The Amphibious Paddler
Discovering the Freedom of the Hills
By Tamia Nelson
June 28, 2011
A freshening breeze gouged deep creases in the surface of the little lake and made the branches in the tall pines dance. Though this was Canoe Country, we were in kayaks, and for once I was glad we'd opted for decked craft rather than our Tripper, even if it did make the frequent portages something of a chore (notwithstanding our Freighter frames‑cum‑portage yokes). Then I caught sight of a solo canoeist in our wake, headed the same way we were. We reached the take‑out at the head of the trail before he did, but I was still wrestling dry bags out of my kayak's recesses when he arrived on the scene. And he certainly beached his craft in style, the canoe's keel hissing softly as it plowed a furrow through the sandy bottom in the wave‑washed shallows. He lost no time in disembarking, either, jumping out of the little boat — it was the first pack canoe I'd ever seen — almost before it had come to a stop, then snatching up his gear in a single fluid motion. No problem there. Everything was in one sack. As I struggled to coax yet another small dry bag out of a lightless tunnel in the bowels of my kayak, I could feel my envy mounting.
In less time than it took me to wrench that single bag free, the solo traveler was ready to hit the trail, pack on back, little canoe slung over his shoulder. But he stopped to chat for a minute before loping away, and I learned he was bound for a lonely tarn nestled deep in the hills, at the end of a long chain of portages, ponds, and bushwhacks. He was a climber first and foremost. His canoe was simply a means to an end.
This encounter got me thinking, and two things followed in due course. One happened almost immediately: Both Farwell and I bought pack canoes. The second took a little longer to reach fruition, but it was worth the wait. The seed that ripened into the notion of "amphibious" adventures was planted in our minds. The idea is a simple one: An amphibious journey marries paddling with some other form of no‑octane travel. Mostly, I combine cycling and paddling, hauling a folding boat or inflatable in a small trailer behind my bike. In this way, the trip to the put‑in becomes a holiday in its own right. There are other benefits, too. Even when I ride my bike over roads that I've driven hundreds of times, I almost always see (or hear or smell) something new. These discoveries aren't always pleasant, of course. Sometimes I notice a new clear‑cut that marks the location of another leisure‑home development, imperfectly concealed behind a narrow "beauty strip" of standing trees. And I'm always disheartened by the number and variety of road‑killed animals I see, each of them a victim of someone's inattention, haste, or malice. But the pluses still outweigh the minuses. Every now and then I can rescue a hapless creature from sudden death or crippling injury, by the simple expedient of stopping and shooing it off the road. (Or, in the case of turtles becalmed in the middle of a busy highway, by picking them up bodily and carrying them to safety. If the turtle's a big snapper, this is an adventure in itself.) I also get to thumb my nose at every gas station I pass, and that's a very big plus, indeed.
The idea of amphibious adventures isn't really new, of course. Farwell recently unearthed an article that appeared in The Wheelman magazine in 1883. It begins:Happy is the man who rides his own wheel. Happy is the man who paddles and sails his own canoe. Thrice happy he who rides the merry wheel and steers the dancing, gliding canoe. I am now one of the thrice‑happy men.
Yes, the prose is a little on the purple side. In fact, it's almost ultraviolet. But as one of those "thrice‑happy [wo]men" myself, I can attest that the writer's boast rings true. And amphibious adventures aren't limited to cycling and paddling. As our chance acquaintance in the pack canoe demonstrated, there's no reason not to combine paddling with … er … pedestrian pleasures. There's more than one way to be thrice‑happy, after all. Still, despite the obvious benefits — obvious to me, at any rate — I meet surprising few bipedal "amphibians" in my travels.
