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The Joys of a Tandem Trip by Steve Volkening

There is a big difference for a Boundary Waters/Quetico canoe trip between a multi-boat group and just two people in a tandem boat. The difference is much greater than the obvious reduction in the number of people.

Over the last six years, I have been a part of group trips with five, six, and nine men from my church. I have also stayed in Seagull Outfitter's cabin on the Sag Corridor, one time with my wife and another time with my wife and grown son, who now works for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. We made day trips from the cabin to Saganaga for fishing and sight-seeing.

I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the North Woods. After I returned from my first six-day trip from Seagull Lake to Little Sag, I spent much of the year dreaming about or planning for the next trip. As much as I enjoyed the three group trips with the men's group, I felt that I was missing something. What I really wanted was solitude, and a chance to experience the wonders of the Boundary Waters alone and on my own terms.

Solo Practice
On the last two group trips, there was an odd number of people, and rather than put three guys in a large tripping canoe, I was able to use a nimble little kevlar Bell CJ solo. Besides being a joy to portage at less than half of the weight of the 17 foot aluminum monsters my friends were carrying, having my own boat gave me greater freedom. After we established base camp, I would go out after lunch for three or four hours by myself and still be back in time for dinner. Sometimes I would go out again for several hours around sunset. On our trip to the Fall's Chain area in Quetico last summer, I would leave after breakfast and sometimes not return until after dinner. (Of course, I always let my buddies know where I was headed and when to expect me back).

These extended solitary day trips were a whole new experience. I saw much more wildlife. In fact, I often saw more animals in a single day than the rest of the group saw all week. I covered much more territory. Carrying just a solo canoe and a small day pack with lunch and gear made portaging easy. I could go where and when I wanted. If I wanted to just float and watch a loon, I didn't have to worry about keeping up with the rest of the group. If I wanted to travel fast, I could do that, too.

My confidence in my canoeing ability and navigation skills grew. Debbie Mark, owner of Seagull Outfitters, noticed this, and suggested that I do a solo trip sometime. The idea intrigued me. Although I already had a fair amount of camping and backpacking equipment, I began to buy more canoeing gear. I wanted to be more self-sufficient. I even bought a nice used kevlar Mad River Explorer from Debbie towards the end of the season. (it's a tandem, so I can paddle with my wife on the 51 weeks each year that I am not in the Boundary Waters).

Taking The First Step
When I first suggested the idea of a solo trip to my wonderfully-patient wife, she replied, "you can go on a solo trip as long as you don't go alone." That line has now become a running joke in our family. However, she did have a point. Her concern for my safety was valid. On a solo trip, there obviously is no one to help if you slip on a rock while portaging and break your ankle. I mentioned that hundreds of people do solo trips every year. I did not mention to her the article I read in the June, 2002 issue of Backpacker magazine. It tells the story of Rev. Mike Turner, who was on a 60-mile solo hike in western Wyoming when a rockslide pinned his foot under a huge boulder. He starved to death.

Other than day trips away from the guys in my group trip, my only solo paddling was a great day sea kayaking in Sitka, Alaska. I rented a sleek touring kayak from Baidarka Boats and spent the day watching humpback whales and playing hide and seek amid the kelp beds with sea otters. The folks at Baidarka (which is Russian for kayak) did a great joy of reviewing with me self-rescue techniques, gave me several emergency flares and a bilge pump, and sent me across the street to the volunteer fire department. There, I checked out a free ship-to-shore radio. As I filled out the paperwork to borrow the radio, they asked for information on my dental records, boat size, and color of my daypack. It was in case I flipped, froze, and the grizzlies got me, they told me only in partial jest. That convinced my poor wife even more that I shouldn't do a solo trip in Quetico.

To respect my wife's wishes, I began thinking about doing a solo trip where I wouldn't be alone. Most people would call this a tandem trip. I knew that my choice of a paddling partner would be important. By chance, I bumped into an old friend along a hiking trail some time back. As we brought each other up to date, I mentioned that I was leading a men's group trip with nine guys to Quetico in a few weeks. John mentioned that he had always wanted to go. We decided right then to do a tandem trip the following year.

