April – June 2002

In the Same Boat: April – June 2002

Trip of a Lifetime

Up the Creek

Ed and Brenna have left the Albany River behind. They’ve paddled up a tributary stream, searching for the answer to a puzzle. But the mystery’s still as deep as it ever was, and things have now taken a deadly turn. Are Ed and Brenna really “Up the Creek”? Read this month’s chapter in “Trip of a Lifetime” and find out.

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest | April 2, 2002

A REMINDER This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the authors’ imaginations. It’s NOT a paddling guide. If you’re planning a trip on the Albany River, consult the most recent edition of a good guide-book and be sure you’re thoroughly familiar with all applicable regulations. While maps of Ontario show some of the waterways mentioned here, the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors’ minds — and in yours.

A new chapter in Trip of a Lifetime, our paddlesport novel-in-progress, will appear on the first Tuesday of each month.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Brenna stared at the muzzle of the gun in the man’s hands. The small, black hole seemed to grow in size until it filled her entire field of view. She wondered if she’d see the bullet that killed her. It was an unsettling thought. She wanted to tear her eyes away, but she couldn’t.

No one moved or spoke. The man with the gun — Ed recognized it as an AKM — examined them in silence. Two dark eyes set deep in a blocky face stared unblinking over the gun’s elevated front sight. A wild tangle of curly hair spilled out from under a greasy woodland camouflage cap.

Mist swirled around the three figures. The little river hissed and slapped against the cobbled shore. Ed and Brenna’s big green canoe was nowhere to be seen.

The gun dropped from the man’s shoulder. He cradled the stock beneath his upper arm. Suddenly, he shouted, “HANDS UP!” The English words came haltingly at first, but in seconds they were spilling out of the gunman’s mouth in quick bursts: “COME CLOSE! Come close, NOW! MOVE SLOW!” Ed and Brenna shuffled forward together, their hands held above their heads.

“Stop! Now!” the man commanded. The muzzle of his gun twitched, pointing first at Brenna’s belt, then at Ed’s boot. “Your knifes. Throw knifes on ground! One at a time.” The muzzle of the gun was now pointing at Ed’s chest. “You first!”

Ed did as he was told. Moving slowly, he bent over. Still holding his left hand above his head, Ed eased the long blade from its boot-top sheath with his right. Holding the knife by its blade, he placed it on the ground at his feet and then took one short step backward.

The muzzle of the gun now returned to Brenna. “You next!” the man said, and Brenna, too, complied, copying Ed’s careful movements.

“Back!” the man yelled, and Ed and Brenna stepped back till the gunman shouted, “Stop!”

Then the man walked forward. He squatted, still holding his gun with the stock tucked under his arm. With his left hand he reached for the knives. He examined Brenna’s first, holding it up to one side of the gun. Without a word, he tossed it into the river. Then he picked up Ed’s knife. He lifted it carefully, feeling the balance. He examined the worn grip and felt the edge with his thumb.

The gun twitched toward Ed’s boot again. The man in the camouflage cap yelled, “Scabbard!”

Ed removed the metal-tipped leather sheath from his boot and tossed it toward the gunman, who slipped it awkwardly over the blade. Then he stood, thrusting the newly-sheathed knife under the waist-band of his filthy jeans.

“UP!” he yelled next, jerking the muzzle of the gun toward the steep bank. Ed and Brenna started climbing clumsily, holding their hands above their heads. The gunman followed close behind.

Sliding and slipping, kicking steps in the slippery clay, they reached the top at last. The mist was thinner there, and a watery landscape greeted Ed and Brenna’s eyes. A small, sluggish stream meandered through a wilderness of low scrub, bog, and spruce. A barely-visible trail paralleled the stream. It led right toward the heart of a dense spruce forest.

“Go!” the gunman ordered from just behind them, and Ed and Brenna didn’t have to ask where. They slogged onward toward the dark wall of spruce, now several hundred yards away. It was slow going. The ground beneath their feet was the consistency of oatmeal, and water bubbled up around their boots as they walked. Leatherleaf and dwarf willow tugged at their ankles.

Just as they approached the green wall, a second man emerged into view.

“Stop!” the gunman ordered, but the command was unnecessary. Captives and captor alike waited for the second man to come closer.

Ed and Brenna watched silently as he approached. A short, lithe figure, with the dark hair, broad cheeks, and wide-set eyes of a Mongol horseman, the man moved quickly and easily over the sodden gumbo of the trail. And he, too, carried a rifle. “Another AKM,” Ed thought, but then realized immediately that it was something else — the short barrel, bulky flash suppressor, and folding stock bore the stamp of a specialist’s weapon. What, Ed asked himself for the tenth time, had they stumbled into? Try as he might, he couldn’t find any answer that he liked.

The new arrival exchanged a few words with their captor. Neither Ed nor Brenna could understand what either man said — it sounded like Russian, Brenna thought — but there was no doubt who was giving the orders. The lithe man gestured toward Ed’s knife, and with an almost comical expression of petulance and disappointment, their captor handed it over. Then he turned back toward his prisoners and jerked the muzzle of his gun in the direction of the wall of spruce. Ed and Brenna plodded on, walking ahead of their guards.

The dense-packed trees closed over their heads. After several minutes, a small clearing opened before them. Coals glowed in a stone firepit. Beyond it stood a rough, slab-wood table, and standing beside the table was a third man. He was tall and heavily built, with a mop of thick, sandy hair crowning a large, square head. Pale, steel-gray eyes rested briefly on each of the new arrivals in turn.

The tall man wore a black turtleneck, dark blue chinos, and high-topped black leather boots. A canvas holster and a sheathed bayonet hung from a heavy green webbing belt. In the man’s left hand he held a steel cup. Curls of steam rose from the contents. In his right hand, he, too, held the same short, businesslike Kalashnikov that had puzzled Ed earlier.

“Here,” Ed and Brenna thought simultaneously, “is the Boss.”

The gunman who’d captured them said, “Stop,” and this time he didn’t shout. Ed and Brenna halted. The lithe guard walked forward and spoke quietly to the tall man by the firepit. The conversation had the air of an official report. The tall man looked up. He nodded, and the third gunman motioned for Ed and Brenna to step forward.

The Boss set his cup down on the slab table. The steel-grey eyes inspected his prisoners. Ed and Brenna looked away, taking in their surroundings.

Even in the clearing, the light was failing, but they could see that the camp had an air of permanence. Two large canvas wall tents hung from pole frames, their walls spray-painted with a crude but effective camouflage pattern. A second, smaller slab table stood beside one of the tents, supporting a large steel washbasin. Several well-trodden paths led off in different directions. At the very edge of the clearing stood a low log hut. Its roof was covered with thick slabs of peaty sod, and it appeared to have been built into the soil. The only opening was a small door.

A faint, sweet, slightly metallic odor hung in the air. Both Ed and Brenna had smelled it before. It was the smell of fresh blood.

“And just who might you two be?” the tall man asked, without any preamble or introduction. He had a clear, deep baritone voice, and his English was excellent.

Brenna was the first to reply: “Who are you,” she demanded, “and what do you think you’re doing?”

“Such want of courtesy,” the tall man said, his voice taking on a note of mock outrage. Then he smiled, but his eyes remained alert. “Still, you are right. It is for me to introduce myself. And you may stop waving your hands in the air, if you wish. I am called Sergei. And you are … ?”

To their mutual surprise, both Brenna and Ed replied immediately. They winced as circulation returned to their hands.

Sergei made a slight bow. “My apologies for any discomfort,” he said. He paused for a moment. “Brenna … ,” he continued, thoughtfully. “A delightful name. And what, may I ask, are you doing here?”

“Your … colleague made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Ed answered.

Sergei smiled again. “Ah, yes. Nikolai can be … what should I say? … a bit overpowering at times. But that’s not what I meant, of course. You are very far from home, I think. What has brought you to our river?” The pale eyes looked inquiringly at Ed.

“Henry Hudson,” Ed said. And he said nothing more.

The steel-gray eyes never left Ed. “I see,” the tall man said simply. He turned to his lithe companion, who wordlessly handed over Ed’s knife. Sergei removed the blade from the sheath, inspected it carefully, and then replaced it. He placed the knife on the slab table. Then he spoke again: “Please remove your boots and socks.”

Brenna opened her mouth to object, but immediately thought better of it. She and Ed did as they were told.

“Good,” Sergei said. “I think we are going to get along well.” He turned to Ed. “This is a Fairbairn-Sykes knife, I believe. An odd knife for an explorer to carry, I think. Have you had it long?”

“Yes,” Ed said.

“It is a good knife,” Sergei said, reflectively. “A very good knife indeed … for some purposes. And unless I am mistaken, it has seen hard service. Am I right?”

“You are,” Ed replied.

Sergei nodded. He studied the knife on the table silently for several minutes. “Now,” he said, you will remove your life jackets, your hats, and your belts.”

“Why?” Brenna asked.

“Because I have told you to do so,” Sergei answered. He wasn’t smiling now.

Once again, Ed and Brenna obeyed. The empty sheath for Brenna’s knife dropped to the ground at her feet. No one moved to retrieve it. Their pants were loose. They clutched at the waistbands to keep them from slipping off.

Sergei picked up their life jackets and systematically searched the pockets. He removed their compasses and whistles and placed them on the table alongside the knife.

“Now,” Sergei said, indicating the lithe man with a quick bob of his head, “Pavel is going to search you. Do nothing stupid.” His eyes rested on Ed’s for a second. “Nikolai, as you know, is sometimes overexcitable. He is, however, a very good shot. And I, too, am a very good shot. Place your hands on top of your heads, and do not move until I tell you that you can. Your pants will fall to the ground. Leave them there.”

Ed and Brenna placed their hands on their heads and waited. Pavel slung his rifle, and stepped behind them. The search that followed was swift and thorough. When Pavel was done, he carried the contents of Ed’s and Brenna’s pockets over to the table: a small Swiss Army knife, two match-safes, a red bandanna, a strip of fruit leather, a hank of parachute cord, and Brenna’s “rock collection” — three polished stones from the bed of the little river.

Sergei examined the items. When he had finished, he slid Ed’s knife into his own boot-top and said, “You can pull up your pants now. After that, take a seat on the ground. And please keep your hands in front of you. I would like to avoid accidents.”

Brenna and Ed sat quietly. Pavel retreated behind the wall tents, while Sergei continued to study his prisoners. He paused only to speak to Nikolai, who promptly jogged off down one of the paths.

When Pavel next emerged, he carried a large tin, its contents identified only by black Cyrillic lettering, barely visible in the failing light. He set the tin down on the table, then lit three gasoline pressure lanterns, hanging one in the doorway of each tent. The third remained on the table, where it hissed and sputtered continuously. Every few seconds, a moth or other insect would immolate itself against the incandescent mantle. Tendrils of river mist infiltrated the clearing. Pavel blew on the still-glowing coals in the fire-pit, added short lengths of split wood from a near-by stack, and placed an enormous tea kettle on the grill. Next, he opened the tin can, dumped its contents into an aluminum pot, and set the pot on the grill next to the kettle.

After some minutes, Sergei squatted down next to Ed and Brenna. “Why are you here?” he asked. Neither answered. Sergei shrugged. “I had hoped to avoid any unpleasantness,” he said, adding, “It is a simple question, is it not? Please answer it.”

Ed sighed. There seemed no alternative. “We’re on a summer holiday,” he said. “Canoeing the Albany river. We’d even planned to spend a little time searching for evidence of Henry Hudson’s fate once we reached the Bay. It sounds absurd, I suppose, and perhaps it is, but it seemed like a good idea at the time … .” His voice trailed off.

Brenna picked up the thread of the story. “We thought we’d explore the little river where your man found us. Ed wanted to do some fishing. I wanted to make a few sketches. That’s all.” She said nothing about the sturgeon or the gunshots.

Sergei looked at her, his face creased by a momentary smile. “So,” he said at last, “you are an artist, are you? Now that is interesting. I find art much more entertaining than fishing. I would like to see your sketches someday.”

He said nothing more. Nikolai returned to the clearing, wiping his hands on his pants. Pavel stirred the pot and began to spoon the contents out into steel dishes. Once they were full, he handed them round. When he got to Brenna, he said, “Bon appétit,” and Brenna could have sworn that he winked at her. The stew was good, too, and it was followed by mugs of strong, sweet tea. Pavel then joined Sergei and Nikolai at the table. The clearing was silent except for the scrape of spoons against steel bowls, the hiss of the lanterns, and the hum of insects. Everyone ate with gusto.

After he’d scraped the last bit of stew from his bowl, however, Sergei spoke at length in Russian to Pavel and Nikolai. Then he turned back to his captives. “You are Americans, of course.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” Ed confirmed, and then asked, “And you? Who are you? And why are you holding us here?”

“Let us just say that you are our guests,” Sergei replied. “I could treat you like prisoners, of course. I could tie you up and keep you under heavy guard. But that would be a nuisance, don’t you agree?” He stared at Ed, who nodded slowly, not trusting himself to make a reply.

Sergei continued: “But on the other hand, if you promised not to run away, and not to cause mischief — in short, if I could trust you — than that would make life easier for all of us, would it not?” Ed and Brenna both nodded now.

“Then we have an agreement,” Sergei concluded. “You will not leave this clearing except to use the latrine, and you will use only a single path to go there.” He gestured in the direction of one of the trails. “Also, one of you will remain in the clearing at all times.” He paused. “Do you still agree”?

“Yes,” said Ed and Brenna together.

“Good,” said Sergei. He pointed to one of the canvas tents. “That is your home away from home for the night. I will have to insist that you keep the flap open, however — though of course you can close the mosquito netting. I regret the loss of privacy, but I’m sure you understand the reason.”

Ed and Brenna nodded sullenly.

Sergei grinned. “It could be worse, you know. You could be in a Canadian internment camp.”

Ed and Brenna exchanged glances. Ed looked up at Sergei. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked.

“Is it possible?” Sergei spoke in bemused wonderment. “You do not know?” He stared at Ed and Brenna, seeing only confusion in their faces. “No,” he said. “You really do not know. Incredible! I suppose you do not have a radio, do you? Well, let me explain … .” And then he told his captives the story of the Independence Day Attack.

“So you see,” he concluded, “America and Canada are not on the best of terms at present. In fact, you are both enemy aliens now, almost. If the Canadian authorities find you, they will wish to question you. And when they are done questioning you, they may very well intern you. Therefore, be glad you are our guests.” Then he and Pavel burst into peals of laughter.

Ed and Brenna sat in stunned silence till the laughter died away. “Is this true?” Ed asked, looking from one man to the other.

“Oh, yes, my American friend. It is true.” Sergei replied, wiping his eyes. “And it is very funny, I think. Look. It is almost twenty-two hundred hours. In a few minutes, Pavel will turn on the short-wave for the CBC news. Then you can hear for yourselves … straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Until then, though, perhaps you two would be good enough to help Pavel with the dishes. It is uncharitable to ask such a thing of guests, I know, but Pavel will be very glad of your help.”

Just before the hour, Pavel disappeared into his tent. He returned almost immediately, carrying a radio the size of a suitcase. “My God,” thought Ed, “that looks like an old Zenith tube set!” Pavel turned it on and extended the antenna. As the set warmed up, it delivered a chorus of squeals, interspersed with bursts of static. Looking a little like a safecracker with a difficult job ahead of him, Pavel adjusted the tuning dial by tiny increments. Despite his care, however, the big pointer moved jerkily across the large, illuminated dial. Suddenly the static faded, to be replaced by the voice of a CBC announcer. Pavel smiled. Then a howl obliterated the announcer’s words. Pavel touched the tuning dial. He was rewarded by a crackle of static. He looked ruefully over his shoulder. “Solar flares,” he explained. It was the first time he had spoken in English.

