It's a scene sure to evoke longing in any modern paddler. There they
are, jolly voyageurs all, smoking their long clay pipes and relaxing around a
breakfast fire, having just risen from their beds beneath the stars,
refreshed and eager and looking forward to another day in the wilderness.
But things aren't always what they seem. It's reality-check time. The
painting's familiar title is misleading. The voyageurs didn't breakfast
at dawn. They paddled, instead, hoping to make as many miles as
possible before the
wind rose. They didn't eat until they'd been on the water for five
hours. Even then, they didn't linger around the fire. Another twelve
hours of hard traveling lay ahead of them before they could make camp
again. And the following day would be no less rigorous.
In truth, the jolly voyageurs lived lives of drudgery and danger. They
worked at least eighteen hours out of twenty-four, and the work was hard
paddling into the teeth of icy gales and slashing sleet, wading
frigid waters, and hauling enormous loads over portages that alternated
between sharp stones and deep mud, where clouds of
biting flies threatened to bleed them white. Not even sleep brought
respite. Their only shelter from the chilling autumn mists was a tarp or
the upturned hull of a canoe; their only bedding, a couple of
Some fun, eh?
The one break in the voyageurs' day came during the hourly "pipes,"
when they stopped paddling just long enough for a quick smoke. This
wasn't exactly a healthy lifestyle, to be sure, but few voyageurs lived
long enough to worry about cancer. They were expendable, after all. There
was always another younger son of a Québec farmer to take the place
of any man who died. And many did die. Clusters of simple wooden crosses
once marked each portage between Lachine and Fort Chipewyan.
Portages. They were the real killers, outstripping even rapids and
sudden storms. The voyageurs were small men: five foot five inches or so.
It made economic sense. Small men ate
less. That saved the Montréal partners money. Moreover, a light
crew meant a bigger payload of furs. This made money for the
partners, and making money was what the fur trade was all about. But each
pound of baled fur still had to be humped over the many portages on the
long road from Lake Athabasca to the St. Lawrence River. And time
was money. The result? Human endurance was pushed to the limits. Every
voyageur had to get six pièces from one end of each portage
to the other. A pièce was a pack of furs weighing 90 pounds.
Six pièces, six trips? No way! Any canoeist who's ever needed
to get a big load across a portage will know the reason why. The first
trip over a portage is a breeze because it's the first, and the last is
bearable because it's the last. But the ones in the middle are pure hell.
The voyageurs were no different. So they piled it on, stacking
pièce on pièce. No self-respecting man would
carry less than two at once. Stronger men (and show-offs) took more. It
wasn't easy. The fur packs had no shoulder straps, for one thing. So how
did they manage?
The secret lay in something called
It worked this way. The two tails of a long leather sling were lashed
around the first pack, leaving a closed loop. This simple sling was the
tumpline. The voyageur then grabbed the sling and heaved the pack up
until it rested against his back, while the sling's bight settled high on
his head. A second pack followed, balanced precariously on the first. Now
all 180 pounds hung from the voyageur's head, supported by his formidable
neck. He didn't waste any time. Pausing only long enough to grab the
tumpline's tails just behind his ears with both hands, the voyageur
scuttled off down the portage at a trot.
The tumpline is a textbook example of appropriate technology. It was
cheap, and it could be made from materials drawn from the "closets of the
woods." It could easily be adapted to loads of different sizes, too. And
that wasn't all. What if the voyageur slipped on a moss-covered rock, or
got mired in a bog? A toss of his head dropped the load, allowing him to
rescue himself unencumbered. If you've every fallen hard while strapped
into a modern frame pack, and then had to heave and claw your way back
onto your feet like a stranded sea turtle,
you're sure to appreciate this.
Somehow, though, the tumpline's many virtues were forgotten in the
twentieth century. No, that's not quite true. A few folks kept the art of
tumping alive, and in some of the least likely places. After a bad back
made it too painful for him to shoulder an alpine rucksack, Yvon
Chouinard climber, entrepreneur, and technical innovator
brought the tumpline to the snow, ice, and rock of the high country. He
even offered one for sale in his equipment catalog for a time.
You needn't be afflicted with a bad back to benefit from a tumpline,
of course. You just need to move a heavy load over a difficult portage.
You'll soon see the advantages. There are no straps to gall your
shoulders, cut off the circulation to your hands, or restrict your
breathing. No hipbelt to chafe. No frame to snag every low-hanging
branch. And though you probably don't need to haul 180-pound loads very
often, an overstuffed pack can weigh more than you want to believe. After
all, some canoe packs top 9000 cubic inches. Ouch! That's a lot of stuff.
