One Foot in the Grave?
Paddling on After 50
By Tamia Nelson
January 2, 2007
As a young woman I never imagined I'd join the Go-Light
Brigade. After all, I took pride in being "tough." Only sissies worried about the
weight of their gear, and I was no sissy. Well, that was then. This is now. And I'd
like to think I've gotten a little wiser over the years. Others might dispute this, I
suppose, but one thing at least is certain the years have made me older.
When my joints pop, or my back refuses to bend, or my heart pounds loudly in my ears, I
know I'm not as young as I used to be.
I also know I'm not alone. Canoeists and kayakers don't put down their paddles when
they leave their youth behind them, but it isn't always easy to keep going, either.
There's no such thing as passive paddling. That's both good and bad. We paddlers don't
shrink from hard work. We welcome it. It's part of our sport. Yet sooner or later, in
small matters and large, our bodies are bound to let us down. So what do we do
then? Toughing it out is one solution. And it works, at least for a while. But there's
a better way: lightening up.
I know which appeals to me. Before going any further, however, I'd better make it
clear that there are some things I won't ever do to lighten my load. To begin with, I
won't cut the handle off my toothbrush, leave my journal at home,
or live on nothing but pemmican. (Fat has the highest energy density of all foods, and
pemmican is mostly fat. It's very efficient. But an all-fat diet gets mighty old mighty
fast. Ask any voyageur.) Moreover, I can't afford to replace my boats with ultralight
Kevlar® and carbon-fiber confections, nor am I interested in spending hundreds of
dollars to shave a few ounces from my tent. There are limits, in short limits of
both purse and temperament and I know what my limits are. What I want is
something I can live with, all the time, even if that means
Changing My Expectations
I'm no fan of fads, gurus, or quick fixes. More often than not, real change requires
time, and it has to come from within. It also requires effort. The prescription for
change is easy to write, in other words, but hard to swallow. The key? Don't try to do
everything at once. Make incremental changes, and make them gradually. A backcountry
campsite isn't an extension of your living room at home. Different standards of comfort
and convenience apply. You can't take everything with you and still get away from it
all. So adjust your expectations accordingly, and take as much time to get used to your
new lightsized lifestyle as
as it takes. This is often difficult, but it
can be done. Trust me. In my case, I began by
Pruning My Gear List
Getting ready for a weekend trip once required that I combine the organizational
acumen of a packaging engineer with the muscles of a stevedore. Portages were agony.
Even cramming my stuff into the truck was exhausting. When paddling threatened to
become more of a chore than a treat, however, I knew I'd had enough. So I took a long,
hard look at my gear list. Did I really need three fly rods and enough fly boxes to
stock the shelves of an outfitter's shop? Nope. One of each was enough. And did I have
to bring a full batterie de
cuisine to cook a few simple meals? No way! A couple of pots did the trick.
Even my library of field guides took a hit. I almost never consulted more than one
guide on any trip shorter than a week, so why did I need to carry eight? Why indeed?
Item by item, I reconsidered all my "essentials," and one by one, I discovered that I
could get along without many of them.
Give this a try. Look at all the things you took on your last trip and ask yourself
how often you used each one. If the answer is "never," don't bring it on your next
trip. On the other hand, if you used something every hour of every day, it stays in
your pack. So far, no problem. But what if the answer lies somewhere in-between? That's
the hardest call of all. My suggestion? Leave the in-between gear out and see how you
cope. You, too, may discover that many essentials are anything but must-haves.