Sergei chuckled. “Pavel is perhaps a little too proud of his antique. Still, this radio is what we have, and Pavel is very patient. He will tune it.”

Notwithstanding Pavel’s best efforts, though, they heard only short snatches of the news broadcast. That was enough.

American forces have raided Camp X, the former World War II Special Operations training center in southern Ontario … . There has been no report of the whereabouts of suspected terrorist Lesserson Null … . An American AC-130 gunship has crashed into a Kingston, Ontario, shopping mall. Scores are feared dead … . Canadian Premier Pierre LeClerc demanded an immediate meeting of the United Nations Security Council … . In a speech before both houses of the United States Congress, American President Chuck Heston declared, “America’s old friends must not presume upon our friendship. In this new age of international terrorism, there is no middle ground. Our friends must decide whether they are with us or against us” ….

Ed and Brenna listened in stunned silence, straining to make sense of the few words they could hear. Pavel and Sergei paid close attention, too. Only Nikolai seemed uninterested. He sat on the bench seat at the slab table, excavating foul-smelling snuff from a small, circular tin and packing it into the gap between his front teeth and his lower lip.

Then a swirling drizzle swept across the small clearing. Pavel snatched up the radio. It gave a last, loud squawk and was silent. “Damn!” he exclaimed, and muttered what was almost certainly a long and intricate Russian epithet.

As Pavel packed his radio off to the tent, Ed looked at Brenna. “Some trip of a lifetime, eh?” he said, rolling his eyes toward the weeping heavens. Despite herself, Brenna laughed. “Trip of a lifetime, indeed!” she echoed, and pressed Ed’s hand.

It had gradually become dark. Sergei motioned to their tent and said, “You will wish to go to bed now. We rise early. There are blankets and heavy sweaters on the cots. Good night.”

Nikolai shambled off to the edge of clearing, turned his back and fumbled with his fly. The splash of urine sounded very loud in the sudden silence.

Ed and Brenna rose to their feet with difficulty and picked their way carefully over the uneven ground. While Ed waited by the door of their tent, Brenna followed the short trail to the latrine, clutching the waistband of her pants. She didn’t stay long. Mosquitos were now making touch and go landings on all her exposed flesh. When she returned, Ed took his turn. In his absence, Brenna turned back toward the light on the slab table. “Sergei … ?” she began.

“Yes?” a disembodied voice replied. Sergei stood outside the circle of light, lost in the larger pool of darkness. “What is it?”

“Our canoe,” Brenna stammered. “All our gear was in our canoe … .”

“Of course” Sergei replied. “A big, green canoe. A very serviceable boat, I think. Rather careless of you to mislay it. But do not worry. We have found it, and it is safe. Now go to bed — and remember to leave the tent flap open. And please, no whispered … what is the phrase? … ah, yes, ‘pillow talk.’ Speak in your normal voices at all times. There is no need for secrets between friends, is there?” He hesitated, as if waiting for a reply. When none came, he added, “Good night again, Brenna.”

On his return, Ed extinguished the lantern and pulled the mosquito netting across the door of the tent. In the sudden, total darkness, Brenna hugged her husband. “I love you,” she said, and Ed kissed her. Neither said anything else, and within minutes they were both in their cots. A few minutes more, and Ed was asleep. Brenna, however, lay awake, listening. The swirling rain returned. From time to time she heard short snatches of conversation. Then the silence deepened, broken only by Ed’s soft snores and occasional footfalls.

* * *

Brenna woke with a start. The rain had stopped, and the half-light of the long northern dawn shone through the open tent door. Nothing moved outside. Brenna suddenly realized she had to pee — bad!

She sat up. She ran her fingers through her matted hair. Ed continued to snore. She thought about waking him, but decided against it.

Brenna stood and hobbled on stiff legs toward the door. Pulling back the mosquito netting, she stepped outside. A sharp root reminded her that she was barefoot. Then her pants fell down around her knees and she stumbled, almost collapsing. She fought to stay upright, cursing silently, and set off down the path to the latrine, holding her pants up with one hand and fending off low-hanging spruce branches with the other.

By the time she reached the latrine she was soaked. She squatted over the reeking trench, letting her pants drop round her ankles. She tugged her underpants to one side. Relief!

As she was starting to rise, a filthy hand closed over her mouth.

She bit down hard and was rewarded by a squeal of pain. She tasted blood, and the hand was snatched away. Before she could stand or shout, however, she was jerked onto her back. Her head hung down into the fetid latrine trench.

She felt a heavy weight straddle her. A hand groped for her breasts. She smelled the stink of sodden, stale tobacco.

A leering face was silhouetted in the uncertain half-light. Nikolai! Brenna cocked her right wrist back and thrust the heel of her hand toward the center of the silhouetted face. The blow carried all the force she could bring to bear, and it landed just below Nikolai’s nose. Brenna heard the sound of small bones breaking. Nikolai grunted in pain. His blood dripped on Brenna’s face.

Then she felt a burning lance across her throat. A warm fluid oozed down around her neck. “A knife!” Brenna thought. “He’s got a knife!”

In a panic, she lashed out with her other arm, aiming for the leering face above her. This blow connected, too, and in the next instant she followed through, sweeping her arm down and to the side, striking hard at the wrist of Nikolai’s knife hand. She felt the blade fly from her throat. The burning stopped.

The weight of Nikolai’s body eased as he rolled to the side, his hand clawing at the forest floor, desperately searching for his lost knife. “Now!” Brenna thought. She screamed like a demented thing — a wavering banshee wail shattered the early morning stillness — and arched her back, throwing Nikolai off. Then she was up and running, kicking the tangle that had been her pants away from her with her first stride.

She ran blindly. Her only goal was to get away. Sharp branches tore at her face, feet, and body. Her breath came in agonized gasps. And still she ran, moving her arms before her like a swimmer, clearing a path into the silent heart of the forest.

And then, suddenly, she pitched forward across a shallow mound of fresh earth. Stunned, she lay where she had fallen for several seconds. There was no sound of pursuit. She struggled to her feet again, only to freeze in place when she saw what had tripped her up. A boot sole protruded from the mound of earth. Involuntarily, Brenna kicked at it. Nothing. The boot appeared to be anchored in the earth. Curiosity overcame her fear. Brenna reached down and tugged on the boot. It came away in her hand, revealing a human foot, sheathed in a soiled and threadbare sock.

* * *

Nikolai could not find his knife. Blood dripped from his shattered nose. He wanted only one thing now — revenge. He unsnapped the flap on a small holster that concealed a well-worn Makarov pistol, and he began to run after Brenna. Then Nikolai heard a dry branch snap behind him. He whirled around just in time to see Ed burst into the latrine clearing. Without breaking stride, Ed lurched forward, butting his head hard into the hollow below Nikolai’s ribs. Nikolai gasped, but he kept his balance, lashing out with his left hand while he fumbled for the grip of his pistol with his right.

The blow caught Ed squarely on his adam’s apple. He fell back, his arms splaying out to either side. His glasses flew off. Nikolai had his pistol out now. Ed rolled away to the right. His hand closed on something on the ground. Something hard: the grip of a knife. Deliverance! Ed clutched at it. He tucked his feet beneath him and vaulted up, throwing himself at Nikolai. The gunman fired. Too late. Ed was already inside Nikolai’s outstretched arm. His right hand darted up. The blade went in.

Nikolai’s body shuddered. Ed lifted, drove the blade in further, felt the edge catch in the notch of Nikolai’s breastbone. The pistol fell from Nikolai’s hand. The gunman stood on tip-toe now, straining to free himself from the blade within him. Ed locked his right hand over his left and heaved. His pants fell down to his knees, but he didn’t even notice. Nikolai hung suspended, his fingers moving convulsively. His mouth opened and closed, but the only sounds to emerge were feral grunts. Warm blood spiraled down over Ed’s arms. He felt the knife beat a slight, insistent tattoo in his hands. The tempo of the tattoo accelerated, became urgent, and then became more urgent still. Seconds passed. The tattoo now lost all coherence; the rhythm became wild and desperate. More seconds passed. The tattoo slowed, stopped, started again, stopped, resumed, and then ceased altogether. The two men stood close together in the early morning light. One was alive. The other, dead. Nikolai’s head fell back between his shoulders. A dark ribbon of blood emerged from the silent, gaping mouth. Ed lowered Nikolai’s body to the ground. He tugged at his fallen pants. Then he pulled on the grip of the knife. Wedged deep in cartilage and bone, the blade barely moved. Ed put his foot on Nikolai’s chest and pulled again.

Sergei and Pavel arrived at the threshold of the clearing just as the blade came free. Ed turned toward them, the knife in one hand, the waistband of his pants in the other. “You’ll want this back, I suppose,” he said. His voice was a hollow, expressionless monotone. “I’ve no more use for it, at any rate.” And then he hurled the knife at the ground. It stuck upright, just inches from Sergei’s feet.

Pavel raised his short-barrelled gun, but Ed had already turned away. His eyes swept the far side of the little clearing. A mad trail of broken branches was just visible. It led directly into the dark heart of the forest. Even without his glasses, Ed could see that a discarded pair of pants marked its beginning.

“BRENNNAAA!” Ed screamed. The churr of an alarmed red squirrel was the only reply.

To be continued…

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Waterway Rambling Part 5

It’s on the Map: Upstreaming Made Easy

Whether it’s a beaver pond, a mountain river, or a Great Lake, every waterway holds many mysteries. And if you’re puzzled by something you’ve seen as you paddled along, the answer may lie in the past. How do you find out? Easy. You just “upstream.” Whatever you’re looking for, chances are “It’s on the Map.” Tamia shows you how to find it.

by Tamia Nelson | April 9, 2002

Upstreaming. That’s what anthropologists used to call it. Want to know how prehistoric men and women lived? Then just look at surviving “primitive” peoples and project their way of life back into prehistory. Travel upstream against the flow of time till you get nearer the headwaters, in other words.

This sort of thing has now gone out of fashion, at least in anthropology. After all, it’s getting hard to find suitable peoples to study. Today, when Mongolian herders check market reports on their cell phones and rain-forest hunters carry AK-47s, it’s clear that the Age of the Primitive has ended. It’s not likely to be missed by many, I imagine. Probably only anthropologists and Masterpiece Theatre buffs mourn its passing.

Geologists are still playing the game, however. They look at modern landscapes and try to reason their way millions of years upstream. The rules they play by are simple. Landscapes change, but physical laws don’t. The geologic processes that shape today’s rivers are the same as those which shaped rivers 125 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth. Geologists call this uniformitarianism, and it’s the central belief in their scientific creed.

Of course you’re probably not an anthropologist or a geologist. You’re a paddler. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play the game, too. So let’s take a trip upstream, into the past.

Got a favorite waterway? Sure you do! Well, whether it’s a beaver pond or one of the Great Lakes, I bet it holds at least one mystery that you’d like to solve. Maybe it’s nothing more than a mid-stream boulder with a deep hole drilled in it. (Looks like somebody went to a lot of trouble. Who did it? Why?) Or maybe it’s a road that vanishes under water at a narrows. (There really aren’t any roads to nowhere, are there? So where did this one go? And why does it disappear under water?) Or maybe it’s an entire lakeshore community, located in a really out-of-the-way place. (Why is it there? Why not someplace else?)

How do you begin? That’s easy. You already have. Something caught your eye and awakened your curiosity. Maybe you even jotted down a note or took a photo. Now you’re on your way. You’ve started your journey upstream.

OK. You’re off the water. What’s next? First, pull out your map. A modern topographic quad is best, even for coastal areas. Marine charts don’t tell you much about “cultural” features like buildings, dams, and so forth. Quads do. So make a copy of the modern quad — this is your “base map” — and mark the place where you found your mystery. (I hope you did take notes!) That’s your point of departure. The next step? Head for a library.

What you’re looking for is other maps — older maps, to be exact. Old quads are good. So are tax maps, insurance maps from the early years of the twentieth century, and nineteenth-century county atlases. If you’ve never looked at them before, the insurance maps and old atlases will astonish you. The insurance maps tell you almost everything you’d want to know about the buildings in a village or city: who owned them, what they were made of, even the date of the last structural inspection. The atlases come a close second. Published for nearly every county in the Northeast by firms like D.J. Lake & S.N. Beers of Philadelphia, they give the locations of tens of thousands of individual homes, businesses, and barns, each carefully labelled with their owners’ names. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Information culture began long before the Internet came on the scene.

But suppose you can’t find any old maps of your area in the local library? Suppose there are only sixteen copies of the latest Tom Clancy thriller? Then go to a bigger branch, or a university library, or your town’s historical society. Ask around. Talk to the people at the reference desks. Sooner or later you’ll strike pay dirt. And once you do, nothing can hold you back.

To begin with, make copies of the relevant portions of all the maps you’ve found. Be sure that each copy has a North arrow and a scale, and be sure to record the map’s survey date. It helps if you use the same scale for each map. If you’re tracing them, this will mean that you’ll have to do a little work. (You’ll soon find out if you remember how to solve proportions.) A photocopier or a scanner makes things a lot easier, fortunately, but be sure to ask before photocopying or scanning old maps. Not all libraries permit this.

Once you’ve got copies of all the maps you can find, each roughly to the same scale, lay them out side by side, in chronological order, with the North arrows all pointing the same way. (Remember the difference between True and Magnetic North? Magnetic North changes over the years. True doesn’t. So use True.) Put the most recent map on the far left and the oldest one on the far right. Then compare what exists today with what’s shown on the earlier maps. Now you’re really upstreaming!

The rest is easy. In making your comparisons, begin by matching as many points on the maps as you can. Look for things that don’t change places often: crossroads, churches, and cemeteries, for example. Now note any obvious changes over the years. Are you looking at a river? Check for milldams and millponds, bridges, and impoundments. These often “disappear” between one map and the next. Don’t be too concerned by apparent alterations in the river’s course, however. Nineteenth-century surveys weren’t always models of accuracy, and rivers do pick up and move from time to time. (In flood-plain rivers, look for evidence of stranded oxbows. That’s one give-away sign that a river’s on the move.)

Lastly, transfer any and all useful information from the older maps to your base-map. Was there a nineteenth-century milldam near where you found the drilled boulder? Did a hydroelectric dam built in the 1950s raise the level of a tributary stream and inundate a seasonal ford on a farm-to-market road? Was there a railroad freight terminus on the lakeshore one hundred years ago — serving a long-abandoned iron mine, perhaps — exactly where the present-day village stands? If so, you’re well on your way to solving your mysteries, and you’ve discovered something even more important into the bargain. History’s not confined to dusty books on library shelves. Wherever you are, even in the middle of a river, history’s all around you. You just have to look for the clues it’s left behind — and then head upstream!

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Getting Around

Whispering Death: Strainers, Sweepers, and You

Whitewater! It’s that time of year — at least in northern North America. The rivers are running fast, and paddlers’ pulses are keeping step. It’s a good time to be in a boat, on a river. But the price of a good time can be high, and sometimes even the scenery can kill. So follow Tamia as she shows you how to avoid the clutches of “Whispering Death.”

by Tamia Nelson | April 16, 2002

You can never know, till you try it, what a dead pull a river makes against a man. Death himself had me by the heels, for this was his last ambuscade, and he must now join personally in the fray.

— Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage

Whitewater! It’s that time of year — at least in northern North America. Even in near-drought areas, the winter snowpack’s melting, and the ice is off the water. The rivers are running fast, and paddlers’ pulses are keeping step. It’s a good time to be in a boat, on a river. It’s a good time to be alive.

Alive. Get it? Spring whitewater is cold and fast. And it can kill as well as thrill. Even tiny streams hold whispering death.

What’s “whispering death”? It’s my name for one of the deadliest killers on the water: the strainer. And what’s a strainer? Anything with holes big enough to let water through, but still small enough to stop a boat — or a body. There are a lot of them around: culverts, downed trees, undercut ledges, fences, even abandoned cars.

