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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Quickening of the Waters Our Readers Write

Spring Into Action!

March 29, 2011

It's been a long, hard winter in much of Canoe Country. Too long! But the sun continues its relentless northward trek, and the ice is retreating before it. Paddlers are already out on some rivers, and anglers are preparing for the opening of trout season. Soon the last tattered remnants of smutty snow will melt away, ducks and geese in the hundreds will set the hills ringing with their cries, and all but the highest mountain ponds will shake off their icy shrouds. There's a sense of urgent anticipation in the air, and paddlers aren't the only ones to feel it. Woodpeckers are drumming out territories, troupes of chickadees are calling fee‑bee from sunny branches, and randy chipmunks are looking for love — but only after attending to the even more important business of stuffing their cheeks to the bursting point.

Time passes. The last "Our Readers Write" went online just as winter was closing in. Torrents of water have roared between The River's snow‑covered banks since then, and we have plenty of mail to share. Some readers have been thinking about how to get a good night's sleep in camp. Others are gearing up for new discoveries, while more than a few are reliving last season's adventures in word and image. But enough of this. Who needs an appetizer when the main course is ready to serve? So let's reach down into the mailbag and see what our readers have to say. Spring is on its way. There's not a moment to be lost!

  —  Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, In the Same Boat

Sleeping on Air

Tamia's article about her new air mattress generated lots of mail — more than enough to warrant a full follow‑up, with another one yet to come. In the meantime, however, here are two tasters:

Dear Tamia,

I bought a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core pad and took it to the Boundary Waters. Yes, you have to blow it up, but it is worth the effort. Takes me three minutes and 25 lungfuls; I was a professional flutist for many years, so I know how to fill my lungs and expel without hyperventilating. Others should work more carefully. At first I overinflated, but this is a good start. Climb into your bedroll and bleed some air out slowly until your body is supported evenly, hipbones, shoulder bones, and all. The Air Core is light and compact for the portage. My dog loved it. I had to move him off at my bedtime.

Bill Kessler

• • •

Tamia replies:

It's good to hear from you again, Bill. And I'm glad that you (and your dog) are enjoying sleeping on air. I hope that Big Agnes never lets you down.

Dear Tamia,

I, too, have just bought myself this simple yet ingenious air mattress, as I've struggled with all the same complaints you have with uncomfortable or unworthy nests for sleeping outdoors. I decided on the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core after my kayaking pal swapped hers for mine so I could try it out on one of our trips. Needless to say, I was sold! First truly comfortable sleep in years. Can't wait to try my very own pad out in the spring!

I opted for the Big Agnes sleeping bag as well, which has the incredibly smart idea of a sleeve sewn into the bottom of the bag to hold the Big Agnes sleep pad so you don't slide or roll off the pad all night. (So typical, right?) I thought I'd mention this in case you haven't heard of it.

Thanks for all the wonderful articles on all aspects of water and wilderness traveling; I really enjoy the product spotlights, the cooking tips, and all the interesting lore and information provided. It would be nice to see some highlights of Canadian trips, or at least some of British Columbia's amazingly beautiful kayaking destinations. It doesn't get much better than this, quite honestly!


Mary Mejlholm
Nanaimo, British Columbia

• • •

Tamia replies:

Many thanks for the heads‑up, Mary. I don't own a Big Agnes bag, but I must admit that the idea of an integral mattress pocket is intriguing — though I suppose it might present a few problems for paddlers who sleep on their sides (like Farwell). It would be a great weight‑saver, of course. Even Farwell would like that.

Trip highlights?'s got 'em, and Canada is very well represented. Check out Places to Paddle and Water Trails. (Don't see your favorites? Just add them!)

How About Sleeping in the Air, Instead?

Tamia's been puffing (sorry about that!) the idea of sleeping on air, but there's another approach: going totally airborne…

Dear Tamia,

Just finished reading the article. I just may buy a Big Agnes. Have you ever tried a Hennessy hammock? I have one hanging on my porch right now to find out if I can sleep in it. If I can, then I think it will be much better than any mattress on the ground.

Art Hildebrandt

• • •

Tamia replies:

I've never used a Hennessy hammock, Art, but I've spent a little time hanging out in the air, and it's definitely an option worth exploring. Maybe some more experienced readers will write in around this column. If so, rest assured I'll pass the word along.

When Push Comes Shovel

In the last edition of "Our Readers Write," Joyce Godsey, president of the Methuen Rail Trail Alliance, wrote to tell us how she made her own "push pole." (Scroll down to "When Push Comes to Shove.") Not long afterward, Barney Ward — In the Same Boat reader, part‑time waterman, and full‑time peripatetic philosopher — was moved to comment by Joyce's letter. Here's what he had to say about this simple yet effective method of moving boats through the shallows:

Dear Tamia,

In case you did not know about them, push poles and special boat arrangements are a way of life on the warm water coasts of America. Small marsh boats are poled out in the open flats where a fisherman sneaks up and sight‑casts for the fish. The poles easily run to over 20 feet in length. Most of the longer poles are carbon fiber and can cost a few hundred dollars. The longest poling boat I have noticed was a 24‑foot model with a bow platform for two fishermen.

