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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Simple and Good

In Praise of the Canoe Shelter

By Tamia Nelson

May 6, 2003

It wasn't quite the end of the line, but the lonely rail station in northern Québec had the look of a place that time had long since passed by. There were no other buildings in sight, and the six of us were the only people to get off the train. Except for a narrow, raised track that led into the forest, the ground around the station had the sodden, sticky consistency of cold oatmeal. We quickly unloaded our four canoes. Soon a mountain of gear towered above our heads on the platform.

Farwell pulled out the map. The headwaters of our river were more than a mile away, and it was already late in the day. The air was humid, hot, and still, but a distant rumble of thunder reminded us that we couldn't count on it staying that way for long. We needed a place to spend the night. The train's conductor — always alert, inquisitive, and helpful — suggested that we bunk down in the train crewmen's recreation room. We thanked him. "C'est un rien," he replied. Just then a white-haired man with a face the color of oiled teak leaned out of a compartment window and waved. He was shouting something. It sounded like "Too many Frenchies! Not enough moose!" I shrugged my shoulders and cupped my hands to my ears. The white-haired man repeated his words, even more loudly: "TOO MANY FRENCHIES! NOT ENOUGH MOOSE!" I'd heard it right the first time.

The conductor raised his hand to his mouth and tipped back his head, wriggling his fingers in the air as he did so. A gurgling sound like the booming of a bittern came from somewhere deep in his throat. Then he winked at me, murmured "Bonne nuit," and hopped back aboard the train. With a squeal of protest, the rail cars jolted forward. Slowly, the train gathered speed. Now we were alone.

Another rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. With one movement, we turned toward the station entrance and walked in. The recreation room wasn't very inviting. To begin with, it lay at the end of a maze of corridors bearing an eerie resemblance to Jame Gumb's basement in Silence of the Lambs. But that wasn't all. Broken glass littered the floor, and the smell suggested that a large animal was lying dead somewhere nearby. Farwell tested the stability of the room's only unbroken piece of furniture, a scarred billiard table boasting a torn cloth. I surveyed the art collection on the walls. The pictures were all lively and colorful erotic tableaux, obviously the work of a primitivist painter whose imagination had never accepted the constraints of normal human anatomy.

Our companions began shuffling gloomily about, clearing spaces for their sleeping bags among the broken bottles and mounds of garbage. Farwell looked at me, rolling his eyes up toward the grimy ceiling. I nodded. We headed for the door.

Within a minute we'd moved our Tripper away from the other boats on the platform and turned it on its side. A minute more, and we'd draped our tarp over the hull, wrapping two short corner guys around the bilge and tying them off on the seats. We stretched the belly of the tarp out over the gap between the Tripper and the other canoes, securing the long guys to the most distant boat. Then we shoved packs around as needed to serve as side walls and anchors. Our foam pads completed the transformation. In less than five minutes, the station platform had become our home away from home. And just in time, too. Large drops began falling as Farwell was tying the last guy line. A quarter of an hour later, rain was sluicing down.

We didn't mind. By then I was brewing tea and putting together a quick supper. The storm continued until dawn, but despite the occasional crash of thunder, we slept soundly and woke refreshed. Our companions were less fortunate. Something had spent the early morning hours gorging noisily in a room not far from where they'd slept. No one had been curious enough to investigate, but several people insisted they'd heard a sound "like bones being crunched." Needless to say, none of them spent a restful night.

That was the first time I'd ever slept in a canoe shelter, and it taught me a valuable lesson. You don't need an expensive tent to get a good night's sleep, even in bad weather. We weren't the first to discover this, of course. The canoe shelter was almost as much a voyageur trademark as the canot du nord or the clay pipe. Just take a look at this famous painting by nineteenth-century artist Frances Hopkins:

Rest for the Weary

It's usually called Voyageurs at Dawn, but that's probably a misnomer. The voyageurs didn't often take time for a cooked breakfast. Call it Voyageurs at Dusk, instead. And take note of the big canoes, resting on their beam ends. Each supports a tarp. You won't find a better depiction of a canoe shelter anywhere.

Today the voyageurs are long gone, but their ingenuity still survives. The gentlemen canoeists of the late nineteenth century may have preferred to sleep afloat, snoring (and sometimes nearly suffocating) "below decks" aboard their little yachts, but this fashion didn't survive the introduction of the affordable wood-canvas canoe. Suddenly it was possible for Everyman to take a paddling holiday, and Everyman was happier sleeping on solid ground. Families usually turned to tents for shelter, but hunters and anglers — always more concerned with efficiency and economy than bad imitations of home comforts — kept the voyageur tradition alive.

It still is. Modern tents are a great improvement over the dank canvas cells of a century ago, but if you paddle to get close to nature, there's a lot to be said for some of the old ways. In a canoe shelter, you're really "camping out." You're protected from rain and dew, but you're not walled off from the larger world. The sounds of the night and the smells of the forest are all around you. As writers from Thoreau to Colin Fletcher have observed, there's virtue in simplicity. And you can't get much simpler than sleeping under a canoe shelter. Call it minimalist camping: just you, your canoe, your rucksack, and a tarp. Simple and good. What more could you ask?

Well, how about cheap? A canoe shelter needn't cost more than a heavy-duty drop cloth. If simple is good, simple and cheap is even better.

But what about bugs? Ah, yes. The "importunate bizz of the mosquito." Not to mention the blackfly, bulldog, and no-see-um, let alone West Nile virus, dengue fever, malaria, and onchocerciasis. It's true. There are places (and times) when a screened tent is the best investment you can make in peace of mind. Still, for much of North American canoe country, a properly rigged mosquito bar is all you need. The rest is just a matter of practice. Paddlers who follow in the voyageurs' wake soon learn to make the most of any natural shelter.

Of course you also have to adapt to the limitations of your craft. Not many canoes are as beamy as the voyageurs' big boats. Quite a few aren't even as wide as a Tripper. This needn't be a problem, though. Crouching headroom is nice, but it's not necessary for most activities. After all, you can always raise the free end of your "awning," at least in good weather. And when the rain's pouring down or a gale is howling, lower is better. It's also a good idea to shift your canoe so that the bottom takes the force of the wind. If you turn it around the other way, you may find your shelter blowing away from you. Talk about wet blankets.… Use packs for anchors and sidewalls, too, of course, but never sleep with a food pack in bear country. Not unless you want to find yourself on the breakfast menu, that is. Bears aren't fussy eaters.

Are you a kayaker? You, too, can follow in the wake of the voyageurs. Adapt. Experiment. You'll be cramped, to be sure, but it's still possible to sleep under a kayak shelter. If you've got a knack for engineering, you can guy your kayak up on edge to get a few more inches of headroom. In any case, even if the idea of sleeping under a tarp that you've draped over your boat doesn't appeal, always take the time to tie your kayak down for the night. We've both seen kayaks (and pack canoes) suddenly become airborne in a gust. It's always a shock when you first discover that your boat can fly.

'Nuff said? Probably. The canoe shelter is yet another legacy of the hardy, resourceful voyageurs. It's simple, cheap, and efficient. Simple and good, in short. And that's more than good enough for me!

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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