John and I went to the same Fall's Chain area exactly one year later. However, it was a very different trip. Downsizing from nine people in five boats to just two guys in one boat made all the difference in the world. Nearly every aspect of the trip had changed.

On the previous trip, the ages ranged from 14 to 67. Some were very fit and others were overweight. Some wanted to do nothing but fish, yet I don't even bring a pole. Some tired out after a hard day of portaging and did not want to move, while others were anxious to explore new territory. John and I are the same age, same build, and same relative physical condition. (Although in the months before our tandem trip, John hiked a part of the Appalachian Trail.) I have to confess that John was stronger on the portage trails than I was. Yet, we were much more closely matched in stamina than I was to many members of my last group.

John and I are both former teachers. We have very similar temperaments and are both somewhat quiet. Most important, we share a sense of awe in the marvels of God's creation.

There is a greater selection of campsites available to two people compared to those able to accommodate a large group. On the 2001 group trip, we had to pass over a number of beautiful potential sites because there wasn't room for nine people or because we couldn't land and unload five boats. Even the sites we did select seemed crowded with five or six tents, a hammock, and loads of gear everywhere. With just two people, John and I had our pick of sites. We each used our own tent; since there were just two to pitch, we each had our own private area.

For those concerned about low impact camping, two people have a much reduced impact on the environment. There is less wood gathered, fewer latrine holes dug, etc.

John and I also registered at the Cache Bay ranger station to participate in the Adopt-A-Lake program. We cleaned seven or eight campsites besides our own and also picked up trash along each portage trail. We packed out consi derably more litter than the garbage we generated from our meals.

Less Is More
Packing for a tandem trip is certainly different. On previous group trips, I went first fully outfitted and then semi-outfitted, and used only food from Seagull. Still, besides my own canoe pack, my solo boat was loaded with a group gear bag (I was carrying the other guy's tents) and a large food pack. Some of the guys actually carried aluminum cots complete with the cardboard box it came in. On our tandem trip, John and I each had a pack and shared a small food pack. That meant double portaging.

Meals are certainly different on a tandem trip. I belong to the "anything you can pour boiling water on" school of culinary arts. I planned instant coffee, instant oatmeal or granola bars for breakfast, jerky, GORP, bagels with PBJ (in individual packets), and salami and crackers for lunch. Dinner would be cup a soup or ramen noodles or freeze dried/cook in the bag meals. This would minimize cooking duties and clean up time. I thought this was lightweight and fast.

As an AT hiker, John is even more minimalist. He subscribes more to the "why cook at all?" school. He is used to hiking fast and light, and producing very little garbage to have to pack out. He taught me to carefully tear open the instant oatmeal packet and pour the hot water inside. No bowl to wash! I also learned to carry Power Bars and jerky in my shirt pocket. Lunch was eaten while portaging. One day, we left our damp tents in camp, and day tripped twelve miles to see Louisa Falls. We returned to our dry tents about noon and snacked on jerky and dried fruit as we broke camp.

On group trips, meal selection is often done by committee. Fully-outfitted trips are known for great food. We traditionally had fresh steaks the first night, and pork chops and brats for other nights. The freeze-dried "something a-la king" was only for the last night. Breakfasts were fresh eggs and smoked bacon. Lunches were often sliced meat and cheese sandwiches, fresh fruit, and large cookies. The food is wonderful, but it's HEAVY. The food pack I carried actually had a ten pound bag of potatoes. One night, I wrapped two in tin foil and threw them on the coals. The rest were returned to the outfitter. Hanging the food bags became a major engineering chore. Finding a branch strong enough, and then hoisting the three bags, which totaled close to 100 pounds at the start of the trip, was a lot of work.

Even though I thought we had planned our meals carefully, I returned home with nearly six pounds of uneaten freeze dried food. That is a lot of extra weight to carry. John and I started planning our next trip on the second night. We will eliminate the food pack altogether. This will enable us to single portage next time.

