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Smoothing It

Secrets of a Happy Camper

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

August 10, 2004

We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home.…
— Nessmuk (George Washington Sears)

Some folks like roughing it, or think they do. I did, once. My dream of a good time was hanging like an addled bat from the flank of a knife-edged ridge and snatching forty winks in a gale-buffeted tent, while waiting for the next avalanche to sweep down off the towering heights. So when my first long camping trip proved to be a never-ending ordeal of sodden clothes and blood-sucking flies, I shrugged off my misery, comforting myself with the thought that I was preparing for bigger and better agonies to come.

Here's what happened. My brother and I pitched camp in a dank sag along a riverbank, right in the center of a dense tangle of alder, birch, and cedar. No hint of a breeze penetrated the thick, interlocked branches. We set up housekeeping in an Army pup tent, vintage 1945. It had no floor and no mosquito netting. Whatever the tent's shortcomings, though, the blackflies and no-see-ums loved it. And they told all their friends. We were never short of company.

The weather was no help, either. Dense fog blanketed the ground each night and hung around through the early morning. Then the sun took over, turning our canvas shelter into a steaming sauna — just before the daily thunderstorm arrived to fill the sag with standing water. Finding dry wood in this postdiluvian landscape proved impossible. So we ate cold beans directly from the can, and made coffee by stirring powdered instant into tepid water. Our tent, soaked repeatedly by storm and fog and never given a chance to dry, soon developed a microclimate of its own, drizzling a fine mist down on our cotton-batting sleeping bags at all hours of the day and night.

But we were young and fit. We survived. And we bragged later about how we could take it. In truth, though, we'd have enjoyed ourselves much more if we'd followed Nessmuk's advice. On the other hand, the self-described "limber-go-shiftless" dean of backwoods letters seldom strayed far from the nineteenth-century tourist track, and he often decamped to a waterfront hotel when the going got tough. You may not have this luxury. The longer your trip and the more difficult your route, the more likely it is that you'll have to rough it at least some of the time. Nature deals the cards, after all. But this doesn't mean that you can't try to make the best of even a bad hand. Preparation, organization, and a keen eye for the lay of the land will always improve your odds.

 

First Steps

Comfort, like charity, begins at home. If the authorities who manage your destination require that you camp only at designated sites, do a little research long before you leave for the put-in. Not all designated campsites are equal. Plan ahead. Give a wide berth to any sites that are advertised as suitable for large groups, unless you're traveling with a lot of friends or family. Most such sites stay open until they're filled to capacity. If you're hoping to be up at dawn, you don't want to be wakened at midnight by members of the Camp Bide-a-Wee junior chorus, practicing a few of their favorite songs just before turning in.

Even when you travel through a region without designated sites, you're not off the hook. You have more choices, to be sure — but a lot of the choices are bad. There are only so many decent campsites to be had along any waterway. Not surprisingly, many of them have been used for centuries, if not millennia. We've found ten-thousand-year-old projectile points at some of our camps. (We left them where we found them. Maybe you'll be the next person to see them.) To get an idea of what lies in store for you, do a map analysis before you leave home. You'll be glad you did. Lay out all the topographic maps covering your intended route. Do this even if you're camping on the seashore. Nautical charts aren't much help in picking campsites, though they can save you from floating away in your sleeping bag at high tide. Next, decide how far you'll travel on each day of your trip. Be very conservative, particularly at the start, when you're still getting your sea legs. Wind and weather don't always cooperate, and portages look a lot longer from under a canoe than they do on a map. Your pack will be heavier than it was in the living room, too. Trace your route on the maps and look for several potential campsites near the end of each day's "march." Then mark them with a pencil.