Fishing the Flats

This is the only picture I have, and it's of a guide taking his clients out for a fishing trip. This is a typical design for a shallow‑running boat for the area. The sides are very low to assist in getting off and onto the boat. Usually they motor into an area, then pole over to the no‑motor area, then get off the boat and wade to fish. The fellow in the black jacket is sitting on the poling platform. The push pole is the long black graphite rod on the starboard side of the boat. The part of the pole aft of the transom is the part that you push off the bay's bed. Though this is a powerboat, push poles are used on boats without motors, too.

Another thing we did down in the soft mud might seem odd to most folks. When the water was barely or not quite deep enough to float a small boat, and the mud was too loose to use a push pole, we would "paddle" with a long‑handle shovel. Reach out, grab a bladeful of sloppy mud to pull forward with. Usually this was used just for a few yards while crossing an inlet to a back‑marsh bay.

Barney Ward
Old Fat Man Adventures

• • •

Tamia replies:

Good to hear from you, Barney! I knew that push poles enjoyed a wide following among fishermen on the Flats, but your shovel technique is new to me. Then again, I've inadvertently employed more conventional paddles in much the same way, and some — a monstrously heavy Iliad whitewater blade comes to mind — almost seemed to have been made for this sort of (ab)use. (The Iliad doubled as a splitting maul, too. OK. I exaggerate. But it could have done. Almost.) The shallows are fascinating places, and between paddles, poles, shovels, and "splatchers," there's really nowhere a boater can't go, is there?

Another Way to Go Airborne

Poling marks one end of the motive spectrum for no‑octane boaters. And the other? Putting the Old Woman to work, of course…

Hi, Tamia!

Never miss your column! Keep up the good work.

Have you ever written about constructing a sailing rig — mast, boom, leeboards, etc. — for a canoe? I have an aluminum canoe which has the mast step already in place and would love to make a sail rig. If you haven't done a column can you point me in the right direction? Thanks!

Dave Palmer

• • •

Tamia replies:

Thanks for the props, Dave. Glad you like the column. But though I've dabbled with a variety of ad hoc sail rigs on long trips, I'm really no sailor. Farwell's your man for that. He's done a fair bit of messing about under sail, most of it in dinghies and canoes. In fact, he began a series of sailing articles for some time back — you'll find them in the Archives under the subhead "Putting the 'Old Woman' to Work." It's a work in progress, however, and while he's hoping to complete the series this year, you won't want to wait. So I'd suggest you check out Canoe Sailing Resources in the meantime. There's a lot there. And don't miss the article "Sticks and Strings." I think you'll find it particularly interesting.

You might also want to look for the 1954 edition of the American National Red Cross handbook Canoeing. It has wonderfully detailed discussions of canoe sail rigs, and you should be able to locate a copy through interlibrary loan. Check out the Internet Archive, too. The late 19th century was the heyday of the sailing canoe, and you'll find a lot of useful titles available as PDFs, all of them free for the downloading. Start your search by looking up the works of John ("Rob Roy") MacGregor and Warington Baden‑Powell. The latter's Canoe Travelling is a sailing classic. (NB Be aware that "canoe" means "kayak" in British English. Open canoes are "Canadian canoes." To add to the confusion, some British boaters have now adopted "American" nomenclature, though the older usage hangs on. Still, sailing is sailing, whether the craft is decked or not.)

Good luck!

Leash It or Lose It?

Back to using a paddle to get around. Of course, when you're out on the water there's always the possibility of losing your paddle overboard. What then? Or better yet, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place?

Dear Tamia,

I have a question. I have a couple of paddle leashes. One is pretty low‑tech, made of stretch cord like the cord used for deck line. The other is slightly more sophisticated, with coiled line like on a telephone receiver. It has a clip on one end and a velcro strap on the other. These are great tools. I know these are so you don't lose your paddle if you roll, capsize, or whatever. Frankly, since I can stand up in the shallow marshes where I kayak to hunt waterfowl, I clip one end of the leash to the boat and the other to the wrist of the fowler (a flintlock shotgun). This keeps me from having to do what a buddy of mine did. He hired a diver to find his shotgun on the bottom of the river. I recently read your article about the guy who did most things wrong, but a couple of very important things right in that when he exited the kayak he kept his paddle. ["Worst‑Case Scenario" –Editor]. It seemed to me that the paddle did you precious little good without the boat, so you might as well clip it to the boat.

Is there a consensus on this? I would tend to clip the paddle to the boat. This has got to be a great one to address, and one in which I might NOT be the only person with the question.

After reading your note about tying the boat to one's body, I remember my uncle's advice of "never tie a boat to you." Of course, he had been in the Navy and would be dealing with that "open ocean" situation. On land, I love using lanyards so I don't lose gear while traveling through the woods.

