In the Same Boat: April – June 2000
The Prodigals Return: In The Same Boat is Back
by Tamia Nelson
April 25, 2000
In the Same Boat is back! Surprised? You’re not alone. We feel the same way. When Farwell and I said goodbye to you last September, we were afraid that it was “So long” — not “See you later.” We never thought that we’d be coming back.
Well, we were wrong. While we slogged through the long northern New York winter — working to keep food on the table, reading and writing when we got the chance — Brent Vredevoogd and Brian Van Drie were busy growing Paddling.net.
Their effort’s paid off. Paddling.net is bigger and better than ever. And we’re back. We hope you’re as happy about this as we are.
Spring is the time for new beginnings, after all. The sun’s already setting well north of due west on our horizon. The ice is all but gone from the Flow, the rivers are high (and getting higher!), and the ducks are back. Even the rhubarb’s pushing up through the soil in the far corner of the neglected tangle we call our garden.
Neglected? Yep. And likely to stay that way. Our garden may not look like the pictures in the glossy magazines, but it’s home to a lot of life. Chipmunks and red squirrels peek out from their hides in the brush piles, red-winged blackbirds and grackles scratch in the leaf litter, and skunks and raccoons make nocturnal visits to forage for grubs.
Untidy? Yes. But our garden’s alive. It’s crackling and buzzing with life, at all hours of the day and night. We think that’s what’s most important.
You might say the same thing about this year’s In the Same Boat, I suppose. It may be a little untidy from time to time, but we hope that it will always be alive. We’ve spent years — decades, in fact — driving from place to place with boats on our truck, chasing the runoff or looking for a wilderness that hadn’t yet found its way into the guidebooks. Now, we’re going to try something different. We’re going to spend less time in the truck, and more time paddling the lakes and rivers close to home. In short, we’re going to get to know our neighborhood. We’ll push our little canoes into some of the odd corners and out-of-the-way places that we used to pass by on trips to the Big Water or Big Woods of our dreams. We’re going to take time to see what we’ve been missing during all those years on the road.
We’ll let you know what we find.
There are some things that we won’t be doing, however. We’re not going to try to tell you how to canoe or kayak, for instance. We’ve written some how-to articles in the past, to be sure. You can find them in the archives. When all is said and done, though, paddling’s a physical thing. You can learn a lot from an article or a book, but you can’t learn to paddle. You can only do that by getting in a boat and — you guessed it — paddling. Even if all you do is go in circles at first.
Remember when you learned to ride a bike? Chances are you didn’t read a book about bike-riding first. Chances are you got on your bike and tried to peddle away. And fell down. And got back up again, got back on the bike, and tried again. And again. And again. Until, minutes or hours later, suddenly, magically, you were riding a bike. And not falling off.
Paddling’s a lot like that. Read everything you can, of course. We’ll be recommending books and articles from time to time, and we’d like to know what you’ve been reading, too. And by all means get instruction from a pro or from a knowledgeable friend. Careful beginners don’t go paddling alone, in any case — not if they want to live long enough to become experts, that is! Even experienced paddlers are better-off paddling with someone else. Accidents happen to the best of us, and most things in life are easier to deal with if you’re not alone.
Just don’t think that any book or any instructor can take the place of getting in a boat and getting out on the water yourself. That’s where the real learning starts. Everything you’ve done up to that moment is nothing more than warming up.
So, if you’re not going to find how-to articles here — at least not very often — what will you find? That’s easy. Almost anything and everything else. History, for one thing. Not the dull recitation of dates and documents that you remember from school, though. Just stories. History is a collection of stories, after all, and the history of canoeing and kayaking is no exception. What does a canoe have in common with a Viking longship? How did boatmen from a remote cluster of Scottish islands come to play a critical role in the economics of the fur trade? Why is today’s kayak boom really nothing new?
Curious? We’ll answer these questions — and many others, besides — in the weeks to come.
What else? History’s a lot more than people. There’s natural history, too. If one reason you paddle is to get closer to nature, you know that already. And you probably have a lot of questions. Why aren’t the fish biting like they used to in your favorite river? What’s the reason that so many eastern lakes are suddenly so clear — and why isn’t this good news? How can you learn the names of all the new birds and plants you see when you go paddling? Good questions, every one. And we’ll have some of the answers.
Anything more? Sure. We’ll even write about politics from time to time. Don’t worry, though. We’re not going to chase George and Al around the country. They can tell their own stories. We’ll be looking at politics closer to home. What happens when fishermen and canoeists both want to use the same stretch of water at the same time? Should we regulate the recreational use of our lakes and rivers? Can we? How? Should paddlers have to pay in order to play?
There’s no end to the questions, is there? And there are plenty of viewpoints on every side of every issue. This time around, however, you’ll be able to talk back to us directly. Brent and Brian have set up a forum where you can have your say on anything we write about — or anything else that interests you, for that matter. Do you have a question for us? Ask it. You don’t agree with something we’ve written? Tell us. Want to suggest a topic for a future column? Just let us know. We’re all in the same boat. Let’s start talking.
After nearly a century, the kayak’s come back home to America. Big-time. Join Tamia as she explores some of the many ways the kayak boom is changing the look and feel of paddling in her Adirondack waters.
Hell of a Vision: The Kayak Comes Back
by Tamia Nelson
May 2, 2000
The year was 1981. The month was September. An actor turned politician was in the White House. Tax cuts were topic number one in Washington. In April, the Space Shuttle had flown for the first time. Now the nation’s air traffic controllers were out on strike.
I didn’t worry. I wasn’t flying. I was humping a big Duluth pack along the old portage trail into Ochre Pond, in New York’s St. Regis Canoe Area. Farwell had our canoe. He was bringing up the rear while I walked on ahead. I stopped for a breather. I turned around. No Farwell. Where was he?
I dropped the pack and started walking back. I didn’t have to go far. I found Farwell just around the first bend in the trail. He was standing quietly, but he still had the 90-pound canoe on his shoulders. He seemed to have gotten a lot shorter. I took a few more steps, and then I knew why — he was mired in mud up to his crotch. He couldn’t go forward and he couldn’t go back.
He was remarkably cheerful, though. He wasn’t swearing or struggling. I walked up to him, being careful to stay on rock and out of the muck. I squatted down to bring my face on the level with his. He lifted the bow of the canoe a foot or so and smiled. “I’ve had a vision,” he said.
I looked around. Not a burning bush to be seen anywhere. It was a cool day. Sunstroke didn’t seem likely.
“What sort of vision?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.
“Kayaks,” he replied.
He didn’t have to say anything more. I understood.
Three years later, we were back on Adirondack waters — on the Raquette River, in fact. And now we both had kayaks. When the time came to make the long portage around Raquette Falls, we just pulled our gear bags out of our boats, lashed them to the pack-frames that travelled on the rear decks, and then hoisted our kayaks onto the top cross-bars of the frames. As we walked down the portage trail, our boats rode on the frames, high and secure, locked in place by the foam cleats we had glued into their bilges. The total weight? Seventy pounds for each of us, all of it borne by pack-straps and hip belt. We nearly sprinted along the portage.
That was sixteen years ago. We were pioneers. In 1984, kayaks were for whitewater. When folks saw us gliding effortlessly on ponds or flatwater rivers they’d point at us, shake their heads and whisper to each other. Would-be stand-up comics would paddle over, look down at us from the lofty heights of their canoe seats and ask, “Whaddidya do with the other half of your boat?” Then they’d explode in guffaws.
We laughed, too. We didn’t mind being the butt of the joke. We were having the time of our lives. We’d seen the future, and it worked. Kayaks were magic.
Today, nobody’s cracking jokes. The future’s arrived. Everybody’s got a kayak. Everybody? OK. Not everybody. On the Raquette River reservoir that we call home the dominant form of aquatic life in summer is still the jet-ski. More and more often, though, when I look up from my desk and glance out the window, I see a shoal of barracuda-like craft emerging from the two-stroke haze. These boats are long, lean and mean — they’re kayaks. The folks paddling them may cough now and again when they hit a particularly bad patch of smog, but the big grins stay on their faces. They’re having fun.
Get the picture? A lot of people today are having the same vision that Farwell had almost twenty years ago. Men and women who’ve paddled canoes all their lives are getting into kayaks. Even Old Town, the granddaddy of all American canoe makers, has had to sit up and take notice. Their Maine factory turned out nearly 100 kayaks a day last year, and they still couldn’t keep up with demand.
That’s not surprising. Veteran mail-order outfitter L. L. Bean was shipping seven kayaks to every canoe that went out the door of their Freeport, Maine, warehouse last summer. And what’s happening in Maine is also happening closer to home. Mike Kaz is one of the guys who runs Wear on Earth, a Potsdam, New York, outfitting center that stocks boats by Dagger, Perception, and Necky, as well as — you guessed it — Old Town. He tells me that he’s selling nine kayaks to every canoe.
