Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Canoe Tripping Styles

The family canoe is in the shop getting a new set of well-earned gunwhales, thwarts, fabric and paint. In the meantime, I have recently been reading about a cross-continent canoe trip the Shepardsons made with their two young children back in the early 80's.

In reading this, it has become clearer to me that there are some very different ways to approach canoe tripping!

On our trips we travel in a much more luxurious fashion than they did. We carry a serious water filter (Katadyn Combi), a single-burner camp stove, and ALL of our food. We decide which sleeping pads to bring not whether to bring any at all. We carry internal frame packs, not Duluth packs (I've never even tried using a tump line!). We generally carry 2 or maximum 3 sets of clothing each, plus extra socks and underwear, all packed in drybags, and rain gear. We have not yet done a trip in which we stop along the way for supplies, nor do we hunt or fish. Our focus is different. So are both the length and intensity of our trips.

They're much more traditional in their approach, more like modern-day Voyageurs than vacationers. We are much more casual. Both are valuable, but very different sorts of activities!

The places we go tend to be overstressed by human activity as it is--we do our best not to add to the problem any more than the long drive up and our travel along the portage paths.
I know many see fishing as a crucial part of canoe tripping, but we have had no need. Perhaps if we were in a more remote area and in emergency conditions we would fish. Some lakes near us are artificially stocked for weekend anglers. We've found fishing line left draped over bushes, and some still use lead weights which further pollute the waterways. I do not wish to contribute to this practice. Instead, to keep the packs manageable, we grow and buy local produce and dehydrate it ourselves.

There is a can and bottle ban in Algonquin Park, where we first started our canoe tripping adventures. This has shaped our food planning by forcing us to repackage items, and in doing so, reduce our weight and bulk for portaging. It also helped us on our way to learning to pack well for backpacking trips. We hang all our food before bed each night, and whenever we leave any behind on our site while exploring. Nuisance bears are common in the well-travelled places we paddle, but I wonder if our precautions don't serve more to entice them than dissuade them. Still, we have been fortunate to have avoided theft by bear when camping, and the family canoe still has indents where a bear rolled the canoe to get at food packs underneath during one of my father in law's trips. Raccoons and red squirrels on the other hand can climb well and are appreciative when you hang "their portion" in the relative safety overhead. Red squirrels (and chipmunks) thank you by chattering and clucking and dropping well-aimed cones and twigs where you are working.

I now make up bannock mix in pre-measured baggies (just add water and oil) and we cook this on sticks over the fire, usually on the last night. I also measure out portions of dried hummus in baggies (add water, seal bag, knead with hands then cut off corner of the bottom of the bag to squeeze it out). More camping food ideas can be found here.
Yes, the baggies are an environmental blemish on our trips. I'm working on it. We no longer double-bag items, and reuse resealable packaging when we can. It's not perfect, and suggestions are welcome!

If we are travelling more remotely (or more likely, off season in normally well-travelled places that are now deserted), we carry a camp saw rather than an axe. It's much lighter to carry, and we generally use smaller sticks of wood (rather than logs) anyhow. But carrying a camp stove reduces our need for wood. Wood is our backup plan, and we do plan one fire/trip to appease the kids who love to practice their pyromania. The eldest can start a fire from a single ember left by previous campers, and has done so several times now. It's a little alarming to see how quickly it can grow, all from an inadequately extinguished fire, and usually just from material within arm's reach of the fire pit!

Many times people who canoe trip are focused on their distance, esp. distance travelled each day. We are slow movers, slow paddlers, and very slow portagers. This used to bother me, but once we had kids, I learned to accept and embrace that. On trips marked for 4 days, it is not unusual for us to take 5 or even 6. But for us, the trips are vacations, so relaxation is an essential element. The kids need time to build dams and waterways, follow insects, float sap-powered leaf boats, etc.

As the kids are getting older though, I see that the relaxation is becoming a little more like laziness. Last year in the Barron Canyon the kids gave us a little peek as to what they are capable of, and I'm going to be hard pressed to keep up this year! It's amazing to me how strong and efficient they've become. They can set up and strike down camp themselves in minutes. They carry appreciable loads now on portages, and when they paddle, the boat gains considerable speed. They are truly comfortable with nature, which I'm sad to say is a rare phenomenon with kids these days.

We have never run any whitewater with the kids. Our own skills are a bit lacking in this area, and we've only really dealt with class I or II in the past, so this is probably a wise decision. Having said that, I believe it is time for us all to take a clinic then practice the skills. There are rivers calling, and the kids are old enough to appreciate safety and still young enough not to have lost their nerve yet. They can cheer on their over-cautious parents!

I absolutely love the Lady Evelyn River (the site of our honeymoon), and hope to return soon. Aside from the "interesting" portages on the south channel, I think we would be able to manage it later one season (once we've done a more laid-back lily-dipping lake trip to warm us up). For the south portages, it will just be grin and bear it, and try not to fall on the steep scree slopes. Luckily, the kids are part mountain goat. Here's hoping that recent reports about the increasing traffic and degradation of sites are overstated.

Am I ready to canoe across the country? Nope. While many areas call to me, I know that I'm (way) too soft for huge expeditions like that. 2 weeks seems like a more attainable and enjoyable goal for us.

There are some rivers--the Nahanni, the Tatshenshini, and several in Quebec that sound pretty interesting. Our skills and fitness levels aren't up to those yet, but perhaps it's time to set a goal!