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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It (Sometimes) Takes Two

Part 2 — Portaging Kayaks and SOTs

By Tamia Nelson

June 13, 2006

When you look at a kayak, you're left in no doubt about its natural element. You'd be right, too. A kayak really is a joy to handle on the water. But a landlocked kayak is something else — an awkward and unwieldy burden. Of course, not all kayaks are equal. Short, stubby creek boats can simply be shouldered and muscled around the (usually) brief portages on steep mountain streams. Long, heavy touring boats don't rest so easily on your shoulder, however, particularly when fully outfitted. And sit-on-tops are worse. You don't think this is a problem? Think again. Canoes aren't the only craft that have to be carried from time to time. It's a rare waterway that's not interrupted by portages. Even sea kayakers have to haul their boats and gear above the high-water mark on the beach, and it often makes sense to carry across a headland, rather than chancing the chaotic seas of a tide race.

What can be done to ease the burden of getting a kayak or SOT from one place to another on land? A portage cart can help. In fact, it can help a lot, but it also has to be stowed somewhere when you're on the water, and space is tight in most kayaks — though a cart can always go as deck cargo if you don't mind the windage. Then again, SOTs lack decks for lashing. And carts aren't welcome in many inland parks. What's left? Not much. When the time comes to leave the water and head down the trail, you just have to…

Grin and Bear It

Unfortunately, few SOTs are easy to portage long distances, and large touring kayaks make awkward loads for a single person. The one-shoulder, arm-in-the-cockpit carry favored by whitewater boaters is downright painful at fifty-plus pounds. And while it's not impossible to fit a yoke in many kayaks, it's mighty hard to pick your way down the trail when your head's in the bilge of a decked boat. One method that I've tried — and liked — is the frame-pack kayak tote, but as good as it is, it still leaves you to bear the burden alone. This isn't always possible. Age, injury, and rugged country all take their toll, and sometimes even hard men and iron women need a little help getting their boats across a killer portage.

The good news? A burden shared is a burden halved. Here's how it's done. Unload your boats and stow your gear safely off the trail. (Spare paddles can stay under the deck lashings. Shove one end of your working blade in the cockpit, with the free end pointing aft. You're less likely to snag trailside vegetation this way.) The first paddler now takes up a position at the bow, while the other moves to the stern. (Opposite sides are best.) Then pick up the boat between you and head out. Toggles make it easy to hang on to slippery hulls, but with care you can just cradle the ends in your hands. Put the boat down and rest whenever your arms get tired. That's all there is to it. Simple, eh? Once you reach the end of the trail, trot back for the second boat. Two boats. Two trips. No pain.

But is it also too slow? No problem. Carry light packs to speed things along while you portage. Or double up, standing between the boats and humping them over the trail in one go. A few words of warning are in order here, though. This only works when the two boats are about the same length. Furthermore, unless they're both fairly light it's a guaranteed back-breaker — and if they are this light, why not just shoulder them and carry them solo in the first place? Good question.

So much for twosomes. But maybe there are three of you: Mom, Dad, and Junior, say, each in his (or her) own boat. There's strength in numbers. Take advantage of it. After all, three paddlers can carry two boats more easily than two paddlers can. One paddler (Mom?) grabs the bow of the first boat. The strongest paddler (Dad?) stands between the first boat's stern and the bow of the second, lifting one in each hand. That leaves the third paddler (Junior?) to bring up the rear. A hint: alternate sides and keep in step. It also helps if the trail is wide and not too steep. Later, on the second trip across the portage, two paddlers can bring the remaining boat (and maybe a couple of packs as well), while the third totes the rest of the gear.

Does all this talk of lifting and hauling make your hands tingle and your back ache? Then maybe you'll find it easier to…

Shoulder the Load

First things first. Unless you're content to exchange one misery for another, pad your shoulder with a square of foam, a rolled towel, or a spare horse-collar (Type II) PFD. (Do not use your primary PFD as a pad. Save it for more important work.) Sometimes a rucksack's padded shoulder straps will be in the right place. That helps when you're trying to make the most of each trip across the portage. Ready? Take your positions. As before, one paddler stands at the bow and one moves to the stern. You'll want to be on opposite sides this time, too. Next, lift the boat and lower the keel onto your shoulders. Now walk off, with each paddler keeping a hand on his end of the boat for safety's sake. Bow sets the pace and stern matches him step for step. Relax and enjoy the journey. If your shoulder pads do their job, it will be almost painless!

In a hurry? Want to speed things along by leaving your gear in the boat while you carry it across the portage? Well,…

It's Your Boat

But I'd resist the temptation, if I were you. Paddles and PFDs are OK, of course, but it's not a good idea to bridge a heavily loaded boat between two props. Yes, thermoplastic boats are tough, but remember that water is their element, not air. Pop-riveted seams and toggles aren't designed to support the weight of a full load of food and gear. So why take chances? Your boat is your ticket home, after all. And even more to the point, why put yourself at risk? It's no fun to slip with a loaded boat balanced on your shoulder. A sprained ankle is probably the best you can hope for. It could be much worse. In fact, it's likely that more voyageurs died on the portage trail than drowned in rapids or on the big lakes — and they were pros. We're doing this for pleasure. There's little joy to be had waiting in the ER for your x-rays to be read. 'Nuff said?

Kayaks and sit-on-tops are fleet and nimble craft — among the swells and currents of living water, that is. Once ashore, however, they're often awkward and contrary beasts. But that doesn't mean they can't be carried from one place to another whenever the need arises, or that it can't be done gracefully. Sometimes it just takes two of you to do the job right. Happy trails!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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