Monday, 19 July 2010

Keel hauling - backpacking with a canoe

Twenty minutes drive south of Bergen there is a road-side cafe. Next to the cafe there is a shed. In the shed there are paddles. Behind the shed, down a short gravel path, there is a pontoon sitting on a lake with various watercraft bobbing around. For hire. A very small amount of money changed hands and that was it. No deposit, no questions, no safety demonstration, no rules. Next thing we knew we were afloat with the very loose plan of paddling as far as we could up the system of lakes and streams (and then maybe a bit further), camp overnight and then return the following day. The waterways were stuffed with trout we were told and so off we went, a-huntin' and a-gatherin'.

We stopped often along the way, trying various fishy-looking spots with little luck. There was no sign of trout even breaking the surface. The only ripples we witnessed were made by a frog who stopped it's busy breast-stroke commute briefly while we took it's photo before continuing on it's way across the lake. The scenery on either bank was beautiful, ranging from open rolling farmland to narrow forested passages. Brightly painted hyttes appeared silently in small clearings as we cruised by and faded, dilapidated boat houses kissed the shore line.

We glided on mill pond still water from bay to bay, island to island, trying to find the elusive trout but finding nothing more than a couple of eager jack pike to puncture the frustration of our increasingly trout-less quest. Wild flowers on the bank provided sparkles of colour while these buttery yellow lilies studded the water like jewels. Soft rain started to fall.

We found more wildlife as we wend our way up through the lake system. Swallows performed stunning aerial displays, often within touching distance our canoe, their red, white and blue plumage and physics-bending manoeuvres as striking as any Red Arrow show. Steve found a mass of baby frogs on one bank, seemingly content to sit on our warm hands and have their photograph taken. The trout however remained elusive.

Eventually we came to the end of the main lake system and faced a tough uphill section through several sets of rapids, smaller lakes and streams if we were to reach our chosen camp. One of the portage sections required us to carry the canoe above our heads across a forested island. After a short paddle across another lake we were out of the boat again as we 'walked' the canoe through shallow rapids, slow progress on the slippery rocks and strong flow against our legs. Packrafts would have made all this an awful lot easier.

One last portage was needed to gain access to the top lake. Waterfalls stopped us gaining access via a side-stream so we pulled up to a beach, lugged the canoe up 300m of rough trail and slid the green beast down a steep bank, threading it through a gap in the trees. The process was hot, hard work and we were ready for food and shelter. Just the task of paddling across a very familiar looking lake before we could beach the canoe and set up camp.

Eagle-eyed readers will recognize this spot as a regular camp site of mine. Usually sheltered from the worst of the prevailing weather by the steep cliffs behind, the little beach faces the sunset and provides enough space for several shelters. The ground drains really well too, something we were grateful for as the rain continued to fall and we sheltered under my Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn tarp, improvised into a lean-to shelter with the addition of the oars and a branch as supports. Steve slept in my DuoMid and I slept under the SpinnTwinn after returning it to it's more regular tarp configuration.

Never have I appreciated good design as much as watching the Bush Buddy Ultra stove happily consume damp twigs. Days of rain have reduced even the most protected wood source to soggy pulp so it was with much amazement and gratitude that we sat mesmerised as the little handmade Canadian wonder bloomed into orangey life and merrily reduced pencil-sized fuel to ash.

Dinner time. Aware that our super fishing powers might let us down I packed some chorizo sausage to augment the sun dried tomato and pine nut couscous. Steve loved the food and was glad we weren't living on freeze dried meals. The Bush Buddy proved itself to be a fine marshmallow cooker too and we gorged ourselves on the crispy surfaced gooey wonders, accompanied by hot chocolate with our choice of tipple. If you're wondering why Steve has his hood up while sheltering from the rain under the tarp, it's because we were inundated with midgies that also found the tarp a useful shelter from the weather and attempted to join our meal time by feasting on our blood.

A last stroll around our camp to stretch legs, drink in the view and witness another shower pass over our secluded valley while the sky over Bergen glowed tauntingly bright. Tired but warm and well fed we retired to our shelters and drifted off to sleep to the sound of softly falling rain and gurgling waterfalls.

After sleeping warm and well we awoke to altogether heavier rain thundering against the shelters. The space under the SpinnTwinn allowed me to remain dry, reclined under there in comfort, periodically drifting off to sleep again.

One final heavy shower kept our heads down for another half an hour but as the last drops raced each other down the taut spinnaker fabric before hurling themselves onto the ground below we got up and made a warm breakfast of coffee and porridge oats with nuts, seeds and raisins. Miraculously the sun even made an appearance and lent a hand to our packing by trying to dry our gear as we loaded up the canoe and pushed off into the dark waters.

