The Low-Octane Alternative
Twenty-One Ways to Get Away From It All
Thinking about getting away from it all this summer? For most of us, this means driving hundreds of miles or queueing up at an airport to be e‑frisked by the TSA. But for a happy few, getting away from it all means staying close to home. Does this sound boring? It doesn’t have to be, and Tamia has 21 (count them!) different ways to get away from it all without going far from home—and to have a mighty good time in the process.
by Tamia Nelson | May 1, 2018
If you live in Canoe Country, you don’t need to hear the call of the cuckoo to know that “sumer is icumen in.” You don’t even have to look out the window. You can’t miss the torrent of advertorial copy that’s sure to appear in your in-box and on your display just about the time that your tax refund arrives. This will surprise no one, I suppose, accustomed as we are now to seeing colorful images of meticulously turned-out, perpetually smiling folks oohing and aahing while splashing around on pristine waters half a world away. And sure enough, like as not, many of us will soon be queuing up to catch a flight to a waterway selected from some wily marketer’s list of 21 (or is it 210?) must-see-before-you-die destinations.
There are downsides to this, however. And while I don’t fancy the role of killjoy, I’m duty-bound to point out that thousands—make that millions—of other canoeists and kayakers have likely received the same enticing come-ons. In other words, your chosen Shangri‑La may not be quite the untrammeled wilderness that the color photos and video clips have led you to believe. Yes, ours is a big world and much of it is water, but there are nearly eight billion of us in the global airport queue today. That’s four times as many people as were living in 1927, when R. M. Patterson was putting the South Nahanni on the map and no one had heard of frequent-flier miles. So unless you’re in the tax(less) bracket that makes buying private islands possible, solitude is an increasingly hard commodity to come by. And as for the sense of achievement that comes from going a journey of your own devising? That can’t be had at any price.
But be of good cheer. There is an alternative to throwing in your lot with the madding crowd. In fact, there are at least 21 alternatives. I’ll list them below. I’ll have more to say about some of them in future articles, too. But first things first. Here’s the list:
1. Get to know your neighborhood. Many of us know more about rivers, lakes, and seacoasts hundreds or even thousands of miles from our homes than we do about the stream that runs alongside the road we drive on to go to work every day. The remedy? Plan a short trip to a nearby waterway and start getting to know the neighborhood. You may be surprised. Shangri‑La might be closer than you think.
2. Go against the flow. Almost everybody goes with the flow, I know, but you don’t have to. On your next trip, emulate the gamefish and point your bow upriver. You’ll work harder, but you’ll see more. And everyone you meet on the water will be going the other way.
3. Master the arts of traditional navigation. Men and women were exploring and mapping the world’s remotest corners long before they had satellites to help them. You can, too. Pull your compass out of the bottom drawer where you shoved it, grab a topographic map of someplace near your home, and start learning what every Boy Scout used to know. And when that gets too easy, buy or make a sextant and practice the skills that were drummed into the heads of 13-year-old midshipmen back in the days of wooden ships. Then, when we go to war with … well, whoever’s next on our list, really … and the civilian GPS network goes dark for “reasons of national security,” you’ll still be able to find your way home after a weekend on the water.
5. Hoist a sail. There’s more to canoeing and kayaking than paddling. Much more. On the rare occasions when the “Old Woman” favored the voyageurs with a following wind, they made the most of it, stepping a mast and unfurling the square sails stowed in their big canoes. And the first recreational canoeists, “Rob Roy” MacGregor and Baden–Powell’s brother among them, hoisted sail whenever they got the chance. Of course, that was a long time ago. When did you last see a canoe or kayak under sail? I thought so. But you can do something about it. Learn to sail. Discover the satisfaction that comes from letting the wind do the work for a change.
6. Build something. Plastic is not fantastic. Our plastic boats—not to mention our plastic clothes—are contributing to the slow death of the world’s waters. There’s no quick fix, I’m afraid, but when you next decide that it’s time for a new boat, and you don’t fancy adding a “tin tank” to your fleet, consider building a wooden boat, instead. And if this is a bigger job than you care to tackle? Then start small. Carve a paddle or portage yoke, or build custom seats for your canoe. Take it from me: “I bought this” rings mighty hollow when compared with “I built this.”
7. Boat, bike, boot: pick any two. Better yet, pick all three. Paddlers paddle. Hillwalkers walk. Cyclists cycle. But these aren’t mutually exclusive worlds. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to mix and match? If not, now is the time to embrace amphibious trekking.
8. Become a master baker. Freshly baked bread, pizza, cookies, brownies, cobblers, pies… All of these are welcome treats after a day on the water, but few canoeists and kayakers take the time to master the art of camp baking. Why not add your name to this select list today?
9. Evangelize. “Rob Roy” MacGregor stuffed religious tracts in every unused corner of his canoe and handed one to anybody who’d take it. I’m not talking religion here, though. I’m talking canoeing. My father was a city boy, born and bred, and he couldn’t fathom my love of wild places. Maybe if I’d invited him to come with me for a day on a local river, he’d have understood how I felt. He might even have become a canoeist himself. But I never extended the invitation, and now it’s too late. A cautionary word, for safety’s sake: Beginners, whatever their age, don’t belong on cold, fast-moving water. Make sure their first day in a canoe is a day to remember—for all the right reasons.
