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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

Holding Our Water —
Botas, Bottles, Bladders, and More

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

August 17, 2004

In or out of the water, canoes and kayaks are elegant objects. Whether bobbing languidly on a gentle swell, dancing down a tricky Class III rapids, lashed to a car roof on their way to a farther horizon, or racked in the garage, paddlecraft manage to appear both utilitarian and ornamental.

The same can't be said for Homo sapiens. If we're denied water for more than a few hours, we're soon neither use nor ornament. A little longer, and we die. That won't come as a surprise to any canoeist or kayaker. After all, from an analytic chemist's perspective, the body human isn't much more than a water-filled sack. And the harder we work, the more water we need. That's why it's vital for paddlers to drink deep — "early and often," to borrow the election-day advice that Chicago ward bosses used to give Democratic voters — and not just on hot summer days.

Yet people aren't camels. We can't store enough water in our bodies to sustain us for hours on the trail, let alone days. So we do the next best thing: we haul our water in containers. As important as water is, though, it isn't enough by itself. Essential salts — electrolytes, in the jargon of scientists and advertising copywriters — are sweated out during strenuous exercise and dribbled away every time we "pump ship." Commercial sport drinks (or their home-made counterparts) and fruit juices easily replenish the lost salts, however, as does a healthy diet.

Which brings us back to the original fluid-replacement drink: water. It stands to reason that canoeists and kayakers will never run short, right? Wrong. The days when you could dip a tin cup into any lake or river and drink deep are long gone, never to return. Always purify water taken from any untreated source. Period. Sea kayakers have an even harder time getting a drink, especially when exploring arid coasts. How do they cope? By hauling enough potable water to carry them through to trip's end, running ashore for fresh water from time to time (and then purifying it), or packing a manual desalinator.

None of these is ideal. Desalinators are costly and fussy. Springs dry up. And water's heavy. A reasonable day's ration of fresh water for most active paddlers in warm-temperate climates is one (US) gallon. That's "reasonable," by the way, not "comfortable." It makes no provision for bathing, not even washing off the salt crust at the end of a long day's paddle. Despite this, a four-day trip means a minimum of four gallons, or a little more than 33 pounds of water. Really high temperatures may require that you pack twice as much. There's something else, too. Water's bulky. Eight gallons of water takes up a lot of space below deck. Clearly, then, the "take-along" option is strictly for short trips.

Short trip or long, however, in fresh water or salt, you'll always need to carry some water with you, if only to slake your thirst under way. It's not a new idea. Some of the most common archaeological remains left by our ancestors were the ceramic jars and jugs in which they hauled and stored water. We've come a long way since then, but water containers continue to evolve in new and interesting directions.

I started hauling water when I was a four-year-old, fascinated by horses and cowboys. After noticing that my dolls lay gathering dust in dark corners, my grandparents gave me a "blanket canteen" just like the ones that the cowboys carried in the movies, right down to the striped wool cover and the screw cap on a chain. It was the perfect gift. For years afterward, every time I visited my grandparents' house, I'd fill the canteen with ice-cold water at the tall hand-pump outside the barn. (Once it deposited an indignant frog at my feet as I worked the pump-handle.) Then I'd sling the filled canteen across one shoulder, and with a canvas knapsack containing a peanut-butter sandwich and an apple draped over the other shoulder — not to mention a battered cowboy hat on my head — I'd range the open fields until high noon, when I'd seek shelter from the sun in the meager shade of an ancient stone wall. There I'd wash down the sticky peanut butter with icy drafts from my canteen, whose water-soaked blanket cover miraculously kept the contents cold. Somehow, the canteen transformed my rambling treks into a real adventure, and the water tasted sweeter for its journey through hayfield, pasture, and orchard.