Of course, reducing the length of your gear list isn't the only way to lighten your
load. Sometimes you've just got to
OK. I'm not talking about dieting here, though shedding any excess pounds you carry
around under your skin never hurts. Just ask Farwell, who recently discovered that the
hills around our home had suddenly gotten steeper. Or so it seemed. In any event, he
was finding it much harder to climb them on his commuter bike. Was it his new studded
tires, he wondered? Or had he put off cleaning his drivetrain too long? Or maybe it was
just the December cold. Then he stepped on a scale, and the mystery was solved. All the
holiday treats he'd been scarfing down, the eggnog and Yorkshire pudding and Stilton
and hot chocolate and mulled cider, had left their mark. The upshot? The load he had to
lift to the top of each hill had shot up by ten pounds in one month and it
didn't have anything to do with new tires. It was more like a spare tire, if you get my
I'll come back to this in a minute. But now I'm talking about lightsizing your gear,
not your bod. Begin by replacing that heavy wool sweater with a lightweight, quick-drying
synthetic, for instance. I was the original natural-fiber girl, but I've been
surprised how much of my ultralight cycling wardrobe now
doubles as paddling wear. It keeps me cool when
the weather is hot, warm when it's cold,
and it drys in a flash whenever it gets wet. Who could ask for more? Not me.
Weight paring doesn't stop with your wardrobe. Take a look at the roof over your
head, too. Next time out, if the bugs aren't biting, bring a tarp instead of a
tent. You'll remove pounds from your pack in an instant. Not convinced? You say the
bugs are always biting where you paddle? Then at least leave your heavy-duty
mountaineering tent at home. I lugged a Himalayan special along on canoe trips for
years. Big mistake. No. Very BIG mistake. A three-season tent that weighed half
as much would have done just fine, and it would have been a lot cooler on hot summer
nights, into the bargain.
Of course, software like clothes and tents isn't the whole story. We can't afford to
The Beasts Who Bear Us
Ah, yes, our boats. Farwell and I once owned a 20-foot freighter that weighed in at
110 pounds. And it was long a point of pride that I could portage Leviathan solo
using only a pair of
paddles as a yoke, not to mention carrying a pack on my back that added another 50
pounds or so to the total load. Still, as a widely read book reminds us, a haughty
spirit goeth before a fall. And after tripping over exposed cedar roots, stumbling on
rocks, and floundering in bogs for years, it dawned on me that I couldn't count on
remaining an exception to this rule forever. Luckily, we also owned lighter canoes, and
we had a a sturdy
portage cart, too. It's hard to tell where the process of lightsizing will stop,
but nowadays my favorite boat is a one-man (one-woman?) pack
canoe. It rests easy on my back, and it floats almost as lightly over the portages
as it does on the water though I'll be the first to admit that it's not the perfect
all-rounder. There are still many places where a tandem boat makes
more sense, but my affair with the 110-pound freighter is history.
Speaking of lightsizing, this is a good time to remember that even though a paddler
travels on her stomach, her pantry often makes the trip on her back. In other
Calories Count Twice
On day trips and weekend adventures
it's not too important what you eat, but on longer expeditions it pays to watch your
weight the weight of your food pack, that is. A paddler's preferred medium is
water, right? And one very good way to lighten up is to exploit this medium to the maximum.
Leave the cans and fresh foods behind at home on long trips. Dried and dehydrated are
where it's at. Why
carry water on your back when it's all around you? Strip off any unnecessary
packaging, too, repacking wherever
necessary. It's that simple.
And speaking of counting calories, I probably ought to return to a point I made
earlier: It's better
to be fit than fat. Actually, fit is good in and of itself, whatever your girth.
But fit and slim is better still. Of course, some folks find it easier to "make weight"
than others. It's worth the effort, though. Every pound you lose is one less pound
you'll have to haul up and over the next height of land. That's worth considering when
someone offers you a second cup of eggnog.
All in all, lightening up is mostly a matter of intelligent accommodation. The years
take their toll, and none of us can turn back the clock. That doesn't mean we can't
keep paddling, though. Age may slow us down, but this only means we'll see more of the
world around us. And that's why we paddle, isn't it?
I love making lists, but I've never drawn up a list of New Year's
resolutions. Until now. There's a first time for everything, and this year, I promised
myself I'd lighten up. Luckily, that's a resolution I'm sure I can keep! And what about
you? Why not join me? You've got nothing to lose but a few unwanted pounds, after all.
Copyright © 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights