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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Write On!

The Art and Practice of Keeping a Trip Journal A Life in Books

By Tamia Nelson

December 10, 2013

Anyone who remembers what things were like in the Age of Film will know how their treasured color prints faded over the years. And the same thing is true of the images that are fixed on — in the late Colin Fletcher's wonderful phrase — the emulsion of memory. In other words, no matter how vivid our memories were initially, they grow dim with the passage of time. We literally lose sight of our past. For some people, and some memories, this is a very good thing, of course. But few paddlers would wish the remembrance of trips past to fade away and die.

Yet it happens. So we do what we can to stay time's hand. Our cameras are useful weapons in this rather one‑sided battle. That said, cameras record only outward appearances. They do nothing to preserve our inner life: our thoughts and our dreams, our joys and our sorrows. And it is by these deep currents in our stream of consciousness that the truest record of our journeys is made. Capturing those fast‑flowing thoughts is never easy, however. Words are the only tools that can tackle the job. Which is why it pays to …

Make Room in Your Pack for a Journal

I do. Though this hasn't always been the case. As a child, I never kept a diary. But the demands of geology coursework got me in the habit of making detailed field notes, and the practice served me well during my years in the stones‑and‑bones trade. Soon it seemed unnatural not to be scribbling something in a notebook at the end of each day, even when I was knocking about the backcountry for no purpose but pleasure. And I'm glad I did. Now, whenever memories dim and incidents from my past life seem impossibly distant, I can pull water‑stained volumes down from the shelf and rediscover those lost worlds — before they are gone forever. In effect, I am re‑imprinting images on the emulsion of memory.

And what I do, you can do, too. Is it hard to get started? Not at all. The necessary tools are probably on your desk already, or if they're not, they're as close as the nearest HyperMart. You'll also need discipline, though, and you won't find that on any store shelf. You'll have to find it within yourself. But first, let's talk tools. What are the essentials? Pick and choose from these lists:


• Pencil
• Ballpoint
• Felt‑tipped pen
• Fountain pen

• Notebook
• Sketchpad
• Clipboard
• Ring binder

• Waterproof bag(s)
• Erasure
• Drawing pens and ink
• Brushes and paints
• Camera
• Pocket recorder
• Photocopied maps

I'll leave the choice of implement up to you. Some paddlers are pencil people. Others favor ballpoint pens. A few opt for felt‑tips, and a very few, fountain pens. Whatever your preference, there are some cautions and caveats worth noting: Not all inks are waterproof. If you're a pen person, therefore, you'll want to test your ink before venturing out into the wet. And pencil people should weigh the advantages of a soft lead (B or 2B). These are a lot kinder to sodden paper than the harder HB. (The "standard writing pencil," HBs are often labeled #2 in the States. B's are labeled #1. You can thank Henry David Thoreau's daddy for the confusion.)

With these preliminaries behind us, let's take a closer look at the items in the second column, the substrate on which to pin your fleeting thoughts. It's arguably first among equals. You won't get far without something to write on, will you? So the question you'll need to ask yourself at the start is …

What's the Right Journal for Me?  The simple answer: Choose and use whatever floats your boat. Even if you decide that making pictures is easier than stringing words together, you'll still need something to write on. You'll want to record the who, what, when, where, and why behind each sketch or photo. A smartphone or GPS‑capable camera can help in this regard, but neither will do the whole job, and an orphan image (Was that Québec in '86? Or Maine in '78? Or…?) is little help in reawakening slumbering memories.

Now it's time to delve into the details. One of the first things you'll discover where notebooks are concerned is that …

Size Matters.  Are you intimidated when you confront a large, blank page? Or does having all that empty space before you inspire you to write? Large journals (8½ by 11 inches, say) are harder to pack, but they certainly give you room to roam. On the other hand, small notebooks can be slipped into a shirt pocket, where they're ready to record a fleeting thought without forcing you to rummage through a dry bag first. But then you'll need to reduce most entries to the length of a tweet. The middle ground — notebooks that are 5 by 7 inches or thereabouts — may offer the best balance between convenience and versatility.