Of course, map reading won't reveal every one of the landscape's secrets. Maps tease and tantalize, but they never tell, or show, all. There's just no substitute for the Mark One eyeball. That's why you should never turn down a site that looks good, just because you didn't pick it up in your map analysis. The reverse is also true: don't assume that all the sites you pencilled on your map will be suitable. They won't. Sometimes even the Mark One needs a little help, however, particularly when you're trying to check out a campsite from the water. If your eyes have seen their best days, or if haze and shadow obscure important detail, take your binoculars out of the ammo can or other waterproof case and put them to work. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

 

The Ideal Campsite

But just how do you recognize a good site when you find one? First off, don't expect perfection. Ideal campsites are few and far between, and if you won't settle for second-best, you'll spend a lot of nights in your boat. Still, it helps to know a perfect site when you see it. The ideal campsite is…

  • Safe and sheltered
  • Near potable water
  • Level
  • Dry and airy
  • Light when you're trying to work.
  • Dark when you're trying to sleep
  • Cool when it's hot
  • Warm when it's cold
  • Free from freeloaders and things that go bump in the night

These criteria are mostly self-explanatory. Unless you really like fireworks, you don't want to camp under a single tall pine. Lone trees make great lightning rods. In fact, you probably don't want to camp under any tall tree, even if has plenty of nearby company — at least you don't want to do so until you've made sure that no dead branches ("widow-makers" in nineteenth-century logging-camp patois) overhang your tent. Standing dead trees are another obvious hazard, but even seemingly healthy trees sometimes fall without apparent provocation, and without giving any notice. Cathedral groves of old-growth pines are awe-inspiring places to visit, but it's best to spend the night somewhere else. In and around camp, small is beautiful.

Camping on tropical and subtropical beaches also requires a little thought. Don't pitch your tent under the palms. Period. Ripe coconuts hit the ground with the force of cannon balls. And some tropical trees — manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) is one notorious example — weep poisonous sap, while others, including the aptly-named "poisonwood" (Metopium toxiferum), are powerful contact irritants. If you normally paddle in temperate waters and you're heading toward the equator, local knowledge is imperative.

No paddler needs to be reminded of the importance of clear, clean, drinkable water. Inland boaters can count on having running (or at least standing) water — fresh water — on their doorstep, but sea kayakers and other coastal explorers aren't so lucky. A topographic map can be a big help here. Once again, though, local knowledge is essential, particularly along desert coasts. A lot can happen between the time a map is field-checked and the day you come looking for the only spring that's shown for twenty miles. Not all surprises are happy ones. And speaking of unpleasant surprises: whatever your water source, don't go too much by appearances. Even crystal-clear wilderness springs can be contaminated. Sadly, many are. If in doubt, doubt — and then purify.

After securing your site against bolts from the blue and slaking your thirst, you'll want to catch some shut-eye. But you won't sleep very well on a slope. That's why level sites are at a premium. In many places, however — the banks of lowland rivers in the North come to mind — all the flat ground is string bog or oatmeal-like muskeg. Not the best place to bed down for the night. The upshot? You'll have to camp on the slope of the riverbank. Make the best of it. Pitch your tent so that you're sleeping on the "fall line," parallel to the path a stream of water would take in running down to the river. (But don't pitch your tent in a stream of water!) If you spread your sleeping bag out terrace fashion, at right angles to this imaginary line, you'll roll off your pad almost as soon as you close your eyes. A minute or two more, and you'll be wedged against the downslope wall of your tent, where you'll soon be joined by all your companions. Cozy? Maybe. But it's not exactly comfortable.

And here's another heads-up: When you settle in for the night, even on a slope that's so gentle as to be almost imperceptible, make sure your head is higher than your feet. If you don't, I can guarantee that you'll have some of the most disturbing dreams of your life.

Let's get back to that stream of water for a minute. No one needs to be told not to pitch her tent in a puddle. (Well, almost no one. I've met a couple of folks over the years who took the "waterproof floor" mentioned in their tent's ad copy a little too seriously.) It's much harder to avoid sites which will become puddles or torrents in a rain, however. Dry stream beds are an obvious no-no, particularly in the mountains, where a thunderstorm many miles away can turn a dry wash into a raging river in just a few short hours. Sags (small depressions) are also best avoided. Even in a soft drizzle they often become pools. And if you're camping on the seashore, don't forget the tides. Pay close attention to the wavering "bathtub ring" of driftwood, seaweed, and trash that marks the sea's highest recent incursion. Pitching your tent below this strandline is obviously asking for trouble, but camping just above the tide wrack is no guarantee of a dry camp, either. The tidal range varies from day to day. High tides are higher and low tides lower when the moon is full or new, and storm surges can send water rushing high above the strandline at any time, as can undersea earthquakes and ice-falls from calving glaciers. Be prepared.

