Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Delight of Range Marks

A pair of range lights with white and red screens.
Credit: Google images
You are going to start out thinking this doesn’t apply to you, because I’ll begin talking about ships and tugs.  That is just the easiest way to explain the concept, so stick with me.  This is for you also.  
I was watching a video done by a friend about his trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  He was paddling across a rough bay to get in the lee of the land.  He held the wind on his starboard bow, and guessed that even as he paddled into the wind, having it on the side of the bow would push him into the bay.  All of that was true, of course, but he appeared to be working intuitively, and couldn’t tell for sure what was happening or how fast.  That brings us delightfully to the wonderful world of range marks.  Using them takes a little thought at first, but they eventually become as second-natured as walking, and add a whole new dimension to getting your boat to do what you want and take you where you want to go. 
The two operative words here are set and drift, and we’ll add a few other terms in the narrative.  Any time you are on the water, unless aground or made fast to the shore, your boat is being pushed about by wind, waves, and current.  Set is the direction you are being pushed, and drift is the speed at which you are moving off course.  Set and drift take on great importance in any navigational solution, but the beauty of range marks is they enable you to solve for set and drift by eye, and continuously, without throwing the protector on the chart and drawing and measuring vectors and triangles.  They are one of the greatest gifts and blessings a boater has at his disposal regardless whether skippering a 15-ft. pack canoe or a 1000-ft. ore carrier. 
To begin with, range marks are any two objects viewed in line, one behind the other.  They will change relative position to each other based on how we are set.  Range marks are used extensively by the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers to help ship captains remain in a river channel.  Then when the skipper reaches a port, they enable him to get through the inlet and into the port without running aground.  At night they are called RANGE LIGHTS, because lights will be set on two poles or towers so they can be seen in the darkness.  The front range light will be shorter than the rear one so both can always be seen.  Their color and flashing sequence varies to help distinguish one from the other, or one pair of ranges from another pair, but also to make them stand out from any other background lights in the area.  The poles or towers also have large placards and screens attached to their faces to make them stand out from the background and visible from a distance of a couple miles during the day, and the screens create RANGE MARKS.  Each mark sends a message.  The front mark is the reference mark.  The relative movement of the rear mark behind the front mark tells us how nature is working on our vessel.  So here’s how they work. 
As long as the two marks remain in line, one behind the other, your boat is tracking dead down the middle of the channel, and all of the surrounding scenery (buildings, trees, points of land, etc.) will remain stationary relative to the front mark.  They will move relative to the front mark too, if we really get off course, but we use the range marks for immediate feedback and instant correction.  We want to correct set right away before things get out of hand.  If we see the rear mark pop out of line and start to drift to the left of the front mark, our boat is also being set to the left, and we are moving out of the channel.  A new helmsman will always be told to steer the rear mark to keep it in line, as if it were a video game.  If the rear mark needs to go right to get back in line with the reference mark, he steers right.  If it needs to go left, he steers left.  As he nears alignment, he begins to center the helm so he doesn’t overshoot the channel centerline.  Something that is hard for people to accept initially is that this is all without regard for where the bow is pointing.  The natural tendency is wanting to point the bow right at the marks, but keeping the marks aligned is done by steering the rear mark regardless of whether the bow is any angle to the right or left of the apparent line down the center of the channel. 
Explaining how they work for tugs and ships seems to be the easiest way to explain the basic idea, but all kinds of vessels use range marks for any number of situations.  Sailors couldn’t live without them.  Racing sailors using them win races.  Those that don’t, lose.  Sailors live with the constant reality of leeway, and its resulting set and drift.  The direction the wind pushes a sailboat sideways, producing leeway, is the set, and how much and how fast the boat is set off course is the drift.  This all tells the skipper how much ground he is gaining or losing to the wind and/or current.  He wants the solution to this question resolved in seconds, and range marks will tell him that.  The longer it takes to really understand what is happening on the water, the more out of control he is, and the harder he has to work to get back on track.  However, we can see the same problem arising whether sailboat, canoe, or kayak.  Since the Coast Guard doesn’t create range marks for every immediate situation, we create our own.  We can pick any two objects, some distance apart, with one behind the other, to create our range marks.

