Canoeing rivers is a trip.
"I think we can run that sucker,"
I finally announced. Russ and John glanced up from their sandwiches. George smiled. George, I decided, had what it took to go with me. After lunch, George and I slipped the canoe into the river 100 yards upstream and glided gently toward the drop. I rose halfway out of my stern seat at one point to get a bearing on the broken water ahead, but there was no need; we had aligned the little boat perfectly, and a moment later the bow shot out squarely over the center of the lip. George and I paddled twice, and then we were through and digging in below the last haystack, whipping the 16 footer around in the eddy below.
By the time we reached the bank, Russ and John were already donning their life jackets for a try of their own. I grabbed my camera and fired several frames as they shot past. The subsequent photos recorded what for the life of me I can't recall seeing: Russ howling with glee in the stern and John in the bow, a hand on either gunwale, gritting his teeth.
At least once a year, I make time fro a canoe trip. Where I live in southwestern Montana, canoeable rivers aren't scarce, but that's true nearly everyplace. There's probably not a spot in the entire U.S. that isn't within a half day's drive of a floatable river, and almost anyone who has ever been on an overnight canoe trip will drive a lot longer that a half a day to go on another one.
For those who crave solitude, it is easier to find on a river--on short notice--than nearly anywhere else. If it's the clamoring sounds of human enterprise that you would escape,
I submit that trees--those wonderfully profuse plants that grow along most rivers and block views of housing developments and power stations-do a superb job of buffering sound. You may be a dozen yards from someone's backyard, but if you can't hear or see the company, you remain distanced from it in mind and soul.
Although it's tempting to go overboard with accessories, all you really need are a canoe, a sleeping bag, and food. For some reason, many canoeists are also backpackers, and in most respects, backpacking gear is excellent for float trips, particularly if you'll be gone for a week or more and weight is a consideration.
But one of the nice things about canoeing as opposed to backpacking is that weight isn't as big a consideration, especially on the overnighters and three-day-weekend trips that most of us take. Canoes, for all their feminine curves and racy lines, can haul a lot of freight. Therefore, I reserve tiny stoves, claustrophobic sleeping bags, and organic freeze-dried food for roughing it. The last thing I want to do on a float trip is eat bird seed. Call me old, call me weak--but please call me for dinner.
I was in my late 20s when I built my first canoe--a 16-foot plywood job that made it through several trips before I sold it to a fisherman for $75. I can't remember much about the way it handled, except that it was extremely heavy when not in the water.
If I learned anything about boat construction from that project, it didn't sink in, and the next boat I bought--which I still own--was a boxy, 16-foot, bright red, fiberglass Sawyer, the primary virtue of which was its cost: $250, barely used. It had been won by the previous owners in a grocery-store raffle (it took me a week to peel the Coke Is It! promotional stickers off the sides). Turned out they were terrified of the water, particularly the water in the Missouri River, which flowed a few hundred yards from their home.
That little boat has been good to me. It has stood up to everything but an ex-buddy's 200-pound girlfriend, who happened to be sitting in the bow when the boat slammed into a rock. An hour's work with fiberglass cloth and resin patched the resulting hole good as new, and it hasn't leaked since.
Still, for someone interested primarily in canoe camping, there are better outfits. Generally, the longer the boat, the easier it paddles. An l8-footer will carry all the gear you can use and cut a snappy wake with a minimum of paddle work.
Choice of construction material is up to you. Kevlar (a tough plastic) is tops, but only upper-echelon yuppies can afford a boat made of the stuff. The low-end polyethylene boats handle like bathtubs, but they're nearly bulletproof and relatively cheap. Aluminum canoes are probably last on the desirability list, but like the poly boats, they're cheap and easy to find at garage sales. Most folks settle on some type of fiberglass construction, which is modestly priced ($500 to $1,000) and durable.
Recently, I've been eying plans for an 18-foot cedarstrip canoe, a boat as beautiful as it is impractical and I've just about convinced myself I won't put a hole in the thing with the first rock I hit. Remember, although a state-of-the-art cruising machine is nice, the main idea is to get out on the water, and to that end, almost anything will work.
