The Measures of Success
I remember many things of my first trip to the Northern lakes of the Minnesota Boundary Waters. During that trip, I canoed dozens of the purported 10,000 pristine lakes that stretch ever deeper into the Northwoods wilderness. Each day I awoke beside some beautiful lake, got into my canoe, and paddled to the far shore. Upon reaching that far shore, I generally found a small footpath called a portage that allowed me to carry my canoe and equipment on to the next lake. On a good day with pleasant weather, it was not uncommon to paddle three or four good sized lakes while hiking as many portage trails along the way. This type of rustic travel allowed me to see wild areas that are very nearly untouched and unchanged by humans — these are woods in which humans are merely a visitor. So much of what I encountered there was remarkable: wild black bear perusing berry bushes on the edge of a thicket, cold streams so choked with Walleye and Pike that often I reeled in two at a time on the same lure, and the spooky yips, yaps, and yowls of wolves that ran in packs on their nightly hunts. Most memorable of all, however, was the non-metric measurement unit of rods that was used to measure the distances of portages. A rod is an Imperial unit, left to the Canadians by England, that has become a tradition within the lakes of the Northwoods. When I began my trip, I had never heard of such a thing — and because it seemed at the same time exotic and Britannic — I became instantly enamored.
I should point out that a rod is actually not all that esoteric — just remember that the length of a rod is approximately the same as a perch, and that there are four rods to a chain, and that ten chains equal a furlong. However, if you must be precise about it, go to your shed and measure the length of your ox goad (the eight oxen variety, of course), for it is very nearly the exact length as a rod.
Since that first memorable trip to the Northwoods, I have taken many more, sometimes by dogsled, sometimes canoe. And ever since that trip, I have sought out and collected more non-metric units of measurement. I do this, I suppose, because the metric system seems so sterile, it lacks history and context, and worst of all it has been levied involuntarily upon people who were otherwise getting along just fine. Finally, I find metric measurement to be contrived, and a gentleman could never be that.
If you wish to join me in my non-metric rebellion, I offer you the following list of non-metric units of measurements. It is not my complete collection, mind you, but it is enough to get started. Furthermore, if you have some non-metric units of measurements to contribute, I invite you to post them in the comment section beneath this submission.
- An acre is the amount of land tillable by one man behind one ox in one day. Traditional acres were long and narrow due to the difficulty in turning the plow.
- An oxgang is the amount of land tillable by one ox in a plowing season. This could vary from village to village but was typically around 15 acres.
- A virgate is the amount of land tillable by two oxen in a plowing season.
- A carucate is the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a plowing season. This was equal to 8 oxgangs or 4 virgates.
- The smoot is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot, a fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 lay on the Harvard Bridge (between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts) to measure it.
- The fathom is based on the distance between the fingertips of a man’s outstretched arms, its size has varied slightly depending on whether it was defined as a thousandth of an (Admiralty) nautical mile or as a multiple of the imperial yard. Formerly, the term was used for any of several units of length varying around 5 and 5½ feet.
- The hand is a measurement of length, now used only for the measurement of the height of horses in some English-speaking countries, including Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA. With origins in ancient Egypt, it was originally based on the breadth of a human hand. It is today equal to four inches. It may be abbreviated to “h” or the plural “hh.” Although measurements between whole hands are usually expressed in what appears to be decimal format, the subdivision of the hand is not decimal but is in base 4, that is, subdivisions after the radix point are in quarters.
By the end of this article I estimate that I have consumed many Imperial gills of Cabernet, and so I must now put this entire matter to rest. Besides, I have nearly twelve smoots to travel before bed.
* * * * *
For further reading on paddling the lakes of the Northwoods, I recommend the following book that tells the story of French Canadian explorers who, many of years ago, paddled these lakes for joy and livelihood :: The Voyageur by Grace Lee Nute