The risk of a sudden deluge isn't confined to the seacoast. Lakeshores are often inundated by storms. Look for a strandline before pitching your tent. And there's danger of a sort even in camps perched next to a waterfall. When the wind's blowing away from you, the view is charming. You may even have a semi-permanent rainbow hovering in the air above you. But if the wind unexpectedly shifts, you can get the drenching of your life. That will certainly put a damper on the rest of your day.

While you're checking out a campsite, pay attention to what's underfoot, too. Although modern gear makes it possible to camp on bare rock — in an emergency, you can even use tent stakes in the same way that climbers once used pitons, driving them into thin cracks in the rock — most of us prefer something a little softer. Sandy soils drain quickly, while heavy, clay-rich loam hangs on to water for a much longer time. You don't need to dig down to see what lies beneath the surface, however. Cutbanks and cliff faces will tell you all you need to know. (Don't get too close to either one; use your binoculars, instead.) Much of canoe country was covered by the great Pleistocene ice sheets. If this is where you'll be paddling, look for the sinuous tracks of eskers on the map. These gravelly remnants of ancient rivers are often ideal campsites: high, dry, and airy. An esker's steep sides can make for a strenuous climb, to be sure, but it's usually worth the effort, especially when the surrounding landscape is swampy or thickly forested. After all, when it comes to campsites, high is usually good. An exposed, breezy camp may need extra attention in a windstorm, but it's blessedly free of biting flies. Just don't camp too close to the edge of a cutbank or cliff. The forces that created them are always at work, night and day. You don't want to be sleeping on the next bit to tumble down into the water.

Speaking of exposure, give some thought to the sun. In the North, campsites facing south or southeast get the morning light. By midday, though, they're often hot and steamy. The moral? On travel days, when you'll want to be up with the sun and on your way, look for a camp on the northern shore of a lake or river. On rest days, when you'll be sleeping late and pottering about camp for hours, pick a north-facing campsite. In the high Arctic, where the summer sun never sets, orientation is less important. Here, shade is a welcome luxury, but don't expect much help from the local vegetation. If you want shelter from the sun, you'll have to make your own.

Lastly, avoid camping on a dump. This is surprisingly hard to do, even in remote areas. Over the years, we've hauled hundreds of pounds of other peoples' garbage away from camps in northern Ontario and Québec, cursing the load on every mile of every portage. In more "civilized" places, the problem is even worse. You may remember how Garrison Keillor described the Europeans who first settled in Millet, the fictional hamlet nearest to his imaginary hometown of Lake Wobegon: "They came to the New World to get drunk and throw away their garbage." From what we've seen, those early Milletians left a lot of descendents.

Why does this matter? Garbage — food scraps, fish guts, human waste, and the like — isn't just an eyesore. It also attracts camp followers looking for a free lunch. Some of them — chipmunks and deer mice, for instance — are usually little more than nuisances. But others, like bears and feral dogs, can be bad news, indeed. So if you don't want to be disturbed by things that go bump in the night, don't camp on a dump, and be sure to hang your food, too, or store it in air-tight plastic drums ("bear barrels"). Then you'll be able to sleep sound.

 

Settling In

That brings us to the business of deciding on a campsite and making it into a home away from home. Mid-afternoon isn't too early to begin looking in earnest. Even in high summer and high latitudes, the light has a way of failing before you expect it to, particularly in the mountains. Peaks and canyon walls cast long shadows, and the perpetual dusk of much of the great northern forest doesn't make things any easier. You want everything running smoothly before night falls. Nighttime is not the right time to set up camp. Accidents happen when you're tired, hungry, and harried, and navigating unfamiliar surroundings by the light of a headlamp can be hazardous. It's almost always better to make do with a second-best site than to end the day struggling to pitch your tent in the dark — or, worse yet, to let night overtake you while you're still paddling.

This is a good time to review the Gospel of Low Impact. Whether or not it's required by regulation, use established sites whenever possible. (Let's hope they're not also established dumps!) Leave the camp carpentry, drainage ditches, and other "improvements" where they belong — between the covers of nineteenth-century camping handbooks. Think twice before making a wood fire, and never set match to tinder when the nearby woods are dry. Whatever the forecast, always bring a stove and extra fuel, just in case. Carry all your garbage back home with you, and when you gotta go, do your business well away from any water source.