Wanting to reach the end of an island with the wind
pushing us off course, we line up the flag in the foreground
with the house in the background.  As long as they remain
in line, we will reach our destination even though the canoe
is pointed way off course.
Let’s say you are headed toward the tip of an island.  The wind is from port (or the left) and will try to blow us away from the island.  You want to arrive right at the tip so you don’t get set way downwind and have to fight back against the wind and waves.  You find something on the point of the island, like an isolated tree, boulder, house --- anything.  In the background you look for another mark on the mainland in the background that is close to being in line with your front or reference mark.  If it is some greater distance off, we may not see individual objects, but you can still see dips in the tree line, major construction, smokestacks, grain elevators, etc.  If the sun is starting to approach the horizon, you might use a light or a star as a second mark.  We line the two marks up, hold our heading, and watch the rear mark.  If the rear mark drifts off to the right, or downwind, we are losing ground.  You begin to come closer to the wind until the two marks line up and stay stationary.  Paddling at that angle to the wind will take you right to the tip of the island without the loss of any ground you would have to make up.  If the waves are big enough, you may be wanting to hold the bow at a safe angle into the waves.  The range marks will tell how high you can point into the waves, or allow yourself to fall off the wind, without losing ground to leeway. 
Range marks can also be used for safety purposes.  You are being met by a powerboat heading toward you at a converging angle.  Will he pass you at a safe distance, or is there a risk of collision?  Line the boat up with a mark behind him, and see how the background moves.  If the background move to the left of the boat, we will be to his left when he passes.  The opposite will be true if the background progresses to the right of the boat.  If the background does not move, you are on a collision course and at risk of being run down even though he may be some distance away.  You have created three points on a line: you, the boat, and a mark in the background.  Unless someone alters course, the boat will travel that line right to you. 
By the same token, let’s say you see a canoe you know, and you’d like to join up with him.  Regardless of which direction he is going, if you are on a converging course, line him up with an object behind him.  Alter your course so the background remains stationary, and you will meet him unerringly without regard for normal set and drift. 
If the surroundings don’t offer the best marks you would like, then create your own marks.  A fish trap or a buoy can be used for one point.  Even a cloud can be used, and the further away the better, but clouds move.  It will give you immediate feedback on your current situation and enable you to set an appropriate heading that corrects for set and drift.  Minutes later, you will have to find another cloud to confirm that conditions haven’t changed.  Even with a compass heading, the heading can remain fixed as you slide off a considerable distance off the desired track.  With a compass capable of offering bearings, range marks will enable you to paddle on in greater comfort by watching distant marks rather than little lines on a dancing card.  If you start with a compass heading from your map, as soon as you get underway, pick a set of range marks for that heading.  Following the range will not only be easier on the eyes and nerves than trying to watch the compass card, but they will also factor in any leeway you may be experiencing.  If you haven’t been accustomed to using range marks, start practicing with them.  You will acquire a skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Lost Grizzlies

Leaving the bears in peace.
Credit: Robin Silver

The Lost Grizzlies:  A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, by Rick Bass.  (Pub. by Houghton Mifflin Co., New York/Boston, 1995, one of nine books by the author, 239pp.) 
My favorite quote in the book is credited by the author to Catherine the Great.  “That which is not growing begins to rot.”  A- It’s true, and B- There’s just a message there that touches me from so many different directions and from almost every facet of life.  The book is well written, and the author carries you through several experiences at once.  There’s the adventure of just taking off across country on a summer-long camping trip.  The reader follows the author high into the mountains’ wilderness to experience all of nature’s animal life, birds, streams and rivers, bold mountain features from avalanche chutes, ravines, cliffs, scree fields and trees that are found in every aspect of life and death, growth and rot.  You continue to climb well above the tree line as you look for any hint of wildlife, especially bears.  There are many black bears, but you are looking for the secretive grizzly.  Everyone says they are now extinct in Southern Colorado.  The last accounts of their sightings date back decades ago when this or that hunter claims to have killed the last one.  If any grizzlies remain, their lives and habits have been so altered, and their culture so changed by human contact that they have withdrawn into small, inaccessible spots where they strive to remain hidden.  Much of what you’ve read about them, about their diet, or their living and hunting habits, is now obsolete.  The bears have changed their most basic instincts to survive. 
You will be shown how both man and nature have altered the mountains and forests.  Nature can’t be helped, but the sins perpetrated by man are hard to understand, and harder to accept.  Besides the clearcutting and raping of natural resources, large areas are staked out with camps a year at a time to lay claim to the area’s hunting possibilities.  Anything no longer needed, or which they don’t care to carry back out, litter the forest.  Anyone entering such regions are met with aggression and potential armed confrontation for ‘trespassing’ on their claim to public lands.  Even if the grizzly is still there, it is man that must be feared most.  The names of all the roads, mountains, streams and other identifiable features have been changed, and that’s your first hint that the searchers indeed did find grizzly, but don’t wish to give shooters any clue on where they are hiding.  The author doesn’t want you to know where they are, just that a few still cling to life, and that your best contribution to preserving them is to be sensitive to your impact on their habitat, and if you do find them, to just leave them in peace.  This book is a nice departure from your usual reading diet, no matter how enjoyable it may be, and will open you to new insights.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Nighttime Head Call