10. Write on! What Colin Fletcher called the “emulsion of memory” fades as the years go by, and photos of trips tell only half the story. The remedy? Follow in the wakes of early explorers and keep a journal, whether you’re going out for a weekend or a week. Someday you’ll be mighty glad you did.
11. Sharpen your eye and discipline your hand. Digital cameras are effortless, and they make it easy to take good pictures. But you’ll see more—much more—if you record whatever catches your eye in the old-fashioned way, with pencil, pen, or brush. Sketches liven up a journal, too.
12. Become acquainted with the night. A lot goes on in Canoe Country after the sun goes down, so stay up late (or get up early) now and then. You’ll glimpse a secret world undreamt of by folks who enwomb themselves in a tent from dusk to dawn. And keep your camera within reach. There are opportunities for the venturesome photographer on all but the darkest nights.
13. Go green. But hurry. Little time remains. We’re doing our best to fell the last wild forests. Until the day comes when all of Canoe Country resembles the “sheepwrecked” Lake District National Park, however, there’s something to be said for knowing what you’re looking at. Can you identify a tree from its silhouette? Do you know one mushroom from another? Can you tell a trillium from a triffid? No? Then get a couple of field guides and start educating your eye. While you still can.
14. Study the signs. Trees hold still. Mostly. Animals don’t. Mostly. Which means that you have to catch wild animals on the fly, so to speak. Unless you can read sign, that is. But if you can, you’ll be able to tell a lot about their comings and goings long after they’ve come and gone. Get a field guide to animal tracks. Keep notes. Open your eyes to the lives of your unseen hosts.
15. Look below the surface. The water’s surface, that is. There’s a lot more to pond life than fish. Turn over a few stones and see what you can see. A field guide to water insects will help you with the naming of things. So will a hand lens.
16. Look deeper. The hills, lakes, and streams of Canoe Country didn’t just happen. They were shaped by the interplay of rock, wind, water, and ice over millions upon millions of years. But you can look beneath the surface to see the landscape as it was. It’s yet another secret world, but it’s open to anyone willing to do a little reading—and a lot of looking.
17. Get to know those who came before you. Long before wild rivers were resources to be dammed or destinations to be advertised on tourism sites, they served as highways and larders. And their human history, like their geological history, is an open book—but only to those paddlers who learn to read it. Are you one?
18. Turn you eyes skyward. There’s a drama playing out every day in the skies, a drama more gripping than any television miniseries. Want a box seat at every performance? Then learn the language of the clouds. Once you do, you’ll find that the ghosts of Weather Past and Weather Present are always looking over your shoulder, and with just a little practice, you’ll also glimpse portents of Weather Yet to Come. This can prove mighty useful.
19. And then drop your gaze back to earth. It’s no secret that we’re doing a pretty good job of fouling the water that we and other living things depend on. Raw sewage, acid rain, agricultural runoff, mine waste, plastic… The list is as long as it is familiar. And we’re pretty good at ignoring the implications, too. But is it really the case that our studied ignorance is bliss? I don’t think so. Which is why I’ll be spending some time this summer mapping the extent of microplastic contamination in the sediments of my home waters. I don’t expect I’ll see my findings lauded on the local chamber of commerce website, and I’m not naive enough to imagine that my efforts will actually lead to meaningful remedial action, but at least I’ll have the satisfaction that comes from facing facts head on. What about you?
20. Clean house. “Ecology” comes from the Greek οίκος, “house.” And seeing as the earth is our common home, we should probably do what we can to clean house from time to time. If I look beyond the beauty strip, the shores of most of my home waters are pretty comprehensively trashed, with deadly monofilament tangles a frequently encountered blight. Holiday-makers soon learn to look the other way, however, while many year-round residents enthusiastically embrace the ethic neatly captured in the title of an early town environmental plan: “We like it the way it is.” But I don’t, and I now do what little I can to pick up the trash my neighbors leave behind. I’m not alone. Others do this, too. Which brings me to the last of my 21 tips:
21. Pitch in! John Stuart Mill said it best, in what has now become a cliché, albeit in abbreviated form and mistakenly attributed to Edmund Burke: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” What’s stopping you, then? There are plenty of groups of folks committed to improving the health of local waterways, folks who don’t “like it the way it is” and are determined to do something about it. And if there isn’t one near you, maybe you can start the ball rolling. The good news? You won’t have to use up any of your frequent-flier miles.
Do you look forward to lighting out for the Territory this summer? Many paddlers do, and cheap air fares make this much easier than it was in Huck Finn’s day. But there’s an alternative. Wherever you live, there are sights to be seen and discoveries to be made close to home, and who among us can say she knows all there is to know about her own neighborhood? So perhaps this summer is a good time to ignore the siren song of Shangri‑La. After all, you just might find paradise right on your doorstep. Better see it now, though, before they pave it and put up a parking lot.
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