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My walking stick is my pal

by Darrell Hookey


    Our mind's eye sees a walking stick in the hand of a happy hiker as they whistle through a picturesque landscape.
    But few people would consider buying a walking stick, or scouring the forest floor for one, without the prompting of a twisted ankle.
    That's a shame. Nature walks are to be enjoyed by all the senses. And there is nothing like a wooden walking stick to send gentle signals from the ground to the finger tips. Sometimes the wump of a stick hitting the ground, tapping out a cadence, is the only sound you will hear.
Mario Villeneuve with his diamond willow walking stick alongside the Yukon River     This tempo announces to the forest the purpose of your walk. Digging in every step, stick in the right hand at a backward angle as the right foot hits the ground, is a workout.
    Yet a stick tossed forward, slipping in the fingers a couple of centimetres as the opposite foot hits the ground only every other time, is a pleasant stroll.
    A close look at the art of walking with a stick finds references in the earliest of writings ... the earliest of cave drawings even.
    Today, walking sticks have gone high-tech as extreme hikers wring every advantage out of their equipment. And the technique of walking with a stick is the subject of chat rooms and letters to the editor of walking magazines. The tasks that can be performed with a walking stick grow in number as more people discover, and appreciate, this age-old tool.
    It will become even more popular as the "Boomers" hobble from the more strenuous sports and take up hiking as a way to keep active. Even if they only want a walking stick to chase away the neighborhood dogs or to help with stretching exercises, they will find it adds pleasure to a pleasurable pastime.
    But despite its new popularity, we still can't decide what to call it and how tall it should be.

* * * * *

    Lord Baden Powell called his walking stick a "staff" and determined it should reach a Scout's nose.
    This revered builder of men never felt a Scout was properly turned out without his staff at his side with carvings on it representing his achievements becoming "a record as well as a treasured companion".
    Illustrating his own scouting handbooks, BP (as he was affectionately called) often showed a staff in the hands of his future leaders.
    BP was well-acquainted with the practical uses of a staff from his British army days fighting in Africa.
    His writings tell Scouts their staffs are useful for "making a stretcher, keeping back a crowd, jumping over a ditch, testing the depth of a river, keeping in touch with the rest of your patrol in the dark" and many other feats.

* * * * *

    Standing on the sales floor of Coast Mountain Sports you can see walking sticks are big business.
    A display stand holds 15 different models to choose from ranging in price from $70 to $200.
    But they don't call them "walking sticks" here. Instead, they are called "hiking poles". And they are adjusted to be gripped with the elbow at a 90 degree angle.
    And these hiking poles come in pairs for even more support. "Animals walk with four legs," explains the salesman.
    David Gendron demonstrates: Placing his left foot out front, it is joined by the pole on the right. The leg remaining in the rear completes the tripod with obvious support all around for the hiker.
    But do not try to memorize the technique of walking with two poles, he warns. There will be poles and legs flopping everywhere as you will actually forget how to walk. Just start walking and don't think about it and you will do fine.
    It is worth the effort and the price. Hiking poles take 30 percent of the weight off the backs of hikers. Over an eight-hour hike, that means 250 tons of stress has been removed from the knees and lower back.
    For those obsessed with ultra-light backpacking (you can actually buy hollow-handled tooth brushes), or for those who aren't in the best physical condition, the idea of feeling only 14 kilograms of that 20-kilogram backpack is enticing.
    Gendron points out one other advantage to hiking with two poles: It gets both arms moving along with the legs for a better cardio-vascular and upper body workout. Besides, he asks, "why have two hunks of meat hanging around doing nothing on a hike?"
    But not many people come into Coast Mountain Sports looking for hiking poles. Gendron calls it "add-on" sales. After showing a customer hiking boots or a backpack, he asks "Do you use hiking poles?" If the answer is "no", he will point out all of the reasons he will never hike without them.
    Gendron sells a lot of hiking poles.
    The list of features of a particular model borders on the ridiculous ... until you look at the reason behind each bell and each whistle.
    Many of the models of hiking poles have shock absorbers to reduce stress on the wrist and elbow. They have irregular tips for a sure grip on rock and ice and are made of carbide (the metal used for drill bits). And yet they are designed to break in order to protect the more expensive tempered aluminum alloy shaft.
    To keep this from happening too often, many have "baskets", which are like skirts mounted just above the tip to prevent the pole slipping between cracks in the terrain.
    Some grips are made of cork for sweaty hands and some are angled for a more natural and comfortable fit. And straps allow the hiker to let go at any time when their hands are needed for some other task.
    One feature the serious hiker can't do without is the adjustable height. The hiking poles can be shortened for climbing up hills, lengthened for going down and one of each for traversing a hill keeping the hiker walking straight.
    The other bells and whistles you can include with your poles are bells (to keep bears away) and whistles (to communicate with your hiking partners).
    Mario Villeneuve calls his walking stick the "Diamond Willow". And it isn't the type of wood that makes it special ... it's the story behind it.
    He and his partner had left Ottawa to move to Whitehorse. They decided to take nothing but back roads and to hike and canoe at every opportunity. He first saw a Diamond Willow walking stick in Saskatchewan and was impressed with its blond appearance and dark diamond-shaped flaws.
    Villeneuve found these sticks again in Fort Smith, NWT. The campground keeper was a carver and he had a stack of them in the corner for sale. But instead of trying to sell him one, he sent him to a nearby lake to find his own.
    After two days of looking, he was unable to find the tree. Diamond Willows look just like any other willow with its bark on.
    As he was leaving, the campground keeper gave him a freshly de-barked Diamond Willow stick. Once he was settled in Whitehorse, he sanded it down and applied marine varnish. A wrist strap at the top and a tin can to protect the tip finished the job.
   "It's beautiful", he says today. "And it's not just that it looks nice ... there's something else."
    He figures it is special because it shared his journey to the Yukon. It can't be replaced.
    But if he had to, he could always buy a Diamond Willow with the bark still on it at the Carcross Barracks. They sell for $10 each and are brought in twice a year by two trappers.
    Villeneuve only uses the Diamond Willow for easy, Sunday walks to keep it from getting too worn. As a free-lance photographer, however, he has another "working" stick.
    It is made by Trax and is collapsible so he can throw it into his luggage. The best part is the mount on top for his camera when a mono-pod is needed to keep his camera still.
    Spending weeks at a time in the bush taking photographs, he finds the stick helps with uneven ground and makes his pack seem lighter.
    An older cousin introduced him to walking sticks when he was 7 or 8. They used them when playing in the woods and would pole vault over streams.
    Up until 10 years ago, he would just find a stick during his hike. But they would break or wouldn't feel right. Besides, above the tree line of a mountain there are none to find.
    So, Villeneuve added the single Trax pole to his equipment. He decided against a pair of poles because he finds when he falls his first instinct is to grab tighter to whatever he is holding. Instead, he wants one arm free to break his fall.

