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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Insights on Eyewear

Tips for Paddlers With Less Than Perfect Vision —
And Their Buddies
Glasses Galore

By Tamia Nelson

July 24, 2012

Stiff‑soled mountaineering boots aren't most paddlers' idea of proper footwear, but our route led over many miles of rocky Shield before the north‑flowing river debouched onto the watery lowlands that stretch up toward the Bay. I figured we'd do a fair bit of scrambling until we hit the string bogs, and I was right. So the boots came with me. We were two weeks into the trip when Farwell decided to brave the mosquitoes and give himself a good scrub from head to toe. Off came his glasses, and under our improvised shower bag he went. That's when I blundered by, wearing my heavy Asolos. And guess where my left foot came down? Right on top of Farwell's specs.

It was a sad time for us both. Many years ago, when the gold fill on the temples hadn't yet worn away, that selfsame pair of wire‑frame glasses kept Farwell company throughout his tour with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children. The lenses from those days were long gone, of course. (Glass is no match for blast forces.) But by a stroke of singular good fortune, the wire frames had survived. Until now. With a single errant footfall, I'd smashed the battle‑scarred veterans flat.

It wasn't a catastrophe. Farwell is no fool. He always carries a spare pair, and on this trip he'd brought two. But the pair I'd flattened with my heavy climbing boats held a special place in his affections. Luckily, the thick, heat‑tempered lenses that replaced the long‑lost originals had withstood my heavy‑footed assault. All of the frame's brazed joins were intact, too. So I went to work with the tools in my repair kit, and in less time than I'd dared to hope, the glasses were once again ready for duty, a little the worse for the experience, to be sure, and sporting a few new scars, but entirely serviceable. Farwell wears them to this day.

I put this incident down to …

Lessons Learned

Unlike Farwell, who needed glasses from the age of five on — this didn't stop him from shooting possibles on Qualification Day, though — I'd enjoyed 20/20 uncorrected vision for all of my life. So I'd never given much thought to the plight of a paddler who lost his only pair of glasses halfway through a long trip. But I should have done. After all, while you may have the eyes of an eagle, your partner may not. And if his only pair of specs is lost or broken, leaving him with 20/200 vision, you'll both be in a world of that thing that bears do in the woods.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. Vision is arguably our most important sense. It certainly tops the list in the backcountry. If you doubt this, try running a familiar riffle with your eyes closed. Or see how far down a portage trail you'll get with a blindfold on and a canoe over your head. Of course, you don't really need to carry out either experiment, and you'd be foolish even to try. You already know what the result would be. Now imagine leading a half‑blind, eyeglasses‑less partner along a wilderness route. Suddenly, you're seeing for two. It certainly wouldn't be easy — for either of you. You're in the same boat, right?

Which, so to speak, brings the problem of the paddler with less than perfect vision …

Into Clear Focus

The first rule is simple: If you need glasses to see where you're going (or to read a map, for that matter), one pair isn't enough. Two is the bare minimum, and I'd add a third on any trip longer than an overnighter close to home. Of course, it's better if you don't ever have to use any of your spare pairs. So it pays to exercise a little care. And the best way to begin is to …

Anticipate Threats  Most glasses‑wearers take their specs off when they shower or sleep. If you do, don't leave them lying where some heavy‑footed oaf can smash them flat. Watch out for overhanging branches on the trail, too. And beware of gesticulating companions. I once saw an enthusiastic street‑corner orator throw his arm out by way of dramatic emphasis and deftly sweep his neighbor's eyeglasses right off his face. They tinkled sweetly when they landed on the sidewalk.

It also pays to …

Take Precautions  It's the seat‑belt principle writ small. If you can't avoid a crash, do what you can to ensure that you survive it. Hooked temples help keep eyeglasses on your face under all but the most adverse conditions. (They can also dig impressive gouges in the backs of your ears.) Croakies and their numerous siblings — not to mention their many imitators — do the same thing, but they do it better, without gouging your ears. And unlike the tempered glass lenses on Farwell's Old Corps specs, modern plastic (CR‑39 or polycarbonate) lenses are nearly impervious to impacts. On the other hand, they scratch very easily. A single speck of grit in the water you use to clean them is all but certain to leave its mark. Scratch‑resistant coatings help somewhat, but it still pays to use filtered water. Lastly — and I'm speaking from experience here, remember — old‑style wire frames can sometimes be bent back into shape even when twisted out of all semblance of normality. The same thing can't always be said of the costly designer creations on display at the local mall.

Loyal Retainers

But what if, despite your best efforts, you lose your eyeglasses or damage them beyond repair? Then you'll be glad you have a spare pair, stored in a hard case. So take very good care of your spares. You may need them someday. (If that day comes, you'll probably wish you'd brought two spare pairs.) And don't think you get a pass …

If You Only Need Glasses to Read  Near vision is every bit as important as distant vision: Being able to read a map is no less vital than being able to read the water. Now that I've reached the age when my original‑equipment Mark I eyeballs are starting to stiffen up — if you're still in your 20s, don't feel smug; it'll happen to you, too — I can't distinguish a ridge from a valley on a quad without my reading glasses, let alone make sense of the commemorative‑stamp‑sized display on my GPS. And reading glasses aren't just for reading, either. This was brought home to me in no uncertain fashion when the rear derailleur on my bike was jolted out of adjustment while I was towing an inflatable, several miles from the beaver pond that was my destination. I didn't yet carry reading glasses with me on these excursions. ("Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.") After all, I hadn't left my neighborhood, and I certainly didn't need to read a map to get where I was going. But when I went searching for the tiny B‑screw that controls the pivot spring tension on the derailleur, I discovered why it pays to bring reading glasses along on every trip. In the end I had to do a fussy job by touch, and nearly every item of gear I possessed bore a greasy smear to prove it.

