Secret Waters: In Praise of Ponds

Secret Waters

Small Is Beautiful: In Praise of Ponds

To judge by the advertorials, big water is where it’s at for canoeists and kayakers. But there’s pleasure to be had in small waters, too, and this week Tamia explores the multifaceted lure of littleness. Why not come along?

by Tamia Nelson | May 25, 2018

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If this short article has a co‑author, his name is Thoreau. After all, Thoreau’s closely observed, thoughtful account of his two-year-long “experiment” on Walden Pond has become an enduring literary archetype. Not that Walden made him a rich man. It didn’t. Thoreau died in what might best be described as genteel poverty, with several hundred remaindered volumes of his only other published book gathering dust in a friend’s attic. But—thanks in no small measure to generations of high‑school and college English teachers—Walden has now become one of the books that most literate Americans at least pretend to have read. And that’s a good thing, because anyone who actually opens it and reads it can’t help but come away with a deeper appreciation of the role of small waters in the larger tapestry of life.

This doesn’t appear to have made much of an impression on American canoeists and kayakers, however, most of whom seem to regard paddling in a pond as a mighty poor substitute for running whitewater or doing battle with the waves on the margin of the sea. I suppose it’s a cultural thing. As in most other areas of American life, bigger—bigger waves, bigger trips, bigger cars, bigger houses—is always seen as better.

Include me out. I think small is beautiful: small cars, small boats, small rivers, small streams, and yes, small lakes—the smaller, the better. Ponds, in other words. So when I go paddling purely for re‑creation, I usually head for a pond. And what exactly is a pond, you ask? Is it simply a diminutive lake, as I’ve just suggested? Not really. While there’s no universally recognized definition, many limnologists consider both depth and size to be the defining criteria. Proper ponds are both shallow enough for sunlight to penetrate to their bottommost depths—thereby permitting rooted plants to take hold and grow—and small enough so that no wave can grow larger than a ripple. That seems reasonable to me, though if these criteria were strictly applied, Thoreau’s Walden would be a small lake and not a pond. (Thoreau notes that he sounded it with “a cod‑line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half” and found its maximum depth to be “exactly one hundred and two feet.” While modern surveys put the depth at a little more than 90 feet, this is still deep enough to limit light penetration and preclude the growth of rooted aquatic plants. The upshot? Walden Pond is Walden Lake in fact, if not in name.)

Enough of these quibbles. Let me tell you why I think small is beautiful, beginning with the obvious:

Ponds are eminently knowable.  A pond is small, small enough that you can get on first‑name terms with every nook and cranny, and do so in something less than a lifetime. Yet you’ll never be bored, because …

Ponds teem with life.  A healthy, unpolluted pond is home to countless creatures, ranging in size from single-cell protozoans to beaver and otters. It’s also a magnet for many species of birds and terrestrial mammals, who visit the pond daily to drink or hunt. And with all this activity, ponds are symphonies of sound as well as palettes of color: dragonflies buzz, fish jump, frogs trill, birds sing, beaver slap… In short, there’s never a dull moment. Yet …

Ponds are scorned by most canoeists and kayakers.  Which is a very good thing, by and large. Small bodies of water can’t support large numbers of visitors. So if you have a favorite pond, follow the lead of generations of canny anglers: Keep its location to yourself. This is conservation with a small “c.” After all, …

Ponds are quiet places.  Birds and frogs can’t compete with packs of jet ski jockeys or screaming mobs of drunken partyers. Quiet places—places where you can still hear the wild music of the natural world—long ago joined the ever‑lengthening list of endangered species, and like other endangered species, they need protection. Why bother? Well, even if you’ve no interest in conservation, ponds have a practical value to paddlers. For one thing, …

Ponds are quiet places.  No, I’m not repeating myself. Oh, very well, then: I am repeating myself. But this time, “quiet” means “calm.” You won’t find big waves or strong currents on a pond. Which means that novice boaters can wet a paddle without taking their lives in their hands, even when the wind is blowing half a gale. In other words, …

Ponds are the nursery slopes of paddling.  They’re the perfect place for beginners to learn the ropes and strokes—provided, of course, that they practice under the watchful eye of an experienced friend and always wear a properly fitted PFD. And come to think of it, now that Naegleria fowleri is making itself at home in Canoe Country waters—this lethal “brain-eating amoeba” thinks global warming is a very good thing, indeed—nose‑clips probably belong with PFDs on the list of essential safety gear. Politicians may not need brains, but most of the rest of us do.

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OK. Have I convinced you that ponds are a gift to discerning paddlers? Then the next step is to find one to explore. Here’s how it’s done:

Open your eyes and ears.  Many years ago, during my morning commute, I heard a joyful chorus of spring peepers issuing from a state forest adjacent to the highway. And when, only a week later, I saw a pair of wood ducks drifting down below the tree line in the same spot, I was pretty sure I’d found a hidden pond. A look at the relevant USGS quad that evening showed I was right, and after further exploration confirmed that there was no trail leading to the pond, I knew I’d found a “secret water.” Of course, air‑conditioning, megawatt audio systems, and the ubiquitous smartphone make it unlikely that today’s drivers will hear any sound originating outside their upholstered living rooms-on-wheels, let alone the trill of a spring peeper. But you can always choose to shut off your phone, can’t you? No? Then you’ll just have to …

Rely on maps and snaps.  This is the second‑best option. Maps can mislead. Even online satellite imagery is out of date as soon as it’s uploaded, and years may pass between updates of topographic maps, but a little familiarity with the geology of your corner of the world can make pond-searching easier. Topography is destiny, in other words. Do a little homework, and you’ll soon discover that you can use clues from maps and satellite photos to find “invisible” ponds that both the cartographers and the cameras missed. Of course, maps can only take you so far. To be sure you’re on the scent, you’ll need to …

Go walkabout.  Some things can only be learned by putting boots on the ground. Is there legal access? Do you hear gunfire? (It’s always open season for something.) Is there a safe place to park a car? Could you hide a bike nearby? Has a new trail been cut through the woods, and does it show signs of heavy use? This last is increasingly likely. Mountain biking is hot, and mountain bikers regard any public land as a potential playground. They also don’t like to brake for slow-moving walkers, and that means cutting lots of winding trails though the woods. As a result, few notionally protected areas escape fragmentation for long. The bottom line: You won’t know if your “secret” water is truly secret unless you recce it, and that means getting out of your car and putting one foot ahead of the other for as long as it takes.

You’ve found your pond? Good! Now …

Keep your discovery under your hat.  I don’t need to tell you that a secret shared is no longer a secret, do I? I didn’t think so. My Grandad was a woodsman of the old citronella-and-whiskey school, and he’d no more tell other anglers about his favorite fishing hole than he’d buy a drink for a game warden. I can just imagine what he’d think about today’s social-media-mediated “sharing” culture, with its bucket lists and flash mobs. Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t share Grandad’s loathing of game wardens. But I do agree with him when it comes to keeping stum about my favorite places. And I’m betting that after giving the matter a little thought, you will, too.

Read more: Secret Waters | ImPONDerable Pleasures | Getting Away

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