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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Art of Planning a Big Trip

Part 5: Back to the Dining-Room Table

by Farwell Forrest

Last week's column left us paddling down a wilderness lake, with a summer storm building up to windward. Worse yet, we didn't know exactly where on the lake we were. Not a happy combination of circumstances, that. We're in trouble. In half an hour—maybe less—the first squall will hit. We'd like to be off the water before it does, but there's no getting around a very unpleasant fact: it isn't easy to know where to go when you don't know where you are.

What to do? Like most hard questions, this has more than one right answer. We're talking about trip planning, however. Our answer will therefore take us back to the dining-room table at home, where a map lies spread out before us. The best way to deal with a problem is to avoid it in the first place, after all. Just ask NATO.

Out on the lake, I was the navigator. Now we're lost. Where did I go wrong?

It's simple, really. Just as Tamia ran the rivers we planned to paddle on paper, months before our Big Trip began, so I should have paddled across the lakes the same way—on paper. Seen from the bow seat of a canoe, a lake is a confusion of shapes and colors. Islands blend into shorelines, and each bay seems a lot like every other one. Back at home, looking down at a good map, things are much easier.

OK, then. Let's put our pencils to work for us. First, we need to know where we're starting. It might be a canoeists' parking area, the place where a rail line touches the lake, or the little backwater where a portage trail ends. Whatever it is, this is our point of departure. Mark it on the map.

Next, mark the place where we want to leave the lake. Again, it can be anything: the pull-off where we parked our car, a flag-stop on the rail line, or the start of another portage trail. It doesn't matter. We just need to be able to find it on the map. This is our destination. Of course, if the lake is a big one, or if we expect to reach it near the end of a long day, we may have one or more intermediate destinations. These are nothing more than campsites somewhere on the lake itself. Mark each and every one.

Now take your pencil back to our point of departure, and begin thinking about the route from there to our destination. You need to know something first, though. You need to know how fast you paddle on flat water. This is one thing you can't determine in your dining-room. You should have figured it out well in advance, on day trips in your home waters. The calculation is a simple one. Paddle a known distance. (Measure the course out on a map first.) Time how long it takes you. Divide distance by time. That's it. Then do it again. And again. With the wind ahead. Astern. On the beam. With a light load. With a heavy load. When you're tired. When you're fresh.

Do all this and you'll soon know how fast you can paddle in every condition you're likely to meet. In planning for a Big Trip, just take your average speed with a heavy load. What? You haven't done the math? No problem. Just use 3 miles an hour as your first estimate, making adjustments as necessary. If you paddle a reasonably well-designed boat, if you don't take more than 5- or 10-minute breaks every hour, and if you and your partner are competent paddlers, you won't be too far off.

Back to the map. Get a pair of dividers—those hinged gadgets which you probably used when you took geometry in high school, though you most likely called them "compasses" then. Using the scale on the map, set your dividers for the distance you expect to paddle in half an hour: one and one-half miles, say. Now "walk off" your course along the lake, marking every point corresponding to one half-hour's paddling. These marks become your checkpoints.

You'll need to choose a route first, of course. That's an article in itself, but here are couple of pointers. Take the prevailing winds into consideration. If you expect a northwest wind on most days, for example, and if the lake runs north-south, stay close to the western shore. And whatever the likely direction of the wind, don't plan to paddle too far from shore. It's a lot of fun to ride the big rollers in the middle of a large lake, I know—but the fun stops fast when the rollers start to break, dumping gallons of water into your boat. Trying to horse a swamped canoe back to shore, when the shore's a mile or two away, is mighty hard work even when the water's warm. If the water's cold, it could easily be the last work you ever do.

Once you've "walked off" your route from point of departure to destination, take a close look at each of the half-hour checkpoints. Identify several distinctive landmarks which correspond to each point. Examples? Unique alignments of islands and bays, cliffs, mountains which stand out from their neighbors, and sudden jogs in the shoreline.

Done? Good. When you're out on the lake, keep the map that you marked up on your kitchen table in front of you as you paddle, and check your watch from time to time. As each half-hour checkpoint approaches, look around for the landmarks you identified when you paddled the lake with your pencil, months before. Once you find them, you'll know exactly where you are. It's a good feeling.

Now why didn't I think of that?

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

It's important to stay found, of course, but when things really go wrong on a paddling trip, there's usually another reason. Next week, Farwell looks at a big problem nobody talks much about. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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