Go With Me! The Waterborne Naturalist’s Vade Mecum
Why do you paddle? Perhaps, like Robert Louis Stevenson, you paddle for paddling’s sake, not to go anywhere but to go. Then again, you may see your canoe or kayak as a passport to another world. If so, you probably have the makings of a paddling naturalist. But it’s not enough to feel the urge. You also need the right stuff, and that’s the subject of Tamia’s latest article. Read on.
by Tamia Nelson | May 18, 2018
Adapted from an article first published on April 23, 2001
Many canoeists and kayakers paddle in order to paddle. For them, the means is the end. Period. Being out on the water and moving under their own power is enough. And that’s fine. But for a few of us, a happy few, paddling is also a means to some other end—fishing, say, or photography, or—to borrow the title of the last chapter in Colin Fletcher’s Complete Walker—learning of the green world. Well, make that the blue-green world. After all, the paddler’s world is largely, though not entirely, a watery one.
Number me among the learners. As pleasant as I find wielding a paddle, I see canoes and kayaks primarily as tools for exploration. I’m a naturalist first, if you will, and a paddler second. Which brings me to my subject today—a brief rundown of the other tools needed by any paddler who wishes to learn of the blue-green world. The list of possible items is a long one, of course, and every one of us will have her own must-haves, but I’d argue that there are a handful of essential things common to every kit. And here they are:
- The Ten Essentials
- Field journal and writing tools
- Satchel or small rucksack
- Pocket rule
- Binoculars or monocular
- Hand lens
- Field guide(s)
- Sketchpad and pencils (or paint, brushes, and paper)
Now let’s take a closer look.
1. The Ten Essentials. These Essentials, taken collectively, should be the first item on any paddling naturalist’s list of “little‑e” essentials. After all, naturalists are made of no sterner stuff that the rest of humankind. We need food and water, as well as proper clothing and shelter from the elements. We also need to know where we are at all times and how to get where we want to go with a minimum of unintended (and sometimes unnerving) side trips or delays. And we should always have the means for survival and self-rescue if things go terribly wrong, as they sometimes will. That is the purpose of the Ten Essentials. The original list was compiled for mountaineers, yet with a few adjustments, it works for paddlers, too. I’ve had more to say about the Essentials elsewhere, but for the sake of any speed readers who stumble on this page, I’ll include the unannotated inventory, without further explanation or elaboration: Map(s) or chart(s), compass, first-aid supplies, knife, extra food and water, matches, firestarter, flashlight or headlamp, sunglasses and sunscreen, and, lastly, extra clothing. These are the Essential essentials. Don’t leave the put-in without them.
2. Field journal and writing tools. If, as I’ve just hinted, the First Law of Discovery is Be Prepared, the second is Write it Down. But you can’t do that if you don’t have something to write in (and with). It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A spiral-bound student notebook or steno pad will work as well as a hardbound field book (and cost a lot less)—if you keep it out of the rain and store it in a ziplock bag or other waterproof envelope. Pencil or pen? Use whichever you prefer, but remember that most ink runs in the wet, and since paddling and water go hand in hand, a pencil may be the better bet. Choose one with a relatively soft lead. It’s hard to make fine lines with a soft pencil (a chisel point on the working end helps), but soft leads are less likely to tear cheap or damp paper.
3. Satchel or small rucksack. A place for everything and everything in its place. My naturalist’s kit lives in a cotton canvas satchel that’s a Cold War relic. It’s just big enough to accommodate an aluminum clipboard, along with all my other kit, except for the Ten Essentials, my binoculars, and my camera. A flap-protected full-width outer pocket is just right for smaller items, while a webbing sling and handle make it a snap to carry. The satchel slips under the flap of my favorite rucksack, leaving plenty of room for the Ten Essentials and a judiciously selected overnight kit. (On short excursions, the satchel slings over my shoulder, and unlike nylon straps, the canvas strap doesn’t slip.)
4. Pocket rule. Science began with measurement, and the paddling naturalist is an amateur scientist. You can never tell when you might want to take the measure of a track in the sand—or even a scat on the shore. Don’t turn your nose up at scat, by the way. You can learn a lot about animals from their excreta. It’s almost always worth close examination. (WARNING! Look, but don’t touch. Do I have to tell you why? I didn’t think so.)
