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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

There and Back Again

Doing the Car-Shuttle Rag — And More

By Tamia Nelson

August 19, 2003

Let's say you're new to paddling, but you're no longer a novice. You've taken lessons and practiced till you know your strokes cold. You've bought your first boat and you've outfitted it. Now you're hankering to check out the languid little river you see every day on the way to work. How often have you pulled off the road and strained to glimpse what lay beyond the towering sycamores at the bend in the water? How many times have you wondered what secrets the little river held? At long last you've decided to find out.

That was the easy bit. You may be a beginner, but you're no fool. You do your homework. You study the topographic map of the river and pick up a copy of a guidebook that describes it. You talk to local paddlers. You make lists so you won't forget anything important. Yet as D-Day approaches, a nagging question returns again and again to trouble you: "How am I going to get back to my car at the end of the day?"

This problem confronts most paddlers sooner or later, wherever they live and whatever kind of paddling they do. It's one of the reasons that a lot of boats stay parked in the backyard. And that's too bad. Canoes and kayaks are freedom craft, but landlocked boats are no freer than beached whales or stranded sea turtles. Finding a place to paddle is only the beginning. Few of us can launch a boat on our doorstep and return to our own dock at trip's end. Even folks who are lucky enough to live on the water will someday want to venture farther from home. And not every excursion can begin and end at the same place. Rivers run only one way, after all. At the close of the day, you have to get back to where you started.

What to do? Suppose we kick off by dancing to the number-one beat on the river:

The Car-Shuttle Rag

Most paddlers travel with others whenever they can. This is always a Good Idea, and on some water — big rivers, all but the easiest rapids, large lakes, the open sea — it's essential. In any case, safety and convenience go hand in hand. Groups of paddlers can easily arrange to shuttle vehicles. Here are a couple of ways.

Spot and Return.  Everyone drives to the take-out, where all but one or two vehicles are left, or "spotted." The drivers of the parked cars then pile their boats, their gear, and themselves into — and onto — the remaining vehicles and continue along the road to the put-in. (WARNING Be sure that the spotters have their car keys with them when you leave the take-out, and don't overload the shuttle vehicles!) At the end of the day, one or more of the spotters can shuttle the other paddlers back to the put-in to retrieve their cars.

Looking for a variation on the theme? How about…

Drop and Shuttle?  The group meets at the put-in and unloads boats, paddles, and other gear. Two or more cars then drive to the take-out, where at least one car is spotted. The driver of that car returns to the put-in in the companion vehicle, and the entire party heads off downriver. Later, the driver of the spotted car shuttles all other drivers back to the put-in.

You get the idea, I'm sure. Does it sound like too much trouble? If it does, you'll need to look around for a…

Shuttle Bunny.   This unflattering label originated in the early boys-only days of whitewater paddling. It refers to a non-paddling spouse or friend who waits patiently at the take-out to ferry paddlers back to their parked vehicles. And what's wrong with that? Nothing. It works — when you can bag a bunny. This isn't always easy. Shuttle bunnies are an endangered species these days. Still, there's always the Deliverance Option. Hire someone to drop your group off at the put-in and shuttle your vehicles to the take-out, or arrange to have everyone picked up at the end of the day and driven back to their cars. Many outfitters will do this on request. It will cost you something, of course. How much? It depends. Ask around. Plan ahead. And good luck!

So much for groups. But what if you're a group of one? What if you're…

Going Solo?

As I've already pointed out, solo paddling is not a great idea. It's very easy to get into trouble on the water — even languid little rivers can kill the unwary — and a companion or two might make the difference between life and death. Not all paddlers can find others who are free whenever they are, however. If these folks didn't paddle solo, they wouldn't paddle at all. And daytime TV can kill, too.

