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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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Straight Skinny:
Hints for the No Longer Svelte
Meet the Heavy Brigade

By Tamia Nelson

August 28, 2012

By this time in every year the third wave of outdoor catalogs has established a beachhead in my post‑office box. The themes never vary: hunting and leaf‑peeping. No matter that the red fluid in the thermometer outside my window is climbing toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the deer are still in velvet. The marketers are anticipating the change in the seasons. They have to, of course. And despite the fact that I get almost all my information about outdoor clothing and equipment from the Web these days, I still look forward to the late‑summer invasion of glossy paper. Not only is the catalog copy entertaining, but the photography is always first‑rate. It's wonderfully evocative of woodsmoke‑scented evenings among the long shadows of the scarlet hills, and I find this delightfully nostalgic.

But… One thing is missing: realism. The models in these catalogs are immaculate. Their well‑scrubbed faces glow. Not a hair is out of place. And all their clothes are freshly pressed. Needless to say, this doesn't reflect life in the real world. At least it doesn't reflect life in my world. At the end of a typical fall day on the water I'm usually caked in mud up to my knees — the beavers get busier as the days get shorter, inundating many trails — and covered in fresh scratches. (Most of the portages in my corner of the Adirondacks seem to begin or end in a spruce hell.) The contrast between image and actuality couldn't be more striking. I've written about this before, and such benign deceptions come as no surprise. Catalogs aren't in the business of gritty documentary photography, after all. They aim to seduce with images of a prettified, trouble‑free world, and they do that job to perfection.

There's one area where this strategy of idealization is less understandable, however. Not only are the catalog models scrubbed, pressed, and coiffed, but they're also uniformly thin, and some are downright skinny. Yet when I look around me, the parks and beaches of northern New York offer countless counterexamples. (To be fair, a few of the hardcore hunting catalogs use models who look just like the guys I see checking out the new guns in Walmart, but these catalogs are the exception.) Why is this important? Well, for one thing, it's a pretty safe bet that many (most?) of the catalog outfitters' customers have been fighting — and frequently losing — the battle of the bulge for years, and they probably experience a brief surge of jealousy when confronted by page after page of Perfect Bodies. But that's not the worst of it. Many outfitters' clothing offerings also reflect the idealized world of their catalog images. With few exceptions — the hunting catalogs among them, again — there hasn't been much available for the endomorphs (that's "fatties," to speak plainly) among us. Even the muscular mesomorphs sometimes find themselves hard pressed to get a good fit. If you're an avid cyclist, as well as a paddler, with a cyclist's bulging quads and glutes, you'll know exactly what I mean.

This runs counter to trends in the real world. We're getting fatter. (I don't mean you personally, of course. I mean the collective "we.") Calorie‑rich foods are plentiful and cheap. Mechanization makes muscles increasingly irrelevant, both at work and at home. And opportunities to use what the civil engineers like to call "active transport" — that's walking and cycling to you and me — for everyday chores get fewer and fewer with every passing year, as more and more cars crowd the streets and roads, all of them going faster and faster. Even stairs are disappearing from sight in public buildings, hidden away in the dark corners like a disfiguring ulcer.

OK. We're filling out — that's the collective "we," remember — but we have a harder and harder time finding outdoor clothing that fits. So …

What Can We Do About It?

This isn't a fashion question, by the way. It's a function question. And it has important real‑world consequences. A case in point: Perhaps the best big‑water canoeist I've known — it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say he saved my life on one occasion — was morbidly obese. Think pre‑late‑20th‑century Michelin Man and you'd be about right. This didn't stop him from paddling. Far from it. But it did mean he had to make all his own kit. Luckily, he was as good with a pair of scissors and a sewing machine as he was with a paddle. After having a wetsuit made to order and finding it less than satisfactory, he started gluing up his own. He stitched up paddling jackets, too. He even made his own PFD. He simply couldn't find one to fit him. (He kept a commercial flotation cushion in his canoe to satisfy the requirements of the law.) In fact, just about the only items of clothing he could buy ready‑made were his socks, his shoes, his hat, and his helmet.

