Testing the Waters for My Forthcoming Book
Years ago, when people actually went with me on canoe camping trips, I wrote a primer for newbies explaining what they needed to bring with them in order to survive. My instructions were widely ignored and many of them died. Most succombed to hypothermia and other natural causes. Others died as a result of ritual sacrifice.
The latter were chosen because it had become such a pain in the butt carrying extra gear, food, ice and toilet paper for them.
A few friends recently mentioned that they might want to try canoe camping. I think it’s one of those bucket list things because they said, “Spending a weekend on the river with you is the last thing in the world we’d want to do.”
In the original Canoe Trip Primer I said something to the effect that, “You know how to dress for cold weather. You know how to dress for warm weather. Pack for both.”
Apparently, that was not enough information. People were still showing up for canoe trips with nothing but shorts, sandals and T-shirts — T-shirts that should have been imprinted with an arrow pointing upward and the message “I’m With Stupid.”
In the interest of preventing more deaths from hypothermia or ritual sacrifice, here are a few free* tips for canoe trip preparation:
♦ Leave the cotton at home. Especially blue jeans. Cotton takes forever to dry. And you don’t even have to fall into the river or get caught in the rain to get it wet. Cotton will wick moisture out of the air. One exception — cotton T’s are OK for hot-weather trips.
♦ Stick with wool and synthetics. Merino wool socks and underwear aren’t scratchy like your grandpa’s wool, don’t hold odor like cotton or synthetics and keep you warm even when wet. They’re pricey, but worth the investment. Sometimes you can find lightweight merino wool sweaters at thrift stores. They can be used in lieu of long-sleeve undershirts. Nylon and other synthetics are your best bet for pants, shorts and windbreakers.
♦ Hats and, if there is any chance of cold weather, gloves. In addition to a hat to keep your head warm at night, you’ll need something lightweight to keep the sun off your noggin during the day. Work gloves come in handy (pun intended) for cooking and keep your hands warm in cooler weather.
♦ Rain gear. Trash bags and duct tape are the way to go if you want to be the entertainment. Back in the day, ponchos were popular. But they only keep you dry if you’re standing around with your arms down at your sides. Any activity that requires you to raise your arms, such a paddling a canoe, will send rivulets of cold rainwater directly to your armpits and down your side. Rain suits made of breathable material work best. A vinyl rain suit will make you sweat so much you might as well be standing neck-deep in the river.
♦ No canoe trip wardrobe is complete without proper footwear. Sorry, Crocs and gym shoes won’t get it. While on the water, you’ll need water shoes or good sturdy sandals with adequate toe protection and tread. In colder weather you’ll need boots for wading while getting into and out of your canoe. Your garden variety Wellingtons work fine. The authors of one book on wilderness canoeing recommended canvas high-top gym shoes for wearing around camp. Bad advice. Tread designed for gym floors will land you on your butt on muddy or moss-covered terrain. And, once wet, canvas won’t dry for weeks. I recommend waterproof or water-resistant boots.
♦ Shelter. Cheap tents leak, but that’s all most of us can afford. However, they will keep you dry in a light rain and reasonably dry in moderate rain. Supplement by stringing a small tarp above the tent.
♦ There are two schools of thought when it comes to sleeping gear. You can bring a good ground pad (preferably self-inflating) and a sleeping bag — or you can get so drunk that discomfort isn’t an issue and just pass out on the ground. Pillows are bulky and might get wet, but that’s one luxury I allow myself.
♦ By the same token, there are two schools of thought when it comes to ice. You can use blocks, which will keep for up to a week in an extreme cooler. Or you can use cubes, which might last a day. Of all the advice I’ve ever given, this has been the most-widely ignored. I don’t know how many canoe trips have been spoiled by having to stop along the river each day and wait while people hike to town for bags of ice.
♦ Bring more than enough food, but don’t go overboard. Like Joe, who brings economy-size packs (the size of the U.S. economy) of pork chops and other animal parts. Decide ahead of time whether different people in the group will be responsible for different meals or whether it will be each man for himself.
♦ Radios. My policy has always been that it’s OK to bring a radio as long as I get to test it first to see whether it’s submersible.
♦ Water. Man cannot live on beer alone. Believe me, I’ve tried.
♦ Toilet paper. The alternative “leaves” to be desired.
♦ Sun screen, hand sanitizer and bug dope. Or go with people who drink a lot so the mosquitoes get drunk and pass out after biting them.
