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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Eleventh Essential—It's in the Can!

By Tamia Nelson

January 28, 2003

Cameras and water don't mix. Neither do binoculars and water. Or radios and water. And mistakes can be expensive. It only takes one wave over the bow at the wrong moment, a single missed brace, or a sudden gust of wind to prove just how fast money dissolves.

Unless, that is, you protect your gear.

Not surprisingly, the marketplace has responded. Outfitters' catalogs now carry an astonishing variety of "dry boxes." They work, too. At least most of them do, most of the time. But they're not cheap. While good cameras and binoculars are less expensive than ever before, dry boxes actually seem to have gone up in price. Nowadays the box is sometimes more expensive than the contents.

Which isn't to say that dry boxes aren't worth it. What price security, after all? Still, not everyone can afford to travel first class. Fortunately, there's an alternative: the steel ammo can. It's cheap. It's sturdy. And it keeps the water out. I almost never leave home without one.

And what exactly is an "ammo can"? Most paddlers have seen them. They're rectangular steel boxes with hinged, gasketed tops and cam-locking latches. Most are painted olive drab (what else?), and they often bear a stenciled legend attesting to their original use. It'll read something like this:

CAL .50

Ammo cans come in an extraordinary range of sizes. Some were intended to hold things like fire extinguisher cartridges, but the most useful are the "CAL .30" and "CAL .50" boxes. The former—much less common than they used to be, now that the lighter Squad Automatic Weapon has replaced the venerable M60 GPMG—are about 11" x 7" x 4"; the latter are half again as big. Pick up one of either size, though, and you'll see that economy and utility come at a price. Even empty, these babies are heavy! But saving weight isn't everything. Consider this cautionary tale:

Once upon a time, a Very Good Paddler (who was also a Very Good Photographer) and his wife accompanied another couple on a trip in northern Quebec. The Very Good Photographer had a very good camera (an Olympus OM-2) and a wide assortment of Zuiko lenses, all of which traveled in a beautifully-designed waterproof bag. The bag was light. It opened easily and quietly. And it had integral air chambers to provide both padding and flotation.

The Very Good Photographer wasn't satisfied with this, however. He knew that waterproof bags could fail, and he was a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy. So whenever he felt that the danger of swamping was high, he put his camera bag into a gasketed plastic dry box.

Better safe than sorry, he thought.

The photographer in the other boat—let's call her Tamia, shall we?—also had a very good camera (a Nikon FM). It traveled in a CAL .50 ammo can. The ammo can was heavy and noisy, and Tamia cursed it roundly on each and every one of the many portages along the route. But with practice she learned to open it quietly, and she lashed it to a D-ring just forward of the stern seat, where she could reach it easily while under way.

The two couples hadn't gone far when Tamia's bowman misjudged a standing wave and allowed their canoe to broach in a lively little Class III rapids. The boat swamped, spilling both paddlers into the water and continuing down to the bottom of the rapids without them. It took quite a while to recover and bail out the canoe, and Tamia was sure that her camera would be ruined. When she opened the ammo can, however, she found that it was as dry as a bean inside. So she forgave the bowman for his inattention, and she never cursed the ammo can again.

The Very Good Photographer, who'd helped to recover Tamia's canoe, only said, "Guess you lucked out this time, didn't you?" And he smiled a superior smile.

Several days later, it was the Very Good Photographer's turn to try his luck. He and his wife lost control of their boat while lining it down as shallow, stony drop, and in less time than it takes to tell about it, the canoe broached, filled, and wrapped itself around a rock in mid-stream. Both couples worked for almost an hour to winch the boat off the rock. At long last, though, it floated safely in an eddy alongshore. The Very Good Photographer surveyed his craft. He was unhappy at the damage to the hull and gunwales, but he realized that things could have been much worse, and he was glad he didn't have to worry about his camera. It had been safely tucked away in its waterproof bag, buried deep in the gasketed plastic dry box.

But when he tried to lift the dry box, he found it had grown much heavier, and when he removed the gasketed top, he discovered why. The box was full of water. "Thank God I had my camera in a waterproof bag!" he thought, and he fished the bag out from the sodden contents of the not-so-dry box. But the waterproof bag, too, had grown much heavier than he remembered it, and when he opened the ultra-quiet zip-seal, water poured out.

Tamia, to her credit, said nothing at all.

The moral of the story? Don't turn your nose up at gifts from Uncle Sam. He may not be everybody's favorite uncle, but he's got a pretty good eye for value. A surplus ammo can may not look like much, and it certainly won't win you any points for style, but it does a pretty good job of keeping water on the outside. And sometimes that's the most important thing of all.