Here’s a post on truth and reality.  It’s maybe more truth and reality than you want, but there ya’ go.  It’s a delicate subject I wouldn’t bring up in most camping posts, but it’s a real-life necessity---the middle of the night head call, pee, leak, seeing a man about a horse, or whatever you nickname your pressing relief.  For those that are younger, taking a pee bottle along is considered a convenience.  As age takes over, a sufficiently larger bottle is a priority on the pack list.  The first consideration is that your middle-of-the-night call to nature will not only interrupt your deep sleep, but also that of anyone around you.  That is one good reason for even couples to use separate tents.  Weight is not really as great an issue as it used to be, making a two-man tent advisable even for solitary campers.  There is not only room to move around, to change clothes, to have a dry place for gear, but also to get in and out of the tent or relieve yourself without destroying the sleep of others and otherwise being a nuisance.  Proper clothing and food, and some other items, are strongly recommended for any trip, but sleep is essential for performance, mood, and enjoying the trip.  The call of nature is also one of the issues that will make a tent preferable to a hammock for older folks. 
And there’s the ugly subject of age.  I remember, barely, being young enough to sleep through the entire night without having to get up.  The greater the number of birthdays, the greater the number of nighttime head calls.  More birthdays also mean you don’t sleep as well, your body doesn’t regulate temperature as well, and with poorer circulation, legs and especially feet, tend to get bitterly cold.  Once you become a senior citizen, are having prostate problems, or have already had prostate cancer, the number of head calls can easily be four or five times a night.  This is why some older folks head off to bed before the campfire burns down.  If you are likely to lose at least a half-hour of sleep as often as five times a night, it is going to take some time to get enough sleep to rise rested and cheerful in the morning.  Add to this the other aspects of old age, like snoring and flatulence, and you can quickly see how you may want to give some thought not only to your rest, but to those close enough to be disturbed.  You don’t want others to start fantasizing about how greatly their lives might improve if you were mysteriously to drown in the river. 
There are a few suggestions that may or may not appear obvious.  However, I’m not even going to attempt the subject of hygiene and comfort for women.  That’s totally beyond my experience except for having seen the plastic devices that enable them to pee standing like a man, or without having to remove all their clothing to get the job done (the Female Urination Device), and for being able to pee in a bottle at night rather than traipsing through the woods in the middle of the night and rain.  Here’s a review of a number of these devices by Backpacker Magazine.  (  I love the added warning at the end---“Do not pee into the wind.”  There’s a lesson the boys learn at a very tender age. 
First of all, carry a container that enables you to relieve yourself without having to get out of the tent every time.  That’s a real asset especially if it is freezing cold, pouring rain, or you don’t want to carry mosquitoes back into the tent on your return.  It is best if you carry a couple or it has enough capacity that you don’t have to leave the tent all night.  A cheap disposable container, like an empty wide-mouthed energy drink bottle, is fine if large enough.  There should also be a bottle of water in the tent, so the obvious initial requirement for a pee container is having one with a unique shape, or that tape, a bunch of rubber bands or something has been added to the outside surface, to make it impossible to confuse it and the water bottle in the dark.  An error won’t be fatal, but it will certainly be disgusting.  The bottle should hold enough to be used at least two or three times without having to get out to empty it.  A pack of disposable wipes, like baby wipes or towlettes, are also nice for cleanliness and freshness. 
Now we get into the ‘fun facts’ part of the post.  Many campers and gardeners alike have learned to keep small critters away by collecting urine and then pouring it around the tent or veggies in the garden.  This proves that there is indeed money available to do research on anything.  Yes, studies indeed prove that this truly works.  However, there’s a caveat.  Animals apparently know as much as humans about the food chain, and where they and you are on the list.  If animals that invade the camp are smaller than humans, they recognize the mammal that left the scent, and are inclined to stay away.  This means that tents and packs may be protected from rodents and similar small animals by this practice.  For years I thought this practice applied universally, however, more recent studies have shown that animals higher on the food chain, like bears and mountain lions, are actually drawn by the scent.  In this case, advertising who you are may have a harmful side-effect, like getting you invited for dinner.    

