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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Lone Canoeist

The Pleasures, the Pitfalls,
And the Importance of Being Prepared

By Tamia Nelson

October 11, 2005

Let's face facts. Paddling isn't always done "by the book." I have mixed feelings about that. After all, I've added a few pages to this venerable volume myself during the years I've written for For example, I've often cautioned backcountry travelers not to venture out alone on unfamiliar waters: to do things by the book, in other words. And by and large, this is good advice. Don't paddle alone. For that matter, don't hike alone. Or even bike alone. In short, never stray far from the beaten track without a friend or two in tow. Because you never know what may happen, do you? Yet some of us — and I fall into this category from time to time — don't always heed the counsels of common sense. What's wrong with us? Are we stubborn? Feckless? Or merely impatient? The answer is that we're all of these things. Many paddlers go solo because they can't find anyone else who can take time away from work when they have time off. If they didn't go alone, they wouldn't go at all. Others opt for solitude simply because they like being on their own, and they put pleasure before prudence. Their unaccompanied adventures are a restorative interlude in an otherwise crowded and hectic life. For some, solo trips are a time to assert their independence. For others, they're a time to test themselves. Make no mistake about it, though, paddling can be a risky business. Luckily, most solo travelers understand the dangers. At least I hope they do. Some, however, plainly do not.

And just how risky is going it alone in the backcountry, anyway? Let's try to…

Put Things in Perspective

There's safety in numbers, right? Well, maybe not, or at least not always. Group travel isn't invariably or necessarily safer than going solo. Groups have no monopoly on wisdom or common sense. This won't surprise anyone who's ever chaired a committee, sat on a jury, or planned a family vacation. And what is a group but a collection of more or less fallible individuals? At their worst, groups become herds, stampeding at the first sign of trouble. There's still one saving grace to traveling in company, though. A group has built-in redundancy. A solo paddler who's badly injured or separated from her boat has mighty few attractive options left. But not many disasters hit all members of a group equally hard. In a group, the uninjured can help the hurt, and the paddlers who still have boats can hunt down and salvage any craft that's gone astray. On the other hand, a solo paddler who gets into serious trouble may have to depend on the kindness of strangers. Here there are no guarantees.

That said, many folks find solo travel attractive, despite the inherent risks. Some are inspired by the ripping yarns of raconteurs like R.M. Patterson, whose wonderfully wrought tales of solitary travels in the wild South Nahanni River country were still attracting new readers, long after his beloved river valley had become a pretty fair imitation of a wilderness theme park. (That's a fate that few wild places can escape, it must be said. And many paddlers will understandably prefer a theme park to yet another second-home development or open-pit mine.) But for all Patterson's understated wit and genial eloquence, it's important to remember that he was a "hard man," brought up in a hard school. Like many of his contemporaries, he'd come to terms with mortality early, while serving in the trenches on the Western Front during the Great War, when tens of thousands of boys and men sometimes fell dead in a single hour. Of course, only a few of those who survived the trenches went on to become backcountry wanderers, and of these few, fewer still returned from their wilderness adventures with tales to tell. Yet only the living can write books celebrating the joys of solitude. The voices of the dead are silenced forever. Whatever cautionary words they might have uttered are lost to history.

Which brings us once again to the…

Dangers of Going It Alone

These can't be dismissed with a negligent wave of the hand, even by hard men. Patterson himself settled down for some twenty years while he homesteaded and raised a family. No man is an island. However much we prize our independence, most of us are part of something larger than ourselves. We have responsibilities to family, colleagues, and friends. We can't make decisions based solely on our own convenience and inclination. We have to take others' needs and fears into account. Strangers come into the equation, too. If you file a float plan — a Very Good Idea for any paddler who ventures farther than Golden Pond, whether she's going alone or as part of a group — you're asking folks you don't know to risk life and limb to get you out of any trouble you can't cope with on your own. To my mind, this means that you have a duty not to endanger yourself needlessly.

