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Secrets of a Happy Camper

Things You Can Do in the Dark —
Ways to Make the Most of Those Long Late‑Autumn Evenings
Moonrise, The River, Canoe Country

By Tamia Nelson

November 12, 2013

Autumn is a bittersweet season. The colors and crisp air invite us to linger outside, but the short days and chilly nights remind us that winter is fast approaching. And then the moment comes when we realize — it's always something of a shock — that the tamaracks have shed the last of their golden needles. This marks a turning point in the Canoe Country year. Even if the snow holds off for several more weeks, we know that our favorite waters will soon be locked in ice. That's when many of us rack our boats, clean and stow our gear, and blow the dust off the old journals on our shelves. For the next several months, all our adventures will be vicarious.

But there are exceptions. A few hardy souls will keep paddling even as skim ice forms on the bays and beaver ponds. And some lucky folks can retreat to more southerly latitudes, where winter's snows come late — or not at all. Yet unless their seasonal hegira takes them all the way to the tropics, they'll find that winter still has a way of spoiling the fun. Late‑autumn days are terribly short, and the nights are correspondingly long. Or to put it another way:

Who Turned Out the Lights?

One of the greatest surprises in store for first‑time campers comes when the sun goes down. Suddenly, it's dark. Really dark. And there's not a light switch to be found anywhere. Simple, everyday chores — preparing a meal, looking for your spare socks, even emptying your bladder — are no longer simple, and campers who venture outside the circle of firelight risk getting a branch in the eye. This is a far cry from the 24/7 illumination most of us are used to. That said, even in the brightly lit northeastern US, a few unredeemed enclaves of dark remain, places where it's still possible to see the Milky Way, distinguish the Seven Sisters without binoculars, or watch foraging bats flitting over the water. (If there are any bats left alive for you to watch, that is.) It's to just such dimly lit sanctuaries that canoeists and kayakers are drawn.

Notwithstanding the shortage of riverbank current bushes and backcountry streetlights, however, paddlers don't have to make many adjustments in their usual routines in high summer, at least along the Canada–US border. You'll have something like 16 hours of daylight in every 24. Which means there are just enough hours of darkness to get a good night's sleep. But once the autumnal equinox has come and gone, the balance tips in favor of the night. Which leaves precious little light for camp chores at the beginning and end of a hard day's paddling. And that's not all. You can't sleep 12 hours out of 24. At least I can't. But what are you going to do in the interval between pitching your tent (in semidarkness) and sacking out? Summertime recreations — tempting trout with a fly, going for a swim, sunbathing on a bedrock outcrop — aren't really in the cards on a chilly evening in early November. So …

How Are You Going to Make It Through the Night?

First things first. If the sun isn't lighting up your life, you'll need to do the job yourself. Which means that flashlights (good) and headlamps (better) come into their own, climbing the scale of priorities from "just for emergencies" to "need every day." And no, you can't count on doing chores by the light of the moon. Clouds happen, after all. Nor is a campfire a particularly good source of working light. Once you've moved close enough to the flames to be able to do much more than find the food on your plate, you're close enough to set your hair alight, and burning hair is no substitute for a headlamp. Trust me.

Of course, your flashlight and headlamp are only as good as their batteries. You'll want to bring plenty of spares. Happily, though, LEDs have eliminated the need for spare bulbs, and they also give you more light for your money than old‑style incandescent bulbs. But you'd better bring a spare light anyway, just in case. LEDs do fail from time to time.

Now, having dispelled the dark, at least in the small oases of light created by our headlamps and the flickering flames of the campfire, let's look at how we can while away our hours in camp, beginning with this timely option:

Get Cooking!  Oddly enough, late‑season trips give any paddler who longs to be the next Alexis Soyer a chance to prove his (or her) mettle. In summer, there's simply too much going on to make cooking elaborate meals anything other than an occasional rest‑day treat. But come fall, the roster of competing attractions is much diminished. To say nothing of the fact that the prospect of spending a couple of hours hovering around a stove or fire is a lot more attractive on icy November nights than it is on sultry, soggy August evenings. And there are no biting flies to harass the cook while he works, either.

There's always the lighting problem to deal with, of course. But we've already met that head(lamp)‑on. Nothing is stopping you now. Simmer a big pot of soup. Bake some bread. Construct an elaborate dessert. Are there still some empty corners to fill? Then make a batch of popcorn and a pot of hot cocoa before joining your friends around the campfire to swap yarns.

And speaking of campfires… Truth to tell, they're a perishing nuisance to build and maintain in summer, and high summer is often a time of high fire danger, to boot. The upshot? I mostly don't bother with open fires, even in places where they're permitted. But fall is usually wet and windy, and each storm brings down a fresh crop of dead limbs. Moreover, evenings are chilly and — you've heard this before, right? — dark. The bottom line? If there's ever a time when it makes sense to indulge in a campfire, that time is autumn. A wood fire also frees you from the constraints imposed by one‑burner stoves. You can have multiple pots on the go at the same time, and you'll be able to simmer more easily, too.

But as every camp cook knows, it won't be all play and no work. If you cook, you (or someone else) will have to …

Clean Up.  And that's not "clean up" in the Wall Street (or City of London) sense. Yet even doing the dishes can be fun if you approach it in the right spirit. Heat a large pot of water, scrub the soiled pots and bowls, and then reward yourself with a hot sponge bath. The art of the sponge bath will probably go the way of map‑and‑compass navigation soon, but it's a skill worth cultivating. (As Farwell discovered some years back, it's especially useful for bicycle commuters.) In any case, once your buddies realize that whoever does the washing‑up also gets a hot bath, with a warm night's sleep to follow, they'll be queuing up to do the job.

