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Traveling light

I like the heft of the analog world, where real objects have weight, texture and patina, and where touch and feel have currency and value. A world where things are built to last and built to be fixed. The worn, taped handle on a surf rod; the pitch and roll of your boat as it shoulders the first wave in a rip; a good knot tied at midnight, wet with saliva, pulled tight, trimmed close but not too close, no chance of slipping.

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Too many hours in the office, and your soul longs for the physical world and all of its gouges, nicks and imperfections. Dirt under your fingernails, hands sore and chafed from handling rough fish, rivulets of blood trickling down your shins, sliced cleanly by a colony of white barnacles fastened to the face of a rock you hoisted yourself aboard (and were subsequently washed off) while wet wading — you didn’t feel a thing until something made you look down.

We are living in an age when technology is zooming past the old ways and old practices. Change has always been in the air, but these days the winds of transformation blow day and night. The digital breeze doesn’t go down with the sun.

The cybernated universe moves at breathtaking speed, but it’s not the rhythm of our stomping grounds. Too much of the virtual and not enough bumps, bruises and bug bites. We fish in a tactile world, one governed by moon, tides, weather, winds, migrations and chance.

In my sleep, I know the measure, weight and striking power of my 9-weight fly rod, my broom-handle-stiff surf pole, the black deceiver I fished the other night, the lovely half-ounce, hand-painted, home-poured lead head that Doug Gent gave me recently at the coffee shop before I disappeared into the fog for the night.

What does a tiny chip that holds a terabyte weigh? It’s easier than ever to lose your way. “The sailor cannot see the North,” Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter, “but knows the needle can.”

There’s an old adage that most lures are designed to catch the eye of the fisherman rather than the fish. The same could be said of the plethora of outdoor products described breathlessly as innovative, improved, one-of-a-kind and by a host of other platitudes, many of them meaningless, given their overuse and exaggeration.

Is that latest doodad really going to make you a better angler? In our watery world, we value stuff that is bulletproof and overbuilt. The good equipment today is better than what we all grew up with — but there are still impostors turning out stuff pretending to be something it’s not.

The last thing you want when you’re deep in the backcountry or 90 miles offshore is a piece of gear or a part to suddenly give up the ghost. There is integrity and truth to things that work properly, an unwavering quality and peace of mind that you can’t put a price on. On the water, functionality, durability and reliability are the most valuable coins of the realm. Can a piece of gear be too strong, too tough, too solid?

The subject was on my mind as I prepared for a trip to Alaska. I put together gear and clothing that is dry, warm, light, waterproof and durable and can fit into a couple of float bags.

In today’s gadget-laden world, traveling light is a lost art. By temperament and nature, I fall into the minimalist camp.

As Sisson noted in a previous Alaska experience, the most important part of fishing is really getting away.

It has been nearly 25 years since my wife and I spent two weeks living and fishing out of a double kayak on an unguided trip in Alaska. We had what we could carry and catch, and nothing more. We wore the cheapest Gore-Tex jackets and rain pants available at the time (they were all we could afford), first-gen fleece pullovers, polypropylene base layers, wind pants, wool hats and socks. No cotton. Navigation was via chart, topo maps and compass. There was no communication with the outside world. I had made arrangements for a commercial fishing boat to drop us and pick us up at a particular time. We were young, strong, self-reliant and self-contained — and we traveled light. There is no better feeling.

The “go-light” idea is hardly new. No less a figure than Aldo Leopold discussed it with passion in his seminal A Sand County Almanac, in which he chided the “gadgeteer” for having draped the American outdoorsman with an “infinity of contraptions” offered as aids to self-reliance and outdoor skills but too often “functioning as a substitute for them.”

“Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt,” he writes in a book first published in 1949. “Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage.”

The answer, he suggested, might be to use these so-called “mechanical aids” in moderation, but not be used by them. That remains good advice today. Travel light but pack things with substance, soundness and a whiff of the indestructible.

This article appeared in the April 2016 issue and was reprinted from Anglers Journal.


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