You can clearly go farther and faster with just two people. John and I carried lighter packs. We did not have to wait for others who were slower on the portage trail or pokey in breaking camp. We were not speed demons, and did not feel a need to impress each other by how many miles we made. We traveled at a relaxed pace. It's just a simple fact that small groups travel faster. Since time Up North is precious, its sometimes frustrating to be fully packed and ready to go and have to wait half an hour for someone else who hasn't even started to take down his tent.

And More is Sometimes Better!
A large group can only travel as far and fast as its slowest and least fit member. Some times that is not very far or fast. On my first group trip to Quetico, we traveled less than twenty miles total in five nights. We had two portages. John and I covered more water than that before we stopped for the first night. In all, we did 90 miles and 49 portages in the same five nights.

We became efficient travelers and covered much more area than I had ever anticipated. I wasn't burdened by a slower group and even looked forward to more challenging portages. We saw places that I could never have attempted with my previous groups. Janice Matichuk, the Cache Bay ranger, told us that she thinks John and I were the first party through the 266 rod portage between Kenny and the top of McEwen Lake in 2 months, and may have been the only group through all summer.

Chores around camp are more simple with just two people. I always admired our group's cook, who was able to get nine meals ready at the same time. A meal for nine hungry men produces quite a few dirty pots and dishes. John and I each had our own small backpacking stoves. Meals were fast and simple. Doing dishes was just a matter of washing out one cup and spoon. In larger groups, it seemed like some people ended up doing all of the work, while others drifted away whenever something needed to be done.

On a tandem trip, the division of labor is simple: either you do it or he does. The expression, ''too many cooks spoil the broth'' doesn't come into play. There is only two people doing the work, and there are no spectators standing around with their hands in their pockets offering suggestions about how it should be done.

Quiet, Please.
The biggest difference between a tandem and larger group trip is the greater opportunity for quiet. Simply put, two guys make a lot less noise. It is so much quieter while paddling, on the portage trails, and in camp. Two men paddling a kevlar canoe with wood paddles are much quieter than an armada of four aluminum canoes being banged by the metal shafts of livery paddles.

John and I had the time of our lives. We both had been part of larger and noisier groups on previous trips. This time, I could appreciate the unspoiled wilderness and reflect upon its wonders without interruptions. John and I often paddled without speaking for half an hour at a time. The only sounds were the quiet dip of paddles and the calls of birds. There was no raucous chorus of ''Row, Row, Row Your Boat'' to detract from our communion with nature.

Traveling quietly has advantages other than just the reduction of noise pollution. You can see and hear so much that is normally otherwise missed. The payoff came as we returned up lower McEwen creek towards Star Lake from Louisa Falls. We had been seeing large wolf prints in the mud on portage trails for several days. As we glided towards the portage mouth, I saw a large black-phase wolf standing atop a lichen-encrusted boulder next to the trail. We were incredibly close. It stared at us for a moment, then dropped into the brush. It then re-emerged atop a rock ledge on the other side of the trail. Again, it just looked at us and we looked at it. It was a gift we will never forget. We commented later that we never would have seen it if we had been traveling as part of a normal noisy group.

We were also blessed with a full moon and glass-calm water in the evenings. After attaching a small emergency strobe light to a tree at our campsite, we paddled out into the darkness to observe the moon (and get away from the mosquitoes in camp). One evening we just sat in silence for 45 minutes, each alone with their own thoughts. Other than the wolf, moose, eagle, and loon sightings, this quiet time on the lake under a full moon was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

We all come to the Boundary Waters area for our own reasons. Many are attracted by the fishing. Others like the physical challenge of paddling and portaging. Some enjoy the camaraderie around camp. One of my friends from an earlier group trip, loved to cook, bless him. It's often said that every day Up North is a good day. Even when it rains, you are wind bound for a day, or if the mosquitoes are biting more than the walleyes, time spent there is treasured. You can maximize your enjoyment by matching your expectations with those in your group.

Over the years, I have found that a smaller group better suits my needs. About the only downside of a tandem trip is that there are fewer people to share the cost of gas on the drive up. Splitting a few tanks of gas between two people instead of four is certainly a small price to pay. To me, the close encounter with a timber wolf and quiet evenings under a full moon are priceless.


       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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