Flat Rate Camping

River of the month #54

author: Pat Reilly
date: November 2002

Before 1985, in what seems like another lifetime, I was a motorcycle mechanic. For the majority of this 13-year career, I worked what is called ‘flat-rate’. Similar to ‘piece work’ in a factory, flat-rate means that you get paid for your work output and not the actual time you put in. There are flat-rates established by the manufacturers for each task you may do. Say 2 hours for a tune up on model X or 4 hours for a valve job on model Y. The 2 or 4 hours is what you get paid no matter how long (or short) the time it actually takes to complete the task. It’s a very honest way to work.

My mechanic friends and I would carry this methodology over into everyday life as we made up flat-rates for mundane chores. You got 10 minutes to shower or 20 minutes to eat lunch. Any more time than that and you were ‘losing money’, so to speak. All in jest of course, but it did sort of help keep us from wasting time, just as working flat-rate kept you from wasting time on the job. The old adage ‘time is money’ never rang truer.

Anyone out there raising children knows that time is very precious. I’ve certainly come to realize it. So with time at a premium, the flat-rate way of thinking has crept back into my life and I find myself applying it to kayak camping of all things!

Here’s how it works. You’ve managed to negotiate (and justify) a 24-hour window of time away from your family and you’ve been wanting to get out camping in your boat. So there you have your parameters - your ‘flat-rate’ is 24 hours for a solo camping trip. Any more time than that and you’re in trouble with the ‘boss’. Can it be done? Sure! Just cut the waste.

To illustrate we’ll use a trip I took in February of 1999. My wife, Ruenkaew, was in her first few months of pregnancy at the time so 24 hours was all that I really wanted to take. I had Monday off for the President’s Day holiday and wanted to finish up the main stem of the Susquehanna and paddle the only remaining ‘virgin’ section – from Broad Creek to the mouth at Havre de Grace, Maryland, about 16 miles. Just for kicks I kept looking at my watch after each leg of the trip and kept a time line. Such fanatical logging will come in handy now.

1:40 Sunday afternoon - head out the door

3:30 - arrive Havre de Grace – Can’t do much about travel time. The flat-rate here is based on the speed limit, which is what I drive.

3:45 - leave Havre de Grace after locking up the bicycle at a marina - It took 15 minutes just to find a suitable place to stash the bike. But that’s to be expected when traveling into an unfamiliar place.

4:10 - arrive Broad Creek access

4:30 - launch – 20 minutes to load and launch. The flat-rate for this task should only be about 10 minutes. I’m working on speeding it up; you can expedite it at home by packing efficiently.

5:30 - arrive Coniwingo Dam – 1 hour in the boat, about 5 miles covered. Paddling above the dam is lake paddling and I had heavy following seas of about 2 feet. They gave me a nice push, but made me work to keep the boat straight.

6:08 - launch after portage – 38 minutes for a portage? Yeah, well, did you ever see huge steep bank you have to carry to get around this 101-foot behemoth! I had to make 2 trips, one for gear and one for the heavy plastic boat. Still, 38 minutes beats the recommended portage where you pull into the marina a mile above the dam, call the power company on a special number and wait for them to contact a hauling vendor to send a truck! No thank you.

6:30 - arrive at a camp island. Was lucky to find a good spot as I had to choose in the dark after the long carry. At least the paddling went quick (3 miles in 22 minutes) as they were generating power and releasing from the dam creating a nice pushy current.

12:00 - in bed after making camp and a fire, cooking dinner, exploring the island and relaxing. No flat-rate here, you take what time is left and hope it’s enough to relax and enjoy (it was).

6:00 - awaken

7:00 - launch – After breakfast and some running around on the island to get warm again. (The temp went down to 17 degrees)

9:00 - arrive Havre de Grace – 2 hours (10 miles) of very pleasurable paddling watching Susquehanna River evolve into Chesapeake Bay. Paddle out into the bay a bit.

9:15 - leave Havre de Grace – 15 minutes of turn around time was good. I’m surprised at how long this task can take. You have to dig the bike out, stash the boat (or vise versa), change clothes, rearrange gear, etc. I’ve established the flat-rate here at 20 minutes for winter and 15 for summer (less clothes and gear in summer).

11:00 - arrive back at the car – 1 hour, 45 minute bike ride traveling through Maryland’s Susquehanna State Park with nice scenery all around and a bright sun warming things up. Now I’m pleasantly bushed and ready for the car.

11:30 - back in Havre de Grace – pick up the boat and stop at the new paddling shop in town to browse.

12:00 - leave Havre de Grace – on the road home.

with a gas and snack stop (10 minutes flat-rate)

2:00 - arrive home – dang, 20 minutes late! If I just could’ve stayed out of that paddling shop I’d made it.

Now, you may question, ‘Is this any way to go camping?’ Well, it beats the alternative of not going at all. I get in some longer trips and will do more as my son grows and can come along. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying these 24-hour flat-rate camps. I like to shoot for 4 a year – winter, spring, summer and fall. In spite of all the rushing around there are always some relaxing and reflective moments, usually after dinner sitting by the fire or in the morning awaking with the birds.

I find the physical challenge of fast paddling and peddling rewarding – I managed 30 miles this past spring on the Monocacy in Maryland. And I would have made it home in the 24-hour window had not my car gotten impounded at the takeout. But that’s another story. Even when boating and biking at a high rate of speed there is still a lot to take in. After all it’s not like you’re in a motorboat or a car. Each and every trip will have its share of discoveries – an exceptionally big tree, a new bird for the life list, an old timer to swap stories with, a spectacular cliff or rock formation or unusual wildlife sighting. Even if only given a short opportunity, the important thing is to not take the easy excuse but to get out there and go camping!

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2002 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.