“Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment.”
From Woodcraft and Camping by Nessmuk, a collection first published in 1920
The first portage is always the worst. You hoist your pack over your shoulders, swing your canoe above your head and attempt carrying your two paddles one in each hand as you balance precariously on rocks and logs to avoid stepping into the muck. Luckily, when your back on the water with all your gear loaded, you know you’ve passed the worst of it. The first portage is always the worst, you’ll think, and you’ll enter that into your journal later in the night. Well, that is until you get to the second portage and the third, forth, fifth”¦wait a second all the portages are the worst.
The modern canoeist often falls into this trap of continuing worst portages because they have lost touch with the simplicity of canoeing. But there is a better way that canoeist from the late 19th century and before can teach us. This type of canoeing is called Nessmuking. Many modern outdoor sports are discovering this philosophy again, for example, backpackers call this Ultra light. It is time again for canoeist to lead the way, and in this article the philosophy and history of Nessmuking will be discussed. A set of companion articles will explore the modern versions of gear we can use to achieve a simpler way of adventuring, and the core skills needed to pratice lightweight travel.
French Fur Traders and Native Americans
When the French started to explore the Americas, they realized that they needed a new craft to do so. While, France had been covered with roads, cities, and farmland, the Americas were wild. The Native Americans of the North tended to use waterways over well-made roads and canoes over horse drawn buggies and seeing these canoes the French were quick to realize what a genius invention they were. A canoe, they saw, could move quickly over the vast wilderness. It would carry a tremendous amount of cargo, which they needed to haul goods for trading, and it was easy to build and use. By adapting to the canoe, the French Voyageurs were able to penetrate further and faster into the vast wilderness of the Americas, than if they had built a network of roads like Europe had for trading. And they used the canoe to haul tons of fur ever year, which would be loaded into ships and sailed back to the homeland destined to become felt hats.
Still today this load hauling capacity that the French exploited has become synonymous with a good canoe. Often when shopping for a canoe, the future canoeist is lead to believe a canoe with a load bearing capacity of 1100 pounds is far better than one with a 950-pound capacity.
The Native Americans, of course, understood that their vehicles could haul much more than they ever needed to move, but they lived life with a slightly different philosophy. While trade was a way of life and the canoe could help in it, the canoe was seen as a quick moving vehicle for fast travel and for hunting. They would often leave their village or camp with nothing more than a sack of food, weapons for hunting, and clothing. Using these simple tools, they could survive and bring back to the village the weeks game.
As the Europeans continued to settle the Americas and as they built roads, cities, and farms, America began to take on the appearance of Europe. The canoe became less needed as a vehicle of trade and its elegant shape became hungered after by hoards of recreation seekers. Escaping from their high-pressure jobs in the new industrialized cities of the east coast, 1000s of businessmen and their wives entered the remaining wildernesses of Maine and the Adirondacks in the canoe. Not wanting to leave the comforts of home behind, because they believed that the modernization of stoves, houses, and even electric typewriters were better than sleeping under a canoe in just a plain cotton sheet, they used the canoe to bring loads and loads of gear into the woods. This continues today with Boundary Water Canoeist hauling 6 Duluth Packs full of tarps, tents, cots, fishing gear of all colors, and more in each canoe. Often, even for a single night in the woods you see 75-pound packs being carried across portages.
Who is this Nessmuk guy anyway?
Having seen this type of over packing in his day, Forest and Stream writer George Washington Sears revolted against it. He wrote about the simplicity of wilderness travel under the pen name of Nessmuk. The core of his philosophy drew on his understanding of the way Native Americans used their canoes, simply. He wrote in Woodcraft:
“¦There are hundreds of thousands of practical, useful men, many of them far from being rich; mechanics, artists, writers, merchants, clerks, business men – workers, so to speak – who sorely need and well deserve a season of rest and relaxation at least once a year. To these, and for these, I write.
Perhaps more than fifty years of devotion to “woodcraft” may enable me to give a few useful hints and suggestions to those whose dreams, during the close season of work, are of camp-life by flood, field and forest.
I have found that nearly all who have a real love of nature and out-of-door camp-life, spend a good deal of time and talk in planning future trips, or discussing the trips and pleasures gone by, but still dear to memory”¦.
Perhaps no two will exactly agree on the best ground for an outing, on the flies, rods, reels, guns, etc., or half a dozen other points that may be discussed. But one thing all admit. Each and every one has gone to his chosen ground with too much impedimenta, too much duffle; and nearly all have used boats at least twice as heavy as they need to have been. The temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp-kit has been too strong, and we have gone to the blessed woods, handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule. This is not how to do it.
Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment.
Nessmuk further proved that this was a viable method of traveling by spending more time and traveling further and having more fun catching bigger trout in hidden streams than anyone else at the time. He did this with a total weight being carried of 26 pounds – including the canoe!
A quick glance at his packing list shows us that even today with modern materials we can also achieve this simplicity.