Later, when a Scout beret replaced my cowboy hat, my uncle gave me a dented stainless steel GI canteen and nesting cup, along with a sun-bleached cotton canvas cover and a matching web belt, relics of a war that had ended before I was born, but whose many horrors were still discussed in hushed voices around the kitchen table when all us kids were thought to be asleep. The canteen's cork gasket was cracked, but that didn't make any difference to me. The heavy load rested against my hip like it belonged there, next to my pocket knife and a crookneck flashlight. I'd moved on from peanut-butter sandwiches. Now a can of peaches and one of pork and beans went into the canvas knapsack. Weighed down with my equipment and stores, I'd hike across the familiar fields and continue walking deep into a pine woods. My destination? A rustic lean-to I'd built against the tumble-down remnants of another old stone wall. Nearby, I cleared a patch of ground and made a crude but functional fireplace with stones quarried from the wall. There I'd heat the beans in the steel cup, and wash them down with cool water from the canteen.

Still later, when the mountaineering bug bit, my uncle's GI canteen was retired to a box in the closet. Real mountaineers didn't use canteens, after all. At least the ones pictured in the books I brought home from the local library didn't. They gulped wine as it streamed in ruby arcs from leather sacks called botas, instead. The wine would be a problem, I realized, but the bota…. Soon, I too had a tear-drop-shaped leather sack, complete with what the manufacturer promised was a "sanitary plastic liner." And perhaps it was, even if it did make all the water that touched it taste exactly like old tires smelled. In any case, the bota certainly looked as if it were something a mountaineer would take up high. But I soon discovered its many shortcomings. The narrow spigot — good for directing jets of wine into the air for the photographers — had such a small opening that filling the bota at springs and streams took forever. In winter, when ice seemed to form across the mouth almost instantly, it was impossible. Eventually I chucked the bota for a prosaic wide-mouthed Nalgene® bottle. It was easy to fill, easy to clean, and it tasted less like sun-baked rubber. As I read of the growing concern about backcountry water quality, I also discovered that the wide mouth made treating suspect water easy. Pouring in a chaser of lemonade crystals was a cinch, too. (This, I learned much later, is not a good idea — at least not until the iodine has been given time to do its work.)

Then I bought my first canoe. It changed the way I thought about backcountry travel. My load was no longer limited to what I could carry on my back, and filling a 2½-gallon collapsible poly water carrier in the middle of the lake was no problem at all. Once ashore, the water could be treated in bulk, then dispensed through a tap, just like at home. For the first time in my outdoor life, I had more than enough clean water in camp for drinking, cooking, and washing.

From that day forward, water carriers came and went in my paddling kit. Before long, I discovered water sacks, early ancestors of the on-the-go "hydration systems" now made by Camelbak® and others. The flashy offspring get most of the catalog space today, but the original water sacks are still around. They don't boast shoulder straps, bite-valves, and cell-phone pockets, but they're much more convenient than the semi-rigid poly water carrier I started out with. Empty water sacks can be rolled into a tiny package, for one thing. Yet it's easy to strap a filled 2-3 gallon water sack on a kayak deck or stow it in the bilge. (CAUTION! Heavy loads — and deck loads in particular — can impair any boat's rolling and handling qualities. So load up and do a "wet run" in sheltered waters before you head out over the horizon.) My favorite sack is an inexpensive coated nylon envelope with a replaceable 2½-gallon poly bladder that the catalog copy described as "taste-free." And wonder of wonders, it is. That makes a welcome change from the burnt-plastic tang that my first poly water carrier imparted to its contents. My current water sack's rubber nozzle also has no moving parts to get out of order, and no projections to snag on other gear. Moreover, a webbing loop makes it easy to hang the sack from a branch in camp. Handy.

"Solar showers" get my thumbs-up, too. These vinyl envelopes shouldn't be used to hold drinking water, but a hot shower is a welcome luxury in any backcountry camp, and the weight penalty is trifling. Fill the sack at lunchtime and lash it to your stern deck (or on top of the packs in your canoe). Unless you're regularly hit by breaking waves, you'll have warm water by late afternoon, even on partly-cloudy days. (If the biting flies are out, however, you may have to pay for your shower in blood.)