♦ To carry all this, you’ll need waterproof bags, which is a misnomer. Even the manufacturers advise that any bag can leak, especially when submersed. Back in the day, we used double garbage bags tied with twine. That worked to a point — generally the point of a stray twig or disgruntled camp mate creating a pinhole in the bag. Back then, real river bags were expensive, around $50. These days you can buy one for, well, $50. Or you can “supersize” for upwards of $100, but you might need a towmotor to carry it. Being old and decrepit, I prefer to go with several smaller bags, which sell for around $20 apiece. It’s easier on the back. I pack my tent in one, sleeping bag and ground pad in another, clothes in a third bag and bowling ball in a fourth bag.
♦ To keep all this in your canoe, you’ll need tie-downs. Old school purists swear by ropes and fancy knots. This is time-consuming compared to cam buckle straps. Besides, ropes require more maintenance and, in cold weather, it’s nearly impossible to untie a frozen knot. For my money, NRS offers the most reliable tie-down straps on the market. They range in lengths from one foot to 20 feet. Nine-foot lengths seem to be the most useful for securing bags and coolers in a canoe. I also like having a few one-footers for small items, such as binoculars, camera and day bag. I would avoid using ratcheting straps for two reasons: The excess weight of the ratcheting mechanism and they can be overtightened and tweak your thwarts or gunwales (canoe jargon for crossbars and rails.)
♦ You also might want to bring a canoe.
* Most free advice is nearly worth it. However, if you want more advice on canoe camping from me, it will cost you. Now that I’m retired, I’ve started working on a book on the fundamentals of canoeing, camping and enjoying life in spite of the misery associated with those pursuits.
This originally was written for Common Ties, a story blog. It also appeared on my now-defunct Website.
Camp Cleveland was a place we could go for a couple of weeks in the summer to get away from the gritty environment of the inner city. The camp was nestled in the scenic hills of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, between the workhouse and a tuberculosis hospital.
Orientation included a warning to secure any toiletries containing alcohol because the inmates from the workhouse would come into the camp and drink them. As jaded as we might have been at the age of 9 or 10, none of us really believed that someone would be desperate enough to break out of the workhouse, sneak into our cabins and drink our Brylcreem. But then, maybe it was the counselors they were worried about.
For most of us, Camp Cleveland was our first prolonged exposure to kids of another race. The city was highly segregated in the early ’60s. The Cuyahoga River served as a divide between the East Side and the predominantly white West Side.
It took us a while to get used to each other. The black kids and white kids stayed to themselves at first. But, little by little, we intermingled — a passing conversation here and there, an impromptu game of catch, comparing notes on our respective vices.
With the help of my black friends at Camp Cleveland, I quickly mastered the proper pronunciation of “muthafucka.” Or so I thought. When I returned to my Caucasian environment, I couldn’t wait to impress my cousins with my mastery of the black dialect. But my bubble was burst when their mother overheard me. She took me to task, not for swearing, but for failing to achieve the proper intonation.
“Those black kids can say it a lot better than you can,” she told me.
Somehow, it wouldn’t have hurt as much if she had just slapped me instead.
The sexes were segregated at Camp Cleveland. There were about 10 cabins, equally divided between the boys and girls. Each cabin had its own counselor.
Our counselor was a jazz musician named Jim. At night he would pull out a black instrument case from under his bed, take out his trombone and play old blues songs. In this unfamiliar environment, surrounded by trees and open fields, there was something strangely reassuring about hearing strains of urban music in the night.
Besides, it beat the hell out of sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbayah.”
I enjoyed music, but baseball was the only thing that really mattered to me. In spite of my inability to hit or throw a baseball with any degree of accuracy, I grew up believing that I would someday be a Major Leaguer. I was sure that I was going to be the next Tito Francona.
Tito Francona played for the Cleveland Indians. He was a standout player, even made the all-star team one year. And, even more remarkably, he was around for five seasons before they traded him to a better team. For some reason, he was squinting when they took the picture for his baseball card. I thought it was kind of cool, so I tried to emulate that look when I posed for the group picture with the other kids from my cabin. I had a butch haircut at the time. So, between that and my sorry attempt at a Tito Francona squint, I ended up looking more like the banjo-playing geek from the movie “Deliverance.”
There were woods behind the cabins. We didn’t go back there much. Most of our activities were on the ball fields or a man-made pond where we splashed around in the stagnant water on days when it wasn’t raining.
One day, Jim took us hiking in the woods. We made our way to a clearing at the top of a hill overlooking the workhouse. In the distance I saw what looked like a small pond. I pointed it out to Jim, but he explained that it was just a parking lot and what I was seeing was sunlight reflecting off the car windows.
I didn’t want to believe him. But why would a guy who could play trombone so beautifully lie?
