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Getting Around

The Rope Trick — Tracking Your Way up a River

By Tamia Nelson

June 4, 2002

It was one of those beautifully simple things that any fool can understand—and it was flexible and perfect. With that and a strong hand on the paddle and the ability to use a pole a man can go anywhere.

Raymond M. Patterson The Dangerous River

Sound too good to be true? Well, Raymond M. Patterson wasn't a man who was much given to irrational exuberance. Nor was he describing some high-tech piece of gear designed by a team of engineers and constructed of space-age materials. (After all, anything that was state-of-the-art in 1927 is "traditional" today.) In fact, he wasn't talking about equipment at all. Instead, he was extolling the virtues of a particular technique for climbing a river—the technique known as "tracking."

And the river he was proposing to climb was no rivulet. Patterson was setting out to follow the South Nahanni to its headwaters in Canada's Northwest Territories. It wasn't a walk in the park. In Patterson's day it was terra incognita—unknown country. Even today, the South Nahanni is a river worthy of respect. It's remote. It's got cataracts and gorges. It's got Virginia Falls. A river to reckon with, in short.

So why climb a river, you ask? Good question. Nowadays, anyone who wants to paddle the South Nahanni need only pick up the phone and dial 1-800-GOTODAY, credit card in hand. A float plane or jet boat will meet the would-be explorer at Fort Simpson and take her upriver. Once there, it's a relatively easy ride back to the Mackenzie, going with the flow all the way.

Patterson didn't have it so easy. While in London on business in the winter of 1926-27, he picked up a copy of Michael Mason's The Arctic Forests. When he settled down "in front of a blazing fire" to read his new book, he was intrigued by an empty place on one of the maps. A river ran through it, and that river was the South Nahanni. Patterson decided then and there that this river would be his royal road into the little-known Mackenzie mountains. But it was 1927. Patterson couldn't call 1-800-GOTODAY, and he couldn't charter a Twin Otter or jetboat to take him upriver. If he wanted to climb the South Nahanni to its headwaters, he'd have to do it on his own—two hundred miles against the current of a mountain river. He wasn't worried, though. He knew that with a long rope, "a strong hand on the paddle and the ability to use a pole a man can go anywhere." He was right.

Of course Patterson didn't invent upstream travel. The Hudson's Bay Company had been using North America's rivers as highways since the seventeenth century. (They weren't alone. The continent's First Nations had been doing the same thing long before the voyageurs arrived on the scene.) And the Company's key to the continent was tracking. While the idea is probably as old as canoeing itself, the word is a legacy from the days of canal boats, when barges were pulled by men or horses, hauling on lines attached to each vessel's bow and stern. Walkways—tracks—paralleled the canals and provided good footing for the beasts of burden.

The same technique was pressed into service on wilderness rivers of North America. When the current got too strong to paddle against, and when the bottom was too deep for poles to get a purchase, the hardy servants of the Hudson's Bay company broke out their long ropes. Tracking was a sweaty and dangerous business, but it worked, and that was what mattered.

OK. The Hudson's Bay Company isn't moving bails of furs by water these days, but there's no reason why you shouldn't follow in their footsteps. In fact, there are lots of good reasons to go against the flow of a river. You don't need to shuttle cars, for one thing. Back in the days when Farwell and I chased the spring runoff all over New York and New England, we sometimes spent more time driving than paddling. Nowadays, I'd rather spend my time on the river than on the road. The solution? Climb a river upstream in the morning and float back to your put-in at the end of the day. Simple, isn't it?

You learn a lot by going against the flow, too. Heading upstream, you've got more time to study a river and its ways. If you measure your trips by the density of experience rather than the number of miles traveled, there's no contest. Upstream travel wins hands down. Once you've climbed a river just one time, it's yours forever.

And going against the flow also means that you don't get unpleasant surprises. There's no danger of drifting over a falls from downstream, after all. (You can get caught in the reversal below a falls, though. Use common sense in approaching any hazard, whichever way you're heading.) And what if you reach an impassable stretch late in the day? No problem. Point your bow downstream and head back to your put-in.

Sound easy? It is. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone. Upstream travel is usually hard work, and it requires that you master a number of complementary techniques. Sometimes you can paddle, though paddling won't get you far if the water's too fast or too shallow. That's when a pole comes in handy. But poling, too, has its limitations. It requires a reasonably firm bottom and water that's not too deep. If there's more than a couple of feet under your keel, you'll have trouble. Poling is also a skill that must be learned. You can't grab a pole and expect to master it the first time out. Or the second. You'll need to practice first.

The art of tracking, on the other hand, can be picked up pretty quickly. It's versatile, too. You can do it if you're alone, or you can do it with a partner. As long as there's enough water to float your canoe and a path for you to walk on, you can track.