You’ll find a wide selection of plastic rules in any stationery store or HyperMart. Keep the one you choose with your field journal. And if your rule happens to be transparent, as many are, stick a bit of brightly-colored tape on one end. You’ll see why this is a good idea the first time you drop it.
Want something more professional? Then get an engineer’s scale. It looks like a cross between a jackknife and one the small fans flourished by Victorian ladies intent on seduction, but instead of a blade (or a japanese screen print) the case conceals a selection of plastic rules. In addition to both centimeter and inch rules, mine has a number of map-scales, ranging from 1:12,000 to 1:250,000. It also has a scale printed on the case, with boldly-drawn inch and centimeter graduations, perfect for indicating the size of objects in a photo, whether they’re tracks, scats, or flowers.
5. Watch. You can never tell when you’ll want to know the time. Don’t rely on your smartphone. A simple windup pocket watch is ideal—if you can find one. (An unlubricated condom keeps water out of the works.)
6. Poncho. “Extra clothing” is one of the Ten Essentials, and I make sure my extras include a military surplus poncho. Ponchos do more than keep the rain off your back. They also make handy shelters and serviceable photo blinds. And they can double as a sail, too. That’s good when the wind is at your back, bad when it’s in your face. (CAUTION: Ponchos make mighty poor swimwear, so doff yours if there are rapids ahead or if the water’s so rough that a capsize is likely.)
7. Binoculars (or monocular). The human eye is a wonderful thing, to be sure, but however good your unaided vision, binoculars will expand your horizon, and a monocular will do almost as much in a smaller (and usually less expensive) package. In fact, I now carry my little monocular afield more often than my binoculars.
8. Hand lens. Whereas binoculars bring big—or at least biggish—things nearer, a hand lens makes small things bigger. These little magnifiers are cheap, light, and easy to use, and they’ll do a much as binoculars to push back the boundaries of your world. William Blake was right: There’s “a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” Isn’t it time you got your passport to this hidden paradise?
9. Field guide(s). It’s one thing to look, another thing altogether to see, and among many other attributes, seeing requires that you know the name of what you’re looking at. That’s the purpose of field guides. But since our library of field guides takes up more than 15 feet of shelf space, it doesn’t travel in my pack. An e-book library would be one solution to the problem, but I don’t like to be dependent on electronic gadgets when in the backcountry. Instead, I often take “theme” trips, concentrating on a single aspect of the natural world and carrying only one or two of the most useful guides.
And what do I do when chance throws something wholly unexpected my way? I take careful notes and key out my new find at home, with the help of our library and the resources of the Web. There’s probably no better way to learn to see—and to master the art of note-taking, into the bargain.
10. Camera. Back in the not-so-good old days, when men were men and women knew their place, naturalists collected specimens at gunpoint. (“What’s hit is history,” the saying then went, concluding, “and what’s missed is mystery.”) Nowadays, gunsight identification is frowned on, and responsible naturalists collect their specimens with a camera. So choose wisely, and if your chosen camera isn’t waterproof, be sure to protect it.
11. Sketchpad and pencils or paints. Think of these as annexes to your field journal rather than substitutes for a camera, and no, you don’t have to be another Leonardo. Anyone can master the rudiments of sketching and painting, and though there’s no doubt that snapping a picture with a camera is easier, doing things the old-fashioned way will sharpen your eye and help you fix images on the emulsion of memory. (That’s another painterly phrase I’ve borrowed from Colin Fletcher.) In other words, these two ancient arts will help you bridge the gap between looking and seeing, and to ensure that I’m never without the means to execute a quick sketch at a moment’s notice, I’ve now started carrying my winter drawing kit on outings year-round.
There you have it. Eleven items in all. But is that all? Of course not! It would be easy to add more. Too easy. Farwell and I have carried everything from pH paper to Secchi disks in our boats, not to mention the rock hammers and chisels that often accompanied me on hillwalking excursions and amphibious treks. If you begin by assembling the kit I’ve just described, however, you’re already outfitted for discovery. What you do then is up to you.
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