Whew! Does Mike see an end to the boom? Nope. “The way people are being attracted to kayaking,” he wrote me recently, “I don’t see a peak any time soon. All ages are buying kayaks.”
“All ages”? That’s good news. In a time when each generation comes complete with a dated shelf sticker and a brand name, kayaking brings young and old together as almost no other sport can. Wear on Earth also runs Adirondack Teen Adventures in Wevertown, New York. Mike’s noticed that kids take to kayaking in a big way. “Our Teen Camp kids really like kayaking,” he writes, “whitewater in particular. The thrill and adventure … really psyches the kids up.”
It certainly psyched my former whitewater mentor up. And he definitely wasn’t a kid. He was pushing seventy when Farwell and I used to join him on the upper Hudson River’s Spruce Mountain Rapid. I’ve no doubt that he’d have gotten on just fine with any of Mike’s teenaged campers, though. Generation gap? What generation gap?
Of course, whitewater isn’t for everybody. Late last summer I sold my old kayak to Teresa, a paddler from central New York who vacations in the Adirondacks. She’s promised herself that she’ll take up whitewater kayaking when she turns fifty. In the meantime, she’s going to use her “new” boat to explore the flows and flatwater rivers around Cranberry Lake. She has a vision — a vision of autonomy and independence. “No one stands in the way of my enjoyment of the water except me,” Teresa wrote me later. “Kayaking is heady stuff.”
Farwell’s old boat has found a new home, too. It now belongs to Barry, a Pennsylvania machinist. He came to kayaking from — I’d never have guessed it, not in a million years! — bicycling. Long-time cyclists, he and his wife recently bought a tandem bike. They both love their tandem, but Barry realized that he still liked getting out for a solo spin every now and again. “It feels so light and free,” he wrote. “It’s great!”
Barry also owns a big, heavy tandem canoe that he’s used for years to explore Adirondack waters. He started wondering if paddling a kayak would feel as good as riding his old solo bike. You know, “light and free.” So he tried it. It did. Now he’s hooked on a vision of his own. And he’s looking forward to his first kayak camping trip.
This vision thing’s taken hold, I guess. A century after the last kayak boom ended, the slim solo craft is back for a second run in American waters.
And what about Farwell and me? For the first time in sixteen years we’re kayak-less. Guess where we’ll be this spring? Down at the local outfitters’ shops, taking the latest touring designs out on the water for a test drive.
Somehow, I don’t think we’ll be alone. Now that’s one hell of a vision!
The kayak’s the hottest new thing on the water today. Except that it isn’t — new, that is. In this week’s In the Same Boat, Farwell looks back more than a century in search of the origins of modern paddlesport.
In the Beginning: The Well-Traveled Barrister
by Farwell Forrest
May 9, 2000
The year? 1858. The place? A dugout canoe on the Ottawa River in what was then called “Upper Canada.” The big, outgoing man in the canoe was a London barrister, a well-to-do lawyer with an undemanding practice. His name was John MacGregor, and he was indulging in a favorite pastime — travel. MacGregor did nothing by halves. His 1858 tour of the Americas took him from the eastern United States all the way north and west to the Bering Sea.
The London barrister was also a Protestant evangelist, with a keen interest in the slavery question. As he traveled across America, he missed no opportunity to talk to black preachers and white abolitionists. He was alarmed by what he learned. “There will be a Civil War about these slaves,” he wrote.
He proved a good prophet. On 8 February 1861, delegates from seven southern states met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they lost no time in proclaiming the Confederate States of America. Just sixty-three days later, on 12 April, Confederate shore batteries at Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Fort Sumter. The Civil War that John MacGregor had foreseen three years earlier had begun in earnest.
Four years passed. At the end, half a million men and boys lay dead in fields throughout America. They died of bullet wounds and dysentery, of burns and typhus. They drowned in the mud of flooded trenches, and screamed their lives out as surgeons’ saws cut into shattered limbs.
On 2 April 1865, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, boarded a train to take him safely out of reach of the Union troops advancing on his Richmond, Virginia, capitol. He took half a million dollars in gold and silver from the Confederate treasury with him. Five days later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, his encircled troops now starving for want of rations, borrowed a white towel from a subordinate — there were no white flags to be found in Lee’s army — and sent an emissary through Union lines to ask for a meeting with General Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War was over.
As the guns fell silent in America, John MacGregor, too, was turning away from military pursuits. A captain in the Central Company of the Royal Volunteers, he had been an enthusiastic competitive rifle-shooter for years, once winning the regimental prize for marksmanship. Now, however, a train accident had left him unable to hold a rifle steady. MacGregor was a man unaccustomed to idleness. He hungered for physical challenge. With his days as a competition marksman at an end, he needed a new diversion. He found one in the memories of his 1858 American travels.
Sketching out a design resembling the agile and seaworthy skin-covered kayaks he had seen in Alaska and Kamchatka, MacGregor commissioned a novel sort of craft from a Lambeth builder. Decked and double-ended, the boat had an open cockpit in the center. From this sheltered “well,” protected from splash and spray by a rubberized mackintosh-fabric apron, the seated occupant could wield a seven-foot-long, double-bladed paddle with ease. “She was,” MacGregor wrote later, describing his first “canoe,” “made just short enough to go into the German railway waggons; that is to say, fifteen feet in length, twenty-eight inches broad, nine inches wide [i.e., deep], and weighed eighty pounds.” Built from oak and cedar planks, overlapped and nailed together — the type of construction known as lapstrake or clinker — the boat was promptly christened Rob Roy, in honor of the celebrated Scottish outlaw who took the same name, and from whom John MacGregor claimed descent.
At the end of July, in very hot weather, the Rob Roy began her maiden voyage. She was launched onto the River Thames at London, where she “bounded away joyously on the top of the tide through Westminster Bridge, and swiftly shooting Blackfriars, … danced along the waves of the Pool, which looked all golden in the morning sun….” The world’s first kayak tour had begun.
Nor was it just a day-trip or a weekend outing. MacGregor was not a man for tentative beginnings. His planned itinerary took him across the English Channel to Ostend, Belgium — the Rob Roy crossed the Channel in a steamship — and continued on from there through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and France. All in all, it was a journey of
A Thousand Miles … on the Rivers Thames, Sambre, Meuse, Rhine, Main, Danube, Reuss, Aar, Ill, Moselle, Meurthe, Marne, and Seine, [and] the Lakes Titisee, Constance, Unter See, Zurich, Zug, and Lucerne, together with six canals in Belgium and France, and two expeditions in the open sea of the British Channel.
On his return to London, MacGregor characteristically wasted no time. He sat down, put pen to paper, and wrote up the story of his adventures. The result was a book entitled A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Twenty Lakes and Rivers of Europe. Illustrated with woodcuts made from MacGregor’s own drawings and published in January 1866, it was an immediate best-seller. Sequels appeared in short order, beginning with The Rob Roy on the Baltic later in the same year. 1867 saw MacGregor temporarily abandoning the canoe for a 21-foot sailing yawl, but he returned to his double-paddle craft not long thereafter, and The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Red Sea and Gennesareth, etc. appeared in 1869. Still more trips followed — to Holland in 1871 and to the Northern Isles of Scotland in 1872 — but neither of these was ever written up for publication.
MacGregor had a new boat built for each trip he made, altering the design in small ways to improve performance or meet anticipated conditions. All his canoes bore the stamp of the original Rob Roy, however. Each was decked, double-ended, and propelled with a double-bladed paddle. Each, in short, was a kayak in all but name. (Each could also be fitted with a small sail to take advantage of favorable slants of wind.)
The Rob Roy books were enormously popular. By 1879 MacGregor had earned more than £10,000 from his writing and related public appearances. Already comfortably off, MacGregor was a keen philanthropist. He gave all of the earnings from his books (equivalent to some $10 million today) to charity. A man who loved the limelight, MacGregor thought himself amply rewarded by public recognition and acclaim.
He wasn’t disappointed. His books weren’t just best-sellers — they were international best sellers, and their influence came to be felt in some very unlikely places. The French Emperor Napoleon III read an early copy of A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. No sooner had he turned the last page, than he hit upon the idea of sponsoring a Paris Boat Exhibition “to encourage a taste for the exploration of solitary streams and lonely currents among the youth of France.” Not surprisingly, MacGregor decided to attend. And so he did, sailing single-handed from London to Paris, while distributing Protestant tracts along the way to any fisherman, bargee, or seaman who could be persuaded to accept one.
