October – December 2000

In the Same Boat: October – December 2000

Wilderness. It’s the reason some of us go canoeing. But what, exactly, is it? In “The Wilderness Mystique,” Tamia goes on a voyage of discovery. To her surprise, she learns that we’re more likely to find wilderness in our minds than on the map.

The Wilderness Mystique: Exploring the Landscape of the Mind

by Tamia Nelson
October 3, 2000
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Farwell’s not the only one who enjoys reading our mail. I do too. Acting on the principle that a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled, we pass readers’ letters back and forth. That’s how I learned about Dirk’s recent paddling holiday in Sweden’s “lake district.” (Dirk, you may remember, is the genial Dutchman whose well-aimed criticism was the subject of “Straight Talk.”) He describes this region as very beautiful — “one of the most beautiful parts of Sweden,” in fact — yet still accessible. And the food! Dirk paints a picture of a sort of floating, open-air farmer’s market. He had good weather, too: “lots of sunshine” and the wind “mostly at our back.” Best of all, he and his wife made the trip in early September, missing the summertime crowds. “No ‘fight’ for camping spaces!” Dirk exults.

All in all, it sounds like an ideal holiday to me, and I’m properly envious. Only one thing seems to have troubled Dirk. There was, he wrote, no “real wilderness.” This didn’t seem to bother him too much, though. He and his wife still had a wonderful time.

Not all paddlers are like that, are they? For many, wilderness is the touchstone against which all paddling holidays are tested. If a trip leads to — or through — wilderness, it’s a good trip, even if the bugs were all but unbearable and everyone was sick. On the other hand, any trip that doesn’t merit a wilderness label is something to be explained away. It’s almost as if an apology is needed. No matter that the weather was fine, the food was good, and the company excellent. If it wasn’t a wilderness trip, it was second rate.

That’s too bad, I think. Not that I’m surprised. I once felt the same way.

The dominant passion in my youth was photography. I worked hard to make photos that were every bit as good as those I saw in the glossy magazines. And I read everything about the subject I could get my hands on, particularly the regular interviews that Backpacker magazine ran, spotlighting photographers and giving examples of their work. I studied the featured photographers’ techniques and examined their photos with more care than I reviewed my mineralogy notes.

And I was consumed by the idea of wilderness — those places where, in the words of the act of Congress which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Not that there was any wilderness where I lived. What I saw around me were stony, hardscrabble farms and plantations of red spruce. No sweeping emptiness, no spectacular mountain vistas, no lumbering grizzlies or herds of caribou — just shabby, run-down barns and decaying hamlets, former market towns in which nearly everyone who now had a job had to drive at least an hour each way.

I made the best of it. I haunted the hedgerows, stubble fields and creek bottoms, camera in hand. And I wasn’t often disappointed. None of these was wilderness, obviously, but they were rich habitats for songbirds, small mammals, whitetail deer, and coyotes. I grew especially fond of the birds, and I came to know them well. Sometimes I surprised myself. Even today I think the best of my early photos were quite good. Still, I wasn’t happy. I lived in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. I bought a canoe and for a time was content to poke around in the shallows of a nearby lake, shooting pictures of basking turtles and mallard chicks. But that wasn’t enough. Occasional weekends spent rock- and ice climbing in the Adirondack Mountains left me feeling better. Coming back from the Adirondacks, I knew that I’d touched wilderness, at last. But I still wasn’t satisfied. The Adirondacks weren’t Alaska or the Rockies, were they? I longed to join climbing expeditions and trek through subarctic ranges. I knew that I’d never be able to make really great photos until I could get to a real wilderness. Or so I thought.

Then something happened. An issue of Backpacker arrived in the mail. I can no longer remember which issue, but I remember turning right away to the interview with the featured photographer. I always looked at the pictures first, and this day was no exception. And what photos they were! Immediately, I was struck by a series of extraordinary close-up shots. Insects. Wildflowers and seed cases. Basking turtles (“Just like my turtles!” I thought. “But wild!”) There were even colorful abstract compositions of leaves on still water. Every image was infused with a sense of wildness, of untrammeled nature. Here, I thought, were images of real wilderness.

Then I read the interview. What a shock! The photographer was hopelessly ordinary. He had a factory job, and he lived in some bedroom suburb in the crowded eastern megapolis. He drove to work every morning, and every morning he passed a small field and farm pond bordered by hedgerows. (“Just like the places where I take my photos,” I said to myself.) One day, on a whim, he left for work an hour early and took a camera with him. For the first time in his life, he stopped his car and walked onto the field he’d driven past so many times. Then he dropped to his knees and started shooting what he saw before him. This was the beginning of his career as a nature photographer. And all of the pictures in the Backpacker portfolio had been taken in that one field and pond. In the interview, the photographer spoke feelingly of the wilderness he’d found there, right on the side of the road, half-way between his suburban house and the factory in which he worked.

This was a revelation. Naturally, I still hankered for the wide-open spaces and the big sky country. Those dreams never left me. But, slowly, I started to see the stony, hardscrabble hill farms that surrounded me in a different light. I realized that here, too, was real wilderness. I no longer viewed my photographic excursions into the fields and creek bottoms as stop-gaps, as nothing more than practice outings for the real thing. I saw them as voyages of discovery. And when, much later, I climbed snow-covered peaks and paddled remote northern rivers, I realized I wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t done before. Wilderness was everywhere.

Then, later still, I realized that this, too, was wrong. Completely and entirely wrong. Wilderness wasn’t everywhere. In fact, there was no such thing as wilderness. Not in the back forty. Not in the Cascade Range. Not on the watersheds that drain into Hudson Bay. There was no wilderness anywhere. No place “untrammeled by man.” There hadn’t been any such place on earth for thousands of years, and there never would be again — not until the final chapter of the human story was written.

Here’s what I learned. The western peaks I climbed were wild, high and rugged, but the paths I walked to get to them were flagged by the manure of pack-horses. I only had to look out from the summits to see jet contrails in the sky. The forests around the peaks were second-growth, most of them, and even the “old growth” timber was shaped and nurtured by man — protected from fire and criss-crossed by maintained trails. The mule deer and mountain goats kept their distance, made shy by human hunters. The grizzlies were long gone. The flesh of the trout in the mountain tarns was tainted by heavy metals from the stacks of factories. The frozen water on the summit snowfields bore the chemical signatures of organic pollutants from half a world a way.

And the rivers — what of the rivers? The northern rivers I ran were wild, fast and free, but their waters were stained by pulp mills located many miles upstream, and logging roads paralleled nearly all of them, pushing north along the river valleys. Wherever the loggers had been, slash piles blocked the portage trails. Even the end of the day brought no respite. On island camp after island camp, the blueberry bushes were buried under heaps of discarded tin cans.

OK. There’s no such thing as real wilderness. It’s a landscape of the mind. That doesn’t mean that we need to resign ourselves to a world of suburbs, shopping malls and superhighways, does it? In the long run, of course, we probably do. There’s only so much real estate on planet Earth, after all, and the human comedy’s almost certain to wind up its run as an SRO show. But that’s years in the future. For the time being, we can still enjoy the wild corners of the world, places that are free of most reminders of the human presence, at least some of the time.

And, even if we’re already a few thousand years too late to find a wilderness, there’s a hedgerow, field, or swamp near most of us. Sure, they’re not the Antarctic plateau or the Mountains of the Moon, but they’re not any less fascinating for all that. There’s more life in an acre of meadowland or a five-acre beaver pond than you’ll find in a ten-foot bookshelf of field guides. So, wherever you live, start getting to know the wild country on your doorstep. It’s as “real” as any wilderness on earth — and probably a lot less crowded than the exotic places written up in the glossy magazines.

Looking for a wilderness? Then get to know your neighborhood. You’ll be glad you did.

 


 

Binoculars aren’t exactly newfangled inventions, and they’re better (and cheaper) than they’ve ever been before. Despite this, only a few paddlers seem to think them worth taking along. In Part 1 of “The Far-Seeing Eye,” Tamia takes a look at some of the many things that binoculars can do for canoeists and kayakers.

Impedimenta: The Far-Seeing Eye: Binoculars for Paddlers (Part 1)

by Tamia Nelson
October 10, 2000
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We were on a lake in northern Quebec. Lowering cloud held the promise of heavy, sustained rain. The wind — a head wind, naturally! — was strengthening by the minute. Our Tripper bobbed in the sheltered lee of a small island, one of many that dotted the lake. We were cold, tired and hungry. Worse yet, we were lost.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We weren’t completely lost. We had no trouble finding our lake on the map. But we weren’t sure which island we were sheltering behind. And now, as if that weren’t bad enough, we couldn’t find the river we were looking for, the river which drained the lake. We’d planned to camp at a beach near the river’s head. But where was it? We had no idea.

This wasn’t really surprising. Our navigator had been careless. Even Farwell admitted as much, and he’d been the navigator. Lulled by the easy paddling and the good visibility as we started down the lake, he hadn’t followed his usual practice of keeping a running check on our progress. Now, in the dull, flat light of the rapidly darkening day, we couldn’t tell a blind bay from the head of a river. We couldn’t even distinguish islands from the shoreline behind them. Things looked grim. The lake was small — it was only five miles long — but there was still too much shoreline to search in the remaining hours of daylight. It looked like we’d be spending a stormy night clinging to the granite dome of some little island, caught in the prickly embrace of a thicket of stunted spruce. Or, worse yet, we’d be bedded down in the canoe.

This wasn’t an attractive prospect. So, for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes, I scanned the lake’s shoreline to the southwest, hoping against hope that I’d catch a telltale glimpse of the tiny beach that was our destination. Then I noticed that Farwell had stopped looking around. Instead, he was rummaging in his waterproof day-bag. “Damn’ funny time to be looking for something to eat,” I thought, and I readied what I hoped would be a suitably cutting remark.

As I was about to speak, however, Farwell shouted, “Aha!” And he lifted what looked like a small camera up to his eyes. Suddenly, I understood. My acerbic commentary died on my lips. Farwell had our binoculars. He panned along the shoreline slowly, investigating every bay and indentation. Then he handed the binoculars to me and gestured to a barely-visible rock spur. “See that point?” he asked. “Look just to the right of it. There’s a tiny scrap of sand beach there. I think it marks the head of our river.”

I looked. It did. In a minute we’d stowed the binoculars and were on our way. It wasn’t easy. We had to fight against the rising wind. But at least we now knew where we were going. We weren’t lost anymore.

This happened years ago, but I can still remember the relief I felt when the beach materialized before my eyes. And I’m still surprised at how many paddlers don’t carry (or use) binoculars. It’s not as if they’re some newfangled invention, after all. Hans Lippershey, the Dutch spectacle-maker who’s usually given credit for the invention of the telescope, made his first “binocular telescope” in 1608. These early instruments weren’t really practical field glasses, of course. The problem of keeping two long, awkward tubes in alignment made the ordinary (monocular) telescope the choice of mariners and explorers for nearly three centuries. But Professor Abbe of the Zeiss Jena optical works changed all that, and by 1900 his prism binoculars were readily available. Sold as “hunting telescopes,” they were everything that a sportsman could want: light, compact, sturdy, and reasonably weatherproof. Before long, other manufacturers were copying the Zeiss design, and binoculars soon became a familiar sight in the hands of hunters and bird-watchers. Even today, big-game hunters prize their binoculars almost as much as they do their rifles, and for good reason.

Canoeists and kayakers, however, are slow to appreciate the virtues of a far-seeing eye. Why is this? I’m not sure I know. It’s certainly not the weight or bulk. There are binoculars that take up no more space than a paperback book, and aren’t much heavier, into the bargain. Nor can it be the cost. It’s perfectly possible to buy good binoculars for the price of a touring paddle. Perhaps paddlers think that binoculars are too fragile, or too easily ruined by water. Perhaps — but this, too, is wrong. Binoculars aren’t any more fragile or vulnerable to damp than cameras, and most paddlers carry a camera with them. Indeed, it’s now possible to buy binoculars advertised as truly waterproof, though these aren’t really necessary. Farwell and I have taken our decidedly non-waterproof binoculars on scores of trips, totaling hundreds of days, and we’ve never had any trouble. Simply keep your binoculars in a waterproof pack or ammo-can when they’re not in use — but be sure to test any “waterproof” pack before trusting it — and don’t drop them in the water. That’s all there is to it.

This being the case, I can’t understand why paddlers don’t take binoculars along on every trip. They’re good for route-finding, obviously, but that’s only the beginning. They also open up whole new worlds, among them bird- and wildlife-watching. And the fun doesn’t stop with getting closer to a distant, soaring golden eagle, either. You’ll be surprised what you learn when you point your binoculars at the nearby and familiar. Good binoculars focus close. We have one pair that can be focused down to eight feet or so. Try watching a red squirrel stripping a pine cone of seeds, or a ruby-throated hummingbird visiting the touch-me-not in your garden — or a city pigeon patrolling a sidewalk for crumbs. Wherever you turn your binoculars, you’ll be amazed at how everyday sights suddenly become exotic when seen close-up.

And what happens when you get tired of watching birds and squirrels — if you ever do, that is? What then? That’s easy. Wait until dark and turn your binoculars up toward the stars. Even on the fringes of smoggy, over-lighted cities, you’ll be surprised at what you can see. In the black, back-country night, you’ll be astonished. You’ll find thousands of stars that you didn’t even know were there, for one thing. You’ll see the lunar craters. You can even see the planet Jupiter’s four largest moons. It’s been nearly 400 years since Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and discovered its satellites, but I think you’ll find it every bit as exciting when you first “discover” them for yourself. Do this sort of thing often enough, in fact, and you may get hooked on astronomy. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t toast marshmallows around the campfire every night, after all. The universe we live in is a fascinating place. It’s a good idea to get to know the neighborhood.

What’s that? You’ve never owned any binoculars? And you’re put off by the strident techno-babble in the outfitters’ catalogs? You don’t know what to make of “rugged roof-prism design” or “multi-coated optical system,” to say nothing of “extended eye relief”? Well, you’re not alone. I’ve been there myself. But don’t worry. Buying binoculars isn’t rocket science. It’s really no more difficult than choosing which TV show to watch, and it’s far more rewarding. Next week, in Part 2 of “The Far-Seeing Eye,” we’ll tell you just what to look for when you go shopping for your first pair of binoculars.

