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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

KISS and Tell

A Personal Approach to Paddling

By Tamia Nelson

May 23, 2006

Do you ever feel as if you're running late from the moment you step out of bed in the morning? Sure you do. And some of us feel this way nearly all the time, rushing from sunrise to nightfall in a desperate attempt to catch up before it's too late, before another day dawns and we wake to find we're even further behind. The affliction strikes like a bad case of tinnitus, but it's worse than any ringing in the ears. It's a constant tolling in the soul, and it rises to a crescendo when good weather returns to Canoe Country. Here in the northern reaches of the Adirondacks, for example, winter lasts half the year. Sure, you can paddle late in fall and early in spring, and sometimes you can even find open water in winter. But the months from October through March are usually cold and windy, with a blizzard or ice-storm around every corner in the calendar. That's why the urge to wet a paddle is so intense come ice-out. Suddenly, the horizon of the visible world expands beyond the too-familiar banks of rotting snow. Now every free moment is precious, and each minute spent indoors is a minute wasted.

The predictable result? A frenzy of activity, a desperate attempt to make up for lost time, in which it's all too easy to succumb to the temptation to try to cram too much into every trip. The desire to do more — to go further, to test the limits of endurance — now becomes an imperative.

I've been there. For years I "marched to the sound of the guns," chasing the roar of whitewater around the Northeast, trying to catch each river and stream at just the right time in its seasonal progression from torrent to trickle. It was a hopeless quest, of course. Nature isn't that accommodating. I often found myself paddling in turbid floodwaters, eyeball-to-eyeball with dead cows who'd come to rest in treetops. Or I waded knee-deep in mud, wondering just where the river had got to and how long it would take me to find it again. Still, I kept coming back for more. Then, quite suddenly, exhaustion took its toll, and I abandoned the water-rat race for good. It simply wasn't fun anymore. Rushing to get to the put-in by daybreak. Rushing to get down the river by dinnertime. Rushing to get home in time to prepare for the next trip. Rushing. Always hurried and always harried. I decided this wasn't how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

But I soon learned that slowing down isn't enough by itself. It's Parkinson's Law in action. Work expands to fill the time available. That's the gist of it. And it's more than just a pretty phrase. I may have been spending less time behind the wheel, but I was still rushing from chore to chore. I'd just replaced one set of imperatives with another. Worst of all, I was paddling less. That's when it dawned on me that efficiency wasn't necessarily a dirty word, to be relegated to the workaday world and forgotten on weekends. And it turned out that the key to efficiency was embodied in an unlikely acronym: KISS, or "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Not very flattering, perhaps, but succinct and to the point. It worked, too. I soon had more hours for paddling. Better yet, I discovered that I needed to spend far less time rushing around. I started thinking of this as "salamander logic." Salamanders can move fast. Very fast. But anytime they don't have a good reason to hurry, they hang loose. It works for them, and it worked for me. It can work for you, too. Let's see how.

The Charm of the Familiar

Most paddlers dream of making a Big Trip, an expedition to someplace that's remote and wild and sparsely populated. And such places still exist, though of course wilderness isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, you'll probably have to ignore the occasional contrail or chirping cell phone, and you may find that you meet a lot of other seekers after solitude along the way. But that really doesn't matter. I've dreamed these same dreams myself, in fact, and I've made them happen more than once. Let's face it, though: many of us can't manage a Big Trip every year. Our free time is measured in hours or days, not the weeks or months that a Big Trip demands.

Does this mean that there's no alternative to sulking in front of the TV? Not at all. Remember the KISS principle. Messing about in boats can be a blast even if you never leave your neighborhood. A weekend is all you need to recharge your batteries — and your credit card can stay in your wallet. That's pretty stress-reducing in itself, especially with the cost of gas creeping ever upward. Of course, not every paddler has a river lapping on her doorstep, but a lot of us are only a short drive from our home waters. Some of us can even get there on two wheels.

So now, when the urge to light out for the Territories hits, I don't necessarily reach for the phone and start making menu plans for a month. I keep things simple, instead. I look out my window and down the road. After twenty-odd years of poking around my neighborhood, I'm still discovering new waters just a few miles from my door. What exactly do I mean by "new"? Just this: They're new to me, and I won't find them written up in any guidebook. That means I can explore unknown country and still be back home in time for dinner — and I probably won't meet anyone else on the water, into the bargain. Most days, that's all the wilderness I need. There's another reason for exploring close to home, too. The South Nahanni will probably still be where it is in a year's time. Muskrat Flats may not be. It might be buried under a new subdivision, instead, its many living voices permanently stilled. And I'd like to hear them singing at least once before the long silence begins. I may not be able to keep their song alive, but at least I can summon it from memory. It's something.