It’s unlikely that his religious pamphlets ever converted a single reader, but MacGregor’s canoeing tales persuaded thousands to take to the water in search of pleasure. One of these new disciples of the “go-light brotherhood” was a Mr. A. H. Siegfried, business manager of a Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper. Eager to replicate MacGregor’s paddling feats in American waters, Siegfried had two touring canoes built to an English pattern by a most unlikely craftsman — a diminutive shoe clerk turned boat-builder in the little northern New York town of Canton.
That diminutive clerk was J. Henry Rushton. His story comes next.
In this week’s In the Same Boat, Farwell takes a look at the life and work of J. Henry Rushton, the “little giant” of American paddlesport and the unlikely entrepreneur at the heart of America’s first love affair with the kayak.
In the Beginning: The Little Giant
by Farwell Forrest
May 16, 2000
Located on the Grass River, in the well-watered lowlands of the St. Lawrence valley, the village of Canton, New York, isn’t much to look at these days. Empty storefronts pock-mark the main street, while cardboard signs in their windows remind passers-by that “This Space is for Rent.” Nowadays there aren’t many takers.
Meanwhile, the traffic roars by on the state highway, every car on its way to someplace else. And the razor wire snaking around the exercise yard of the new jail is just about the shiniest thing in town.
It hasn’t always been like this. A hundred and twenty-four years ago, Canton was the vibrant epicenter of a revolution in American recreation — a social transformation whose aftershocks are still being felt today.
That revolution had modest beginnings. In the years following the Civil War, A. H. Siegfried was the business manager of a Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper and an enthusiastic practitioner of the new sport of canoeing. In 1876, he wrote to a Canton boat-builder whose advertisement he’d just seen in the magazine Forest and Stream. The boat-builder’s name was John Henry Rushton. Only five feet tall and sickly, Rushton was nevertheless a skilled woodworker, and he had a genius for self-promotion. Both gifts were to stand him in good stead.
The newspaperman wanted to know if Rushton would build him two Nautilus kayaks (or “canoes,” as they were then known), a design developed and popularized by Englishman Warington Baden-Powell, elder brother to the man who founded the Boy Scouts. Though he’d never built a canoe before, Rushton accepted the commission without a second thought, quickly completing two 13-foot boats for his new client. While their lineage was unmistakable, both canoes were much lighter than their English antecedents, a fact largely attributable to their cedar hulls and unplanked, canvas-covered decks. Whereas Baden-Powell’s original Nautilus canoes weighed between seventy and eighty pounds each, Rushton’s were only half as heavy.
Siegfried was delighted with his new boats. He and a companion embarked on a tour of central New York waters almost immediately. That tour completed, he published letters describing his adventures in both his own paper and Forest and Stream. He also recommended Rushton (and canoeing) to all his friends.
One such friend was Lucien Wulsin, junior partner in a Cincinnati, Ohio, music store. (Later he became a full partner in the Baldwin Company, makers of many of the pianos seen in the parlors of “respectable” American homes around the turn of the century.) In 1879, Siegfried recruited his friend for an unusually taxing summer holiday. He proposed that Wulsin join him and James M. Barnes in taking three Rushton Rob Roy canoes to Lake Itasca, deep in the wild country around the headwaters of the Mississippi River, an area first mapped by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1832. Even half a century later it was, in Siegfried’s words, “uninhabited, save by friendly Indians.”
Once there, the three friends would further explore the headwater basin. This wasn’t an empty exercise. Although seventeen years had passed since Speke and Grant stood together at Ripon Falls, the “birthplace of the Nile” in remote central Africa, some uncertainty still remained as to the ultimate source of the American Mississippi. Only when Siegfried, Wulsin and Barnes had laid to rest all remaining doubts on this point would they follow the great river downstream to St. Paul.
It was an ambitious undertaking, even in prospect. It proved even more challenging in the doing. Just getting to Lake Itasca entailed clearing the upper river of snags and deadfalls, and then lining the three small canoes up through gorges and shallows. When Siegfried and his party reached their destination at last, they set up camp on Schoolcraft Island and began exploring their surroundings.
Several days later, having traced the “uttermost tributaries to Itasca Lake” and confirmed that the lake was “the true head of the Father of Waters,” they set off downstream. Despite a comparatively easy run — they were even able to sail across several of the large lakes — their hard start took its toll. When the party reached Aitkin, they were already a week behind schedule. They decided then and there to end the trip.
As soon as he was back home in Louisville, Siegfried started writing. The two-part story of his strenuous holiday appeared in McBride’s Magazine in the following year. In it, he boasted that his party’s Rushton Rob Roy canoes were “the first wooden boats that ever traversed” the farthermost headwaters of the Mississippi.
Readers were enthralled, and orders for Rob Roys flowed into Rushton’s Canton workshop. The little giant was overjoyed.
One of his new customers was Willard Glazier, a northern New York neighbor and sometime trapper who enlisted in the Union Army, fought in sixty engagements in the Civil War, and who was captured — and escaped — three times. At the end of the war, Glazier was a captain. His memoir of his experiences in Confederate prisons, entitled The Capture, the Prison Pen, and the Escape, was a phenomenal success for its time, selling more than 400,000 copies and leaving him a wealthy man with the leisure to pursue his interests.
First among these was exploration. Siegfried, Wulsin and Barnes may have been satisfied that Lake Itasca was the source of the Mississippi, but Glazier was not. Moreover, he was determined to prove that he was right and they were wrong.
Accordingly, he took himself off to Minnesota in 1881, first stopping at St. Paul, where he bought a Rushton Rob Roy from none other than A. H. Siegfried himself. Christening the new boat Alice, after his daughter, and arranging to pick it up at Aitkin on the homeward trip, Glazier continued on to Lake Itasca. Here he made the predictable “discovery” that the source of the Mississippi lay elsewhere. It was, he claimed, another lake, visited by Siegfried’s party and already named. No matter. This lake, Glazier knew immediately, was the great river’s ultimate source. Not prey to any false modesty, he renamed it Lake Glazier on the spot. Then he headed his boat back the way he had come, beginning a carefully orchestrated triumphal procession down the Mississippi to the Gulf, with stops at every newspaper office along the way.
When Glazier’s party reached Aitkin, he picked up the little Alice, his new Rushton Rob Roy. For the rest of the journey to salt water, Alice was the flagship of his fleet.
Six years later, Glazier’s book describing his “discovery” appeared. Titled Down the Great River, it was a robust and engrossing tale, and large sales were assured. By the time it was published, Glazier had been honored by the New Orleans Academy of Sciences, addressed the Missouri Historical Society, and talked to every reporter he could buttonhole. No matter that geographers both then and later rejected his claims. His publicity machine was a phenomenal success, and one of its principal beneficiaries was J. Henry Rushton. Within months of Glazier’s return to civilization, the following testimonial letter appeared in Rushton’s new catalog:
[T]he Rushton Canoe has been seen and admired in every city, village and hamlet from Aitkin, Minn., to Port Eads…. I shall always feel indebted to you for the staunch little craft which carried me safely through rain storms and wind storms, eddies and whirlpools; over rapids and sand bars and snags from the head waters of the Great River to the sea…. Hoping that I may have the good fortune to meet you during my next visit to Northern New York, I am, ever truly yours,
Soldier and Author
No matter, either, that Glazier’s little Alice — actually a stretched, two-man version of the original Rob Roy, which Rushton now rechristened the “American Traveling Canoe” for his catalog — had never come near “the head waters of the Great River.” However questionable Glazier’s discovery was, the best-selling author’s testimonial worked its magic, and America now discovered the Rob Roy. Rushton sold more canoes than ever. And his story still had a quarter century to run.
Artist Frederic Remington and writer George Washington Sears (“Nessmuk”) popularized and promoted outdoor recreation in the waning years of the nineteenth century. In the concluding article in his series “In the Beginning,” Farwell examines how these two men each influenced the final decade of America’s first canoe craze.
In the Beginning: The Boy-Men
by Farwell Forrest
May 23, 2000
It was 1895. J. Henry Rushton, the Canton, New York, canoe-builder whose boats were seen on nearly every American waterway, got up from his drafting table. He stretched himself to his full five feet, walked to the window of his Water Street office, and looked out. An odd sight met his eyes. An immensely fat man, dressed in knickers and a cap, was pedaling a Columbia bicycle unsteadily down the road.
Rushton recognized the man immediately. He was not pleased by what he saw. The bicyclist was Frederic Sackrider Remington, the larger-than-life figure whose enormously popular paintings and sculptures still define most Americans’ mental map of their country’s western frontier. And in 1895 Remington was approaching the pinnacle of his career. A favorite of both Teddy Roosevelt and the cowboy novelist Owen Wister, Remington’s illustrations filled Harper’s Monthly. He had become a wealthy man.
