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On Going Alone

by Tamia Nelson

We all like to think that we're sensible, and we know that sensible paddlers don't venture onto the water alone. But what about those times when we do? We lay down rules for ourselves, of course - rules made in the hope that they'll keep us out of trouble. Tamia's no exception. She's got her own set of rules for solo jaunts. They're her "ten commandments," if you will, and they're the subject of this week's column.

April 25, 2017

All the experts agree: Sensible canoeists and kayakers never paddle alone. Yet who among us is always sensible? If the day dawns bright, warm, and welcoming, and if your work schedule leaves you free to march to the beat of your own drum, you can't help feeling the tug of the woods and waters, can you? But what if it's the middle of the week, and your paddling club doesn't run mid-week trips? Or suppose that your usual partner is unable to join you. Do you resign yourself to a glorious day spent moping about indoors? I know I don't. And I bet you don't, either.

We all know the risks. When you're on your own, you've no one to turn to for help when things go wrong. Yes, a cell phone may bring assistance. But then again, it may not. There are still places - not all of them remote - where cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent. And there's also the "red face" factor. If you've shattered a leg or suffered a heart attack, you can put your misfortune down to bad luck. There's no shame in coming up craps when fate rolls the dice, after all. But what if you just forgot to bring a map? Or spare batteries for your GPS? Do you want to see your name in the paper alongside that of a hiker who called for a chopper because her strapless heels gave her blisters? Probably not. It's also worth noting that some park authorities now send bills to backcountry holiday-makers who log "frivolous" emergency calls, and it's a safe bet this will become more common as wilderness rescue budgets get tighter. In other words, you could pay a very high price indeed for leaving your map behind on your desk.

OK. We know the dangers. But we still go it alone from time to time. Well, most of us do, at any rate. That being the case, what can we do to reduce avoidable risks to a minimum? I'm sure you have some ideas. So do I. And here they are:


That's putting it a bit strong, I suppose. But since "Ten Essentials" (now "Ten Essential Systems") is already taken, and since "Tamia's Ten Earnest Suggestions" seems a little lackluster, I'll run the risk.

1. Tell someone whom you trust where you're going and when you'll be back. 

This is sometimes called leaving a "float plan," and it's imperative. If nothing else - if, for example, you're home alone and you're just going out for a quick afternoon circumnavigation of Golden Pond - leave a note where your spouse or partner can find it on his (or her) return. It should include all the relevant details: When you left, where you're going, and when you'll be back. And then make damn sure you do get back when you said you would.

2. Always carry the Ten Essentials. 

Always? Yes. Even if you're only going for a stroll in a nearby woods. Because You Can Never Be Sure. And don't omit the Eleventh Essential: Knowing how to use these Ten Essentials when the chips are down or the balloon goes up. (Relax. I don't charge extra for clichés.) This Eleventh Essential is every bit as important as the first ten, but you won't find it in your Acme Backcountry Explorer's Kit. You have to get it the hard way - by dint of practice and experience. There are no shortcuts and no substitutes. 'Nuff said?

3. Bring plenty of drinking water. 

Yes, drinking water is one of the Ten Essentials, but it's important enough to warrant a paragraph all its own, especially if you paddle in hot weather. (And we'll all be doing a lot more of that in the years to come.) The days when you could dip a cupful of water from the lake and drink it without a second thought are long gone. Yet, as Jerome K. Jerome reminds us, "thirst is a dangerous thing." Be prepared.

4. Dress for the temperature - the water temperature. 

This is always important, but it's especially so during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Not many of us like wearing rubber underwear on a balmy spring day, but a T-shirt and shorts will offer only cold comfort if you take an unplanned swim in 50-degree water. And cold can kill. It's worth sweating a bit in a rubber suit to make sure it doesn't get a chance to kill you.

5. Wear your PFD. 

Summer and winter. In quick water and still. When paddling, lining, wading, and scouting. Yes, even if you're an Olympic swimmer. PFDs were once called "life preservers," and I wish the name had stuck. It's a salutary reminder of their raison d'être. There are few sights more disheartening than watching the PFD you brought along "just to be legal" (and immediately shoved under the bow deck) float away from your swamped boat, especially after you've snorted your first lungful of water.

6. Bring a spare paddle. 

Do you know any canoeist or kayaker who hasn't dropped (or broken) a paddle at least once? I don't. And when it happens to you, you'll find yourself up a well-known creek if you don't have a spare blade tied into your boat. Why "tied into," you ask? Because a paddle that's just tossed in the bilge can easily drift out of reach in a capsize, that's why. It's also likely to be stepped on, and if you break your spare, you're no better off than if you left it behind on the dock.

7. Be sure to eat between meals. 

Mother might not approve, but then she doesn't always know best, and this is one of those times. Food is to your gut what coal was to the massive boilers of HMS Dreadnought. No coal, no steam, no way on. No food, no strength, no go. Regular snacks will keep your internal turbines spinning. Eat lightly, but eat often. Pick high-energy foods like nuts, fruit, and cereal bars. Cyclists who don't snack on the road soon run out of steam. They call this "bonking." (NB: The word may be misinterpreted on the other side of the Pond. Language is slippery stuff.) Runners speak of "hitting the wall." And paddlers? We don't seem to have a word for it. But it happens to us anyway.

8. The better part of valor is discretion. 

This was Falstaff's excuse for cowardice, but there's a measure of truth in his words, nonetheless. If a freshening wind or a contrary current makes it unlikely that you'll get where you planned to go in the time you'd allowed, don't press on. Turn back, instead. Long-time correspondent and professed meanderthal Barney Ward, who blogs about his travels at Old Fat Man Adventures, likes to wander around in some of North America's driest landscapes. So he's developed an ingenious way to make sure he doesn't meander past the point of no return. He uses a simple water clock. When he's drunk half his water, he turns back toward home - whether or not he's reached the destination he'd penciled on his map. The moral of the story? Solo travelers need broad margins of safety. Tomorrow is another day. If you're doing what you're doing just for the fun of it, there's no goal worth dying for.

9. Observe the Gross Tonnage Rule. 

The nautical rules of the road are laid down in print and bear the authority of statute. They require that power-driven vessels shall "keep out of the way" of sailing vessels and any other craft "restricted in [their] ability to maneuver." That's comforting, to be sure. But it's false comfort, at best. Only a very foolish paddler chooses to rely on her privileged status when crossing a busy shipping channel or circumnavigating a lake whose surface is churned by the crisscross wakes of beer-fueled powerboaters. Instead, the prudent paddler will comply with the Gross Tonnage Rule. It's unwritten, and it has no legal force or effect. But it is in every canoeist's and kayaker's interest to observe its simple dictum: If a vessel is bigger than you are (or faster than you are), stay out of its way. No exceptions.

10. Know your limits and observe them. 

That may be the most important commandment of all. None of us is so strong or so expert that we can be sure we're equal to every challenge posed by water, wave, and wind. And hubris - overweening pride - invites the wrath of Nemesis as nothing else can.

If all of us were invariably sensible, we'd never venture onto the water alone. But we're not always rational beings, are we? And taken all in all, that's probably a very good thing. Still, there's something to be said for setting up a few safety fences before we test the boundaries of unreason, and that's what I've tried to do with my "ten commandments." What about you? When you go out on the water by your lonesome, what do you do to ensure you make it back home? Let me know, and I'll pass the word along.

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Just e-mail Tamia.

Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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