Different Strokes: Expedition Canoeing

Part Two: Efficiency in camp and on the move

Text and photos by Conor Mihell and Frank Wolf

(Ed. note: This is the second part of a series. Part One.)

You can get away with a lot on an overnight canoe trip, where the wrong attitude and gear only means a day or two of misery. Not so on a longer journey. An effective packing strategy makes portaging easier; and developing a campsite routine results in less confusion, saves energy and affords you more time to enjoy your surroundings--and cover the distance.

Adventurer, photojournalist and filmmaker Frank Wolf knows a thing or two about completing epic paddling journeys. He made a single-season, 5,000-mile canoe trip across Canada in 1995; circumnavigated British Columbia's Haida Gwaii islands by sea kayak; and trekked the route of a proposed pipeline across the northern Rockies. Lately, Wolf has put up a series of exploratory canoe trips across northern Canada, from the Northwest Territories to Labrador. His trips are remarkable for covering a vast geography in amazingly short periods of time.

I also love long-distance canoe tripping. My wife and I have designed our lives to accommodate summerlong journeys in the Canadian bush. Each expedition adds another level of difficulty. We go longer, farther--wilder whitewater, bigger lakes, longer portages and always more days in the canoe, unsupported (our record is 45 days so far). Our trips feel challenging and rewarding--even though we typically cover a fraction of the distance Wolf would--and become entrenched in our ways. It's been interesting to compare notes with such a well-travelled, well-spoken adventurer as Wolf--even when our opinions sometimes differ. In case you missed it, click here to read Part One. -- Conor Mihell

Efficient Mornings

Conor Mihell: In my opinion, being a morning person is a good idea on a long canoe trip. Sometimes you’ll gain a bit of respite from the bugs if you get up early, when the air is cool, and of course you stand a better chance of calm conditions for paddling. My first rule: Have as much stuff ready to go the night before. I usually cook on an open fire, so that means making sure I have enough wood for breakfast and a stash of fire-starting materials prepared in advance. Ditto for arranging breakfast (and lunch and snacks) items at the top of the food pack. Defined roles and a set routine also helps. I light the fire and get going on breakfast while my wife, Kim, packs up the stuff in the tent. If there’s time we’ll work together to quickly dismantle the tent before eating breakfast. I do a lot of solo tripping and it’s amazing how much more efficient it is to travel with a partner.

Frank Wolf: I also like to rise early and get the ball rolling.  However, unlike you Conor, I haven’t had the privilege of the same fine-tuned tripping partner year after year. I’ve always had great trips with whomever I end up going with. My partners are victims not of my journeys but of the various intricacies of life like jobs, kids and so on--which leaves me to search out new partners on a regular basis. The advantage is that getting to know and work with new people on trip is always fresh and interesting. The disadvantage is the inevitable break-in period over the first few days as we get in sync with each other. Most partners get into the rhythm pretty quickly, but one partner of mine I almost had to literally drag out of his sleeping bag in the morning, even on the 30th day of a month-long trip.  He just never found his morning groove. As my days are 10 hours long, we usually break camp by 8 a.m. and set up the next camp around 6 p.m. Being consistent with the number of hours I put in every day is key to covering the overall trip distance before we run out of food.

Packing Strategy

FW: I used to never trip with a barrel, instead relying on MEC Slogg Deluxe packs in various sizes. The Slogg packs are robust, watertight and have proper backpack harnesses. You can really load those babies up. In 2016 on a 44-day, 1,100-mile trip from La Ronge, Saskatchewan to Baker Lake, Nunavut, I used a barrel for the first time with a North Water Barrel Harness and loved it. The harness was super comfortable and prevents the barrel from rolling if it’s lying on its side.  It was great for protecting delicate gear like electronics and a telescoping fishing rod, plus a good place to store food for the latter half of the trip so it wouldn’t be pulverized en route. The barrel lid makes for a nice cutting board too. On this journey we used a 35-liter Slogg pack (which I wore while portaging the canoe), a 60-liter barrel, a 115-liter Slogg (for bulkier but lighter items like tent, tarp, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, pots, fuel bottles) and a 70-liter Slogg pack. We carried 45 days of freeze-dried dinner with us and 15 days of breakfast/lunch/snacks from the start, then resupplied the final 30 days of breakfast/lunch/snacks at a fly-in First Nation community we passed through on Day 15. With the cost of shipping these days, I find it cheaper and more efficient to buy supplies in the grocery stores of these remote communities along the way. I will bring a full-trip’s supply of freeze-dried dinners with me because you can’t get that sort of thing in these communities.

CM: I used the barrels for years and have come to despise them. Personally, I find barrels annoying because they roll around--in the canoe and on your back when you carry them, and the shape doesn't keep the load all that close to your body. For sure, they do an outstanding job of protecting your food and gear but I think I have a better solution. We use waterproof duffels for our grub. So far we’ve had good luck with Watershed bags. They’re fully submersible and float, though with less buoyancy than a barrel. We sew simple nylon covers to protect them from abrasion and use a tumpline --a good old-fashioned head strap, sewn from seatbelt webbing and secured around the duffel with cam straps--to carry. The load is stable and surprisingly comfortable once you get used to the arrangement. Two of these suckers (70-liter size) will carry a month's worth of "real" food (no freeze-dried!) for two people.

