Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summertimes: the Horse Bag Challenge

When you’re on a canoe trip, and you’re not a strong paddler, and you can’t carry a canoe, and you can’t carry a pack, when you’re inconsistent carrying the paddles, when you’re sent into the woods to collect firewood and you come back and say you couldn’t find any, there’s not a lot available for you to help with.

Except for one task, the task assigned to people who are unable to perform any other task on a canoe trip. What task is that?

You go out on the lake and you fill the “horse bag” with water.

It’s the easiest job on a canoe trip.

That’s what everyone says.

My suspicion is that “everyone” has never tried it.

I have.

And it’s hard.

Very hard.

And dangerous.

Even if I were capable of performing other canoe trip chores, they – “they” meaning the “trippers” in charge of the canoe trip – would probably have sent me anyway. That’s because they traditionally send the complainers out to fill the “horse bags”, and I was definitely one of those.

A complainer with just cause. Is there any other kind? There’s a lot to complain about on canoe trips. For one thing, no matter where you set up your sleeping bag, you usually end up sleeping on a stick. Well, not a stick, exactly, but on the protruding root of a nearby tree, so, though it’s not technically a stick, it is wood, and it hurts when you sleep on it. That’s why you complain about it.

The reason they send the complainers out to fill the “horse bags” is because the task requires them to venture out to the middle of the lake. A long way from the campsite. So you can’t hear them complaining anymore.

“Horse bags” were called “horse bags” because that’s what they looked like. Extended, (in this case) army green, cylindrical canvas containers with a strap across the top, which, if you stuffed hay it one and lifted the strap over the horse’s ears, no one would say, “What’s he eating out of that for?” They’d know, because it looks exactly like a horse bag.
All right.

Two types of water were required on canoe trips, one type for cooking, and one type for drinking. If you were going to boil it over the fire, the water didn’t need to be that pure. You could just go to the edge, where the campsite met the lake, kneel down and scoop it into a pot, after extracting the dirt, debris and minnows.

Drinking water had to meet a higher standard. When the water was collected, a purifying Halazone tablet was dropped into it, after which you waited half an hour for anything in the water that could kill you to die. Unlike cooking water, drinking water was collected not at the water’s edge, but from the deeper part of the lake, further out, where it was assumed it was cleaner, since no forest animal had peed in it. And whatever the fish did in water, they did lower down.

This brings us to the “horse bagging” procedure itself. How so? The drinking water was collected in the “horse bag.”

“Horse bagging” is a two-person assignment. One person paddles the canoe to the middle of the lake, holding it steady, while the other person (who we’ll call “me”) scoops the water into the “horse bag.” It sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Not so fast.

First off, you need to know this. The canoe is an extremely tippy means of conveyance. It flips over easily. You do not want that to happen. Because then you’re in the lake.

Balance is essential. The paddler is of great assistance here. If the water collector leans, say, over the right side of the canoe, the paddler needs to lean very pronouncedly to the left. Not too far to the left; otherwise, the canoe will tip over on that side. It probably goes without saying, but when it comes to ending up in the lake, it makes little difference which side of the boat you fell out of.

We are now down to the nitty gritty. The part of the “horse bagging” procedure we call

“Getting the water.”

We’ll assume that the lake is relatively calm. A choppy lake considerably increases the difficulty. A turbulent lake, and you may never come back. Not being alarmist. Just setting the parameters.

His canoe floating at the water-collecting spot, the “horse bagger” reaches over the side of the canoe, and dips the “horse bag” into the lake. “Dips”, not drops; the “horse bag”, at least until it gets waterlogged, floats.

The “horse bagger” then skims the “horse bag” along the surface of the lake, filling the “horse bag” with water as he goes.

Now here’s the thing, the essential dilemma of the “horse bagging” procedure.
You want to fill the “horse bag” with just the right amount of water. You don’t want to bring a half-filled “horse bag” back to camp, even though it would be easier to lift into the boat. You don’t bring enough water, you’ll just have to go out and do it again.

On the other hand, if you fill the “horse bag” to the top, one, you can’t lift the thing. It’s too heavy. And two, even if by some miracle you could lift it, as you hoisted up the filled-to-the-brim “horse bag”, if you looked down around you, you would see water from the lake pouring into the canoe. Trust me. You do not want that.

Getting the precisely right amount of water into the “horse bag” requires a trial-and-error process, which goes something like this:

Too full? You spill some out. Spill out too much? You put some more in. You fill. You spill. You re-fill. You spill some back. Your objective is for your “horse bag” to contain exactly the right amount of water. What is “exactly the right amount”? Enough to service the needs of the canoe trip, but not so much that they have to send out another canoe to rescue you.

