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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


On Shanks' Pony: A Paddler's Guide to Getting Around on All Twos

By Tamia Nelson Dugout on the Cusp

May 28, 2013

Paddles none had Hiawatha,
Paddles none he had or needed,
For his thoughts as paddles served him,
And his wishes served to guide him….

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha

When canoeists and kayakers give thought to trips past and future, what images parade themselves before the mind's eye? I think I can speak for most of us. The day is sunny and warm, with a soft following breeze. The waves do a lively dance, but never once do they threaten to spill over the gunwales. And the act of paddling is effortless. (Cyclists boast of "chainless days," when the pedals seem to offer no resistance. I'm not sure what the paddling equivalent is. There should be one, though. "Hiawatha days," perhaps.)

Did I mention biting flies? No? Well, maybe they're all taking a long siesta. Or perhaps they've signed the pledge. In any case, they're nowhere to be seen.

That's how it is in our dreams, at any rate. In the real world, however, such idyllic interludes are few and far between: Most paddling trips alternate between two extremes. On the one hand, there are days when the air is chilly bordering on cold, a pitiless headwind gets in your face and stays there through every bend in the river, and an icy mizzle continues unbroken from dawn to dusk. And the alternative? Airless, humid, flat calm days, when the only breeze comes from the rapidly beating wings of thousands of blackflies and bulldogs (aka horseflies), not one of whom has had a blood meal in weeks. As for effortless paddling… In your dreams! Whatever the weather, you'll be in and out of your boat every half hour, and you'll be carrying it as often as it carries you.

The truth of the matter is simple: Paddling can be hard work, and unless you limit your boating to easygoing, undammed rivers and large lakes, you'll walk about as many hours as you paddle. Canoe Country carries aren't usually long — though there are some memorable exceptions to this rule! — but most of us need to make at least two trips to get our boats and gear across each and every one. If you do the math, you'll find that this triples the distance you have to walk. (Am I saying 2 x 1 = 3? Yes, I am. And a third trip over the carry, if and when one is needed, ups the total by two more. In the malign arithmetic of the portage trail, 3 x 1 = 5.)

Luckily, popular waterways and the more "sivilized" wilderness parks usually have well‑groomed trails, and these will likely be properly signposted. So the miles you walk will be easy ones. Moreover, the rapids will be graded and other hazards highlighted in up‑to‑date guidebooks, where you'll also find hints as to the best routes to take at every water level, minimizing the need for extended scouting treks. But if, like me, you sometimes wander off the beaten track, you can expect very few such helpful amenities. Which means that you'll probably spend many hours on shanks' pony. Much of this time will be spent searching for portage trails that you know must exist — they're shown on an old map or mentioned in an early journal — but which are now invisible to the enquiring eye. Or else you'll be trekking up and down the shoreline, scouting, tracking, or lining. Or you'll be wading your heavily loaded boat through a riffle that's too shallow to run.

Portaging, scouting, tracking, lining, wading… Not surprisingly, we've had something to say about all of these things over the years, but it isn't easy to find the relevant articles among the 700‑odd In the Same Boat columns. (We sometimes have trouble ourselves, to be honest.) And with the planning for many Big Trips now entering its final, hectic days, I figured it made sense to collect all our shanks' pony columns under one roof, as it were, in the hopes that this would make readers' lives a little easier.

First, though, a note about what you won't find in the following paragraphs. There'll be nothing about car‑topping or trailering a boat. I've already put together a guide to those topics: "A Boat‑Hauling Omnibus." The title says it all. And it leaves us free to tackle what happens once you leave your car or bike behind at the put‑in, beginning with …

The Sweaty Business of Moving Your Boat and Gear Overland

You may not need to portage any farther than the distance from your vehicle to the water, of course. Then again, you might have to hump your boat and three months' worth of food and gear over several rugged miles, on a long‑neglected carry between watersheds. What's that? You say you're not planning to cross a watershed? Fair enough. But what happens if your travels bring you, suddenly and unexpectedly, to something that looks a lot like the end of the world?

Your options in all such cases are limited. Here's a summary:

Shoulder the Load.  This is how the voyageurs did it. Usually. And it's no picnic in the park. You can bear the burden yourself or team up with your partner. Canoes are generally easier to carry this way than kayaks — especially if you've taken the trouble to buy or rig a suitable yoke — though SOTs are probably the least obliging craft of all. That said, it's possible to rig a packframe to haul a kayak, and I wouldn't be surprised if this could be done with a SOT, as well. Both pack canoes and kayaks can be carried short distances on one shoulder, too. (A hint: If you're going to do this, make sure you pad the gunwale or cockpit coaming first.) Whatever your craft, though, you'll find that shouldering the load is sweaty work.

Lift and Scuttle.  This is the simplest carry, particularly if you leave your gear in the boat. Just recruit one or more helpers, grab the gunwales (or end loops), heave the boat off the ground, and stagger down the trail. Portaging doesn't get any simpler. But it doesn't get much more painful, either. And there's no guarantee that the gunwales (or grab loops) will take the strain if you lift your boat without first emptying it of gear. All in all, this technique is best reserved for short distances and light loads.

