In Praise of The Wanigan

by Earle Jones

In Praise of The WaniganEveryone has a first time for everything! Some things are memorable, others we would pay good money to forget, and body parts to make other people forget. When I invited my good friend, Tyler, on a 7-day canoe trip I soon realized that, in spite of his ample knowledge of the outdoors and interest in the latest high-tech backpacking and camping gear, he was about to enter the realm of tradition, hither-to unknown and, from what I knew of him, unconcerned. Tyler was about to be exposed to a first that would ultimately change his life. The Traditional Wanigan. "What the heck is that?" he chuckled, as he helped me sort out the equipment and go over the checklist. "My wanigan!" I snapped, "It's an Ojibway word. Loosely translated it means kitchen." "I can see why? Where's the sink? You mean people still use that dinosaur?" he razzed. My feelings were hurt but I answered anyway. "You'll never have to dig around in the bottom of a pack to find a jar of peanut butter or jam when you're on a trip with me," I said. "Yeah, but look at the size of it. Must weigh a ton, and how do you carry it? I don't see any shoulder straps. And what's this loop for. Don't tell me you carry it around your neck." I was tempted to say yes and watch him try, but this green horn was about to get a valuable lesson in the fine art of using a tump line.

I'll admit when I first built this traditional wooden wanigan or food box as it is often called, I had no idea how easy it would be to carry and of the efficiency with which it would protect my crushables and smellies on the trail. As far as size is concerned it is a mere 11 inchs wide by 15 inches long and only 15 inches deep with a removable inner shelf for cutlery and small items. It is the perfect size for a 2 week trip for two. I have yet to see an animal with the manual dexterity to open the lid even with the straps unfastened. Best of all, it is completely water-tight and even when fully packed it still floats in the event of an upset. Believe me, I know. My friends call me "Soggy" for a reason. "Makes a great seat on the trail and at the site. You can stop anywhere along your route and everything you need to make a gourmet meal is at hand; no packs to open and fish around in. Open the lid, take out the upper tray, replace the lid and everything you need to butter your bread, salt your food and stir your coffee is within easy reach and you don't have to disturb the one sitting on the lid," I'm sure I sounded like a salesman to him. "But it's so big! How can you possible carry it?" he asked. "Try lifting it by the combination locking device/handles," I said. "Surprisingly light," He said, "But I can't see myself carrying this along a mile portage by these handles. I like to keep my hands free." Then came the demonstration of the two ways of carrying this magnificent invention. "Put your pack on, stand with the tump line away from you and lift the wanigan over your head upside down placing it on the pack on your back right side up. Then put the tump line on your forehead. If the top of your pack is relatively flat you won't need your hands. If not, only a minimum amount of guidance on the tump line is needed to keep the wanigan on even keel," I instructed. "Amazing," he said as he effortlessly manoeuvred this seemingly immovable item to his back. "But what if you don't have a pack on your back?" he responded. "Well, just put the tump line on your head backwards with the wanigan resting on your bent knee. Then reversing your hand grips on the box swing it onto your back letting the tump line find your forehead on it's own. Use your hands to do any fine tuning after the load is evenly balanced on your back." I reassured him. Well, over the next seven days, I did not touch the wanigan during our many portages. "Here, allow me," He'd say smiling, and headed off down the trail with a canoe-pack and the wanigan piggy-backed smartly on top. I'll admit that by the 5th day I grew weary of his admiring the finer points of its construction and how well all the gear and food nestled inside. Finally, after he had thoroughly embarrassed himself and had no recourse but to bluntly ask me "How long would it take you to build me one of these?" he asked. "How much would it cost? You know I just can't believe that people don't use wanigans anymore."


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