Saturday, April 25, 2015


Credit: Vittorio Marras

There are no excuses.  There are no valid reasons for being on the water without a PFD, yet people keep drowning because they aren't wearing one.  There has been enough research and design to have developed dozens of different PFD styles that insure both comfort and survival.  Find one that works for you and wear it. If you haven't planned ahead, it doesn't matter.  Just take one that's ugly and stiff as cardboard, but wear it.  Either way, put one on before going on the water.  If you are vain enough to worry that your silly friends may comment about your poor color choice, or that a PFD makes you look less than macho, imagine the impression you'll make on the rescue workers that have to pull your alcohol-sodden, hypothermic, drowned corpse out of the water after hours or days of searching.  "Well, another dumb ass that drowned because he thought he could do without a PFD." or "Here's another guy wanting to prove that stupid is forever."  ALWAYS wear your PFD!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Montreal Canoe and the Voyageur

Credit: Canadian Public Archives

As we read the history of expeditions into the New World, we find a nearly unending string of deaths and failed expeditions, especially into the Arctic regions, because the explorers were determined to use European gear and clothing, and stubbornly convinced of their superiority.  The prejudice was indeed spoken out loud that certainly no uneducated indigenous populations could know more about surviving on the barrens and tundra than the Europeans.  Success in exploration and survival didn’t come until the white men finally decided to try local ideas on clothing, footwear, and shelter.  One of these local innovations that the Europeans had no match for was the canoe.

The word canoe comes from the Carib Indian (Caribbean and South Florida) language for the dugout, the ‘kenu.’  The Spanish in the area called it a ‘canoa.’  While there is archeological evidence of a canoe-type craft in the Netherlands dating back 8,000 years BC, the craft was never refined or developed there for continuous use.  The much lighter and more versatile birch bark canoe, however, was a refinement from the First Nations people of North America, or what became known as Canada in 1867.  Since nearly half of the region’s geography is fresh water, about 400,000 square miles of nothing but water, constantly crossing lakes and rivers, hunting for food, warfare, and being able to move from one body of water to another, made the light birch bark canoe essential for survival. 

The personal canoe was generally 14-16 ft. in length, and weighed up to about 50 lbs., which is still quite competitive with the weights of canoes out of modern materials.  To build a country and create its commercial trade, however, a work horse was needed, and that was the Montreal canoe.

Few people think about it, but there is virtually nothing you can touch today that did not get to you by truck.  Many items are moved totally by truck, from raw resource, to manufacturer, to distributor, to store, and to waste disposal after consumption.  Our lives would not exist as we know them without the tractor-trailer, and for that period in history, the 1600’s until the 1900’s, and in some regions until the 1960’s, the Montreal canoe was the region’s tractor-trailer.  The Voyageur, or shipping canoe crewman, was the truck driver and lumper of the day.  They carried European and East Coast supplies into the wilderness, and exchanged them for hides, which were carried on the return trip for shipment back to Europe.

Montreal canoes were 35-36 feet long, with a beam of up to 6 feet.  The shipping trips would commonly involve 3-4 canoes traveling together.  Each of the canoes were crewed by around 10 voyageurs, and carried 65 bales of goods, which with the crew and their gear could total as much as 8,000 lbs.  The voyageur started his day before dawn, and generally without breakfast.  Breakfast would wait for one of the day’s early rest stops.  They paddled 14 or more hours a day, averaged 50 miles a day, and maintained a 45-55 stroke/minute paddling cadence.  After each hour of paddling, they would make a rest stop, which was measured by the time needed to smoke one small-bowl pipe of tobacco, and often without getting out of the canoe.  When they couldn’t paddle because of rapids, they would line, pole, track, roll the canoe across short land obstructions on log rollers, or more commonly portage with 4-6 voyageurs.  All hides and freight were pressed into 90 lb. bundles, and each voyageur was responsible for portaging six bundles from take-out to put–in, carrying two bundles at a time.  While most portages were more reasonable distances, one was eight miles and another 12 miles long, in which case the voyager carried for a half-mile, and rested while walking back for the next two bundles, and was expected to complete the round-trip in an hour.  Thus the longer portages were made in stages across the total distance.  The voyageurs commonly wore colorful sashes around their waists.  Voyageurs had little room in their lives for fashion statements.  Many think the sash wrappings were to help prevent hernias from the heavy loads, as strangulated hernias were an agonizing and not uncommon cause of death for these men.

