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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Eyes Have It!

Protective Eyewear for Paddlers

By Tamia Nelson

October 4, 2005

It was early autumn, and The River ran swift and strong under a cloudless blue vault. I was lazing along, letting the current carry my canoe forward while I scanned the sky above the smoldering hills for a glimpse of one of our resident bald eagles. Then I rounded a bend and found myself staring right into the molten orb of the sun. I dropped my gaze immediately, but it was already too late. The riffles ahead were lost in a dazzle of sparkling wavelets, and red spots swam before my eyes. I fumbled for my glacier glasses, but they were no help. Their nearly opaque mirror lenses, intended to blunt the cutting glare of high-altitude snowfields, now blacked out my view of the water. Luckily, the canoe's keel grounded on a gravel bar before I was swept into the branches of the toppled pines that guarded the outside of the bend. As I rubbed my eyes and waited for the spots to clear, I realized I had a lot to learn about…

What Paddlers' Eyes Need

OK. What should paddlers look for when shopping for shades? The list of essentials is mercifully short — protection, comfort, style, and economy. A short list, indeed, but not a simple one. Still, protection's a no-brainer, I suppose. In an age when ozone holes and skin cancers are getting headlines, few of us need to be reminded that sunlight isn't entirely benign. Though we can't see it, solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation can harm any part of our bodies left unprotected. That includes our eyes. Long-term exposure over many years can hasten the onset of sight-stealing cataracts. Is that too far in the future to worry about? Then consider this: Just a few hours in the sun can result in photophthalmia, a sort of sunburn of the eye, more commonly known as snow blindness. Despite the popular name, however, you don't need to be a mountaineer or polar explorer to suffer from it. You don't even have to own a pair of snowshoes. In fact, water can reflect solar radiation more efficiently than an alpine cirque, and even sandy beaches make pretty good UV reflectors. Nor can you relax your guard on overcast days. Because of something called "atmospheric scattering," UV exposure can actually be greater when high clouds are present. Radiation intensity also increases with altitude, so paddlers who explore the high country need to be especially wary. Fortunately, snow blindness is temporary, and — unlike malignant melanoma, say — it won't kill you. But the unremitting, gritty pain of photophthalmia will certainly kill the joy of a paddling holiday.

Of course, UV radiation is only one hazard among many. Blowing sand, sleet, and hot winds can all leave your eyes feeling raw, and sparks, splinters, or stray shotgun pellets can do far more damage. (Wildlife management areas are off-limits to non-hunting paddlers during waterfowl season for good reason.) The obvious conclusion? Protective eyewear is a vital part of any backcountry traveler's kit.

Comfort's next on the list. There's no mystery here. Who doesn't want to be comfortable? Yet there's more to comfort than…well…meets the eye. Comfort and efficiency go hand in hand. Glare reduction is a case in point. Yes, glare is uncomfortable. But that's not all. Glare can obscure the intricacies of current, eddy, and riffle. And if you can't see what lies ahead, you can't navigate. Glare can also blind you to much of the passing pageant of the waters — a motionless heron in the shallows, say, or a beaver setting off on his evening round. That's why many amateur naturalists rate their sunglasses a strong second to their binoculars. Anglers prize good sunglasses, too, and even if your idea of getting close to nature is lazing about on the beach with a good book, you'll probably agree.

What about style? Some folks will pay almost anything to sport the latest look or advertise their brand loyalty. Other folks couldn't care less. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Suffice it to say that the link between price and quality is real enough, but it's not absolute. You don't have to break the budget to buy good eyewear. My current outdoor glasses cost me all of six dollars a pair. They give me everything I need — protection, comfort, and style — all for less than the price of a Quik-Meal. I'm a satisfied customer.


So how can you find what's right for you? Easy. The lenses are the heart of any pair of eyeglasses, so let's begin by taking a closer look at your…

Windows on the World

Glasses may still be called glasses, but where lenses are concerned, glass is out and plastic is in. (Nowadays, the plastic is usually polycarbonate, at least in quality eyewear.) This is a very good thing. Optical glass is heavy stuff. Plastic is light. More importantly, glass can shatter. Even lenses made of so-called "safety glass" can break into jagged fragments if previously scratched or chipped. Of course, scratches were once the bane of plastic lenses, too, but hard coatings have pretty much made this a thing of the past. In any case, polycarbonate lenses stand up very well to hard knocks. Some will even stop a shotgun pellet. And whether it's tinted or clear, polycarbonate also blocks UV radiation. That, too, is a very good thing. Don't take this on trust, however. To be sure that the lenses you're eyeing are up to scratch, look for an unequivocal statement to the effect that they provide "100% UVA/UVB protection" before you part with your money. You'll also want to make sure your chosen lenses don't distort your view of the world around you.