Which is why I was overjoyed when, not long ago, a friend told me he was thinking about taking a trip that combined paddling and hillwalking. He's a keen walker, but he's also an occasional canoeist, and he's planning to use his canoe to take him into a remote range that he's never visited before. He'll paddle in, conceal his boat near a high mountain tarn, set up a base camp, and strike out for as many summits as he can fit into the time available. But because he's more at home with a hiking staff in his hand than a paddle, he asked me if I had any …
Advice for Hillwalkers Who Are Thinking About Taking to the Water
First, though, I'd better say something about hillwalking itself. It's not a word you hear much on this side of the Pond. North Americans "hike" or "climb" or "backpack." They don't hillwalk. But since hillwalking embraces all three elements, combining hiking, climbing, and backpacking in varying degrees, I think it's too useful a word to be ignored. Hillwalkers don't climb steep pitches requiring protection, of course. At least they don't do so deliberately. Yet they often scramble over slides and scree slopes, and their routes frequently take them off the trails and along exposed ridges. In other words, if you're just looking for a walk in the park, hillwalking's probably not for you. It won't appeal to anyone without a head for heights, either. And it can be dangerous.
That said, if you're reasonably fit, and if you don't mind walking with a whole lot of nothing opening out on either side of you, you'll find that combining paddling and hillwalking makes a lot of sense, at least in well‑watered mountains, where trails often dead‑end in newly flooded beaver flows, and chains of picturesque ponds are sometimes interrupted by long portages that take the paddler over saddles between beckoning peaks. My friend is hoping to follow just such a chain of ponds and portages to reach his jumping‑off place for the hills. It promises to be a strenuous trip, but not a particularly difficult one. Any moving water he encounters won't rise above Class 1‑2 in difficulty, if that, and since he'll be traveling in high summer, he's more likely to have to wade his boat through shallows than wrestle with strong currents. He'll be going on his own, but he'll have plenty of (unwanted) company, nonetheless: He's sure to draw biting flies to him by the thousands. That may be the greatest challenge he confronts. But it will make the summit breezes all the more welcome.
In truth, I'm not sure my friend really needs advice from me. He's an old hand at hillwalking, and while he's no creek boater, he has little trouble making a canoe go where he wants it to go, even in moving water. But for the benefit of others who might be tempted to combine paddling and hillwalking, I suppose I should say something about …
Outfitting for Amphibians
We're talking hillwalker‑paddlers here. I've already covered cycling and paddling in considerable detail. You'll need your paddling kit, of course, including your PFD and a spare paddle. Solo boaters, whether canoeists or kayakers, will find that it pays to have both a double blade and a single. That takes care of the spare. (The double is for efficiency on long, hard pulls; the single for stealthy approaches and congested waterways.) You'll also need a sturdy, capacious rucksack or frame pack. How large should your rucksack be? That depends. Longer trips usually mean bigger packs — and it's good if you can get all your gear in one pack. Footwear also needs careful consideration. Though a few amphibious paddlers use all‑terrain sandals for everything — Farwell is leaning in this direction — most of us will want two pairs of shoes: one for the boat and one for the trail. And your "trail" shoes should be sturdy enough to take on trailless scree slopes, as well as stony summits. A walking stick or trekking pole can be an asset, too.
You may also want to bring along a cable lock (or padlock and chain) to shackle your boat to a tree while you're away in the hills. That said, concealment is the best protection from casual thieves, few of whom seem inclined to stray far from the beaten track. So leave your boat in some tucked‑away spot, well off the trail. Warning! This is one place where you can't afford to be color‑blind. Your boat's hue matters. Green and brown are good — your boat will then be part of the scenery. But orange or yellow? Double‑plus ungood. You might as well send up flares. Better bring a green tarp for a cover. And don't forget where you left the boat! Mark the location on your map and waypoint it on your GPS, just in case.
You'll note that I've presumed you'll be on your own. This isn't ideal, however. Backcountry travel always involves some risk, and that's certainly true of any trip that combines paddling and bushwhacking. My recommendation? Unless you're an old hand — and it's not an age thing; it's a matter of experience — don't go into the woods alone. But the fact remains that amphibious paddlers are few and far between. Despite your best intentions, it may be a case of going solo or not going at all. When all is said and done, if you're old enough to vote, it's your call. Just remember that the risks are real, and help may be very far away. Cell‑phone networks don't cover every mountain valley, either, and even if you have a personal locator beacon in your pack, you may get into trouble on a day the choppers aren't flying. So …
Be Prepared Carry the Ten Essentials, and be sure you know how to use them. It's no good having a compass if you don't know how to transfer a bearing to your map. Now, with that caution in mind, here's my list of must‑have gear:
- Paper map(s) (A GPS is not enough by itself.)