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Down the River

Down the River, by Edward Abbey, pub. by E.P. Dutton, New York, 1982, pb, 242 pp.  The first word is that this is not a paddling or camping book.  Abbey is a good author, and the book is well written, but the title does give the impression that there is something here that isn’t; that is unless you are looking for some whitewater rafting or Sportyaking, and even that is just mentioned in passing.  The book is a series of short stories or essays on a variety of topics.  The message here is the same as in “Freedom and Wilderness,” which is a call against the stripping and development of the American West. 

In spite of service in the military and employment as a park ranger, Abbey was so outspoken against the government and its policies of managing public lands that the FBI kept a running file on him for most of his adult life.  When he learned that the FBI was watching him, he said he’d be disappointed if they weren’t.  It’s a blessing that he passed away in 1989 and isn’t here now to see what is going on with Trump, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt and their open destruction of all things related to nature and the environment.  Abbey devoted his life to preserving the nation’s natural beauty. 

Abbey wrote 23 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and three anthologies.  Several were made into movies and documentaries.  The two listed as his best and most influential were “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and “Desert Solitaire.”

Abbey is capable of producing some memorable smiles.  For example, he complains about the conspicuous and attention-zeroing sound produced by the opening of a can of beer.  He supposes it “would be helpful if some clever lad invented a more discreet, a more genteel mode of opening beer cans.  A soft, susurrate, suspiring sort of …s i g h… might serve nicely.  A sound that could pass, let us say, for the relaxed, simple, artless fart of a duchess.”  Now there’s an image to conjure every time you open a beer!  Another memorable quote of his, which he in turn attributes to Louisa May Alcott, is “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

Some of the topics covered in “Down the River” are the court proceedings for trespassers and protestors at an atomic weapons manufacturing plant, the beauty and simplicity of the family farm, Thoreau, bears, glaciers, river rafting, fire tower employment, and Sonora, Mexico.  My favorite was the story on the mining ghost town of Bodie, CA.  However, if paddling is what you are after, you may wish to draw a line through this title.  It’s good reading for any lover of nature and the environment, but off target for those wanting the pages to conjure up the sound of the paddle.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Camp 1 of 12

I hate to say it out loud in case someone is actually paying attention, but I made a resolution to get out paddle/camping at least once a month through the coming year.  Yeah, I know this is no big deal for those living in places that have real paddling water, but here on the edge of the ‘Great American Desert,’ getting out on the water has proven to be a bit of a challenge.  Suddenly I was faced with the 30th of January.  What to do? 
One of my other on-going challenges has been showing up in paddling country with enough clothing to meet any weather adversity without looking like I’m hauling a load from a Goodwill truck.  I’ve too often ended up leaning toward the latter.  What I needed was an outing to try out some combinations that could fit in a 20-litre drybag, and yet provide just not survival, but comfort.  It was to be 22 degrees, so I just went out locally so I could run for home if I screwed up too badly.  Along with a 15-degree mummy bag, I carried a second pair of wool socks, one pair of Cabela’s Polar Fleece bottoms, a long-sleeved tee and sweat shirt, pull-over hoodie, knit watch cap, and rabbit fur-lined gloves.  In actual practice, I’d replace the sweat shirt with a fleece top or wool sweater.  Besides the warmth, they’d also pack smaller.  I slept very comfortably. 
Night #2 was more of a challenge.  I turned in with the same outfit, but the temperature had made a sudden 34-degree upswing.  I wasn’t in too long before I started shedding clothing.  I got rid of the gloves, watch cap, wool socks, and fleece bottoms and left the bag completely unzipped.  The warmer temperature was a blessing, but the sudden temperature swing to 56-degrees set up a terrible wind event with sudden hammering gusts to 40 and 50mph.  I was being shaken and buffeted, and the noise was so clamorous that sleep was impossible. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Honey-Do List

A shelf of pictures on an otherwise empty hallway wall.

Having just (a decade ago) finished building a new house, I wasn’t in a rush to start driving holes in the walls to hang pictures.  Maybe the elapsing of  a bit of time would help us prioritize pictures, decide where to hang them to best advantage, or do anything to avoid plastering old holes just to drive more.  At any rate, Jean had framed pictures sitting in closets, under the bed, and behind doors that she wanted hung rather than hidden.  Finally it was decided that our picture hanging efforts would begin with a review of gallery hanging systems, or what they call “the art of hanging art.”  I’m not one with any real need for hanging art, but the idea of being able to move, change, or rearrange pictures without having to spackle and repaint the walls had real appeal for me. 

