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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


On Shanks' Pony: More on the Art of Getting Around on All Twos

By Tamia Nelson Amphibious Operations

September 24, 2013

It's no slander to say that paddling is often a pedestrian activity. Not "pedestrian" in the "ho‑hum, I'm bored out of my skull" sense, of course. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just mean that canoeists and kayakers often spend almost as much time walking as they do wielding a paddle. What with portaging and scouting, our legs are kept pretty busy, and that's before you factor in such arcane arts as tracking and lining, not to mention the many ancillary pursuits that most of us embrace, like bird‑watching, angling, and hillwalking. The long and short of the matter is simply this: It's a rare paddler who doesn't do a lot of traveling on shanks' pony.

Which is why Farwell and I have written reams of pedestrian prose over the years. So much of it, in fact, that back in May I compiled a sort of plodder's chrestomathy,* helpfully subtitled "A Paddler's Guide to Getting Around on All Twos." And I figured that would be that. But I reckoned without our readers, who almost always find ways to open new windows on what I (mistakenly) thought to be closed subjects. Here is a sample of what they had to say, beginning with a clever take on …

Slip Slidin' Away

Karl Engleka has shared many a helpful hint and thought‑provoking observation with In the Same Boat over the years. On this occasion, he describes a novel way to move a heavy kayak overland:

Your "On Shanks' Pony" piece was interesting. I will confess that my paddling is almost all on the quiet lake near our Florida home, but I have been intrigued reading about the early fur trappers who paddled heavy canoes upstream and often carried both canoe and heavy loads of cargo overland. I recall reading about a trapper who did this for a long time with an arrow in his back.

Your comment about dragging your boat triggered a thought that I've been playing with for a while. Did you ever slide down a snowy hill up there in New York on one of those thick, flexible, plastic sheets that roll up like a window shade? I have entertained the idea of rigging one of those so it could slide under my kayak and take the abuse of dragging. They are lightweight, they roll up, and they should store easily. I think I could rig one to stay put on the kayak by adding just a couple of grommet holes and some line. I do most of my kayaking solo in a Wilderness tandem that weighs 73 pounds. I can carry it short distances, but I'd rather not. I usually use my homemade cart to do most of the moving when I launch. It would be great to just slide down to the water.

I continue to enjoy your columns. I'm in the process of borrowing one of the books that Farwell mentioned. I'll probably be rereading Wind in the Willows as a result of his last column.

Karl's idea sounds mighty good to me, though I'm afraid that roll‑up plastic toboggans still lay in the future when I was a girl. We used sheets of heavy corrugated cardboard, instead. (If well rubbed with paraffin canning wax beforehand, they were plenty slick, and if the snow wasn't too wet, they'd last through a long, hard day.) Anyway, the plastic versions came to be a common sight on snowy slopes throughout New York and New England in later years. They're seen less often now, however. For one thing, we have less snow. For another, they're hard to steer, which prompts some parents and park administrators to discourage their use. But that's beside the point, isn't it? I think they'd make great "boat sleds" on any reasonably well‑groomed portage trail, and if you've used one in this way, please let me know how it works.

Having praised, or at least excused, pedestrian interludes in paddling trips, I have to admit that — for many boaters, at any rate — walking is at best a necessary evil, an unwelcome interruption in an aqueous adventure. This isn't the case for the small cadre of amphibious trekkers, though. We frequently take to the water in order to get to the hills where we plan to walk. (If memory serves, the editor of Small Boat Journal once sailed a tiny dinghy up the coast of Labrador in order to climb a remote peak.) Or we walk for miles to reach the waters where we wish to boat. In its most extreme form, this morphs into the delightful pastime known as "wild swimming" in the UK, which, as far as I can tell, is what we just called "swimming" when I was growing up — but then our only pool was a lively little stream that we shared, more or less amiably, with trout fishermen from all over the world. In any case, such amphibious excursions, whatever their nature, invariably impose strict limitations on the trekker's impedimenta, as one reader was quick to note, in a letter concerning …

The Things We Always Carry

And Kevin James makes his point with wonderful clarity:

I read your columns with great interest. I thoroughly appreciate the diversity of your topics and the complete practicality to the joy of paddling. I was canoe camping on the [Victoria Day] weekend, and was talking to some rangers about a search and rescue they did last year for a guy who was just going out from his campsite for a quick "walk in the park." He stumbled and broke a leg. He tried yelling and became hoarse. He had no whistle or other emergency devices. He did have a lighter with him, so that he was able to get a fire going to keep warm, but he was a long way back in the bush, and since it was raining and dark, nobody could see the smoke or the fire. They did find him after about 15 hours, with more than 20 search-and-rescue personnel risking their own limbs in the dark and rain.

It was a good news story, but it got me thinking about the sorts of things I should have on me at all times. I often go looking for firewood or other types of sorties without taking a whistle, my compass, my knife, and fire-making equipment. Not to mention the lack of a first-aid kit! If I'm soloing and I am going shanks' mare with a canoe hoisted on my shoulders and the packs are waiting for me where I first put in, and I hurt myself... Well, my necessary equipment is back with the packs.

