The Floating World

The importance of portaging lingerie and sharing the load

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I was six years old when my father and his best friend carl decided that five of their collective nine kids were old enough to discover the allure of God's country. So, one sticky summer day in July 1976, we stuffed our watertight bags with everything we would need (firecrackers included) for a week in the Boundary Waters, where the dads planned to chisel us into mini-voyageurs. I was an easy convert: Our first morning on the water, I woke up at dawn, padded barefoot out of my tent, stuck a fat leech on the end of my Lindy Rig, and plunked down on a granite ledge that dropped off to a near-bottomless fishing hole, soaking up the sun like a beached walrus.

An hour later, my peaceful reverie was shattered when Carl stretched his 6-foot-3 frame out of the tent and broke into booming fits of laughter, waking the entire camp. "Why, Stephanie," he bellowed, "is that a nightgown you're wearing?" As a matter of fact, it was—my favorite full-length, flowered flannel nightie. The other kids could tease me till I cried, but as far as I was concerned, frilly sleeping apparel was fair game on a canoe trip.

Actually, even the kitchen sink is fair game if it fits in the boat and can be schlepped across a portage. I've seen folks lug sirloin-packed coolers and Samsonite-size tackle boxes through the wilderness. But no longer needing my security nightgown, I now stuff my Duluth Pack with only the bare necessities: an extra pair of shoes, two pair of wool socks, a stocking cap, a Hacky Sack, polypropylene long underwear, two T-shirts, a paperback novel, a pair of nylon shorts, a swimsuit, Carhartt work pants, rain gear, a sleeping bag, a headlamp, a first-aid kit, a bee-sting allergy kit, a Bible, and at least one roll of toilet paper.

But to reduce the joys of canoe-camping to the material goods you can stash between the gunwales is to discount the mesmerizing rhythm of a paddle dipping into glassy waters, the shivery call of a loon as it surfaces across the lake, and the glorious self-sufficiency of catching and eating your own walleye. Even the most terrifying episodes bring about a certain thank-God-I-didn't-kick-the-bucket kind of happiness, like the time in the middle of Lake Agnes when every curly hair on my head stood on end, rising in staticky salute to an incoming thunderstorm.

What really elevates canoe-camping and other forms of amphibious exploration (kayak touring is no less wondrous) to the higher echelons of wilderness experience is this: It takes a partner to help muscle the craft and carry the load. I've guided canoe trips in Minnesota and Ontario, and my paddling partners have included Beastie, a frazzle-haired Outward Bound junkie who combed his beard with a dinner fork; Kelayna, a sassy 12-year-old who couldn't swim a stroke but could bake a Dutch-oven chocolate cake to rival Betty Crocker's; and Maren, a 95-pound wisp who I once saw portage a canoefor eight miles. No matter what our differences were in the real world, we still managed to create our own peaceable kingdom, a self-propelling yin to each other's yang.

On some days, however, when the weather turns hypothermic or super-size mosquitoes zoom in for the kill, the dark side of even the most symbiotic paddling partnership can reveal itself. Such was the case when Kelayna the cake-baker decided she was homesick, tired, and dying of malaria. Her proposal: to tough it out alone at the campsite while I paddled the four days, 16 lakes, and 15 portages to call for a rescue party at the nearest phone. With bodily force and strategic cajoling—namely, the false promise of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp just a few portages away—I managed to coax her back into the boat.

Chances are you won't be held captive with strangers on your next paddling venture, but even relationships with siblings, spouses, parents, and friends take on a new light after a few days on the water. You discover, for example, that your brother, once a head-banger, now has an affinity for Yo-Yo Ma. Or that your mother once was a Girl Scout archery champion. Or that your husband can spend hours on end picking blueberries. Such insights are often as fleeting as wispy clouds, disappearing the moment you strap the boat on the roof rack and head back to civilization. The memories that linger, though, are of the soul-searching debates—and jokes—over the Big Questions, like, does God really exist? Or, more important, who lit the firecracker under Dad's sleeping pad back in '76?

It wasn't me. I was out fishing in my flannel nightie.

I wouldn't think twice about lending my kevlar wenonah canoe to a friend in need, but I pity the fool who asks to borrow my paddle. My prized Moore Grand Classic Cue ($400, 843-681-5986) is a sophisticated, lightweight carbon-fiber paddle that propels even the most sluggish, gear-laden aluminum barge through the water like a sleek barracuda, without a hint of yaw or wobble. Grasp its uncompromisingly stiff, hollow shaft, grip the well-sculpted butt, execute an effortless J-stroke, and you'll never regret the dotcom stock you had to hawk for a week in the wilderness with the coveted, if costly, Cue. Best of all, at a feathery 18 ounces, it makes long-distance portages a joy. Almost. —S.G.

Duluth Pack ($42-$185; 800-777-4439)
Clarins SPF 30 Suncare Cream ($21.50 for 4.4 ounces; 212-980-1800)
Lindy Rig ($1.89 for hook, line, and sinker; 218-829-1714)
Coleman five-gallon expandable water carrier ($6.60; 800-835-3278)

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: More than 1,000 clean, rocky lakes laced with 1,500 miles of canoe routes in northern Minnesota's moose country. Blueberry patches abound. Call BWCA for reservations, 877-550-6777.

The Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii: Dodge towering waterfalls, laze on secluded beaches, and watch sea turtles cavort along this stunning coastline—but only in summer, when the surf is down. Contact: Hawaii State Parks, 808-274-3444.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia: Swamp heaven, with 396,000 acres of peat bog, alligator habitat, and moss-shrouded creeks along the Florida border. Contact: Okefenokee Visitor Center, 912-496-7836.

Buffalo National River, Arkansas: Deliverance jokes aside, the Buffalo is epic fun. It's lined with limestone bluffs and shady hollows, and flows through three designated wilderness areas. Contact: Buffalo National River, 870-741-5443.

Bowron Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia: A spectacular 72-mile-long chain of lakes, rivers, and trails on the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountains. Reservations required. Contact: Tourism British Columbia, 800-663-6000.

"Outdoor Research makes women's clothing with a pee system and the zipper opens wide enough so that you can do more than that. Title Nine Sports makes a zip-open bra, for easy access. A Lush oil-filled massage bar for him. And get a tent that gives you a better morning glow than green. You don't want your partner to wake up and think they just slept with the Loch Ness monster."

Stephanie Gregory writes The Wild File for Outside.

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