Why are strainers deadly? Have you ever watched a fly that’s been caught in the blast of air from a fan and then thrown against a screen? The blast slips right through the metal mesh, but the fly is pinned down by the force. It struggles and buzzes until you shut off the fan. Or until it dies.

The same thing can happen to a paddler caught in a strainer. The water slips through easily. The paddler doesn’t. She struggles, of course, but unless she can haul herself up and out of the water, or unless she’s rescued by someone else, she stays pinned like that fly on the screen. Nobody’s going to shut off the water, after all. And what if her head happens to be under the surface when she’s pinned? Then her life expectancy is measured by the length of time she can hold her breath.

Ledges and abandoned cars notwithstanding, the commonest strainer on most rivers is the fallen tree. It’s a familiar story. Spring floodwaters eat away at the riverbanks on the outside of each bend, where the current is fastest. Sooner or later, the undercut banks collapse, often bringing one or more trees down at the same time. Sometimes the trees keep their connection to the bank, hanging down over the water. (Then they’re called sweepers.) Sometimes the whole tree is submerged and wedged fast where it fell. Either way, the end result is a thicket of branches. The river sweeps right through. But you won’t, will you?

Birth of a Sweeper - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Where does “whispering death” come into the picture? The next time you’re on a river — or walking on the bank — keep your eyes open. When you spot a downed tree in the water, stop and listen. (CAUTION If you’re paddling, approach strainers from downstream only! Never float down on a strainer from upstream. And if you’re walking along the bank, be sure that it’s not about to give way, tumbling you in.)

Listen! Hear the water’s sibilant shush, shush, shushing through the branches? That’s the siren song of whispering death.

Chances are good that you won’t have to look very far to find a strainer. They’re not rare. You can see them almost anywhere: big rivers, small streams, even along the margins of reservoirs with fast-moving deep currents. And while spring floodwaters are the most dangerous times, strainers can be killers at any season of the year. Farwell once rescued a woman who got into trouble in early summer, on a placid reach of a tiny trout stream. The current probably wasn’t moving along at more than one-half-mile an hour, but that was enough. The water was still cold. The woman was weak. And she was stuck in the branches of a downed sycamore like a fly on a screen. Happily, she survived. She was lucky.

Not all downed trees are dangerous to paddlers, of course. On the margins of lakes they’re part of the scenery, and good habitat into the bargain. Lunkers often lurk among the tangled branches of lakeside sweepers.

Still, any combination of fast (or even not-so-fast) water and downed trees can be deadly. This isn’t a new discovery. The nineteenth-century English writer Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was a keen kayaker. But a sweeper nearly put an end to his career before it had properly begun. Here’s the story, just as he told it in his first book, An Inland Voyage:

I was aware of another fallen tree within a stonecast. I had my back-board down in a trice, and aimed for a place where the trunk seemed high enough above the water, and the branches not too thick to let me slip below … . The tree caught me about the chest, and while I was yet struggling to make less of myself and get through, the river took the matter out of my hands and bereaved me of my boat. The Arethusa swung round broadside on, leaned over, ejected so much of me as still remained on board, and, thus disencumbered, whipped under the tree, righted, and went merrily away down stream.

I do not know how long it was before I scrambled on to the tree to which I was left clinging, but it was longer than I cared about … . The stream ran away with my heels as fast as I could pull up my shoulders, and I seemed, by the weight, to have all the water of the [River] Oise in my trousers’ pockets. You can never know, till you try it, what a dead pull a river makes against a man. Death himself had me by the heels … . And still I held to my paddle. At last I dragged myself onto my stomach on the trunk, and lay there a breathless sop, with a mingled sense of humor and injustice … . On my tomb, if ever I have one, I mean to get these words inscribed: He clung to his paddle.

Stevenson may have hung onto his paddle, but he did one Very Bad Thing: he tried to slip through the branches of a sweeper. He didn’t make the same mistake again. Neither should you.

There’s only one way to tackle strainers. Avoid them.

How? Any way you can. Sometimes you’ll have to portage. Sometimes — particularly in spring — you’ll even have to pick a different river. But most places, most of the time, your paddle will keep you out of trouble.

Here’s the deal. Sweepers are most often found on the outside of bends. Unfortunately, that’s right where the current wants to take you. But be of good cheer. If you’re a strong, competent paddler, you can almost always take the ferry out of trouble.

“Take the ferry”? What does that mean? Back in the old days of wagon-roads and cart-horses, there weren’t as many bridges as there are now. Many roads ended at the riverbank. If you wanted to cross, you had to take the ferry.

But how did the ferry get across? Ferry operators, being clever folks, looked for a free ride. They gazed out at the river. It’s too bad all that energy couldn’t be harnessed, they thought. And then they realized that it could. Just string a pair of cables across the river at the ferry-crossing. Tie the ferry to the cables at bow and stern, with loops in the lines. Kick the stern (upstream end) of the ferry out into the current. Cast off. What happens next? Magic. The rushing water pushes hard on the angled boat, but the cables keep it from slipping downstream. So it slides sideways, from one bank of the river to the other. The bow points where you’ve been. The stern points where you’re going. It’s fast. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s a piece of cake. A lot of ferry-operators got rich.

Of course you’re not tied to a cable when you’re in your boat, are you? But you have a paddle. All you have to do to hold yourself stationary is to back-paddle. The force of the current will do the rest. Strainer coming up? No problem! Just point your bow at it — yes point the bow at the strainer — kick the stern toward the inside of the bend, and back-paddle. You’ll glide away from danger as easily as if you’d taken the ferry.

Well, maybe it’s not always that simple. You have to get the angle right, for one thing. You need to remember that the current doesn’t run parallel to the banks in bends: it heads for the outside. And you have to set your angle relative to the current. When you’re headed downstream, you aim your bow toward the thing you want to avoid and then kick the stern away from it, making an angle across the line of the current. If you’re still heading where you don’t want to go, open the angle: push the stern over even more.

Of course, the faster the water, the harder you’ll have to paddle to hold your own against the current. And you’ll have to close the angle to keep from being swept downstream, too. In slow water, you can afford to be almost broadside to the current. As the river speeds up, however, you have to tighten the angle. Then, when the river runs faster than you can paddle even when you’re paddling as hard as you can, it’s time to open up the angle again. But now you can’t help slipping downstream. Fast. So be sure that you’ve given yourself plenty of room to maneuver.

Confused? I’m not surprised. You can’t learn to do this in your living room. Supervised practice is essential.

Taking the Ferry - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Fast water is one thing. Big waves are something else. Executing a ferry in Class III-IV whitewater is neither simple or easy. So start out in safe water first, with skilled friends standing by and not a strainer in sight. You’ll also want to work on the bow-upstream ferry. It gives you more power and better control, but you won’t be able to see where you’re going. You’ll need to remember that you’ve swapped ends, too: when you’ve turned around and you’re facing upriver, you want to point your stern at the danger, and angle the bow away. (Need help keeping this straight? Just remember to point the downstream end of your boat — whether bow or stern — at the thing you want to avoid, and angle the upstream end toward safety. That’s all there is to it.)

Of course, it’s even better to avoid trouble in the first place. Stay off rivers in flood. When rivers rise over their banks, even familiar things can become lethal traps, and there’s no strainer more deadly than a barbed wire fence. Once the water falls, scout every drop you plan to run, every time you run it, even if you ran it just last week. A single heavy rain can create new strainers overnight. And except for the low-water days of summer, stay on the inside of bends. This is where the ferry comes in handy. If in doubt, simply keep your stern tucked in and back-paddle.

Taken by surprise? (This shouldn’t happen, but from time to time it does.) No time to set up a ferry? In a narrow stream you can sometimes eddy out in the slacker water on the inside of a bend, drift down till you’re clear of danger, and then peel out into the main current again. It’s worth trying.

And what if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself caught in a strainer someday? Don’t try to swim through the branches! You don’t want to be pinned underwater. Instead, lean downstream and grab your would-be killer with both hands. (Forget about your paddle. Sorry, RLS!) Then haul yourself out and up — out of your boat and up toward safety. Leave your boat to look after itself. Get right up on the trunk of the tree if you can. If you can’t, concentrate on keeping your head above water. And be very glad you never paddle fast water alone.

Does this sound scary? It is. And there aren’t any guarantees that you’ll live to tell the tale. I don’t call strainers “whispering death” for nothing. So when danger looms up in front of you, use your head and take the ferry. You’ll be glad you did.

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

It’s Only Natural!

Making Your Own Luck: Outfitting for Discovery

Be prepared! That’s always good advice, but it’s especially important if your paddling trips are also voyages of discovery through the natural world. Paddler or naturalist, or both together, you’re only as good as your gear. So join Tamia as she explains the importance of each item in “Outfitting for Discovery.”

by Tamia Nelson | April 23, 2002

If you paddle to get closer to nature, you know how important good luck can be. Chance encounters — a bear crossing a river, say, or a moose foraging in the shallow margin of a pond — are often the ones you’ll treasure most and remember longest. But Luck doesn’t love everyone equally. She has to be wooed. How? By being prepared, of course! Louis Pasteur probably said it best. Dans les champs de l’observations le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés. My rather free translation: “Luck’s a lady only if you’re ready for her.”

Seems obvious enough, doesn’t it? But how many folks do you know who’ve missed chances because they weren’t prepared? A lot, I’m betting.

OK. As a paddler with an interest in the natural world, you’ll want to be ready to welcome Lady Luck anytime she shows up. And being ready means always having the proper gear, because you never know when Luck will come calling.

It makes no difference if you’re going out for a few hours or a few days — or a few months, come to that. There are some things you always ought to have with you. Period. After all, you wouldn’t leave your paddles behind, or your boat, would you? Well there’s more to a voyage of discovery than transport. You need tools, too.

A naturalist’s field kit doesn’t have to be expensive, heavy, or high-tech. In fact, the basic list is short and simple. Here it is:

  • Small rucksack or knapsack
  • First-aid kit
  • Raingear
  • Drinking water
  • Field journal, pencils and pens
  • Map(s)
  • Compass
  • Watch
  • Hand lens
  • Pocket ruler
  • Knife

See what I mean? Simple and short. It’s common sense, really. You won’t discover much if you’re wet or thirsty, and you’ll be hard-pressed to make good notes on credit-card receipts. Now let’s take a look at each item in turn.

Rucksack or Knapsack

Whatever bag you choose to haul your kit, make sure it’s sturdy and easy to carry. With so much gear being produced for the recreational market today, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding just what you need.

Can’t make up your mind? Then carry both. I do. My favorite rucksack is an old Cold Warrior, and so is my field knapsack — a handy canvas satchel that’s perfect for my “discovery kit.”

The satchel’s a naturalist’s dream come true. Just big enough to accommodate a standard-sized clipboard, it holds all my basic field kit, including the folded poncho. It also has a flap-protected full-width outer pocket, while a webbing sling and handle make it a snap to carry. But it still slips easily into the main compartment of my rucksack.

You’ll probably have your own favorite, of course. But whatever you use to carry your stuff, be sure that you can close it up tight. If not, you’ll find out just how easy it is to lose small items when you’re on the move. And once you’ve made your choice, put all your kit in the bag and keep it there, ready to go. That way, you’ll always be ready to make the most of Lady Luck’s surprise visits. (Be sure to dry everything after each trip, though.)

First-Aid Kit

This shouldn’t require any explanation. A single blister can spoil your day, after all. So learn basic first aid and carry what you need. Your kit doesn’t have to be elaborate. Band-aids, alcohol swabs, gauze squares, an Ace bandage, a few aspirin tablets … . You know the particular weaknesses your flesh is heir to. So carry what you need. (CAUTION This is a first-aid kit. On long trips, or on any trip to a truly remote area, you should have a comprehensive medical-surgical kit in every boat — and you should know how to use it. You can’t dial 911 “north of fifty” and expect an ambulance to pull up at your door five minutes later.)


I carry a surplus poncho. It’s cheap and sturdy, and it doubles as a shelter of sorts for note-taking in the rain. It can even be used to make a serviceable blind. But it’s not a good choice on the water. If you’ve ever tried to paddle into the teeth of stiff blow while wearing a poncho, you’ll know what I mean. (A poncho makes a pretty good sail in a following wind, however.) As for swimming with one — forget it! So wear your paddling jacket and pants when you’re in your boat, but take a poncho, too.

Drinking Water

The rivers and lakes you paddle won’t always be safe to drink, and you can’t drink sea water. But paddling’s sweaty work, and you’ll need to quench your thirst regularly. I always take at least one one-quart bottle with me, even in cool, wet weather. In hot weather I carry more, often a whole lot more.

Field Journal, Pencils and Pens

If 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 fancy. I’ve used pads of lined paper from the shelves of the local supermarket, spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks, and hard-backed surveyor’s field books. The field books are the sturdiest — and the most expensive — but any of these will serve you well. Just keep it dry. (Ziplock bags work fine.) And then use it!

Pencil or pen? Use whichever you prefer. But beware: most ink runs when it gets damp, so pencil’s best in wet or humid weather. Use a relatively soft lead, too. It’s hard to make fine lines with a soft pencil — though a chisel point on the working end helps — but you’re much less likely to tear damp paper.


You’ll need them to stay found. You also need them when you’re making notes. Where is just as important as What and When, after all. Topographic maps are best. Protect them from water. (You might even want to make multiple photocopies. Then you can take notes directly on your map.)


Another must-have. And be sure you know how to use it. (We’ll be doing a series on navigator’s tools later in the year.) A map without a compass is like an ax without a helve.


I know. You go paddling to escape the demands of the workaday world. But it’s often as important to know the time of day in the backcountry as it is in the office. So get a waterproof watch with a one-piece, pass-through strap and wear it. Cover the dial if you like. Then you’ll only see it when you want to.

Hand Lens

These little magnifiers are cheap, light, and easy to use. And they’ll open new windows on even the most familiar landscapes. 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 world? Read Small is Beautiful and see for yourself. I think you’ll agree.

Pocket Ruler

No angler would leave home without a tape to measure the size of a lunker, and every paddler should have a ruler, too, particularly if she’s interested in the natural world. Science begins with measurement, and the paddling naturalist is a 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. (You can learn a lot about animals from their scats. They’re almost always worth examining, if only to confirm exactly what bears do in the woods. Never handle them, however. Some may contain parasites.)

You’ll find a wide selection of plastic rulers in any stationery store or supermarket. Keep the one you choose with your field journal. And if it happens to be transparent, as many are, stick a bit of brightly-colored tape on one end. You’ll see just why this is a good idea the first time you drop it.

A more exotic alternative is set of engineer’s scales. I have one. It looks a little like the small fans flourished by Victorian ladies in their drawing rooms. Instead of a fan, however, the case conceals a selection of plastic rulers. In addition to both centimeter and inch rules, it has a number of map-scales, ranging from 1:12,000 to 1:250,000. It also has a photographic scale printed on the case, with boldly-drawn inch and centimeter graduations. This is perfect for showing the scale in photos of tracks, scats, or flowers.


Another no-brainer. I always carry a sheath knife when paddling, but I also keep a well-sharpened pocket knife with my field kit. It’s been used for everything from removing splinters to sectioning buds. I wouldn’t leave home without it.

* * *

That’s the basic kit. Now here are a few other items to consider:

  • Binocular (or monocular)
  • Field guide(s)
  • Camera or camcorder
  • Sketchpad and pencils or paints

Binocular or Monocular

I really should list these with the basic kit, I suppose, but since there are times when I don’t carry them, they ended up here. Good binoculars are expensive and more or less heavy, but there’s no better tool for enlarging your world. To learn more about them, read The Far-Seeing Eye, Part 1 and Part 2.

Field Guides

You can’t tell the players without a score card, can you? Still, our library of field guides takes up more than 15 feet of shelf space, so it’s impossible to carry every guide we might want. Instead, we often take “theme” trips, concentrating on a single aspect of the natural world and carrying only one or two of the most useful guides.

