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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Mucking About in Boats

Glorious Mud!

By Tamia Nelson

May 2, 2006

Mud! Mud! Glorious Mud!
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.
So follow me, follow,
Down to the hollow,
And there let us wallow
In glorious mud.

     Flanders and Swann, The Hippopotamus Song

Remember playing in the mud when you were a kid? I do. There was always something alluring about a mud puddle, any mud puddle, something that compelled me to hop in and splash about, or ride through it on my bike, making a rooster tail of spray which would — if the wind was right and luck was with me — soak my sister to the skin. Mud puddles also taught me the elements of scientific observation. In short, I was captivated by them. And the lessons began in my family's dirt driveway.

It all started with a small depression in the drive, a legacy of one of my father's frequent last-minute rushes to get to work on time, despite an unfortunate tendency to oversleep and linger too long over his morning coffee. Then a summer shower filled the hollow to the brim, forming a clear puddle. I watched, fascinated, as ants trekked around the new "lake" that now blocked their usual path, and the ants and I waited for the sun to come out and dry up the obstacle. But even after all the standing water was gone, the bottom of my miniature lake remained wet. At first, it was covered in soupy mud. Then a thin skin formed on the mud. It reminded me of the skin on chocolate pudding, in fact, and I briefly adjourned my scientific enquiry to go in search of the real thing. When I returned, I broke the skin with a sharp stick — by now it had thickened into a crust — and stirred what lay beneath, discovering in the process that it was no longer liquid mud, but instead a fudgy, gritty goo.

My patience exhausted, I left, only to return several hours later to find the tracks of a small bird perfectly preserved on the still-moist surface of my "mud flat." By the next day, however, the bottom of the little hollow had dried and cracked, forming a mosaic pavement of tiny, concave tiles. (The cracks, I later learned, were called "mud cracks." That seemed logical.) The weather stayed hot and dry, and the following morning only a dust bowl remained where the little lake had once glistened in the sun. And the ants had returned to their old path.

Me? I waited eagerly for the next summer shower, when I could rush out to watch the first raindrops make tiny craters in the dust at the bottom of "my" hollow.


You see what I'm getting at, I'm sure. Mud was fun — when I was a kid. But the fun waned later in my life, when I started playing the role of the ant, rather than the observer: I found myself driving through mud (and getting stuck in it), dragging boats across put-ins churned into wallows by countless feet, portaging over muddy trails, and camping on gumbo riverbanks. These things weren't much fun, to be sure, but I'd learned a lasting lesson from the ants. You can curse and grumble all you want, but nature always calls the shots. It's up to us to adapt. And since mud can happen anywhere earth and water meet, avoidance is out of the question. That's why paddlers need to take…

The Measure of the Enemy

What is mud, exactly? It's actually pretty complex, but let's keep this simple. Here's the basic equation:

Water + Earth = Mud

And in this case "earth" doesn't necessarily mean organic soil. Any loose, unconsolidated material will do — provided it's the right stuff. Geologists use the term "sediment" to refer to everything from the finest clays to the biggest boulders, and from now on I'll stick to that. The first principle? Not all sediments are equal. In order for mud to form, the individual grains have to be pretty small, smaller than sand grains in fact. Clay or silt, in other words. Examine the side of a fresh-cut trench in silty soil with your hand lens. What do you see? A network of open spaces between the individual grains, that's what. These spaces are called interstices. (Does this sound like something you've heard before? Maybe you're getting echoes from Samuel Johnson's justly celebrated definition of "network" as "any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections." Clear as mud, eh?) Anyway, when water sinks into the earth, it fills the interstices in the sediments, and the more water that percolates down, the more likely it is that all the interstices will be filled. A little water makes only a fudgy gumbo, but a lot of water makes a soupy mud, and if you add enough water the soup will get mighty thin indeed (think of marshes and swamps).

OK. This is all well and good, but the most important trick is to know mud when you see it, right? Before you're up to your thighs in it, that is. But it's not so easy. Don't confuse water depth with mud depth, for one thing. The fact that you can glimpse the bottom of a shallow puddle is no guarantee that you won't find two feet of mud under the water. Even drying mud can be a trap for the unwary. It looks reassuringly solid — until you venture out across it and break through the hard crust. Then your foot sinks, or your car bogs down, or your bike wheel drops out from under you. And then you go down, too. Getting out of a mud hole once you're in it isn't always easy, either. That's why it's a good idea to know where to…

Expect the Enemy

The short answer? Everywhere. Paddlers need water, and wherever there's water, mud's a possibility. Of course some places are more likely to be muddy than others. As a rule, well-drained, sandy soils don't make mud. (But saturated, smooth-grained sands can "quicken" when water percolates up through them. The resulting quicksand isn't mud, but if you stumble into some, you probably won't notice the difference.) Given the right soil types, however, water is the key ingredient. So look for mud wherever dirt roads skirt low-lying areas, in dips and hollows on hiking and portage trails, along riverbanks and lakeshores, and on tidal flats. And watch the weather. Well-graded and well-drained roads, like well-laid-out trails, will shed most rainwater quickly. Mud probably won't form. But poorly designed or poorly maintained roads and trails are often muddy after even light rains, and ruts and potholes only make things worse. Snowmelt can saturate sediments, too, and clay-rich soils can trap enough water to make mud on the steepest slopes.