The five shelf brackets hold the shelf securely to the wall.
Our first solution was found at the House of Antique Hardware (, which offers a system that I had seen in a library a long time ago.  A specialized molding, shown in the link, is added to the walls of the room to create a wall picture hanging rail.  Then, there is a wide selection of ‘S’ shaped hangers that hook over the rail.  Using a 65-pound-test clear, braided fishing line that is all but invisible allows you to hang almost any size picture from the railing anywhere and at any height.  The rail becomes a permanent highlight of the room’s appearance, while pictures can be moved, rearranged, or removed for painting, without having to touch the walls or molding ever again. 

The second solution was for smaller pictures and those in the 8X10 to 11X14 size.  We have a hall that runs half the length of the house leading to a guest bath and bedrooms.  It was clear except for a thermostat.  I decided a shelf would display them nicely, and a railing on the edge of the shelf would keep them from falling off in any one of Oklahoma’s up to 600-or-so fracking earthquakes we get a year, or being knocked off while someone is carrying something down the hall.  Again, they could be changed or rearranged without having to punch holes in the wall.  The railing, what is called a fiddle rail, has a maritime historical background.  It puts a railing on the front of a shelf or counter top that is high enough to prevent contents from falling except in the worst of sea conditions, while at the same time not limiting continual access to the books or implements normally stored there.  The fiddle rail is set on top of a series of turned wood spindles, which represents the hardest part of the assembly.  The antique Victorian wall brackets are no problem.  They just represent drawing a design pattern and then some time sitting in front of a jig saw.  Getting all 66 (in our case) spindles in place between the shelf and the rail before the glue starts to set, however, is the tricky organizational feat. 
Between the pictures of kids and grandkids on the shelf is a picture of
the chime tower at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.  It was
on a bench between the tower and waterfalls that my wife and I became
engaged 55 years ago.

There are several ways to attach the wall brackets that the shelf sits on.  The method I used has several advantages.  A keyhole bracket fitting is easy to find at almost any hardware or home improvement center.  If the wall bracket is wide-enough, say an inch thick or more, an inset can be routed into the side going against the wall that will make the metal fitting invisible.  With lumber of ¾-inch, an inset is cut in the edge of the wall bracket that will just barely be detectable.  These are hung on screws in the wall that can be adjusted in and out to the correct length to make the shelf secure.  With this method, not only is it convenient to just lift the shelf off the screws to repaint the wall, but it is also great for renters who would want to remove the shelf and take it with them when they move.  Now my wife can display pictures anywhere and everywhere, and I never have to touch the walls.  Not only does this shop job check another item off the honey-do list, but it helps keep tools and skills sharper for the next canoe project.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Paddle Art

This is a paddle that was used by both of our Oklahoma granddaughters when they were much smaller.  When they out grew the paddle, it collected dust in the shop.  I was inspired by the paddle art done by Sanborn Canoe Co. of Winona, MN.  In fact, you will see this design comes from the one titled ‘Scout.’  Using the paddle the girls had started canoeing with just made it all that much more special for us.  I personalized its design a bit more by doing two things.  On one side I wanted to add a Native American design, and this one of the grizzly bear claw comes from the Pacific Northwest.  I also wanted to preserve the paddle maker’s logo on the flip side, and the beavertail designation.  The logo had been used and abused to become worn and scratched, so I looked up the original design on Google, and did my best to repaint it.  If you want to get an artisan paddle, check out Sanborn’s paddle site at:  I really was drawn to this design for some reason, but was told that the colors clashed with our décor, so I guess it will go in the office.  I guess that shows how silly I am, because I didn’t even know we had décor.  That’s what happens when you don’t live in a log cabin. 

I had a time finding the logo on line, because it doesn’t appear under Beaver Paddles or beavertail, but Caviness Woodworking.  The company does oars and paddles that ship all over the world.  They became the largest paddle and oar manufacturer in the business, and have put paddles in almost any boating or paddling store from Walmart on.  Caviness was started in the 1940’s in Calhoun City, MS, by Jimmy Caviness.  They started making brooms and furniture, but with the large number of lakes around Calhoun, gravitated into paddles and oars.  They have been so successful that they are now being run by the 5th generation of Caviness’.