Too much trouble? Then leave the guides on the bookshelf and make careful notes about anything you can’t identify. Once you get back home, take out your journal and start “keying out” your finds. There’s probably no better way to learn to see — and to take good notes, into the bargain!

Camera or Camcorder

Not very long ago, naturalists did most of their work with a shotgun. Their motto? “What’s hit is history. What’s missed is mystery.” Now the Age of the Collector is over. Today, almost all collecting is done with a camera. And a very good thing that is, too. The choice of cameras is extraordinarily wide. Use whatever meets your needs and fits your budget. Don’t forget a really waterproof bag, though!

Sketchpad and Pencils or Paints

What the canoe is to the jet-ski, the sketchpad is to the camera. Drawing and painting aren’t for everyone, but anyone can learn to do either if he wants to. I think it’s worth the effort — and the rewards can extend far beyond the finished picture.

* * *

Is that all? Of course not! It would be easy to add even more items to this list. Too easy, in fact. We’ve carried everything from pH paper to Secchi disks with us when we’ve ventured out on the water. If you begin by assembling the kit I’ve just described, however, you’re already outfitted for discovery. And that’s what really matters, isn’t it? See you on the water!

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Our Readers Write

Letters Too Good to Keep to Ourselves

Two recent series, “Waterway Rambling” and “It’s Only Natural,” inspired lots of folks to send us their own thoughts. Illuminating, lyrical, and provocative by turns, their letters were simply too good to keep to ourselves. So we’ve asked three writers’ permission to share their words with you. You’ll find what they had to say in “Our Readers Write.”

by Tamia Nelson | April 30, 2002

Two recent series — Waterway Rambling — Rediscovering Our Heritage by Canoe or Kayak and It’s Only Natural! Getting Close to Nature in a Canoe or Kayak — have brought us some of the most interesting mail we’ve received in the four years we’ve been writing for Paddling.net. Illuminating, lyrical, and provocative by turns, it was simply too good to keep to ourselves, so we’ve asked three writers’ permission to share their letters with you. Here they are.

In Thoreau’s Wake

Dear Tamia and Farwell,

How well I remember my own canoe ramblings in the rivers of southeastern Massachusetts in the mid-1970s! Finding myself between careers, I flipped a metaphorical coin and fastened upon the idea of exploring and documenting the now long-abandoned small rivers and streams that once played a key role in the economic life of Plymouth County.

For months afterward I lived out of a 13′ fiberglass canoe while threading my way joyfully along the miles and miles of fresh and tidal streams that once hosted shipyards, foundries, manufacturing plants of one kind or another (from nails to shovels to shoes), and a virtual cornucopia of other human and not so human endeavors.

The Town River, the North River, the Weeweantic River, the Hocomock River, the South River, the Nemasket River, the Taunton River, the Jones River, the Nipennicket Stream  … . The list goes on and on and on.

Littered with the worn, lichen-covered granite footings of a once water-power dependent society, these lovely little streams wound their way softly through back yards, along the shoulders of major highways, through industrial parks, and across cow pastures. (On one occasion, I was unfortunate enough to paddle round the stern of a Holstein just as she chose to let drop a rather large cow flop!)

Across one of these streams, a crude stone bridge still spans the border between the towns of Bridgewater and Taunton. In the early 1700s, a horse-drawn carriage clattered its way to the nearest church where the two eloping occupants intended to get married. Just minutes later, the stone rang out again with the hoof beats of Reverend Davis’s horse as he rushed to stop the marriage of his daughter to a young man from the “wrong side of the river.” Now there is no roadway left, only a hand-hewn stone bridge spanning a tiny stream in the middle of a field of corn.

Alongside the Town River, the ruins of the Ames Shovel Works stand guard over the labyrinth of stone-lined canals that once powered water-wheels driving trip hammers, forge bellows, and any number of other contrivances. I spent hours exploring this area trying to figure out how they controlled the flow — as well as what the flow itself was used for.

What memories I have of those many hours in which I found myself (once again) in the role of outsider looking in. And how greatly those voyages, through a vast shift in perspective, changed who I was and what I was to become.

As my friend Thoreau indicated in his most often misquoted statement, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” these tiny now-forgotten little streams represent the essence of wildness in areas where the word “wild” most often is used to describe the nature of a teenage party in the local newspaper’s Police Beat.

By all means encourage your readers to explore the waters of their own back yards! Perhaps their imaginations will take root in the still fertile soils through which these meandering watercourses make their way to the sea. Better yet, perhaps while following the course of a local stream they will change the course of their own journey through this life in ways they never dared imagine.

Captain Winston Shaw
Sea Venture Custom Boat Tours
Bar Harbor, Maine

On the Red River Above Texoma

Dear Tamia,

I’ve been enjoying your articles. Since my last letter I have been out on Lake Texoma twice. The first excursion was a study in how to do it wrong. The second went well except in my over-exuberance I wore out my wife. But I am learning from each experience, and the bottom line is that they give a magical uplift to my life. May I tell you about my latest outing?

I finally got to the Red River at five o’clock last Saturday. Why I was so late is another story, but late or no, the hour-and-a-half paddle from the dam to the bridge and back transformed my weekend.

North of the Texoma Lake Eisenhower Dam, beyond the spillway, the Red River meanders northeast before turning east-southeast beyond the Interstate 75 bridge. It goes on to skirt the north border of Texas clear to Louisiana, where it turns south through the bayous and eventually joins the Mississippi. At Texoma, the Red is wide and flat and not very deep. Today it was running slow and clear, about normal level — which means hardly over eight feet anywhere, and only a few inches in some places. The bottom is shale covered with thin green moss. The banks are sand or shale or earth, red or black, sloped or cut straight down through sediment layers. At a glance the riverbed seems much too wide for the water it contains. Numerous driftwood snags lie beached along the banks and wherever the shallows grab them. Some lie hidden beneath the water. Stones, small and large, also lie among them. One must take care to avoid bumping into these. This is a low-hills-to-flat countryside — farmland — given mostly to woods and grazing.

I parked above the soft sand, off the road that runs along the northeast base of the dam. A few large trees are scattered here and there in a short maze of sandy roads that soon end at a barbed-wire fence. The sandbanks slope down to the water, with some ideal kayak launching spots. Five or six other pickups and vans were parked about — fishermen or picnickers or lovers or drinkers or whatnot. Here, one usually finds fishermen standing along the banks casting out as far as possible, on both sides of the river. The water is too shallow for most powerboats; I saw none.

After a hundred-yard carry in soft sand, I floated free at 5:34. Ah, yes! The sun was still fifteen degrees above the southwestern horizon, centered above the dam. The blue north-Texas sky held a few wispy clouds — “Mare’s Tails” I think they’re called. The wind was calm. I took neither coat nor spray skirt.

I pushed off beside a small stream that splashed down the sandbank into the river. A family waved from where they were building a campfire out among old bridge pilings that form a jetty across the water. I paddled through the narrow gap and headed north into open water.

Above the jetty, the riverbanks were deserted. This is far from pristine water, but almost immediately the wildlife which make the river home began to appear. On a far, flat, shale shore a group of black vultures surrounded a large stagnant pool. Their wing tips showed white as they flapped across the pool. Their hooked beaks were orange. Here and there, on both sides of the river, tall and graceful gray cranes fished the shores alone on long-stem legs. These usually took wing as I passed. They seem ungainly in flight, but they know what they are about in the air. They patrol the low skies above the water, skimming above sandbanks and trees. All up and down my route they seemed to take turns keeping a steady eye on me. A few lone sandpipers scurried busily in the shallows. I was too far from the tree-lined shores to hear the numerous small birds I could see flitting there.

There had been some kind of hatch. Swarms of black insects hovered above the water. Now and then a little fish broke the surface below them. Six mallards flew out from behind a driftwood tangle, their whirring wings pushing their graceful long necks steadfastly toward the sky. I like the way ducks seem to fly as though it will be their last chance in the air. Seagulls skimmed and pirouetted, some floating across just above me. Their graceful, slim wings showed sporty black tips. As the evening grew toward dusk, long lines of geese arose above the trees, zigging in long ranks across the eastern sky, high up, heading south toward the Haggerman Bird Sanctuary. These overflights lasted until the light died away. The long, black lines of geese undulated across the horizon, high above the dam, entering the realm of brilliant sunset colors. I lost count at about the seventh line.

The wide, brown riverbed came sometimes into view as I paddled northeast; wherever the river ran shallow I could see the tan-green rocky bottom. I steered toward the flats, looking for deeper water. In general I was successful, but in four places the bottom of my Necky Looksha scraped for a few hold-your-breath yards. The water always deepened again, though — except once when I did have to push backward. This came later, on my return, heading into the sunset, trying to follow the way I had come rather than my instincts. Here I backed out toward deep water. I had no desire to get my feet wet.

The I-75 Texas-Oklahoma bridge here is high and long. Low hills rise to meet it on both ends. It carries two wide concrete lanes in each direction. The bright colors of trucks streamed south as I approached. I finally paddled under the huge concrete columns, steering for the deepest water, and cringed as I felt the Looksha strike a submerged object. Beside the concrete automotive bridge runs a separate, older, railroad bridge — a steel span atop dark wooden pilings, equally high and long. The crumpled, black remains of an even older span lie in the riverbed beyond the railroad bridge. I floated slowly by. Before the bridges, I knew wagon trains had sought firm rock near here to cross in low water. And before them, probably the Indians had their own favorite crossing trails.

I turned about and headed back, facing upstream now. As I cleared the bridges, a train passed overhead and filled the river with a terrible, low-pitched rumble. The sound rolled down the river and up my spine.

The sun was setting behind the dam. Its flare was blinding. I set the brim of my hat low, but still could hardly see to navigate. I could see the passing river banks clearly, though, rising up from beneath the silver mirror of the perfectly calm water. Far ahead, coral clouds in a turquoise sky formed spectacular double images in air and water. The colors flared above and below the long gray bulk of the distant dam. My kayak floated in a turquoise and coral river, a perfect image of the sky. Into this image flew rank after rank of ragged-vee geese formations. I would gladly have paddled with them, but I could not seem to keep up.

The deep dusk seemed to excite the life of the river. Below the shining and now opaque surface, eddies and swirls rose from fish and other creatures I could only imagine. One fish broke the surface ahead of me with a huge splash. Startled in mid-stroke, I watched as its wide silver body flashed swiftly underneath my keel. I craned my neck around to see it break water again behind me. This fish was my big medicine of the trip. It gave me a glimpse of how wild the river really is, and what energetic life it holds, in spite of grazing cattle, bridges, rumbling trains, and passing kayaks.

Cranes now flew up and down the shores, black against the sky. More fish roiled the water, some large enough to form bow waves ahead of their rapid advance. Their wakes mingled with mine.

I strained forward to see into the glare and darkness — to guess which way best to steer. I knew I had started too late, that I should not have come alone, and that I should have brought my spray skirt in case of wind. Blows can spring up quickly here. I felt a mingle of concern and thrill, like an old pioneer on a new trail — except for the smooth molded-plastic perfection of the kayak around me. But even here I could imagine a skin-covered boat of similar, ancient design.

Far to the southwest a few electric lights came on and outlined the huge, black bulk at the top of the concrete dam. The dam itself and the overflow basin below were now shrouded in shadow. The sun had sunk below the horizontal line and was flaring at the center of my view. The dusky gray line of sky spread above and around the flare. The lights of traffic moved along the highway atop the dam. And then a gentle breeze sprang up and cast a rubbery ripple across the dark water, breaking up my perfect mirror.

By the time I reached my departure beach, the light had almost faded away. My pickup was barely visible among the trees. The dark shapes of fishing families moved on the sandy shore, in the deep gloom of dusk. I could hear voices, mostly Spanish. I floated soundlessly in toward them, resting my paddle, looking for a good place to bring my boat back onto the beach. When I found the spot, I paddled hard to glide as far up onto the sand as possible.

As I stepped ashore, placing my feet in my sandals, two boys came across the sand toward me. “Catch any fish?” they asked. I’m sure they assumed no one would be dumb enough to be on the river without a fishing pole. They had not been here to see me depart.

“No,” I said, “but I saw some big ones. There are big ones out there in the middle.”

“What kind are they?”

“I couldn’t see what kind they were. Probably bass. You guys catching any?”

“Only a few. Thank you, sir, for telling us about the big ones out there.”

The two boys stood a moment looking across the dark water, and then walked on. I took note of the “sir” and tried to imagine what they were thinking.

“Good luck with your fishing,” I called out. I could tell that the family was making an evening of it. They had a low campfire flaring beyond the bend.

“Thank you, sir,” the boys said again as I picked up my kayak and carried it across the sand toward my pickup, my paddle clutched in my left hand. I did not want to have to make a second trip across the wet sand. The 65-pound boat felt heavy against my leg now, and the soft sand oozed away beneath my feet, but I walked briskly, in what I hoped was the manner of a heroic river-man, come unexpectedly out of the night, alone in a magic fish-shaped craft. A river-man from the dark north water. A man could do worse than to inspire boys to paddle on a wide river, I thought. I hope they caught a good supper.

Back at Windyhill, after a thirty-minute drive, my wife had a good pinto bean supper ready. I showered up and made cornbread, using stone-ground corn and wheat flour — an experiment that worked — and buttermilk, of course. It was an excellent meal.

I sit here now in the middle of Dallas, with traffic roaring on the interchanges and freeways, and a constant stream of airliners overhead. The Looksha and rivers and sunset evenings all await my return. And the big-medicine fish. Next time I may well have a fishing rig along. For sure I will have my camera. I’ve been wondering today just how long a man is expected to endure the inconvenience of employment.

John Caywood
Windyhill Farm, Texas

Fouling Our Own Nest

Well done, Tamia! Great start on the new series. We ran across a seagull on the water this morning whose wing had become entangled in a string attached to a balloon, and it could not fly. We cornered it against a seawall, and it got away once, but it swam toward one of the other members in our party and he caught it. Another paddler provided a knife, and the unwilling and thrashing bird was freed, at least for the most part. It was able to fly after that, even though part of the string was not reachable. We have seen other birds tangled in flotsam, but usually they fly away from us. Note well that you can paddle faster than a seagull can swim — and they don’t like people, either.

This episode got me thinking about the larger problem. The Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City are over, and we are left with images of memorable triumphs and disappointments to keep in our actual or virtual scrapbooks. One of the most memorable for me was the sight of numerous workers filling bag upon bag of trash left behind by spectators.

Sometime since my youth the message has gone forth to the multitudes: “Someone Else Will Pick It Up.” Was it lax parenting? Hippie Counterculture? Who knows, but the message has been taken to heart. For years as a runner I saw increasing amounts of garbage along the roadways — the same you see if you commute or travel for pleasure along the freeway or tollway. Fast food outlets with drive-through lanes contribute mightily to the surfeit of trash and garbage along the roads. Some folks apparently think, “It came in through the window, so … .”

And public parks, even when liberally sprinkled with receptacles for trash — as were all the Olympic venues — look as though it had snowed trash after a weekend. Now, as a kayak paddler, I find that San Diego Bay looks the same, especially after a high tide. Worse, this trash entangles, strangles, and smothers birds and other creatures, and the fuel and other chemicals make any fish a questionable trophy for the numerous anglers who try their hand in the tainted water. Floating trash and trash along the shore is both unsightly and unhealthy.

Regardless of the reasons — and laziness has to be one of them — it is vitally important that we change the attitude that someone else will clean it up and that the world is our trash can. Many “lower” species of organisms seem to be better at keeping their homes fit for living than are we. That is truly sad.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Gerry Adler
San Diego, California

That’s all for now. Look for “Our Readers Write” again in July. In the meantime, keep reading, keep writing, and keep telling us what’s on your minds!