When you pull ashore, you'll need a tent for shelter. A two- or three-person backpacking tent is ideal, not so much for its light weight as for the space saved compared to the typical car-camping umbrella-type unit. For years now I've used a Chouinard Pyramid tent. It's lightweight (about three pounds), compact, floorless (who needs a floor?), and will sleep two people comfortably, three or maybe even four in a pinch. It also sets up in about two minutes, leaving me plenty of time to contemplate the evening's dinner.
Sleeping gear is whatever sleeping bag I happen to own at the time, along with the biggest, softest sleeping pad I can get my hands on. Lately that has been a full-length Therma-Rest inflatable pad.
Because it always rains at some point during a canoe trip, I bought an expensive Patagonia raincoat two years ago, and haven't felt a drop of rain in the half dozen times I've used it since then.
For kitchen duty, bring a cooking grate and sturdy steel or aluminum utensils. When a fire isn't practical, a propane or gas stove is handy, although they hardly carry off the romance of cooking over coals. On the other hand, they don't drop your omelet into the flames or flick flaming embers into your lap, either. If there's a question about the safety of an open fire, use a stove.
Most perishables are stored in a cooler. Dry ice will keep food cool longest and with the least mess, but dry ice is expensive and hard to find. I use a mid-sized cooler with a 10-pound block of ice, which will last about two days in hot weather, just right for a weekend trip.
Incidentally, a handy, if heavy, dry box for storing dry goods can be adapted from an Army-surplus ammo carrier. Get the large size, which is about 18 inches long by a foot high. I've read, though I've yet to try it, that painting it silver or white reduces heat gain on hot summer afternoons.
I use a small dry bag--a vinyl-coated, heavy nylon sack with waterproof closures-for my camera and other items I need close at hand, and a large dry bag for storing all the rest of my gear. I learned the hard way that cheap dry bags aren't worth the soggy folding money you stored inside them. Buy the best you can afford (good, large bags run $45 to $60), and pay particular attention to how they close. Anything that looks jury-rigged probably is, and the last place you need a leaky dry bag is during a float trip (count on it--you will eventually fall out of the canoe).
If you're short on cash, Army-surplus body bags make serviceable dry bags, and are surprisingly durable. Shove your gear into the bottom two feet of the bag, wrap the top of the bag (they're about six feet tall) around the gear once or twice, and lash it closed with a bungy cord or nylon strap. Effective, if a bit grisly.
Finally, you'll need safety gear: one life jacket per person and one throw line per boat. I usually use my life jacket as a boat cushion, but most of the rivers I float are only three feet or so deep, and whenever there's the slightest chance I may go in, I put it on. A throw line is just what it sounds like--a line to throw to people who, like me, have gone overboard without a life jacket. They're easy to make and inexpensive to buy, so there's no excuse for not having one.
Just how far I travel in one day has become less important to me over the years. At 35, I'm finding that a dozen miles is plenty, although I'm in reasonably good shape and could probably paddle twice that if I had to. By age 60, who knows? I may be satisfied with dragging my boat through the wet grass in my backyard.
How far you can comfortably travel in one day depends largely on your itinerary. Are you strictly sightseeing? On a fast western river like Montana's Missouri, 20 miles a day isn't out of the question. On a slow river, like Montana's Missouri in a stiff headwind, you may go half that far and work twice as hard while you're at it. Fishing trips are invariably shorter than others, since few fishermen are satisfied with casting from a boat all day, and will want to fish from shore at least part of the time. Unless you plan to fish from dawn to dusk, figure the distance you think you can float, then cut it in half.
It's best to be conservative, even on half-day trips, especially with beginners on board. The more you concentrate on how far or where you're going, the less time you'll spend enjoying the trip. If you're 22, this won't make a lot of sense; it didn't to me, back then. But trust me, someday you'll see it my way. As with bird dogs and good Scotch whiskey, float-tripping should be appreciated on its subtie merits and forgiven its flaws.
After my three cohorts and I had run the chute, we reloaded our gear and took off downstream. We were floating southwest Montana's Jefferson River, one of my favorites. The Jeff is an enigma. It should be a good trout stream, and at times it is-but never on the days I fish it. That's fine, however, since it also has an abundance of wildlife, particularly waterfowl, which I never tire of looking at.