But size isn't the whole story, it also pays …

To Judge a (Note)book by Its Cover.  There's more to a notebook than paper, after all. Spiral‑bound, softcover notebooks make it easy to flip through the pages, and if the spiral is on the top, it won't get in your way as you write. But wire spirals tear pages, and the sharp ends have been known to poke holes in things best left intact (like dry bags). On the other hand, hardback notebooks — most are stitched or "perfect‑bound"; you may remember these from your schooldays — pose no threat to your dry bag's integrity. They offer a firm writing surface, into the bargain. Yet they can make the actual business of writing awkward. Breaking in the binding beforehand helps, but many paddlers (I'm one) still find hardback notebooks curiously claustrophobic. Of course, some folks simply clamp loose sheets of paper in a clipboard and claim that this gives them the best of both worlds. And so it does, at least until they release the clip just as a gust of wind comes along. (I used sturdy covered aluminum clipboards in the field during my stones‑and‑bones years, but they're damned difficult things to pack.) Ring binders? Well, I think they're needlessly bulky — and impossibly balky. But you may not.

In any event, a cover of some sort is necessary, because writing out of doors is invariably …

Wet Work.  The paddling world is a soggy place, and water and paper don't get on. Is waterproof paper the answer? Yes and no. It won't turn to pulp if you're caught in a downpour, but its tactile qualities leave much to be desired. Some waterproof papers I've used have been nearly writing‑proof, too. And as I warned you earlier, not all inks are waterproof. Which means that your waterproof pages may contain nothing but a polychromatic smear after a hard rain. I've had pretty good luck just using soft pencil on high‑quality rag paper — and then taking pains to keep my notebooks out of the worst of the wet, a job made easier by some sort of …

Supplementary Waterproofing.  Not that this is always simple. While a dry box or deck bag offers the greatest protection against driving rain and dumping waves, plastic freezer bags do a pretty good job in keeping your sketchpad or journal dry under less heroic conditions, especially if you double‑bag. But you'll have to take the notebook out of the bag whenever you want to write something down, and therein lies the rub. An umbrella works pretty well as an impromptu writing shelter, even in heavy rain — provided that the wind isn't blowing half a gale — but not many paddlers carry umbrellas. (I do. Often.) Failing a trusty bumbershoot, you'll have to fall back on a hastily rigged tarp or poncho, or do all your writing in your tent. (NB You'll also need to keep your hands dry. You do have a bandanna, don't you?)

And finally, a brief note about the ancillary items in the third column:

Impedimenta.  Though words carry the story line in a journal, sketches and photos can add a lot. And they're the preferred media for some paddlers. Just be sure you have the tools you'll need. Audio recordings are worth having, too. But whether you opt for pictures or sound or both, some explanatory text will still be necessary. As I've already pointed out, in years to come you'll want to know the who, what, when, where, and why behind each photo, sketch, and audio clip. And your journal is just the place for this vital information. A final suggestion: Tuck copies of the relevant quad(s) or chart(s) into your journal and annotate them as you go. There are no better keys for unlocking the closed rooms of memory.

Perhaps the foregoing seems rather wooly and unfocused, and it is. Journal‑keeping is an endlessly variable art. The field of possibilities is too broad for me to consider each and every one in depth. But I can at least tell you what I do. And you can take it from there.

Here's a small sample from my collection of sketchpads and trip journals:

Vade Mecum

As you can see, I have indeed played the field, using both spiral‑bound notebooks and hardcover field books (their brightly colored covers are a plus; they're very hard to lose or leave behind), along with a couple of inexpensive double‑wire bound (Wire‑O) sketchpads.