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

A Short History of Canoe Sailing

Putting the Old Woman to Work, Part 1: And an Invitation

“Trip of Lifetime”‘s Ed and Brenna are catching their breaths and getting their bearings. They’ll be back in September. Now, however, it’s the season for real-life adventures. How about sailing, for example? No go, you say? Canoeists and kayakers paddle. Sailors sail. And never the twain shall meet. OK. But it wasn’t always like that. In “Putting the Old Woman to Work,” Farwell explores the history (and possibilities) of canoe sailing.

by Tamia Nelson | May 7, 2002

A Note to the Reader

The voyageurs called her La Vieille, the Old Woman. And she wasn’t anyone’s favorite Grandmama. She was a vicious, capricious, mean-spirited old hag, given to sudden sulks and tantrums, and inclined to hold a grudge. To be sure, she smiled on the voyageurs from time to time, but it was always a thin smile. There was no love in it, and it never lasted. Before long, she’d be in a rage again.

She was, of course, the wind. When she met the voyageurs head on, they cursed her — silently, because no sane man wanted to get on the wrong side of the Old Woman — and then they paddled harder, sweating and singing as wind-driven waves dumped gallon after gallon of water into their Montréal canoes. And when the Old Lady turned round and buffeted their backs for a change, what then? The voyageurs raised their big square sails and murmured half-remembered prayers, while their overloaded canoes scudded along before the gusts, making six knots or more, with each sickening roll threatening to drive a gunwale under and toss every man into the water to drown or freeze.

Despite their prayers, this happened often. When fully loaded, the 36-foot canoes had only six inches of freeboard. It didn’t take much of a roll to send water surging over the rail, and that was usually the end of the story: few voyageurs could swim a stroke. It’s no wonder that they preferred paddle to sail. Better to drown in warm sweat, they thought, than to sink beneath the cold, cold water of the northern lakes.

But why, then, did the voyageurs ever raise their sails at all? Simply because they couldn’t afford not to. They weren’t paddling for pleasure. They were the engines of the fur-trade, and the hard-eyed accountants in Montréal and London didn’t believe in turning down a free ride when one was offered. If a voyageur drowned as a result — if a hundred voyageurs drowned — it made no difference to the accountants. They knew they’d always find more recruits to fill the gaps.

The accountants did hate to lose money, though. And each time a Montréal canoe rolled a gunwale under, foundered, and broke up, it set three tons of trade goods or furs adrift. Here was a loss the accountants couldn’t accept. Their solution was the York boat, a broad-beamed double-ender that could carry more sail, more safely, than any canoe. As an added bonus, the York boat was rowed rather than paddled, making it possible for the Company to augment their French-Canadian workforce with stolid boatmen recruited from Scotland’s Orkney Isles. The voyageurs were relegated to a supporting role from then on. They’d always been a little too mercurial and independent for the Company’s tastes, anyway. So the accountants smiled their bloodless smiles, drew their double lines at the bottom of each column in their ledgers, and closed the books on the first chapter in the history of the fur trade.

The scene shifts. The Hudson’s Bay Company had been started by self-styled “gentlemen Adventurers,” but by the late 1860s in Europe, canoes were carrying very different cargoes from the furs, brandy, and trinkets that made up the Company’s lading. Nineteenth-century gentlemen sought adventures closer to home. Following in the wake of John (“Rob Roy”) MacGregor, men of fashion were taking to the water by the hundreds, accompanied by a few daring women. Their decked canoes were mostly copies of the irrepressible Rob Roy’s own Rob Roy. It, in turn, was loosely modeled on the Inuit kayak. Before long, these slim, swift craft could be seen on every river, lake, and canal in Europe, moving silently forward under the impulse of a double-bladed paddled — until, that is, a favorable slant of wind appeared. Then the gentleman adventurer would ship his paddle, raise a scrap of sail on a stubby mast, light his pipe (or open his Bible), and let the wind blow him along toward the comfortable inn that was his destination for the day.

Canoeing had left commerce behind. It was now a civilized (and civilizing) recreation. The wind was a welcome auxiliary, not a bane, and the Old Woman was now courted, not cursed.

Soon things had come full circle. Rob Roys invaded the North American continent in force. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s bark canoes, though still employed to carry express messages and move furs and freight along northern rivers too steep for the York boats, were tarred with the taint of commerce. They were good enough for the Company’s horny-handed “servants,” to be sure, but gentlemen in search of recreation preferred sporty little Rob Roys. These gentlemen were sailors as well as canoeists, too. The Rob Roy was even tagged the “poor man’s yacht.”

“Poor man,” indeed! In 1880, a new Rob Roy cost almost as much as an American laborer could hope to earn in a year. Not surprisingly, there weren’t many laborers sailing Rob Roys. When working men went canoeing  — and most working men were poor men in late nineteenth-century America — they followed the lead of writers like Nessmuk, the ne’er-do-well cobbler who explored the Adirondacks in a succession of tiny open canoes. Nessmuk wasn’t a sailor. Even if the idea had appealed to him (and I’ve found no evidence that it did), the fluky winds that buffeted the tiny mountain lakes would have discouraged the attempt. For Nessmuk, as for generations of Americans to come, canoeing and sailing were mutually exclusive activities. Sailing was for well-heeled gents and their ladies. Canoeing was for working men and women. And never the twain would meet.

That’s too bad. While America paddled into the twentieth century, cursing each contrary wind, Europe continued to enjoy the Old Woman’s occasional flirtations. A new type of canoe appeared. Developed in Germany, it was quickly taken up by the citizens of every European nation. Made of fabric stretched over wooden frames, and cheaper than the old hand-crafted Rob Roys, it could be taken apart and carried aboard a train. The result? Long before working men and women could dream of owning automobiles, European canoeists were taking canoes along with them on holiday. They ran whitewater rivers, just as John MacGregor had done before them. And just as MacGregor had done, they sailed.

Now we’ve come full circle once again. Rob Roy canoes (a.k.a. “recreational kayaks”) are in every catalog, and some of them have sails. Will Americans rediscover the pleasures of canoe sailing? The jury’s still out, but I’m betting that they will. Learning to sail is no harder than mastering the J-stroke or acquiring a bomb-proof roll. What’s more, it’s fun, and it can be done on almost any body of water. It can even be done on the icy surface of a frozen lake! Sailing’s a four-season sport, in other words, with a free ride thrown in for good measure.

A lot of water has flowed downhill into the world’s oceans since the voyageurs first crossed themselves and hoisted their big square sails on the lakes of North America. But I think we’ll be seeing those sails again. Soon. How could any paddler resist the temptation to put the Old Woman to work, after all?

To be continued…

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Getting Around

Get Out and Get Over! Doing the Beaver Dam Shuffle

The beaver is king in North America’s canoe country, and beaver ponds teem with life. But beaver dams can still be a real pain to canoeists and kayakers. They don’t have to slow YOU down, though. Join Tamia as she describes some of the many ways to get around in beaver country. It’s as simple as “Get Out and Get Over.”

by Tamia Nelson | May 14, 2002

Beaver ponds are among the jewels of the natural world. They’re reservoirs, absorbing flood waters during years of heavy rainfall and recharging aquifers during prolonged droughts. They’re settling tanks, trapping sediment and releasing crystal-clear water to continue its journey to the sea. They’re also home to a startling variety of creatures. Animals and birds are drawn to beaver ponds and the associated wetlands like metal filings to a magnet. And because wildlife love beaver ponds, I love beaver ponds.

There’s nothing to compare with a quiet paddle around the perimeter of a beaver pond on a calm, late-spring evening. As the sun sinks below the horizon and you drift silently through the lengthening shadows, the pond comes alive. Frogs begin their raucous come-hither chorus. Whitetail deer escort their fawns to the water’s edge for a drink. Turtles drop with a splash from their daytime perches on partially-submerged logs. An otter tucks noisily into a fish dinner on the top of the dam. Then, if you’ve timed things just right, a full moon rises over the dark fringe of pines, just as a whole a family of beavers emerges from their lodge, ready to start the night’s work.

North America was once blessed with tens of millions of ponds like these. No more. Today there are fewer beavers, and far fewer beaver ponds and wetlands. Happily, though, beaver dams are still a common sight on canoe-country rivers. That’s good. But you only get what you pay for. Beaver ponds are a delight, but beaver dams can be … well … a damned nuisance. Dams can be wide or narrow, low or high, but whatever their size, they can be formidable obstacles, particularly if you’re paddling a kayak or long solo canoe.

Why do beavers build dams, anyway? Simple self-interest. A dam makes a pond in a river, and the pond makes a moat. Beavers need deep water to survive, and if the water where they decide to make their home isn’t deep enough, they’ll make it deeper. They’re a lot like us, really. They don’t accept geography as destiny.

Beavers are eclectic vegetarians. Though they eat buds, leaves, and the roots of aquatic plants, their favorite food is the inner bark of trees. Trees grow on land, but beavers are clumsy once out of the water — all but defenseless, in fact. Water is their element. So they make use of water to float harvested trees back home, even digging canals deep into the forest.

And home for a beaver is usually a hemispherical lodge — a spiky igloo built largely of mud-chinked branches. Surrounded by deep water and thick-walled, a lodge is proof against all but the most determined carnivores. Even bears have a hard time tearing their way into a beaver’s house.

Lodges vary in size, but they all look more or less the same. Debarked limbs are smeared with mud and woven into a dome whose base rests on the bottom of the pond. The roof rises above the water. Sometimes pebbles and cobbles are incorporated into the walls, further strengthening the structure. An underwater entrance leads through a short tunnel to a snug, dry platform. This is the heart of the lodge. While beavers will spend hours at a time in the water, they need a place to dry off, groom, and oil their fur. If they get soaked to the skin, they can contract pneumonia.

No beaver can afford to get sick. Beavers are busy year-round. They don’t hibernate. Before winter locks their pond in ice, they store food — the branches and trunks of trees, with the leaves and bark still attached — in underwater caches near the lodge. Beavers can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. So all winter long, they swim about under the ice, inspecting their dam and fetching branches back to the lodge for a hearty meal.

“Inspecting their dam”? Why bother? Self-interest again. Winter or summer, the dam’s important. It keeps the water level in the beaver pond constant: high enough to conceal the entrance to the lodge, but no higher. The thick-walled, water-girt lodge is also climate-controlled. Cool in summer, it’s toasty warm in winter. So comfortable is a beaver’s lodge, in fact, that the neighbors sometimes move in. Muskrats and otters often set up housekeeping in odd corners, where they’re tolerated so long as they don’t become a nuisance.

Over thousands of years, beavers have left their mark almost everywhere in North America. In a sense, they were the continent’s premier landscape architects — until we came along, that is.

The dam was their principal tool in reshaping the land. Beaver dams are built from the same materials as the lodge. And when pioneering a new homestead, the dam is constructed first. Using materials drawn from the “closet of the woods,” beavers span a stream and raise a dam. They’re good engineers. Their dams are much wider at the base than at the top, and the larger dams form a convex arc, bulging upstream and efficiently distributing stress — just like the dams built by humans. Not surprisingly, beavers spend a great deal of their time maintaining their dams. If a dam is breached, they’ll work round-the-clock to make repairs.

Beaver dams are models of hydraulic engineering, as well. Water trapped behind a dam seeps into the surrounding land, keeping the local aquifer topped up. During the snow-melt-swollen spring run-off, water flows over the top in a “controlled flood.” Later in the year, as undammed neighboring streams dry up to nothing, a steady stream of clear, cold water emerges from the base of each beaver dam.

“Clear, cold water.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? And canoeists often go with the flow. This is where problems sometimes arise. The beavers keep the rivers running long after the spring run-off has peaked, but their dams are a nuisance to paddlers in a hurry.

What’s the remedy? A hint: it’s not dynamite or a crowbar. It’s both simpler and easier. First, slow down. Simply slow down. Take it easy. Remember why you’re on the river. The trip’s the important thing. Elapsed time isn’t. Enjoy the moment.

Second, use your head. There’s a right way to negotiate dams, and doing things the right way will save you both time and trouble. Then you’ll have more time to enjoy the moment. (Call this the Zen of getting around in the back-country. Speed’s not usually important, but efficiency is.)

OK. You’re on your way down a river. There’s a beaver dam ahead. What next? Should you wade? NO. The deepest part of a beaver pond is usually just upstream of the dam. So if you’re planning on wading there — forget it! (The muck at the bottom of beaver ponds in pretty smelly stuff, too. You’ve been warned.) Instead, step out onto the dam itself. If there’s an active lodge nearby, the dam will be in good repair. Even a small dam will support you and your partner, along with your canoe. But be careful: the ends of beaver-gnawn sticks are sharp. Get the point? And watch your step. Mud-covered branches can be slippery. (You are wearing your life-jacket, aren’t you?)

Once on the dam, stay there. Don’t try to scramble up the banks and around the dam. Just get out, lift your boat over the dam, get back in, and continue on your way. Get out and get over. Simple, isn’t it? Here’s the drill:

Let’s say you’re in a tandem canoe. Approach the dam at a shallow angle, if possible. Stern paddler braces. Bow paddler gets out, finds a good place to stand, and steadies the canoe. Next, stern paddler moves up toward the bow of the boat. She steps out onto the dam, too. Together, the paddlers slide the canoe up over the crest of the dam and then ease it carefully down the face. (This will require care — and maybe even a belay — if the dam is a high one.)

Once the boat’s back in the water, the stern paddler hangs on while the bow paddler works his way forward. One he’s settled in his seat and hanging a brace, the stern paddler gets in. A little push, and you’re off. Easy, isn’t it?

Get Out and Get Over that Dam! - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Easy for some, anyway. Solo paddlers — particularly kayakers — aren’t always so lucky. It’s simple if the approach to the dam is wide enough to permit “docking” broadside-on, of course. But what if space is too tight? What if you’re paddling upriver on a narrow stream, for example? What then? Do you approach bow-on? How? There’s no partner to hold a solo paddler’s boat steady, after all.

Sometimes you can portage around the dam — if the bank’s not too steep or swampy, that is. Sometimes you can paddle far enough up onto a dam to be able to step out of your boat without falling into the water. (Sometimes you can’t. Hope you brought a change of clothes.) And sometimes you can inch your way forward on your deck. (Practice this at home first! It’s easiest if another boater rafts up alongside you and hangs on while you hunch your way along. Be sure your deck’s sturdy enough to take the load before you try it, though.)

Kayak Blues - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Complicated? Yes. A bit. When you’re in a kayak, each dam requires a slightly different approach. There’s no universal solution. That’s one reason I prefer canoes to kayaks when exploring in beaver country. But does this mean you need another boat if you already own a kayak? Certainly not! Use what you have. Even if you take an unexpected swim now and again, it’s a small price to pay. Beaver-dammed streams are wondrous, fascinating places. They’re well worth the effort needed to get out and get over.

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

On Keeping a Journal

Fixing Images on the Emulsion of Memory

Alexander Mackenzie did it. So did Henry David Thoreau, Mina Hubbard, Raymond Patterson, and Sigurd Olson. And you can, as well. In fact, if you canoe or kayak—or if you just take an active interest in what’s going on in the world outside your door—you’d be foolish not to. Curious? Then read on. Tamia will tell you all you need to know about keeping a journal.

by Tamia Nelson | March 16, 2018
Originally published in different form on May 21, 2002

When Colin Fletcher smashed his only camera, far down a trail in the depths of the Grand Canyon, he cursed his luck. After all, he was walking through country he’d probably never visit again. Before long, however, his spirits had soared. He discovered that he’d escaped from the “tyranny” of photography. “Instead of stopping briefly to photograph and forget,” he later wrote, “I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory.”