And you don't need special equipment. You do need rope, though. For easy rivers, your bow and stern painters may be enough, provided that they're securely attached and at least 25 feet long. Real tracking lines are 50 feet long, however—and sometimes even longer. (Patterson used an 80-foot line on the Nahanni, and the Company often employed lines as long as 200 feet on big rivers.) Whatever the length of your tracking line, you'll want it to be at least 1/4-inch in diameter: anything less will cut your hands.

Material matters, but not much. Nylon and dacron lines are both good, though nylon is stretchier. Polypro floats, and that's handy, but the cheaper grades are very abrasive, and they don't hold knots well. That's not so good.

Back to length: there's no free lunch. Longer lines give you more scope, but you sacrifice control. The rope's stretch increases with its length. There's also the danger of tangles. If you get a long line tangled up in an alder thicket, it's just a nuisance, but if you get tangled up in your line in a strong current, you could be in serious trouble. Be sure that you have a sharp knife with you whenever you work around rope, and be sure that you can get at your knife with only one free hand.

Confused? That's not surprising. Tracking lines are always either too long or too short. What's the solution? Bring several lengths of rope and tailor your tracking lines to the needs of the moment.

Once you have your lines secured at bow and stern, you're almost ready to begin climbing a river. Tie your paddles and gear inside your canoe first, though. And always wear your life jacket, zipped up and cinched down. It's easy to slip off a wet rock and fall into the river. Is the water cold? Then don a wetsuit. Wear something protective and grippy on your feet, too, and watch where you put your feet. Avoid stepping into cracks between rocks. If the time ever comes when you're tempted to track your boat up a demanding rapids, consider wearing a helmet. When you take a header into fast water, a slam dunk is often the result.

That sort of thing comes later, though. You should choose an easy river for your maiden voyage. Pick one with a noticeable current, but with no rapids harder than a very easy Class I. There should be a good track, too. Often you can walk along the cobble beach left by receding spring flood waters. Begin alone, handling both bow and stern lines. Once you get the knack, let your partner have a turn at the ropes. When you've both mastered the "rope trick," practice working together.

Ready? Let's start. Your canoe should be pointed the way you want to go: upstream. Face the river, holding the coiled bow line in your "upstream" hand. The stern line, also neatly coiled, should be held in your other hand. Now shove the bow of your canoe out till it leaves the shore eddy and catches the current. Let out both lines a little bit at a time—the bow line a bit faster than the stern, just enough to keep the bow angled away from you toward mid-river. If the canoe moves too far, or too fast, let out more stern line till the movement's checked. On the other hand, if the boat insists on hugging the shore, give the bow line more scope. Then, once your canoe is riding steady in deep water, start walking upstream

Be careful. Don't let either line tangle around your feet, and never wrap a line around your wrist or hand.

Sooner or later you'll encounter an obstacle— a mid-stream rock, say. If you're on a collision course with the rock, pay out more of the bow line. The boat will angle toward mid-river and move further out, away from the rock. Keep walking. When you've put the danger behind you, snub the bow line in just a bit and work the canoe back toward you, keeping the bow pointing out. You'll have to muscle the boat back in. If you let the bow swing in toward shore, you'll lose control. You can't push with a rope.

Simple, isn't it? To move your boat out, away from shore, give the bow line more slack. To check this outward movement, take the slack in or let out a little more of the stern line.

Seem familiar? It is. When you track a boat, you're doing an upstream ferry—except that you aren't in the boat, of course. The speed at which your canoe moves away from shore will depend on a number of things: how fast the river's flowing, how fast you're walking, and how great an angle your canoe makes with the current. Don't open this angle too much. If you do, your canoe may broach—swing broadside to the current—and swamp. Stay alert. It can happen very fast.

That's it. Some people recommend using "bridles" for tracking your canoe, but the additional lashings are tedious and time-consuming, and I've never felt the need for them. I just tie the bow and stern lines to the deck or stem fittings instead. It works fine.

There's one other wrinkle you may want to try, though. When Patterson tracked his 16-foot Prospector up the South Nahanni, he used a single 80-foot line. One end of the line was tied to the bow of his boat; the other, to the stern. Then, instead of having to manage two lines, he only had to pass the single line through his hands: forward to let the bow fall off toward mid-river, back to check it and bring it in. It was "beautifully simple," he said, "flexible and perfect." I agree, particularly if you're alone.

Tracking. Why bother? Why not just dial 1-800-GOTODAY and go with the flow? After all, there aren't any blank spaces left on the map, are there? Maybe so. But none of us has seen everything. We all have unknown lands on our personal maps of the world, and upstream travel is a great way to fill in some of these empty spaces. Even on familiar rivers, you'll make new discoveries every time you go against the flow, and Patterson's rope trick is your passport. Give it a try.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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