Going home was the first day in reverse. Not just the fact that we failed to catch any trout but also in the series of paddling and portages we had to perform. The first step was to paddle across 'our' lake, don backpacks and then portage the canoe 300m back down the track and into the middle lake. Skimming through swathes of reeds and grasses we turned north then west and rattled our way down the rocky connecting stream until common sense overtook our sense of adventure.

As the canoe wasn't ours we decided to 'walk' the canoe down the shallower, rock-studded channel that led towards the lower lakes. We really wanted to shoot this section, we knew that canoe could probably take it but didn't want to get stranded 8km from the car with a hefty repair bill to swallow.

As we lost height through each successive lake we had one final portage to negotiate, down the middle of the forested island, the channel one one side choked with reeds and the other channel home to a boiling, frothing set of rapids that were well beyond us and our boats capacity. We trudged across the island, following the narrow path through the trees with the canoe on our heads. At the other end we gazed up at the rapids and wished for more suitable craft. As we put the canoe in we promised to return and conquer the noisy maw. We talked-up our paddling prowess as we pushed the canoe off the bank and promptly flipped the canoe and ejected all the contents, including ourselves, backpacks and fishing gear into the dead calm, 2 foot deep margins...

The rest of day passed slowly as we battled our way back to the car, against a stiff wind that reduced us at times to silent, heads-down effort on the wider, less sheltered sections. We stopped a couple of times to half-heartedly try our luck with the trout but Steve only managed to catch a Joe-fish when he cast his lure overhead and managed to snag the back of my neck with the treble hook. Thankfully I de-barb the hooks to aid unhooking and reduce damaging any fish I return so no field medic operations were required.

Despite the weather, the shy trout, capsizing our canoe, the midgies and the unfortunate incident with the fishing lure we had an amazing time. All within a stone skimming's throw of the city.

35 comments:

bobinson said...

Great pics mate !
So are you converted to paddle rather than foot ?
I spotted a Haglofs Ascent, have you had any problems with the frame end poking through the bottom ?

Joe Newton said...

bobinson - thank you. I've not converted to paddles, just enjoying another form of backcountry travel. If I got my own boat it would definitely be a packraft.

The Ascent belongs to Steve. He's not used it much but he's never complained about any problems with the frame poking through the base.

fenlander said...

Excellent trip report and photographs Joe. Looks to be a stunning area and you both obviously enjoyed the trip.

Phil said...

I guess the Local Adventure Project is somewhat easier in Bergen? I can see why you moved there....

Looks like an amazing trip, I must have misunderstood you when you mentioned sea-kayaking before you left!

Oh, and the tarp/paddle combo is a particular favourite of mine too.

Titanium said...

Absolutely gorgeous photos! The trip report had me nodding my head, chuckling and totally feeling it. Just got back from a canoe trail adventure myself- after reading this, I think it's time to head right back out.

Joe Newton said...

Fenlander - thanks. Yes, we had a riot, despite the odd mishap! We're just scratching the surface of what the area has to offer.

Phil - Actually I moved here because of a girl, but yeah, I'm staying because of the wilderness! Do you want to post it as another Local Adventure?

Ahh, the sea kayaking took place on Friday night. It was a whole weekend of water-borne adventure.

The paddles were a god-send when we decided to pitch the tarp as a lean-to. Tarps are just so damn versatile!

Titanium - thank you very much, Norway is proving pretty easy to take nice pictures of, you just point your camera in any direction and push the button! We're planning another canoe adventure for the near future.

kate said...

your best photos yet! excellent cropping/editing. i notice that with a canone you can obviously afford to pack glass bottles of whiskey ;)

Dave Hanlon said...

Nice read. Nice photos. Water has a exercises a strong pull on me an my control hand itches as I look at your photos of mist shrouded lakes and water side camps. I can sort of see why you might want a pacraft. Had I been lugging one of those grp hulls up and down for two days I might feel the same way but there are much lighter canoes and teh canadian canoe is the undisputed champion of wilderness travel (i.m.h.o).

Bushbuddy? Did you say BUSHBUDDY? You been spending again?

Fraser said...

Outstanding!

Great photos, magical scenery. I can definitely see the appeal of traveling in this manner. :)

I'm absolutely itching to get away for my holidays after that, haven't been out in so long, this has definitely got me in the mood. I'm only car camping, but it's my first visit to the Outer Hebrides, so I'm excited.

Joe Newton said...

