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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

Basket Case

By Tamia Nelson

June 12, 2007

I scurried up the trail after Grandad while swarms of black flies nibbled my ears. Grandad wasn't bothered by the flies, and he moved with an easy, mile-eating stride. The hot sun hammered my head, and the sweet smell of pine sap mixed with Grandad's sharp citronella to fill my nostrils. The rhythmic creak of his pack basket accompanied the crackle of my nylon rucksack. He carried a double-bladed axe ("You're still in business if one blade breaks"), a two-day supply of canned food, an old Army pup tent, heavy oilskin rainwear, two fishing rods, and a steel tackle box. I wasn't so heavily loaded, but my pack straps dug into my shoulders and my load weighed me down. Later, when we reached the clearing near a beaver pond that was to be camp for the night, Grandad tossed the tumpline off his head and swung his pack basket to the ground in a single graceful sweep that belied its considerable weight

Pack baskets — sometimes called Adirondack pack baskets (unless you're from Maine) — are as symbolic of the bygone northwoods way of life as Rushton canoes, ash beavertail paddles, and pac boots. Stop in a diner, general store, or old fashioned gas station anywhere in eastern Canoe Country, and it's a good bet you'll see pack baskets on display or for sale. People decorate their homes with them, and use them to store magazines or dirty laundry. But some old timers and younger traditionalists still use them for packing into the backcountry or paddling into secret trout ponds with their pack canoes.

Unless you live in or travel through Canoe Country, you may never have heard of pack baskets, so here's what they look like:

Ready to Load

Two Views of Two Pack Baskets

You don't see pack baskets on the portage trail very often these days, but there was a time when they were much more common. Hunters, anglers, trappers, and guides relied on them for carrying everything from axes and sleeping bags to the canned food that sustained them in the backcountry. Sizes varied, but they shared the same basic shape, with a rectangular base, flat back, wide belly, and ovoid rim. Baskets are traditionally woven with black ash splits, and are carried by means of a leather or webbing harness and shoulder straps. They usually have a wooden, leather, or woven grab-loop. Some pack baskets are finished with varnish, but some aren't. Despite their apparent bulk, they can be surprisingly lightweight.

Some people love them, others hate them. I think they have their place, and there are…

Times When Pack Baskets Shine

Pack baskets are rigid enough to corral floppy items and to prevent hard-edged objects from poking your back, yet they're flexible enough to give just enough when carried. With the harness properly adjusted, pack baskets are surprisingly comfortable to carry, even over rugged terrain. They ride between rump and shoulders. Though pack baskets are tightly woven, they're breathable, and air circulates through the pack and to the back.

They carry heavy or lightweight bulky items with aplomb, from tents and poles to high-loft synthetic sleeping pads and bags. Awkward gear like axes, fishing rods and tackle boxes, trowels and small shovels for digging latrines, cooking stoves and cookware, food, reflector ovens, environmental fireplaces, and gas canisters all ride well inside pack baskets.

Galley Slave

Galley Slave

As a field geologist, I appreciated the pack basket for hauling rock samples, machetes and bush axes, notebooks, map rolls, and the heavy tools of my trade: rock hammers, mauls, and chisels. And in the days before digital cameras, I liked using a pack basket for carrying the heavy-duty tripod, padded camera and lens cases, umbrella, and tarp I used to set up a sheltered blind. And for paddling in remote hike-in waters, press a pack basket into duty for hauling an inflatable or folding boat.

Awkward and Bulky

Carrying Awkward and Bulky Gear

Pack baskets travel as well in canoes as on the back, but they're not as well suited to kayaking. I suppose that one could be lashed to the rear deck of a kayak, with the contents stowed in the boat's waterproof chambers or stuffed belowdecks in dry bags. Windage would be a concern strapped to a kayak deck, though in most tandem canoes of the sort used for camping trips, and in some pack canoes, they hunker down into the bilge and don't offer the wind much of a grip.


