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The Things We Carry

Keep It Under Your Hat!
The Pinnacle of Paddling FashionBy Tamia Nelson

November 1, 2005

I like to think I use my head. Maybe that's why I've been searching for the perfect hat all my life. My quest began at the age of three, when I was given a red felt cowboy hat. And it hasn't ended yet. I blame my grandfathers. Both were strong-willed men, and neither would set foot out the door without a hat on his head. I followed suit. But which hat? That's the question, isn't it?

My paternal grandfather — I called him Gramps — retired from a city job to an old farmstead with acres of stony fields, a few more acres of hardwoods, a meandering stream, and lots of hedgerows. Whenever I accompanied him on his rambles over his land, Gramps insisted on my wearing something on my head, "to keep out the damp." Once I got my cowboy hat, I needed little encouragement. For his part, Gramps always wore one of his many "farmer hats." They were all the same. Each was a faded city snap-brim with a dented, sagging crown. The broad silk ribbons had long since darkened with sweat and dirt, and some of the hats reeked of citronella. They weren't what you'd call attractive objects, and whenever my grandmother found one in the house, she carted it off to the garage. Gramps always fetched it back — but not while she was looking.

Grandad, on the other hand, was a man who wore many different hats, one of which was the felt crusher of an Adirondack guide. His buddies teased him about the varied headgear that hung from the nails that served as hooks in his cabin, but Grandad ignored their gibes. And what hats he had! In addition to his crusher, he owned wide-brimmed Stetsons, a 'coonskin cap just like the one that Davy Crocket wore, a fleece-lined helmet of the type once issued to bomber crewmen, wool toques, and countless watch caps. There were even a couple of shaggy wool balaclavas. Grandad believed you could never have too many hats if you made your living outdoors.

But it was Gramps who gave me my very first hat — the cowboy hat that I wore on early trips through the woods and along the streams near his house. I soon outgrew it, however. No matter. By dint of careful observation and a little slight of hand, I liberated one of Gramps' farmer hats from the garbage can in the garage to which my grandmother had consigned it. I had to wrap a bandanna around my head to keep the hat from falling down over my eyes, but I didn't care. And that filched farmer hat served me well for many years — until my early teens, in fact, when Grandad gave me a felt crusher. "Jes' like us guides wear," he said when he handed it to me, and my face immediately brightened with reflected glory. The hat was dyed the same rich, dark blue-green as the balsam firs that cloaked the high slopes of the Adirondacks. It soon began to smell like them, too, as fragrant sap dripped down onto the wool. Of course, it wasn't perfect. Repeated wettings in mountain thunder storms over the years reshaped the crown until it was a nearly perfect cone. Unfortunately, my head wasn't, and that caused a few problems. By this time, though, Grandad had given me another piece of headgear, in return for my catching enough brookies for a big shore dinner: an Australian campaign hat. This was an exotic trophy indeed. It sported a wide brim turned up on the right side, with a chin strap that held it fast even in a howling gale.

The campaign hat might have been designed for the kind of canoeing I did then, and it made the perfect partner for another new acquisition, a pair of Polaroid sunglasses. The hat's wide brim protected my face and neck from the sun, while the glasses cut the glare. In a pinch, the brim could shield my sketchpad and field journal from swirling drizzle. It served as a sunshade for the lens of my camera, too. It even acted as a hold-all, keeping the camera body and accessories out of the dirt when I changed film or swapped lenses. Befitting its former military role, my new hat also had plenty of backbone. It stood up far better than the soft felt crusher to everyday use as a bailer and water bucket. (This was back in the days when I thought that all clear water was clean water, a seriously flawed notion as it turned out, but one which I was unaccountably slow to relinquish. Such is the power of the romantic imagination.)

In time, however, all old campaigners fade away, and I wore out my Aussie hat. I replaced it with another felt hat, an L.L. Bean Stetson with a narrow brim and an unostentatious band. The brim wasn't as good a sunshade as the one on my campaign hat had been, to be sure, but I found that I didn't strike it with my upper hand as often when paddling, and it gave the wind less to play with in the small canyons along the whitewater streams I paddled. (A good thing, too, since the Stetson had no chin strap — an oversight I soon put right, with the help of a couple of brass grommets and a length of leather bootlace.) Narrow or not, however, the brim was just wide enough to hold a mosquito head net away from my face. I appreciated this whenever the blackflies were cruising for blood. Unless you warm to one of the contraptions that incorporate integral hoops — I don't — a head net is incomplete without a hat.

The Stetson had other advantages. Its light color kept it from becoming an oven on hot summer days. Soaking it in water helped still more, particularly when I draped a a well-wetted bandana around my neck. On the hottest days, however, I traded Stetson felt for a tightly woven Panama straw hat with a wider brim. Pure bliss. But then I got my first kayak. Now my upper hand always seemed to be on a collision course with the brim of my hat. A billed cap worked better — but only just. Once I started running steep whitewater streams in my kayak, however, the question became moot. I valued my head too much to leave it unprotected. A helmet became the only way to go.

Except when I was in my canoe, in camp, or on the portage trail, that is. As I sought the perfect hat for each set of conditions, my collection began to rival Grandad's. Wool watch caps became my cold weather favorites. They still are, though today the watch cap is as likely to be made of polyester or polypropylene as wool. Under a rain jacket or hooded windbreaker, in my sleeping bag, or beneath a helmet, a watch cap is the very embodiment of lightweight, low-bulk warmth. Now I don't leave home without one, even in warm weather, and there's a permanent spare tucked away in my getaway pack, just in case. Of course, once the thermometer starts to plummet, even a watch cap can be too little, too late. Here's where the balaclava helmet comes into its own. First knitted by nineteenth-century British ladies for their soldier husbands shivering in the trenches of the Crimea, the balaclava earns its keep in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when your boat's passage through the water is often marked by the sibilant scrape of soft ice against the hull. Are you worried that wool isn't warm enough? You can buy neoprene balaclavas, too. Cold-water kayakers love them.

Spring and fall are also stormy seasons throughout canoe country, and nothing kills the joy of a paddling trip quite like an icy stream of rainwater running down your back. A brimmed hat of proofed felt helps, but when the floodgates really open wide and the heavens empty on your head, it pays to take a tip from the working watermen of past generations. A vinyl or rubberized sou'wester is heavy, stiff, and cumbersome, but its asymmetric brim — comparatively short in front and long behind — acts like an awning, channeling rain water safely past your collar. And because the brim can be turned up in front (in case you need to check the set of the fore topgallant, say), water won't suddenly pour into your lap just as soon as you look down. Ear flaps and a chin strap complete the sou'wester's stand-and-deliver utility. You may not need to wear one often, but on the rare occasions when you want the protection and comfort only a sou'wester provides, you really need it.

Too radical for you? Then check out the soft-fabric Jones hat. It's a sort of abbreviated sou'wester, and a favorite with both waterfowl and upland hunters. Unlike the sou'wester, though, most Jones hats are tight fitting, so you can probably do without a chin strap. In fact, few Jones hats have one. (They do have ear flaps, however, and these are very welcome when a brisk nor'easter drives snow-laden clouds across your favorite lake.) Jones hats come in hunter orange, as well. You'll be might glad of this when there are guns in the woods. All in all, the Jones hat is the perfect choice for many paddling trips.

Watch caps. Balaclavas. Sou'westers. Jones hats. It sounds like I've abandoned my old Stetson, doesn't it? And I'm afraid that I have, pretty much. While fur felt hats still occupy a corner of my heart, their place on my head is now taken by a simple "jungle" or "boonie" hat, the utilitarian cover that evolved into the belogo-ed bucket hats that are the choice of fashionable outdoorspeople everywhere. But such fashion statements can cost more than I'm willing to pay to cover my head. My mil-spec jungle hat does the job at a fraction of the price. And it's as versatile as it is cheap. The brim is wide enough to support a head net and shade my eyes and ears, but not so wide that it gets in the way. Roll the rear of the brim up inside the crown and…voilà!…you've got a ball cap. Your eyes are protected from the sun, but your ears are in the clear. You'll hear every sound on the water — and you won't clip the brim with your paddling hand, either.

The jungle hat is also lightweight, cool, and capable of shedding all but the heaviest rain. It stows in the smallest pack pocket, washes clean in a minute, and has webbing loops around the crown for those times when you want to fade into the foliage. Camouflage not a big concern? Then use the loops for film cans, feathers found along the portage trail, fishing flies, or bottles of insect repellent. The jungle hat also has a chin strap. Best of all, it's cheap. (I said that already, didn't I? Well, it bears repetition.) I like these hats so much that I own two, one in olive drab for wildlife watching, the other in khaki for long, hot days in the sun.

But as good as it is, the jungle hat has its limits. The name tells you all you need to know. When the weather turns chilly, I opt for other headgear, and synthetic fibers are slowly replacing wool in my cold-season wardrobe. The latest hat to find a home on my shelf (and my head) is a featherweight polyester fleece skullcap. A sort of twenty-first-century watch cap, it's perfect under my whitewater helmet, and it also does double duty when I'm on my bike. All in all, it's the perfect amphibious headgear. Not everyone agrees, of course. Farwell won't be parted from his "Recon Wrap™." An ingenious hybrid of stocking cap and scarf, this remarkable headcovering can be worn as a do-rag, a helmet liner, a sun hat, a watch cap, or a balaclava. And it's available in colors ranging from black to woodland camo to blaze orange. Farwell says it has only one drawback: the price. But since it's replaced most of the other hats in his wardrobe, he figures he'll come out ahead in the long run. And ahead is where you want your hat to be, isn't it? I thought so!

With my new skullcap my wardrobe is complete — I think. What more could I possibly need? My shelves are crowded with hats. Still, I can't bring myself to discard any old friends. You don't pension off a companion just because he's looking a little careworn, do you? I don't. And my grandfathers were both right. You can never have too many hats. So maybe there's room for just one more in my closet. I saw a vintage pith helmet in a surplus catalog recently. It would be perfect for the Orinoco.…

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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