Remington was also one of Rushton’s regular customers. In past years, he’d even contributed illustrations for the Boat Shop’s annual catalogs. But that was long ago. While Remington prospered, Rushton’s business declined, and 1895 was an especially bad year. A financial panic two years earlier had dried up orders. Hoping to reverse his fortunes, Rushton borrowed heavily to attend the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That effort failed, and the unpaid debt hung over Rushton’s head for years afterward. Worse yet, canoeing was falling out of fashion. Well-to-do men with leisure and credit were now buying bicycles rather than boats. “Times are awful,” Rushton wrote in a letter to his younger brother Ben, then an art student in New York City, “no trade at all.”
Now, even his neighbor Remington had deserted him.
Ten years earlier, things had been much different. Sales of Rob Roys and American Traveling Canoes had already been buoyed by the controversy surrounding Willard Glazier’s “discovery” of the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Soon, Rushton was to find an even more unlikely champion.
George Washington Sears was a short, sickly man, and he was as poor as Remington was rich. A cobbler by trade, he preferred hunting and fishing to making shoes, often abandoning his Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, shop for weeks at a time — and leaving his wife, two daughters and a son to get on as best they could. Left alone without either husband or income, Mariette Sears’ life wasn’t an easy or enviable one. On several occasions she was reduced to begging money for food from relatives.
During the times when he was content to stay at home, however, Sears played the part of the indulgent parent. He even urged other fathers to buy guns for their young sons, and then to follow along after them in their games. This curious prescription for child rearing apparently didn’t take. Absurdly enough, Sears later condemned his own son — the same boy he’d left behind to go hungry, in company with his wife and daughters — as a worthless ne’er-do-well. He was right in one respect, however. His son died in the poorhouse. His daughters were more fortunate. They both escaped into marriages and moved away.
Sears may have been a negligent husband and a bad father, but his love of the woods at least was genuine. Beginning in 1880, one year before Glazier’s much-publicized expedition to the Mississippi headwaters, Sears made his first extended trip into the Adirondacks. It was the beginning of a spectacular literary career.
Too poor to hire a guide, and too weak to heft even a 35-pound Rob Roy “canoe,” Sears wrote to Rushton asking him to build a boat weighing less than twenty pounds. Rushton, fearing the worst, shook his head at the folly of Sears’ request, but he was too good a businessman not to give a customer what he wanted. In due course, the 18-pound “Wood Drake” emerged from the Boat Shop. “She’s all my fancy painted her,” Sears wrote in a letter to Forest and Stream, “she’s lovely, she is light.”
She was both indeed, and others, lighter still, were soon to follow. Before long, Sears was writing regularly to Forest and Stream under the byline “Nessmuk” — the name, he said, of the Nipmuck Indian who instilled in him the “good-natured shiftlessness” of which he was so proud.
Shiftless or not, Nessmuk wrote feelingly and well of life in the woods. By 1883, he was among the leading contributors to Forest and Stream. A pioneering conservationist, a relentless campaigner for stricter fish and game laws — he once characterized his early career as a trapper as the “murder” of 5,000 “bright-eyed innocents” — Sears was also an invaluable, if unpaid, publicist for a new generation of Rushton canoes.
The boats that Rushton built for Nessmuk were worlds apart from the decked Rob Roy and the American Traveling Canoe. Short — the shortest was only nine feet long — and light — the lightest weighed just ten and one-half pounds — they were like nothing seen before. Urged on by Nessmuk’s articles, and encouraged by his report that the kit for one Adirondack tour weighed, in total, only twenty-six pounds (including the canoe!), a “go-light brotherhood” of independent travelers took to the woods.
Of course Nessmuk’s canoes could be as small as they were only because Nessmuk himself weighed just 100 pounds. And his load was light largely because he spent most nights in one the many Adirondack hotels that then dotted every waterway. Still, this reality mattered less than Nessmuk’s persuasive prose. Following their leader’s call, the go-light brotherhood was on the march.
Remington, of course, was no go-lighter. A wealthy man, as well as a fat one, he always hired guides to do the hard work on his excursions into the Adirondacks. Once there, he settled down on the porch of a hotel to sketch the scene before him, keeping a Winchester rifle and a quart bottle of whiskey within easy reach. When a loon appeared on the water, he put down his sketch pad, picked up his Winchester and blasted away. Luckily for the Adirondack loons, Remington wasn’t much of a marksman. “I’ve shot a ton of lead into the lake,” he once said, “but I’ve never yet killed a loon.”
Nor was that the only use that Remington had for Winchester rifles. Though his romantic representations of American Indian life were portraits in courage and celebrations of martial skill, Remington himself was, in the blunt words of Time art critic Robert Hughes, a “raving, xenophobic bigot.” In private correspondence, Remington eagerly anticipated the day when he could put his Winchesters to work “massacreing … Jews – inguns – chinamen – Italians – Huns, the rubish of the earth I hate.”
In this, of course, Remington was very much a man of his time. An ambitious and enterprising artist, determined to get to the head of his profession, he followed the fads of his day closely. Bigotry was in fashion among the well-to-do. Remington was therefore a bigot. And, when canoeing was fashionable, Remington bought canoes from his Canton neighbor’s Boat Shop.
But fashions come and go. In 1866, the year in which John MacGregor’s A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe appeared, a Frenchman named Pierre Lallement patented the first modern bicycle. In 1880, the League of American Wheelmen was founded. By 1895, canoeing was no longer the trendiest form of outdoor recreation. Nessmuk was dead, and the go-light brotherhood had lost their leader. Now thousands of them joined Remington as he wobbled down the road on his Columbia bicycle, leaving their Rushton American Traveling Canoes and Nessmuk No. 121s to rot in cellars and boat-houses. The end of the beginning had come.
Sometimes it’s hard to look at things. Sometimes it’s easier to avert our eyes — easier to look away when something that we don’t want to see pops up in front of us. Easier, yes. But at what cost? In this week’s column, Tamia asks what we paddlers lose when we avert our eyes from unpleasant things.
Beyond the Beauty Strip: When It’s Not a Good Idea to Look the Other Way
by Tamia Nelson
May 30, 2000
Have you ever seen the television drama Final Cut? I won’t be surprised if you haven’t. It’s a favorite of mine, to be sure, but it was only shown once on PBS and I don’t think that too many folks caught it. In any case, it has nothing to do with canoeing or kayaking.
Still, there’s a scene towards the end that has a great deal to say to every canoeist or kayaker who dreams of paddling in wild, unspoiled places. Here’s how it goes: Claire Carlson, Parliamentary Private Secretary to British Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, is being a naughty girl. She’s at the Ministry of Defence, attempting to steal an incriminating and highly secret document for her lover, who hopes to use it to force Urquhart from office. She’s not breaking and entering, though. She’s simply pretending that Urquhart himself has asked for the document, and that she’s been sent to pick it up.
After identifying herself at the reception desk, Claire is ushered into the office of the senior archivist. The document she’s come to steal carries such a high security classification that even the archivist himself isn’t authorized to read it, yet she sees it lying in plain sight on his desk, protected only by a transparent envelope.
Claire is shocked. “It’s in a clear folder!” she blurts out. “You could read it easily.”
The archivist, a spare, unsmiling man, considers this suggestion carefully. It’s clear that he’s never given the possibility any thought before. At last, though, he replies: “But I don’t, Mrs. Carlson. I don’t. I avert my eyes.”
“I avert my eyes.” I admit that I didn’t see the relevance this remark has to canoeing and kayaking. Not at first, that is.
Late last fall, however, Farwell and I were on our way home from a day trip in the northern Adirondacks. We passed the Ray Brook Regional Office of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and, as we usually do, we stopped in.
We didn’t do it for the atmosphere. We both find DEC offices rather … well … depressing is as good a word as any, I suppose. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous mounted wildlife “specimens” in the lobby, or the exhibit of historic leg-hold traps, or maybe it’s just the administrative memos about coffee-cup shortages that are posted on every bulletin board. Whatever the cause, we usually end up feeling like we’re visiting a neglected crypt in an abandoned cemetery. We don’t stay any longer than we have to.
But the DEC usually has a good collection of pamphlets on offer: trail guides, notices of regulatory changes, even things like bird check-lists. So we stop and browse and pick up anything that looks interesting.
This time, a leaflet entitled “Timber Harvesting Guidelines” caught my eye. Farwell and I had just revisited one of our old haunts in the previous week — a county forest that runs along the Raquette River. It had been a favorite place of ours. Had been. When we returned to it that fall, however, we found it clear-cut right down to the water’s edge. Worse yet, the ground was littered with slash and the entire parcel was criss-crossed with new roads, gouged deep into the thin soil of the fragile slopes. The roads were already turning to gullies in the autumn rains.