I put together a butt pack / thwart bag that has everything in it. BUT it seems a pain to strap it on the top of the packs when I'm portaging packs, and then it seems a pain to unstrap it and put it on my butt when portaging the canoe. Being prepared for the unexpected at all times when in the bush is a plan of mine, but in actuality, I will forgo such plans for the expedience of the moment.

So, what do you carry with you at all times? And could you talk about the whole area of mental preparation for such important aspects of bush self-preservation?

Kevin's letter really hit home. When I was a teenager with dreams of Olympic gold in my head, I skied off an icy Black Diamond trail and ran straight into a tree. Help, in the form of the Ski Patrol, came quickly, but I then lay on a gurney in a hospital corridor for several hours, writhing in agony, until my parents could produce the cash to pay for pain medication, X‑rays, and casting. So I can imagine just how the hapless hiker in Kevin's story felt.

And needless to say, I'm now a great believer in being prepared, something that, as Kevin rightly observes, involves both tangible and intangible assets. Let's look at the first of these:

Hard Assets.  An early article of mine for In the Same Boat discussed whistles and other attention‑getters, but — a classic case of do as I say, not as I do — while I have whistles in my rucksack, on my PFD, and in my bike's handlebar bag, I don't often have one on my person when I walk away from camp to poke along the shore or shoot photos. I do have a survival kit which I keep with me at all times, however, and thanks to Kevin's prompting, it now includes a whistle and lanyard. Who says you can't teach an old hack new tricks, eh?

Next, let's turn to less tangible things, the "mental preparation" that Kevin speaks of, or, to put it another way, …

The Right Stuff.  Farwell addressed this very subject some time back, in a two‑part series entitled "The Other Ten Essentials." (The two parts are "From Curiosity to Confidence" and "From Patience to Joy.") Together, they cover the ground pretty thoroughly. I can't think of anything I'd want to add. But if you can, please tell us.

And while we're on the subject of intangibles, there's more to walking than putting one foot in front of another. In particular, when you're walking with a heavy weight resting on your shoulders — a 20‑foot freight canoe, say — little things can mean a lot. Which brings us to …

A Fundamental Fact

Some of us move with the fluid grace of a trained dancer. But the rest of us are ursine plodders, especially as the load on our shoulders grows heavier. This isn't just a question of aesthetics. It bears on efficiency, too, as reader Stephen Coutts points out:

I am often struck by the subtle, then obvious things that we miss in our technical pursuits. In this case I am talking about walking with a canoe. Most people complain about the yoke digging into the shoulders on a carry. We rarely moan about the weight, which is how it off-balances us or bounces around. I received a demo from a fellow canoe instructor candidate about 35 years ago that I have never forgotten and have employed ever since. He told me that one should walk with a "butt wiggle." He then demonstrated the walk that we all know and mostly are embarrassed by, that is seen in those walking races in the Olympics. The whole point is to get rid of the up-and-down bounce in our step, and thus get rid of the dig, dig, dig in our shoulders. It is all about the even transfer of your total weight from one leg to the other, done as smoothly as possible. This would be akin to what we strive for when cross-country skiing. It makes all of the difference.

After hoisting the canoe (or pack), begin walking heel to toe and wiggle your butt cheeks as much as possible to maintain contact with the ground between steps. This way you transfer your weight from one foot to the other without the jarring impact. Walk quickly with shorter steps and you will maintain the same speed, but have better balance and reduce the impact on the body parts. As a bonus it will also help to work all of the kinks out of the stiff paddle-position muscles.

Old Woodsmen and young hard chargers may not welcome Stephen's suggestion that they add a wiggle to their walk, but it makes good sense, nonetheless. "Form follows function" isn't just an architect's maxim, after all. If you're doubling the carries in order to save time, shouldering 110 pounds of boat plus a Duluth sack filled with camping gear, a wiggle is a small price indeed to pay for comfort. Ignore the jeers and whistles of the likely lads. With a wiggle in your rear, you'll get across the portage in half the time, and you'll still be fresh at the end. Then you can sit down and enjoy a cup of tea (or a leisurely pipe, if that's your fancy) while you watch the erstwhile hard chargers limp in, tired and footsore and knowing they've got to go back again to collect all the gear they left behind.

Revenge, as Talleyrand may or may not have said, is a dish best eaten cold. Of course, if he did say it, he said it in French. But it makes sense in any language.


The Rob Roy on Land


If my experience at proves nothing else, it's that the last word on any subject is never written. I thought I'd covered the ground pretty thoroughly with my first shanks' pony piece, but I was wrong. There's a lot more to the art of walking than I'd suggested. Now, however, with the able assistance of Karl, Kevin, and Stephen, I've begun to fill in the gaps in the story. Perhaps you, too, have something to add. If so, just drop me a line.

* Chrestomathy isn't a word that you see every day, I admit, but the Sage of Baltimore once used it in the title of a collection of his essays, and that's good enough for me. H. L. Mencken may have thrived on controversy over his long career, and outraged many readers in the process, but few writers have used the English language to better effect.



More on the Subject (and Related Matters) From In the Same Boat

Two collections of earlier columns:
Plus the following individual articles:
And three letters from "Our Readers Write":


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