The early French trapper/traders were usually independent and solitary operators.  In 1670, however, the Hudson Bay Company was created with a one-and-a-half million square mile grant from Charles II.  That is 40% of the land mass that became Canada.  Unlike the French trappers who received little or no support from the French government, the officers of the Hudson Bay Company were well connected both politically and financially.  The beauty of the Hudson Bay Company was that their ring of forts and posts around Hudson Bay and westward into the interior cut the time needed to complete a round-trip into the wilderness and back by half as opposed to going all the way back to the St. Lawrence River. 

Voyageurs were now HBC employees.  The Voyageur signed a five-year contract with the company.  To fill these positions, the Hudson Bay Company needed to find men that were used to being close to starvation, living on a diet of half lard and half corn, accustomed to hardship, miserable weather, lives of privation, and very limited resources.  They looked to Scotsmen from the Orkney and Shetland Isles on the Northeast coast of Scotland.  During the Napoleonic Wars roughly a third of their male populations were pressed into the military, most into the Navy.  More were pressed into service on Arctic whaling ships.  The collapse of local fisheries, the failure of crops, and the eviction of farmers from their lands by rich land owners left few resources for their survival at home.  During this period, roughly a quarter of the islands’ populations emigrated to North America, Australia, and New Zealand.  Many who found their way to North America sustained themselves with canoe paddles. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Child of Nature

Brian Duncan on the Missouri River

"What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other.  Travel a thousand miles by train, and you are a brute.  Peddle 500 miles on a bicycle, and you remain basically bourgeois.  Paddle a hundred in a canoe, and you are already a child of nature."
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spirited Waters


Spirited Waters: Soloing South Through the Inside Passage, by Jennifer Hahn (pub by Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA, 2001, 211pp.) Winner of the Barbara Savage Memorial Miles From Nowhere Award. 

The passage was from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington.  For a naturalist who had worked for fourteen years as a kayaking guide, this trip was a logical evolution.  It is not a night one, night two, night three kind of trip log, but a sensory experience for the reader.  The author takes you through the non-stop challenge from large, foam-crested waves, strong currents, huge tides, up-wellings, whirlpools, wolves, and being surrounded by killer and gray whales, eagles, sea otters, etc.  She shares the experience of spending a couple days with a dying breed, a family of lighthouse keepers.  Then she is adopted for a night by a family of loggers. 

Throughout the books she adds the customs and beliefs of the First Nations people that have called this coast home for thousands of years.  As a naturalist, she also introduces the reader to the continuous living grocery full of delicacies that lie in the tidal zone or just below the surface.  Her meals are enriched with a wide range of seaweeds, kelps, sea urchins, crabs, clams and many other creatures that add to her chowders. 

While this can never be a trip taken for granted, she is honest about the doubts and fears that any paddler should expect to face on such a coast where nature is still wild, and support or assistance is unlikely to be available, or not likely to arrive before it’s too late.  Beyond those fears facing any paddler, she adds those of particular concern to a woman traveling along in such a wild environment.  Male or female, this is a book any paddler will enjoy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Slice and Dice

 Yesterday was devoted to a Mercy Hospital visit for a little slice and dice.  I don't mean to sound trite, but that's just one more reason why you don't put off your paddling or other dreams until you're ready, the kids are grown, you're retired, or any of those other lame excuses for procrastination.  I do have summer paddling plans, but I've intentionally not made them known, because it all depends on what the biopsy reveals.  All I do now is sit for a couple weeks and wait for the shoe to drop.   Today we're sitting and waiting to see if any funnels drop on us.  I got the tornado shelter cleaned out, stocked with 2 gallons of water, a waste bucket with screw-on lid and 3 rolls of TP, a battery-powered lantern, a whistle to attract the attention of would-be rescuers if we got trapped, and 10 Cliff Bars.  I like making paddling plans more, but we have to deal with it as it comes.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Mississippi River Transit

The wind has been fierce today, and is expected to continue for most of the rest of the coming week.  It was gusting to 50 mph this morning (Force 9-10 on the Beaufort Scale), and held at 30-35 most of the day (Force 8 or gale), not dropping to 25 mph until sunset.  When I went out for my walk, it wasn’t too bad while passing treed areas and around buildings, but while walking upwind by open pastures, the roar in my ears was so loud I couldn’t hear traffic coming up behind me.