Cheap. Sturdy. Waterproof. What's the catch? Like I said, ammo cans are heavy. Put enough heavy gear in them, and they'll sink out of sight when you drop them in the water. Then it won't matter if your gear stays dry or not. Ammo cans have a lot of sharp edges, too—sharp enough to gouge plastic or cut fabric. Owners of inflatables and folding kayaks take notice. And the latch is noisy. If you're trying for a once-in-a-lifetime shot of a rare bird, you'd better have practiced the art of quiet opening. (Tip: Keep your fingernails trimmed very short. It makes the learning process less painful.)

Anything else? Yes. It's hard to get an ammo can into most kayaks. (Downright impossible, in some cases.) If you succeed despite this, be sure to lash it in place, someplace where it won't interfere with a wet exit. You've heard the expression "loose cannon," right? Well, a loose ammo can is every bit as unpleasant. Fifteen pounds of sharp-edged metal is mighty ugly company in a lively seaway.

That's the downside. On balance, though, there are no better waterproof boxes. But this isn't to say they can't be improved with a little effort, is it?

First things first. Whether you shop at a city surplus outlet or buy from a high-volume mail-order firm, get the right size. The CAL .30 can is just big enough for a compact pair of binoculars or a smallish camera and some film. If you want to carry anything bigger, you'll need a bigger can. My CAL .50 ammo can holds my Olympus OM-1N with a 50-mm macro lens mounted, both a 28-mm wide-angle and a 200-mm telephoto lens in reserve, a few necessary odds and ends (filters, lens brush), and extra film, to boot.

Got the right size? Good. Now inspect your can—and inspect it again at the start of every trip. Reject any ammo can that's been banged about. Looking good? Then check the rubber gasket around the hinged top. If it's torn, gouged, or cracked, discard the can. Look for any dings or blips where the top edge of the can meets the gasket, too. If you see any, retire the can. Lastly, to be absolutely sure that everything's OK, close the can and sink it in a foot of two of water. (Tie it to something to facilitate easy retrieval. You'll have to weight the can to get it to stay down, of course. Don't use your camera.) Leave it for five minutes or more, then haul it out and open it. Except for a stray drop or two from the top flange, the inside should be completely dry. If it's not, get a new ammo can.

Now outfit the box to hold your gear. An ammo can's steel walls are pretty hard on delicate optical or electronic gear. You need to pad them, and closed-cell foam does the best job. It's durable, and it doesn't soak up moisture. First, cut out pieces to line the top, sides, and bottom of the can. If you cut carefully, they'll stay in place without glue. (The bottom piece acts as the keystone, wedging the sides tight. Use cardboard templates to get the dimensions right the first time.) The top piece should be trimmed to fit snugly inside the recess in the hinged lid. It must not interfere with the gasket. Once the lining is complete, cut additional pieces to act as partitions. How many partitions? As many as you need! Experiment.

That's all there is to it. Throw in a small bag or two of silica gel to soak up any condensation, and you're done. Well, almost. It doesn't hurt to test your fully-loaded ammo can to be sure it floats. (Warning: Accidents happen. I use filled water bottles or bags of lead shot as test weights, rather than my camera.) If the can heads for the depths, contact-cement enough closed-cell foam to the outside to float both it and its contents. You'll get a bonus here. The foam will protect your other gear from the can's sharp edges.

It's also a good idea to tie the box into your boat when you're on the water, but don't put it where it will be in the way, and don't use a long tether. You don't want to snag your foot or hand during a capsize.

Of course, every item of gear requires maintenance, and ammo cans are no exception. Luckily, it's a piece of cake. After each trip, don't just open the can and put it on the shelf. Remove the top completely. How? By swinging it all the way back and slipping it off the hinge pins. Then take out all of your gear, along with the foam lining, and air the can thoroughly. Clean and grease the hinge pins while you're waiting. (Petroleum jelly is good for this.) And touch up any scratches to prevent rusting.

Between trips, store your can in a cool, dry, dark place. Don't reattach the top to the hinge pins before you put it away, however. Instead, simply set the lid down on the can to discourage mice and other creatures from setting up housekeeping. This reduces compression and wear on the gasket and helps keep it supple. Once the gasket goes, your ammo can is just a heavy box.

Cheap. Sturdy. Waterproof. Even if you'll never have to serve a Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun, you'll find plenty of uses for the ammo can. Call it a "war dividend," if you want. You won't find any better way to keep everything from binoculars to watercolors dry and safe, so don't leave home without one!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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