So, when I saw “Timber Harvesting Guidelines” on the shelf, I picked it up. This, I thought, is a very good thing. DEC has recognized a problem and is taking action. Better yet, they’ve prepared a guide to doing it right.
I hadn’t read far, though, before I knew I was wrong. True, the booklet did list harvesting recommendations, but this advice had less to do with avoiding soil erosion and siltation than with correcting what the booklet’s author termed “inattention to aesthetics.”
“Some people,” the pamphlet cautioned, “object to logging slash, hung-up trees, poor utilization, deeply rutted roads … and the like.” Do they indeed? I thought. Some people. Imagine that.
And DEC’s solution to this problem? Easy. If logging along major travel corridors “isn’t screened by a hill, … maintain a 100-foot wide scenic buffer strip along the roadside.”
OK. I get it now, I thought. The problem isn’t poor logging practices. Silly me. It’s the failure to conceal those practices from the public. I understand. And the solution isn’t greater care and professionalism in timber harvesting. Not at all. The solution is to do a better job of hiding what you’re about. Just keep a 100-foot wide “beauty strip” along the major highways and the public won’t know — or care — what’s going on out of their sight.
And the sad thing is that the DEC is probably right. How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? How many of us really want to? Aren’t most of us, most of time, content to avert our eyes? I know I am.
A case in point: Farwell and I have lived on the reservoir we call the Flow for more than 15 years now. When we first moved up north, the Flow had some of the character of a remote wilderness lake. We took our boats out on the water almost every evening, from ice-out in April to freeze-up in December. Every day brought new discoveries.
But it wasn’t really “wilderness,” was it? Of course, it’s hard to know exactly what wilderness is. Human beings have been living on the North American continent for at least 15,000 years, perhaps much longer. And nowadays we’ve got a mighty big footprint. Taken all in all, there aren’t many places, however remote or well-protected, that we humans haven’t changed in some way or other. When all is said and done, wilderness, too, is pretty much a matter of averting our eyes.
Well, you only have to look at the dam that holds back the water to know that the Flow isn’t wilderness. Still, it once felt wild. That, of course, was 15 years ago. Now the Flow rocks from Memorial Day to Labor Day — and beyond. Twenty-foot inboards cruise endlessly back and forth, going nowhere in a hurry. (The Flow’s only about three miles long. It doesn’t take much time to cover three miles at 50 mph.) And there isn’t a moment from dawn to dusk when you can’t hear a jet-ski taking off or landing.
How has this affected us? We stopped going out regularly on the Flow years ago. The water-ski tow-boats, runabouts, and jet-skis got to be too many to ignore. It was just too much trouble to avert our eyes. When we did go out at all, we imitated the surviving beaver and ducks — we only went out after dark, and we stayed in the few, secluded places. Soon we stopped doing even that. There weren’t many secluded places left on the Flow, after all. The ducks needed them more than we did.
So we went paddling, when we went paddling, in places where we didn’t have to work so hard to avert our eyes. Places where it was easier to pretend that the jet-skis didn’t already own the water — all the water — in the state. This proved surprisingly hard to do. Outside of the tiny, overused St. Regis Canoe Area, there aren’t many public waters in New York that are closed to jet-skis and power boats. (There’s one happy exception to this now: the new Whitney Preserve.)
It was wonderfully ironic, really. We lived on a reservoir, but we felt we had to drive somewhere else to paddle. Go figure.
Last year, we got tired of the endless road trip. We decided that the time had come to stop averting our eyes. We took our little pack canoes off the truck, and humped the big, 20-foot freighter down to the water. We needed the big boat. We’d had more than a few close calls in the pack canoes before we quit going out on the Flow. Some were accidents. Some — like the time a pack of jet-ski jockeys screamed in between us yelling “Get ’em!” and meant it — weren’t.
We looked at the big canoe. Not much chance of a jet-skier failing to see this mother, we thought. And if they wanted to play chicken, we figured we could hold our own. OK, we said. This place is our home. We’re going back out on the water.
And we did. We still do. We’re not averting our eyes any more, either. True, we’re finding a lot that we’d rather not see. The Flow’s not a friendly place anymore. It’s no longer wild. Most of the ducks are gone. There’s oil on the water and smog in the air — all the time, and everywhere. We’ve seen families paddling rented canoes being wetted-down by packs of jet-skiers moving at 55 mph. Dad’s red-faced and swearing, mom’s white-faced and hanging on, and the kids are screaming in fear. (Where are the cops? Down at the other end of the Flow, ticketing a fisherman in a john-boat for having a tear in his life jacket. Or scarfing down doughnuts and coffee at the convenience store.)
Paddling the Flow isn’t as much fun as it used to be, that’s for sure. But it’s good to be out on our “home waters” again, nevertheless. And who knows? If enough folks like us stop averting their eyes, and if we all work together, just think what we could do. I’d like to watch the ducks come back to the Flow in spring without wondering how many I’m going to see run down. And I’d just as soon never see another canoe filled with weeping, fearful kids being buzzed by a waterbike Wild Bunch.
It could happen. Things could change for the better. But first we’ve got to learn to look around us again — even when we don’t like what we’re seeing. It isn’t easy, I admit, but it’s easier than continuing to avert our eyes. At least I think so.
More than twenty years ago, Tamia lost nearly everything she had in the world, including all of her collection of photographic slides and prints. Out of this loss, however, came something of enduring value. Tamia rediscovered the art of seeing. In this week’s In the Same Boat, she tells how.
Happy Are the Painters: Capturing the Moment Without a Camera
by Tamia Nelson
June 6, 2000
More than twenty years ago, a Christmas Eve fire destroyed the apartment house in which Farwell and I made our first home. Happily, we were away visiting with family at the time, but we didn’t escape unscathed. Except for our aging Volkswagen Beetle and the clothes on our backs, the fire consumed everything we owned.
This blow fell hard on us. We had no insurance, for one thing. Still, although we missed our tent and sleeping bags, our climbing gear, and our books, the two losses I felt most keenly were my treasured Nikon camera and my lifetime’s accumulation of photographic slides and prints.
It had been a large collection. From the time I was given my first camera at the age of ten, I’d wanted to be a professional photographer. On that terrible Christmas Day, as Farwell and I raked through the still-smoldering rubble for hours, finding only a single, discolored Sierra Club cup for our trouble, I realized just how distant that dream had now become.
Nor was this my only regret. My photographs had become my memory. They were my only tangible remembrance of friends who had gone from my life, of wild birds seen only once, of mountain tarns and river valleys that I would probably never return to again. In time, I knew, I could replace my camera. But the recorded scenes from my past life were lost forever.
Yet, when I scraped together enough money to buy a new camera some years later, I found that much of my enthusiasm for photography had gone. In the long interval between cameras, I’d rediscovered something that I’d lost in childhood. I’d learned to draw again.
As a child, I was seldom without a pencil in my hand. From my earliest days onward, I’d felt a compulsion to try to capture the passing moment, to reduce it to my possession and to make it mine forever. So, armed only with pencil stubs and cast-off scraps of paper, I’d stalked my prey — that fleeting frontier of the present instant — with as much determination as any other hunter.
Once I had a camera, however, I put all this behind me. The camera was so easy to use, and the results were so … well … true to life. There was a sort of reassuring ritual about photography, too. After picking up my newly-developed prints at the local drug-store, I’d unwrap them from their protective envelope with all the ceremony I usually reserved for opening packages on Christmas morning. And the pictures themselves? Well, I was no Ansel Adams, to be sure, but my pictures were marvelous just the same — and nothing at all like my pencil sketches, with their awkward proportions and uncertain perspective.
Photography was easy. It was fun. And it captured each passing moment with absolute accuracy. In short, I was well and truly hooked. I’d finished with pencil and paper forever, I thought.
And so things remained, until one Christmas brought, not a happy surprise, but a package of ashes and tears.
The following months were hard. Slowly, one thing at a time, Farwell and I replaced the most important of our lost possessions. Long before I’d saved up enough money to replace my camera, however, the itch to capture the moment returned. Photography was out of the question. In desperation, I turned back to pencil and paper. At first, I did so grudgingly, even resentfully. I cursed my bad luck and damned my clumsy, unresponsive fingers. Images that I could have fixed in an instant with my camera now took me long minutes — sometimes long hours — to record. And the results never satisfied me. They looked nothing like photographs, in fact. This was a source of endless disappointment to me.