George and I paddled well together. Though he'd been a complete novice at the start of the trip, he picked it up quickly with only minimal coaching and had a natural feel for the water. For a while we trailed Russ and John, whose inventory of wisecracks included several lawyer jokes (they're both attorneys in Bozeman). The only one fit to print goes like this: What's black and tan and looks good on a lawyer? Answer: a Doberman.
We covered 10 or 12 miles that afternoon, including an hour's stop at a waterfall. An hour after that, we passed a sign along the bank: Rapids Ahead, Portage Around. We pulled to shore and trotted down the bank for a look. Not rapids exactly, but another chute. Longer and choppier than the last, but a chute just like the one we'd run the day before.
Paddling is far easier if the pair of paddlers agree ahead of time on a set of signals, always given by the stern person. You can get as complicated as you want with this, but on easy rivers it's enough to have a command to paddle left, one to paddle right, and one to stop. After a mile or so of practicing, it's usually sufficient to let the boat drift with the current, issuing commands only when necessary to avoid an obstacle or to reach a destination in a hurry.
Total anarchy leads to confusion, so once I'm confident the bow paddler has learned the ropes, I'm content to let him paddle when he feels like it, with me adding whatever strokes are necessary to keep the boat more or less on an even keel. This prevents resentment, gives the bow paddler a feeling of autonomy, and--so long as it's understood that the stern man is captain of the ship when decisions must be made keeps us moving along steadily. The stern and bow paddlers should switch positions occasionally, to give both a chance to run the show.
A drastic weight difference between the two paddlers can create problems with load distribution, but so far that hasn't been an obstacle on any of my trips. Or perhaps I just haven't noticed, since I spend most of my time gazing at the river or watching birds through binoculars or fishing, or, I must admit, sipping beer.
Camp selection, though rarely given much thought, can make or break a trip. Ideally, you'll want a spot with a view, clean water, shade, sun, a white sand beach, and palm trees. Don't hold your breath; fiver sites don't come that way. But do try to pick a spot that at least has a nice patch of soft grass for the post-dinner sprawl and contemplation period. A lawn is ever so much nicer for lounging than a gravel bar, no matter how thick your Therma-Rest.
Here in Montana, I camp whenever possible in groves of cottonwoods, majestic trees I've learned to love in 20 years of living in the Rockies.
If there are designated campsites along the fiver, use them. If a fire ring is already in place, use that too. If you plan to stay up half the night talking and gazing at the stars (always a good idea), gather wood while there's still enough light to see where you're going. Bring a hand spade or small shovel for burying human wastes (not garbage!), and bum your toilet paper if it's safe to do so. Any unburnable wastes should be packed out with you in a plastic bag brought for that purpose.
Camp means food, and the evening's activities invariably center around dinner-what to eat before, what to eat during, and what to eat after. A Dutch oven will cook almost anything you can imagine, given sufficient time. I recently bought an all-aluminum Dutch oven because my 12-inch cast-iron model was simply too heavy to lug around. But cast iron's virtues are hard to dispute--it seasons well, distributes heat evenly, and is all but bombproof.
Cooking over a Dutch oven isn't difficult, but it's too involved to go into here. I can recommend two handy booklets on the subject: Dutch Oven Cooking (Pacesetter Press, Box 2608, Houston, TX 77001), and Let's Cook Dutch (Horizon Publishers, P.O. Box 490, Bountiful, UT 84010).
I knew we were in trouble moments after George and I dropped over the lip of the second chute. We'd lined up the boat perfectly--right down the middle-and everything had gone fine until we hit the haystacks at ,the bottom. The first wave tipped us to the right, and I felt the canoe rolling slowly and inexorably sideways. An instant later the river closed over my head, and when I bobbed to the surface in my life jacket, I saw George in the water downstream, calmly holding onto a gunwale with one hand and his paddle with the other. We drifted with the current for a ways, then dragged the boat to shore.
Luckily, we had taken everything out of the boat during the portage, but I'd forgotten to remove my wallet from my pocket, and my driver's license, various IDs, and what little folding money I'd brought along were in sad shape. I spread them out on the bank in the sun.
An hour later, wearing dry clothes and cozied up next to a campfire, I was feeling pretty good about it all. We had given it our best shot. And there was always next year.
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|Title Annotation:||Recreation; includes related article|
|Date:||May 1, 1992|
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