Smaller hurdles have defeated many lesser men. Not him, though. These difficulties didn't hold him back. They didn't even slow him down. He routinely ran Class V water, but he did it in a flotation‑filled open canoe rather than a kayak or C1. Why? Because he couldn't squeeze himself into the cockpit of a decked boat. That didn't matter. He took on rapids in his open canoe that few kayakers then dared to challenge, and he did it with breathtaking grace and enviable élan. And when Farwell and I blundered in over our heads in the Hudson River gorge he was there. If he hadn't been, it's more than likely I wouldn't be writing this.

Needless to say, there aren't many like him. If would‑be paddlers can't find the speciality clothing they need in a catalog or on an outfitter's shelf, most will simply shrug their shoulders and take up some other sport. Or settle into the La‑Z‑Boy for good. And that's a shame. Happily, though, there are signs that the tide is now on the turn. The catalog photos may not reflect this welcome change just yet, but outfitters' offerings are starting to … well … open up. This isn't altruism on the outfitters' part. It's hard‑headed business sense. You can't make money if you don't sell what people want to buy. When your customer base broadens, so to speak, your line of specialty clothing has to expand as well. Or else.

As I've already noted, the hunting outfitters were the first to target this broader market, offering their apparel in a wider range of sizes, the largest of which would probably fit even the biggest paddler. And there's a lot in the hunting catalogs for these paddlers: PFDs, foul‑weather gear, even snug‑fitting, stocking‑foot neoprene waders. (I've been mighty glad to have a pair of these when I had a long stretch of lining ahead of me, in water that still bore the chill of a mountain glacier.) There are a few problems, of course. Much of the clothing sold by the hunting outfitters has a camouflage print, and this isn't ideal for paddlers, who want to be easy to spot if they get into trouble on the water. And most camo patterns are proprietary, as well, adding a hefty premium to the price of the garments that sport them. Still, catalogs and outfitters that cater to hunters are good places for hefty paddlers to start their search for a good fit.

Of course, it's just a start. The hunting catalogs don't meet every need. But at last the mainstream outfitters are catching on, too. I've made a cursory survey of two personal favorites: Campmor and NRS. The former, as you probably already know, is a general outdoor outfitter, whose plain newsprint catalogs provide an appealing retro contrast to the pile of glossy confections that fill my mailbox to overflowing. NRS, on the other hand, is preeminently a paddling outfitter. I could just as easily have written the paddling outfitter, I suppose, and the claim would probably stand unchallenged. In any event, a Bill's Bag was one of my first canoe‑camping purchases, and it served me well for decades. Many other purchases followed in due course.

Back to my survey. I limited my informal sample to two critical items: PFDs and wetsuits. And I'm happy to say that both Campmor and NRS offer PFDs in sizes that should accommodate even the largest guy or gal. Campmor's selection of wetsuits is more restrictive, however. But then Campmor isn't a paddling outfitter, first and foremost, and wetsuits are still seen — incorrectly, in my view — as specialty kit for hardcore boaters, rather than essential gear for anyone who messes about in small boats on cold (or even cool) water. NRS, on the other hand, has wetsuits for almost anyone of any size. And that's just as it should be.

Don't misunderstand me. Campmor and NRS are only two outfitters among many. I'm confident that other firms, both large and small, offer equally broad size ranges in essential kit. There's no doubt that the tide is on the turn. Big paddlers no longer suffer outsized problems when they go looking for paddling wear. They just have to look a little harder. And the job gets easier with every catalog cycle.

A final piece of advice: If you can't find something you need in a size that fits, don't be shy: Post a query to one of the many paddlers' forums. You'll find very good ones at And be sure to let your favorite outfitter(s) know, too. The important thing to remember? You're not alone. And the outfitters need to understand that.


The Michelin Man Goes Riding


Do you feel like you're in a tight place every time you go looking for paddling clothing? Then you're in good company. The world's collective waistline is expanding. Middle‑aged spread has moved down into grade school now, and however much we might wish it weren't so, paddlers are not exempt. Manufacturers and outfitters were unaccountably slow to grasp the importance of this trend, but they seem to be waking from their slumbers at last. So if you've found yourself joining the Heavy Brigade, don't despair. Don't think you have to give up paddling, either. You just need to go shopping. And that's the straight skinny.



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