Still, I struggled on. The itch was just too strong to resist. I mastered proportion and perspective. I began to experiment, first with technical pens and then with watercolor paints, learning how to reproduce the textures of everything from sandstone to surf with nothing more than variable densities of dots and washes of pigment. And slowly, ever so slowly, I rediscovered one more thing that I’d lost when I got my first camera. I rediscovered the art of seeing.
A photographer’s view of the world is necessarily constrained. At the critical instant, the final moment just before she presses the shutter, her world is limited to what she can see in her view-finder. And, while photographers share many of the concerns of other artists — composition, lighting and color, to name only three — their interest in these is perhaps more mechanical than personal. Even with my fifteen-year-old Olympus OM-1 the process is all but automatic. Choose the lens, frame the shot, set aperture and exposure. Then squeeze the shutter. The camera does the rest. Today’s micro-processor-controlled cameras make even fewer demands on the photographer, of course.
Now look at another artist, trying to capture an image of something so commonplace as a chipmunk, with no tool but a pencil. The little animal is in constant motion. The artist has no fast shutter to freeze the action, no long lens to help her “frame the shot.” She can only follow her subject with her eyes, trying to capture the essentials of form, movement and texture on her mind’s emulsion. She sketches furiously, each sketch a fragment of the final composition. One thumbnail sketch shows the wonderfully adept paw, another the texture of hair on the chipmunk’s flank, another an alert, erect stance seen only in silhouette. And, before the artist has time to make more than two or three such sketches, her subject vanishes from view, diving down a previously unseen and unsuspected hole under a mossy stone.
The artist now sets to work. She has no resources but a handful of tiny, rough sketches and her memory. From these she must reproduce the image of a vital and active animal — an image which somehow conveys not only the chipmunk’s form, but also its character and personality.
More often than not, of course, the artist will fail — at least when I’m the artist, she will! But whether or not I succeed in capturing the moment on paper, I’m left with something more: an enduring memory. The scene I’ve sketched — chipmunk, mossy stone, fern, and forest fringe — is now part of me. No longer am I a passive observer, a “framer-of-shots.” Instead, I’m a participant in a conversation with the landscape and its inhabitants. The moment I sought to capture is now mine for so long as there is a “me” to recall it.
No, I haven’t sold my camera. In fact, I own three, not counting the disposable, waterproof cameras Farwell and I keep in our life jackets, “just in case.” And I’ve taken literally thousands of shots in the course of my work as a geoarchaeologist.
When I’m paddling for pleasure, though, and when — as often happens — I feel the urge to capture the moment, I no longer reach for a camera. I simply pull out my sketchpad, take pencil in hand, and begin. And, as I draw what I see before me, trying to fix the scene firmly in my memory, I’m often reminded of the words of another amateur artist, a gentleman painter, who wrote more than fifty years ago about his own great awakening:
One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before…. And I had lived for over forty years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, “What a lot of people!” I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint…. The whole world is open with all its treasures. The simplest objects have their beauty.
The gentleman painter who wrote this was Winston S. Churchill. I don’t think he ever sat in a canoe in his life, but he sits beside me every time I pick up a pencil, pen or brush and look about me with an inquiring eye.
Perhaps you’ll join us someday. I don’t think you’ll regret it. “Happy are the painters,” Churchill also wrote, “for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.”
That’s true, I find. There’s a lot to be said for learning to see.
On today’s recreation menu, kayaks are the flavor of the month. They’re sleek, they’re sexy, and they’re selling like soft ice-cream in August. But they’re not for everyone. In this week’s In the Same Boat, Tamia looks at “The Flip Side of Kayaks.”
The Flip Side of Kayaks: Why You Might Want to Consider a Canoe Instead
by Tamia Nelson
June 13, 2000
On today’s recreation menu, kayaks are the flavor of the month. They’re sleek, they’re sexy, and they’re selling like soft ice-cream in August.
Not that kayaks are new. If you’ve read Farwell’s
“In the Beginning” series, you already know that. In fact, recreational kayaking got started more than 100 years ago. And kayaks have been the darlings of whitewater boaters since the 1960s. But now, suddenly, they’re everywhere.
Why is this? Why are kayaks so hot?
Part of the answer is good, old-fashioned marketing. If you’re in the business of selling boats, you can only sell so many canoes to each boating household. There comes a time when even the most dedicated enthusiast has too many. What do you do then? Sell him a kayak, of course!
This, too, is an old story. There used to be only one kind of ski. It took you anywhere you wanted to go — through the woods, up the mountains, and down again. Then some clever folks hit on the idea of lift-assisted skiing. Now skis could be designed for just the one-way trip down the slope. The downhill ski was born. Soon, the old-fashioned cable bindings that you unclipped to climb or glide on the level simply disappeared, along with the old-fashioned skis on which they were mounted.
Came the sixties, though, and revolution was in the air. A few malcontents who were tired of waiting in lift lines rediscovered self-powered skiing. Christened “cross-country skiing” to distinguish it from the other kind, this “new” sport took off. But that didn’t mean that the old “all-rounder” skis came back. They didn’t offer enough control on the slopes, for one thing. And they were too heavy for the packed tracks that the new generation of cross-country enthusiasts preferred.
So what happened? Skiers who wanted to ski both the slopes and the flats needed at least two pairs of skis. Very soon, they needed more: a short pair of bushwhackers for off-trail travel in the thick woods, a skinny pair of cross-country skis with toe-clip bindings for the tracks, slalom and downhill models for the lift-served slopes, mountaineering skis for high alpine terrain away from the lifts, telemark skis for — you guessed it — carving telemark turns … the list went on and on and on.
America’s canoe builders probably watched the ski industry’s growth with barely-concealed envy. Sell a guy a canoe and (if it was built of aluminum or fiberglass, at least), he was fixed for life, or near enough as made no difference. Unless he wrapped the thing around a rock, it would most likely survive till one of his kids inherited it.
This made for sluggish sales. Worse yet, fiberglass was easy stuff to work with. As a result, the one new niche market — whitewater kayaking — was being served by a handful of kids working out of their parents’ garages or abandoned barns. Not much opportunity there for the established builders. They built too well to get much repeat business from old customers, and they couldn’t even exploit economies of scale to compete for a share of the emerging whitewater market.
Then something happened. Two things, actually. Polyethylene molding — a technology that no kid in a garage could copy — made it possible to produce kayaks more cheaply. And Americans discovered kayak touring. It seemed easy. It was easy. The double-bladed paddle did away with the need for much of the canoeist’s repertoire of awkward control stokes.
And, of course, the new kayaks looked sexy. They were a marketing executive’s dream come true. Before anybody quite realized what was happening, kayaks were appearing regularly in beer and cigarette ads. The boom was on. Suddenly, folks whose previous idea of a fun boat was something with Bass Whacker painted on the side were shopping for kayaks.
That was great news. Touring kayaks are wonderful craft, and the more folks I see out paddling, the happier I’ll be. But I want them to be happy, too. That’s important. Kayaks aren’t the best boats for all folks and all trips. Unfortunately, a lot of new kayak owners will probably wish they’d bought something else.
You say you don’t want to be one of these disappointed buyers? I can’t blame you. So before you rush off to spend your money, let’s take a brief look at the flip side of kayaking.
First of all, let’s ask what we’re looking for when we go shopping for a kayak. We want a boat that’s easier to use than a canoe, and that’s lighter and cheaper as well. Is this too much to ask?
Probably. While a kayak that fits well is sure to feel very comfortable for the first few minutes of paddling, it doesn’t necessarily stay comfortable for long. In a canoe, you can change position easily. You can sit or kneel or even stand. You can stretch your legs out, or tuck them under.
In a kayak, though — in most kayaks, at any rate — you’ve got only one position. If you’re lucky and the water’s not too rough, you can pull your feet back off the foot-braces and raise your knees. And you can squirm — you can wiggle your butt on the seat. That’s about all. After the first couple of hours, the kayaker’s mandatory La-Z-Boy slump may well be getting a bit old. After a couple more hours, you’ll probably be aching everywhere that hasn’t gone completely numb.
OK. You can buy fancy padded seats and back rests, and they may help. But you can’t get up and stretch without beaching your boat. I’ve spent eight hours at a time in my big canoe, and been almost as fresh at the end of the day as I was at the beginning. I’ve cooked meals in my canoe, gone to the bathroom in it, even slept in it. Doing any of these things in a typical touring kayak isn’t going to be easy.
So kayaks aren’t always the most comfortable craft. So what? At least they’re always lighter than canoes, right?
Nope. Not necessarily. Look at any catalog. Many of the polyethylene touring singles tip the scales at 50 pounds or more. That’s not exactly light. A kayak has to have a deck. A canoe doesn’t. Compare a kayak and a canoe of the same length, both made of the same material. The kayak will almost certainly be the heavier of the two.
