The Things We Carry
A Paddler's Talismans
By Tamia Nelson
May 26, 2009
I've been drawn to the outdoors all my life, and I have to thank my grandfathers for fostering my love of the natural world. They didn't have very much in common, but they shared one thing: each was an outdoorsman. My city-reared grandfather (I knew him as Gramps) moved to the country as soon as he retired. It was the realization of a lifelong dream, made possible by a long lifetime's hard work. He'd had a small garden in his suburban home, and he brought his skill and enthusiasm with him to his new old house in dairy country, losing no time in transforming 24 acres of overgrazed pasture into a lush haven for wildlife. He was understandably proud of what he'd done. Almost from the day I learned to walk, he took me with him for ever longer rambles around "the property," teaching me the names of the trees and flowers we saw along the way and opening my eyes to the cycle of the seasons.
These walks were accompanied by a certain degree of ceremony. In fact, they were quasi-formal occasions, and Gramps was a gentleman of the old school. So he always made sure he was properly attired. In particular, this meant wearing a hat. His favorite was one he'd purchased from a New York City haberdasher. It had been a rich, deep chestnut brown when it was new, but years of sun, rain, and sweat had faded the felt to a mottled and disreputable khaki. It also smelled of citronella and hard toil, and my grandmother often banished it to a dark corner of the garage, right next to the kerosene can and the grease gun. But Gramps always hunted it down. He had lots of hats—he'd been a sales clerk in a men's store at one point in his life, and he'd made good use of his employee discount—but the worn, old chestnut felt was his favorite. No, it was more than that. Much more. It had become a part of him, in the same way that a leather bicycle saddle becomes part of the rider. Gramps felt incomplete, almost unfinished, without the old hat fixed firmly on his head.
My other grandfather was a very different sort of man. He was a part-time Adirondack guide who'd lived far from the big city all his working life. He taught me to fish for brookies in remote beaver ponds and introduced me to the arts of canoeing in a battered old Grumman. Grandad knew all the boreal birds by sight and sound, and he passed this knowledge on to me. But our excursions together were very different from my leisurely strolls with my other grandfather. Unlike Gramps, who was happy to move at a speed that a five-year-old could easily match, Grandad set a fast pace, even on trails that were little more than deer tracks. And he didn't make concessions for the short legs of young girls. I either kept up or I got left behind to find my way back to his cabin as best I could. There was no question of stopping to swat any of the legions of blackflies that swarmed over my exposed flesh, nor was there time (or breath) for idle chatter. Which was just as well, I suppose, because my enforced silence meant that when Grandad spoke, I had little choice but to listen—and Grandad never spoke unless he had something important to communicate. There wasn't much about the backcountry that he didn't know.
Like I said, Gramps and Grandad had little in common. Still, Grandad also wore a hat. Always. But—unlike Gramps—he didn't particularly care which hat he picked off the rack by the door when he went out. None had a special place in his affections. The same thing couldn't be said about his shirt, however. Make that Shirt with a capital "S." Grandad had lots of shirts, but he only had one Shirt. It was a much-patched old US Army utility blouse with deep chest pockets. No two buttons matched, and the collar and cuffs were frayed and threadbare. The shirt stank, too—a legacy of years of applications of fly dope compounded from a recipe that probably predated Nessmuk's celebrated castor oil, pine tar, and pennyroyal "varnish." Whatever it was, it worked, and the stink was a small price to pay for freedom from blackfly bites. Of course, Grandad could have soaked another shirt in fly dope and retired the old Army relic. But he didn't. That smelly, tattered shirt was Grandad's constant companion in the woods. He wouldn't set off on a fishing trip without it.
Clearly, Gramps' hat and Grandad's shirt were more than articles of clothing, and their value transcended the merely utilitarian functions of protection from sun and rain. They were…
And like all talismans, they brought good luck to the possessor. Most backcountry travelers cherish something of the sort. It may be a commonplace item—like an old felt hat or a threadbare shirt—but it has a special meaning for its owner. In fact, it wouldn't be too much to say that such talismans are imbued with a kind of magic. And make no mistake. Outdoorswomen have talismans, too. I'm no exception. In fact, my list of Essentials includes—you guessed it—The Shirt. It's not Grandad's old shirt, I'm sorry to say. That died before he did. But it's a worthy successor, a heavy cotton "fishing shirt" with bellows chest pockets and imitation horn buttons securing the wide flaps. I bought it at deep discount at one of the summer lawn sales at the Manchester, Vermont, Orvis store, and it saw a lot of use on field surveys. The large pockets held my keys, pens, compass, notebook, and small camera. The cut was roomy enough to be cool, and the collar extended high enough to keep my neck from blistering in the sun.
I no longer work as a geologist, but I still wear The Shirt whenever I go afield during the warmer months of the year. The original sage green hue has softened and faded, especially over the elbows and in the middle of the back where my rucksack chafes. It has a few patches, too. A momma mouse set up housekeeping in a pocket one winter and raised a numerous brood to maturity, all of whom enjoyed playing hide-and-seek in the folds of the fabric. Mom also quarried material for her maternity bed from The Shirt's tail and sleeves, leaving it a little shorter (and better ventilated) than before. Later, after the kids had left home and Mom had moved on, I reclaimed my property and made a few perfunctory repairs. Perfunctory, but lasting. More than a decade has passed, but The Shirt is still one of the…
Things I (Always) Carry
But it's not the only shirt. During big-game season I do my best not to look like a deer, and a red-checked wool flannel lumberjack shirt takes The Shirt's place in my wardrobe. (It's no substitute for a hunter-orange vest, of course, but it's better than fawn-colored cotton.) It, too, has seen many years of service, and it's getting pretty threadbare—though most of the more noticeable damage has been done by moths and not mice. But it's still warm, and it's still comfortable when worn under a life jacket. I'm not ready to retire it yet.