And after your bath? Put on your clean, dry camp clothes — you did bring a change of clothes, didn't you? — and settle down to do …

Some Serious Map Reading.  Relive the day's adventures, review the next day's route, or just wander at will over the landscape as it unrolls before you. Maybe you think your Kindle, tablet, or GPS has eliminated the need for paper maps and charts. If so, think again. Nothing beats paper for giving you the big picture. And no paper quad ever locked its owner out while it rebooted endlessly — or suffered a catastrophic failure because of radio‑frequency interference. The long evening hours are also perfect for annotating your map, a pleasant chore that goes hand in hand with …

Bringing Your Journal Up to Date.  I always have a journal in my pack, even on day trips to familiar waters, but I'm frequently surprised at how few entries I make in summer. There are just too other things to do. By contrast, my autumn entries rival the copious accounts of 19th‑century explorers, and they're often embellished with sketches and sketch‑maps, into the bargain. You say that you're not a writer? Then tuck a small digital recorder into your pack and use it to keep an audio journal. I use one to record the songs of birds and other wild sounds, and Farwell's been toying with the idea of getting what he calls a "proper" digital stereo recorder to make broadcast‑quality narratives.

That off‑hand reference to the accounts of 19th‑century explorers reminds me of another way to occupy the evening hours. You can always …

Read a Good Book.  This is something else I plan to do on summer trips. I almost never get around to actually doing it, however. But late‑autumn evenings are long, and e‑book readers like the Kindle make it easy to bring your library with you. Too easy, perhaps. Farwell recently calculated that he'll have to live to the ripe old age of 125 just to get through what he has on his Kindle today, and he adds something new — well, something old, actually — nearly every week. He really doesn't expect to go the distance, of course, but that won't stop him from trying.

If you could you use a little help making up your cold‑season reading list, I've described some canoeing classics in "Virtual Voyages" and "Journals of Exploration," and Farwell's added a handful of less‑well‑known titles to these in his Backwaters series. You'll want to include your own favorites, too. But there will still come a day when reading palls. And when that day arrives, why not spend some time acquiring new skills? One campfire entertainment that's open to everyone is …

Knot‑Tying.  All you need are a knowledgeable friend (or a good book) and your painter. When you can tie the waterman's ten essentials in the dark, you've acquired a tool that you'll use for the rest of your life. To complete your rigger's apprenticeship, make a study of your new knots' uses. After all, knowing the right knot for the job is as important as knowing how to tie it.

Tired of knotty problems? Then turn your eyes heavenward and …

Explore the Night Sky.  To anyone who knows her way around the heavens, the stars are both clock and compass. You won't need a telescope to get your bearings, either, though a good guidebook and a red filter for your headlamp will make the job a lot easier — and a pair of binoculars will add still more to your enjoyment. Don't be surprised at how much there is to see. If you spend most of your nights under city lights, your first glimpse of a "wild" starscape will come as a revelation. As will your second glance. And your third.

The payoff? A working knowledge of what one writer called the "signposts in the sky." That can't help but make you more at home in the backcountry. And there's a bonus, too. Once you can find your way around the heavens, you'll probably want to …

Shoot Some Pictures.  The night sky is a perfect photographic subject: predictable, yet spectacular. Dig your tripod and remote shutter release out of your pack and go to work. It's not as simple as shooting casual snaps in daylight, though. Better read up on techniques before night falls.

OK. Reading, knot‑tying, and photography are, in the main, solo pursuits. But on your autumn trips you probably won't be alone; you'll likely have one or more buddies with you. (This is a very good idea, by the way. Cold water and rainy weather can quickly turn a minor mishap into a real emergency.) Couples who travel together won't need any advice from me on "community" activities, I imagine, but what alternatives are there for larger groups? Well, how about …

Pinochle?  Or poker. Or whist. And then there are always board games: chess, go, drafts… The list is as long as you care to make it, and a deck of cards or a pocket chess set won't weigh you down. Generations of hunters have whiled away the long nights at deer camp with nothing more than a pack of cards and a bottle. There's no reason why paddlers can't do the same thing. So, …

What Are You Having to Drink?  A tot of grog or a small whisky goes down well at day's end, and a cup of wine is a welcome accompaniment to the evening meal. (I don't need to remind you not to drink and paddle, do I? I didn't think so.) But be warned: Alcohol in any form dilates peripheral vessels, increasing heat loss from your body's core. If you're already chilly, and the thermometer bids fair to touch new lows, a steaming cup of cocoa is a better nightcap.

On the other hand, if you're comfortably warm and warmly dressed — and if the weather is benign — there's nothing like a wee dram to …

Liberate Your Muse.  Campfire sing‑alongs were once a scouting staple, and making music around the fire is still a popular pastime. A bodhrán won't add much to your burden, and penny whistles (aka feadóg stáin) are eminently portable instruments, as are recorders and harmonicas. Some paddlers have even been known to bring guitars. (Remember Deliverance?) Campsites are less crowded in autumn, too, so if your party wants to make music into the small hours, it's not likely you'll be keeping anyone else awake.

The bottom line? There's no end of ways to make the most of long, dark evenings in camp. I'm sure you'll have your own ideas on the subject, of course, but the underlying message is clear: The long nights of autumn aren't something to dread. They're interludes to be savored to the full.

Night Comes to The River

Do you fidget and fume when the sun goes down almost as soon as you make camp? Is that why you leave your boat on its rack in fall? Then it's time you reconsidered your options. There are plenty of things you can do in the dark. In fact, the long, chill late‑autumn nights offer opportunities undreamt of by fair‑weather campers. And now that you've read about a few of my favorites, you probably have some suggestions of your own. If so, don't be shy: Drop me a line and tell me all about them. I promise to pass the word along.


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