James Stone

• • •

Tamia replies:

Ah, paddle leashes. You couldn't have hit on a more contentious topic, James. It's the paddlesport world's closest counterpart to cycling's interminable "helmet wars." Nonetheless, I dipped my toes into these troubled waters a couple of years back, in "At the End of Your Tether?" As for the wisdom of hanging onto your paddle in a capsize, I went into the question in some detail in "Swim Time! Coping with Capsizes." But here's the executive summary: When you go for an unplanned swim in rough water, you and your boat are likely to part company. And while finding a swamped boat lodged on a downstream rock isn't always easy, it's usually a lot easier than spotting a floating paddle. So it pays to get — and keep — a grip.

Paddle leashes? They make a lot of sense in quiet shallows, and many sea kayakers use them as well, for just the reasons you state. But there's always some risk of entanglement, and that risk rises in the chaotic currents of whitewater rivers. My personal bottom line? I'd be reluctant to use a leash of any sort in moving water, whether it was tethered to me or tied to my boat. And while I agree that tying the paddle to the boat can make good sense on quiet water, it may be less than helpful in whitewater. Apart from the ever‑present danger of entanglement, there's another consideration: Sometimes a swamped boat is gone for good, and when your paddle is tied to it you've lost that, too. If you have your paddle in your hand, however, you've saved the cost of a replacement. This could easily amount to several hundred bucks. Consider it a down payment on a new boat. Moreover, if you held on to your paddle, and if there's an empty place in a buddy's canoe, you can still get a share of the fun on the way to the take‑out. It might even help take your mind off your lost boat.

As for "tying the boat to [my] body." I mostly agree with your uncle. That said, I do "clip in" to my kayak on windy days, though only on flatwater. I'd certainly do so if I were planning a long solo open‑water crossing. Farwell once had the fun of swimming after his swamped kayak on a big, windswept lake. He won the race, but it was close‑run thing. I've had similar experiences with flighty inflatables, too. So the clip‑in option remains a useful one, at least in certain circumstances. Then again, I don't often choose to make long open‑water crossings alone these days. And after his experience on that windswept lake, Farwell doesn't either. After all, in a hard chance on a big bay, a companion trumps a lanyard any day.

Something of Note

Tamia's series on field sketching struck a chord with many readers, one of whom is a contributer to's Guidelines

Hi, Tamia!

I always enjoy your articles. I have a comment on field journal notes. I am a birder, and oftentimes when I am going to be in an area where new birds might be seen, I write down a few pertinent facts about the birds I want to see: distinguishing feather and color patterns, bill color, habitat, behavior, and the like. It's a reminder so when I am in the field I can glance at them to determine if the new bird in the bush is the one I was seeking. It's a great aid for identifying birds in the field. I really enjoyed your article on field notes and sketching — thanks.

Tom Watson
Columnist and Contributor to

• • •

Tamia replies:

I'm delighted that you enjoyed "Practical Art for Paddlers," Tom, and thanks for the tip. You've reminded me that field journals are more than a record of what we've seen and done. They're also guidebooks, and the best sort of guidebooks, at that: the ones we write for ourselves.

And speaking of guidebooks, readers who haven't checked out's Guidelines should do so. We wrote many of the early articles in that series, but there's been a great deal added since then. So why not visit with Tom and his colleagues at Guidelines when you get the chance? You won't regret it.

Not Your Average Fish Story

Hi, Tamia!

I was reading your article about sketching and colored pencils ["Color Your World" –Editor]. Pretty neat! I don't really do much drawing, but once in a while I have had some fun with it. I'm looking forward to your upcoming article on watercolors — I really like those.

Here's a color pencil sketch I did years ago:

No Piker, This!

I hadn't looked at it for a long time, but I went to find it after I read your article. I drew this one day while daydreaming about a toothy muskie or northern pike waiting for me to catch him. Later I went and DID catch him [see photo below –Editor]. I wonder, if I had drawn a bigger fish, would the one I caught have been bigger?


• • •

Tamia replies:

What a splendid drawing of a pike, Dan! As for the Big Question — if you'd drawn a bigger fish, would you have hooked a bigger muskie? — there's only one way to answer it, isn't there? So hunt up a really big sheet of paper and get drawing. Then go fishing.


That's a Nice Fish!


And that's the last word. Trout season opens here in New York in a few days, and Dan's sketch reminds me of the many times I've cast a fly from a canoe while ice still floated on the water. Of course it always rained on opening day — except when it snowed — and I seldom got a strike in the murky, turbulent runoff. But it was fun to be out in a boat after the enforced confinement of winter, and that was the important thing.

The rivers are rising. Be safe, keep warm, and have fun. And don't forget to take a few minutes to let us know what you've been doing. It's "Our Readers Write," after all.

A little fine print: Although we often ask, just to be sure, we assume that it's OK to reprint any letter you send us, unless you tell us otherwise. (Just put "Not for Publication" at the head of your letter. That's all it takes.) We will never put your e‑mail address online unless you specifically ask us to, however. We also edit letters occasionally for length or clarity, and we add links to articles or other resources wherever and whenever appropriate.

Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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