 


 

Last time out, Tamia described the many things that binoculars can do for canoeists and kayakers. This week, in Part 2 of “The Far-Seeing Eye,” she shows first-time buyers just how to find the perfect pair of binoculars for their needs.

Impedimenta: The Far-Seeing Eye: Binoculars for Paddlers (Part 2)

by Tamia Nelson
October 17, 2000
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You’ve decided that you’ve done without binoculars long enough, have you? Good. If you choose your first pair of binoculars well, you’ll never regret your decision. But there’s a catch. It can be hard to choose well. Finding the perfect pair of binoculars is every bit as difficult as finding the perfect boat, and the range of choices is, if anything, even greater. The Fall 2000 Cabela’s catalog, for example, devotes seven pages to binoculars. That’s more space than they give to sleeping bags!

Still, selecting a good first pair of binoculars needn’t be impossibly hard. Binoculars are tools, after all, and the first question you should ask yourself in buying any tool is this: “What job do I want it to do for me?” You wouldn’t try to bone a chicken with a bread knife, would you? Or fish for brookies with a 15-foot spey rod? Match the tool to the job. That’s the first rule.

So, how will you. use your binoculars? If you’re like most paddlers, you’ll want binoculars for one of three things: (1) wildlife observation and bird-watching, (2) on-water navigation, or (3) what I call Micawbering, after the charming if somewhat feckless character in Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Micawbers” simply want binoculars which are light and easy to carry — binoculars to take along on the off chance that something worth seeing will turn up.

Let’s look at wildlife observation and bird-watching first, since these are perhaps the most common uses to which binoculars are put. If this is how you plan to use your binoculars, you’ll find that the requirements are more or less straightforward. You’ll want binoculars with relatively high magnification, a good field of view, and a bright image. Since birds and other wildlife seldom hold still for long, you’ll also want to be able to focus the binoculars quickly.

OK. What’s “relatively high magnification”? Let’s say seven to ten power. (Binoculars are usually identified by a pair of numbers, e.g., 10 x 40. This is pronounced “ten by forty.” The first number tells you the magnification. The second gives the diameter of the objective lenses — they’re the big lenses at the other end of the binoculars from the eyepieces — in millimeters.) Oddly enough, your ability to see fine detail isn’t determined solely by magnification. Optical quality matters, too. But magnification is important. A ten-power glass effectively brings a loon swimming 100 yards away to within 30 feet of your canoe. That’s the difference that magnification makes.

Field of view is important, too. That loon looks pretty small out there, 100 yards from your boat. Once you bring your binoculars up to your eyes, you don’t want to have to hunt all day for her. You want her to be right there. So you’ll want to see as big a piece of real estate as practicable through your binoculars. How big is “practicable”? Easy. Good binoculars will show you a circle with a diameter of around 300-400 feet at 1000 yards. That’s a reasonable benchmark to shoot for.

Of course, it’s sunlight that makes it possible for us to see. So it’s important that binoculars capture as much light as they can, and the bigger the objective lens, the brighter the image — all other things being equal. Unfortunately, the higher the magnification, the larger the objective lens needs to be to give a bright image. Sounds complicated? It is, but luckily there’s a simple rule of thumb. For wildlife observation and bird-watching, look for binoculars whose objective lens diameter (measured in millimeters) is between four and five times the magnification. A seven-power binocular with a 35-millimeter objective lens meets this test. One with a 15-millimeter objective does not.

Rapid focus is the last criterion. You want to be able to adjust your binoculars quickly and keep them in focus easily, even when your target is as fast-moving as a diving kingfisher. (Not for nothing do the Brits call serious bird-watchers “twitchers.”) In practice, this means that you want your binoculars to have what’s called “center focus”: a single, central wheel or slide is used to adjust the focus for both eyes simultaneously. Good center-focus binoculars will also have an independent adjustment on one eyepiece, permitting you to compensate for any difference between your eyes. This is a one-time-only adjustment, however. You make it just once, and then you can forget it. Center-focus binoculars were formerly harder to weatherproof than binoculars in which each eyepiece is focused independently — so-called “individual focus” — but this is no longer necessarily true. Today, some center-focus binoculars are even guaranteed to be completely waterproof.

Talk of waterproofing brings us to the second usage category: on-water navigation. While most sailors keep a pair of so-called “marine binoculars” aboard their boats, largely to help them identify channel buoys and day-marks, few canoeists or kayakers feel the need to purchase binoculars solely for this reason. Those who do should pay special attention to waterproofing and field of view. They won’t need (or want) high magnification. A wave-tossed kayak isn’t a very dry place, after all, and it’s hard enough just “picking up” a buoy or day-mark with binoculars as your boat rolls and pitches, let alone keeping it in sight. Under such difficult conditions, a pair of individual-focus 6 x 30 marine binoculars will be pretty close to perfect — if you can find them, that is. Most marine binoculars sold today are 7 x 50s, and they’re far from ideal for paddlers. In addition to the fact that the magnification is really too great for small-boat use, many 7 x 50s are too heavy and bulky to be managed easily in the cramped confines of a kayak cockpit. Under the circumstances, the best solution for sea kayakers may well be a waterproof monocular. These needn’t be spartan. One popular 5.3 x 30 monocular incorporates a rangefinder, a chronometer, and even a fluxgate compass! It’s a gear-head’s dream come true.

The needs of Micawbers are less demanding than those of either bird-watchers or navigators. If, like many of us much of the time, you’re neither adding to your life-list of exotic species nor crossing the open ocean, then you’re probably a Micawber. You want to have a pair of binoculars with you in case something turns up, but you don’t need a specialist’s tool. This being the case, you’ll prize compactness and light weight above all other things. Look for binoculars with magnifications in the six-to-ten-power range, with objective lenses whose diameter (in millimeters) is at least two and one-half times the magnification. Happily, there are any number of small binoculars that fit the bill. Here, too, you may find it worthwhile to consider a monocular. If that’s what you decide on, don’t feel that you have to apologize to anyone for having only half a binocular. Read Dangerous River. There’s never been a more enterprising canoeist than Raymond Patterson, and he took a monocular to the Nahanni. I doubt that he ever regretted his choice.

Whether you’re a twitcher, a navigator or a Micawber, however, once you’ve decided how you’ll be using your binoculars, you’ll need to choose a pair that fits. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Binoculars are extensions of your eyes. They have to fit well to work. In fact, the fit of a pair of binoculars is at least as important as their optical quality. If your binoculars don’t fit, you won’t use them. And binoculars that aren’t being used are just expensive paperweights.

In deciding whether or not a particular pair of binoculars fits, two things matter most: interpupillary distance and eye relief. Interpupillary distance is simply a fancy way of saying “the distance between your eyes.” Most binoculars will fit most people, but folks with unusually close- or wide-set eyes will find it hard to get a pair of binoculars that can be adjusted to suit them. This is a particular problem with some roof-prism models. These binoculars — you can identify them by their straight barrels — don’t close down as completely as do older, porro-prism designs. The result? People with close-set eyes can’t bring the barrels close enough together to see a single circular field of view. (Despite what you’ve seen in the movies, where the view through binoculars is almost always shown as two adjacent circles, when you look through a properly-adjusted pair of binoculars you only see a single, circular field.)

How do you know if the pair of binoculars you’re thinking about buying can be adjusted to fit? Simple. Try them out. That’s easy to do if you’re in a shop. If you order a pair out of a catalog, however, be sure you can return them if they don’t suit you.

If you wear glasses — and you will, sooner or later, however good your vision is now — you’ll have to consider the second element of fit: eye relief. This is a measure of how close you have to bring your eyes to the eyepieces to see the full field of view. If you wear glasses, you’ll want at least 14 or 15 millimeters of eye relief. Sometimes you’ll find this number mentioned in the manufacturer’s specifications, but whether it is or not, you’ll want to “road test” any pair of binoculars you’re thinking about buying. If you can’t see the full field of view when you’re wearing your glasses, look elsewhere. (In making this test, be sure to turn down or retract any rubber eye-cups — and then be sure to turn them up again before lending the binoculars to a friend who doesn’t wear glasses. You’d be surprised how oily eyelashes are, and oily streaks don’t improve the optical properties of eyepieces!)

When you’ve satisfied yourself that you can see the full field of view through your new binoculars, take them for an extended test drive. Go outside on a dry day — you wouldn’t expect to return binoculars that had been soaked in a rain storm or splashed by salt spray, would you? — and use them for half an hour or more. Focus on the far horizon, and on the side of your house. Try to pick up a hawk (or a pigeon) in flight. If the moon is visible, as it is during daylight hours for more than one week in every month, explore the lunar landscape. Look at anything and everything that you can see, near and far. Everything, that is, except the sun. Never look at the sun with binoculars, even for an instant. If you’ve ever started a fire with a burning glass, you’ll have seen what the sun’s concentrated rays can do to your retina. Your sight is too precious to risk.

After using your new binoculars for at least half an hour, take stock. Have you had any trouble holding them steady or adjusting the focus? Has the image ever been less than crisp and bright? Have you noticed a headache or other sign of “eye strain”? If the answer to all these questions is no, then you’ve found a pair of binoculars you can live with. If you’ve answered yes to even one question, however, your binoculars have failed their most important test. Return them to the seller immediately and try another pair. Whatever you do, don’t try to talk yourself into keeping them, and don’t be influenced by the brand-name or someone else’s choice. Buy the best binoculars that you can afford, of course, and listen to the recommendations of friends and “experts,” by all means — but pay most attention to your own feelings. Buying binoculars is like buying shoes. Only you can tell when you’ve got a good fit. Once you have, though, you’ll know it. Then you’ll be ready to embark on a life-long voyage of discovery through a world that’s suddenly become larger, brighter, and infinitely more interesting.

Bon voyage!

 


 

Good campsites can be hard to find, particularly in the spongy lowlands that make up much of eastern and central Canada. In “Remembrance of Rivers Past,” Tamia puts her understanding of geology to work and discovers just how pleasant it is to camp on the bottom of a fossil river.

Eskers: Remembrance of Rivers Past

by Tamia Nelson
October 24, 2000
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The day was drawing to a close. All of us were tired, and some of us were getting decidedly cranky. We’d been paddling for hours along a narrow river, through country that had the character of a waterlogged sponge. In fact, that’s really what it was — a well-watered lowland forest, rich in black spruce, shrubby leatherleaf, and bog flowers. A great place for turtles, herons, ducks, muskrats and beaver. Not so great a place for camping, however. Still, we knew that a good campsite wasn’t far away. We were looking for an esker.

The sky darkened. Our shadows lengthened and then disappeared altogether. The sun sank below the horizon. Finally, just as the last of the light was going, we rounded a bend and saw a long, low ridge rising up alongside the river. We’d found our home away from home. We weren’t the first folks to do so. The scattered remnants of a fish-drying rack could be seen on the river bank, lying where some earlier gale had brought a wet-footed gray birch crashing down upon it.

We dragged ourselves and our gear up a short, steep trail to the summit of the ridge. The narrow crest was level and dry — scarce amenities in the watery lowlands of central Ontario. Birch and aspen leaves trembled in a gentle breeze that helped keep the evening mosquitoes at bay. Chickadees wished us good night. Then they were silent. The first notes of the frog chorus began. Somewhere, not too far off, a loon called. In no time at all we’d pitched our tents on the stoney, sandy soil and were busy making a late supper. It wasn’t the first time I’d camped on an esker, of course — eskers are common throughout the once-glaciated regions of the northeastern United States, eastern and arctic Canada, and Scandinavia — but it was the first time I’d actually gone looking for one.

Often known locally as “hogbacks” or “horsebacks,” eskers aren’t among the most spectacular landscape features. From the seat of a canoe or kayak, an esker looks like nothing so much as a long, low, undulating ridge. Seen from near its base, however, an esker rises steeply. If there isn’t a landing carved into the flank or a small beach at its foot, you’ll have a hard time scrambling out of your boat and up the slope. As you climb, you’ll notice that the esker is formed from gravel, cobbles and sand. Look closely at the stones at your feet, and you’ll see that they have very few sharp edges. Each stone looks as if it’s been tumbled about for a long time, like a rough-polished gem. And so it has. The gravels and cobbles of eskers have been polished by moving water, just like the stones in a riverbed. And, indeed, eskers mark the paths of long-vanished rivers.

This becomes more obvious when eskers are seen from the air. Look down on one, particularly in the treeless barrens of the high arctic, and you’ll see a narrow, sinuous ridge winding over the landscape. An esker can extend for miles, lying on the land like a discarded feather boa on a Victorian ballroom floor.

So how, then, did eskers form? Some 10,000 years ago, the continent-spanning glaciers of the most recent Ice Age were in retreat. As the mile-thick ice warmed, rivers of meltwater ran through caverns deep beneath the surface. These hidden torrents picked up and carried the sand and rock formerly trapped in the ice. Where the ice-walled channels were steep, the sand and rock were tumbled smooth. As the gradient of the channels lessened, or as the flow of water slowed from a torrent to a trickle, these secret rivers dropped their burdens. First the heavier stones — cobbles and large gravel — settled out. Next came the smaller gravel. Last to be laid down was the sand. Finally, over many years, as the glacier retreated, the once-hidden channels were freed from their icy prison. As the ice walls melted away, the river-bed cobbles, gravel and sand were first exposed and then deposited on the underlying land. The margins of the piled sediments then slumped, leaving the sinuous casts of fossil rivers behind. The retreating glaciers had given birth to eskers.

But how can eskers be distinguished from the now-empty channels of ancient surface rivers? Easily. The rivers we see today are shaped by the land through which they flow. Their courses are determined by topography. Even when long dry, their beds reflect this earlier constraint. The hidden rivers which gave rise to eskers, however, flowed in suspended channels, buried deep in the ice and yet still high about the surface of the ground. When the great continental glaciers melted back, they deposited the sedimentary casts from these secret channels willy-nilly over the newly-exposed land. Eskers therefore show a glorious independence — one forever denied the beds of more conventional rivers. Eskers go where they will, often cutting across the “grain” of the landscape.