No, I haven’t forgotten what I wrote in
“Hell of a Vision.” Farwell and I bought our first kayaks when we got tired of lugging our big, heavy tandem canoe over boggy Adirondack portages. And our kayaks were light — gloriously light. The heavier one (mine, of course!) weighed only 35 pounds or so. But the Old Town Pack canoes we bought a few years later weigh only 33 pounds each, and they’re only one-third the price of a Kevlar touring kayak of comparable weight.
Price. Everything comes down to price sooner or later, doesn’t it? And kayaks don’t fare well here, either. Kayak paddles cost more than canoe paddles — sometimes a lot more. Most kayaks need spray skirts and float bags. Canoes don’t. (If you run difficult whitewater in your canoe, of course, float bags are a Very Good Idea. But you don’t need them in most canoes in touring country.)
There’s more. If you’re hoping to do a lot of kayak camping, you may find that your old sleeping bag and tent don’t fit through the tiny hatches in your new touring kayak. And then there’s the paddling jacket you’ll need to keep dry in the spray, and a helmet for whitewater, and maybe even a rudder. By the time you’ve totaled up the cost of outfitting and equipping your new kayak, you may find you’ve spent almost as much on gear and equipment as on the boat. And don’t forget the most important thing of all: unless you buy a tandem kayak to begin with, or plan to leave your family behind at the put-in, you’ll need to buy two (or more) of everything!
What else? Kayaks are wonderfully easy to paddle. There’s no need to learn the J-stroke or any of its variants, and no wild veering back and forth. A few minutes of instruction, an hour or two of practice, and you’re ready to go. But what happens when you leave the beach far behind? What happens, for example, when you have to portage a beaver dam on a ten-foot-wide stream, or take out in a handkerchief-sized eddy just above a falls, with the only way off the river over a five-foot high slab of granite that goes straight up?
That’s when you’ll discover that everything isn’t easier in a kayak. In a canoe, you’d just stand up, walk forward — carefully, of course! — and climb out. In a kayak you pray for a sky-hook. And I can tell you from long experience that there’s never a sky-hook around when you need one.
All right. You get the idea. Kayaks are sleek and sexy and fun. But a kayak may still not be the right boat for you. Ignore the glossy ads. Try all sorts of boats before you buy. And then make up your own mind. You’ll be glad you did.
There’s no such thing as a born canoeist or kayaker. We’re all beginners at the start. Fortunately, answers to most of the questions that beginners (and even some experts) ask are available right here. In this week’s In the Same Boat, Farwell looks at the many good things to be found in Paddling.net’s “Virtual Cornucopia.”
The Virtual Cornucopia: Resources for Canoeists and Kayakers at Paddling.net
by Farwell Forrest
June 20, 2000
There’s no such thing as a born canoeist or kayaker. Whether we come to paddlesport early in life or late, we all start out knowing nothing. We have to learn as we go along.
The Internet has made this a lot easier than it used to be. Not so long ago, would-be paddlers didn’t have many places to turn for information and assistance. If you were lucky, you had an experienced friend. If you were even luckier, there’d be a paddling club somewhere nearby. But if it wasn’t your lucky day — well, there was always the public library.
As a result, a lot of us old-timers learned on our own. This was never easy, and it certainly wasn’t always fun. A few of us even drowned — or at least got a pretty good scare — in the process.
Still, we learned. Trial and error is a hard school, but it teaches well. It’s not the most efficient way to acquire new skills, however.
Today, would-be paddlers have a very different problem. Now they’re awash in information. Hundreds of websites, newsgroups, and mailing lists compete for their attention. This can be confusing, of course, and even overwhelming at times, but things are undoubtedly better than they used to be. Still, Mae West was wrong. You can have too much of anything — even of a good thing.
So, where should the novice begin? And how can he (or she) avoid drowning in information?
It’s not as hard as you might think. Why not begin here? Paddling.net has the answers to most of the questions that beginners — and even some experts — ask. You just have to know where to look. That’s not always as easy as it seems. Check out the questions that folks post on the Advice forum, for example. Probably one in every three or four is already answered elsewhere on Paddling.net. But it’s not always possible to see what’s in front of our faces, is it?
OK, then. Let’s find out just what the Web has to offer. Here are some of the questions beginners ask most often. I’ll show you where to find the answers, starting with the resources that you’ll find right here on Paddling.net.
My girlfriend lives to kayak. Now she wants me to go paddling with her. I’m not sure I want to. Do you think I’ll enjoy it?
This is a trick question, I’m afraid. It’s the one question that no one but you can answer . The only way to find out if you like kayaking or canoeing is to — you guessed it — try it. Just be sure to start off right. A sunny day. Not too much wind. And warm, easy water. Very easy water. No rapids, no strong currents, no crashing waves. And plenty of experienced companions. By the time you’ve been on the water for an hour or two, you’ll know if paddlesport is the sport for you. Taking up a new sport is like eating an unfamiliar food: the real test’s in the tasting. You’ll know if you like it.
I’m hooked. I’ve been paddling rented and borrowed boats for a couple of months now. I’m ready to buy. What’s available in my price range?
No problem. You know what you can spend. You’ve already got a couple of boats on your shopping list. You’d like to know what they cost, and whether there are other boats like them. Check out the Paddling.net Interactive Buyers’ Guide. Once you’re there, you can scan our detailed, featured product listings, and get in-depth information about specific designs. Or you can jump directly to either the Canoe or Kayak Buyers’ Guides. There you’ll find overviews of a good part of the entire paddlesport marketplace.
I want to buy a boat, but I don’t yet know what I want — canoe or kayak. Which is better for me? How can I decide?
First, paddle as many boats as you can, of as many different types as possible. Trust your feelings. Follow your bliss. Still not sure? If you want a more or less objective overview, take a look at the following articles from the In the Same Boat archives:
- “Canoe or Kayak?: A Guide for First-Time Buyers”
- “Hell of a Vision: The Kayak Comes Back”
- “The Flip Side of Kayaks: Why You Might Want to Consider a Canoe Instead”
Wow! New boats cost that much? I can’t afford one! What am I going to do?
How about buying a used boat? There are lots of real bargains out there. Just browse Paddling.net’s Classifieds. Not only will you find canoes and kayaks by the hundreds, but you’ll also find accessories, fishing tackle, camping gear, and cameras. It’s the garage sale you’ve always dreamed of, and it’s right on your desktop!
I really can’t afford to buy the boat I want, but I’ve got an extra tent I’ve never used. If I could only sell it, I’d be able to buy the boat of my dreams. Any ideas?
Sure! The Paddling.net Classifieds are free to sellers and buyers alike — so long as you’re not a dealer, that is! Just place an ad for that unwanted tent, or that extra PFD, or the antique split-cane Orvis rod that’s been gathering dust over the mantlepiece. Then stand back! It pays to advertise, especially when it doesn’t cost anything. Tamia and I have sold two boats, a tent, and a couple of PFDs in just the last year, and every sale has come to us through the Paddling.net Classifieds.
I really like this boat I saw advertised in Forest and Stream, but no nearby dealer has one in stock, and nobody I know owns one. Do you think it’s the boat for me?
I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve no idea. Tamia and I have owned maybe eight boats between us, and we’ve probably paddled (and sailed) no more than three times that number. There are hundreds of boats we’ve never even heard of, let alone seen. But don’t give up. Just go to Paddling.net’s Canoe and Kayak Reviews and tap the collective experience of hundreds of paddlers. Here you’ll find frank, unsparing comments about nearly every boat made in the last twenty years, written by the folks who know them best — the people who’ve owned and paddled them. These folks aren’t paid for their reviews, and their evaluations aren’t based on a short “test drive.” Our reviewers have lived with their boats, in good times and bad. Browse all the listings by boat type, or select just the boats made by a particular manufacturer. Either way, you’ll get the straight scoop. You couldn’t ask for more.
My PFD is shot. I think I’ve found a good replacement, but it’s new model and I’d like to talk to someone who’s used one. Any ideas?
Yep. Check the Paddling.net Reviews page again. Just click on the link for Accessory Reviews and browse. This section is new, and it’s still growing, so check back regularly if you don’t find just what you’re looking for. In the meantime, why no tell us what you think about your old PFD?
I love my boat, and I want to let the whole world know about it! Tell me how.
Happy to oblige. Go to the Paddling.net Reviews page, look for your boat, and write a review. It’s that simple. Can’t find your boat? No problem. Just use the form to add your boat to the list. Easy? You bet!
Nobody that I know paddles. I’ve taught myself the basics, but I’d like to know more. Are there any schools near me where I can learn the fine points of canoeing or kayaking from real experts?
