Still, big rivers require longer lines. Hedge your bets by bringing a couple of
extra coils of line, just in case. A good quality three-strand laid
nylon is the economy king, but a low-stretch polyester braid is best. (Some
paddlers like polypro it floats. And a few solo trippers opt for a
single L-O-N-G line, secured to both bow and stern, rather than juggling two
painters. R.M. Patterson
did, as it happens. If you're thinking of following in his wake, try it out
before you head for the backcountry.)
Letting Your Boat Down Easy
The Lure of Lining
By Tamia Nelson
July 5, 2005
As the late afternoon sun highlighted the dancing
waves, five boaters scouted a short Class II-III rapids. It wasn't a difficult
run, just a bouncy ride ending in a moving pool. There was only one problem:
before the river spread out and slowed down, it poured through a narrow cleft
in a five-foot-high ledge that formed a natural dam.
The river was low very low. It didn't look like there was anywhere near
enough water to float canoes through the gap in the ledge, particularly when
those canoes were weighed down with nearly a month's worth of food and gear.
And none of us fancied hanging up in the gap while our boats filled with water.
So we searched for a portage trail. No joy. A dense jack pine thicket
crowded right down to the river's edge. My hands were already blistered from
paddling, and I wasn't looking forward to an hour swinging an
ax while we cleared a path. But there didn't seem to be any other way. The
exposed margins of the riverbed were a treacherous obstacle course of large
boulders, slick cobbles, and driftwood
tangles. It certainly wasn't an inviting place to manhandle a loaded
We dithered. The shadows grew longer. Then Bill lost patience. Without
saying a word to anyone, he shoved his 16-foot solo boat into the current. The
rest of us watched warily as he approached the ledge, our hastily collected
throw bags at the ready. Bill's run-up was flawless. His canoe threaded the eye
of the needle easily, and for a long few seconds it looked like he'd make it.
Then the stern of his boat grounded on the rocky ledge. In the narrow confines
of the gap, the canoe started to pivot. Just a little bit. The upstream gunwale
dipped. Again, just a little bit. But it was more than enough. Water poured
into the boat. Bill's paddle clattered feverishly against the ledge. The
half-swamped canoe inched forward. Suddenly, it lurched free, plopping
gracelessly into the pool below and tossing Bill out in the process. Nemesis had
claimed another victim.
It might have been worse. Bill surfaced almost as quickly as he'd gone
under, sputtering and blowing. His canoe floated undamaged in a near-shore
eddy. The rest of us relaxed, and while Bill emptied the boat and changed into
dry clothes, we reviewed our options yet again. It was obvious our boats
wouldn't make it through the gap with us in them. But Plan B
portaging didn't look very attractive, either. In the end, we opted for
Plan C: letting our boats run the drop without us. We decided to line.
First, though, we hauled some of our gear to the beach camp
where Bill was drying out, picking our way carefully around the boulders and
over the cobbles. Next, we uncoiled our long painters. Then, one boat at a
time, we let our canoes down into the gap we'd christened the "Hole in the
Wall." The lightened boats bobbed like corks, and each one made it through
safely. Bill watched our progress with envious eyes. He knew he'd been lucky.
If there'd been a boulder garden below the ledge instead of a pool, he might well have
had what the French call "a bad quarter hour." As it was, only his pipe
tobacco and tent had suffered. Neither had been packed in a waterproof
bag. And the little beach made a fine
campsite. So, while the rest of us bustled about unloading the gear still
in our boats and setting up camp, Bill nursed a sodden pipe and conducted a
silent, introspective debriefing, concentrating on
Alternatives for "Almost Runnable" Drops
Let's go over the list with him. First, and most obvious, he could have
humped his gear to the beach and then run the gap in an empty boat. (Tandem
paddlers have it even easier. The lighter partner can simply take their boat
down solo.) He might have made it. Or he might not. And if he hadn't, he'd have
found just how hard it is to rescue a swamped boat with no supplementary
flotation. Unless you're carrying bullion, waterproof bags provide quite a
lot of buoyancy in a capsize, even when filled to capacity. A 3.8-cubic-foot
dry bag holding 100 pounds of gear actually generates more than 130 pounds of
net buoyant force when immersed in water. The upshot? When you remove your gear
bags, you also remove your flotation. Then, if worst comes to worst, you'll
find out how much you needed it. So running unloaded isn't without risk
unless you thought to bring a few inflatable float bags along, that is. Bill
Wading's next on the list. But shuffling along a rocky riverbed while a fast
current tugs relentlessly at your legs can be pretty nerve-wracking, and it's
all too easy to drop into a hole you didn't see. There's also the possibility
that you'll wedge a foot between two rocks just as the current knocks you down.
Once this happens, you've got only as long as you can hold your breath to work
out a solution to the problem. Bill didn't like these odds.
Portaging? It's the hands-down winner in the safety stakes. No one ever
drowned on a portage, unless they were drunk or tried to walk through a bog.
And a good yoke
can make carrying even a heavy canoe almost painless. But you need a trail first.
It also helps to be in good shape. Heart attacks and strangulated hernias killed
a fair number of voyageurs, and modern boaters can fall victim to these miseries,
Still, portaging is the prudent paddler's default choice when the river gets
too rough to run. Bill would agree, I'm sure.