This year I’m looking forward to trying Yeti’s new Panga dry duffel, which appears like it won’t need a protective nylon cover. Personal and camping gear for two goes into one large nylon Duluth-style portage pack--streamline your load (for example, Kim and I share a Nemo Tango Duo sleeping bag) and you can do it. The other thing we won’t go without is a wannigan--a wooden or plastic box for carrying cooking gear, bulk food items (in waterproof jars) and the day’s lunch and snacks. It’s rigged with a tumpline as well.

Handling the Portages

CM: Our portage routine depends on the length and difficulty of the trail--i.e., whether it exists or not. On two- to three-week trips each canoe partner does two trips on the portage trail, though sometimes on well-used portages we can do a “1.5.” This strategy works best on longer, easier trails. To do the 1.5, one person carries the canoe the entire length of the portage while the other carries a load approximately halfway. At which point, both people return for a second load–to the halfway point and to the beginning of the trail. It basically means you’re only walking the trail 1.5 times, but with a fairly large load. For our long, self-supported trips of a month or more, we’ve concluded that double (or sometimes triple) carrying is the only reasonable option. It’s easier to scout out a solid route with light loads (and an axe, map, compass and GPS) first rather than trying to route-find with a heavy load. The other thing I’ve discovered through experience: In unknown terrain, always–always!–leave the canoe for the final load. It really sucks to get turned around in a bog while carrying the canoe.

FW: On a two-week or less trip, I can usually get through a portage with a trail in one-go. I take the canoe and a small pack with paddles and PFD cinched under the seats. My partner will take the light but big pack and the barrel or food pack.  On a bushwhack portage with rough footing and navigation, we’ll do a double-back portage or sometimes leapfrog gear, taking it partway, then doubling back to the start where I can stretch my legs with a light run and rest my back but not waste time. In deep brush, I’ll stick with my partner the whole way so we don’t get separated. In the wide-open tundra, sticking together isn’t as necessary. Also, on the bushwhacks I’ll mark the start and finish points of the portage with a GPS and a bright PFD hung in a tree. I usually take my Esquif Prospecteur 17 canoe through first as it acts as a fantastic battering ram, and the portage route of a canoe through the forest is fine for someone carrying a pack, but not the other way around. I navigate by compass and keep aware of the surrounding terrain and natural markers in the forest, but the GPS mark is nice to have as backup if you end up getting sidetracked.

Portages are always an adventure. In 2011, we had to climb 1,500 feet of elevation over 2.5 rough miles to get up onto the Labrador Plateau. My head covering and t-shirt were soaked in my own blood from the black flies that mauled me as I carried the canoe on a windless, 85-degree F (30 C) day. My partner got hit with heat stroke and I had to set up the tent and put him in there to recover for a couple of hours while I continued portaging. A real doozy! Perhaps not coincidentally that was the last big trip he did with me.

Routines for setting up camp

CM: Our routine for the end of the day are practically carved in stone. Kim pitches the tent while I gather firewood. We set up the tarp (if necessary) together and she organizes our dinner items while I cut and split enough dry wood for dinner and breakfast, and arrange a simple rock structure to use with fire irons (two stainless steel rods for arranging pots over the flames). On an expedition, a campfire is a purely functional tool for cooking meals; we rarely “lounge around the campfire” in the traditional sense, unless the weather is particularly nice, firewood is abundant and the bugs are minimal. While it takes proper cutting tools and a bit of work, cooking on fire means we don’t need to pack gallons of liquid fuel for the camp stove on an expedition. (We dehydrate our meals before the trip so prep takes 10 to 20 minutes of simmering.) I carry a small supply of white gas and a lightweight single-burner for really miserable days, but it seems like with each trip I pack less fuel…and bring more home. Cooking on fire in all conditions and paying close attention to leave a minimal environmental impact makes me feel proud.

FW: My partner usually sets up the MSR Tent and Thermarest sleeping bags and pads while I set up the tarp and do the cooking. Before we do anything though, we go for an evening dip to refresh ourselves and wash off the grime of the day and then slip into our dry camp clothes. I use an MSR Whisperlite International stove when it’s raining or we arrive in camp late. The stove is easy to set up and boils water quickly, and can also be efficiently field repaired if anything goes wrong with it.  As my dinners are freeze-dried, I just need to add boiling water and our food and tea is ready in minutes. I only bring a couple of litres of fuel as half the time (when wood is easy and weather is fine) I boil water over a small grate I bring.  When the fire is happening I’ve also been known to cook up a fish or two if the shoreline action is good. I’ve never used an axe on trip--it’s too bulky and heavy for me to justify it and I find there’s always plenty of deadfall and other dry wood that can be collected easily by hand. Our evening is always capped at around sunset with a few sips of whisky and a shared clove cigarette--a ritual moment to savour the day before we turn in for the evening.

More at CanoeKayak.com:

-- Watch canoe adventurer Jim Baird's Lessons From the Trail series

-- Read Frank Wolf's argument for wilderness protection

-- Check out the (sometimes gory) pics and read a Q&A with Frank Wolf following his 2014 expedition in Labrador