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Breaking Away

Rise and … Whine? Morning Has Broken ...

By Tamia Nelson

July 9, 2013

Paddling literature — if the work of hacks like me warrants so grandiloquent a name — is full of hearty types who rise before dawn to tempt trout in remote mountain pools or run challenging drops while the morning mist still lies close upon the water. These prodigies' boundless enthusiasm seldom, if ever, flags. They never wish to lie long abed of a morning, and they're insufferably animated at breakfast, chattering on cheerily about the rapids and portages to come, even as a torrential rain beats a relentless tattoo against the kitchen tarp.

To be sure, real life seldom comes up to the standard required by the best books. In my experience, most groups of paddlers contain early risers and habitual sluggards in just about equal measure. And relations between the two camps aren't always cordial. The early risers regard the sluggards as lazy layabouts, and they do what they can to encourage their slothful companions to reform: splitting wood for the breakfast fire with unnecessary ostentation, whistling tunelessly while arranging the kindling, and banging pots together with enough force to dent all but the cast‑iron skillet. I've even known tents to be struck while their occupants were still sleeping soundly — right up until the moment when they woke with a start to find themselves wrapped in winding sheets of clammy nylon.

The sluggards retaliate in kind, of course. Late in the evening, after the early risers have retired to their tents, their resentful comrades — those same long‑suffering and much‑reviled layabouts who suffered at the early risers' hands before sunup — are now seized with a sudden, manic energy. Sometimes they organize sing‑alongs around the guttering flames of the dying fire. At other times they plod heavily about camp on various nocturnal errands (checking the boats, adjusting the bear bag, attending to nature's last call), invariably contriving to trip over the guylines of the early risers' tents every so often, and occasionally even bringing one down in the process. Needless to say, the sluggards' apologies are as numerous as they are earnest, loud, and extended, and they're often accompanied by helpful suggestions as to how the early risers might improve their tents' pitch in future.

It saddens me to report that these suggestions are almost never received in the intended spirit. No good deed goes unpunished nowadays, it seems.

And where do I fit into all this? I am, I confess, a sluggard by nature. But I hasten to add in my defense that I am a reformed sluggard. I have long since accepted the early risers' claim of moral superiority, and I have forever renounced my shameful and sedentary ways. In other words, I have become an early riser myself, albeit a reluctant one. Where once I sipped the waters of Lethe, strong coffee is my tipple now.

There is an element of hypocrisy in this, I admit. Though I struggle up before the sun, with bleary eye and staggering gait, I long to return to the cozy warmth of my sleeping bag. Yet this remains a secret failing. I do not confess my weakness to anyone. Indeed, I habitually lord it over Farwell. He was once honest and virtuous, an early riser and a True Believer in the gospel of the dawn. But he has lapsed in his faith and left the one true path, I fear forever. Were he permitted to do so, I believe he would sleep on quite contentedly till noon.

I'm sure I've no need to add that I never allow him to act on his unseemly inclinations. Indeed, I work tirelessly to keep him safe from the sin of sloth. But does he ever thank me for my dedication and concern? He does not.

No one should need reasons to walk in the ways of righteousness, of course. But weak‑willed backsliders often require convincing. So, for Farwell's benefit (and for anyone else who is tempted to waste the best hours of the day in sullen slumber), I'll outline …

The Case for Rising Early

And the list of points in support of the motion is formidable. To begin with, there's …

The Dawn Chorus.  I've mentioned this in passing already. But it deserves reiteration. Most birds are also early risers, and the songs with which they greet the start of a new day can come as a revelation to paddlers who hail from the biological barrens that most North American cities and suburbs have now become.

Nor is the ear the only sensory organ open to delight at dawn. There's also …

Perfume in the Breeze.  Humidity is high in the early morning hours, intensifying the fragrance of balsam, duff, and pine. It makes a welcome change from the usual suburban bouquet of lawn tractor exhaust and fabric softener. But enjoy it while you can. The jet‑ski jockeys and the bass boat hunter‑killer teams will have slept off last night's 18‑packs by mid‑morning. Then they'll start their engines for the day's fun. Soon a greasy gray pall will settle in over the water, and the subtle perfume of woodland and flower will be displaced by the all‑too‑familiar stink of imperfectly combusted hydrocarbons.

Luckily, though, the wind will probably have picked up by this time, and if it's blowing from the right quarter, it will waft the Gasoline Valley gang's effluvia away from your campsite. And this points up another advantage of an early morning start:

The Old Woman Is a Late Sleeper.  Unless a front is moving through, the wind usually dies down during the night. Which means that the early morning hours are a good time to put miles under your keel before the inevitable headwind arises to hold you back. (NB If you're camped by the sea, or on the margin of a really big lake, you can expect an offshore breeze in early morning. This is the so‑called "land breeze." It will likely be succeeded by an onshore wind — the aptly named "sea breeze" — later in the day, though frontal passages can disrupt that orderly succession. Canny sea kayakers and small‑boat sailors often exploit these more‑or‑less predictable shifts in the wind. It's worth bearing in mind.)