All well and good. But we’re not all geologists. Why would any practical canoeist or kayaker care about eskers?

That’s a fair question. Let’s go back to the start of my story. We were paddling through a spongy, waterlogged lowland forest. Dry campsites were few and far between. But we weren’t condemned to spend a soggy night. Find an esker, and we’d find a well-drained and attractive camp. Eskers are made up of cobbles, gravel and sand. Even when all the surrounding country has the consistency of cold oatmeal, an esker camp will be high, dry and comfortable. That’s something that even the most pragmatic paddler will appreciate.

So how do you find an esker? If you keep your eyes open, you’ll learn to know one when you see it, but it’s even better to be able to plan ahead. Begin by examining the large-scale topographic maps for your trip. Remember that an esker is a sinuous ridge, snaking across the landscape. That’s what you’re looking for. Here’s an example, taken from a USGS 1:25,000 metric map depicting a portion of the 10-mile-long Jenkins esker in the northern Adirondack Mountains:

Jenkins Esker - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

See the narrow, winding ridge in the highlighted section, just to the left of center? That’s the topographic signature of an esker. Note how the contour lines bunch together on the steep east and west flanks. (North is at the top of the map, and the contour interval is five meters.) While the esker is as much as 25 meters high from base to top, it rises and falls along its length. Do you see the eastward-trending, finger-like ridge splitting off to the north? That’s most likely a tributary of the main esker, breached by the river to the east but re-emerging near the marked shelter. Compare the profiles of the nearby hills with that of the esker. Though some of the hills are as steep as the flanks of the esker, their peaks are broader and higher.

Of course the landscape depicted in the map above exhibits good relief, with many possible campsites. Not all parts of canoe country are so blessed, however. When the surrounding land is low and marshy, an esker stands out unmistakably on a topographic map. It’s also a very welcome sight at the end of a long and weary day. So the next time you plan a trip up North, take a good look at your maps beforehand — and then keep your eyes peeled as you paddle along. A fossil river is well worth looking for!

 


 

Three weeks ago, Tamia looked through “far-seeing eyes” to see what binoculars can do for canoeists and kayakers. This week, in “Small is Beautiful,” she picks up her 10x Hastings triplet and turns her gaze on the miniature wildernesses all around us.

Small is Beautiful: Getting Close to Nature with a Hand Lens

by Tamia Nelson
October 31, 2000
_________________________

I drifted lazily in less than a foot of water, while a slanting autumn sun illuminated the ‘Flow around me. Riffles gently rocked my kayak. I sat relaxed, feet off the blocks, paddle resting across my cockpit combing. Through half-closed eyes, I watched the play of sunlight on the wave-washed beach just a boat-length away.

Suddenly, I became aware of a constellation of twinkling points all along the sandy shore. I picked up my paddle and moved in closer. When my boat grounded, I reached down and scooped up a handful of sand. The grains were all of a size, but they varied greatly in color. That was all I could tell on quick inspection, but by now I was really curious. So I pulled my hand lens out of the pocket in my life jacket where it travels and looked through it at a smear of sand in my palm.

Seen under ten-power magnification, the individual grains leapt into focus — each one distinct. As “alike as grains of sand”? What nonsense! Each was unique. Some were well-rounded bits of quartz, ranging from glassy transparency to dullish tan. Others were tiny, black double pyramids of magnetite. As I rolled these in my hand, the magnetite crystals sparkled in the sun.

Of course, a hand lens isn’t usually thought of as paddling gear, but for decades Farwell and I have taken one of these powerful little magnifiers along on all our trips. They’re a natural complement to our binoculars. What “far-seeing eyes” do for distant objects, hand lenses do for the invisible world beneath our feet. They’re wonderful tools, and they’re inexpensive, too. The best hand lens money can buy — a Bausch & Lomb 10x Hastings triplet, for example — costs no more than the cheapest pair of good-quality binoculars. Better yet, if you’re happy with less than the best, you can get a perfectly serviceable hand lens for only ten bucks. Now that’s cheap! They’re handy, too. No bigger than your key ring and weighing no more than the change you get from buying a cup of coffee, a hand lens can find a place in even the most ardent go-lighter’s pack.

Anatomy of a Hand Lens - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

OK. Hand lenses are cheap and handy, but what do you look for when you go shopping for one of your own? What are the hallmarks of a high-quality hand lens, in other words? Simple. You want three things: a good case, reasonable power, and good-quality optics.

What’s a “good case”? Look at the sketch above. When not in use, a hand lens pivots into an attached, protective post-and-plate case. If the case fits snugly — if, that is, it’s easy to pivot the lens in and out, but if it then stays put — and if the case is made of some sturdy, corrosion-resistant material (chromed brass or hard plastic, for example), then you’ve got a good case.

“Reasonable power” is a bit harder to judge by inspection, but you’ll quickly learn what it means. Too little power (3x or less, say) is, well, just too little. A hand lens is a magnifier. You want it to magnify, don’t you? Of course you do! Then again, as Mae West probably didn’t say, too much of a good thing can be awful. Too much power means too small a field of view, as well as too short a working distance. This last is particularly important. Sometimes you need to keep your distance. Whether you’re inspecting the stinger of a not-quite-dead honey bee or looking at the wood chips in beaver scat — both are fascinating things, by the way — you don’t want to get too close to your work. How much power is too much? It’s a judgment call. How far do you want to be from what you’re looking at? Anything more than 20x is a microscope, not a magnifier. It’s definitely too much. Ten power (10x) is a good compromise. It’s high enough to be useful, but low enough to let you stand back. I like it, and so do many pros, including botanists, geologists, and graphic artists.

And optical quality — what about optical quality? That’s even tougher to judge. Tougher, but not impossible. Like binoculars, the best test of a hand lens is side-by-side comparison with several others. Failing that, the next best thing is an extended, critical trial. Here’s what to look for. A good lens will have a crisp, bright image. It won’t distort colors or create rainbow halos around objects. Finally, it will have a broad, flat field. Straight lines will look straight. Distortion, even at the edges of the field where it’s always most noticeable, will be slight.

Can you tell a good lens from a bad one by reading catalog copy? Maybe. The best lenses are probably those identified as Hastings triplets, but not all Hasting triplets are equal. And some doublet (two-element) lenses are pretty good. I have both types, and each is perfectly satisfactory, though the triplet is noticeably better. In evaluating a lens, look through the lens, not at the label. What should you look at? Almost anything. Look at the print in your daily newspaper, the surface of your skin, or — as I did shortly before I sat down to write this piece — the minute bones of a fossil fish embedded in a Green River siltstone. Look carefully. Look critically. Then make your choice. You can believe your eyes.

And, now, speaking of choice…. Everybody likes to have a choice. So why settle for a single power when you can have three or more? Some manufacturers make two- and even three-lens magnifiers*, after all. The idea is attractive. You can use the lenses singly or in combination. The result? A whole smorgasbord of powers, and all for half the price of a single Hastings triplet lens. You’ll always be able to match the exact power to each job. This sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But is it? In a word: No. I suppose there may be an exception somewhere, but every two- and three-lens magnifier I’ve tried to date has been a disappointment. Color fringing. Distortion. Blurry images. Not quite ready for prime time, in short. If you really need (or want) magnifiers of two different powers, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy two single-power hand lenses.

Now, supposing I’ve sold you on the idea of taking a hand lens with you on your next paddling trip, where can you buy one? You may get lucky. You may find a good-quality lens in a local outfitter or hobby shop. But you most likely won’t. That’s not a problem. You’ll find all the selection you could want in the catalogs of scientific and forestry supply houses like Edmund Scientific and the Ben Meadows Company. Study the catalogs, and then order the lens that looks right for you. Just be sure that you can return it if it proves unsatisfactory. Even simple optical instruments are complex things. Sometimes the best manufacturers miss a defective lens element or a poorly-aligned case.

Once you’re satisfied with the lens you’ve purchased, it’s time to go exploring. And, if there are any children in your life, why not invite them along? In fact, if they’re old enough to trust with small objects, consider getting them inexpensive, good-quality hand lenses of their own. (Attach brightly colored lanyards to the cases, however, so that a “lost” lens can be found easily and returned to its owner.) Kids love magnifiers. There are few better ways to encourage their natural curiosity.

With magnifier in hand, the wilderness begins at your own skin. Everywhere you turn, you’ll see familiar things in a new light. Start by holding your lens close (1″-2″) to your eye, and then bring both eye and lens down to your subject. Compare different fabrics, different woods, even different papers. Look at the leaves and stems of your houseplants. Have you found a book louse in your library? Give it a stay of execution while you examine it from head to abdomen. Can you see the rust-red spots? When you’re done, consider leaving it as bait to attract a spider-like pseudoscorpion — another subject for your lens, and an even more interesting one!

Out-of-doors and on the water, you’ll find that the immense, microscopic wilderness you’ve been exploring suddenly gets even bigger. Check out the sand grains on the beach, as I did. In spring and early summer, look for black fly larvae in small streams. If you find them attached to a flat rock near the surface, you can watch their delicate cephalic fans strain food from the rushing water. Search the stream bottom for the improbable sand-and-stick tubes that caddisfly larvae call home.

Ashore, at any time from late spring through autumn, examine the caps, gills, and stalks of forest mushrooms. See if you can identify the incisor marks left by hungry mice and voles. (But DON’T assume that you can eat what they can! That could be your last mistake.) And in winter, when ice has silenced all the streams and you’d think that insects of any sort would be long gone, keep your eyes open for tiny, primitive springtails (“snow fleas”), swarming like a sooty smudge on the surface of the drifting snow. The long, forked “spring tail” is worth a look, but you’d better be quick. These lively creatures don’t hold still for long, and they can leap a foot or more with each bound.

That’s it. You’ve got the idea by now. To someone with a hand lens, there’s a wildlife park in each square foot of stream bottom, and a wilderness in every brush pile. Be sure to use a notebook to record your discoveries, though — and remember, “Small is beautiful!”

* Don’t confuse a three-lens magnifier with a triplet. A triplet is a single lens with three elements. A three-lens magnifier, on the other hand, has three individual pivoting lenses.

 


 

Throughout much of North America, the paddling season is drawing to a close. But winter doesn’t put a stop to imagination, does it? Beginning this week, Tamia and Farwell will follow Brenna Trent and Ed Fletcher as they make plans to head north on what promises to be the “Trip of a Lifetime” for both of them. Why not come along for the ride?

Trip of a Lifetime: Stirrings

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
November 7, 2000
_________________________

Preface

Throughout much of North America, the first snows of winter have already fallen. The paddling season is drawing to a close. But winter doesn’t put a stop to imagination, does it? As ice locks up the lakes and rivers, and as the snowbanks grow deeper outside our doors, we can still re-live past trips and look forward to next spring. Even in the darkest, coldest days of January, we can hear the cries of the returning geese and see bare earth poking up through the melting snow, if only in our minds.

For Brenna Trent and her husband Ed Fletcher, however, March has already arrived. Beginning this week, we’ll follow them as they get ready for the “trip of a lifetime.” We’ll look over their shoulders as they plan, and join them in checking off all the items on their gear and food lists. Then, once everything is ready, we’ll go along with them as they head north to chart the last voyage of Henry Hudson — and maybe to learn why he never returned.

A reminder: This is a work of fiction. With the exception of a few public figures, whose actions and utterances are the products of the authors’ imaginations, all the characters described in this work are fictitious. And, while many locales named in this work do exist, others are entirely imaginary. Even the geography of real places has been altered from time to time for dramatic purposes. This is a work of the imagination. It isn’t a river guide.

Chapter One

Brenna Trent leaned heavily against the scuffed wooden counter, sitting half on and half off her stool. She made swift, slashing strokes with a soft pencil in a sketchbook that rested on her knee. Every so often, she glanced up at the customer standing in the cone of light illuminating the narrow aisle between two of the shop’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

The man was wrapped up in a wool greatcoat whose ragged hem fell below his knees. He was a terrific model for an artist, with his wild white hair and immense, straggly moustache. His jowls sagged in folds and bloomed with broken veins, framing a magnificent hawk’s beak of a nose. His eyes, too, were hawk-like, set deep in dark sockets. He looked like an Old Testament prophet who’d fallen on hard times, and he’d been browsing through the books for well over an hour. He gave no indication that he intended to buy anything.

Brenna smeared her little finger across the pencil line to enhance a shadow. When she looked up again, her eyes met the man’s. She smiled. He smirked furtively. He’d noticed her watching him before, and now he saw she was doing something — making notes, maybe? — in some kind of big pad. He started to feel nervous. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he’d come into The Book Locker to escape the chill March wind that was driving cold rain against the shop windows and rattling the bare maple branches outside. Maybe this lady knew he wasn’t going to buy anything, he thought. Even though she was smiling, her alert eyes scared him. He was scared of a lot of things these days. He grabbed a paperback off the shelf without looking at the title and took it to the counter.

“Will that be all?” Brenna asked pleasantly.

“Yep, that’s all,” the man said, rummaging for the tattered wallet in the deep pocket of his brown corduroys. Brenna set her pad down on the counter. The man saw the sketch.

“Hey,” he said, both startled and flattered to see his penciled likeness, “that’s pretty damn good.” The man grinned as he handed over two worn, one-dollar bills. “Where’d you learn to draw like that, anyway?”

“Oh, I taught myself,” Brenna said, giving the man a few pennies in change and slipping the book into a small paper bag. “Do you want the sketch?”

“Naw,” the man said, suddenly embarrassed. “Ain’t got no place to put it.” And he turned without another word and bolted for the door, brushing past the postman in the entry alcove. An icy gust blew through the stacks of musty old books.

“Brenna Trent, Edward Fletcher, The Book Locker, Occupant…. Yep. It’s all here,” said Dan, slapping the wad of mail down on the wooden counter. He paused for breath. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and the mail bag seemed to get heavier now when he walked his route, instead of lighter, like it ought to do. Didn’t make no sort of sense, he thought. His breath returning, he checked his watch. Always time for a little conversation.