Anything else? Yes. There's a Third Way. (Running unloaded is still running.
It doesn't count.) What is it? Lining, of course playing your
boat like a fighting fish while you stay on the riverbank. It's another way to
go with the flow, a downriver counterpart to tracking. Here are few places
where you (or Bill) might want to think about lining:
- Whenever there's a sharp bend in a swift river, with a strong current
shoving you toward a strainer at
the outside of the bend. The water's too shallow on the inside to float a
loaded canoe, but there's often a gravel beach that makes a fine platform for
lining your boat.
- A rock garden maze in a fast-moving, low-water stream. This can be a
playground for a hotshot in a creek boat, but it's purgatory for a heavily
loaded touring tandem. The portage trail is the safest bet here, but if you can
scout a reasonably clear path, lining will lighten your boat and improve your
odds of floating it through unscathed.
- Whenever a straightforward run ends in a waterfall, killer hole, or
other barrier. If you can't afford to make a mistake at the brink, consider
lining down to the obstacle, then lifting or portaging around it.
Get the idea? Great! Now let's take a closer look at
What You Need
Enough water to float your canoe, of course. (Remember that it will be
lighter without you in it, and you can lighten it still more by removing some
of your gear.) Beyond that, you'll need nothing you wouldn't have in your
boat on any trip. Long painters attached to both bow and stern. Float bags
to fill any empty spaces. Your life jacket (worn, not stowed
in the boat). And a sharp
Just how long should your painters be? That depends. How big is your river?
A rule of thumb: anything shorter than 25 feet is too short, anything longer
than 50 feet is a nuisance, and anything smaller than one-quarter inch (8 mm)
is too small. (If not properly
coiled and stowed, a rope of any length can catch you in its tangles. It
can even kill you. That's why experienced paddlers carry a knife.
That's it. Like I said, you won't need anything you wouldn't bring anyway.
But having the right gear is only the start. You also have to
Learn the Ropes
Lesson Number One: You can't push with a rope. Lesson Number Two: The river
does the work. Everything else is commentary. The logic of
lining is the logic of the ferry. Launch your boat on its lonely voyage by
shoving the upstream end out. To keep the boat moving away from shore, pull the
downstream end (usually, but not necessarily, the bow) IN, while holding
the boat against the current. This gives the river a purchase on the stern.
(That's Lesson Number Two.) The greater the angle or the stronger the current,
the faster your boat will respond. Too great an angle or too strong a current,
however, and your boat will broach. Game Over. When you want to slow the
outward movement, or return the boat to shore, begin by pulling the
upstream end in but not too much. (Remember Lesson Number One.
You must keep tension on both lines at all times.) Try to emulate the
"soft hands" of an experienced horseman. Subtlety, not strength, is usually
called for. Now walk slowly downriver, adjusting the angle as needed to
maintain control and avoid obstacles, while doing your best to keep on your
Is that all there is to lining? Yes. And no. You can't learn to line by
reading about it. You have to get your feet wet. (And maybe a good deal more,
besides.) Start out on an easy Class I drop on a river with a broad,
unobstructed bank and no strainers. Pick a warm day. You'll want a load in the
boat, too, so bring your partner along. You can take turns being the load. Now
line your boat down the same stretch of river again and again, tracking it
upstream between sessions. A bonus: the boatman can save the day when the
man on the lines screws up. That reduces downtime. Then, when you've both got
the knack, lash a couple of hundred pounds of gear in the boat and start honing
your teamwork. This is essential. Lining is a game that can be played solo, but
it usually takes two people to handle a loaded tripper.
A few tips to gentle the learning curve: Have plenty of flotation in your
boat. Wear your life jacket. Keep your knife handy. (You don't need to be
reminded? Good.) Hold the undeployed lengths of both painters coiled loosely in
your hands, and don't cross painters. When lining solo, keep the upstream
painter in your upstream hand. NEVER wrap a rope around
your hand, wrist, or arm. Of course, practice can only take you so
far. By comparison with a lightly loaded boat, a tripper weighed down with two
weeks' worth of gear will be sluggish and unresponsive, and strong currents or
high winds can send it into harm's way in the blink of an eye. Worse yet, the
knowledge that all your gear is hanging at the end of two thin lines can make
even old hands tremble. So be prepared for unpleasant surprises. Always lash your packs
and gear securely. And once a broach is inevitable, don't waste time. Let
go of the upstream line immediately and allow the boat to swing round. With luck,
you and your partner will be able to guide the swamped craft to shore. If the
waterlogged boat threatens to pull you into the water after it, however, it's
time to say goodbye. Release the remaining line without an instant's
hesitation. Salvage operations can come later.
A final word of warning: The music of water rushing through an "almost
runnable" drop can easily become a siren song, inviting you to do things that
you'll regret. Fight the temptation. Weigh the odds carefully. It's a thousand
times better to sweat on a portage trail than to watch an angry river swallow
up your boat and gear forever.
Someday you'll be stopped by a drop which looks almost runnable, but isn't.
That's when you'll be glad you took the time to learn the ropes. Lining isn't
always a good idea, but if you pick the place carefully, it can let your boat
down easy. Who could ask for more?
Copyright © 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights