Amphibious Trekking — Life in the Slow Lane
Rediscovering the World on Your Doorstep
By Tamia Nelson
February 14, 2012
Bicycling and recreational paddling came of age at roughly the same time, and at the outset, they were seen as natural complements. But that was before the coming of the automobile, when bicycles were still considered transportation, rather than toys. Times have changed, of course. Still, I think a great deal was lost when the happy partnership of pedal and paddle was dissolved. Which is what led me, a while back, to talk up something I christened "amphibious paddling." The germ of the idea most likely originated with my early solo trips on the fast‑flowing little river I've called the 'Kill. Since I worked rotating shifts, I had trouble finding a canoeing (and car‑shuttling) partner, and at the time I hadn't mastered the art of poling upstream. Yet I hated to let a week go by without spending a few hours on the water. So I got into the habit of dropping my bike off at the take‑out before I headed to the put‑in. Then, when I reached the end of the day's run, I had only to hop on the bike and pedal back to the old Jeep that was my principal — if less than reliable — transport. The bike went into the Jeep, and I drove down the road to pick up my canoe. It seemed a straightforward solution to the problem, and it was.
But I never saw any other paddlers doing as I did. Maybe they were worried about having their unattended bikes stolen or vandalized while they paddled. (They had reason to worry, in fact. Farwell once lost a lovely Dawes Galaxy touring bike in just this way — and on the selfsame 'Kill, no less.) Or maybe the idea simply never occurred to them. In any case, the notion had lodged itself firmly in my consciousness, and when, some ten years ago, I got back on a bike after a two‑decade hiatus, it wasn't long before I'd begun rediscovering the possibilities of amphibious travel. Usually this meant hauling a boat in a bag on a trailer behind my bike. And I was soon adding a pedestrian component to the mix, using my boat to take me to remote jumping‑off places for a bit of hillwalking or backcountry scrambling.
What's the attraction? Well, I get to thumb my nose at the gas pumps, for one thing. But economy isn't my first consideration. The real draw lies in the fact that the adventure now begins at my front door. Instead of a long — and often tedious — drive to a distant put‑in, I get a bike ride, much of it on little‑traveled rural roads. And in an age when jet‑assisted tourism and electronic communication are shrinking the world to the size of a microchip, the bicycle's slow pace pushes back my horizons, in effect making my world bigger. It's much the same sort of thing that leads me to prefer canoeing to driving a jet‑ski. Life lived in the slow lane has many attractions.
Amphibious trekking also breaks down artificial barriers. For many years my recreational activities were confined to what might just as well have been walled compounds. I paddled my canoe and kayak. I climbed mountains. I fished. I rode my bike. I watched (and photographed) birds. But with the exception of the hours that I snatched away from camp chores while I wetted a fly or snapped a few hasty photos, I seldom melded my pleasures. Then a metamorphosis of sorts took place, triggered by a chance meeting on an Adirondack lake. I described this epiphany last summer in an article entitled "Discovering the Freedom of the Hills":
[The] 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.
Of course, nothing is really as simple as this. And my love affair with amphibious adventuring owes as much to my early paddles on the 'Kill as it does to a single fortuitous encounter. My Grandad played a role, too. While he never, to my knowledge, rode a bicycle, I often used my own bike to reach his battered Grumman where he'd beached it on the shore of a remote beaver pond at the end of some abandoned Adirondack logging road. The trips in and out along these rutted tracks were rich adventures in themselves, even if they weren't always easy, and I enjoyed the rides as much as I did the paddling.
The bottom line? My days on the 'Kill, a chance encounter on a lake, and my adolescent jaunts to my Grandad's favorite fishing holes all played their part in nudging me toward …
Becoming a Complete Amphibious Trekker
The basic formula is pretty simple: Boat + bike + boots = fun. Of course, for the formula to work, you have to make some adjustments to your gear list. Not to mention your goals. Big Trips — extended expeditions to far‑flung or very remote destinations — don't often lend themselves to the amphibious approach. But Big Trips are rare treats in the lives of most paddlers. Little getaways to places near home are far more common, with day trips and weekenders predominating. And these are perfect candidates for the ambitious amphibian.