“How’s things today, Brenna?” he asked, wheezing a little, and then he shrugged his shoulders to take some of the bite out of his load.

“So-so, Dan. And you?” Brenna raised her eyebrows in a good approximation of interest while she thumbed through the stack of letters. Bills and junk-mail mostly. “Visit Exotic Vietnam,” one brochure read. Ed’s going to like that, she thought. Trip of a lifetime!

More bills. And one catalog — BBHaricot’s Guide to Gear for 2001. There was a lemon-yellow kayak on the cover and a tree-lined lake in the background.

“The wife’s all in a fever for spring,” Dan continued. “Wants ta get the garden in. I tell her it’s too early. Anybody can see it’s too early. But does she listen to me? No. She ain’t listened to me for gettin’ onta twenty years now.” Brenna nodded sympathetically, with an expression that suggested she thought the wife oughta listen. But she didn’t say anything. Dan looked at his watch. Gettin’ late, and the mailbag wasn’t gettin’ any lighter. Time to go. “See ya tomorra!” he said, and he headed toward the door.

Brenna shivered as a gust hit her again, then started leafing through the catalog, pausing as she always did at the two-page spread of canoes and kayaks. “This year’s models!” the copy said, and all around them were pictures of smiling, fit, tanned folks frolicking on sunlit beaches and hanging out on weathered timber docks. They’re this year’s models, too, she though enviously.

It had been a long time since she and Ed had frolicked on a sunlit beach or hung out around a dock. Every year, when the sun started getting up earlier and the ice went out on the river that ran through town, Brenna would feel funny. Restless and uneasy. Then a day would come when she’d hear the big Canada geese calling to each other, way, way up, heading north. And she’d start smelling the earth again, and remembering the years when spring meant whitewater and long weekends in the old VW, its shaky front-end held together with wrappings of leather boot-lace. Those were the years when she and Ed went off every chance they got, chasing the runoff from river to river all over northern New York and Vermont. That was a long time ago, she thought.

Brenna sighed. She hadn’t heard any geese yet, and the neglected garden at the back of the shop was still buried deep in dirty snow. She glanced again at the two-page spread of canoes and kayaks, wondering if spring would ever return. She shrugged her shoulders unconsciously, looking for just a minute a lot like Dan the postman. Then she slipped off the stool and made a half-hearted attack on the books nearest the counter with a feather duster. When she reached the end of the first aisle, the door to the back room creaked open and Ed walked in. He saw her and smiled. She forgave him.

“Look at what I found in that box of magazines we bought from the Norman estate,” Ed said, holding up a copy of something called Mercator’s World. Brenna tilted her head to see. What a wonderful, terrible cover, she thought. It showed a painting — nineteenth century by the look of it. A bearded man sat in the sternsheets of a big open boat, tiller in one hand, staring out with mixture of sadness and determination. A boy knelt at his feet, gazing pleadingly up at him. The boy looked close to tears. In the foreground, a young man sprawled listlessly under a fur robe, obviously weakened by sickness or exhaustion. Behind them all, ice flows towered menacingly. The small boat and its occupants were alone in a wilderness of ice and water. Brenna shuddered involuntarily. It didn’t look like anyone was going to get out of that wilderness alive.

“What do you think?” Ed asked. He hadn’t noticed the shudder. When Brenna didn’t answer, he repeated, “What do you think?”

“I think,” Brenna said abruptly, “that the guys in that painting died a long way from home.”

“Of course they did,” said Ed. “Look at the title. It’s a painting of Henry Hudson. Remember what happened to him? He sailed into James Bay, looking for the Northwest Passage. After wintering-over at the bottom of the Bay and nearly starving, his crew mutinied. They set Hudson, his son, and all the crew-members who were too sick to work adrift in the ship’s boat. Nobody knows exactly what happened to them, but one thing’s for sure — they died a very long way from home.”

Brenna took another look at the cover of the magazine. Written in bold letters across a snow-covered peak were the words “Charting Hudson’s Last Voyage.”

“Not exactly a cheerful read,” Brenna commented wryly, wondering where this conversation was headed.

“Nope. Not at all,” said Ed. He sounded pretty happy about it, though. “How’d you like to do it?”

“Die surrounded by icebergs somewhere near the bottom of the Bay? No thanks.” Brenna’s voice had a sarcastic edge. She was finding it harder and harder to follow Ed’s drift among the flows. She turned away and reached out reflexively to dust a section of shelf.

Ed touched her arm. She stopped dusting and turned back toward him. He looked amused, and a little bit worried, too. “Not die, Brenna. Live. For the first time in a long time. Follow the geese north. Go right up to the Bay. Shut up the shop. Go north. Maybe even chart Hudson’s last voyage.”

Brenna was silent. She looked at Ed. She looked at the magazine cover. At the bearded old man and the pleading boy. At the implacable, waiting ice. She raised her head again, staring hard into Ed’s blue eyes.

“Yes,” she said. “I’d like that very much.”

Behind her, the ancient Chauncey Jerome clock on the shelf over the shop counter started to strike the hour — ten minutes early, as usual. Five o’clock. Quitting time.

“Yes,” Brenna said again, quietly. “Let’s go.”

To be continued…

 


 

In “The Cold Light of Dawn,” the second chapter in our fictional chronicle of one couple’s trip of a lifetime, Ed Fletcher and Brenna Trent discover that planning a three-month-long canoe voyage isn’t exactly a piece of cake. There’s the old canoe, for one thing — is it up to the job? And that’s only the beginning.

Trip of a Lifetime: The Cold Light of Dawn

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
November 14, 2000
_________________________

A Note to the Reader

It’s March, 2001. Brenna Trent and her husband Ed Fletcher are starting to make plans for a three-month-long canoe trip to James Bay. It seemed easy yesterday, when the idea first took hold, but the problems are already starting to mount up.

Chapter Two

Ed stood at the tall kitchen window, hands cupped around his mug, watching tendrils of fragrant steam rise from the surface of his morning coffee. There were times, he thought, when it was very good to live over the shop. No panicky scramble to get on the road. No rush-hour traffic to infuriate and delay. A measured, orderly start to each workday. Smiling to himself, he reached for the toast.

Only then, as he put down his coffee mug to give full attention to the rest of his breakfast, did Ed notice how cold it was in the apartment. He laid his hand on the shuddering, pinging radiator and frowned. Not even lukewarm. And it would be even colder downstairs among the towering bookshelves. Wonderful, Ed thought. Now he’d have to spend the morning bleeding air out of the pipes. He couldn’t even look forward to a warm office.

He turned back toward the window and gazed out in the direction of the distant Adirondack foothills, now just a mauve smear on the far horizon, their outlines obscured by billowing, gray-white clouds of smoke from the paper mill to the west. The diffuse, watery light filtering through the thin smoke gave nearby streets and buildings a slightly surreal quality. For a moment, he was reminded of the misty, enigmatic Parisian cityscapes of Brassaï.

That illusion didn’t last. Two inches of heavy wet snow weighed down every power line and bent the bare branches of the maples. A few enterprising house sparrows prospected at curb-side, looking for something edible amid the drifts of sodden litter. An echoing chorus of dogs gave each early passerby a fitful, dissonant challenge.

Ed’s mind flew over the boarded-up storefronts and decaying apartment buildings around him. He ransacked his memory for more welcoming vistas, just as he’d done on hundreds of similar mornings. “Remembrance of things past,” he snorted inwardly, angry with himself for day-dreaming. Then he stopped short. Today was different. He and Brenna were going north again. And he felt a pleasant tingle of excitement — an almost adolescent anticipation.

Just at that minute, Brenna came into the kitchen and sat down at the table, reaching reflexively for her mug and plate. She was wrapped up in a wool robe against the chill. “It’s damn cold in here,” she said. Brenna was a woman of few words in the morning.

Ed nodded. “I think it’s an air-lock,” he said. “I’ll bleed the radiators after breakfast.” Then, settling his glasses on the bridge of his nose with a forefinger, he added, “Dick Grimm.”

Brenna was used to such sudden transitions. Ed wasn’t exactly a linear thinker. She knew what he meant. They’d talked about possible partners for the trip north the night before, just before going to sleep. “I hadn’t thought of him,” Brenna replied. She chewed her toast reflectively and jotted a note on the pad she kept beside her place at the table.

Ed’s attention wandered. He looked out the window again. A tall, white-haired man was walking along the side-street opposite The Book Locker. He left two narrow tracks behind him in the sooty snow, and his hands were crammed deep into the pockets of his shabby greatcoat. He didn’t look comfortable. Then he turned the corner and headed in the direction of the diner on Main Street. Two boys wearing the dark green blazers of St. Mary’s School approached the tall man from the other direction, passing him without a word. After taking another few steps, the bigger boy bent down to scoop up a handful of slush and packed it into a hard snowball. Turning swiftly, he threw it at the man’s retreating back. Just as the boy’s arm flew out, however, the tall man looked round. Moving with surprising speed, he sidestepped the snowball. Then, without an instant’s hesitation, he, too, bent down. As he straightened up, he threw a snowball of his own at the bigger boy, who was now running as fast as he could go down the street. He threw it fast and hard, catching the boy smack in the back of head. The boy let out a howl that could be heard right through the storm windows, but he kept on running.

Ed chuckled to himself. The biter bit, he thought. The tall, white-haired man resumed his slog toward the diner. Ed turned back to the business of the day: “How about Pete and Karin Neary?” he asked.

“Probably not,” replied Brenna. “I think Karin’s teaching this summer. I’ll give ’em a call this afternoon, though, just to be sure.” She made another note and then looked up, shaking her head in dismay. “There’s so much to do. We’ve only started, but I already feel like I’m falling way behind. Last night it seemed like we had forever to get ready. Now — well, look at this list.” And she shoved her notebook at Ed.

He poured more coffee for them both. “One thing at a time, Brenn. One thing at a time. The longest journey begins with a single step.” He caught sight of Brenna’s sardonic expression and his voice trailed off in embarrassment. “OK. I just joined the cliché of the month club, right? But it’s still true. So why don’t I take a good look at the Tripper first? Canoes don’t last forever. The old barge’s gettin’ on. Lots of water under her keel. Lots of cold winters. Got to know if she has another trip left in her.”

He scanned Brenna’s notebook. The “to do” list alone ran on for more than a page, with “Buy maps” right at the head. Maps. They had to know where they were going first, Ed thought. James Bay was a big piece of real estate. They had to pick a river.

Ed’s eyes travelled down the page. One question after another. Water levels? New hydro developments? How about logging or mining operations? Ed had vivid memories of hunting for portages lost in a wilderness of logging slash. Put-in? Take-out? Drive or fly? New regulations? New fees? Ed winced at this one, remembering that Ontario Crown Lands weren’t free to foreigners. How much? Three months or more — say 100 days. Two people. Could be quite a big chunk of change, he thought, ruefully.

He looked up. Brenna now had another notebook in front of her. She was scribbling furiously, adding items one by one. She stopped, caught Ed’s eye, and shrugged. “Gear list,” she said. Ed nodded. He too was starting to feel the pressure.

“Why not put ’em on the computer down in the shop?” Ed asked.

“I’m going to,” Brenna said. “But I can’t bring the computer to the breakfast table, can I? I’ll put everything I can think of down in these two notebooks now, and then I’ll transfer the lists later. In the meantime, let’s haul all our gear out and look it over. We can hang things up on the porch if they’re musty, and use part of the back room downstairs to sort and pack.”

Ed nodded, swirling what was left of his coffee. He yawned. They hadn’t even finished breakfast and already the day was looking full. He continued to study Brenna’s “to do” list, saying nothing. A companionable silence followed. Suddenly, Brenna put down her pen. “What’re we going to do about the shop?” she asked.

Ed raised his eyebrows and stroked his stubble thoughtfully. (“Can’t go north without a beard!” he’d said that morning when he left the bathroom unshaven, answering Brenna’s unspoken question.) What to do about the shop? That was THE question. No doubt about it. “Well,” he said, “we’ve got two choices. We can close the shop down or we can hire someone to keep an eye on it. Wait a minute…. There’s another alternative. We can sell out.”

Brenna sighed. It wasn’t an easy choice. The shop was a lot of work, and it certainly wasn’t making them rich. But she had to admit they’d grown accustomed to the place. They liked the treasure-hunt atmosphere of the auctions. They liked chatting with customers. They liked being surrounded by thousands of books. But now they’d made the decision to go north, and something would have to be done about the shop. Ed noticed Brenna’s downcast look. He had to admit he felt the same way himself. “There’s no hurry,” he said. “Let’s just wait a while. Something’ll turn up. You’ll see.”

“OK, Micawber,” Brenna said, and she planted a warm kiss on her husband’s cheek. Downstairs the clock started to chime the hour. “Let’s get to work.”

It was another slow day. Brenna pushed the wet snow off the sidewalk in front of the shop and then sprinkled sand on the stone steps. Marge, the lady from the dry-cleaners down the road, stopped in during her coffee break to buy a two-foot-high stack of romances. (“Second-hand love,” Ed whispered to Brenna, winking, as he bled the radiator behind the counter.) Slow morning or not, though, there was one good sale. A couple who lived in the northern Adirondacks, traveling through town on their way downstate to visit family, bought over three hundred dollars’ worth of books, including a really nice copy of D. W. Waters’ The Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times. When Brenna went round to straighten up the stock after they’d gone, she noticed Donald Johnson’s Charting the Sea of Darkness: The Four Voyages of Henry Hudson, right next to the gap on the shelf where the Waters’ volume had been. She took it back with her to the counter. It seemed like a good omen.

Meanwhile, Ed had taken a break from bleeding the radiators. He was working in the back room, clearing shelves, shoving boxes of uncataloged books into corners, and dusting off the big table. As a finishing touch, he tacked a National Geographic map of Canada up on the wall, next to a tattered, unframed print of George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Then he stepped out into the damp chill of the big porch running along the full width of the shop at the back.

