If it were not for my collection of puffy down jackets and a secret collection of designer shoes (beautiful but not functional for strutting down my gravel driveway), one might consider me a bit of a minimalist. Particularly when it comes to outdoor and backcountry adventures, where nothing really seems worth the trouble of carrying.
Except food. I always come home with around four extra days of food.
I likely have some scarcity issues dating back to my childhood and being raised on food bank powdered milk. This is probably why powdered coffee creamer always makes it into my pack, but bear spray is optional. Lighter: yes. Camp shoes: no. Toothbrush: just the bristled end – who needs a handle? And those two pounds of pulled pork? They’ll go great with the sriracha slaw and bag of oranges I just got at the fruit stand.
“Did you bring a pillow?” my friend asks as she fluffs something packed into what appears to be 800-count Egyptian cotton.
“A pillow? No, I roll up my used socks in this empty clementine netting.”
I have this belief that comfort will make me soft. Or perhaps I choose my comforts carefully. For example, I cannot be cold or wet once I enter my tent. It must be an oasis of coziness. If I could install a small fireplace and lounge chaise in an ultralight three-season, I would.
Every time there is a new development in gear or I grab a larger pack off my shop wall of Every Backpack Ever Made, I am giddy about all the additional space. An extra five liters has me optimistically planning the tent interior decorating I might bring along. Inevitably, I still end up cutting my toothbrush in half to make room for a novel.
Imagine my glee when I bought my husband a canoe for his birthday last week. A canoe is basically a water vessel of infinite storage space because it doesn’t have a lid. Which also means I can load bikes on top of it if I can talk the kids and the dogs into holding still for most of the trip.
I don’t know anything about canoeing – as established when I went to go pick up the thing and could only tell the front end by the direction of the seats. I promised the seller it was going to a good family where it would be loved and cared for, but I forgot to ask him what kind of Thule rack attachments I needed for my bikes and storage box.
By the time the kids and I surprised Charlie with his new craft, we had planned some Lewis and Clark expeditions. There is something liberating about traveling by water. Maybe it’s the lack of leg-bruising bushwhack, although I do recall Meriwether complaining bitterly about prickly pears ravaging their feet during portages. If I could find some wooden chests to store oil lamps and writing materials, we’d be ready to launch our own trip.
On our maiden voyage I brought both dogs, two tweens, a bearded man who looks like he was born to paddle, most of our personal possessions, a four-course meal, life jackets for the entire family and any unsafe swimmers we might come across, and my running gear (pack, shoes, three days’ worth of food for a 6-mile run).
I call this “beyond spec usage,” designed to establish the true limits of any equipment I’m using. These experiments typically result in “what not to do” reviews and scathing letters from manufacturers who refuse to replace my broken toys for good reason.
Sometime around then, the kids decided they needed to bring their water floaties as well. Worried they would create drag, we piled them on top of the canoe (the flotation devices, not the children – who also create drag and make more noise doing it) until we looked rather like a Gypsy barge heading down the Seine. If only I could play the guitar, I would have made room for that, too.
When we paddled to a remote beach, our wares were unloaded, dogs splashed in the water, kids launched their rubber rafts, and I took off alone down a lakeshore trail. My tolerance for sharing 17 feet of space with the family is about 120 minutes – anything longer and we’re into beyond-spec use of my brain.
At the same time, it was exactly this that afforded something unique to our trip. It was a special kind of collaboration in teamwork and balance. If the dogs decided to bark at a duck on the left, the kids automatically leaned right. Eventually, Charlie and I learned to paddle in a similar rhythm and the canoe went in the direction we intended (this is surprisingly harder than I thought).
If we could distill our family, its beauty and chaos – the precarious balance we keep to avoid capsizing while maintaining forward motion – into a single adventure analogy, it would be the canoe trip. If you haven’t tried it lately, I suggest you shove everything you love into a teetering red boat and set sail (or paddle). You’ll inevitably discover all kinds of things you never knew about each other. Most of them, you’ll love.
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