Items Weight (ounces)
- Clothing (32): 2 wool shirts, 2 wool pants, 2 wool socks, Hat, Boots, Gaiters
- Sleeping Bag (80): Waterproofed cotton, 6 x 8 cloth
- Knapsack (12)
- Pouch (4): Sheath sewn in, 2 oz vial of fly medicine, Pain killers, 2 to 3 gang of hooks, Brass wire, Waterproof matches, String, Compass, Copper tacks
- Ditty-Bag (2.5): 4×6 leather, 12 hooks, 4-6 yard lines, Flies, 12 buttons, Sewing silk, Thread, Yarn, Sinkers, Salve, File, Wax, Sewing needles
- Dishes (10)
- Tin (2)
- Hunting Knife (3)
- Cotton Tarp (36)
- Canoe (160)
- 2 days of rations (64)
- Pocket-axe (10)
- Paddle (16)
Total: 429.5 ounces
Methodology of Lightnessology
After we see Nessmuk’s core list and add up the weights, we have a working list of gear. For most philosophies this is where you are left. With Nessmuking, the philosophy doesn’t start and end with the discussing of the merits of this and that gear. Before we go on, let’s look at some other philosophies of lightweight travel.
The Ultralight hiker movement began with Ray Jardine’s publication of the Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook in 1992. It didn’t gain momentum until the second edition of the book was published in 1996. In one of its first chapters, Jardine discuses The Pyramid of Hiking Style, an wordy explanation of the philosophy that weight on your back slows you down, so carry less weight and you will be able to hike faster and further everyday with the same amount of energy. Although, early detractors poked holes in his theories, he came back to answer their thrusts in Beyond Backpacking, a rather odd read full of strange tangents. The modern Ultralight Backpacking movement has disintegrated into the constant discussing of gear weights and gram counting instead of understanding what could be the core of their beliefs. If only they could understand the core of Nessmuking.
Canoeing is much closer to hiking when gear needs are considered (because weight on the portages is paramount), than canoeing is to kayaking, so lightweight kayaking may seem a little alien to most hikers and canoeist, but with the momentum of Ultralight backpacking influencing every gear manufacturer, kayakers were quick to jump on board. Its philosophy assumes an experienced kayaker who wants to fine-tune their cargo. In order of importance, lightweight kayaking’s key beliefs are that all the gear you use should fulfill the following factors: Space, Versatility, Reliability, Convenience, and Weight. So, if you subscribe to this philosophy, the size of an item comes before versatility and weight comes after convenience. While a found philosophy for kayaking, it concentrates on the packing needs only. If only they could understand the core of Nessmuking.
Credit Card Biking
The ultimate of simple travel: a bike, a rider, raingear, three bottles of water, and a credit card. Many cyclists have traveled across the entire United States of America with just these items. Every night they pull into a hotel and sleep in a bed, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in restaurants, and smell clean after they shower everyday. This belief in simplicity is so far from simple, it is worse than the canoeist who hauls in six 75-pound Duluth Packs for a three-day weekend. If they could just see what Nessmukers see, they would be enlightened.
Stripping to the Core
What Nessmukers see and what is often overlooked is simple. Simplicity starts with simplicity. Or you get the simplest when you strip away all the gear. When this is finished the only thing that is left is the person, and without gear that person only can rely on himself. This is the core belief of Nessmuking: If you can rely on yourself, you can pass lighter and more simply with less and lighter gear. This is what the Indians knew. This is what Nessmuk knew, and this is what Ultralight travelers must relearn in order to pass comfortably in health and with enjoyment.
In order to become self-reliant in the wilderness any traveler must become proficient in many skills not talked about often. Most practitioners of lightweight travel make an assumption that new recruits know these skills or have the ability to figure them out on their own. In this age of instant gratification an average person with no experience can walk into the local big box store and leave with the lightest canoe, portage pack, sleeping bag, stove, and clothing system that there ever has been, but without the essential skills of Nessmuking these future canoeist will be lost in the woods.
These skills follow:
- Risk Assessment and Stress Management
- Shelter Construction
- Fire Starting in All Conditions
- Map Reading and Navigation
- First Aid
- Self Trust, Self Belief and Self Will
- Critical Thinking and Flexibility of Thought
- Safe Terrain Negotiation
These are the core 8 skills of Nessmuking, and will be covered individually in companion articles. After mastery of these skills lighter weight gear and less gear to provide a safety net becomes possible. And after you master these essential 8, you will see that the slick advertisements and the newest handy gizmos only add to the weight of your portage pack. Simplicity dictates only taking what is needed and nothing more. Nessmuking is simplicity.
The Last Portage Is as Easy as the First
Whether you become a practitioner of Nessmuking, Lightweight Kayaking, Ultralight Hiking, or Bike Touring doesn’t mater as long as you take the time to learn the 8 core principles. Once you have these down, you will be able to survive with the simplest gear. Every portage will be easy, you will make the right choices, stay on the right path, enjoy yourself, and never get forced into one thought path. At night, when you’re under your shelter you will be able to look at the flicker flames of the fire you started after three days of rain. And if someone gets hurt, you will know just what to do. Remember, simplicity starts with simplicity, but sometimes simplicity isn’t simple at all.