Under the porch roof, hard against the wall of the building, Ed and Brenna’s Old Town Tripper rested upside-down on two sawhorses, looking a lot like a beached whale. Ed swept last autumn’s dried leaves and the winter’s dust off the hull, and then ran his eyes over it. The Tripper’s bottom was criss-crossed with scratches, some of them pretty deep. Ed got his nails under the bow bang-strip, tugged, and felt it start to pull away in his hand. He leaned on the hull, gently at first, then putting more and more of his weight on it. It flexed under the pressure, and Ed could hear an ominous cracking sound. Next, he muscled the canoe off the sawhorses and set it right-side up on the porch floor. Now he could see the old fiberglass patch in the bow, marking the place where a woodpile had collapsed on the boat late one sub-zero night, splitting the inner skin of the hull. That was years ago, back when they still stored the Tripper in a friend’s barn on the Battenkill. Ed worked his fingers along the edge of the patch. It, too, lifted in response to his probing. Not good, he thought. The old girl was definitely showing her age.

Ed did some quick sums in his head. He figured they’d be gone three months. Make it 100 days to keep things simple. Estimate food at five pounds a day. That was a quarter-ton of food alone! Then figure another hundred pounds for clothing and gear — travelling light is fine for a weekend, Ed reminded himself, but you really appreciate a few home comforts on three-month-long trip. Now add in the weight of the crew. He looked down at his pot and groaned. Better add another 325 pounds for the crew. What did that all add up to? Five hundred plus a 100 plus another 325 … 925 pounds! Almost half a ton. That’ll be pushing it, he thought, remembering the big, wind-driven rollers on the Bay. Of course they’d be travelling a lot lighter by the time they tasted salt water. Still, there’d be no margin to speak of, even if the Tripper was brand new. Which it wasn’t, not by a long shot.

Just then Brenna opened the porch door and asked, “Can you take over at the counter for a few minutes? I’m going for sweet rolls.”

“Sure thing,” said Ed, coming in. Then, hearing the radiator ping loudly, he added, “And I’ll finish bleeding the system later.”

“The back room looks great,” said Brenna surveying Ed’s morning’s work. “Now we’ve got a place to lay out all our gear and check it over.” She paused for a second and asked, “So how many rolls should I get? Four?”

“Pick up half a dozen,” Ed replied. “Let’s live dangerously!”

To be continued…

 


 

The white-haired man with the deep-set eyes is back. In the third chapter of our fictional chronicle of one couple’s trip of a lifetime, Ed Fletcher’s earlier prediction that “Something Will Turn Up” is fulfilled, though in a way that neither he nor Brenna could have imagined.

Trip of a Lifetime: Something Turns Up

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
November 21, 2000
_________________________

A Note to the Reader

It’s March, 2001. Brenna Trent and her husband Ed Fletcher are getting ready for a three-month-long canoe trip to James Bay. It seemed so easy at first. Just wait for ice-out, pack up, and go. Now that the real planning is under way, however, some difficulties look overwhelming. Who’s going to mind the store while they’re gone, for one thing? Brenna’s afraid they’ll have to sell out, but Ed’s reassured her that “something will turn up.” Was he right, or is he only whistling in the dark?

Chapter Three

Brenna closed the shop door behind her and stepped out into the street. Traffic hissed by, spraying salty slush onto the sidewalks. A slight southerly breeze ruffled the exposed fringe of her short, brown hair. Seeing a break in the stream of cars, she jogged across the highway, hoping to make it to the other side without getting soaked. No such luck. A speeding silver Toyota Tacoma splashed her just as she reached the curb. “Damn!” Brenna muttered to herself, brushing futilely at her now-damp jeans.

The plate glass windows of Shirley’s Diner were fogged over, but Brenna could see that the place was packed, even if the standing and seated shapes all looked like wraiths emerging from a mist. She pulled the heavy oak door open and went in, to be met by a rush of warm air, bearing the welcoming odors of cinnamon, bacon, and coffee. She walked up to the counter and sat down on the lone empty stool. Though it had only been a couple of hours since she’d eaten breakfast, her stomach gave an audible growl. Her mouth watered.

“Hiya, Brenna,” said Shirley, whose improbably blood-red lips were framed between a sharp, thin nose and an aggressively pointed chin. “Whatcha want? The usual?”

“Not this time, Shirley,” said Brenna. “I’d like six sweet rolls.”

“Six rolls! For just the twosaya?” Shirley chuckled. “Somebody’s birthday or somethin’?” As she spoke, she levered the sticky cinnamon buns off a baking sheet and dropped them into a white cardboard box, separating the tiers with layers of waxed paper. Each bun was bigger than a saucer. The box bore the legend, “Shirley’s World-Famous Buns.”

“Nope,” Brenna replied. “But we are celebrating something.” Her eyes followed each bun hungrily, and her words came out in a rush. “We’re gonna go back north this summer. Gonna paddle our canoe right up to James Bay. We’ll be gone for three whole months.”

“Three months!” Shirley exclaimed. “Who’s gonna mind the store while you’re away? Somebody die and leave you money?” She smiled to show she was joking.

“Not likely,” Brenna shot back. “Maybe we’ll just shut the shop down…or maybe sell up.”

“What’s this town commin’ ta?” Shirley said. “Everybody’s shuttin’ down or retiring. Everybody but me. When’s the last time I even took a vacation? Nineteen-sixty-five, that’s when!”

“Come off it, Shirley!” teased Brenna. “You always said you liked this place too much to leave. And anyway, didn’t you go to Atlantic City last summer?”

“A trip to Atlantic City ain’t a vacation, honey.” Shirley’s voice was all injured innocence. “Don’t you know nothin’ about finance? It’s an in-vest-ment opportunity!” They both laughed. Shirley slid the white box over the counter and turned to ring up the total.

Brenna paid. It was a good thing she’d had at least one big sale that morning, she thought. Then she said her good-byes and hurried to the door. Sitting at one of the small tables in front of the window was her “model” from yesterday, the white-haired man who’d taken so long to choose a single paperback. He was alone except for an empty cup of coffee, and his back was toward her. The book he’d bought was propped open against a napkin dispenser. Brenna noticed that he was nearly finished. Whatever the book was — “What was the title?” Brenna asked herself, and then remembered that it was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — it had him well and truly hooked. He was lost in a world of his own, far from the bustle of Shirley’s, going down the Mississippi in company with Huck and Jim.

When Brenna got back to the shop, Ed was nowhere to be seen. She called out to him.

“Back here!” came his shouted reply through the open door to the work room. Brenna found him on his knees next to a radiator. “No one was in the shop,” he explained. “Thought I’d finish bleeding the air out of the system. We’ve still got a month or two of cold weather ahead of us.”

“Good idea,” Brenna said. “I’ll make us some coffee to go with the buns. Hope you’re feeling hungry.”

She turned the hot plate on, filled the kettle at the utility sink, set it on the hot plate, and spooned coffee into the carafe filter basket. Then she heard the harness bells on the shop door ring out. A customer, she thought, and went to see who’d come in.

It was the white-haired man. “Hi,” Brenna greeted him. “Saw you in Shirley’s. Looked like you were really lost in that book.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I was. It’s a great book. When I started it, I thought, you know, that it was a kid’s book, but it wasn’t.” He shuffled his feet unconsciously, clearly ill at ease — a tall man suddenly at a loss for words. Then he pulled the book from a pocket in his well-worn greatcoat and put it on the counter. The slight slapping noise it made seemed loud in the quiet shop. “I was…uh…that is…I was wonderin’ if I could trade it in on another one, that is….” His voice trailed off.

Brenna looked up at him thoughtfully. Then she launched into the old and too-familiar spiel about how The Book Locker wasn’t a public library, and how she’d be happy to take the book for credit toward another book, but she could only give him a quarter for it…. And then, for some reason she couldn’t quite understand, her voice, too, trailed off.

The silence that followed seemed endless. Neither she nor the white-haired man spoke. He stood quietly before her, one hand resting lightly on the book on the counter. She looked into his deeply-hooded eyes, wondering just how else to say what she’d already said once. Just then there was an enormous, echoing bang, followed immediately by the sound of rushing water, and Ed’s voice, raised to its full sergeant-on-parade bellow, hurling obscene entreaties at a malevolent universe.

Without thinking, Brenna rushed for the doorway to the back room, the white-haired man right behind her. The sight that greeted them had all the elements of slapstick comedy. Still kneeling in front of the radiator, Ed had his thumb forced tight against the end of a water pipe. The pipe was newly-broken by the look of it, and water was jetting out like the spray from a garden hose. Ed looked like the little Dutch boy in the story, Brenna thought, holding back the flood with his finger in the dike, but — and now she began to be alarmed — Ed wasn’t having the Dutch boy’s luck. There was already a film of dirty-brown water over the floor in the back room, and more was coming out of the pipe every second, despite Ed’s best efforts. Even the map of Canada on the wall was soaked.

Brenna was still trying to remember where the nearest shut-off valve was when she noticed the white-haired man. He’d scooted around her somehow and snatched Ed’s old Army poncho up off the stack of book boxes where Ed had set it down earlier, when he was clearing out the room. In less than ten seconds, the stranger had pulled a clasp knife from his pocket, opened it one-handed with practiced ease, and trimmed a big square of heavy, coated-nylon material from the poncho.

Ed, having run through a lifetime’s carefully-hoarded stock of curses in a minute, was now silent, his thumb still clamped tight over the end of the broken pipe. Water continued to spurt out around it. The white-haired man spoke. “Got any pliers?” he asked, and Ed pointed toward a storage shelf where a small pair of Channellocks rested. The white-haired man crossed the room in two long strides and snatched up the pliers. On his way back he grabbed a length of malleable iron wire from a discarded packing crate. Then he knelt beside Ed, dropping the pliers and wire in front of him and shaping the square he’d cut from the poncho into a rough cone over Ed’s hand. “You let ‘er go, now,” he said. “I’ll fit this here over the end of the pipe, an’ hold ‘er there. You just wrap that wire round the skirt and twist her up tight with the pliers. And don’t waste no time, hear me? You got a nice little pressure head in that pipe. I ain’t goin’ to be able to hold her on forever.”

Nodding unnecessarily, Ed eased his scalded thumb off the broken end of the pipe. Water now sprayed out with unconstrained force, soaking both Ed and the white-haired man in seconds. With water dripping off his glasses, Ed groped around the floor near his knees for the wire. Meanwhile, the white-haired man shaped the fabric square around the broken end of the pipe and tightened his grip. His wrists shot out from the sleeves of his greatcoat, the tendons standing up in startling relief. Ed found the wire and wrapped it quickly around the free edges of the fabric cone. Then he grabbed the pliers and twisted the ends of the wire together, tightening it down on the pipe like a tourniquet.

Seconds later, Ed was done. He stood up. The white-haired man, too, got to his feet, though much more slowly. The coated nylon fabric cut from the poncho ballooned alarmingly, but it held.

Brenna exhaled. Only then did she realize she’d been holding her breath the whole time.

“I’ll be damned!” Ed said, flexing his thumb experimentally to see if it had suffered any lasting harm. “I’ll be damned.” The white-haired man only smiled.

At that moment the harness bells on the shop door clattered again. Another customer, Brenna thought, and she left to see who it was, closing the back-room door on the sodden chaos behind her.

When she’d finished helping a woman looking for a book on formal English gardens, Brenna headed back to the work room. She’d been hearing muffled snatches of conversation all the while she’d been in the shop. Opening the door, she found Ed and the white-haired man drying themselves as best they could on opposite corners of an old Army blanket, another souvenir of what Ed liked to call his misspent youth.

“Brenna,” said Ed, abandoning his attempt to dry himself on the coarse wool, “meet Jack Van Dorn. Jack, this is my wife Brenna.”

“Hello, Jack,” said Brenna, smiling. Jack just grinned shyly, ducking his head in a quick nod. “Good thing you were here,” she continued. “If you hadn’t been, I’d still be looking for the shut-off valve, and we’d have an indoor pool instead of a work room!”

Jack’s grin broadened. “‘Tweren’t nothin’, Brend…,” he hunted for the unfamiliar name, “Brenna. Glad to be some help. Be a pretty sorry day if an old engineer couldn’t stop a bit of a leak. Lucky you got a hot water system and a punk boiler, though, and not steam, or Ed ‘an me’d be needin’ new skins.”

“Engineer?” said Ed, thoughtfully, looking at the old man in the shabby greatcoat and wondering how he might have learned what jets of hot steam could do. “You were a power-plant engineer?”

“Oh, not one of them college-boy engineers, that’s for sure,” said Jack, chuckling. “I was an engineer in a Labrador schooner, y’see. Boy and man. Then, come the War — that’s World War II, y’unnerstan’ — I went into the Merchant Marine on the North Atlantic run. The money was good. Real good, you know what I’m sayin’? But I always liked the schooners best. No German subs tryin’ to sink us, for one thing. An’ for another, you weren’t shut up in no riveted steel coffin, neither. On the Labrador it was just me and the other boys — ‘long with the rocks, an’ the wind, an’ that cold, cold water. And the engines, Lord, the engines! Old Remington Hotheads. Burn just about anythin’ you care to name. But don’t you never let ’em stop when there’s a drift settin’ inshore. If an engine cools down, you got to pull the bulb and get a torch on ‘er right away to start ‘er up again. And God help you if you find a rock before you get ‘er goin’. That water’s mighty cold, it is.”

And he paused, almost as if he’d said too much. Almost as if he could see cold water surging in through the stove planks of some luckless schooner, settling down hard on a sharp rock on an ebbing Labrador tide. Long seconds passed before he spoke again. “I went back to the schooners after the War,” he continued, “but it really warn’t the same. A lot of things had changed, y’see. I didn’t stay long.” And he stopped again.

Just then Brenna remembered the kettle she’d put on the hot plate — how long ago? — and looked across the room to see it boiling furiously, almost dry. “You want some coffee, Jack?” she asked. “And how about a couple of Shirley’s world-famous buns?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Jack, smiling again, the Labrador rocks and the cold, cold water apparently forgotten.

