Kesselheim shares wilderness paddling insight

Most good lessons in the outdoors are learned in the field through experience.

However, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself for adventures by reading up on your desired activity. One of the best outdoor handbooks I’ve come across recently is “The Wilderness Paddler’s Handbook” by Alan S. Kesselheim.

Published in 2001, this book is by no means a new release. However, I still find it very relevant and a pleasure to read. Kesselheim is an accomplished paddler who has embarked on at least one paddling trip of more than a year. He is the author of numerous paddling related books, including “Water and Sky: Reflections of a Northern Year” and “Threading the Currents, A Paddler’s Passion for Water.” He is also currently an editor-at-large for Canoe and Kayak Magazine.

Upon picking up “The Wilderness Paddler’s Handbook,” I was skeptical. I find most handbooks are boring reads that I wind up struggling to get through. However, I quickly noticed that this book was different. Kesselheim draws readers into the handbook using interesting, sometimes humorous and sometimes serious anecdotes.

An example is chapter nine: “Open water hazards.” In this section, Hesselheim explains the issues regarding open water paddles by describing an episode he had on Kamilikuak Lake in the Northwest Territories.

Kamilikuak Lake is “an out-of-the-way place in an out-of-the-way quadrant of the globe, where we have been windbound for a day and a half,” Kesselheim writes. “Our canoes are like colorful beached whales at the margin between rock shore and tundra moss. A dazzling chunk of shorefast ice is visible on a distant island, even at the end of July. Waves have been crashing in, hour after hour, a maddening percussion section played by the wind.”

After entering the water on a canoe, he writes that “around a point we have one of those ‘one mile across or six miles around’ decisions to make. Through the fog, a mile away, lies the far side of a deep bay. To cut across the waves saves us two hours of travel time. It’s calm, but we might as well be blindfolded. If we wander off course, we could paddle blithely into the middle of this big, cold lake.”

The group, which consists of two canoes, does decide to cross the big open bay of frigid water, using a map and compass to keep them on track. Ultimately, they make a tense but successful crossing. The description gives the reader a true feel of their adventure. One senses that a small mistake in the big waves could have dire consequences.

“Weather is a compelling factor on any outdoor journey,” Hesselheim writes. “In paddling boats across open water, weather is arguably the only significant factor. In thousands of paddling miles it has invariably been the stretches of open water that have proved my greatest obstacles and have served up the most vivid moments of danger. Moving water has its own set of challenges, some of them daunting enough, but when things go awry on a big watery expanse, it opens up the pores of fear like nothing else.”

The book itself is broken into six parts: “From idea to put-in,” “On the water,” “Nomad skills,” “Outfitting,” “Families and canoes” and “Expedition destinations.” Each part, other than the last one, consists of numerous chapters.

The good part about the book is that the stories each stand on their own. So you can pick it up at your own leisure, skipping chapters or reading from start to finish.

For anyone interested in canoeing, whether you are a novice daytripper or experienced expedition paddler, I highly recommend this book. Copies of it can be found on the Internet.