Keeping it Simple
by Dan Lewis
It's kind of ironic, isn't it? We go to the wilderness to leave our hopelessly cluttered, relentlessly frenetic quotidien lives behind. But then we go full circle, and re-create the consumer culture, replete with gadgets and gizmos. Before you know it, packing our kayaks with a plethora of panaceas offering comfort and style becomes as daunting as daily life!
One thing we learn from kayaking is to leave no trace. However, I fear we are leaving wilderness areas pristine partly by hiding our impact elsewhere. What about the toxics used to make our kayaks, nylon clothing, in fact most hi-tech gear? Not using fires means less woodsmoke, but where did the stove fuel come from?
Consider also the human impact of our gear purchases. A lot of the world's clothing is manufactured under inhumane conditions in "sweatshops" in Third World countries. Outdoors clothing is no exception. Many of the people making gear for our recreation are paid a mere pittance, and could never afford the luxury of a kayak holiday, even if they could get time off. Thinking about this has made me look more closely at where gear is manufactured.
Perhaps the answer is to learn to minimise our impact as much as possible - to reduce the size of our ecological footprint. I've always had an affinity for the concept of voluntary simplicity. For me, this means separating my wants from my needs, trying to consume as little as possible, and leading a life focussed on fulfillment rather than acquisition.
And kayaking fits the bill! There is less material in a kayak than almost any other watercraft. And once its built, no fuel is needed other than food. And my kayaking experiences are certainly fulfilling, providing interactions with nature I wouldn't otherwise have.
Let's not forget the power of the marketplace. The choices we make as consumers can have an enormous effect on the Earth. Smart businessses realise this and adapt. Look at Patagonia, for example, pioneering the use of recycled pop bottles to make fleece, and promoting the use of organically grown cotton.
One of the principles of voluntary simplicity is to buy functional, durable goods. This doesn't always mean the cheapest, nor does it necessarily mean the most expensive. Shop around, ask around before making purchases. Another is to care for gear - rinsing off salt, storing things out of direct sunlight. Thirdly, wear things out - not to the point of endangering your health or safety, but to use it up before replacing it. Finally, mend or repair gear instead of discarding it.
My own approach to kayaking gear is minimalist. I don't like to spend all my time fussing with gear while on trips, so I try to take as little as possible. Basically I bring enough to be comfortable in the worst conditions imaginable - and a wee bit more.
For me, this looks like one bomber set of shore clothes, including raingear and gumboots. And a pair of nylon shorts just in case! Another set of clothes is for paddling (farmer john wetsuit if solo, winter or open coast). This set includes neoprene booties, paddling jacket and so'wester rainhat.
My bedding has gotten pretty deluxe - I guess I'm softening in middle age. After holding out for 15 years, I finally got one of those newfangled inflatable foam pad - and I didn't fuss around. I got the big, thick one. Of course I bring a sleeping bag - synthetic fill so it will still be my ace in the hole for preventing heat loss even if its wet. And now I bring a down pillow (why not? it weighs nothing, packs down small, and I save a fortune on chiropractor bills).
As for shelter I eschew tents in favor of a tarp. Something about going to all this trouble to get Outside, and then crawling Inside to sleep - doesn't compute. Give me a 9 x 12 tarp and a gore-tex bivvy sac any day. Nothing like waking to watch mergansers gliding past at eye level. Or waking up facing off with a slug!
Other than that my camp gear is pretty minimal. A few good pots, a cup, bowl knife and spoon. A camp chair. One good book, a pair of binos, and a journal round it out. I take a stove, or sometimes a grill to cook over micro-fires. And food, ah yes, food! That's a whole 'nother story.
My goal in being Out There is to immerse myself in Nature, as fully as possible. Am I trying to re-create the decadence of post-industrial society? Or am I torturing myself for no reason? If I'm going to spend a good part of my life out camping, it makes sense to me to provide myself with a decent level of comfort. I try to achieve a balance whereby the gear provides enough comfort to enjoy my environment, but not so much as to distract me overly from that environment.
I believe this is one of the real lessons that kayaking offers us. It allows us to step out of the splendors of modern living, giving us a chance to re-connect with our real needs. Hopefully when we return to society, we do so with a better ability to distinguish between our true needs and the superficial wants of marketeer's fantasies.
First published in WaveLength Magazine, June/July, 1999.