And speaking of camp hygiene, regular washing-up is made easier by a folding basin. Canvas works well when new, but it rots. Coated fabric doesn't rot, but nylon basins sometimes collapse without warning. I now make my largest cooking pot do double duty as the kitchen sink, but I've kept the coated-nylon bucket that accompanied my old basin. It's great for fetching water to drown the fire, and it also works well as a settling tank, allowing turbid water to clear before treatment. (Don't bother waiting for glacial "flour" to settle out, though. You'll wait forever. Find a clear stream or spring, instead.)

For drinking under way, I still like canteens. The classiest one in my closet is a World War II-era British Royal Air Force enameled steel number — in RAF blue, naturally — with a felt cover and a canvas carrier. The cotton web strap never slips off your shoulder, and the tethered cork stopper can't be misplaced (or cross-threaded). It's beautiful, but it's not very practical for paddling. The narrow mouth makes it hard to fill, the canteen weighs more than the contents, and rust soon starts wherever the enamel is cracked or chipped. A pity.

Despite many disappointments like this, though, I kept buying canteens for quite a while. Then, somewhere along the line — I can no longer remember just when — I realized that the life of a canteen is necessarily nasty, brutish, and short. Despite my best efforts and utmost vigilance, they wash out of capsized boats, get left behind at lunch spots, and develop awkward leaks. Caps slip from my fingers and either dive for the bottom or sail away on the current. Steel rusts. Aluminum stoppers lose their threads to corrosion. Welded seams develop microscopic seeps. Plastic ages and cracks. Hot embers explode from the fire and melt holes clear through sidewalls.

In short, canteens are ephemeral. So, I asked myself, why waste a lot of energy and expense in an eternal search for the unattainable? Why, indeed? And I turned instead to a sort of recycling. My epiphany coincided with the increased popularity of bottled drinking water and sport drinks. The local HyperMart's shelves sagged under the weight of spring waters from every one of the world's continents, mineral waters to suit every digestion, seltzers for all tastes, and an infinite spectrum of brightly-colored fluids that each promised to make me faster, fitter, and leaner. I resisted this last pitch — I've long since given up hope of finding magic in any bottle, no matter how gaudy the contents — but I eyed the containers hopefully nonetheless. Plastic bottles in every conceivable shape and size were available for a nickel, the amount of the forfeited bottle deposit. Even if I included the cost of the stuff in the bottle, it was usually much less than the price of a comparable water bottle bought from a catalog.

Of course, the beverage contained in the bottle had to be consumed first, but that was seldom a real hardship. Some of the stuff was actually quite palatable, in fact, even if it didn't make me faster, fitter, or leaner. After much trial and error, I settled on three different "standard" canteens. One is a 1-liter tonic bottle with a relatively wide mouth. It's long and narrow. It fits perfectly into the side pocket of my rucksack, and the capacity is just right for a morning paddle or a sweaty portage. The second workhorse in my collection is a sport-drink bottle with molded handgrips and a wide mouth. It, too, slips easily into a rucksack's side pocket or the gap between kayak seat and seam, but it also fits in my bike's bottle cages, as well — and it doesn't bounce out, even on the roughest jeep trail. Because its 20-ounce capacity is a bit skimpy, however, I always carry two. That gets me through most short scouting trips.

Lastly, there's a spring-water bottle with a "sport cap." This has a 24-ounce capacity, and it also fits in a bicycle water-bottle cage. The cap can be opened and closed with your teeth, making it easy to grab a fast drink without dismounting. That's ideal for long road trips on hot days. Nothing gets water streaming from my pores like the job of hauling a loaded trailer to a put-in, after all. I don't mind it a bit, though. I think of it as a sweat-equity down payment on a good time, and I pay the price gladly.

My recycled water bottles can't replace my Nalgene® wide-mouth or my uncle's old GI canteen in my affections, but if a recycled bottle is lost or destroyed, I don't shed any tears. I just take another off the shelf. They're not perfect. They're certainly not pretty. But they're cheap and functional. And that's good enough for me.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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