For real character, though, nothing beats my field hat. It's an honest-to-God Stetson®, selected from the pages of an L.L.Bean Fall Catalog about 35 years ago, when there were fewer teeth on display in the pictures, the product descriptions were longer and more entertaining, and mail order was still a bit of a Big Deal. The brim is wide enough to shade my face and neck, but not so wide that my upper hand knocks it off my head when paddling. Better yet, it's stiff enough to hold the shape I give it, as well as keeping a mosquito head net just far enough from my nose to discourage freeloaders in search of an easy blood meal. Not that this hat is perfect. Well, OK, it is perfect. Now. After a near tragedy in the Hudson River Gorge, when an errant gust snatched the hat from me at the start of a long rapids—I retrieved it from a pool at the foot—I decided to make sure it would never again be whisked away by the Old Woman . So I added a couple of grommets and then threaded a leather shoelace through them to serve as a chin strap. That was years ago, but hat and shoelace are still going strong. Admittedly, the original "silver fish-belly" color has lost some of its luster. It's now best described as pale gray. And the headband is badly stained by a mixture of sweat, pine pitch, and blood. My blood. Blackflies and mosquitoes can now get through the rents in the crown, despite my ham-fisted attempts at stitching them closed. And there are a few other stains, as well, most of them left by mice, who seem to find old hats nearly as irresistible as old shirts. So do I, come to that.
Of course, as important as a hat might be, no paddler can go far without a paddle, and every old salt has one she likes best. I've described mine before, but it warrants another mention. I've never wavered in my affection for the classic ash beavertail. Six hang from various articles of furniture around me, though needless to say, I have a favorite. It's unfashionably long—as long as I am tall, in fact—but the extra leverage is often welcome, and despite its length the shaft is just the right diameter. The grip fits my hand perfectly, into the bargain. To be sure, the ash blade is heavier than a carbon-fiber and Kevlar® confection, but the paddle is so responsive that I don't notice the weight. There's a little magic in the blade, too. It vibrates in my hands as I paddle, telegraphing news about each subtle shift in the water's motion under my keel. It's as if it were still a living thing, as if the spirit of the tree remains in the blade that was carved from the heart of the ash. I don't let it out my grasp on The River. Even when I'm off the water, it hangs beside my desk, where I can touch it whenever I want.
Perhaps I'm going too far in crediting my paddle with any sort of sentient anticipation. But almost no one, not even the most hardheaded realist, would deny that there's genuine magic in the needle of the compass. Over the years I've owned many kinds, from the tiny button compass I got when I was five years old to the formidable Brunton® pocket transit that I used in field surveys. All of them pointed the way up North, but only one achieved the status of talisman: a Silva® Ranger 15CLQ. It's an unusual example of a common type. It boasts a clinometer, for one thing—nowadays I use this mostly to estimate the gradients of hills when I'm making amphibious forays into unfamiliar country—and it's also graduated in quadrants, a system likely to bamboozle anyone who wasn't weaned on an early Brunton. Luckily, I was. My Ranger is waterproof, compact, easy to use, and almost indestructible. I carry it in a nylon pouch I picked up for some loose change at a military surplus outlet. The pouch clips to a pack strap with an ALICE slide keeper. It couldn't be handier, and that's a good thing for a compass to be. We've traveled together for a good few miles, the Ranger and I, and despite showing a little wear and tear, we're both good for many more.
Paddling, hiking, and cycling are all guaranteed to make you thirsty, and as Jerome K. Jerome reminds us, "thirst is a dangerous thing." That being the case, I wouldn't go anywhere in the backcountry without carrying my blackened Sierra Club cup. This cup has history. It's a phoenix. I took it into the Adirondacks on my first solo jaunts. I'd bought it on impulse, at a little shop in Keene Valley, just because the word EIGER was stamped on the bottom. I was climbing frozen waterfalls back then, and I had dreams of someday tackling the Mordwand, the aptly named "Killer Wall" of the infamous Bernese peak. (I never made it to the Eiger, and that's probably just as well. The Mordwand's malign reputation is well deserved.) Later, I carried the same steel cup up peaks in the North Cascades and down north-flowing rivers in Québec and Ontario.
Then a Christmas Eve fire destroyed our apartment while we were out visiting relatives. Farwell and I came back on Christmas morning to find everything gone. Well, not quite everything. Two of our possessions survived: my Schwinn Traveler and my Sierra Club cup. I dug the cup out of the rubble myself, kneeling in fresh snow while I rubbed a thick crust of soot and ash off the steel. I could still see the EIGER stamp. The heat of the fire had stained the steel an indelible blue-black and warped the cup's bottom so that it rocked gently whenever it was set down. That didn't matter. It had survived the fire. Now, many years later, even the EIGER stamp has worn away. That doesn't matter either. There are better cups. I own several. They're all more stable. Most are more capacious. Many are lighter. But I'll bet you can guess which one I reach for when I'm loading my pack. The old steel cup is a survivor. And so am I. We travel together.
Gramps and Grandad taught me to value utility over novelty, and to reward faithful service with loyalty, even if the "servant" was an inanimate object. They also taught me to see beauty in familiar things and to seek continuity in the midst of constant change. Those were important lessons, and thanks to Gramps and Grandad, I learned them early. Both men are long gone. But I haven't forgotten them—or the things they taught me.