Thinking of giving one a try? Then you'll want to know about…

Packing With Pack Baskets

Pack baskets aren't waterproof, so anything carried in one has to be immune to water, or the contents must be made waterproof. Not all pack baskets have comfortable harnesses, with narrow straps that dig into your shoulders. Some shoulder straps are made slightly less galling with sliding foam pads. Pack baskets have a big hole on top, too. This is convenient when carrying long items like tent poles and rod cases, but it's ungood if loose items inside the pack can fall out, especially if you want to stow the basket on its back inside the canoe.

Contents can be trapped inside the pack basket by doing as Grandad did — build a customized rigid plywood lid that clamps over the rim. Or you can make a fabric flap similar to the cockpit cover I've described in "Full Circle". These two methods won't let you pack anything which sticks up above the basket rim. Another possibility is to stuff the pack basket so snugly that everything remains stuck inside.

Perhaps the best alternative is to carry a pack basket inside a suitably-sized soft pack. This corrals the basket's contents and provides protection from the weather. A Duluth pack works well, though it won't keep contents dry in a capsize, but slipping the basket into a large dry bag should make it waterproof. If the soft pack has external pockets, these can hold items you'll need quickly, like a water bottle or medical kit. On the other hand, exterior pockets increase the overall girth of the pack, and can snag when stowing or removing it from the canoe.

Loaded Pack Baskets

Packed Pack Baskets

Pack baskets stand upright, and this makes loading and unloading easy. However little or much is placed inside, the basket will remain conveniently stable and won't flop over. If you don't slip the pack basket into a waterproof pack large enough to contain it, it's a good idea to stow items in dry bags. You can use either a single large dry bag which will fill up the pack basket, or multiple smaller dry bags. If using a single large bag, put it inside the pack basket empty and fill it in place — it's easier than loading it then trying to stuff it into the basket.

Once you've loaded up, you'll have to…

Carry the Pack Basket

A pack basket rides best snugly against your back between rump and shoulders. Adjust the shoulder straps before loading the basket full of heavy objects. If you'll be carrying the pack basket inside a soft pack, adjust the straps on the external pack, too. Some people with strong neck and shoulder muscles prefer to augment shoulder straps — or dispense with them altogether — by using a tumpline.

Lift a loaded pack basket the same way you do any other pack. After settling the pack on their backs, strong paddlers sometimes place a soft pack or bag on top of the pack basket, but unless the load is light, you're courting a bad back or twisted knee on the portage trail. Some people find that one or a pair of walking sticks help keep circulation moving in the arms and improve stability while portaging.

As with any other piece of gear, you have to know…

How to Care for a Pack Basket

It's mostly common sense. Don't let the fuel canister leak into the basket, don't place the pack close to a fire, don't overload it to the point where it's strained beyond its capacity, don't allow spilled food to dry on the pack, and don't crush it or kick it down steep slopes. Clean the basket after every trip. It doesn't hurt to rinse off sweat salt by sluicing the pack back, shoulder straps, and tump with clean water. A whisk broom or warm sudsy water will get rid of dirt, sand, and crusted mud. Make repairs to wood, leather, or webbing. Air dry the basket outside, then hang it in a dark, cool, sheltered place where it's unlikely to attract animals looking for a nest. If the basket is finished with varnish or oil, touch it up when needed.

Grandad used to say, "Take care of your things and they'll take care of you." His pack basket was testament to this philosophy. When properly cared for, a pack basket will carry you to new adventures for years to come.

Baskets have been used for storing and carrying our stuff for about as long as we've been walking this planet. Carrying one in the arms is hard work. But design a harness to carry the basket on your back, and you've got a basket case that will carry more, go further, and surprise you with its efficiency. And the Adirondack pack basket has to have been one of the most aesthetically pleasing of basket cases. With a bit of care, it'll carry your load wherever you want to go.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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