Paddling through inland waters in southern Sweden, the contrast between the two canoes was not apparent from a distance. In portages and in camp, the differences were obvious. Ours was a rather heavy modern design (it felt heavy when we had to carry it) whilst our guide’s was a light birch bark model, crafted with his own hands.
Even allowing for the gulf between us in abilities and experience, Preben’s economical paddle strokes sent him skimming over the water whilst we wallowed behind, capsize imminent. In camp, the contrast was, if anything, even greater.
We had struggled at portages and ferrying everything to our island pitch above the river after tying up turned into a farce. Preben slung a modest-sized rucksack on his back, hoisted his canoe onto his shoulders and moved effortlessly from the water’s edge. That day and the evening that followed was a masterclass in how to enjoy canoe camping.
It took only a few minutes for us to pitch our lightweight two-person tent. In that time, our companion had set up a tarp, lit a small wood fire and had a brew on the go. With plenty of space in our canoe, we had packed quickly and badly. Had we capsized, much of it would have been lost.
As we got our petrol stove started and pulled together a two course freeze-dried meal, we envied the mug of tea our friend was enjoying. With a real fire, he had water boiling and a frypan handy; we could heat only one pot at a time.
Soon, that frypan held sizzling reindeer steaks with a few parboiled potato slices lining the edges and frying slowly. Happily, he shared. With his canoe lying on its side and the tarp running over it to form a decent canopy, he would be snug, dry and comfortable whatever happened with the weather.
He used a modern sleep mat and sleeping bag. Had he whittled them from a fallen branch, we would have been crushed.
With the light fading, we all moved along the high bank to watch a beaver for a while. On top of the elk and calf seen earlier, it rounded off a superb day. Biting mossies drove us back to the pitch where the contrast in styles became even more obvious. Without Preben, we would have been zipped up in our tent.
He stirred life into embers, adding fallen leaves and green twigs to give off the smoke of a ‘smudge’ fire. With the smoke drifting around us, the insect attack eased and we talked on into the night, pausing to sup tea and munch fresh pancakes. Later, as we settled down in our sleeping bags, my friend noted, ‘Well, that’s the way to do it then.’
So it was for him in Scandinavia and probably North America. Not quite so easy in the UK but several lessons were easily learned and applied. Key was packing properly and not thinking that we could load up the canoe without penalty.
Rucksacks and sea kayaks have obvious capacity limitations. An open Canadian canoe can swallow tons of kit. As with bikepacking, travel light.