CANOEING INTO OLD AGE
San Juan River, Utah: Cliff Jacobson, Bell Yellowstone solo canoe
Tumplines are magical, more so when going uphill as they hold the weight of the load tight against your back! Thousands of Voyageurs and Himalayan porters can't be wrong!
A not-so-funny thing happened this year. I turned 77. That's seventy-seven! Which is really old! Well, maybe not. The positives are: I feel great; my canoeing and camping skills have not deteriorated; my judgment (regarding river/wilderness dangers) may be sharper, and I continue to paddle and camp at every opportunity. Admittedly, there are a few downsides to being a "senior citizen": my balance (which never was very good) has become increasingly "less good". Nonetheless, I can still paddle my Bell Yellowstone solo canoe for short distances from the standing position. Carrying heavy stuff though, is another matter. When I was 60 I could single-handedly shoulder my 75 pound Royalex, Dagger Venture canoe--from my off-side! No longer. But I can do it alone from my "on-side" if you bet me I can't.
The point is that getting old doesn't have to shut down your trips into the wild outdoors. I've discovered that even the most rugged trips are possible at my age if I just slow down and take it easy. When I was much younger, 25+ mile days on the river were the norm. Now,15 miles are plenty and 10 are better. And layover days are simply delightful! My canoes are lighter now--28, 35 and 42 pounds for my three solo's (two Bell Yellowstone solo's and an Inegra Northstar Phoenix). I now rate any canoe that weighs more than 45 pounds, too heavy. My kit, on the other hand, has gained a few pounds, largely in "comfort" items. Additions include a roomier tent, thick, cushy sleeping pad, folding stool with backrest, a nylon rain tarp with bug-screen and a satellite phone for emergencies only.
Recently, I've done a number of trips that younger folk might consider too difficult for a man my age. These include both sections of the Rio Grande River (Texas)/21 days/220 miles; San Juan River (Utah)/9 days; Buffalo River (Arkansas/10 days); Missouri River/10 days; Frost River/BWCA/8 days (it was a killer!)--all in solo canoes. My age was not a stopper. These are the realstoppers:
1. A HEAVY OUTFIT: Weight is a killer, more so, if you've never learned to use a tumpline. Yes, a tumpline. It stabilizes the load, especially on uphill grades. More importantly, it balances the weight so that aging bodies, which have lost some of their flexibility and balance, can succeed. By comparison, I can confidently carry a 75 pound pack up a tortuous grade if I use a tumpline (yes, I have to go s.l.o.w, but those who've tripped with me know I ALWAYS go slow!). But give me a 75 pound canoe and I'll be lucky to make 200 yards. Tumplines are magic; believe it!
2. LOOSE STUFF. Carrying a lot of loose stuff that's hanging and dangling, will play havoc with your balance--which, as stated--is one of the first things that goes with age. Portages will go much easier if everything is confined to packs.
3. BE A SKILLED PADDLER. Most Boundary Waters paddlers have minimal canoeing skills, or more accurately, none at all. They can go straight and turn right and left, that's about all. Put 'em on a river with rapids and they'll crash and burn; run 'em down a twisting stream and they'll wear themselves out in the turns. The point is that if you diversify your skills (know whitewater, racing technique, and FreeStyle procedures) you'll travel more efficiently (and conserve energy) on all types of water, and you'll be well-prepared when demanding conditions arise. Muscles deteriorate with age but polished techniques don't! A competent young paddler will be a competent old paddler! "Doing it right" dwarfs big muscles and bad technique. Skill trumps age...and gear!
4.. BE A POLISHED CAMPER: Comfort counts, and "more comfort" counts as one gets older. Eating bad food or suffering in the cold because you can't build a campfire or rig a snug camp won't make you a happy camper. Horace Kephart, author of "Woodcraft and Camping" wrote: "I come to the woods not to rough it, but to smooth it". Ditto! The better your camping skills, the more comfortable you will be and the longer you will want to continue camping. An interviewer once asked me: "Cliff, when was the last time you were really uncomfortable on a camping trip?" I couldn't remember a single time. I don't think the guy believed me.
Ironically, years spent afield, or the number of days one has camped out, seldom translates into outdoor competence. There's a right way and a wrong way, an easy way and a hard way to do things. And you won't learn what's best by doing it wrong year after year and shutting your mind to the advice of experts. Books, videos and attendance at outdoor seminars will seriously shorten the learning curve. You can learn the ropes very quickly, if you want to learn!
5. LIVE FOR NOW: Five years ago, I had a heart attack and was out-of-commission (meaning no canoeing or camping trips) for several months. The following year, I paddled 150 miles across the Everglades with friends. No problems, and my friends didn't have to "wait for me". Earlier this year, I went to see my cardiologist, who began with, "How are you feeling, Cliff?" I replied: "Well, I was great, doc until I got up this morning and realized I had to come and see you. I forgot I had a heart attack!"
The good doctor smiled broadly and said: "Cliff, you're my hero! Keep following your passion...we didn't save your life so you could sit around and watch TV."
I couldn't have been more proud!
So, my advice to all, who like me, are getting up in years is : Stop looking in the mirror--the wrinkles won't go away. But your passion for canoeing and camping will remain--that is if you can paddle well and camp comfortably--and of course, if you don't have a debilitating condition that precludes the light rigors of paddling and camping.