Besides getting the flowerbed irrigation system repaired, reconnected, and set up for the summer, I spent some time out of the wind watching Mississippi River In Transit.  I don’t know how I haven’t spotted this before, but if you’ve missed it as well, you may enjoy it.  It is a video-log of four young men paddling the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico.  If you’ve fantasized about such a trip, and wondered what it would take to accomplish it, the videos do a very good job of showing the preparations, as well as the obstacles and adventures experienced along the way.  As for experience, the total canoeing experience accrued by the four prior to setting off was---ZERO, but they endured a pretty steep learning curve.  There are 25 videos in the collection done by Peter Bragiel and his videographer.  You should find them both entertaining and enlightening, and they are all accessible at:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Credit: & Google

I’ve been involved in public safety almost all my life---with the Civil Defense (Boy, that dates me!), Homeland Security, fire service, police, etc.---but there are still two areas where I remain forever mentally challenged.  To me, warnings that involve public safety, and that require that the public respond immediately in a specific way for their own good, should be clear, concise, and 100% free of possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation. 


Here’s the first problem.  About 2:15 this afternoon, a siren sounded.  As I was washing the truck, I stopped and looked around, and there was not a cloud in the sky anywhere.  However, I still have this problem of frequently being unable to immediately determine by the second warble if I’m listening to a fire siren or a tornado siren.  One tells me that if I don’t smell smoke, I should just listen to hear which way the fire trucks go.  The other means I should be running flat-out for my tornado shelter.   I’m sure if I heard them one after the other, their difference would be unmistakable.  However, hearing one or the other only once a week or so, it takes a finely tuned ear to tell them apart, and then only after standing there for the duration of the siren doing a mental juggling act between fire, no, tornado, no, can’t be, fire.  If it is in fact a tornado warning, by the time one decides what the siren is for, you’re being sucked through the front window.


I called the town office and asked what the siren was for.  I was told it was the storm siren.  I asked if there were two different sirens used so they could be distinguished one from the other, and was told, “No, it’s the same siren.”  “Well,” I asked, “is there a different pattern or something between the two?  They sound the same to me.”  “Yeah, one sounds like a fire siren that goes up and down, and the other sounds like a dead animal.”  “Well the one I just heard went up and down, so was that the fire siren?”  “No, that was the storm siren.  It’s the one we sound every Wednesday at noon.”  (Of course it is now 2:15.)  Apparently they were having other problems that prevented the siren being sounded on time.  None of this helped me.  Besides, it’s April first, so I wondered if she was serious or just putting me on.  I guess I have to listen to more dying animals or sit dutifully at noon each Wednesday to listen for the tornado siren.


Forecasters often talk about not being able to understand why people hearing a tornado siren immediately go rushing outside to look around when they should be heading for their shelter.   I understand it perfectly.  They don’t hear a tornado siren.  What they hear is a siren, period.  Then they rush outside to see what the heck is going on.  They are checking to see if there is a glow and smoke in the sky, or a funnel.  Then they will know what the siren was for.


The other issue I’ve never understood is storm watches and warnings.  There are 1,025,110 words in the English language.  So why did they have to pick two words confusingly close to one another to represent two totally different things?  After 50 years, when I hear one of the two words, I still have to stop and think about whether that is the less serious one or the more serious one.  Between watch or warning, either one could be either the lesser or the greater.  Does watch mean to watch for possible weather developing during the day, or does the word warning warn about possible bad weather?  Why don’t they take one of those two words---it doesn’t matter which one---and use it to indicate that bad or severe weather may be possible and that people should pay attention to weather updates during the day.  Then they could pick another word, like BOKAG for the serious alert requiring immediate action.  BOKAG, of course, being the acronym for 'bend over, kiss as- goodbye.   Now, no one would have a problem understanding that!