* * * * *

Grant Lowey with his walking stick in a Yukon forest     Hiking is all business for Grant Lowey, Phd, MSc, BSc.
    As the placer geologist for the Yukon Government, he spends six weeks a year in the bush researching the origin of placer gold deposits and compiling the geoscience data.
    Not all of the interesting sites are near a road. Many placer deposits are in valleys and glacial deposits are in the mountains.
    The official name of his walking stick is a "Jacob's Staff". The informal name in geological circles is a "Pogo Stick". It is first and foremost a tool. But it is a tool to which he has become very attached. Changing camps in a hurry, he has had to dispatch helicopters to retrieve it when it is accidentally left behind. [click on the photo of Grant to enlarge it]
    The primary function of the Jacob's Staff is to measure geological formations. It is exactly 1.5 meters long with the bottom half meter marked off in tenths of a meter with a wood burning kit. The next measurement is at one meter. A shaft of a pen is taped to the top so that he can judge through the peep hole when the stick is parallel with the formation he is measuring.
    At the bottom of the staff is a tin can to protect the bottom and to make a loud noise when he is tapping along to scare away bears.
    He bought the stick at Beaver Lumber 10 years ago. It was just a 1.25-inch dowel, waiting for some mundane construction job, until he etched the measurements in and varnished it twice. It looks beaten up today, but he would only replace it when he loses it.
    Lowey prefers wood to metal because it is warmer to hold. At night in the base camp, he can wedge it high between two branches and use it to do chin-ups to help his arms catch up with the exercise his legs had received all day.
    It is useful during a break in a hike as he sticks it into the ground at a low angle and then leans his backpack up against it as he sits for a rest. It has also been used to measure the depth of rivers before he crosses and even as a tent pole.
    It is most useful when going downhill. He drags it behind allowing him to lean back and dig into the ground.
    Sometimes, however, Lowey has to climb down a cliff that requires he have both hands available to grab onto cracks and ledges. He has had to let it drop only to have it roll and tumble a lot further than he wanted.
    It feels odd to walk through the bush without his staff. He feels like an ex-smoker who doesn't know what to do with his hands. He keeps it at home and uses it for his recreational hiking as well.
    Daydreaming sometimes leads to ideas on improvements for his Jacob's Staff. Perhaps a hook at the end to catch a tree trunk as he struggles up a hill, or attaching one of his tools to it.
    The helicopter pilots he works with would probably prefer he design a staff that is retractable. They hate seeing anyone approach their helicopters with long sticks because they might be absent-mindedly flung over a shoulder and into the rotors.
    Okay, so not everyone is sold on walking sticks.