Some minutes later, after the kettle had been refilled, the coffee made, and the buns handed round, all three of them were seated on packing cases. Conversation lapsed as they gave their full attention to Shirley’s buns. Jack chewed with the studied efficiency of a man who wasn’t always sure where his next meal was coming from. He finished first. Then he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, said “Mighty good, thank you, ma’am” to Brenna, and walked over to take another look at the radiator.

Ed caught Brenna’s eye and nodded toward Jack, now kneeling to inspect the ballooning fabric bulb on the end of the radiator pipe. “What did I tell you, Brenn? Something — no, make that someone — has turned up.”

To be continued…

 


 

We’ve given Ed and Brenna a week off to work on their gear lists and make plans for their “Trip of a Lifetime.” They’ll be back next week. This time around, though, we thought we’d give some space to our two columnists’ silent partners. Who are these unsung heroes? YOU, that’s who — the readers who keep In the Same Boat afloat. This recognition is long overdue. After all, it’s “Our Readers Write.”

Our Readers Write: Dark-Adapted Eyes, Folding Money, Culture Tripping, and More

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
November 28, 2000
_________________________

It’s always fun to get mail, and we really enjoy the letters we receive from our readers. Every week brings something new. You challenge us, you teach us, and you encourage us. You even correct our mistakes! It’s been two months since the debut of “Our Readers Write.” Here’s just a sample of what you’ve had to say to us since then, along with our replies. (As before, we’ve edited both your letters and our replies for clarity and brevity.)

Through a Glass, Brightly

Dear Tamia,

Two comments on “Binoculars for Paddlers (Part 2)”:

  1. I have a pair of 10 x 25 Tasco binoculars. Is the small (25-mm diameter) objective lens the reason that in the late afternoon it is hard to see into shadows? Images are not sharp and are hard to make out. Would that still be a problem with a larger objective lens, say 30 mm or more?
  2. I was always told that on a bright moonlit night you could burn your eyes by watching the moon through binoculars for any length of time. Is this true?

Thanks,

Ric


Howdy, Ric! It’s good to hear from you. And you’re right: 10 x 25s are marginal glasses for twilight and nighttime use, though they’re fine general-purpose binoculars for less demanding applications. What makes a good night glass, then? The classic answer is the 7 x 50, but in fact good-quality 7 x 35s, 8 x 40s, and 10 x 40s will all serve well.

Why is this? Given comparable optical quality, low light performance is indicated by the ratio of objective lens diameter (measured in millimeters) to magnification. This ratio (usually known as a binocular’s “exit pupil”) determines the size of the cone of light emerging from the eyepiece. Since the maximum opening of the pupil of a young, dark-adapted human eye is some 7 mm, a 7 x 50 binocular (exit pupil of 50 divided by 7, or approximately 7.1 mm) achieves something like the theoretical limit of usable brightness. I’m afraid, however, that our eyes don’t age gracefully. Forty-year-old pupils, for example, are doing well if they open more than 4 or 5 mm!

The moral of the story? If you’re young and if you want a true night glass, get a 7 x 50. (I’ve read very good things about the Fuji Polaris, though at over three pounds they’re not lightweights — and at around $600 they’re certainly not cheap!) If you’re heading into middle age, though, you’ll probably do fine with a pair of 7 x 35s or 8 x 40s. You certainly won’t be giving anything up. The noted author and amateur astronomer Leslie Peltier (The Binocular Stargazer) actually preferred 7 x 35s to 7 x 50s, and my Bushnell Custom 8 x 36s have done me proud for years. They’re also both lighter and cheaper than the Fuji 7 x 50s, even if they’re not so weatherproof.

Now, to your second point. Will you damage your eyes by looking at the full moon with binoculars? In a word, NO. As bright as it appears to us, the full moon is only about one one-millionth as bright as the sun. It is true that its shadowless glare makes the full moon a relatively poor observational object, however. If you want to see the lunar mountains and craters most clearly, it’s best to limit your observations to periods several days before or after full, and then to look along the “terminator,” the line separating light from dark. This is the place where lunar shadows are longest, and where features appear in greatest relief.

Hope this helps. Take care!

Tamia


Canoe or Kayak or Something Else?

Dear Farwell,

Question: I read the recent review of the Aerius foldable kayak. Sounds GREAT. As you know, I have three years of canoeing under my belt. A foldable would be a new adventure (as would any kayak). What’s the biggest difference between canoeing and kayaking? Lastly, I was blown away by the cost of the new foldables. (I paid less for my son’s first car last week!) What company could you recommend that makes economical but good foldables? Also, where’s the best source for used foldables?

Thanks…hope all is well with you and Tamia.

Jeff


It’s very good to hear from you again, Jeff. Hope you and yours are keeping well. The “biggest difference between canoeing and kayaking”? That’s a tough one. There are a lot of differences, but I’d be hard pressed to pick the biggest. Happily, Tamia’s explored the question at some length in the column, so why not take a look at:

  • “Canoe or Kayak? A Guide for First-Time Buyers”
  • “Hell of a Vision: The Kayak Comes Back”
  • “The Flip Side of Kayaks: Why You Might Want to Consider a Canoe Instead”

Too much to take in at once? OK. In a few words, and subject to many qualifications, kayaks are cramped, awkward to load, and wet, but — in competent hands — agile and very seaworthy. Canoes, on the other hand, are roomy, easy to load, and comparatively dry (at least you’re not always sitting in a puddle!), but also somewhat less responsive and much quicker to swamp in rough water.

The two craft do have a very different “feel,” of course. In a canoe, you’re on the water; in a kayak, more often than not, you’re in the water. Some folks like this. Some don’t.

A few cautionary words: Many of the perceived differences between canoes and kayaks can be explained by the fact that most kayaks are solo craft and most canoes are tandems. Compare a typical recreational kayak to a small solo pack canoe, paddled with a double-blade. You’ll find less difference between the two than you might think. Ditto a tandem kayak and a typical two-man touring canoe.

The last word? If you think you might be interested in kayaking, rent one or two — a couple of solos one day and a tandem the next, say — and try it out for yourself. That’s the best way to see if there’s a kayak in your future!

FOLDING MONEY. A good, cheap folding kayak is in the same category as a good, cheap double shotgun — it simply doesn’t exist. Folbot (yes, that’s FolBOT) probably makes the least expensive, widely-available folding kayaks, but at $1200 to $2000 they’re not exactly cheap, are they? All you can do is keep your eye on the Paddling.net Free Classifieds and hope to get lucky. Check your local Pennysaver, too. You never know what someone may find in the attic.

An important question: Do you really need a folding kayak? If you have a car rack for your canoe, and if you usually drive to the water, then a folding kayak is just a waste of money. With the right cradles, it’s as easy to carry a rigid kayak on your car as it is to carry a canoe.

On the other hand, if you want the portability of a foldable — if, for example, you’re about to leave on a bus tour of South America and you’d like to take a boat along — take a look at inflatable kayaks. They’re not all toys, and some are surprisingly cheap. Stearns makes a solo inflatable that sells for only $300 (the tandem is $100 more). I’ve heard good things about it. Ask around. Someone you know may have paddled one. Better yet, see if you can find one to paddle yourself. There’s no better way to get to know a boat — any boat!

Hope this helps. Keep us posted on your search

Take care!

Farwell


“Culture Tripping” Across the Pond

Dear Farwell,

Tamia got a bit ahead of my meaning when she mentioned my description of Sweden’s Dalsland in “The Wilderness Mystique.” She is quite right about there being no wilderness there, but I wrote this only to warn people against expecting that kind of adventure on European waters. People from America will find very little real wilderness anywhere in Europe. (Personally I don’t care. My roughest canoeing expedition was in the Ardennen in Belgium, when the shops where I expected to buy food weren’t there anymore!)

Actually, a lot of my paddling friends regularly visit America in order to paddle in wilderness areas. I have been to the States, too, but that was to learn more about canoes and canoeing for research for the book that I wrote about canoeing. Perhaps I will do it again for the same reason.

As for wilderness tripping, in Europe we have something else that I sometimes call “culture tripping.” We have rivers that are good to paddle, with nice landscapes and interesting cities to visit along the way — rivers like

  • the Gudenå in Denmark
  • the Semois in Belgium
  • the Lahn and the Danube (Donau) in Germany
  • the Dordogne and possibly the Allier in France.

And not to forget the province Friesland in the Netherlands! Lots and lots of lakes and small canals and some rivers. You have to share those waterways with other kinds of boaters, but if you want to experience what Holland is like from the water, this is the way to go!

At the moment I am heavily involved in writing a book about canoeing, an instructor’s manual for our Dutch Canoe Union (Nederlandse Kano Bond). Still enjoy your other articles! Got me thinking about my own small mono spyglass that I never take along, but….

Greetings,

Dirk


It’s good to hear from you again, Dirk. “Wilderness” is such a slippery word, isn’t it? To the informed (and alert) paddler, there probably isn’t a square mile of country outside Antarctica that doesn’t bear clear evidence of human imprint, but we persist in pursuing “wilderness experiences” nonetheless. I suppose this reflects our desire to “get away from it all” — to escape the urban landscapes that most of us call home for most of the year. Uncrowded places are seen as wildernesses, even if they have a 10,000-year-long history of human use and occupation. And crowded places are seen as something else, even though many “wilderness” parks in North America are very crowded indeed, at least during the summer holiday season.

When all is said and done, wilderness is a state of mind. Tamia and I prefer to take our wilderness where we find it.

I like the notion of “culture tripping.” (Not surprising — I was an archaeologist for more than ten years.) Still, I’m not sure it would work in America. The problem is a simple one: few of our urban rivers are pleasant places to paddle. Things may now be changing for the better, though. I hope so.

Thanks again for writing. Tamia and I aren’t quite rich enough to afford a holiday trip across the Pond anytime soon, but we’d both love to spend a year (or three) paddling, sailing and walking through Europe. Maybe someday!

Best wishes,

Farwell


Letter of a Lifetime!

Dear Tamia,

Thank you for the intriguing, delightful story. I haven’t paid enough attention to the delivery dates for PaddleNews to know when the next one will be delivered to my computer. So every day I wonder if this will be the day when the next chapter in your story will show up.

A question: Is this the first place that “Trip of a Lifetime” has been published, or is it in print anywhere for purchase?

Either way, you and Farwell have me hooked. Thanks again and happy paddling.

Tom


What a wonderful letter, Tom! I’m delighted that you’re enjoying “Trip of a Lifetime.”

Now, to answer your questions:

Our column goes on-line every Tuesday. That’s when the current chapter of “Trip” will debut each week, though we’ll be interrupting the narrative once every month or so for other fare.

And, yes, this is the first time that it’s been published. While we’ve other novels (and proposals) under consideration by a number of publishers, “Trip of a Lifetime” is a Paddling.net exclusive. We’d like to see it in print someday, of course, but that day’s a long way off, I’m afraid.

Best wishes,

Tamia


OK. There are a lot more letters in our In-Tray, but we’ve run out of room (and time). Next week, we’ll be rejoining Ed and Brenna as they get ready for their “Trip of a Lifetime.” In the meantime, though, please keep writing. Tell us what you’re thinking. It’s a reader’s right!

 


 

Brenna and Ed are back, and Brenna’s telling the whole world, “I’ve Got a Little List.” Now, with help from Jack Van Dorn, she and Ed are sorting through their old gear — testing, selecting, and repairing. It’s a big job, but when they get tired, they just look up. The geese are flying north. Before long, Ed and Brenna will be heading north too.

Trip of a Lifetime: I’ve Got a Little List

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
December 5, 2000
_________________________

A Note to the Reader

It’s March, 2001. Brenna Trent and Ed Fletcher are sorting through their gear and making list after list, getting ready for three months on a northern river. Less than a week ago they’d just about given up the idea. Faced with one problem after another, they’d been hoping against hope that “something would turn up” to help them out. Then someone did, and Jack Van Dorn’s already proving invaluable. The story continues.

Chapter Four

Brenna stood on the flagstone patio behind The Book Locker. It was Sunday morning. From loudspeakers in six steeples, scratchy recordings of church bells blared out over the small city of Fort Hudson. Sparrows chattered among the just-swelling buds of a nearby maple, and cardinals fluted in the ragged hawthorn hedge forming the garden border. Closer still, a blue jay scolded a portly gray squirrel at the feeder. High above Brenna, perched right on the edge of the flat roof of the boarded-up furniture store next door, a noisy mob of crows looked out on the world beneath them. The big, black birds tilted and swiveled their heads constantly, erupting every so often in a chorus of caws and rattles. Drawn by the chance to join the gossip, three more crows flew in and jostled for position with those already there.

Breaking free of the low haze, the morning sun gathered strength and highlighted the crows’ glossy feathers. It was noticeably warmer. The vernal equinox was only days away, and the recent late-winter storm already a distant memory. Tattered drifts of smutty snow hung on in just a handful of shaded pockets. In the damp soil along the south side of the shop, the first green shoots of daffodils were already poking up into the light. Spring was in the air.

Barely-ordered chaos reigned in The Book Locker, spilling out onto the back porch, the narrow back garden, and beyond, all the way into the small, sagging barn that now did double-duty as both garage and storage shed. A bright yellow dome tent — an old North Face VE-24 — sat like an exotic mushroom on top of the picnic table, well off the muddy ground. New clotheslines stretched taut from the back porch to hooks screwed into the side of the barn. A big Eureka Timberline tent and fly hung from one of the lines, flapping lazily in the breeze alongside two scarlet sleeping bags and a dark green tarp.