Of course, the wind isn't the only thing to respond to the sun's movement across the heavens. Summer days are often sultry, and hot days get even hotter as the sun approaches — and then passes — the zenith. Paddling can be hot work in its own right, too. The upshot? It pays to get an early start if you want to …

Keep Your Cool.  After all, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Or so an old song has it. But whatever the color of their passports, canoeists and kayakers can defy the "ultry‑violet" rays by chalking up most of their miles early in the day, before taking an extended noon break to lounge ashore, eat, snooze, or do their laundry. They also run less risk of heat injury.

And while we're on the subject of keeping your cool, nothing gets the old pump thumping faster than being caught by a thunderstorm when you're far from shore. But here, too, an early start can help, making it easier to …

Dodge the Thunderbolts.  While frontal movements trigger some of the most violent thunderstorms, and these can hit at any hour of the day or night, many storms arise from what the meteorologists call diurnal heating, and they're more likely to bubble up late in the day, after the sun has had a chance to do its work. The bottom line? Get up and get out early, and then get off the water to watch the show from the comparative safety of camp ashore.

So much for practical matters. But early risers also enjoy less tangible benefits, including …

Solitude.  Most paddlers like the company of others, but few of us go canoeing or kayaking in order to be part of a crowd. Nor do we enjoy finding ourselves at the center of a swarm of jet‑skis or other fast‑moving powerboats. A few waterways are closed to all but paddlecraft and sailboats, but most are not. What's a solitude‑seeking paddler to do, then? Easy. Get up early. It's one way to avoid the madding crowd.

That said, you'll seldom be alone on the water in the early morning hours. Other creatures also shun the mechanized flotillas of sunshine sailors. With the exception of warmth‑loving turtles and their kin, …

The Nighttime is the Right Time for Wildlife.  And their workday continues throughout the hours of darkness and into the dawn. If you're an early riser, therefore, don't be surprised if you happen upon a deer or moose feeding at the water's edge, glimpse the gray shadows of coyotes slipping through the trees, catch sight of a family of raccoons foraging along the shore, and hear beaver splashing — or even spot a bear lumbering imperturbably about in search of a bite of breakfast. You can also expect to see (and hear) many of the birds who frequent woodlands and waters. But keep your distance from your fellow travelers in the forests of the night, regardless of species. Like you, they're keen to avoid too‑close encounters. This is a good time to make use of your binoculars.

It's also a good time for photography, though only if your camera and lenses are up to the job. What do I mean by this? It's obvious, isn't it?

The Light Is Low.  And that presents technical challenges that not every camera can meet. But the dawn is nonetheless a magical hour for the photographer. You'll have to work fast, however. The magic doesn't last.

~ ~ ~

I rest my case. These are all good reasons for early rising, as I'm sure you'll agree — powerful incentives to eschew sloth and embrace right living. Still, it must be admitted that there are also downsides to getting up before the sun. (Please don't tell Farwell. He's argumentative enough at the best of times.) And I suppose I'm duty‑bound to give them equal billing, if only for fairness' sake.

Very well, then. Here it is:

A Sluggard's Charter

It goes against our species' grain to admit it, but Man is only a puny thing in nature's great game. (This is also true of Woman.) If the horizon to windward is black and lowering when you rise to greet the dawn, if rumbles of distant thunder reach your ear while the nearby woods are strangely silent, and if a freshening breeze is already setting white horses cantering down the lake, it's a good bet that …

A Storm Is in the Offing.  And this is a very good reason to delay your departure. (I'm assuming that your camp is well sited, at a safe distance from any towering pines.) You may even want to go back to sleep. Of course, there are other, less dramatic, reasons to linger late abed. Suppose, for example, that instead of the clamor of distant thunder, you sense the stealthy, catlike approach of …

Fog.  This, too, can bolster the contention that discretion really is the better part of valor. Thick fog makes navigation problematic, even with a GPS (it can't tell you what the beaver have been up to, for instance), and if you're paddling on a commercial waterway — or one frequented by the go‑fast boaters of Gasoline Valley — you could be taking your life in your hands. (Bad things can happen when you ignore the Gross Tonnage Rule. It lacks any official sanction, but canoeists and kayakers should heed it, anyway.)