As soon as I got back to "sivilization," therefore, I lost no time in visiting my local dollar store, where I stocked up on cheap reading glasses. (You can see some of my collection in the photo at the head of this column, and the panel shot below showcases my favorite pair. They fold up into a tiny package, no larger than a Zippo lighter.) Now I have a pair in every pack I own. And funnily enough, these dollar lenses have survived hasty cleaning after hasty cleaning without a scratch, while Farwell's 80‑buck prescription lenses collect scar after scar, even though his cleaning ritual would put most operating theaters to shame. It's one of those little mysteries in which modern life abounds.

Know How to Fold 'Em

Of course, even if you have a spare pair of glasses in every pocket, it's good to know you can fix your Number 1 pair if it's damaged. Which is why I also carry a …

Small Selection of Repair Items  Duct tape has been used to hold more than one damaged frame together temporarily, but if you have a few hinge screws and a replacement nose pad or two in your pack, along with a jeweler's screwdriver, you can often do a more professional job. Even a fractured frame can sometimes be put right. Not so long ago, when money was very tight, Farwell broke what was then his only pair of reading glasses. They were nothing special, and we could have replaced them for just a few bucks, but we had other uses for the money. (It's hard to kick the eating habit.) So I borrowed some soft wire and waxed twine from our expedition repair kit and splinted the broken frame. The repair was a complete success — you can see it in the photo below — and Farwell still uses these glasses when he does mechanical work on his bike.

Adapt and Improvise

As you can tell from the photo, I bent the wire to follow the curves of the lenses, then lashed the improvised splint to what remained of the original frame and temples. The result isn't elegant, but it works. If you embrace the "form follows function" doctrine, I guess that's elegant enough. And the same approach could be used with almost any frame.


Eyeglasses help you see. But that's not all. They also do good service in …

Protecting Your Eyes From Harm

I've touched on this subject before. Put simply, when you're on the water, the sun is not your friend. Exposure to high levels of incident ultraviolet light, day after day and year after year, can damage your vision beyond repair. Which is why sunglasses are now de rigueur among paddlers and sailors. Of course, there are other threats to vision, too. Amphibious trekkers don protective eyewear to shield them from the hazards of the highways and byways, a list which includes sprays of gravel thrown up by speeding ATVs and disoriented bumble bees (if a bee in your bonnet is unpleasant, and it is, imagine how it feels to have one in your eye), not to mention the occasional air‑gun pellet (boyz just wanna have fun). This can pose real problems for anyone needing corrective lenses. Having protective eyewear ground to a prescription doesn't come cheap, and many prescriptions can't be duplicated in large, wrap‑around lenses. But there is a solution, and it's illustrated below:

In the Beginning...

These are Uvex Genesis XC (Extra Coverage) safety glasses, with a wire insert to hold prescription lenses. The frames and interchangeable polycarbonate lenses are dirt cheap, particularly when compared with the truly breathtaking prices of designer‑label sports eyewear. And Uvex offers lenses of every description, from clear and amber for low‑light use to dark gray for strong sunlight and maximum glare protection, along with such exotic colors as blue, just what you need if you regularly paddle under sodium vapor lights. (Every one of these absorbs 99.9 percent of incident UVA and UVB light, by the way.) Best of all, the UVEX lenses offer significant impact protection: to ANSI Z87+ and CSA Z94.3 standards — and they pass the military V0 impact test, too. If you paddle close to wetland "wildlife management areas" during waterfowl season, when steel shot occasionally patters down around you like rain, this offers no small measure of comfort.

Downsides? Sure. The multiple surfaces created by lens and prescription insert generate multiple reflections, and the resulting light show can get pretty spectacular if, say, you're riding a bike into oncoming traffic as night falls. Farwell compares the effect to watching tracer rounds coming at you, though without the added savor of mortal danger. Then again, paddlers don't often face oncoming traffic, do they? But they do sweat, and that can also cause problems, particularly in hot, humid weather, when the Uvex lenses are prone to fogging. If a breeze is blowing, though, this tendency is much reduced. And a breeze — almost always a headwind — usually seems to be blowing anytime I'm in a boat.

The bottom line? You've only got two eyes. It's worth taking care of them. And safety glasses like the Uvex Genesis XC make this easy — not to mention surprisingly inexpensive.

En Plein Air

In an ideal world, everyone would have perfect vision. But ours isn't an ideal world. And even 20/20 eyes need protection from harsh glare and blowing grit. Which is why it pays to weigh your options carefully when purchasing paddling eyewear — and to do your best to take care of the glasses you already have. Now you've seen how I approach these problems. I hope you've found my insights on eyewear useful.



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