Anarchy and doing-your-own-thing have their place, but that place isn't the campsite. When everyone works together to get the necessary chores done, each person has more time to enjoy the remainder of the day. Small parties of friends and family groups can usually get by with an informal division of labor. Larger parties will find it makes sense to do things by the numbers:

  1. All boats ashore! Unload them while they're still afloat, if possible, then haul them well above the strandline and secure them against stray gusts. Carry your gear up to the campsite.

  2. Home, sweet home. Tents, canoe shelters, tarps… get them set up, and unroll sleeping bags and pads. (If it's pouring rain, get a big tarp set up first. It'll give you a place to work and store your gear.) Remember the fable of the princess and the pea. By some process as yet unknown to science, roots and stones that are too small to be seen by day grow bigger and sharper when you turn in. Stretch out on your bed in daylight, while it's still easy to move house.

  3. Feed the inner paddler. Dip water for cooking and washing. If it's turbid, let it settle before purifying it. If it's choked with glacial silt, pre-filter it. Collect firewood. (Burn only dead, downed wood. Standing dead trees are part of the scenery, best viewed from a distance.) Heat water for washing and start meal preparation.

  4. You gotta go, so.… Decide where you're going before the need presses. If there's an established privy or pit toilet, use it. If not, and if local regulations don't require that you pack everything out, designate a "relief zone" located at least 150 feet (that's about 30 double-step paces) from any body of water. Large parties — or any group remaining in one camp for more than a couple of days — will need to dig a pit latrine. Small groups who are just staying overnight can get by with individual "cat holes," but only if care is taken to avoid inadvertently recycling each other's holes. Temporary flagging can help here, but be sure you remove all of it before you leave. In addition to its role in answering nature's call, your relief zone is the best place to dump the camp's "gray water" (dishwater and washwater).

  5. Secure your stores. Suspend a line between two trees and hang your food packs, or choose an area well away from the tents to stack your party's bear-proof barrels. WARNING! If you see bear tracks or bear "scat" on the ground around your camp, you should go somewhere else.

  6. Tidy up. To avoid tripping the light fantastic in the dark (and maybe falling into the fire ring), get ready for the night by making sure all loose gear — paddles, PFDs, your camp ax — is tucked away. String a line in some sheltered place for wet clothes.

 

Breaking Camp Ain't Hard to Do

All good things come to an end, and when it's time for you to leave, don't dangle about. The voyageurs, who knew a thing or two about making miles before the sun's heat woke up the "Old Woman" and started the wind machine blowing, made sure they were on the water by three in the morning. (Breakfast had to wait till eight.) This is a bit too much for most of us, but it still pays to get an early start.

To make things easier, break camp by the numbers, too. Just reverse the tape: pack up, eat up, finish your packing, strike tents, load up, and go. Leave your tent and tarp standing as long as possible. This gives you sheltered work areas for sorting and packing. Then, when the last pack is stowed aboard the last boat, take a minute to police your site, looking for stray gear and trash. Make sure your fire is drowned dead. If you're afraid to stir the ashes with your bare hand, you need to do a better job. As you pull away from shore, look over your shoulder one final time. Your last sight of your home away from home should look better than your first. You'll want to come back someday, and you don't want to be disappointed, do you?

Canoe and kayak camping ought to be fun, but bad campsites — even a single bad campsite — will put a chill on your ardor for the great outdoors in a hurry. The remedy? Don't rough it. Smooth it, instead. It's not a hard prescription to follow. Take only the gear you need. Make sure it's waterproofed, and pack it so that unpacking isn't a chore. Follow Jerome K. Jerome's timeless advice: bring "enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing." (Don't forget that you can't count on drinking the water straight out of the lake or river, even in the backcountry. Purify it first.) Leave a copy of your floatplan with a friend or family member before setting out. Carry repair kits for your boat and gear, and a medical kit for yourself. And unless you're trying for a place in Guinness, don't hurry from campsite to campsite. Slow down. Enjoy the moment. Get to know the neighborhood. And when you stop for the day, pick the site carefully. It may only be your home for one night, but if you choose badly, that one night can seem endless.

We go to the woods to smooth it. That's the secret of a happy camper.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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