Roll, Roll, Roll Your Boat…  Not all park authorities warm to the idea of using a wheeled cart on portage trails. A few think that it compromises the "wilderness experience" in some way. I beg to differ. After all, the shrill, discordant music of the Red River cart once resounded through much of the Canadian West, when the West was still young. (You'll find a pen‑and‑ink drawing of just such a cart portaging a birchbark canoe in Peter C. Newman's Caesars of the Wilderness.) And back East in the States, the celebrated Nessmuk never missed a chance to load his little canoe on a buckboard whenever one was going his way. In fact, a lot of Adirondack portages started out as wagon roads. So if the terrain allows and the authorities are accommodating, why not take the load off your shoulders and put it on wheels?

It's a Drag!  If all else fails, you can drag your canoe or kayak behind you as you plod along. This won't do much for the shiny showroom finish, but it's one way of getting a lightly loaded boat across a short carry. And you'll be in good company. John "Rob Roy" MacGregor frequently dragged his little canoes overland to get around obstructions. (You can see him in action in the cut at the end of this column, taken from The Rob Roy on the Baltic.) MacGregor had a new boat built for every trip, though. That's worth remembering.

~ ~ ~

A Pedestrian Collection (But You May Want to Read 'Em, Anyway)

OK. Most of us think of walking as something you do on land. But canoeists and kayakers do a lot of walking in the water, too. (That's in the water, mind. Walking on water isn't part of the paddlesport syllabus.) And even when we're not in water up to our waists, we often find ourselves in places where …

Getting Our Feet Wet …

Is the only option. Here are some examples:

Dam' Dams.  Actually, I like to see beaver dams across a stream. They're one hallmark of a living river, evidence that a keystone species is reclaiming at least a small part of its rightful patrimony. Few paddlers share my feelings, I suppose, but at least hauling your boat and gear over a dam is easy — if you don't mind getting your feet wet, that is. I call it "doing the beaver dam shuffle," and it's an easy step to master.

Wade to Go!  If you run out of water on a sandbar or the managers at the hydro decide to close the gates on a dam‑controlled river, you may have to leave your boat and walk beside it for a while. And on a hot summer day, the change of pace can be quite refreshing. The same trick works when beavers have been reengineering a low‑lying portage trail, too. (C'mon. Fess up. You really like playing in the mud, don't you?)

Going Against the Flow.  Nowadays, when organizing a shuttle is an obligatory part of any day trip, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that North American waterways, both large and small, once carried two‑way traffic. But they did. On those frequent occasions when the Hudson's Bay Company's "servants" found the rush of water too strong to oppose with a paddle, or a river too deep to set a pole, they sighed heavily and reached for their tracking lines. And you can, too. It might even change your perspective on river travel. (A hint: It helps to have a long painter. Two long painters are even better.)

Going With the Flow.  This means lining, tracking's antithesis. When you're headed downriver, but the current's too fast for safe wading, the bottom's too irregular to permit snubbing with a pole, and the shallows are too shallow for a paddle to find a purchase, you can sometimes — just sometimes — let your boat down gently on a long line while you walk along the water's edge. But beware: Things can go spectacularly wrong in a hurry when you're lining a loaded canoe, and the results aren't pretty. You'd better know how to read a river before you try adding this trick to your bag. And you'll need that long painter, too.

~ ~ ~

Now Get Your Feet Wet With These Articles

Let's see… I've already covered the ground where portaging is concerned, but I'd like to revisit the subject for a minute. After all, no discussion of travel by shanks' pony would be complete without a few words on …

Finding Your Way

As I've already noted, portage trails in established parks and those along frequently paddled waterways are usually well signposted. But there are occasional exceptions, and once you leave the madding crowd behind you, you'll find that the exceptions have become the norm. We've written at some length about traditional map and compass navigation in the past, and it's an art that all paddlers would do well to master. (GPS receivers, good as they are, have still been known to fail.) There will be more columns on this important topic in the months to come, too. But a couple of scenarios warrant special attention right now. Suppose, for example, …

You Can't Find the Trailhead.   Sooner or later, most venturesome paddlers come face to face with the end of the world. There's almost always a portage trail to bring you safely around it, but if you don't spot the trailhead during your preliminary scout along the shore, you'll have to bushwhack. It's a skill best practiced beforehand, and I wrote a how‑to piece on that very subject only last year.

Alternatively, you may someday find yourself …

All at Sea.  You'll realize that something's wrong long before you set foot on land, while you're still searching for a distant hint of a trailhead or campsite that you know is… Well, where is it? You've been paddling down blind bays for two hours now, scanning every inch of shoreline with your binoculars, and you're none the wiser. Don't think this can't happen to you. It's surprisingly easy to lose your way among a cluster of seemingly identical islands, or while threading a path through a torturous delta, or when traversing the seemingly endless — and endlessly fascinating — lowlands around James Bay. Fog can add to your difficulties, too, as can stormy weather. At times like these, you'll be very glad you planned ahead. After all, every journey on shanks' pony begins with a single step. But before you can take that first step, you need to know where to get out of the boat.

~ ~ ~

Read These Before You Get Lost


Rob Roy on Shanks' Pony


Paddlers paddle, right? They don't walk. Yet many canoeing and kayaking trips involve almost as much walking as paddling. Which is why Farwell and I have had a lot to say over the years about getting around on dry land. But with some 700 columns in the archive, it's not always easy for newcomers to In the Same Boat to find their way to articles that might answer their questions. Now, however, I've done my best to make the job a little easier. So the next time a paddling trip has you hitching a ride on shanks' pony, you'll be ready.



More Articles on Ancillary Topics From In the Same Boat


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