The emulsion of memory… It’s a wonderful turn of phrase, isn’t it? But there’s a problem. Unlike the silver halide colloid once used to capture images in film photography, the emulsion of memory is none too stable. As the years pass, even the most vivid memories begin to fade like old photos pinned to a sunlit wall. And sooner or later, they vanish completely. That’s when the head-scratching begins in earnest. Just when did the ice go out in the year of the Great Storm? What was the name of that couple we met at Bullfrog Pond in ’98? When did we see our first hooded merganser on the ‘Flow last year? There’s no end to such questions. Sometimes, with luck, the faded emulsion gives up its secrets, and the image snaps back into focus. But this doesn’t happen often. So I’m glad that, for almost all of my adult life, I’ve kept a journal.

I’m grateful to earlier scribblers, too. I’ll never have a chance to paddle with Samuel Hearne, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, or Raymond Patterson, but I can read what they wrote during their travels. They all kept journals. So did Mina Hubbard. After her husband died of starvation in a failed attempt to cross Labrador by canoe in 1903, she travelled to Goose Bay herself, determined to finish the job that he’d begun. Her husband was dead, but she and her three canoemen weren’t alone on the river. Her husband’s journal traveled with them, and two months after she’d started, Mina reached Ungava Bay, where she wrote the final chapter in her husband’s unfinished story. That story was published in the May 1906 issue of Harper’s Magazine, which is how I learned about her trip.

Nearly all early explorers made written records of their travels, of course. It was a vital part of their job description. And their notes and comments make for mighty interesting reading today, as do the diaries and sketch-books of naturalists. Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, Beatrix Potter, and Helen Hoover are long gone, but their words and pictures live on, educating and entertaining modern readers in equal measure. Diaries and sketch books? Yes. Words and pictures are natural complements, and there’s a place for both in every paddler’s journal. Even if you never get beyond stick figures, there are times when a picture—any picture—is worth a thousand words. You don’t need to be another Leonardo da Vinci to sketch a bird or a leaf or a range of hills, any more than you need to be another Pepys to describe what you had for dinner. You just need to learn to fix what you see (and hear and smell) in the emulsion of memory, and then put it down on paper. That’s all there is to it. Keeping a journal is a very democratic art.

That said, I was slow to catch on. When most other teen-age girls I knew were keeping diaries, I was staying up past midnight waiting table and washing dishes in my parent’s restaurant. By the time I got to bed at the end of a long day, I was too tired to write anything at all, and on my rare free weekends I just wanted to head for the hills. Then I found myself in college, standing next to an anticline on a petrology field trip. My assignment? Map the anticline and write up a report. I had an hour to study the outcrop. That was all. I didn’t have a car, so I knew I wouldn’t get a second chance. My professor had just one piece of advice: “Take notes as if you knew you’ll never come back again.” Well, there was no “as if” about it. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, so I did as the prof suggested, and I was glad that I did. While my well-wheeled classmates were making frantic midnight trips back to the outcrop to fill in the blanks in their notes by flashlight, I was writing up my final report, drawing on my detailed field notes as I did. I got an A, too. Piece of cake.

From that day forward, I carried a notebook with me on every field trip. And I always took notes as if I knew I’d never come back. Years later, when Farwell and I were conducting historical and archaeological surveys throughout northern New York, my site notes contained exhaustive descriptions of topography, soils, forest cover, ruins, watercourses, weather, and wildlife—and that was just the beginning. Our reports often ran to hundreds of pages, but my notes made them easy to write. I only had to crack the cover on one of my blood-stained, blaze orange notebooks—mosquitos and blackflies give no quarter to note-takers—and I was immediately transported back to the job site. This got me thinking. If keeping what amounted to a journal made sense during the workweek, didn’t it also make sense on weekends? It did. So I started taking a notebook on all our paddling and camping trips. Within a year, I was keeping a daily journal at home, too. I still do. Now, when Farwell wonders when we saw an otter fishing in the shallows, or when we last saw bats dipping low over the water on the ‘Flow (it’s been years now), I know just where to look. No longer are we dependent on the fading emulsion of memory when we want to revisit the past. We’ve fixed those images forever.

You can do the same thing. You don’t need anything special to start. You just need a notebook and a pen or pencil. Some people like using diaries with the date and day of the week preprinted on the pages. Others get by with spiral-bound steno pads. I’ve used both, as well as hardbound surveyor’s field books with water-resistant paper. These are expensive, but they’re very tough, and the orange covers make them hard to lose. Still, my current favorite is an inexpensive, bound 5-inch by 7-inch drawing pad. It’s perfect for field sketching, and I find the absence of blue lines wonderfully liberating. I can write where (and how) I want to.

But don’t agonize over choosing the perfect journal. Grab whatever comes most readily to hand and get started. If you think you’ll have trouble finding something to write about, think again. Once you get the habit, you’ll have just the opposite problem: You’ll have so much to say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find the time. Difficult as it is, however, it’s worth the effort to make time, even at the end of a long day. Then just pick up your pencil or pen—a pencil is less likely to smear in the wet—and write or draw to your heart’s content. You’ll find yourself describing everything from displays of maternal affection shown by a mother moose toward her calf to the shape of a thunderhead building over Sawtooth Ridge, not to mention jotting down a list of gear not taken and needed (and other gear, taken but not needed), along with the ingredients for that unforgettable shepherd’s pie you fashioned from odds and ends left in the food bag at the end of Day 8 of what you’d thought would be a seven-day trip. The possibilities are endless. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or your handwriting. Don’t worry about perspective. Don’t worry, period. Just do it! And don’t forget to date your entries.

Of course, if you’re a photographer, you’ll probably want to enliven the pages of your journal with photos, though this isn’t as easy as it was in the film age, when it was just a matter of taking the prints out of the envelope and sticking them onto the page. Be that at as it may, be sure to jot down where each photo was taken—you may even want to add a sketch map—along with the subject of the photo and anything else that’s relevant. (When I do a formal field survey, I keep a separate, and very detailed, photo log.)

That’s all there is to it. Simple, isn’t it? Better yet, it’s fun. Just wait till you need to answer a question about some vaguely recollected incident or half-remembered trip. That’s when you’ll reach for your journals and start refreshing the emulsion of memory. Before you know it, you’ll be journeying back in time, revisiting places you thought you’d never see again—without even leaving your easy chair. And you’ll be in the best company imaginable.

Read more: The Curious Paddler | More on Journals | Paddling Through Time

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Voices from the Wild

The Sisterhood: Nietzsches of the North Woods

Summer’s here. Are you itching to get away? Looking forward to spending a few days on the water? What canoeist or kayaker isn’t! But what happens when you do? Sometimes the itch just gets worse, and it isn’t all in your mind. Want to know the reason why? Read “The Sisterhood” and find out.

by Tamia Nelson | May 28, 2002

A Note to the Reader

Itching to get away? Looking forward to spending a few days on the water? I thought so. What canoeist or kayaker isn’t! And we’re in luck. The Victoria Day and Memorial Day weekends signal the start of the summer vacation season. It’s a good time to be in a boat, on a waterway.

But every pleasure has its price. Did I mention itching? I did. Funny thing about that. I am. Right now. Itching, that is. And scratching — at least when I don’t stop myself. And I know why. Summer isn’t vacation time for everyone. For most of our fellow travelers on this blue-green ball, summer’s when the important business of life gets done: finding a mate, raising a family, insuring that life’s story goes on. And sometimes these necessary things make trouble for others.

Summertime. The livin’ ain’t always easy. Here’s what one fellow traveler has to say about it. (Talk about adding insult to injury!)

Now where did I put the calamine lotion?

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Believe it! What’s that you’re saying? You think Nietzsche said it first? Wrong. It’s been the Sisterhood’s motto since way before monkeys started wearing suits. And we’ve been around. Asteroid strikes and ice-ages, floods and fires — we’ve seen ’em all, and we’re still here. We’re survivors. Not like some I could mention.

Who are we? Like I said: the Sisterhood. You don’t get it? OK. To you, we’re blackflies. (Or “black flies.” Whatever. Call us what you want. We’re all Sisters.) We’ve met before, right? I thought so. Old friends, you might say. Why a Sisterhood? Come on! Males are only good for one thing. Use ’em and lose ’em, I say. We girls are the sex that matters. And we’re the ones you’re going to meet in the woods. Up close and personal. A time for sharing. Our time. Your blood.

Don’t look that way. We’re not cadging a free lunch. It’s not food we’re after. It’s something more fundamental. We need your blood to breed. And we won’t take no for an answer. Sure, you can swat us. Or you can smear some chemical goo all over you and pretend that it’ll keep us away. It won’t. (“Repellent”? Give me a break! You might as well slather yourself with steak sauce.) Don’t be surprised. Whatever the risk, it’s a matter of life and death for us. You know what I’m saying? Your blood. Our lives. This gives “life’s blood” a new meaning, doesn’t it?

So do your worst. Slap your heart out. Kill a thousand of us, if you can. Ten thousand more will take their place. It’s the quick and the dead all over again. The quick survive. The slow don’t make it. They’re Dead on Arrival. But don’t forget: the more of us you kill, the better we get. That’s evolution in action.

Still, blood’s just the beginning. We need clean water, too. This can be a problem. Our kids start life all wet, so to speak. And we don’t want them growing up in some stinking ditch. No way! What sort of a start in life is that? Our kids are the future of the Sisterhood, after all. So we don’t lay our eggs just anywhere. A nice, free-flowing mountain stream is perfect. Or the outlet of a beaver pond. The sort of place that trout fishermen spend their whole lives looking for. Creek-boater heaven. A clean, well-lighted place. What Sister would want any less?

Come again? You say you’ve paddled for years and you’ve never laid eyes on any of our kids? Sure you have! You’ve seen ’em. You just didn’t know it. Next time you’re wading some shallow stream in late spring or early summer, look down at your feet. Do you see something that looks like moss on the stones in the water? Then take a closer look. Is the “moss” really hundreds of tiny sausage-shaped “worms” clinging to the rocks, swaying from side to side in the current? Congratulations! You’ve found what you’re looking for. Those little worms are the next generation of Sisters (and brothers, too). Sooner or later — maybe next month, maybe next year — some of those babies will join the Sisterhood’s Air Assault Team. Say hello to the future.

You could kill these little Sisters right now, of course. Just smear your boot across the rock. But you can’t kill ’em all, can you? Not hardly. You don’t believe me? What about poison, you say? Be my guest! Towns everywhere in North America spend big bucks to kill my Sisters. Some hire planes to spray a lethal mist in the air that knocks down us adults. Others dump bacterial toxins in streams to kill our kids.

But does it work? What do you think? Remember the Sisters’ Creed: Anything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. So go ahead. Waste the taxpayers’ money. Throw it into the air. Dump it into the rivers. You’ll kill a lot of us, sure — tens of millions of us, maybe — but you won’t kill us all. And we Sisters aren’t sentimental. Some of us will make it, and so will some of each generation of our kids. We don’t weep for our dead. The strong will survive. And that’s a good thing. For us. For the Sisterhood. Because each generation of survivors brings us closer to SuperFly.

And don’t forget — it’s your air and your water, too. What goes around comes around. You’ve heard of collateral damage, right? Well, poison’s poison, and we Sisters aren’t the only ones with kids. Ours grow up faster than most, though, and in the Evolution Stakes, the race almost always goes to the swift. Think about it.

Me, I’m not worried. None of us Sisters is gonna live forever. In the long run we’re all dead. We know that, and it doesn’t bother us. It’s the Sisterhood that matters. Anything that makes it stronger is good. Anything that doesn’t is bad. So do your worst. Poison the air and water. The Sisterhood is powerful, and we’re getting better every year. We’re gonna survive. Count on it. And you — what about you? Will you make it? I’m not taking any bets.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You could declare a cease-fire. You know what I mean. Adjust your comfort level. Lay off the weapons of mass destruction. Then cover up and wear a headnet on the days when we Sisters are cruising. You’ll be a little sweaty in hot weather, sure, but that wouldn’t be too bad, would it? No worse than wearing a wetsuit.

You could do this, easy. But the other Sisters and I kinda hope you won’t. Keep the poison coming. It make us stronger, see? And who knows? In time, it just might eliminate the competition, if you get my meaning. Not that we’d necessarily like that. Some of us Sisters really need you. That is, we need your blood. It’s personal. No other animal’s blood will do what your blood does for us. But a lot of us aren’t so fussy. And anyway, that’s evolution. We’ll find a way. We always have, and we’re not about to quit now.

Gotta go! Thanks for the top-up, Tamia. You’re a godmother now. I won’t be back, but I’m sure my kids will want to pay their respects. Give ’em my best. We Sisters got to stick together, right? It’s in the blood.

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Getting Around

The Rope Trick:Tracking Your Way Up a River

Raymond M. Patterson, author of the classic canoe adventure THE DANGEROUS RIVER, called it “one of those beautifully simple things … flexible and perfect.” And what was it that got Patterson so excited? Tracking, that’s what. It’s something every canoeist should know. So join Tamia as she explains the “Rope Trick.”

by Tamia Nelson | June 4, 2002

It was one of those beautifully simple things that any fool can understand — and it was flexible and perfect. With that and a strong hand on the paddle and the ability to use a pole a man can go anywhere.

— Raymond M. Patterson The Dangerous River

Sound too good to be true? Well, Raymond M. Patterson wasn’t a man who was much given to irrational exuberance. Nor was he describing some high-tech piece of gear designed by a team of engineers and constructed of space-age materials. (After all, anything that was state-of-the-art in 1927 is “traditional” today.) In fact, he wasn’t talking about equipment at all. Instead, he was extolling the virtues of a particular technique for climbing a river — the technique known as “tracking.”

And the river he was proposing to climb was no rivulet. Patterson was setting out to follow the South Nahanni to its headwaters in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It wasn’t a walk in the park. In Patterson’s day it was terra incognita — unknown country. Even today, the South Nahanni is a river worthy of respect. It’s remote. It’s got cataracts and gorges. It’s got Virginia Falls. A river to reckon with, in short.

So why climb a river, you ask? Good question. Nowadays, anyone who wants to paddle the South Nahanni need only pick up the phone and dial 1-800-GOTODAY, credit card in hand. A float plane or jet boat will meet the would-be explorer at Fort Simpson and take her upriver. Once there, it’s a relatively easy ride back to the Mackenzie, going with the flow all the way.

Patterson didn’t have it so easy. While in London on business in the winter of 1926-27, he picked up a copy of Michael Mason’s The Arctic Forests. When he settled down “in front of a blazing fire” to read his new book, he was intrigued by an empty place on one of the maps. A river ran through it, and that river was the South Nahanni. Patterson decided then and there that this river would be his royal road into the little-known Mackenzie mountains. But it was 1927. Patterson couldn’t call 1-800-GOTODAY, and he couldn’t charter a Twin Otter or jetboat to take him upriver. If he wanted to climb the South Nahanni to its headwaters, he’d have to do it on his own — two hundred miles against the current of a mountain river. He wasn’t worried, though. He knew that with a long rope, “a strong hand on the paddle and the ability to use a pole a man can go anywhere.” He was right.

Of course Patterson didn’t invent upstream travel. The Hudson’s Bay Company had been using North America’s rivers as highways since the seventeenth century. (They weren’t alone. The continent’s First Nations had been doing the same thing long before the voyageurs arrived on the scene.) And the Company’s key to the continent was tracking. While the idea is probably as old as canoeing itself, the word is a legacy from the days of canal boats, when barges were pulled by men or horses, hauling on lines attached to each vessel’s bow and stern. Walkways — tracks — paralleled the canals and provided good footing for the beasts of burden.

The same technique was pressed into service on wilderness rivers of North America. When the current got too strong to paddle against, and when the bottom was too deep for poles to get a purchase, the hardy servants of the Hudson’s Bay company broke out their long ropes. Tracking was a sweaty and dangerous business, but it worked, and that was what mattered.