Ed emerged from the shop, struggling to keep an armload of paddles from tripping him up. Lurching down the steps, he lumbered over to the picnic table and propped the paddles against one of the benches, lining up the four ash beavertails and four fiberglass T-grips as if they were troops awaiting inspection. Just as he finished, Jack Van Dorn stumbled out from the back room, too, bent double under a wooden crate. He staggered along the flagged path, setting the crate down on a patch of dry ground under a hastily-hung blue plastic tarp. Several sets of nesting aluminum pots, a cast-iron dutch oven, a fire-pan, and a cook’s tool-roll protruded from the open top. The crate joined a rapidly-growing jumble of other boxes and duffles

Brenna tore herself away from watching the crows’ antics, squatted, and worked the little priming pump attached to a dented brass Svea 123 stove sitting upright on the flagstones at her feet. “Everybody ready?” she asked. Ed and Jack each took one step back as Brenna pulled off the pump and turned the key to open the valve. A jet of gas splashed against the burner plate and ran down the generator, filling the small cup at the base. Closing the valve and thrusting a hastily-struck match through a cut-out in the wind-screen, Brenna lit the puddled fuel. Seconds later, just as the pre-heating flame began to die down, she turned the key to open the valve again. The stove gave a jet-engine-like roar and then erupted in an impressive fireball. Darting her hand forward — expecting just such a blow-out, she’d kept the wind to her back — she deftly closed the valve down, bringing the stove under control. Then she set a small, blackened kettle of water carefully on the wire pot supports, and settled back on her haunches.

“Damn!” said Jack, raising his voice just a bit to make himself heard over the roar of the stove’s burner. “Good thing you got short hair, girl!”

“Yeah, well, I do miss my Optimus 111B,” Brenna replied, her eyes never leaving the precariously balanced pot. “It was heavy, sure — it was a moose, in fact! — but it was a lot less fussy than this little Svea, and it put out a helluva hot flame. You could simmer with it, too. Can’t really do that with the Svea. Turn the flame down too far and it just goes out.” Brenna hooked her arms over her knees and then rested her chin on her forearms. She remembered what they said about a watched pot never boiling, and wondered how long she’d have to wait.

“Next time give it fewer pumps,” Ed suggested, only to be rewarded with a withering stare. Brenna remembered when he last fired up the Svea. They’d been lucky they hadn’t both been sent into orbit. Ed could take a hint. He busied himself pouring packets of Lipton instant pea soup mix into each of three mugs lined up on the porch rail.

Jack shaded his eyes and gazed up at the crows. “Those blackbirds are havin’ a good laugh,” he said. Just as he spoke, one crow dropped from the roof next door and flew down to the barn to get a closer look. “Always liked them crows. Mighty smart birds.”

Ed and Brenna nodded in silent agreement. They’d hit it off with Jack right away. After he made the emergency repair to the broken pipe in the back room, he’d offered to put the entire heating system to rights. “Fix it good and proper,” he’d said. “Won’t take no time.” And it didn’t, either. He was finished in a day. Not a very long time, at all — but long enough for them to get to know each other.

But then Jack wouldn’t take any money for the job. Ed and Brenna were flabbergasted. They’d learned something about Jack’s hand-to-mouth existence while he was working on the heat. He lived in a barren room in a motel out on the state highway. It was no place for an old Labrador hand, they thought. And now he wouldn’t take a penny for the work he’d done.

That’s when Brenna first voiced the idea that had been on both their minds. She and Ed needed someone to keep an eye on the shop while they were away up North, after all, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have an extra set of hands around the place until then. (Ed nodded, thinking of the long list of unfinished maintenance jobs he had on his desk.) Jack needed a proper place to live. He wouldn’t take money for his work. OK. But maybe — just maybe — they could clear out the old downstairs apartment and give it to Jack rent-free.

It seemed like a good idea to both of them. So, not knowing quite what to expect, Ed and Brenna put the offer to Jack. He accepted. Now they had a live-in caretaker for the shop.

Clearing out the apartment took less time then they thought it would, and there was an unexpected bonus. When Ed and Brenna had first moved in, years ago, the shop had been full of old furniture and other junk. They’d been too busy to sort it out, so they’d just crammed it into the downstairs apartment. Now, when Ed got ready to haul it off to the landfill, Jack stepped in. “You’re not gonna throw this stuff away, are ya?” he’d exclaimed. “That’s like throwin’ money away! I’ll bet I can get somethin’ for almost everything ya got there.”

And he did, too. They opened the double-door on the barn, rigged up a plastic tarp over part of the drive, and put a big “Barn Sale” banner across the shop front. Meanwhile, Jack passed the word in the diner and on the street. Before long, people were stopping by. Then Jack circulated through the browsers, working the crowd like a carnival barker. In two days’ time they’d sold just about everything but a few cracked plates and a couple of tineless forks. And they were two thousand dollars richer! Ed and Brenna insisted that Jack take half the proceeds. He moved into his new home that evening. Brenna, remembering what brought Jack to the shop in the first place, gave him a copy of Life on the Mississippi as a housewarming gift.

The rattle of the pot lid brought Brenna back to the present. The water was boiling at last. She closed the valve on the stove. As the flame sputtered and died, she grabbed at the bail and lifted the pot off the Svea, handing it up to Ed, who poured boiling water into the three waiting mugs, stirred each one, and passed the soup round.

Brenna looked thoughtfully at the still-sputtering stove, then got to her feet and joined Ed and Jack on the porch. “You know,” she said, “the community college outing club’s holding a gear swap sometime before Easter. Maybe we can pick up another stove.”

“Yeah,” said Ed. “Maybe we can. It’d be good to have a burner that you could control. Then again, the Svea’s never failed us, has it? And there’s something to be said for simplicity.”

Brenna walked over to the Tripper, which rested upside-down on two sawhorses and which was now doing double duty as a desk. She set her mug down on the scarred bottom and lifted a small piece of red Potsdam sandstone that kept a stack of computer printouts from blowing away in the gentle breeze. With a stubby pencil, she wrote “Gear swap” at the bottom of the page headed “Things to Do,” and then crossed out “Check Svea.” No list is ever finished, she thought, shaking her head silently.

“Mind if I take a look at them lists?” Jack asked, walking over to her. Brenna handed the sheaf of print-outs to him. He shuffled through them, running his forefinger down every page as his eyes scanned each item.

When he finished, he scratched his head. “Don’t see no sextant on this gear list here,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to keep a note of horror out of his voice. “Don’t tell me you’re goin’ North without a sextant! How you gonna know where you are on that big, lonely Bay?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Ed replied. “We could take a GPS, of course, but….” Seeing the unspoken question in Jack’s eyes, he added, “GPS? That’s ‘Global Positioning System.’ Satellite navigation. A little plastic box with a circuit board inside. Press a couple of buttons and it tells you where you are. No muss, no fuss, no bother.” Ed paused, searching for words. “Handy enough gadget, I guess. Great toy. Good in fog. Good if you’re driving a supertanker into New York harbor, too. But…for us? Don’t think so. I suppose I’ve always liked doing things the hard way.” He glanced down at the battered yellow Tripper and shrugged his shoulders. “Hell, a canoe isn’t exactly state-of-the-art transport, is it?”

“So, you’re going to get a sextant, right?” Jack asked, wanting to make certain. When Ed grunted affirmatively, Jack turned back to Brenna and handed her the sheaf of papers, adding, “You write sextant down there right now, hear me, girl?” And he smiled broadly.

Ed was less sure, but he kept his doubts to himself. Another thing to shop for, he thought, and he’d bet sextants didn’t come cheap. The windfall from their barn sale didn’t look to last long. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to get some catalogs, would it? He sighed.

The soup break was over in minutes. There was still a lot to do and Sunday was the only day The Book Locker was closed. Everyone wanted to make the best of the pleasant weather while it lasted. Just then a teenage couple with a baby in a squeaky stroller walked up the drive to find out if there was anything left over from the sale. Stammering a little, the boy explained that they had a new apartment to furnish and not very much cash. Jack took them to the barn to see what he could do.

While he was gone, Ed and Brenna hung eight big Duluth sacks on the line. Three had never been used. They’d been a bargain, bought cheap during an off-season sale. “Too good a deal to pass up,” Ed had said at the time. Then he’d added, “Just in case.” The three packs still looked brand-new, though they were all a little musty from long storage. The other five bore scuffs and scars identifying them as old campaigners. One had a long tear in the canvas and a badly-chewed strap.

Seeing the torn pack, Ed remembered when the strap got chewed. It had been the last night of a late November trip to the Ponds some years back — northern lights shimmering over the trees when they’d gone to bed and, in the morning, a glaze of ice newly-formed in the shallows. Mice had scampered around the Adirondack lean-to all through the long night, climbing the gear packs and sliding down them again and again, with squeaks that sounded suspiciously like shouts of joy. He and Brenna hadn’t known about the chewed strap till the next day’s portage. It parted with a snap just as Brenna heaved a second pack on top of it, and the suddenly-unbalanced load sent her flying off the trail into the prickly embrace of a black spruce. It’d been a nuisance at the time, all right, but the annoyance hadn’t lasted. They’d both decided it was a small price to pay for the pleasures of the night — the aurora, the gleeful mice, and the crystalline rime on the margin of the silent pond.

Ed looked at the other packs. One had a thick fuzz of green mildew on all the leather straps, so Brenna soaked a sponge in a solution of vinegar and water and scrubbed off the mold. It took only a minute to do, and then she hung the pack back on the line to dry in the sun. Once they’d checked all the packs, she and Ed examined every inch of every seam and panel of both tents, and each of the paddles, too. They found several seams that needed re-sealing, a small hole in the netting of the VE-24, and a hairline crack in the blade of one of the fiberglass Iliad paddles. Brenna made more notes on her lists.

When she was finished, they both walked back to the Tripper. Ed had checked the old boat over already, right after they first started talking about going north. It didn’t take long to confirm his earlier suspicions. The veteran was showing her years.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

“Don’t do that!” Brenna joked.

“No danger,” said Ed ruefully. “Not more than once a month, at any rate.” Then he was serious. “We need to find another canoe.” Ed rubbed his bristled chin, where an unfamiliar beard was taking hold. “This old barge’ll have a hard time carrying us and our gear. It’s not only her age. She’s just too small.”

Brenna pursed her lips. The big canoe had been with them since their honeymoon trip down the Missinaibi. It had been new then, just like their marriage. Until now, Brenna hadn’t realized how attached she’d become to the old canoe.

Ed brought Brenna back from her reverie. “We can’t put this off any longer. I’ve made a list of some expedition boats. I’ll go to that paddlesport website you found a couple of days ago….” He paused, ransacking his memory unsuccessfully, and then asked, “What’s the name again?”

“Paddling.net,” Brenna replied, adding, “It looked pretty good, too. I’ve been meaning to go back, but I’ve been so busy.”

“Tell me about it,” Ed said, grinning. “They’ve got hundreds of boat reviews, right? And a free classified section?” Brenna nodded. “Sounds perfect,” Ed continued. “New canoes aren’t cheap. Maybe we can find a good used boat.”

“Can we really afford this trip, Ed?” Brenna asked, thinking about the balance in their bank account.

“Hope so. Thanks to Jack we made a nice piece of change on that barn sale. Now we just have to sell some books. Every little bit helps.”

“Jack’s one in a million,” Brenna said. She hesitated, still thinking of their old canoe, and of money. Suddenly, she was all business. “I guess we’ll have to go to the book show in Albany, huh?”

“Yeah,” replied Ed. “I’ll do the show while you mind the shop.” Then he ran his hand along the bottom of their battered old canoe. “Don’t worry, Brenn,” he said, answering her unvoiced question. “We’ll keep the old barge. Of course we will. We can use her on local rivers. We couldn’t sell her, could we? She’s like a member of the family now.”

“What about the tents?” asked Brenna, relieved. “Should we take the VE-24 or the Timberline? I love my old dome, but it’d be really nice to have the high roof and the extra room of the 4-man Timberline.”

“Yep,” agreed Ed. “If we have day after day of rain — and we will, no doubt about it — it’ll sure be good to have space to spread out a bit.”

The rest of the day passed quickly. When Jack saw the torn Duluth sack on the line, he fetched his ditty bag from his apartment and sat down on the porch with the pack over his knees. Rummaging in the ditty bag, he pulled out a leather sailor’s palm and a heavy needle. Then he slipped the palm over his right hand and started closing the torn edges of the tear with a herringbone stitch. When he finished, he flat-stitched a canvas patch down over the repair. Then he hung the pack back on the line, reminding himself to hunt up a piece of leather for the strap.

With the sun sinking low, Ed and Brenna removed the airing gear from the lines, and stowed it away on shelves in the back room. Ed noticed the neat, new stitching on the old pack. He ought to ask Jack for a quick lesson in canvas repair, he thought. Brenna made what she hoped were the final additions to the “Stuff to Take” and “Things to Do” lists on the computer, working from the printouts she’d spent all day annotating.

That done, they went back outside. Even though there was no more heat to be had from the setting sun, the air was still pleasantly warm. No one really wanted to stay indoors, not after four months of winter. Brenna carried a big pot of beef stew out onto the porch. (It had been simmering all afternoon on the stove.) Ed poured mulled cider into mugs, and Jack set three bowls out on a little folding table he’d kept back from the barn sale.

Each of them ladled out a steaming bowl of stew, and then they all sat side-by-side on the porch steps. A chipmunk, exploring her world anew after her long winter’s sleep, scampered from the bird-feeder to a burrow entrance under a lilac bush, her cheeks swelling with stolen seed. Even the traffic on Main Street hummed along quietly. No brakes squealed. No horns bleated. It was as if all the inhabitants of Fort Hudson, human and animal alike, were making the most of every second of the warm day. Now and again, a dog barked lazily in the distance, and Ed thought he heard the song of a robin. Then they heard something else. Walking out from beneath the porch roof, Brenna cocked her head toward the sky.

Ed and Jack stopped eating and held their breaths. There it was again. At first it sounded almost like an overheard conversation, right at the threshold of hearing. Then it became louder, until they heard the unmistakable honking call of geese. Jack was the first to spot them. Pointing toward the twilight-darkened eastern horizon, he cried out, “There they are! Just above the trees.”

And there they were! Hundreds of Canada geese flying north in a fluid echelon, new vees forming and old ones splitting up even as they watched. Ed, Brenna, and Jack stood in awed silence, their cooling stew forgotten. Then, just as the last of the big birds faded from sight, they heard a second honking chorus. It was more nasal, harsher and somehow wilder. The three friends craned their necks. Right overhead — high, high up against the deep purple sky — they saw an undulating formation of a hundred white snow geese. The snow geese, too, were heading north.