There are just two ways to take the weight off your shoulders. Go
light (or at least go lighter). Or get a tumpline.
Unfortunately, I haven't seen a tumpline in a climbing catalog in a
while, but a few canoe outfitters still oblige the faithful. They usually
opt for the middle ground, however, marketing packs with both "tumplines"
and shoulder straps. Why the quotes? Because these sewn-on "tumplines"
really aren't tumplines. They're more like headbands. The attachment
points are too high for maximum efficiency, and the packs lack the
flexibility that was the hallmark of the real thing. Need to get a
cast-iron stove across a portage? A keg of brandy? A puncheon of rum? How
about a steamer trunk? A tumpline could do it all. Still, few of us haul
steamer trunks into the backcountry these days. And the modern
"tumplines" are a pretty good second-best. In fact, they're a fine way to
ease into tumping. Think of them as trainer wheels.
This is what they look like in action.
Of course, it's not as easy as it looks in pictures. Almost nothing
is. So here's a
Short Course in Tumping
First, though, a few cautionary words.
If you have back or neck trouble or any form of arthritis, or if
you've ever had back or neck surgery, talk to your doctor before you
try tumping even a light load. Your spine is too important to risk.
You don't want to get it in the neck on the trail, do you? And
notwithstanding Yvon Chouinard's experience, tumplines make some back
problems worse. Frame packs and packframes are popular for a reason.
Got you doc's OK? Good. If you can beg or borrow a pack with both
shoulder straps and a headband, put a light load in it ten pounds
is plenty and then wriggle into the straps as you usually do. Now
hump the pack up and slip the headband on, letting it rest where your
crown meets your forehead. Need an anatomic marker? Aim for a point just
forward of the coronal suture. The leading edge of the headband will then
lie right on your hairline. But what if you don't happen to have a study
skull handy for reference, or if, like Farwell, you've forgotten where
your hairline was? No problem. Your target is the place where you strike
your head in exasperation when things are going wrong. You'll probably
have to adjust the length of the headband's straps so that some, but not
all, of the weight is borne by your neck. And if you want, grasp the
straps on either side of your head, just behind your ears, and pull down
gently. This helps keep control of the load and eases the strain on your
It's time to go for a walk around the neighborhood. You'll get a few
puzzled stares, but if you smile and wave most folks will
probably decide you're harmless. Later, when you're starting to get the
feel of tumping, add a few more pounds to your load. Then slacken the
shoulder straps a bit, so that more of the weight is borne by your neck
muscles. Next, take longer walks. Don't hurry things. Increase your load
and distance by easy stages a few pounds and few minutes at a
time. Voyageurs are made, not born.
When the time comes to put the load down, just reverse the tape. Shrug
your shoulders and arch your neck. The headband should slide off to the
rear. If not, boost the load up a little and try again. Then take the
pack off in the usual way. If you've already dispensed with the shoulder
straps completely, simply grab the tails of the tumpline firmly with both
hands, just behind your ears. Now hunch your shoulders, arch your neck
until the headband slips off, and drop the pack to one side
gently. This is easy with a ten-pound load, but mighty hard with one that
tops a hundredweight. Practice makes perfect. Start light and work up.
Soon you'll be able to drop your load in less time than it takes to draw
a breath. That's a good thing to remember when you cross a bog.
Remember, too, to keep the headband high well above your
forehead. You don't want it sliding down over your face if you slip,
and you certainly don't want to be garrotted by your pack.
Whether or not you choose to keep your arms in the pack straps, you'll
know you're ready for the trail when you can carry more than your average
portage load around the block and up a flight or three of stairs in
comparative comfort. You may even decide to emulate the voyageurs and
stack a smaller duffle on top of your main pack. This duffle is known as
a "baby" in some paddling circles. Don't let baby fall.
Now tackle that portage!
The voyageurs were experts at doing the impossible. We modern paddlers
may not want to carry 90-pound bales of pressed fur across a
height of land, but we'd be foolish not to adapt our predecessors' tricks
of the trade to meet our own more modest needs. The tumpline is a
time-tested way to tame a killing load. So the next time you face a long
walk with a heavy pack, use your head instead of your back. You'll be
glad you did. And if you don't happen to have a tumpline in your closet?
Don't worry. They're not hard to make. But that's a topic for another
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