The Lightweight Philosophy

Experiential Values in Lightweight Canoe and Kayak Travel

Skin-on-frame kayak and kayaker ready to hunt.

Traditional kayaker
Image from the National Maritime Museum, Reproduction ID: G4267, Maker: Captain Edward Augustus Inglefield, Date: 1854

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold argues cultural values make and feed a healthy culture. For outdoor sports, he outlines three types of experiential values that provide nutrition to the sporting culture. These values apply to the modern lightweight movement as well as they do to the hook-and-bullet sports he writes about. Awareness and practice of these values enhances our experiences while traveling light.

The three cultural values that Leopold defines are:

  • Experiences that remind of us of our distinctive origins and evolution. He calls this “split-rail” values presumably after split-rail fences that personify the American pioneer homestead and the frontier spirit.
  • Experiences that remind us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-human food chain — a human-earth dependency.
  • Experiences that show ethical restraint in the form of “sportsmanship.” Defined as the deliberate choice and use of skills over gear.

Leopold eloquently illustrates his points through examples applicable to the hook-and-bullet crowd. Perhaps the easiest way to describe his points in a wilderness travel context is through a campfire. Building a campfire provides a link to our “split-rail” origins by connecting us to all the pioneers who sat around a fire, to those who used it to heat their cabins, tepees, yurts and other homes before the modern convenience of furnaces. It also connects us to other wilderness travelers who went before us and sat around a campfire. The act of talking around a fire connects us to the storytelling traditions of the past. The warmth derived from the campfire shows us how we are dependent upon the earth for heat — in our modern houses, the propane truck removes us from the connection — because the warmth is derived from the burning of wood we gathered from the forest. His third value comes from our choice of fire starter. The choice of a match over a lighter, a flint and steel over a match, or a bow-drill over flint and steel helps us experience sportsmanship over the convenience of tools — even if we enjoy a fire lit by lighter the same as that lit by bow-drill.

The modern lightweight movement reflects Leopold’s “split-rail” value by connecting us directly to Leopold’s view of the American pioneer. He writes the “split-rail” value derives from two pioneer ideas: the “go-light” idea and the “one-bullet-one-buck” idea. He writes that these came about of necessity, because the pioneer lacked transportation and wealth. The American culture made a virtue of that necessity. That virtue later became sportsmanship reflecting the American traditions of self-reliance, hardihood and woodcraft. The basic tenets of the lightweight philosophy include all three traditions.

Among many other “split-rail” values that we can connect with include the histories of canoeing and kayaking. Luckily, in the U.S. and Canada, the governments preserved large patches of the traditional canoe country as wilderness or parks. By venturing into these areas with a canoe — a uniquely North American tool — we experience what native American cultures and fur traders felt while paddling. Generally, there was little personal gear to leave room for cargo on these trips — the Voyagers slept on the ground under their canoes. They traveled light. For kayaking, by learning about the traditional skin-on-frame designs of the arctic we can understand how our sport connects to that history. There’s deeper value in paddling a plastic tub on a river when you know the history that brought you that tub.

By choosing to travel lightly, we bring less gear with us and depend more on skills, which brings us closer to the earth. Leopold argued that outdoor recreation is valuable directly proportional to the experience’s intensity, and “to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life.” By traveling light, we leave behind the modern conveniences, like the propane truck in the campfire illustration, and replace those conveniences with our self-reliance, hardihood and woodcraft. We build stronger connections between the earth when fewer conveniences separate us from it. By becoming closer to the earth, we intensify our understanding of our earth dependency. For example, by using a tarp instead of a tent, we spend more time analyzing the ground and woods to find a place to pitch our tarp. This makes us realize — even if just subconsciously — that a good-nights-rest depends on the earth and our interpretation of it. Modern life is full of gadgets and gear. By leaving it home in favor of minimal, lightweight gear, we automatically build-in a contrast between the woods and our homes. This in turn helps us experience the human-earth dependency.

To practice sportsmanship, we make artificial restraints or choices in the weight and types of gear we bring into the woods. If we select gear that enhances our skills instead of gear that functions as substitutes for our skills, we practice our sport in a more sporting fashion. For example, using a map and compass instead of a GPS unit, enhances our navigation skills, because we can practice finding ranges, fixes and locating our position in relation to the shoreline. With a GPS, we don’t need to practice those skills, because a GPS shows us exactly where we are. When using a GPS our journey becomes less sporting.

When traveling light, we benefit by connecting to our “go-light” past; by living our earth dependency more deeply because fewer conveniences separate us from it; and by practicing sportsmanship when selecting tools that enhance our skills instead of substitute for them. These experiences will feed our lightweight paddling culture and help the sport grow as a result.

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