Twenty years later, I returned to Camp Cleveland. I was taking classes at the Cuyahoga Community College campus where the TB hospital used to be. I wandered over to see if the camp was still there. It was, except the name had been changed to Camp Hope, presumably after comedian Bob Hope, who grew up Cleveland.
Or maybe they had renamed it after his father, William Henry Hope, a stonemason who worked on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge when they built it in the 1930s. They renovated it 50 years later and renamed it the Hope Memorial Bridge in his honor.
The bridge was built to span the Cuyahoga River and link the East Side to the West Side — something Camp Cleveland had accomplished far more effectively.
When you retire, you’ll find yourself taking on projects. Otherwise you’ll end up engaging in criminal activity — like golfing, fishing or just doing nothing.
My first post-retirement project chose me. While I was bringing firewood into the house a few weeks ago, the tongue on the garden tractor trailer buckled under the strain of a heavy load. This was inevitable. It had been sagging more and more ever since someone loaded the trailer to the top with large rocks (or small boulders, depending on who was stuck unloading them).
So, last week I set out to rebuild the trailer. The project involves replacing the sheet metal tongue with two-inch square tube (3/16-inch thick), fabricating a new support bracket, reinforcing the floor then sanding and painting the whole thing. To add a personal touch, I plan to add an old Mack truck insignia on the tailgate. I found the insignia along the road. Honest.
Some people would question the wisdom of spending in excess of $100 for parts and countless man hours on a trailer you could buy new for $150 to $500. But what price can you put on something that prevents you from squandering your retirement on criminal activity?
Besides, you can’t load down those store-bought garden tractor trailers with a ton of rocks without buckling the tongue.
I’m making good progress so far. The new tongue is finished and most the paint and hardware purchased. Once I fabricate a new improved front support bracket, I’ll have to wait till spring so it will be warm enough to paint and reassemble the trailer.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll dabble in some criminal activity.
People who tell you they troll the thrift shops for bargains are delusional. I suspect that most of them, present company included, are closet gambling addicts.
The only difference between this and the real thing is — with thrift store shopping — you’re not setting yourself up to lose your shirt. Even if you strike out, the only thing it costs you is the time invested. And a little gas money.
As with gambling, most of the time you come up empty. It’s the prospect of hitting the jackpot that keeps you coming back.
I recently had one of those Eureka! moments while looking for a tent at the Ashland Goodwill store. Actually, it wasn’t a Eureka! tent. Nothing quite that high-end. It was a Northwest Territory square dome tent made by the Jinwoong Company of China. (I’m sure you’ve heard of them.) It was the exact model and color of one I bought in the mid 1990s at Kmart.
Back then, I bought it because I needed a cheap standalone tent. I used it for base camp for canoe camping trips. Like all cheap imported tents, it leaked at the slightest provocation, so I used it only when the weather forecast was favorable. It was easy to set up and kept the mosquitoes, the wind and dew at bay. A lot of times, on the first night of those trips, we’d meet at a campground, set up our shuttle and stay the night. I’d leave the cheap tent in whatever car happened to be left behind at our base camp.
Somewhere along the line, my cheap tent got “lost in the shuttle.” The poles and rainfly made it home with me, but the tent itself didn’t. It probably ended up going home with one of my canoeing buddies, who decided it had been abandoned and would make a good shower curtain.
Meanwhile, I replaced it with an MSR Hubba tent, which is lightweight, simple to pitch and has withstood monsoon rains without leaking a drop.
Regardless, I missed having my discount tent. Not for my own sake, but for Kiley, my 3-year-old granddaughter. When she stays overnight, we camp in the office. We spread our bedrolls on the floor — camping mattresses and blankets — and camp under the imaginary stars. As we lie there looking at the ceiling, we talk about the animal shapes in clouds passing overhead in the moonlight.
After Kiley’s last visit, I decided to look for a cheap, freestanding tent to enhance our office camping experiences.
That lead to my Eureka! moment at the Ashland Goodwill store. The tent set me back $12, which was $3 less than my original Jinwoong tent.
There’s a back-story here, one that bears repeating.
In the mid 1990s, when I started doing winter canoe camping, I was looking for a cheap base camp tent. In the Sunday edition of the Columbus Dispatch, Kmart was advertising tents for $15. I drove to the nearest Kmart and was the first person through the door when it opened. I went straight to the sports department, but there were no $15 tents to be found.
I tracked down the manager who told me they were out of them. I uttered the magic words “bait and switch.” So he offered me a $40 tent for $15.
That made owning the tent all the sweeter … and my recent Goodwill find sweeter still.
None of that will matter to Kiley. But it’s a safe bet she’ll get as much joy out of it as I have.