Distortion is one thing. Nobody likes it. But color and tint are another. Here you can suit yourself. If you want to see the world through rose-tinted lenses, you can. I prefer a neutral gray or gray-green, myself. Gray lenses alter colors less, though I admit that a yellow or amber tint can brighten up an otherwise dull day, and some folks — not me, I'm afraid — find that amber lenses improve contrast in low light. Dazzling days are something else. Are you a blue-eyed blonde? Then you're probably more sensitive to glare than your brown-eyed buddies. When the sun lights up the waterscape, you'll probably want darker lenses than they do. It's easy to go too far, however, as my misadventures with glacier glasses proved. In the backcountry, where shadowed forests alternate with sunlit uplands, lighter tints may be better. Some paddlers even opt for photochromic lenses, whose tint changes in response to variations in light intensity. This certainly sounds like a good idea, but (in my experience, at least) photochromic lenses don't always live up to expectations. At the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, you'll find mirrored sunglasses. These certainly look cool — 50,000 state troopers can't be wrong, can they? — and many are superb glare busters. But mirror lenses can also dazzle your companions, who may soon tire of seeing themselves reflected in your eyes. Stealthy anglers, of course, don't value flashy eyewear. Instead, they swear by polarized lenses, often advertised as revealing the secret subaqueous world beneath the surface of sun-dappled pools. My luck with these has been mixed. Sometimes they work for me. Sometimes they don't. I figure it has something to do with the height and direction of the sun, but I've yet to solve the riddle.

Lens size and shape are also important. Small lenses drift in and out of fashion, but they do little to block incident radiation from the sides, top, and bottom. Form-fitting wrap-arounds, on the other hand, offer total coverage, while at the same time minimizing distracting internal reflections. And what about nearsighted folks who need corrective lenses to see what lies around the next bend in the river? Contact lenses are one answer, but contacts can be a nuisance on backcountry outings. Happily, many makers now offer protective eyewear ground to your prescription. The cost can be high, however. Cheaper alternatives include clip-ons and slip-ons and goggles that fit right over your regular glasses. Each has its fans. Farwell, who wore a pair of costly clip-on sunglasses over his everyday specs for nearly twenty years, switched to US$1.98 drugstore wraparound slip-ons when he started cycling again. His clip-ons were glass. The slip-ons are plastic, and shatterproof. Farwell wears them everywhere now, and he's never looked back, proving — if any further proof were necessary — that you don't have to spend a fortune to get satisfactory eyewear. (The throw-away sunglasses that ophthalmologists give patients who've had dilating drops make excellent emergency spares, by the way. They weigh almost nothing and take up no space at all in your getaway pack.)

Of course, your lenses won't float in front of your face of their own accord. You'll also need…


Whether a frame is made of wire or plastic, the fit's the thing, and a famous logo is no guarantee that the frames you're eyeing will fit you. Try them on before you buy. You'll want them to stay with you through the ups and downs of a hard wilderness day, too. Shake your head vigorously and see what happens. Spring temples are good, but hook temples that wrap around your ears are even better. They take some getting used to, but they'll keep your glasses in place on the hottest, sweatiest days. Worried about losing your specs when you dump or roll? Croakies® or any of their numerous descendents are good insurance, though belt-and-suspenders types may be attracted by nylon "combat frames" with integral neoprene straps. These work particularly well for amphibious paddlers who mix biking and boating, and who wear helmets both on the road and on the water. (If this describes you, look for combat frames in surplus stores.) Getting back to sweat for a minute, form-fitting frames do a good job of blocking incident light from the sides, but they're often fog-prone. A wide selection of creams and drops are offered for sale in the catalogs, each one claiming to banish fogging forever. I wish I'd found one that works for me. You may have better luck. If not, you'll probably need to leave your close-fitting frames behind anytime you're headed into the tropics (or the arctic).

Wherever you're going, you'll need your glasses every day of your trip. If you look after them, they'll always be there for you. It doesn't take much. The safest place for glasses is on your nose or in a case, and hard-shell cases that float when dropped in the drink are a very good idea. Polishing your lenses with a greasy bandanna is a bad idea, however. No coating can survive this sort of mistreatment for long: scratches are all but inevitable. And what's the right way to clean your specs? There are many proprietary cleaning solutions on opticians' shelves, but I've found nothing that beats mild dishwashing detergent and water. So when my lenses get dirty, I first rinse them with clean fresh water to sluice away any grit, spread a tiny drop of detergent over each surface (clean fingers are a must), rinse the lenses thoroughly a second time, and then blot them — I said blot, not polish! — dry with toilet paper. That's all. It does the job. 'Nuff said?

Paddlers' eyes need all the help they can get. Protective eyewear is essential, and a spare pair is always worth bringing along, even on a day trip. Either your eyes have it or they don't — and if they don't, you run the risk of clouding your only window on the world. It's not a gamble I want to take. What about you?

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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