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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

Frame of Reference: The Freighter Packframe

By Tamia Nelson

December 14, 2004

Sometimes nothing does the job of hauling gear better than a packframe — not a frame pack, but the frame alone. It took me a long time to realize this. Like many other folks who read Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker, I was seduced by the peripatetic author's far from pedestrian prose. Before I'd turned the final page, I was already making plans to take to the hills with a home on my back. And when I went shopping for the pack to haul it all, it was an external frame pack I was looking for, because that's what Colin Fletcher used.

My new pack was the hottest thing then on the market, a dark green Kelty Tioga. The nylon bag had it all: two main compartments, four pockets, and enough slotted leather tie-downs and webbing loops to carry a full complement of climbing tools, from crampons to carabiners to a 165-foot-long coil of rope. There was just one thing it didn't have — room inside for my sleeping bag. No matter. The stuff sack could be strapped onto the frame in the space below the packbag, and a generously proportioned flap covered the whole shebang. When I loaded my new Tioga up, I thought I was ready for whatever the high country could throw at me. Everything looked possible. Not even the summit of Denali seemed out of reach.

But I couldn't make it to Denali on the weekends I had off from work, so I settled for short trips in the nearby Adirondack hills instead. The Tioga went with me, and it proved equal to every challenge. Until I got my first canoe, that is. Once I'd traded my ice ax for a paddle, I quickly decided that canoes and frame packs were not natural partners. Loading and unloading the boat at portages was a source of endless frustration, with the packframe reaching out to snag every thwart and seat. From time to time, my grandfather would watch me struggle at the head of a portage trail. He never said a word, but the easy grace with which he lifted his pack basket in and out of his battered Grumman spoke volumes.

That was a language I understood. Soon I had a pack basket and a canvas canoe pack of my own, and stowing my stuff got a whole lot easier. The pack basket had a certain rustic charm, but the canoe pack was the real workhorse. It was as simple as a pack could be, little more than a canvas envelope with shoulder straps. I added a tumpline to make the portages go easier, and that was that. The pack slipped in and out of my canoe in seconds, yet it carried everything I needed for a weekend trip. I thought I'd found The Answer.

Then I got a kayak, and my handy canoe pack suddenly seemed impossibly clumsy. It was just too big. I needed skinnier bags to go with my skinny boat. And the bags also had to be waterproof. Really waterproof. "Waterproofed" canvas simply wasn't enough to keep gear dry below decks. It was time for what historians call a paradigm shift. Kayak camping, like bicycle trekking and backpacking, forces you to concentrate on essentials. My bloated canoe-camping checklist got a radical make-over. There was no place in my kayak for dead weight. The thick foam pad and dutch oven got left behind. So did the tinned peaches. Canned goods of any sort were out. Staples like rice and couscous and raisins were in — a sort of lean cuisine, to go.

Problem solved? Not quite. My kayaking gear might have been lean, but I still had to bag it. Soon I had a trunk full of vinyl-coated roll-top dry bags, all of them small enough to fit through my cockpit and behind my seat, even when stuffed full. One difficulty remained, though: how was I going to portage all those bags? I didn't fancy juggling my way down the trail. Coastal kayakers can often toss their bags up the beach to their campsite, but many inland waters are a cache-and-carry proposition. It's hard enough to get across a one-mile portage with a couple of big packs, but I now had ten or more small bags to move, and nothing to haul them in but my hands. It wasn't an attractive proposition.

I tried stuffing my empty canvas canoe pack below decks, thinking I could load it up at each portage. No go. Too bulky. Then I tried lashing it on the rear deck. Again, no go. It was soaked by waves and paddle splash before I'd reached the first take-out. Worse yet, I still had to double-carry the portages, despite my slimmed-down kit. The combination of canoe pack and kayak was impossibly awkward to manage together. Then I got a bright idea. I tried the newest addition to my outdoor "wardrobe" — an internal frame climbing pack. But it also failed to make the cut. Too big to stow below decks, and too narrow to hold the larger waterproof bags. Two strikes were enough. I didn't need to wait for the third. The climbing pack was out of the game.

Finally, just when learning to juggle was starting to seem like the only option, I had a eureka moment. What about using a packframe to carry the freight? I asked myself. Way to go! I replied. Unfortunately, my Tioga was long gone. Its place had been taken by the climbing pack. But I found the Camp Trails Freighter Frame™ in a catalog, and it looked like a promising substitute. Welded aluminum frame, padded hip belt, extension bar, and removable shelf — it was the backcountry equivalent of a pickup truck's cargo bed. A frame pack without the pack. So I bought one. First, the shelf came off. (I still use it for hauling bulky loads, from yule logs to jerry cans.) Next, my kayak-camping gear went on, still in its waterproof bags, lashed in place with the sturdy rubber rope I used for deck rigging — the same rubber rope that truckers use to hold tarps down at freeway speeds.

That took care of the gear, but I was still left with a double carry. Or was I? Nope. I'd thought the problem through in advance. The packframe extension was just narrow enough to fit into the kayak cockpit. I glued a chock to the bottom of my boat and wrapped a couple of closed-cell foam pads around the packframe uprights to minimize chafe. Then I took off down the trail, gear on my back and paddle in hand, while my boat rode effortlessly over my head. Piece of cake.

Well, OK. Nothing's this easy, is it? No portage is ever effortless, and a 60-pound poly touring boat will be a bigger burden than my 35-pound Kevlar® kayak. Moreover, a kayak perched on a packframe sits high — so high that it dips and bobs with each step, threatening to bring you to a sudden, unplanned stop. But this failing is easily remedied. If your boat's in balance, a pair of light lines to bow and stern is all it takes to rein it in. (If the boat's not well balanced, you'll need to stuff a trimming weight into the light end. A life jacket works fine, as does a filled water bottle.) Once you've put the portage behind you, just unload your gear, stow it, and lash the empty frame on the rear deck. It's not as easy as dropping a canoe pack into a Grumman, I admit, but at least you didn't have to double the carry, did you? The Freighter may not have the elegant lines of the latest expedition pack, or the beauty of a hand-crafted pack basket, but this is one place where form follows function. And the Freighter delivers.

Of course, the perfect pack doesn't exist. That's why I now own cotton canvas canoe packs, waterproof dry bags, an internal frame climbing pack, and a couple of military surplus canvas rucksacks, in addition to a brace of pack baskets and a set of bicycle panniers, not to mention ammo cans and stuff sacks in sizes from lilliputian to very, very large. No pack does everything well, and sometimes the right pack for the job is no pack at all. For times like those, you can't beat the Freighter Frame™. You could say it's become my frame of reference.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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