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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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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 freighter.

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 hadn't.

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, as well. 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 knife. Always.

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.) 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.)

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 feet.

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 reserved.

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