OK. The Hudson’s Bay Company isn’t moving bails of furs by water these days, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t follow in their footsteps. In fact, there are lots of good reasons to go against the flow of a river. You don’t need to shuttle cars, for one thing. Back in the days when Farwell and I chased the spring runoff all over New York and New England, we sometimes spent more time driving than paddling. Nowadays, I’d rather spend my time on the river than on the road. The solution? Climb a river upstream in the morning and float back to your put-in at the end of the day. Simple, isn’t it?

You learn a lot by going against the flow, too. Heading upstream, you’ve got more time to study a river and its ways. If you measure your trips by the density of experience rather than the number of miles traveled, there’s no contest. Upstream travel wins hands down. Once you’ve climbed a river just one time, it’s yours forever.

And going against the flow also means that you don’t get unpleasant surprises. There’s no danger of drifting over a falls from downstream, after all. (You can get caught in the reversal below a falls, though. Use common sense in approaching any hazard, whichever way you’re heading.) And what if you reach an impassable stretch late in the day? No problem. Point your bow downstream and head back to your put-in.

Sound easy? It is. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Upstream travel is usually hard work, and it requires that you master a number of complementary techniques. Sometimes you can paddle, though paddling won’t get you far if the water’s too fast or too shallow. That’s when a pole comes in handy. But poling, too, has its limitations. It requires a reasonably firm bottom and water that’s not too deep. If there’s more than a couple of feet under your keel, you’ll have trouble. Poling is also a skill that must be learned. You can’t grab a pole and expect to master it the first time out. Or the second. You’ll need to practice first.

The art of tracking, on the other hand, can be picked up pretty quickly. It’s versatile, too. You can do it if you’re alone, or you can do it with a partner. As long as there’s enough water to float your canoe and a path for you to walk on, you can track.

And you don’t need special equipment. You do need rope, though. For easy rivers, your bow and stern painters may be enough, provided that they’re securely attached and at least 25 feet long. Real tracking lines are 50 feet long, however — and sometimes even longer. (Patterson used an 80-foot line on the Nahanni, and the Company often employed lines as long as 200 feet on big rivers.) Whatever the length of your tracking line, you’ll want it to be at least 1/4-inch in diameter: anything less will cut your hands.

Material matters, but not much. Nylon and dacron lines are both good, though nylon is stretchier. Polypro floats, and that’s handy, but the cheaper grades are very abrasive, and they don’t hold knots well. That’s not so good.

Back to length: there’s no free lunch. Longer lines give you more scope, but you sacrifice control. The rope’s stretch increases with its length. There’s also the danger of tangles. If you get a long line tangled up in an alder thicket, it’s just a nuisance, but if you get tangled up in your line in a strong current, you could be in serious trouble. Be sure that you have a sharp knife with you whenever you work around rope, and be sure that you can get at your knife with only one free hand.

Confused? That’s not surprising. Tracking lines are always either too long or too short. What’s the solution? Bring several lengths of rope and tailor your tracking lines to the needs of the moment.

Once you have your lines secured at bow and stern, you’re almost ready to begin climbing a river. Tie your paddles and gear inside your canoe first, though. And always wear your life jacket, zipped up and cinched down. It’s easy to slip off a wet rock and fall into the river. Is the water cold? Then don a wetsuit. Wear something protective and grippy on your feet, too, and watch where you put your feet. Avoid stepping into cracks between rocks. If the time ever comes when you’re tempted to track your boat up a demanding rapids, consider wearing a helmet. When you take a header into fast water, a slam dunk is often the result.

That sort of thing comes later, though. You should choose an easy river for your maiden voyage. Pick one with a noticeable current, but with no rapids harder than a very easy Class I. There should be a good track, too. Often you can walk along the cobble beach left by receding spring flood waters. Begin alone, handling both bow and stern lines. Once you get the knack, let your partner have a turn at the ropes. When you’ve both mastered the “rope trick,” practice working together.

Ready? Let’s start. Your canoe should be pointed the way you want to go: upstream. Face the river, holding the coiled bow line in your “upstream” hand. The stern line, also neatly coiled, should be held in your other hand. Now shove the bow of your canoe out till it leaves the shore eddy and catches the current. Let out both lines a little bit at a time — the bow line a bit faster than the stern, just enough to keep the bow angled away from you toward mid-river. If the canoe moves too far, or too fast, let out more stern line till the movement’s checked. On the other hand, if the boat insists on hugging the shore, give the bow line more scope. Then, once your canoe is riding steady in deep water, start walking upstream

Be careful. Don’t let either line tangle around your feet, and never wrap a line around your wrist or hand.

Sooner or later you’ll encounter an obstacle — a mid-stream rock, say. If you’re on a collision course with the rock, pay out more of the bow line. The boat will angle toward mid-river and move further out, away from the rock. Keep walking. When you’ve put the danger behind you, snub the bow line in just a bit and work the canoe back toward you, keeping the bow pointing out. You’ll have to muscle the boat back in. If you let the bow swing in toward shore, you’ll lose control. You can’t push with a rope.

Simple, isn’t it? To move your boat out, away from shore, give the bow line more slack. To check this outward movement, take the slack in or let out a little more of the stern line.

Seem familiar? It is. When you track a boat, you’re doing an upstream ferry — except that you aren’t in the boat, of course. The speed at which your canoe moves away from shore will depend on a number of things: how fast the river’s flowing, how fast you’re walking, and how great an angle your canoe makes with the current. Don’t open this angle too much. If you do, your canoe may broach — swing broadside to the current — and swamp. Stay alert. It can happen very fast.

That’s it. Some people recommend using “bridles” for tracking your canoe, but the additional lashings are tedious and time-consuming, and I’ve never felt the need for them. I just tie the bow and stern lines to the deck or stem fittings instead. It works fine.

There’s one other wrinkle you may want to try, though. When Patterson tracked his 16-foot Prospector up the South Nahanni, he used a single 80-foot line. One end of the line was tied to the bow of his boat; the other, to the stern. Then, instead of having to manage two lines, he only had to pass the single line through his hands: forward to let the bow fall off toward mid-river, back to check it and bring it in. It was “beautifully simple,” he said, “flexible and perfect.” I agree, particularly if you’re alone.

Tracking. Why bother? Why not just dial 1-800-GOTODAY and go with the flow? After all, there aren’t any blank spaces left on the map, are there? Maybe so. But none of us has seen everything. We all have unknown lands on our personal maps of the world, and upstream travel is a great way to fill in some of these empty spaces. Even on familiar rivers, you’ll make new discoveries every time you go against the flow, and Patterson’s rope trick is your passport. Give it a try.

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It’s Only Natural!

Natural History Projects on the Water

You’ve got your kit and your journal. Now you’re ready to get out and “do” natural history. But where do you go, and what do you do when you get there? Join Tamia “On the Water” and find out.

by Tamia Nelson | June 11, 2002

You’ve got your kit. You’ve got your journal. You’re all set to get out and “do” natural history. But what comes next? Where do you go, and what do you do when you get there?

Here’s the good news. Natural history is everywhere. So begin with the waters you paddle most often, or those closest to your home. It doesn’t matter where you go. Seashore, lake, pond, bog, stream, river, marsh — it’s all water, and it all supports life.

Once you’ve got a destination, what next? It’s your choice. Whatever tickles your fancy. Are you having a hard time making up your mind? No problem. Here are a few broad themes that may kick-start your imagination.

Wildlife Watching

Water is like a magnet for wildlife. Even urban lakes and “industrial” rivers will draw birds, mammals, turtles, and other wild creatures. And a canoe or kayak is a great platform for any water-borne naturalist. Taking notes, making sketches, or snapping photos — they’re all a piece of cake for a competent paddler.

Begin by asking questions. What species of animals and birds live in, on, or near your chosen waterway? When and where do you see them? Do they favor particular hot spots, or are they wide-ranging?

Then write down what you learn. Each time you go afloat, note which birds and animals you see. Be sure to mention the time of day, the weather conditions, and the locations. Often you’ll find it helpful to make a map and annotate it. You can either draw a sketch map or photocopy the topographic map which shows your “project area.” Either way, make at least two copies: one for use in the field, and another — the “clean” copy — for your files.

Make lists. Compile a life-list of every creature you see. Or specialize, concentrating on one particular group — mammals, say, or waterfowl, songbirds, or turtles. Or follow particular individuals through the year. Keep tabs on a family of beavers, for instance. See if you can distinguish individuals. When do the young kits emerge in the spring? When do the two-year-old offspring strike out on their own? The questions never stop.

Of course some animals and birds are secretive. Then you’ll have to rely on signs, rather than sightings. Here are a few things to look for:

  • Scat (that’s naturalist talk for turds)
  • Tracks
  • Shredded or chewed twigs
  • Holes in the ground, banks, or trees
  • Nests or lodges
  • Scrapes and scent mounds
  • Dams
  • Trails
  • Middens (mounds) of food and food-scraps

A word about scat: It’s not everyone’s favorite topic, but scat is very important. Many animals leave their scat in prominent places, where it functions as either a calling card or a boundary marker. Waterside rocks, partially-submerged stumps, and stranded logs are favorite sites. (CAUTION! Never collect or handle scat. It may contain infectious cysts or other disease organisms. Make sketches or shoot photos, instead — and don’t forget to include something for scale. Then, when you get home, consult a good field guide to figure out what you’ve found. I’ll list some recommend guide-books in a later article.)

Whatever you do, keep your wildlife watching simple, at least at first. A pair of binoculars and a hand lens will broaden your horizons enormously, but you don’t need a closet full of specialized gear. Still, if you love gadgets and if your bank balance will permit it, there’s no limit to the possible: an amplified microphone, for example, or even night vision goggles. Anything, in short, that extends the reach of your senses.

Boating Botany

You could spend a lifetime getting to know the plants that live in water, at the water’s edge, or in moist ground. What kinds of flowers grow in each environment? Why? When do they emerge, and when do they die back? Are certain plants only found in association with other plants? Which plants are native, and which are “accidental” or introduced species? How do the introduced plants alter the ecosystem?

The questions never end. Beginners can start by learning to recognize the common trees and wildflowers that “like to get their feet wet.” Once you’ve done that, specialize. Choose one kind of plant — wildflowers, trees, ferns, or fungi (strictly speaking, fungi aren’t plants, but they’re close enough) — and bring an appropriate field guide along with you on every trip. Then, whenever you feel like taking a break from paddling, set about identifying every wildflower, tree, or mushroom you can find, making sketches and notes as needed.

If the kids are along, try making bark rubbings. You’ll need a supply of strong, thin white paper and a wax crayon. Just place a sheet of paper against a tree trunk, hold it with one hand, and rub the side of the crayon across the paper with a top-to-bottom motion. Leave a white boarder along the edges. When you’ve filled the sheet, you’re done. Now you’ve got a sample of bark without harming the tree. On the margin of your rubbing, note the species of tree (if you know it), where you found it, and exactly where on the tree you took the rubbing — chest high on the trunk, for instance — along with any other observations you think could come in handy. You might also want to take another rubbing at a different place on the same tree, since the texture of the bark frequently differs from one place to another. Do this often enough, adding sketches of leaves, flowers, and any fruit or nuts, and you’ll soon have an invaluable reference guide to the trees along your favorite waterway.

Shallow Water Wonders

What exactly is in your water? We’ve all seen tadpoles — the bulbous, darting swimmers which grow up to become adult frogs or toads. But what about dragonfly nymphs? Or mosquito larvae? Or leeches, water boatmen, and scuds? (Not to mention freshwater sponges.) And let’s not forget plants: algae and duckweed both have their place in the watery world.

Scoop up a sample of water in the shallows and take a look at what’s in it. Use your hand lens. Healthy water’s a happening place. Both fresh and salt waters play host to a wide array of living things. What kinds of creatures live in streams? In rivers? In salt marshes, or on rocky seashores, or in lakes? Reach into the shallows and pull out a stone. (Replace it — gently — when you’re done.) Is there anything clinging to it? Look at the stalks of submerged plants. Who’s hanging out there? Look and see.

Many of the insects darting about the shoreline or dancing over the water started life as aquatic larvae. Mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, damselflies, mosquitos, and blackflies — all begin as eggs laid in the water. These eggs developed into larvae, little (or sometimes big) wrigglers that are often quite startling in appearance and very different from the adults they will ultimately become. Some larvae even build carry-along homes which are marvels of engineering design. Take caddisflies, for example. Their larvae construct lovely tubes out of grains of silt and lengths of vegetation.

Want a front-row seat for the underwater drama? Pick up an inexpensive diver’s mask at the local discount house. Then wear it when you go swimming and see what you’ve been missing. (If you’re not into swimming, just hold the mask’s faceplate underwater and look through it while you wade or lean over the gunwales of your boat. Warn your partner first, though — and be sure he’s got a good brace. If you don’t, you may go swimming after all!)

Or maybe you’d like to dig in. Buy a soup-strainer at the supermarket, and take it and a shallow, light-colored plastic bowl along on your next trip. Then put some water into the bowl and scoop a small sample of sediment from the bottom of a pond or stream. Now dump the sediment into the bowl and use your hand lens to see what you’ve got. Make notes and sketches, or shoot photos with a macro lens. When you’ve finished, return your “guests” to their watery home, pick a different spot, and repeat. (Be sure to swirl the strainer through any submerged vegetation to get a sample of any clinging insects.)

And don’t neglect the night shift. After dark, aim the beam of a strong flashlight into the water along shore. Don’t be surprised if you see the amber eyes of a crayfish looking back at you, or a school of fingerlings darting away.

Is That All?

No! Nearly three-quarters of our planet is water, and your voyage of discovery through the natural world is limited only by your imagination. As your experience grows, so too will your ambition. Get together with others. Take on a long-term project. Monitor a recreational waterway for shoreline erosion. Map nesting waterfowl nest sites. (But keep your distance from the nesting birds!) Or get technical and do a water chemistry profile of your favorite lake or river. You may be surprised at what you find. In fact, only one thing’s certain — beaver pond or ocean margin, once you’re on the water, the questions (and the surprises) never end.

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

Alimentary, My Dear

Fruit for Thought

Fruit is good for you, and it tastes great. Better still, it’s versatile. Fresh fruit eaten out of hand makes a refreshing paddling treat. But what about other ways to include fruit in your backcountry diet? Join Tamia in “Fruit for Thought” for some ideas.

by Tamia Nelson | June 18, 2002

Fruit’s good for you, right? No surprise there. Horrible things happen to people who don’t eat fruit. Take scurvy, for example. It’s all but unknown today, thanks to orange juice concentrate and multivitamin pills, but it was the common lot of mariners and explorers well into the nineteenth century. And it took an awful toll: sixty-one sailors accompanying Danish explorer Jens Munk to Hudson’s Bay in 1619 died of its effects, writhing in agony “as if a thousand knives had been thrust” into their joints. Even three centuries later, members of the Franklin Expedition — the best-equipped arctic expedition the world had ever seen — fell victim to the same awful scourge. It probably didn’t kill any of Franklin’s crew outright, but it made them weak just when they needed all their strength to survive. That was enough. None of them made it home.

Tales like this are ancient history now, of course. No modern canoeist or kayaker is likely to suffer from scurvy. Still, there are other good reasons to eat fruit. It tastes great, for one thing, and that’s enough for most of us. I know it is for me.

Unfortunately, fresh fruit doesn’t travel well. Taking fruit along on a day trip is easy, though, and it’s not much more difficult on a weekend paddle. Apples and oranges are obvious choices. (But orange peels don’t biodegrade readily in most climates. Pack them out.) With a little care, you can even bring delicate fruits like bananas, peaches and pears. Just be sure to pack them carefully, so they won’t be crushed by heavier items.

