’re free to say “I disagree” or “I would do things differently.” To say it’s bad advice is to totally discount the (completely valid) way they like to operate—which doesn’t have to be the way you operate. I’d appreciate it if you’d be nicer in the future.
I’m afraid we don’t agree on this, either, SK. Try as I might, I can’t find anything in my article that I’d characterize as “mean-spirited.” Highly critical? Yes. And deservedly so. Much of the advice in BACKPACKER’s “10 Tips” was bad, and some of it was very bad, indeed—whatever your preferred method of getting around in the backcountry. I pointed this out. But that was all. “Putting the other guy down” didn’t enter into it.
Enjoyed reading your column, “Ten ‘Nonsentials.’” Reminded me of the 10-day canoe trip I took years ago. One of the guys decided he would skimp on everything he possibly could, and then he chronically “borrowed” from everyone else the entire time. Of course, most of the time he didn’t even ask before borrowing. If you were missing something, chances were good that he was using it, somewhere, for something, and not for the “common good.” Bet you can’t guess how well he took care of other people’s stuff, either. He did bring a few of his own items, and was conscientious about saving space and weight. In lieu of toothbrush and toothpaste, for example, he got the idea that a few drops of clove oil every day would suffice. He discovered that he didn’t even need that—after spilling his supply on a tent-mate’s sleeping bag. Yes, you could say that this guy packed both lighter and smarter, I suppose. Probably travels solo more often these days, too.
Saving Weight v. Creature Comforts
Wow! What a thoughtful response to BACKPACKER’s tips. While they might be appropriate for experienced hikers doing a quick overnight (within a few miles from the car, in good weather, in a familiar place), those are the very conditions that I like to over-pack and carry additional creature comforts I’d normally part with on a multi-day excursion.
Anyway, nice article. I agree wholeheartedly.
A Dose of Reality
Awesome summary Tamia! I wish the editors of the finer outdoor publications worried as much about the content as they did the advertising space. I’ve read some doozies in Field & Stream, In-Fisherman, and Guns and Ammo that would make your hair stand straight! Keep the doses of reality coming.
A Modest Proposal
First, a comment about your BACKPACKER 10 Tips article. Once again, your comments were right on target. I think BACKPACKER’s suggestions fall under the British saying, “Penny wise and pound foolish.”
Second, our 13th Annual trip to the Okefenokee Swamp was a mix of miserable and pleasant. On Saturday the 19th of the long Martin Luther King weekend, we enjoyed a constant drizzle and rain, and a balmy temp of about 45 degrees. Fortunately, I had not read nor followed BACKPACKER’s tips. I brought both of my tarps—10’ x 15’ and 10’ x 10’. Next year, I will have a 15’ x 30’ tarp. I have the material, I just haven’t sewed it yet. I also had a large quantity of candle stubs to start a fire with the wet wood. Sunday and Monday gave us starry lows in the 30s and sunny highs in the 50s—great camping and paddling weather.
Maybe you could suggest to the BACKPACKER editors that they spend a few rainy week-ends following their own “10 Tips.” They might make a few changes!
Thanks again for a great article.
I just read your “Ten ‘Nonsentials’” article on Paddling.net. Right on! BACKPACKER used to be a worthy publication, but they’ve sunk to headline-grabbers over the years. Too bad. My faith in the magazine waned with the passage of time, but the final blow came sometime last year with the front-page headline, “How to cut off your arm.” Most of my reading and research on outdoor subjects is strictly on-line now. Great article.
Travel Light, Freeze at Night!
In regard to your article, “Ten ‘Nonsentials,’” I am in agreement. There is an old adage we foot soldiers used to say:
Travel Light, Freeze At Night.
It still holds true.
Thanks for the article.
The Ten Essentials
Thanks for the well-thought-out piece. I’ve often found myself shaking my head or, when I was much younger and less confident, thinking I was doing something wrong when I read some of these lists. Now I carry most of your items [i.e., the Mountaineers’ “Ten Essentials”—Editor] without even thinking about it.
One of the advantages of a canoe is you’ve got plenty of room to store things, relatively speaking. Yes, portage trails can be long, but you’re not hiking your entire trip. I don’t carry my old college sweatshirt any more since there are many new materials out there that offer much more warmth for the weight, but the principle is the same: Bring something in case it cools off.
I always enjoy your articles, but this was above even your usual high standards.