Now let's get back to the gear list. Heavy, bulky gear is out. Go‑light minimalism is in (though a few luxuries can usually be managed). The reason for this is obvious. The amphibious paddler has to haul the load. All the load. All the time. From front door to put‑in and back again. And the load has to be easy to handle, on and off the highway. To my mind, that means that a boat in a bag — an inflatable canoe or folding kayak — is the only suitable craft. The boat, breakdown paddle, PFD, and getaway pack are stowed in a bike trailer and panniers for the ride to the put‑in.
Too complicated? OK. There's a simpler alternative. But there's also a catch. It's only available to canoeists and kayakers lucky enough to live no more than a mile or so from paddleable water. For those fortunate few, starting a trip is as simple as shouldering a getaway pack and portaging a light boat down to the launching point. And what do you do if the nearest put‑in is, say, four miles from your home? That's too far for most of us to portage, but hardly worth loading up a bike. There is still an alternative to taking the car out of the garage, however: a folding portage cart. Put your boat on the cart and your gear in the boat. Then start walking. Just be sure you stay off busy highways while you tow your cart along behind you. (Expect to get a few funny looks. Walkers are a rare sight on the roads these days, and walkers towing a canoe are just about unknown.)
But don't let the kibitzers stop you. When you're hauling your boat behind you on a cart, you're in very good company. This was my Grandad's secret weapon. He was a fisherman first and foremost. Though he was a competent canoeist, paddling was only a means to an end for him; his canoe, just a tool for fishing his favorite ponds. In his view, canoeing was work. But finding hidden brookie havens… Now that was recreation — and my Grandad's passion. Which is why, beginning in his early twenties, he spent long hours searching for beaver flows too new to appear on the "government" maps. And one of these — though it was located on public land — became his private preserve.
He intended to keep it that way. Fortunately, no signposted hiking trail went anywhere near it. Grandad had discovered the pond while retracing a nearly invisible network of old logging tracks, many of which were indistinguishable from game trails. Driving to this honey hole was out of the question. Not only would the narrow, steep, and rutted tracks have destroyed Grandad's Jeep, but his comings and goings would sooner or later have attracted the attention of his neighbors, some of whom were also keen anglers. So Grandad cobbled together a two‑wheeled cart to carry his tackle and a pack basket loaded with camping gear and canned food, along with the battered wood‑and‑canvas canoe that preceded his Grumman. Then he set off for the beaver pond in the small hours of a moonless night, following a circuitous route through the woods while hauling his homemade cart behind him. And when, just as dawn was starting to light the tops of the surrounding hills, he found he couldn't coax the cart any further, he left it behind, portaging his boat and gear the remaining half mile through a lacerating tangle of stunted spruce and alder to the shore of the little pond. It was sweaty, back‑breaking work, but from that day forward, Grandad knew he could fish his secret water in peaceful solitude any time he chose.
Much later in his life, he still recalled this nocturnal hegira fondly. He often said that the struggle to haul his gear in to "his" pond without alerting his neighbors was almost as much fun as the fishing that followed. Which I guess places my Grandad among a select group: the first amphibious trekkers. And now my brother is carrying on the family tradition. His first love is climbing trailless peaks far from the well‑trodden tourist tracks, but he and his wife often begin their hillwalking treks under paddle, canoeing from pond to pond until they're within striking distance of their objective, at which point they set up a base camp. In keeping with their intention to travel far and fast, they pare their kit to the bone, carrying little more than the Ten Essentials. In a nod to creature comforts, however, they allow themselves the luxury of a good‑sized tent and proper sleeping bags. It's their formula for a good time, and it seems to work. For them.
They're not alone, I'm sure. Does the idea of fishing little‑known waters or climbing seldom‑visited peaks appeal to you? Then maybe you'd find amphibious trekking to your taste. The first step is simply …
Deciding on Your Objective
If fishing is your fancy, tackle is of prime importance. If a climb's the thing, you'll need proper mountain kit. And if paddling is to be an end in itself, boating gear takes pride of place. That being said, let's look at a number of amphibious scenarios in more detail:
Pioneering New Waters Of course, "new" is relative here. While it's not uncommon to discover a beaver pond in a place that was high and dry only a year ago, most "new" waters aren't really new at all, though they'll certainly be new to you. And not all pioneering ventures are smooth sailing. You have to go prepared to wade, wallow in muddy shallows, do battle with spruce hells and alder tangles, carry over (or around) beaver dams, and endure 24/7 assaults from squadrons of bloodthirsty biting flies. The upshot? Your gear list should include waterproof overboots, a headnet, and either a bed net or a well‑designed tent. Choice of craft matters, too. A pack canoe is ideal for exploring small waters within portaging distance of home, but if your pioneering venture will begin with a bicycle road trip, the aforementioned "boat in a bag" is the best choice, paired with breakdown paddles. (That said, some mighty impressive amphibious trips have been made by paddlers hauling hard‑shell boats behind their bikes. Include me out, though.) Security is also a concern for cycling amphibians. Hiding your bike and trailer in the woods near the put‑in might be enough, especially if you take the trouble to bring along some camouflage netting. Near busy put‑ins, however, your best bet may be to strike a deal with a local outfitter who can look after your transport until you return to sivilization. Better safe than sorry. Remember the lesson of Farwell's lost Dawes Galaxy.