Now it's time to peek beneath the covers:

An Open Book

The sketchbooks contain medium‑weight drawing paper, while the spiral‑bound notebooks can best be described as student‑grade. Neither tolerates wetting. But the field books are made of sterner stuff. Their high‑rag‑content paper, though certainly not waterproof, will nonetheless survive a brief shower (or even momentary immersion) without immediately turning to pulp, and the alternating column‑ruled and squared pages are ideal for mapping and scientific drawing.

Blank Verse

Yet good as the field books are — and make no mistake, they are good; penciled notes I made more than 30 years ago are still as readable as they were on the day they were scribbled down — they're awkward to carry and use. The covers are as stiff and unyielding as those of hardback best‑sellers, and they fight you at every turn when you try to cram the books into confined spaces. Field books are also costly, and the texture of the rag paper is rather coarse, making it difficult to execute careful pencil drawings. The upshot? These days I mostly use the medium‑sized spiral‑bound notebooks that I can find in any HyperMart. They're cheap, they slip easily into the side pockets of my rucksack (or the cargo pocket of my field pants), and they have a pleasant "hand." The small sketchpad at the bottom (in the photo above) is my choice for note‑taking and quick sketches under way. I can tuck it into a shirt pocket, where it's available at a moment's notice.

That's what I use, at any rate. You may see things differently. But getting your kit together is only the first step. Once you have it all in hand, you need to decide on your …

Note‑Taking Strategy

The only rule is that you must write something every day. Style, spelling, and grammar can go by the boards. The important thing is to capture your fleeting thoughts and momentary impressions before they're gone forever. Write them down. Now. Or scribble a quick sketch if that serves the purpose better, as in the example below:

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

It's a sketch map of a small pond tucked away in the central Adirondacks. There's also an inset sketch showing our camp for the night, and another illustrating the rough and ready approach we adopted in getting our 17‑foot canoe over a portage that was as stony as it was steep. There are notes on the birds and the bugs, too (but nothing about the bees), plus reminders about things not to forget next time.

And no, it's not Remembrance of Things Past. But it's more than enough to refresh the emulsion of memory. That's all I ask.

Perhaps you worry that you'll need some help getting your epistolary engine turning over. If so, consider these topics, any one of which warrants an entry in your trip journal:

  • The weather
  • Encounters with wildlife, from blackflies to white bears
  • How (and where) the fish were biting
  • The names of people you met on the trail
  • Food notes: which meals worked and which didn't
  • Campsites: location, condition, the state of the privy (if any)…
  • Route‑finding tips, including directions to trailheads and springs
  • On‑water course logs (of particular importance for open‑water crossings)
  • Scouting reports for rapids: runnable drops, locations of sweepers, etc.
  • Bright ideas on better ways of doing things
  • Gear notes: what worked, what didn't, and what to bring next time
  • And anything else you don't want to forget

Of course, this is just the beginning. You'll soon discover that the greatest problem with keeping a trip journal is deciding what to leave out. If you try to get everything down in black and white, you'll never have any time for paddling. Or eating, come to that. Even when you're on holiday, you can't altogether escape the tyranny of clock and calendar. (In fact, if you're paddling in tidal waters, you'll find that you're more of a slave to the clock than you are during the workweek.) But it's still worth setting aside at least ten minutes in every day to jot down a few summary notes. Nothing will come of nothing, after all, but a great deal can flow from just a few words.

If you've ever whiled away a winter weekend by reading from the journal of a 19th‑century explorer (and most paddlers have, I'd bet), you may have asked yourself how the author did it. How did he — or occasionally she — find the time? And then you've probably wondered if you could do the same thing. The answer? Yes, you can. You'll reap rewards out of all proportion to the effort involved, too.

But first you have to get started. And now you know how. So write on!



Related Articles From In the Same Boat
Plus two collections of previously published columns:
  • Eye and Hand (a primer on sketching and painting for paddlers)
  • Backwaters (noteworthy landmarks in paddlesport's literary backwaters)


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