On longer trips, your best bet is dried fruit. Yes, you can forage for berries and other wild foods. It’s fun, to be sure, but you shouldn’t count on finding a berry bush at every meal stop. And the resident wildlife depend on the fruit of the land to survive. They can’t go the supermarket. We can. So it’s best if we bring our own food with us when we visit the backcountry. Happily, there are more kinds of dried and dehydrated fruit available than ever before. Even rural supermarkets stock the “old reliables”: raisins and currants, apricots, banana chips, prunes, apple rings, “mixed fruit,” dates, and figs. All these are available in sealed packets, and most are good. You can even find coconut flakes in the baking aisle.

And don’t neglect the produce section, where you’ll find such previously unheard-of dried delicacies as cherries, cranberries, and blueberries. They all taste wonderful when eaten out of hand, either on their own or added to your favorite trail mix. Do you crave backcountry fast food? Then scan the snack and cookie shelves for fruit bars and fruit leathers.

Want even more choices? Head for your local food co-op or health food store. Our co-op carries dried papaya, pineapples, and peaches, along with dried lime, orange and lemon peel. These dried peels are sometimes called “zest,” and they’re aptly named — they’re unmatched flavor-enhancers.

There’s no limit to the possibilities of fruit. Eaten straight, probably nothing has more appeal on a hot summer afternoon than an orange. A banana is another quick treat. (Bananas, too, have slow-to-biodegrade peels. So pack ’em out.) Too dull? Then let your imagination off the leash! Have you ever tried fried bananas? Peel a banana, roll it in sugar, and then sauté in butter or margarine. Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg and serve. If you’re really adventurous, drizzle some rum over the banana while it’s still in the skillet — but step away from the fire first!

Fruit kebabs are another fireside treat for overnight trips. Begin your preparations at home. Put any or all of the following into a sealed plastic container: large chunks of pineapple, orange segments, halved apricots, quartered peaches, unripe banana slices, and wedges cut from apples or pears. Now squeeze a little lemon juice over the cut fruit to prevent discoloration. Once in camp, thread the fruit onto skewers, sprinkle with sugar, and hold over hot coals for 5-10 minutes, turning the skewers occasionally. The heat of the fire will caramelize the sugar. Delicious!

Longer trips mean dried fruit, and dried fruit has a bad rep. That’s too bad. While it’s not as succulent as fresh, it’s every bit as versatile. Stewed dried fruit is especially good, and it’s easy to prepare, too. Just choose whatever fruit — or combination of fruits — catches your fancy. Once you’ve made your choice, put 2 or 3 ounces per person into a pot and add enough water to cover the fruit to the depth of one inch. If you can, soak overnight to reduce cooking time, but if this isn’t practical, simply put it directly on the stove. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until a thick syrup forms and the fruit is tender. Now remove from the heat and allow to cool somewhat before serving, adding maple syrup or chopped nuts to taste. (Try pistachios or walnuts.) Stewed fruit is great at either end of the day: it makes both an energy-enhancing breakfast and a delicious dessert.

Feeling creative? Add dumplings to stewed fruit and you end up with a dessert very much like a cobbler. It’s not hard to do. Just whisk up a basic buttermilk dumpling mix in a bowl or pot. Then stew your fruit as above, adding enough extra water to allow for absorption by the dumplings. When the water begins to boil, reduce the heat and drop batter into the bubbling liquid a spoonful at a time. Cover the pot and simmer until the dumplings are cooked through. (This usually takes about 10 minutes.) Test for doneness by thrusting a clean sliver of wood into a dumpling. If the sliver comes out as clean as it went in, then the dumplings are cooked through.

Fruit isn’t only for dessert or breakfast, of course. People have been adding fruit to their main dishes for centuries. Pork, game, and fowl dishes often include apples, prunes, raisins, or other fruit. To get an idea of the possibilities, give cock-a-leekie soup a try. In the supermarket, look for a leek soup mix. (Knorr makes one, and there are others that are equally good. If you can’t find leek, use a chicken soup mix.) You’ll also need a small can of chicken and 1/4 cup of prunes. Slice the prunes into strips. Prepare the soup according to package directions. When the soup’s done, stir in the chicken and prunes and continue cooking until the chicken is hot. Serve and enjoy!

For something more exotic still, try mulligatawny. Born on the Indian subcontinent, this highly-seasoned soup was adopted by the British Raj, who soon made it their own. The exact ingredient list differs depending on whom you talk to, but chicken, raisins, and apples figure prominently in most versions. So, too, does curry.

Complicated? Not at all. You’ll need a tablespoon of curry powder, some dried apples and raisins, a packet of chicken soup mix (chicken noodle works fine), half a cup of white rice, and — for big appetites — a small can of precooked chicken. In camp, heat a little oil in the bottom of a pot, chop apples into the oil, and then stir in the curry powder. Prepare the soup in the same pot. Since you’ll be cooking rice, though, be sure to add one cup more water than is called for in the directions on the soup packet. Then, when the soup is boiling, stir in the rice and simmer until the grains are tender. Now add the raisins and the precooked chicken, heat for a few minutes more, and serve.

As mulligatawny proves, rice and fruit go together. For a change from your usual camp fare, mix raisins and chopped, dried apricots into rice pilaf or couscous. The result? A tasty and nutritious meal. Here’s a chance to use that “zest” I mentioned earlier: chopped lemon, lime, or orange peel adds a wonderfully tangy note to rice dishes like these.

And the subcontinent’s gifts to the western tables don’t end with mulligatawny. Try adding chutney — a sweet and sour fruit condiment — to pilafs or couscous. I like to make a wild rice pilaf, stir in some slivered almonds, and add a couple of spoonfuls of Major Grey’s Mango Chutney. Delicious! Chutney also tempers the heat of curries and other spicy meals. (If you decide to follow the Major into the field, however, you’ll want to repackage his chutney before you go. Glass jars don’t belong in the backcountry.)

This is only the beginning. Supermarket shelves bulge with easy-to-prepare ethnic meals. Pair a Thai dish with plum sauce. Or cook up a pot of spicy black beans with rice, and garnish with chopped, dried mango and lime juice. Explore. Experiment. Use your imagination.

Now let’s get back to basics. At home or afloat, apple crisp is a favorite dish, and it’s as American as … well … apple crisp. Outdoor baking can be a hassle, though, so here’s a stove-top (or camp-fire) crisp that’ll satisfy most palates:

No-Bake Apple Crisp
(2 servings)

4 ounces dried apples
1/4 – 1/2 cup brown (or white) sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom (optional)
water sufficient to cover apples
1 cup of your favorite granola

Place apples in a pot, then stir in cinnamon, nutmeg and — if you’re feeling adventurous — cardamom, too. Add water until the fruit is immersed to a depth of one inch. (To reduce cooking time, soak the fruit for several hours.) Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat or move the pot to a cooler part of the fire. Now simmer until the apples are tender and a thickened syrup forms. This usually takes from 10 to 20 minutes. Finally, stir in the granola and cook a little while longer. Serve warm.

A tip: Measure out the spices and apples at home and mix them together. Store in a double plastic bag. This will make preparation in camp easy and quick.

Apples. Apricots. Raisins. Even mango chutney. With so many delicious choices, there’s no reason for backcountry meals to be dull, is there? It’s fruit for thought. Bon appétit!

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

In the Spotlight

Reading Nature: Books for the Curious Paddler

Got a question about something you’ve seen on (or in) the water? Can’t find anyone to tell you the answer? Than you need an expert you can keep on the shelf. You need a book. But which book? In “Reading Nature,” Tamia has some recommendations.

by Tamia Nelson | June 25, 2002

When the English poet John Dryden wrote that Shakespeare “needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature,” he was describing a genius — a man who, in Dryden’s words, was “always great.” Unfortunately, not many of us can measure up to that standard. To be sure, a lot of paddlers take an interest in the natural world, but most of us need the help of books to make sense of what we see. A lively curiosity is the hallmark of the paddling naturalist, after all, and every trip ends with unanswered questions. That’s when a good book comes in handy.

But which good book? This is the question, isn’t it? Like Thomas Jefferson — whose curiosity embraced every aspect of the natural world and much more besides — I can never resist the temptation to add one more book to my library. Not surprisingly, natural history books are among my favorites. Still, with more than fifteen feet of shelf space devoted to this subject alone, only a few volumes see regular use. Here are some of them. (CAUTION: Several are long out-of-print. Others will be out-of-print tomorrow. You’ll have to search for them. It’s worth the effort, though.)

* * *

Henry Hill Collins’ Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, East, Central and North (Harper & Brothers, New York; 1959) heads my list. I’ve mentioned this invaluable volume before, but it won’t hurt to repeat myself. “What’s that?” is probably the most-asked question on any waterway, and you need look no further for the answer. The author’s sub-title is as accurate as it is ambitious: “Covering all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, food and game fishes, seashells, and principal marine invertebrates occurring annually in North America, east of the Rockies and north of the 37th Parallel.”

So, if a creature clings, burrows, swims, crawls, plods, runs, or flies anywhere in eastern North American, chances are excellent that you’ll find it described in this compact book. The illustrations range from mediocre to muddy and the nomenclature is sometimes dated, but the text is marvellous: witty, informed, and entertaining. No other one-volume guidebook can equal this one. I like the book so much that I often read it simply for pleasure.

* * *

Water was one of the four elements known to the ancients, and it remains the paddler’s chosen element today. For a comprehensive overview of the geology, biology, and chemistry of natural waters, from tiny pools to the great expanses of the open sea, you can’t do better than pick up a copy of the The Water Naturalist, by Heather Angel and Pat Wolseley (Facts on File, New York; 1982). Though written by (and for) Britons and originally published in the United Kingdom, this book speaks to readers on both sides of the Pond. No translation is required.

Clearly illustrated with photos and flawlessly-executed line drawings, The Water Naturalist is a practical manual, too. There’s even a chapter on photographing water, along with a “where to go” guide to sites of special scientific interest in both Europe and North America. Glossary? Bibliography? Index? They’re all there. Nothing important has been left out of this fascinating and useful book.

* * *

Nature doesn’t end at the horizon-line, and notwithstanding CNN and PBS, the night sky’s still the greatest show on earth. There are a lot of stars out there, however, and I don’t always know what I’m looking at as I turn my eyes heavenwards. That’s when I reach for Leslie Peltier’s Guide to the Stars (AstroMedia, Milwaukee; 1986). Written by — surprise! — Leslie C. Peltier, this book has recently been republished under the title The Binocular Stargazer: a Beginner’s Guide to Exploring the Sky.

By either name, it’s well worth reading. As a passionate amateur astronomer with a number of first sightings to his credit — not to mention sixty-two years of variable star observations — Peltier’s enthusiasm for his subject is irresistible. And he doesn’t rely on gee-whiz, high-tech gear. His tool of choice for deep-space exploration was a pair of no-name wide-angle 7×35 binoculars, bought from a discount house and used for thirty years without, he says, having ever found any fault with them.

What Peltier did, you can do, too. Guide to the Stars lives up to its name, taking the reader in the northern hemisphere on a “starwalk” through all the seasons of the night sky, beginning with the Big and Little Dippers and Polaris (the “North Star”), voyaging outward through all the constellations, and finally returning by way of the moon. Quite a trip to take without leaving your backyard or getting a passport, eh? And Peltier makes it easy. His star-charts are rudimentary but adequate, and his text is superb. There’s even a chapter on adapting an office chair for comfortable star-gazing!

* * *

Back on earth, however, you may want to exchange your binoculars for a hand lens. If you do, you’ll probably puzzle over pond life at some time or other. Even the smallest pool boasts scores of tiny plants and animals, and few of these can be found in the standard guidebooks — even in books as wide-ranging as Collins’. Help is at hand, however. Whatever it is that you see in (or on) a pond or small lake, you’ll probably also find it in George K. Reid’s Pond Life: A Guide to Common Plants and Animals of North American Ponds and Lakes (Golden Press, New York; 1967). One of the many Golden Guides for children, this little book is chock-a-block with color illustrations of plants and animals, from Spirogyra (a “common filamentous green alga”) to sturgeon. Clear without being condescending, concise, and comprehensive — Pond Life is all of these things. There’s even a short bibliography and an index. It’s a handy pocket-sized volume, too. Who could ask for anything more?

* * *

It’s a big step from pond to ocean, but many paddlers make the trip sooner or later. Sea kayakers and beachcombers alike will enjoy At the Sea’s Edge: An Introduction to Coastal Oceanography for the Amateur Naturalist by William T. Fox (Prentice Hall, New York; 1983). From weather, waves, and tides to the endless cycle of beach erosion and the intricate web of dune ecology, it’s all here. Better still, the pen-and-ink drawings of illustrator and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie complement the text. A glossary, detailed index, and bibliography round out a book that no coastal paddler will want to be without.

* * *

Someday you’ll find a line of tracks in the sand on your favorite beach, and Olaus J. Murie’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, Second Edition (Houghton Mifflin, Boston; 1974) will help you identify their author. More than an identification handbook, Animal Tracks is an extended essay on the natural world, written by a widely-traveled biologist who lived for months at a time among the animals he studied. It’s my favorite volume in the Peterson Field Guide series. And for good reason. You have to be in the right place at the right time to see wildlife on the move, but the signs left by their passage are everywhere, waiting to be noticed by any observant padder. Each imprint in dune sand or riverside mud is a piece of an infinite and ever-changing picture puzzle. No one will ever complete the image, of course, but you can learn to recognize the pieces when you see them.

To do that, however, you’ll need this book. Here, visual clues mean everything. Happily, Murie’s line drawings are excellent. Not only are they technically accurate — though this is rare enough! — but they’re evocative works of art as well. (See, for example, the sketch of a shorttail weasel emerging from deep snow, or the portrait of a house-proud white-footed mouse, sternly confronting an intruder from the doorway of his newly roofed-over bird-nest home.) There are many books on animal tracks, but Murie’s stands alone. Accept no substitutes.

* * *

A bird in the bush leaves no tracks, of course. But that only adds to the fun of bird-watching. If you’re as fond of life on the wing as I am, you’ll want to get your hands on a copy of John Gooders’ The Practical Ornithologist (Fireside, New York; 1990). “Practical” is the watchword here. Once again, the book’s sub-title says it all: “What to Look For, How and When to Look for It, and How to Record What You See.” Morphology (body-plan), behavior, habitat — Gooders touches on each subject in turn. Of course, Henry Collins’ Field Guide will usually answer the question, “What’s that?” But Gooders goes further, and his Practical Ornithologist is a not-to-be missed book for would-be serious birders. A model primer. An enjoyable read. A feast for the eye. It’s all these things and more, besides.

* * *

Unlike birds, plants don’t fly away when you approach them. But that doesn’t mean they’re always a snap to identify. What The Practical Ornithologist does for birders, Rick Imes’ The Practical Botanist (Fireside, New York; 1990) does for wildflower buffs and anyone else with an interest in the green world. Beginning with the basics, Imes moves on to detailed discussions of the principal North American habitats, from wetlands to deserts. Want to know where to go to find an example of a Douglas fir forest? An appendix tells you. There’s also a helpful glossary and a good index.

* * *

If birds are too … well … flighty, and the profusion (not to mention confusion) of plants sometimes proves too much for you, why not get back to bedrock basics? And you can’t get much closer to bedrock than the earth we all live on. Geology’s everywhere, and the rocks don’t (often) move. Want a guide? Dougal Dixon’s The Practical Geologist (Fireside, New York; 1992) is yet another must-have volume by the same publisher who acted as midwife to the other two Practical Guides I’ve already mentioned. Whether your interest is rocks and minerals, fossils, or landscape interpretation, this book will get you started. Have you been meaning to learn more about geology? Now’s the time. Don’t put it off any longer — you’ve got 4.8 billion years of catching up to do!

* * *

That’s it. From a one-volume guide that will help you identify anything that goes bump in the night to a Cook’s tour of billions of years of earth history — this little list has at least one book for any curious paddler. After all, everyone (except for Shakespeare) needs “the spectacles of books to read Nature.” Happy reading!

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

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