It's a judgement call. I won't condemn solo paddling outright. I've gone out alone myself, many times. But solo paddlers must be extra careful. At a minimum, they should…

  • Know their limits and stay within them

  • Have good gear, and keep it in good condition

  • Leave difficult rapids and long, open-water crossings to another day, when they can return with a party of expert companions

  • Avoid the cold, high water of the "shoulder seasons"

  • Accept responsibility for their actions — and any consequences

So much for safety. What about convenience? Bad news, I'm afraid. Solo paddlers have the worst of both worlds. In the absence of a complaisant shuttle bunny or an accommodating outfitter, the solo paddler has to shuttle solo, too. Unless you can be in two places at the same time, your choices are limited. There's always…

Shank's Pony.  You can walk back to your put-in, of course, and the hike can be a trip in its own right. Weigh the downside carefully, however. You'll be tired. The sun may be hot. And walking for miles on the crumbling verge of the highway is almost certain to be a drag. Furthermore, unless your boat is both ultralight and easy to carry, you'll have to leave it and much of your other gear behind. It may not be there when you return, even if you shackle it to a tree. So you first have to ask yourself, "Am I feeling lucky today?"

If you are, and if you're still bent on riding shank's pony, treat the walk to the put-in like any other day-hike. Take plenty of water, and carry a rucksack. You may need raingear (summer showers) or your first aid kit (blisters!), and you probably ought to have a map. You'll want to bring some of your more portable gear with you, too. Life jackets and carbon-fiber paddles aren't cheap.

And don't forget dogs. Country dogs often have overly well-developed senses of territory, and their owners won't always be around to bring them to heel. A word to the wise from two paddlers who've been down this road before, and who both have the scars to prove it: a walking-stick is more than just a prop. Carry one if you're planning to hike back to your put-in. A "cow-cane" — a sturdy wooden crook used to control cattle in an auction barn — is a good choice. It's compact, funky, and functional. It's also cheap. Sometimes you get a bonus, too. Mine bears the deathless legend "REGISTERED HOLSTEINS: BREED OF THE TIMES."

Anything else? You bet. Don't forget your car keys!

Are your feet already aching? Maybe you're thinking that hitchhiking would be a good alternative. Or is it…

Thumbs Down?  Well, hitchhiking may shorten your slog, but be prepared to walk the whole distance anyway. You can't always be sure of a ride, particularly if you're carrying half your worldly goods on your back. Hitching can really put your people skills to the test, too. Remember that you're on your own.

Not your scene? Then maybe you'd rather…

Spin Your Wheels.  Some paddlers drop off a bike at the take-out and plan to ride back to the put-in. It's faster than walking, but don't forget that bikes are attractive targets for both thieves and vandals. Good locks will stop the thieves, but good luck is your only protection against the vandals, and from time to time everyone's luck runs out. Farwell once finished a Battenkill trip only to find his new 15-speed English touring bike twisted into a pretzel. It was a costly lesson. The upshot? If you're relying on a bike to get you back to your car, consider carrying your wheels along with you in your boat. This won't always be easy, but where there's a will, there's often a way. There are also folding bikes.

Tired of all these discouraging words? Then take comfort in the fact that solo paddlers (and others) don't always have to go with the flow. There's wisdom in the words of sportswriter-poet Grantland Rice:

The Gamefish Swims Upstream

Even under the best of circumstances, shuttling takes time and costs money. Why not follow the lead of the gamefish, instead? Start your next river trip by heading upstream. Then, at the end of the day, just paddle (or drift) back to your car. You won't cover as many miles, to be sure, but so what? Why should the pleasure of an outing be measured solely by the distance traveled? You'll find that you learn new skills, too — skills that were once part of the repertoire of nearly every paddler. It wasn't so long ago that the world's rivers were highways, and the traffic didn't just move one way. Voyageurs and other watermen traveled upstream as well as down. They exploited eddies and hugged the inside of bends to ease their passage upriver. Then, when the current got too strong for their paddles or oars, they turned to their poles and tracking lines. What the voyageurs once did, you can do, too, and summer's the best time to rediscover the lost arts of backcountry travel. Begin on easy water and work your way up. After all, you don't always want to swim downstream, do you?


Shuttling is to paddling what doing the dishes is to cooking. It's not much fun in itself, but it makes the good stuff possible. So whether you shuttle, hike, bike, or hitch a ride, have patience. The end result is almost always worth the effort. And when you finally get tired of dancing to the shuttle rag? Then it's time to think about going against the flow. Join the gamefish and head upstream. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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