1. A FLAT SURFACE. Not really the first thing you may think of, but if you've spent enough time in a canoe, you know that the bottom is not flat and you probably don't have a place to safely set things like wine glasses or thermos bottles. Most canoes come with two or three seats (although serious boaters will remind you that you paddle kneeling, not sitting!), and nowhere else to place your spillables; so a lightweight cutting board or repurposed TV tray is a necessity.
2. LIGHTING. If you're going to do some stargazing, you'll want to throw in a red light (or a piece of red cellophane and a rubber band, if all you have is a regular flashlight; red light doesn't destroy your night vision, which can take up to 20 minutes to recover after turning on a flashlight or lantern!); otherwise, be sure to pack a flashlight or some other directional lighting. A lantern is great for ambiance and ease while you're eating, but you'll want some directional lighting (something you can shine at a particular place...like the dock you'll need to return to when you're finished!) as well. Better yet, place a battery operated lantern -- don't ever leave a propane lantern unattended -- at the edge of your dock before you leave. You may think the dock will be easy to find at night, but even old pros who have spent every summer of their lives on some particular lake leave a lantern out to guide them home.
Battery operated tealights are great for mood lighting inside the canoe, but leave the glass tealight holders at home; it's never a good idea to take glass in a lake where people swim or where fish live. Should you (heaven forbid!) tip...something that isn't especially difficult to do in a canoe, especially if you're inexperienced at moving around or changing positions...you don't want glass to end up in the lake. We put our wine in terrific Platypus bags, available through the link below this post, so we don't have to carry wine bottles into the water. If you're in need of an unbreakable alternative to wine glasses, check out the GSI glasses linked below, too.
3. LARGE LAP NAPKINS. Little disposable paper napkins won't cut it in a boat; one little splash from one nearby fish and your napkin is mush. Plus, remember - eating in a canoe is not like eating at a (not moving at all) table, so you'll want a nice, large cloth that covers your entire lap. Besides, using cloth napkins, tablecloths, and runners instantly turns even a boring meal into something more special, so why not pack the good stuff? If you don't have large napkins, a pair of pretty tea towels can work perfectly.
4. EXTRA UTENSILS. When I was very, very young, I used to love taking my little brother's crib bumper and using it as a "boat" in the middle of the living room floor. I'd fill it with books and toys and whatever food I could get my 6-year-old hands on, and try to just live in that little space as long as I possibly could. Weird child, I know. But I was fascinated by the process of thinking as far ahead as possible so that once inside, I would have thought of absolutely everything I could possibly want over the next two days, thus eliminating the need to get out of the "boat" and ruin the fantasy. I didn't usually last long...toilet and little brothers and all...but it was an intriguing exercise, the benefits of which have stuck with me to this day.
So...if you think you need two forks, take three. Take a small knife. Take an extra spoon. Take more than one garbage bag. Go through your menu at least three times in your head, and plan for serving utensils for everything. Bottle opener? Wine opener? If it was me, I'd pack two wine openers...priorities, you know. I'm a very experienced paddler, but I've dropped stuff in the lake -- even stuff I was being extremely careful to protect (I swear the bottom of our lake must look like a walkie-talkie burial ground). My husband, an expert sailor, dropped his marine radio into SF Bay a few years ago. Ouch. So if you think it's impossible to drop that fork over the edge of your canoe, think again.
Of course you could always go back for the odd little things you forget (or submerge). Maybe. And being an experienced backpacker, I've survived without many, many things that I wish I'd thought to bring before we set out on our trek. But it's ONE meal, in ONE boat, on ONE evening; you don't have to carry it on your back, and even for people like us (who tend to really overeat on special occasions like an evening canoe dinner), there is more than enough room in the canoe for two or three people and all the food and gear you could possibly need for one night on the lake. Take that extra spoon.
5. SMALL CONTAINERS. Even if you have large amounts of food, pack it in small containers. Separate salads and main courses into two or three portions rather than one large bowl or box. Why? You and your dining partner(s) will be spread out in the canoe -- that's the way canoes work. It's much easier to pass food if it isn't unwieldy or heavy or large. Sending one serving of chicken from one end of the canoe to the other is easy; sending the entire heavy roasted bird? Not so much.
6. PLASTIC BAGS OR DRY BAGS. If you're renting a canoe, it's possible that your rental facility has dry bags you may also rent for a very nominal fee. They're worth it. Dry bags are all different, but basically the idea is to a) keep everything inside completely dry, and b) float if you end up capsizing. If you don't have your own dry bags or cases, and if this is going to be your only canoe adventure (for the moment), a double layer of ziplocs will work in a pinch -- just blow some air into the outer bag, place your items in the inner bag (cell phone, camera, wine opener...) and seal both. It's also a good idea to pack a few extra ziploc bags or some other container for your dirty dishes and utensils. We've moved away from plastic as much as possible at this point, so if you've done the same, a canvas lunch bag works great for utensils and a canvas grocery sack is perfect for dirty dishes and linens.
7. FOOD. I figured we'd better discuss food at some point, because it's obviously the centerpiece of this entire outing...so make it special. In the coming weeks I'll have detailed menus posted on this site, but for now just think about the following when planning your meal:
- Post-meal refrigeration. If you're going to have leftovers, be sure you've planned for their refrigeration. Sometimes people (wisely) choose menu items based on what sort of refrigeration needs they have before the meal, but often they forget about what comes next. For example, if you cook or purchase your food right before getting in the canoe, you probably don't need to worry about refrigeration...but what if you plan to stay on the lake a couple hours? You'll need to plan for your post-meal refrigeration needs, too. If you intend to eat everything or throw away your sensitive leftovers (more on food safety...probably lots more...in the coming weeks!), then you won't have to worry about this. Otherwise, plan ahead.
- Liquids. If you're serving soup, be sure your eating vessels are much larger than the amount of soup you intend to ingest (splashing and moving with the current or wind, you know). For a canoe dinner, if you're really interested in a soup, make it a thick one rather than a very light or thin one...less chance of spilling or flying out of your bowl or cup when you go to swat at that mosquito.
- Single-handed foods. While you won't usually be paddling while enjoying dinner, it's still a good idea to limit the number of two-handed foods you pack. A two-handed food would be something like a bruschetta in a single container that must be then spread on each piece of baguette (two hands needed for that...why not pre-spread it and pack the toast slices that way?), or a steak that has to be cut with a knife (this is a two-handed-plus-one-lap-for-the-plate kind of food). You never know when you may need to grab the gunwale (that's the upper edge) of your canoe to steady yourself and your vessel, and if both your hands are busy, then you may end up with tomatoes and olives all over the belly of your canoe (didn't know you were going to get a lesson in boat terminology too, did you?). Or worse, your wine or dessert gets spilled over the edge. Wow. Not good.
- Salt levels. Remember, you're in the middle of the lake. You should never, never drink water straight from a lake or stream unless you know for a fact that it is safe (and actually, I wouldn't even do it then)...so depending on how much water you intend to tote, plan your salt level wisely. Lots of super-salty, thirst-inducing food isn't a great idea if you're stuck in a boat and you're out of water.
8. COMFORT. This means different things for different people. For me, it means a warm blanket and definitely, definitely seat cushions. For my husband, it means bug spray, and lots of it. Plan ahead and don't underestimate your body's ability to make you miserable at the most inopportune times. And why suffer? I used to be a member of the Suck It Up church, but no longer. There's no shame in an extra butt pillow, lap blanket, and pair of gloves. Amen.
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