The Art of Planning a Big Trip
Part 5: Back to the Dining-Room Table
by Farwell Forrest
Last week's column left us paddling down a wilderness lake, with a
summer storm building up to windward. Worse yet, we didn't know
exactly where on the lake we were. Not a happy combination of
circumstances, that. We're in trouble. In half an hourmaybe
lessthe first squall will hit. We'd like to be off the water
before it does, but there's no getting around a very unpleasant fact:
it isn't easy to know where to go when you don't know where you are.
What to do? Like most hard questions, this has more than one right
answer. We're talking about trip planning, however. Our answer will
therefore take us back to the dining-room table at home, where a map
lies spread out before us. The best way to deal with a problem is to
avoid it in the first place, after all. Just ask NATO.
Out on the lake, I was the navigator. Now we're lost. Where did I
It's simple, really. Just as Tamia ran the rivers we planned to
paddle on paper, months before our Big Trip began, so I should
have paddled across the lakes the same wayon paper. Seen from
the bow seat of a canoe, a lake is a confusion of shapes and colors.
Islands blend into shorelines, and each bay seems a lot like every
other one. Back at home, looking down at a good map, things are much
OK, then. Let's put our pencils to work for us. First, we need to
know where we're starting. It might be a canoeists' parking area, the
place where a rail line touches the lake, or the little backwater
where a portage trail ends. Whatever it is, this is our point of
departure. Mark it on the map.
Next, mark the place where we want to leave the lake. Again, it can
be anything: the pull-off where we parked our car, a flag-stop on the
rail line, or the start of another portage trail. It doesn't matter.
We just need to be able to find it on the map. This is our
destination. Of course, if the lake is a big one, or if we
expect to reach it near the end of a long day, we may have one or more
intermediate destinations. These are nothing more than campsites
somewhere on the lake itself. Mark each and every one.
Now take your pencil back to our point of departure, and begin
thinking about the route from there to our destination. You need to
know something first, though. You need to know how fast you paddle on
flat water. This is one thing you can't determine in your dining-room.
You should have figured it out well in advance, on day trips in your
home waters. The calculation is a simple one. Paddle a known distance.
(Measure the course out on a map first.) Time how long it takes you.
Divide distance by time. That's it. Then do it again. And again. With
the wind ahead. Astern. On the beam. With a light load. With a heavy
load. When you're tired. When you're fresh.
Do all this and you'll soon know how fast you can paddle in every
condition you're likely to meet. In planning for a Big Trip, just take
your average speed with a heavy load. What? You haven't done the math?
No problem. Just use 3 miles an hour as your first estimate, making
adjustments as necessary. If you paddle a reasonably well-designed
boat, if you don't take more than 5- or 10-minute breaks every hour,
and if you and your partner are competent paddlers, you won't be too
Back to the map. Get a pair of dividersthose hinged gadgets
which you probably used when you took geometry in high school, though
you most likely called them "compasses" then. Using the scale on the
map, set your dividers for the distance you expect to paddle in half
an hour: one and one-half miles, say. Now "walk off" your course along
the lake, marking every point corresponding to one half-hour's
paddling. These marks become your checkpoints.
You'll need to choose a route first, of course. That's an article
in itself, but here are couple of pointers. Take the prevailing winds
into consideration. If you expect a northwest wind on most days, for
example, and if the lake runs north-south, stay close to the western
shore. And whatever the likely direction of the wind, don't plan to
paddle too far from shore. It's a lot of fun to ride the big rollers
in the middle of a large lake, I knowbut the fun stops fast when
the rollers start to break, dumping gallons of water into your boat.
Trying to horse a swamped canoe back to shore, when the shore's a mile
or two away, is mighty hard work even when the water's warm. If the
water's cold, it could easily be the last work you ever do.
Once you've "walked off" your route from point of departure to
destination, take a close look at each of the half-hour checkpoints.
Identify several distinctive landmarks which correspond to each point.
Examples? Unique alignments of islands and bays, cliffs, mountains
which stand out from their neighbors, and sudden jogs in the
Done? Good. When you're out on the lake, keep the map that you
marked up on your kitchen table in front of you as you paddle, and
check your watch from time to time. As each half-hour checkpoint
approaches, look around for the landmarks you identified when you
paddled the lake with your pencil, months before. Once you find them,
you'll know exactly where you are. It's a good feeling.
Now why didn't I think of that?
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
It's important to stay found, of course, but when things really
go wrong on a paddling trip, there's usually another reason. Next
week, Farwell looks at a big problem nobody talks much about. In the
meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions
to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (No
attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise
that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read
every oneand we will. 'Nuff said.