Breaking the natural sounds of birds and water animals, comes an unexpected, rather impatient sounding voice, emanating from the campsite:

“Come oooooooon iiiiiiiiin!”

Sure, they’re thirsty.

But you want to do it right.


MikeThe Blogger said...

LOL!!! Being one of Earl's "trippers" at camp let me enter a defense for the actions Earl clearly implied to be retribution or punishment. Perhaps the person who was sent out to gather the water (a most important resource) was picked for a very altruistic reason. By successfully accomplishing this simple but necessary task the camper could gain confidence by being proud of his being able to contribute, in a meaningful way, to the collective. Perhaps it was a learning exercise to see if the person would take a small pot or cup with them to "top off" the horse bag after it was scooped only half-full of water thereby not making it necessary to pull up out a very heavy bag full of water in a tippy canoe. Yes, those trippers were well-trained, intelligent, sympathetic people with only the desire to assist in the mental and psychological growth of the young campers in their care. ... But they did ensure complainers got the "root". ;-)

Joe said...

I'd rather ingest my own buttocks than go on a canoe trip.

A. Buck Short said...

What? You weren’t recruited for the snipe hunt?

Would y’all please come a little closer to the monitor; I’m not sure we want everybody to hear this. Earl, has anybody ever mentioned you sometimes tend to be a tad over-analytical? .... And yet your faithful Indian companion Sacajawea The Blogger still feels the need to explicate further. (Or was it just a rationalization?) God, I love this country --- and yours. Speaking of that, we have it on good authority that it was horse bagging that did in the Edmund Fitzgerald in ’75.

In a former life, my wife and I were senior staff members of a YMCA outdoor education center. This was a challenge, since, unlike her, I just don’t believe in even going outside. My thinking is that outside was first. If outside had been sufficient or even just adequate, there would have been no reason to invent inside. And even then, if you wanted to go back outside, it frequently still cost 50-cents to get back your coat. We learned a lot about human as well as actual nature – but never exactly how people became so alienated from their environment that they would actually pay us $200 a weekend just to come out and chop firewood.

In the woods, we built one of those Outward Bound style “ropes courses” of various climbing, balancing, and teamwork/trust-building challenges. Whenever anyone expressed reservation about belaying across, or zip-lining down from, a cable suspended between trees 20 feet in the air, my typical response was, “Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how many times I wet myself just trying to string that sucker up there?”

And yet, being water connoisseurs, we did appreciate your account of the vicissitudes of horse baggery. (In fact was are such connoisseurs that, to one-up the Obamas, we went out and bought a Portuguese Bottled Water Dog.)

Having once been lost in a fog for three hours while cross country skiing in the Laurentians, for our next Canadian outdoor adventure, we opted for a bare-bones simple camping trip through New Brunswick, ending up in what may be one of the most beautiful and relaxing places on earth – Cape Breton Island -- which I still have a hard time imagining how it became designated as an Island. In the former, we took in the “Amazing Tidal Bore,” one of the world’s most aptly named natural wonders – a perhaps two-inch wave of water that signals the reversal of the river’s flow exactly twice a day with the ocean tides. The real enjoyment was watching parents trying to convince their offspring that they had actually just witnessed this, rather than having to continue waiting around for this anticlimax another 4-5 hours.

I do remember only two other Camp Canada experiences. One was stopping our Toyota on the highway shoulder in the middle of an enormous provincial forest to let our small Shepherd-mix out to pee. Immediately, with not another car in sight, a huge RV with New York plates pulls up behind us, and requests we leash our dog so they could take their miniature poodle out to do its own bid’ness without fear of attack. This was in the middle of what had to have been 20 square miles of otherwise unoccupied wilderness. We did not stay to observe whether anyone cleaned up afterward.

We spent that evening with our pet under the most primitive of pup tents in a camping ground overrun by voles, to the dog’s delight. (Until you’ve tried, you have no idea how many grape/elephant type jokes a human can come up with involving a play on the word “vole.”) As dusk approaches, another huge RV pulls into the adjacent campsite, with its occupants sharing the observation, “Gosh we admire you young people ‘roughing’ it like that with just a simple tent and sleeping bags.” To which I reply, “What roughing? We’re just unbelievably ill-equipped. Want to trade?”

PS: So help me God, my WV is "spilyst."

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