Kate - ah, you're too kind! The photos merely get a little tarting up in Picasa, nothing fancy.

Actually the glass bottle of whiskey is Steve's. In true UL-stylee my tipple of Mintuu has been decanted into a recycled smoothie bottle ;-)

Dave - Thanks. With most of Scandinavia being covered in lakes, rivers, fjords and streams you can never escape water's influence. The canoe was great for the two of us to share the experience and explore the area but as it's more common for me to travel solo a packraft makes so much sense. Maybe I'll buy myself one for next year.

I've had the BBU for a while, just not had much reason to use it until this trip. They're bloody brilliant! Combined with the 1l pot is was perfect for the two of us, even with all the rain and wet wood.

Fraser - Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. Canoe camping, bike camping, car camping, whatever, just being outdoors is such a tonic for modern life! Enjoy the Outer Hebrides, looking forward to hearing all about it.

James Boulter said...

I read that trip report with envy Joe. I have had an urge to go on a water based backpack for years now. Must sign myself up for a course one day, I dont have your scenery on my doorstep but there is the river Trent and canals to explore. May be a bit risky to wild camp on the outskirts of nottingham though! Superb photos btw.

Dave Hanlon said...

BB Ultra, did you buy it in Europe or did you have to import it from North America.

I can see the appeal of the packraft. I mean who wouldn't want a lightweight packable boat? (admittedly I may be projecting my longings onto the rest of the worlds population here). Riding down those fast sections you describe would be fun but I'd love to watch you try and make headway against that wind on open water (with the emphasis on watching, as in standing on feet and spectating from the shore). For my part, since I spend far more time on open, still water, I think, although they are in another price bracket, money spent on a folding canoe (e.g. bergans Ally) is money better spent.

Joe Newton said...

James - Thank you. Yes, we're very lucky living here, there is so much on our door-step, both hiking and water based adventures. Good luck with your search for a local adventure and be sure to let Phil Turner know if you find one.

Dave - horses for courses I guess. While I totally understand the beauty and practicability of the Ally canoe for long distance water travel, as an 'occasional boat' the packraft must surely win hands down. If I'm planning on carrying a boat for considerable distances, interspersed with river floats and the occasional passage across open water I'd much rather carry a 2.5kg boat than a 15kg one and understand that I'd lose a little in performance.

I'm constantly amazed by what these little boats are capable of, from the white-water boundries being pushed by Roman Dial and his friends to the ultra-long distance adventures and vast expanses of water being crossed by the likes of Andy Skurka and husband and wife team Erin & Hig McKittrick on their 'A Long Trek Home'.

Martin Rye said...

You a art teacher Joe. There is a certain creativity in your photos. Very nice. Water and wild camping has a certain appeal. I reckon a packraft would be good as long as you have big country to explore over a three day float out of it.

Fantastic trip you had there and the whole experience must have been a great way to relax.

Dave Hanlon said...

I'm getting a feeling we've had this excahnge before?

Yes, I've followed some of those packraft endeavors. I am impressed and I do see the point. I guess the point of balance is determined by which you intend to spend more time doing, paddling the thing or lugging it on your back. If I was mostly on the water with a few kilometers of portage then I'd want the efficiency and tracking ability of a longer boat. I still think the Ally is a miracle: yes mine weighs 20kg, but it can carry 380kg. Think about that ratio for a second. Take off the weight of two adults and their lightweight packlist and you've still got the better part of a couple of hunderd kilos of capacity for consumables. Then work out how many days unsupported you could go for. That's why this sort of craft were so instrumental in openning up the north American continent. They are the juganoughts of the wilderness. Without a small team of vayagers portaging a full load would of course be hell, but iof you're mostly on the water...

Joe Newton said...

Martin - Thank you. I'm inspired by the imagery I see in a diverse range of media but especially on many other outdoor blogs, including yours.

Dave - you hit the nail on the head. It's the balance point between carrying the boat and paddling it that would determine when you should use a packraft or canoe. I've seen loads of Ally canoes here, they do look very well designed and built. It's also true that a canoe was probably the best solution for our trip at the weekend, especially when we had to battle the headwind home for several hours!

Thomas W. Gauperaa said...

Great post! they just keep getting better and better. Regarding the problems and challenges you faced (especially getting the lure in your neck) - that's just so typical of outdoor adventures. There is always something that fails, is lost, is soaked or forgotten. I've learned to expect it (and bad weather) so I'm not too depressed when it happens ;). It's just part of being outdoors, it's never like in the glossy sales brochures. On the flipside every trip has some magical moments too, be it great jokes, close encounters with furry animals or vistas that you know you will never be able to capture in a photograph. Keep up the good work Joe.