I wouldn’t be surprised. Paddling.net has just added a service especially for folks like you who are looking for classes. Why not see what you can find in the Paddling Schools directory? It, too, is new, so check back regularly. We don’t want to miss anyone, so if you’ve been to a school or class that isn’t listed, why not tell the instructors about Paddling.net?
My boyfriend and I are heading up North this fall, and we’d like to find a couple of other paddlers headed our way. Nobody I’ve talked to is interested. How do we find some paddling partners for the trip of a lifetime?
Why not put a notice up on the Paddling.net forums? Let folks know where you’re going and when, and ask them to contact you if they’re interested in coming along. Just don’t forget to include your e-mail address — and be sure to give everybody time to get to know each other before you head off into the unknown! As I wrote last year in “Friends and Lovers,” a Big Trip can test even old friendships. Iron out any rough spots before you leave the put-in behind you!
I’ve read all your articles, but I’ve still got a lot of questions. How can I find out if you’ve got the answers?
Just post your questions on the “In the Same Boat” Forum. You’ll get a response in a day or two at most. If you’d rather write privately, however, go ahead. We’re only a click away.
I don’t always have time to visit Paddling.net during the week. How can I keep up with all the new things on the site?
Subscribe to PaddleNews, the weekly Paddling.net newsletter. You can read it on the site, or you can have it sent directly to your mailbox. Just sign up on-line. Worried about privacy? Don’t be. Paddling.net doesn’t give out subscribers’ e-mail addresses to anyone.
I’ve just heard about a great new book for paddlers, but none of the local bookstores has it in stock. Where can I buy a copy?
Stop by the Paddling.net Bookstore. Chances are good that any new book for paddlers will be featured there. You don’t see it? No problem. You can order any in-print book from Amazon.com directly through us. Could anything be simpler?
Whew! Paddling.net has a lot to offer, doesn’t it? Next time out, I’ll look at what else the Web has for paddlers.
Last week Farwell explored home waters, looking at some of Paddling.net’s many resources for canoeists and kayakers. This week he’s going foreign — selecting a few favorite sites from among the many in the Web’s “Virtual Cornucopia” and explaining what each has to offer paddlers.
The Virtual Cornucopia: More Web Resources for Canoeists and Kayakers
by Farwell Forrest
June 27, 2000
The Internet has certainly made it easier for paddlers and would-be paddlers to learn more about their chosen sport. Last week I explored home waters, looking at the resources available right here on Paddling.net. Today, I’m “going foreign” and searching farther afield.
The Web’s a big place, of course. There are thousands of paddling-related sites, newsgroups, and mailing-lists. What follows is a personal selection — sites I’ve found helpful and which I think you may find useful, too. They’re not necessarily the “best” sites, and they’re certainly not the “coolest,” but they are sites which even folks with slow connections and less than state-of-the-art computers can access easily. When I go on-line, I’m usually looking for information. The sites described below deliver what they promise. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it?
As I did last week, I’ll use a question-and-answer format. Ready? Let’s go!
Ever since ice-out, I’ve been dreaming about spending a paddling weekend on this great river. It’s real flashy, though, and we haven’t had much rain where I live. How can I find out if there’s any water in my river?
For American waters, make the United States Geological Survey’s Daily Streamflow Conditions Map of The United States your first stop. Load the national map on the main page, and then click on the state your river’s in. This will take you to a page devoted to just that one state, where you’ll find a map dotted with colored circles. Each circle represents a stream-flow gauge, and the color tells you how today’s flow compares with historic norms. You can get actual gauge levels simply by clicking on the circles.
You’ll need to know just where your river is, however. While the rivers are shown on the maps, they’re not labeled. And you’ll also need local knowledge to interpret reported stream-flow. Some rivers can be paddled only at high water, while others are best avoided until levels drop substantially. You need to know what’s right for your river.
Do you simply want to see if your river’s in flood now, or likely to top its banks soon? Just go back to Streamflow Conditions and click on the “River Conditions” link at the bottom of the page. You’ll get a National Weather Service map indicating water levels relative to flood stage for the whole country.
Is this the only place where I can get information about river levels?
Nope. You’ll find even more at the River Forecast Centers page. It has a menu of text and map links to all the US Regional River Forecast Offices. Just click on the region you’re interested in. Each regional office’s website has a different layout, though, so you’ll have to do some exploring. It’s worth it. Every regional site I’ve visited — Northeast, Northwest, and North-Central — offered extensive and detailed streamflow information, along with maps and graphs.
In your “Art of Planning a Big Trip” series you had a lot to say about the importance of maps in pre-trip planning. I can’t afford to buy quads for every place I’m thinking of going. Are any topographic maps available on-line?
You bet! Go to the TopoZone. They say they’ve digitized every 1:100,000-, 1:25,000-, and 1:24,000-scale topographic map published by the United States Geological Survey for the continental US. From what I’ve seen I think they have. Better yet, their site is easy to use and lightning fast. Just enter the name of a town (or geographic feature) near your river in the search window, select the state from the scrolling menu, and click. You’ll be sent to a page with a table showing the topo maps that match your query. Click again, and you’ll be shown the image of the topo you’ve selected. It’s simple, and the tiled quads are beautifully reproduced. They look great even on the 640 x 480 screen of my tired old Macintosh lap-top.
Do you think it’s going to rain up at the lake this weekend?
Damned if I know, but I’ll bet someone at the National Weather Service has a pretty good idea. Go to the University of Michigan USA Weather page. There you’ll find a list of all fifty states. Click on a state, and you’ll get a page of links to weather information. Then click on the link for the city closest to your lake. This will take you to a page that gives current conditions and both short-term (6 hours – 2 days) and extended (3 – 5 days) forecasts.
And take some time to check out the links down the side of the page, too. Here you’ll find forecasts for other countries, and special “forecast products” (humidity indices, recreational forecasts, and the like). One of these may be just what you need.
Still not enough for you? If you know something about the language of meteorology, go to the source — the National Weather Service. There’s enough here to satisfy the cravings of even the hard-core weather junky.
Canada has weather, too! What about those of us who live — or paddle — “north of the border”? Where can we go for forecasts and other information?
Go to Environment Canada Weather. At the very top of the page, you’ll find the “Current Conditions and Local Forecasts” links. These will take you to specific locations throughout Canada: to Ottawa, for example, or Algonquin Park. You’ll find forecasts for all these areas, from short-term through extended, supplemented by regional text forecasts for the entire country. That’s not so bad, eh?
If radar and satellite images are what you need, you’ll find links to those, too. And the site’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page is interesting if you’re a weather buff.
Another place to get Canadian weather info is the Wunderground site. The Wunderground homepage has a link to each Canadian province. Click on the one you’re interested in and you’ll get a page displaying the reporting stations as text links. Click on the station(s) you want, and you’ll get a forecast and current conditions page specific to each station. The information isn’t as detailed or extensive as that provided by the US National Weather Service, but it’s a lot better than nothing.
CAUTION! In reading Canadian forecasts, don’t forget that Canada’s gone metric — along with nearly everyone else in the world. (Except for the US, that is!) If you learn that it’s going to be in the high thirties in Algonquin this weekend, don’t pack your insulated parka. 37° Celsius is 98.6° Fahrenheit. Body heat, in other words. It’ll be t-shirt and shorts weather. (Better bring a rain parka and sweater anyway, of course. And don’t forget the bug dope!)
I’ve been there. The forecast says “hot and sunny,” but even before we’ve got the tent staked down, a front’s pushed through. In two hours the temperature’s dropped twenty degrees, and then it rains on and off for the rest of the weekend. You got anything to read?
Sure do! I’ve got some great cruising stories I bet you’ve never seen before. What do I mean? Easy. Like I wrote in “In the Beginning,” paddlesport was invented in the nineteenth century, and some of the sport’s pioneers made astonishing voyages. They also wrote some outstanding books. Trouble was, until recently you could find copies of these books only in big research libraries — and librarians understandably take a dim view of folks carrying rare books along on paddling weekends. But that’s all changed now. You can find complete texts of many classic canoeing and kayaking tales (and a great deal more, besides) at Eric Eldred’s Eldritch Press site — books like Nathaniel Bishop’s Voyage of the Paper Canoe, John MacGregor’s Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Inland Voyage, for example. And best of all, they’re completely free. Just download whatever interests you and print it out. You’ll never again be without something to read on a rainy day in camp.
OK. That’s a start. The Web really is a “virtual cornucopia,” isn’t it? And there’s even more out there for paddlers, of course — a lot more. I think I’ll save something for another time, though. I don’t want to spend the whole day at the keyboard. Not with my pack canoe waiting for me at the water’s edge and mid-summer’s eve only a few hours away!
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