And then there are creature comforts to think of, too. Like …

The Heavy, Heavy Dew.  A heavy fall of dew can soak your tent as thoroughly as a downpour, and packing up a wet tent is about as much fun as wrestling a gator, if a trifle less dangerous. It might be easier to sleep in and wait for the sun to dry things out.

This is especially true if there's …

A Chill in the Air.  No, summer's not known as a cold season. But our bodies respond to relative temperature change, as well. A 40‑degree day in January is delightfully balmy. But a 60‑degree morning in August can seem downright chilly. You may even notice that your teeth are chattering. Older paddlers probably feel the cold more than their younger companions, but no one is immune. Ask any former grunt who did a tour or two in one of the world's hot zones. He'll tell you just how icy a tropical dawn or desert morning can be.) Even in high summer, your fingers can prove oddly unresponsive when you go to light your stove for breakfast. If that's the case, and if you don't need to get an early start, you may want to hunker down till the sun is higher in the sky.

But be sure get behind some netting first, because …

Biting Flies Mount Dawn Patrols.  This is the time of day when mosquitoes often hand over to blackflies, so you may have to fend off a combined assault. Moreover, high humidity and light winds make a bloodsucker's job easier, and both conditions often prevail in early morning. That's good news for the flies. But it's bad news for you.

You have four choices: (1) Launch a counterassault with whatever insect repellent is being advertised this year. And then wait for the health warnings to appear next year. Or the year after that. (2) Take cover, sheathing yourself in bite‑proof fabric head to toe — and hope you don't suffer heat stroke. (3) Run for it! Strike camp without delay, get in your boat, and paddle like hell till you're out of reach of the land‑based strike force. (But plan on breakfasting on jerky and water if you do.) Or (4) retreat to your tent and wait for the handover to be complete, leaving you only a single enemy to face. Maybe the wind will rise, too. (Better hope it's not a headwind, though. Good luck.)

Now let's spare at least a few words for some of the less obvious benefits of getting a slow start on the day, beginning with …

A Leisurely Breakfast.  Farwell likes to make a meal of all his meals, and breakfast is no exception. I, on the other hand, would be happy with just a cup of coffee most days. (OK. Two cups of coffee.) But we both like to take our time. I'd rather sip my coffee than gulp it, and Farwell never says no to a second toasted muffin or bowl of oatmeal. Neither of us enjoys rushing around to pack up and load boats, either. And there's the small matter of throughput to consider. Bears aren't the only creatures who need to do what they do in the woods, are they? Coffee sets things in motion, and it's nice not to have to hurry the denouement.

There are others to be considered, too. Other campers, to be exact. Unless you're traveling well off the beaten track, you may find yourself sharing a campsite (or even a small lake) with a group of strangers, and they may not be early risers. Which means that the considerate paddler may wish to observe the unwritten rule:

Do Not Disturb.  It's hard to strike camp in total silence, and while common courtesy is increasingly rare, it never hurts. That being the case, why not sleep in when you can? And anyway, from time to time …

It's Good to Knit Up the Ravell'd Sleave of Care.  Especially if your neighbors for the night kept you up till zero‑dark‑thirty with their campfire sing‑along. (I just said that common courtesy was rare, didn't I?)

Anything else? Yes. One thing. It's pretty obvious, though. When you get up before the dawn, you get up …

In the Dark.  Yes, dawn comes early in summer, even south of the 49th parallel. And if you go far enough north, it never gets dark at all. But the half‑light of early morning can still be an awkward time to do chores or wander about in the woods. If you want to avoid going bump in the night, therefore, it's best to use a headlamp.

Or you could just sleep in.

~ ~ ~

There! I think that should satisfy any sluggards like Farwell. They'll have no cause to complain of bias now, I hope.

Seriously, though, the hour when you choose to rise and greet the new day is entirely up to you and the members of your group. And that's how it should be, isn't it? After all, paddling trips are one of the few times in our lives when we don't have to consider the demands of employers or the constraints of convention. It's a chance to synchronize the ordinary business of life with the natural cycles of daylight and dark, and as such, it's an opportunity to be savored. My advice? Ignore such chamber‑of‑commerce‑ish aberrations as "daylight saving time" (aka "summer time"), leave your alarm watch in your bag, and let your internal clock decide when you rise and when you slumber.

Camp, Sweet Camp

Do you greet the dawn with eager anticipation, rushing out of your tent into the chill morning air with a smile on your face and a song on your lips? Or do you cling to the cozy confinement of your sleeping bag until the last possible minute? Paddlers seem about equally divided between these two camps, separated by a yawning gulf of mutual incomprehension. Is there any hope of the two contending factions reaching some degree of shared understanding? I think so. And that's why I wrote this column.

Well, Farwell, what do you think? Oh, no! He's snoring. Again.



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