Joe Newton said...

Thomas - We laughed at every 'challenge' apart from the midges! Even when we dumped the entire contents of the canoe into the water we were in stitches!

Shed Dweller said...

That's a brilliant report and fantasic pictures! The area around there looks superb for having adventures, very jealous.

What camera do you use and are you into your photography. The frog in the water photo is brilliant.

Keep having the adventures it's lovely to read them when you should be working just to remember what life should be about

Joe Newton said...

Shed Dweller - thanks! I use a humble Panasonic TZ4 and don't consider myself 'into' photography in the technical sense. I just want to capture the amazing things I see around me, to the best of my abilities. My two main 'photography techniques' are to keep my camera as close and ready-to-use as possible and shoot lots. Law of averages dictates that some of them have to be half decent! Glad you enjoyed the post.

Dave Sailer said...

Dang. Purty. Glad you have the rain now. We passed out from under our nine-month cloud cover and are full into bug season, I can't say which one I really prefer, but it is a treat to see your photos.

Joe Newton said...

Dave - you're too kind, thank you. Rain or bugs? I'd take rain every time.

Maz said...

Excellent stuff! I was taken, a few years ago, by sea kayaking when we did some in Abel Tasman in NZ. I took up white-water kayaking when I got back to the UK on the basis that if I could deal with white-water comfortably, I could then segue the skills into sea kayaking. The BCU now insist that the 2 Star qualification, regardless of your inclination, include open canoeing and I really enjoyed it - it appealed to my sense of exploration. I could definitely see myself heading off in a canoe. Not really looked into packrafts at all - perhaps I should start researching again...

Joe - you're justified in having a host of people following your blog because you so obviously take time and effort to write, and create through photography, some emotional and evocative imagery. Modesty is one thing, but 90% of photography is knowing what to capture in the frame, it seems to me. I think the comments here should persuade you to keep writing and capturing and I hope you do - it's a cracking way for those of us waiting for our next trip to enjoy others' experiences. Thanks!

Joe Newton said...

Maz - thank you for your words of encouragement. I agree that composition is one of the most important aspects of photography.

My first foray into sea-kayaking was the short evening session we had the night before we left on the canoeing trip. Steve's work own a pair of kayaks and all the gear and they can be booked out by employees. Situated down at the harbour it's just a few short steps from the garage where the kayaks are stored to the water. We had a fantastic few hours exploring the area, from inland lagoons and marinas to the working docks where giant exploration and oil rig service ships were moored. The massive steel hulls dwarfed our tiny boats. The next day we went on our canoe trip and I felt much more comfortable in the open canoe with the natural scenery.

Nielsen Brown said...

Nice report and photos Joe, do you see the BBU as your 2 or more person stove and the LT1 as the 1 person stove? or is the BBU the wet wether stove?

Joe Newton said...

Roger - thanks. Pretty much. I haven't had a chance to use the LT1 in dire conditions yet but if it performs anywhere near as good as the BBU then it's more compact size, smaller compatible pot and lighter weight make it ideal as a solo cooker.

Which one will I take to the Hardangervidda? Not sure, that will be a last minute decision!

RafalB said...

Wow, I love your photos! Did you use any waterproof stuff sack, especially for camera? Great trip!

Joe Newton said...

RafalB - I had a few waterproof stuff sacks on that trip, one for my sleeping quilt, one for my camp clothes and a small one for other bits and pieces. I stored my camera in there during the heaviest rain but the rest of the time I store it in a weather resistant LowePro case. The problem with burying your camera safely away from all the elements for too long is that you don't take pictures!

Maz said...

"We had a fantastic few hours exploring the area, from inland lagoons and marinas to the working docks where giant exploration and oil rig service ships were moored. The massive steel hulls dwarfed our tiny boats."

Cool. Really nice - reminds me of the Cockleshell Heroes...

Joe Newton said...

Maz - yeah, now where did I leave my limpet mines... ;-)

Maz said...

'Course, if we're talking war films, there must be a mention for the Heroes of Telemark... ;-)

Joe Newton said...

Maz - I usually leave that film reference for the ski season! ;-)

Maz said...

"Broadsword calling Danny Boy...." No, stop now.

Mark Roberts said...

Stunning pictures! And I love the way you adapted and tied the SpinnTwinn into a lean-to. Simple and effective. I'll have to try that.

Joe Newton said...

Mark - thank you. Yep, the SpinnTwinn proved to be very versatile, giving us a protected living space in the evening and dry sleeping space for me during the night.