On a more practical, everyday level, KISS also had a lesson to teach me. It boiled down to a familiar refrain:

Simplify! Simplify!

Don't get me wrong. I like gear and gadgets. In fact, I like them too much. My packs once bulged with unnecessary items. Each was cleverly designed and light as a feather, but there was so much of this ultralight stuff in every pack that they all weighed a ton. At first, I couldn't figure it out. I had the newest and lightest gear, after all. I also piled gear high on the stern deck of my kayak, and then wondered why every breeze turned me into a good imitation of a wind vane. One time, I even filled my Jeep to the bursting point with just the gear I "needed" for an overnighter, and when a passerby wondered aloud if I was headed for the Yukon, I was secretly pleased. But I was about to suffer a painful reality check. Not long afterward, I had to unload all the stuff from my boat and carry it over a three-mile portage. It didn't take me very long to get the point.

Paddling shouldn't be so much work that it makes your day job look good, right? Even if it's only for an afternoon, a canoe or kayak trip is a holiday from the workaday world. So if you value your peace of mind, not to mention your back, take an editorial blue pencil to your gear list today. KISS. Keep the essentials. Leave the rest behind. All other things being equal, he who travels lightest travels furthest, even if he never leaves his backyard.

And don't stop with your gear. It's worth looking at your food list, too, particularly on any trip longer than a lazy paddle across Golden Pond to a picnic site.

In Praise of Peanut Butter

Good food is one of life's greatest pleasures. At least it is when it's skillfully prepared and imaginatively presented. And I'm second to none in my appreciation of the good things in life. But a backcountry kitchen isn't the Savoy. Of course, if you live to eat, you'll go to any lengths to eat well under way. And there's nothing wrong with that — if you don't mind spending a lot of prep time at home and in camp, and a lot more time cleaning up afterward. On the other hand, if you're starting to feel like you're a slave to your stomach, maybe it's time to reevaluate your options. "Fast foods," are one answer, but radical simplicity requires that you go further.

Consider the humble peanut butter sandwich. Once upon a time, I worked long hours as a line cook in a busy country eatery. Our menu hit all the stops from prime ribs to spaghetti, but the most requested item at lunchtime wasn't even on the card. It was — maybe you've already guessed — the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Every time we took an order for one, the boss railed at his patrons' lack of taste (from the safety of the kitchen, where he felt sure they wouldn't hear him). But he was missing the point. The patrons knew what they liked. It was our job to give it to them. Period. And anyway, the PBJ gets a bad rap. It one of my personal favorites — filling, nutritious, and easy to make. Not only that, but it's tasty, too. Look at what you get in one handy, eat-on-the-run package. Carbs for quick energy, fat for the long haul, protein to build muscle, salt to replenish what you've sweated out. Fruit and nuts and bread. There's even a bonus. If you choose bread that has a little backbone, PBJs travel well in pocket or pack. In short, it would be hard to find a meal that better exemplifies the KISS principle. Unless you're allergic to nuts, that is. Then the PBJ isn't for you. The principle still applies, though.

You can adopt a similar approach to your batterie de cuisine. There's no need to carry three pots, two skillets, an expedition stove, two quarts of fuel, and a reflector oven on a weekend trip. Master the art of canteen-cup cookery, instead, and build a menu of one-pot meals. Your back will thank you.

Is that all? Not quite. KISS applies in other areas, too.

It's a Matter of Record

For some reason, we paddlers often feel as if our trips aren't real unless they're recorded on film or in a memory module. The all-too-frequent result? We become spectators instead of actors, living the high points (and occasionally the low points) of our own lives through a viewfinder. What's the remedy? KISS. Leave your camera, camcorder, weather radio, and GPS behind, at least once in a while. Practice the arts of seeing and listening. Engage the landscape directly. Use a small pair of binoculars and a hand lens to expand your world. Carry a compact field guide to help with the naming of things. Try your hand at sketching or painting, or start a field journal. Record the everyday dramas and comedies that abound wherever living waters flow. And do it without batteries.

The simple life. It's easy to see the attractions — and the drawbacks. Few of us would want to live the simple life forever, but it's fun to visit for a while. So why not KISS your workweek worries goodbye, at least for a few days? Listen to the breeze as it whispers through the pines, dance to the music of the lapping waves, and lose yourself in the seasonal chorus of birdsong. I'll bet you'll enjoy the change. I know that I do.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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