A little map work will also help you keep your feet dry. Topographic maps show swamps, springs, and intermittent streams. (But don't expect the map-makers to keep up with busy beavers!) All tidal flats warrant a high index of suspicion unless local knowledge suggests otherwise, and tidal marshes are especially good mud factories. Don't neglect other clues, either. If the road you're planning to take to your put-in is named "Swamp Road," and if it's been raining steadily for a week, you might want to look for another put-in. I'd also beware of "Lazy River Road," particularly in spring, and of any "Pleasant Lane," in any season, especially if it's located in a new second-home development in what used to be a bog. It never hurts to consult a guidebook, as well, though local knowledge is always best — if it's both current and first-hand. Talk to outfitters, rangers, and foresters, and don't forget any paddlers among your friends who might know the area well. Another often overlooked source of information is off-road-vehicle (ORV) clubs. Churning trails and stream crossings into mud wallows is part of the fun for many ORVers, and some even go so far as to map the "best" spots for slipping and sliding and bogging down. So if your paddling destination is a multiple-use area — and with the growing popularity of motorsport, more and more are — try to find out where the ORVers play. Then plan accordingly.

What's the bottom line? No matter how much homework you do, and how practiced your eye, you'll find yourself bogged down sooner or later. Then it's up to you to…

Deal With It

Mostly, mud is a minor irritation, dirtying your clothes, gear, and boat, and clogging the cleats of your footwear. But occasionally mud is much more than a nuisance. It can leave you stranded on a logging road, for example, hoping for a passing ORV with a power winch. Or it can stop you dead on the portage trail. It can even trap you on a tidal flat, leaving you with little to do but shout for help and count down the minutes till the turn of the tide.

It's best to avoid all such "adventures," of course. Begin your preparations by dressing for success. If you can find a pair at a reasonable price, wellies are good boots for muddy trails and put-ins. Just don't forget to swish each foot in the water to clean the mud from the cleats before stepping into your canoe or kayak. (This is particularly important if your boat is an inflatable or folder.) On really sloppy trails, however, wellies alone won't be enough. This is where a good pair of waterproof overalls or rain pants is invaluable. Amphibious paddlers who have to cycle down wet roads and trails would do well to wear the same kit, even if their bikes have fenders. (A hint: they should.) Once in camp, leather-and-rubber pacs like L.L. Bean's "Maine Hunting Shoe" keep your socks clean and dry, and entering your tent backside-first keeps the mud out of your sleeping bag — if you remember to remove your muddy boots and park them under the fly before bringing your feet "indoors," that is!

Walking needs a little more thought than you usually give it, too. Spread your feet a bit wider than normal and slow your pace. You won't set any speed records, but you're more likely to stay on your feet. A walking stick — or better yet, a pair of sticks — will help a lot, serving the dual functions of prop and probe, though it's hard to portage a boat with a stick in each hand. In any case, unless you like the idea or replacing paddles at the end of every trip, resist the temptation to use your paddle as a walking stick. And don't think you have to go it alone. Under really bad conditions, it pays to double-up when carrying even light boats across a portage. It's awkward and slow, but the clumsiest quadruped is less likely to fall than a biped, however sprightly.

Then again, tripping you up and making you fall isn't the worst trick that mud can play. Falling is bad enough, of course, but drowning will really spoil your day. Tidal flats and the muddy shores of estuaries can be death traps for the unwary. Avoid them if you can. And if you can't, always wear your life jacket. It works as well in soupy mud as it does in water. Consider specialty footgear, too. British watermen whose jobs often took them out on saltwater marshes and mudflats once used "splatchers," a sort of snowshoe-like mudshoe. (You'll find a description of this unusual footwear in Secret Water, a children's book by Arthur Ransome, the British writer who married Trotsky's secretary and also wrote about fishing and foreign affairs for the Manchester Guardian.) You're not likely to find splatchers in your local outfitter's shop, I'm afraid, but the Ben Meadows Company sells a rather pricy mudshoe called the Mudder which ought to serve the same purpose. If you buy a pair, let me know how they work.

Luckily, good technique will go a long way toward keeping you safe and dry. For one thing, never walk (or camp) too close to the edge of steep, undercut riverbanks, whose saturated sediments can give way without warning. And if you ever find yourself walled off from your intended camp by just such a steep bank while you're on the water, try paddling up a tributary stream. If you go far enough, the banks may fall away or gentle to the point where they can be climbed safely. A bonus: small tributaries often run clearer than big rivers. This makes filling your water bag less of a chore. It also makes better tea.

What about roads and trails? That one's easy. If in doubt, scout. Walk a muddy portage unladen and flag any dangerous bits. When driving to the put-in, have your partner walk ahead and probe any puddles that you can't avoid, while you follow in your lowest gear. Or get out of the driver's seat and see for yourself what lies ahead. Amphibious paddlers can always walk their bikes, detouring around the worst stretches of road. This is particularly important if you're pulling a trailer. Digging a trailer out of a mud hole is nobody's idea of a good time. The general rule? Take it slow and easy. And always be ready to turn back and try a different route. Nature calls the shots in the backcountry. Remember the ants? They had the right idea.

Mud happens. Wherever earth and water meet, mud is sure to follow. What good is it? Ask turtles, frogs, and countless invertebrates. To them, mud offers shelter. They burrow into it for protection. To many fish and waterfowl, on the other hand, mud is the corner store. They dine on the small mud-dwelling creatures who make their homes at the bottoms of ponds and lakes, or on the fertile tidal flats. Herons and egrets, sandpipers and curlews, gulls and terns — all grow fat on the bounty of mud. And mud feeds us, as well. Without the mud of swamps that dried up millions of years ago, we might never have enjoyed the century-long surfeit of cheap and abundant energy that's fattened us, and that only now is drawing to a close.

Mud happens. And like it or not, it's here to stay. So while we paddlers have good reason to curse it now and then, it also pays to remember what we owe it. Give this a try, and I'm betting that soon you, too, will soon be singing the praises of "Glorious Mud!"

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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