Would-be solo adventurers therefore have to answer many difficult questions: Do you have the experience to know what you can handle — and the judgment to recognize what you can't? The courage to portage when you'd rather paddle? The patience to wait out a blow, even when you have a schedule to keep? The skill to control your boat if wind and current turn against you under way? The strength to keep going when every muscle in your body is screaming for you to stop? Can you trust your gear to perform? Can you trust yourself? These are hard questions, all of them. And you have to answer Yes to each and every one, honestly and without face-saving equivocation. You can't bluff your way through a big drop or an early winter storm. That's why the only passing grade on this test is 100%. Solo travel demands no less.

But what happens if things still go wrong? There's no easy answer here, either. You have no companions. You're…

On Your Own

A capsized solo paddler's world turns topsy-turvy in an instant. In all but the easiest rapids, she's wise to distance herself from her boat as quickly as she can. But on open water her best bet is to keep it close. (Very close. If you let go of your boat or your paddle on a windy lake, even for a second, you're unlikely to see it again.) In either case, however, she's got to make her own luck in the critical minutes that follow. It's a subject I've touched on before, but the solo traveler has a much harder time than someone who's traveling in company. There's nobody else to turn to for help. Responsibility for everything from bailing a swamped boat to splinting a broken finger to repairing a splintered thwart falls on her shoulders, and hers alone. It's a daunting challenge.

Being prepared helps. It helps a lot. If you're dressed for the water temperature, your gear is protected by waterproof bags, and the empty spaces in your boat are filled up with flotation, you're already making your own luck. A practiced brace is invaluable, too. Once you dump, though, the clock starts ticking, and time is not on your side. This is particularly true in open water, where getting back in your boat is almost always Job #1. Now for the bad news: It's not easy if you're alone. But help is near at hand. Kayakers have evolved a wide repertoire of self-rescue techniques, and some of these — particularly the various paddle-float rescues — can be adapted for canoes. It's even possible to roll a swamped open boat upright. You can only do these things with practice, however. Lots and lots of practice. And you must serve your apprenticeship before you put yourself in harm's way. So make time for an extended period of experimentation and drill.

Does developing a tested self-rescue strategy sound like a good idea? If you're ever tempted to go exploring alone, it certainly is. How can you get started? That's easy. Begin with a few…

Good Books

In fact, two will do. Despite the title, there's a wealth of material for canoeists in John Dowd's Sea Kayaking. His treatment of paddle-float and outrigger rescues is particularly noteworthy. It's grounded in a show-me realism that's often missing in other paddling primers, where techniques that can only be made to work in a heated swimming pool — after long hours of practice — are uncritically extrapolated to the harsh environs of turbulent waters, where the paddler is subject to all the vagaries of wind and wave. As for the rather arcane art of rolling an open canoe, I've found nothing better than the 1956 (yes, that's 1956) edition of Canoeing, the American National Red Cross handbook written by Joseph L. Hasenfus. It also provides an eye-opening glimpse into the history of recreational canoeing, as well as being a first-rate textbook for flatwater paddlers. Don't follow the example of the Water Safety Instructors in the pictures, however: wear your life jacket. Always.

Obviously, reading is just the first step. Still, if you live in canoe country, the next six months or so are a good time to crack open a couple of books. Then, when the returning sun warms the waters once again, you'll be ready to try some of the things you've read about. Once you've discovered what works for you, you're on your way — alone, if that suits you.

Paddling by the book is always the prudent thing to do, yet some experienced canoeists leave The Book on the shelf to gather dust, at least now and then. And it's easy to see why. Solo paddling can be uniquely rewarding and intensely fulfilling. If you're up to it, that is. It's not for everyone, and it's never a good idea for beginners to venture off alone. If you're an old hand with a paddle, however, the pleasures can easily outweigh the pitfalls. But don't throw caution to the winds altogether. Take risks prudently. Plan carefully. Practice. Be prepared. Then you, too, can taste all the charms of solitude, untainted by fears or regrets. If that sounds like a recipe for a good time, there's a reason: It is!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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