Hillwalking The nature of the water on the approach to your base camp determines the boat. But the hills dictate the kit. Sturdy boots are a must, of course, and a walking stick or set of trekking poles won't go amiss, either. A rope may come in handy, as well, though once you're in terrain requiring that you rope up for safety, you're leaving the realm of hillwalking for the rarified heights of "proper" climbing. And that's no place for novices on their own. (Another cautionary note: If you're bent on an amphibious "three‑in‑one" trek — a trip involving cycling, paddling, and hillwalking — security becomes more complicated. Discovering that your bike has been stolen on your return to the put‑in will certainly put a damper on the fun, but so will finding your base camp trashed when you come down from the hills. Discretion really is the better part of valor here.)
Exploring the Past Whether it's an abandoned railroad line, a played‑out 19th‑century mine, or the derelict remnants of a once‑thriving logging town, history is hidden in plain sight all around us. And an amphibious adventurer is ideally placed to (re)discover it. Why? That's easy. Waterways are peerless routes into the past. Long before the Interstate Highway System was a gleam in Dwight D. Eisenhower's eye, before even one spike had been driven in the first transcontinental railroad, rivers and lakes were North America's commercial arteries, and with just a little effort, many of these arterial waterways can be retraced today. Trips of this sort often begin at the kitchen table with an old map, but once those preliminaries are over, it's time to venture out and about. Speed is not of the essence on such journeys of discovery. The paddler, the cyclist, and the walker will see much that the motorist misses.
Geologizing This is the ultimate in time travel, taking us back through the 4.6‑billion‑year history of the earth itself. And the raw material is everywhere. Once again, your trip will likely begin with a map, and speed is not important. But an intimate acquaintance with the fabric of the land and the tapestry of the waters is. What better tools than paddle, pedal, and boot to mount such an expedition? Of course, you'll want a compass, too. A Hastings triplet wouldn't hurt, either. Most of all, though, you'll need to know what to look for. A local university's geology department is a good place to start.
I hope that I've conveyed some of the rewards awaiting amphibious trekkers. It's an open‑ended activity, really, and in many ways it harkens back to the heyday of 19th‑century exploration, when rivers carried two‑way traffic and trips into the (then) largely unexplored backcountry required joining up journeys by packet boat and train and Red River cart (or buckboard) to those by canoe and shanks' pony. With this entirely predictable result: In those days, most adventures started on the participants' doorsteps, with the unknown beginning only a few miles away. And this state of affairs lasted until well into the 20th century in North America, as evidenced by the memoirs of writers like R. M. Patterson, whose classic Dangerous River invests the Nahanni Range with some of the same romantic associations an earlier generation had found in the fabled Mountains of the Moon.
Of course, you probably don't have the Mountains of the Moon on your doorstep, do you? But you almost certainly have something worth exploring. And in your legs, arms and mind you have all the tools you need to begin. That's both the promise and the challenge of amphibious trekking. How you respond to that challenge is up to you.
Do you like the idea of beginning a getaway right at your own front door? Is richness of experience more important to you than speed? Are lasting memories of more interest to you than the number of miles covered? Are you prepared to invest some sweat equity in your fun? If you answered yes to all these questions, amphibious trekking may be just what you're looking for. After all, it's never too late to discover the pleasures of life in the slow lane.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat and GuideLines
- "Waterway Rambling"
- "Discovering the Freedom of the Hills"
- "The Amphibious Paddler"
- "On Your Bike? Why Not!"
- "In the Bag? Folding Kayaks and Canoes"
- "Bag It! A Boat to Fit Your Bike"
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