- Medical kit (But it's what's in your head that counts most.)
- Knife (Is it sharp?)
- Extra water and food
- Matches and fire starter (Make sure your matches are good.)
- Flashlight or headlamp (With a fresh set of cells!)
- Sunglasses (And spare eyeglasses if you're half‑blind without them.)
- Extra clothing and foul‑weather gear, suited to the season
To reiterate: Never assume — "assume" makes an ass of "u" and me, remember? — that everything is in working order. Check. And don't stop with the Essentials. These extras are worth taking, too:
- Water‑treatment system
- Shelter (A "space blanket," poncho, or light tarp.)
- A 50‑foot rope, 100 feet of paracord, and a couple of carabiners
- Bumwad (Aka "toilet paper," the Eleventh Essential.)
- A whistle and a mirror — and maybe a couple of flares, as well (Low‑tech? Yes. But these are time‑tested ways of attracting attention in a hard chance.)
- Repair kit
- Sewing kit
- Insect repellent and headnet (!)
- And last, though certainly not least, the intangibles that Farwell once labeled the "Other Ten Essentials" [See "Related Articles" below]
While we're on the subject of intangibles, never forget that having the best gear in the world in your pack won't be any good to you if you don't …
Know Your Limits Back of beyond, everything takes longer than it should, and many things are harder than you thought they would be. Except getting lost. That's a snap. So staying found is critical, and, no, you can't depend on your GPS to come to the rescue. This might be the trip when it dies. The upshot? When you're walking in the hills, plan your days with a generous margin for error, uncertainty, and idleness. Then double the margin. And never hesitate to turn back. The hills will still be here tomorrow. You want to be here, too, don't you?
Not convinced? Maybe you're wondering why you'd ever want to turn back before you reach the summit of your ambition. Well, the answer's easy:
The Mountain Makes the Rules Mountains also make their own weather, and that weather can change in a flash. Literally. A summer thunderstorm may be fun to watch from the porch of a lakeside camp with a drink in your hand, but it's a sphincter‑loosening terror on a bare summit. If you've never gotten up close and personal with Momma Nature on one of her bad days, watch the storm scene in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. Now imagine yourself in Johnny Shellshocked's shoes. Trust me here. It's something that's far better imagined than experienced. Summits can be dangerously cold places, too. Even on little Eastern hills in midsummer. You can freeze to death in August if you try. So don't. And then there's fog to contend with. Sometimes it fills the valleys and robs you of all reference points. At other times low clouds come down and envelop the mountain you're standing on in a real‑life Cloak of Invisibility. Either way, you won't know where to go. So I hope you kept track of where you've been, right down to bearings and distances. If not, you're in for a chilly night.
OK. It's certainly not my purpose to put you off amphibious adventures. But if you're going in harm's way, you want to do it with your eyes open and your brain‑housing group engaged. Paddling and hillwalking are natural partners. In fact there's no better way to leave the madding crowd behind. Just don't forget how to get back again. Tomorrow is another day, after all. And there will be other mountains to climb.
Paddlers paddle. Hillwalkers walk. Cyclists cycle. But have you ever wondered what it would be like to mix and match your pleasures? To combine canoeing and climbing, say. To go boldly where you've never gone before. To leave the crowded trails and campsites behind and strike out for the Territory, or as much of it as you can reach in a long weekend. Well, if you haven't, maybe now is the time. It's never too late to take paddle in hand and discover the freedom of the hills.
More Reading on Related Topics From In the Same Boat
- Take Ten! Ten Things No Paddler [or Hillwalker] Should Leave Home Without
- To Build a Fire… When Carrying the Ten Essentials Isn't Enough
- The Other Ten Essentials — Intangible Assets That Mean So Much: Part 1
- The Other Ten Essentials — Intangible Assets That Mean So Much: Part 2
- Navigating the Heart of Darkness
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