“Wavies!” Ed whispered, half to himself and half out loud. His spirits soared. “We’ll be right behind you,” he said, almost shouting. “See you on the Bay!”

To be continued…

 


 

Ed’s down in Albany at a book fair, and Brenna’s taking the day off to go paddling “On Snyder’s Pond.” It’s a welcome change from the hectic job of sorting out the gear for their trip of a lifetime, and Brenna’s determined to make the most of it.

Trip of a Lifetime: On Snyder’s Pond

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
December 12, 2000
_________________________

A Note to the Reader

It’s late March, 2001, and Ed’s gone down to Albany for a book fair. At his suggestion, Brenna’s left Jack in charge of the shop while she takes a day off to go kayaking at a favorite local pond. It’s a welcome change from the hectic job of sorting out the gear for their trip up north — a job they’d only just begun last time, and one which looks like it’s going to keep them busy for some weeks to come. The story continues.

Chapter Five

It was Friday morning — a warm, sunny, spring morning. Hours earlier, long before dawn, Ed had left for the Albany Antiquarian Book Fair, driving a rented van that sagged under the weight of hundreds of books in wooden display cases. Brenna had joined him for an early breakfast, watched him drive away, and then gone right back to bed, feeling surprisingly little guilt. Now it was eight o’clock, and she was just finishing her second breakfast. That was cause enough for celebration, but she knew there were even better things to come. She was going paddling, and she had Ed to thank.

Just that Wednesday, coming back to the shop from an estate sale, Ed had noticed that the ice was off Snyder’s Pond, an impoundment on Stuyvesant Creek. Though small — it covered only about a hundred acres — the pond lay at the center of a much larger marsh, and it was one of his and Brenna’s favorite places. Tucked into the hollow between Grays Mountain and Foster Hill, it came alive at ice-out, drawing migrating waterfowl of every description. Better yet, it only took half an hour to drive to it from the shop. A state wildlife management area, Snyder’s Pond was too small to be noticed by the guidebook writers. For most of the year, Ed and Brenna had it all to themselves, sharing it with no more than a handful of local fishermen and duck hunters, as well as an occasional group of schoolchildren on a nature outing.

Ed cursed his luck. He wanted to take the Tripper up to the pond right then, but he had to get ready for the book fair. Still, he thought, there was no reason why they both had to forego the pleasure, was there? So, when he got back home, he gave Brenna the good news and suggested she take the kayak out to the pond on the next nice day. To no one’s surprise, Brenna put up only token resistance to the idea.

Now the day had come. Her second breakfast finished, Brenna walked out to the barn to get the kayak. It hung suspended from the hand-hewn beams, cradled in two webbing slings. As Brenna unhooked the slings and lowered the boat onto her shoulder, she remembered how they’d gotten it in trade for a complete set of the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had been a good trade. Each party to the bargain had gone away convinced he’d gotten the better of the other.

Brenna still thought they’d gotten the best deal. Putting the kayak down on the grassy margin of the drive, she wiped off the winter dust with a damp sponge and then checked the old boat over. It certainly was old — a Seda Vagabond touring kayak, she guessed it had been built sometime in the late 1970s. Thanks to careful storage and gentle handling, though, it looked pretty good. The green gelcoat finish on the deck had dulled a little, to be sure, and the golden Kevlar hull was covered with small scratches, but both hull and deck flexed under the pressure of her hand without cracking. Better yet, the double seams were smooth and tight, with no sign of loosening or delamination. The old kayak was still an elegant, functional craft.

Continuing her inspection, Brenna knelt on the grass, pulled off the nylon cockpit cover, and stuck her head inside to be sure no mice had set up housekeeping. The cockpit cover had done its job. Nobody was home.

That hadn’t always been the case. Once she’d thought the cockpit cover was only for traveling. Then — it was years ago now — she’d been halfway through a release-swollen Class III drop on the Sacandaga, just above the railroad bridge at Hadley, when she felt something crawling up her leg. She was so startled she’d almost dropped her paddle, but she recovered quickly and bounced on down through the haystacks to the take-out. By the time she finished the run, whatever had been crawling around had settled down, and she’d almost thought she’d been imagining it. When she popped her spray skirt, though, she’d found a white-footed mouse cowering between her thighs. Further inspection had shown that the stowaway wasn’t alone. The mouse had a nest and a family of young in the bow peak, just in front of the float bag on the left side of the foam pillar.

The story had ended happily. The mouse had gone back to her babies, and the kayak had gone back on the VW, with the travel cover firmly snugged down over the cockpit. When they got home, mother and brood were doing fine. That was the last time the kayak went out that spring. When summer came, Brenna checked the boat and found only an empty nest. The mice had moved on. She could still hear their descendents scurrying through the barn whenever she went out to look for something after dark.

The VW was long gone, Brenna mused, but the kayak was still with them. Lifting her head free of the cockpit, she thrust her arm into the boat up to her shoulder and pulled the four float bags out, one by one. None were punctured and all still had a little air in them, so Brenna immediately shoved them back. Then she topped them all up, leaving each one just a little soft to allow for expansion as the sun warmed the kayak. By the time she’d finished, she was a bit light-headed, so she lay back and looked up at the sky. There were a few feathery cirrus clouds visible in the west. “It’ll most likely rain in a day or two,” she thought. “Good thing I’m going paddling today,” she said out loud, just to make it official and put the weather gods on notice.

It took Brenna only a couple of minutes more to get the rest of her kit from the barn: life-vest, spray skirt, asymmetric touring double-blade with the vaulting-pole shaft, and the short T-grip single that she took along to serve as a back-up paddle on easy water. Then she stuffed the cockpit cover behind the foam-block seat, grabbed the far side of the cockpit coaming and lifted the boat onto her right shoulder, keeping her right arm inside to steady it and hold it in place. She carried it over to their pick-up, an aging Ford F-150. Standing on a milk crate to give her a better reach, she heaved the kayak into place on the left side of the home-made bar rack that crowned the aluminum cap. The boat rested upright on the foam-padded crossbars. Brenna reached behind the kayak seat to retrieve the cover from its temporary berth. Then she snugged it down tight over the cockpit.

Kicking the milk crate along the drive beside the truck and standing on it when she needed to, she hooked two heavy-duty bungee cords through screw-eyes in the center of the cross-bars — one went in front of the cockpit and one behind — and then stretched the cords taut over the kayak’s deck, clipping them to eyes set in the ends of the bars. Satisfied that the belly bands were secure, she tied both bow and stern down to the lashing points on the bumpers, threading quarter-inch nylon Goldline through the grab loops at each end of the boat in an upside-down vee, and taking up the slack with the same taut-line hitch she used for tent guys.

“Almost done” she muttered to herself. Whispering the names of the items on her mental checklist, she tossed them into the bed of truck: “Life-vest, paddle, spare, spray skirt, milk crate….” Then she made a quick dash into the shop and upstairs to the bedroom to put a neoprene short-john on under her light wool pants and shirt. “A damn sweaty nuisance,” she remembered Ed saying, “until the day comes when you dump!” Lastly, she made a brief stop in the kitchen to pick up her rucksack, stuffed with spare clothes, lunch, and a steel thermos of hot, sweet tea.

Going downstairs, she stepped into the shop. Jack was already on duty, his head buried in Life on the Mississippi. Brenna dropped a copy of the DeLorme atlas on the counter, folding it back to the page showing Snyder’s Pond. She circled the pond with a red marker from the Dundee Marmalade crock next to the till, told Jack she’d be back by five, waved good-bye, and almost ran out the door. She was as happy as a kid skipping school.

On the road at last, Brenna headed east. Soon she was out in the country. She cranked down her window. The welcome smell of wet earth and new life flooded into the cab. She popped Stan Roger’s Northwest Passage into the cassette player. Before the last notes of “The Idiot” had died out, she was rolling onto the gravel parking area at Snyder’s Pond.

When she switched off the ignition, the music stopped. She got out of the cab and listened. There was no hum of traffic. There were no sirens and no honking horns. Instead, red-winged blackbirds cried konk-er-ree among the cattails. A breeze sighed through the branches of the tall white pines on the ridge overlooking the pond, and woodpeckers hammered out their territorial tattoos. From somewhere nearby, an unseen chipmunk sounded the alert. Brenna breathed deeply. For the first time in days, she was completely at peace.

Grinning unselfconsciously, Brenna released the bow and stern tie-downs. Then she pulled the milk crate from the truck and carefully removed the bungee cords, lifting the kayak off the rack. Only minutes later she was carrying it along the winding trail to the state-maintained dock. Once there, she set the boat down on the low float, and stood, hands on hips, scanning the shimmering water of the little lake. Mallards quacked from the shelter of the reeds, while a muskrat swam steadily toward the grassy mound that was its home.

Running back to the truck, Brenna kicked off her low pacs and pulled on knee-high wellies. After making sure her spare keys were on the knotted cord around her neck, she donned spray skirt and life vest. (She’d had second thoughts about the spray skirt, but it kept the drip from the paddle shaft out of the boat. The water was cold. She decided to keep the skirt on.) Then she picked up the two paddles and her rucksack, locked the truck and cap, and set off down the trail again with a light step. A moving cloud of curious chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches accompanied her, chatting all the while.

Once back at the float, she slipped the T-grip spare under the criss-crossed shock cords on the Vagabonds’s stern deck. Her rucksack went into the hollow behind the seat. Now she was ready. Brenna put the kayak in the water. She squatted, facing the bow of the boat. With her left hand, she clamped the paddle to the cockpit coaming behind the seat. One blade of the paddle now rested on the float. Next, Brenna eased her left leg into the boat, resting her right hand on the paddle shaft between boat and float. Then she swung her right leg in, too, and settled down in the seat. Ripples spread out across the water. The mallards started quacking again. Balancing her paddle across the deck in front of her, Brenna fitted the spray skirt over the coaming and shoved off. She was on the water for the first time that year!

Taking a few preliminary strokes away from the float, she tried a low brace on either side, followed by a sculling draw, first left and then right. “Yes!” she blurted out to no one in particular. “I haven’t lost my touch!” Only the mallards replied. Brenna ghosted on, paddling just enough to keep the boat moving forward. The water reflected a pale blue sky. Low hills rose up to the east and west, their slopes a checkerboard of farm field and woodlot. Male red-winged blackbirds, flashing their showy epaulets, argued over nesting sites. As she turned into a small bay, three mallard drakes exploded into the air right in front of her. They circled and then set down farther up the lake. Floating silently past the muskrat house, Brenna heard soft, insistent mewing coming from inside — muskrat kits, she concluded.

Not wanting to disturb the kits or their mother, Brenna paddled quietly away and hid her boat in a stand of bulrushes, right next to a half-submerged, rotting stump. It had only been a couple of hours since she’d finished her second breakfast, but she was already hungry. She tucked her paddle under the bow-deck shock cords. Snapping the spray skirt off the coaming, she hauled out her rucksack and put it between her legs. Undoing the two straps holding down the flap, she removed the thermos and poured herself some tea, setting the cup down on the stump. Then she poked about in the recesses of the pack, finally finding her hastily-prepared sandwich — rough-sliced slabs of Swiss cheese, slathered with coarse English mustard and folded into half a loaf of French bread. Leaning back against the coaming, she pulled her feet free, being careful not to tumble the rucksack into the water, and stretched her legs out across the deck. “This is the life!” she thought.

For some time afterward she did nothing but eat and drink, conscious of no external sensation beyond the warmth of the still-climbing sun. Then a distant splashing awakened her interest. It came from near the muskrat house. She reached into a pocket of her life-vest and removed a little 8-power Tasco monocular, slipping the lanyard around her neck so it wouldn’t plummet to the bottom if she dropped it. Raising the glass to her eye, she saw that there were five small, brown heads in the water, with a larger one keeping station alongside. “Mom’s taking the kids for a swim,” Brenna thought, and continued to watch the fun, while she fumbled in the life-vest’s second pocket for a tiny sketch pad and mechanical pencil. Soon she was sketching the family outing.

Hours passed. Brenna paddled from point to point around the small pond, stopping now and again to eat or sketch or doze. Several times she beached the kayak to stretch her legs and take a pee. (“That’s one advantage of a canoe,” she muttered, as her foot sank deep into the marshy ooze on one of her trips ashore, water pouring in over her boot-top. “A girl can pee without leaving her boat!”) Before she knew it, the sun was low in the western sky. It was time to go.

Paddling back to the float, she hit a rock with her left paddle blade, in a place where no rock should have been. Seconds later, a flattish, dark-gray dome rose up out of the water beside her, not two feet from the kayak. It was about as big around as the old-fashioned steel dish pan they had at home, Brenna noticed, and it was studded with small, angular plates. Except for a slime of algae, it looked a lot like the armored shirts that she remembered seeing medieval archers wearing in old manuscript illustrations. Then she saw a large, reptilian head and two unblinking eyes. A snapper, she realized — and a hell of a big one, at that. Brenna sculled carefully away, putting distance between herself and her new companion. She hoped all the muskrat kits had made it safely home.

Once she reached the state dock, it didn’t take Brenna long to carry her boat and gear up to the truck. It was still the only vehicle in the parking lot. She loaded up, tied the boat down, and got ready to go. The clock on the dash showed that it was almost four-thirty. No time to lose.

Halfway home, Brenna heard a sound like a shot. It seemed to come from somewhere over her head, but she couldn’t be sure. Alarmed, she hit the brakes and pulled off the highway onto the narrow shoulder. A quick walk round showed that the tires were all OK. Then she saw that the rear bungee cord was missing. Either she hadn’t hooked it on properly or it had just let go. Whatever had happened, she’d been in too much of a hurry. She should have checked everything before driving off, and maybe she shouldn’t have depended on bungee cords at all. It was a good thing she’d tied both bow and stern down. “Still, any landing you can walk away from…  ” she whispered to herself, hoping that this wasn’t as stupid as it sounded. Getting the milk crate out to give her a place to stand, she used a scrap of yellow poly rope to replace the lost bungee cord. It was awful stuff — slippery and almost impossible to tie, but she made it work. In just a little while, she was back on the road, having carefully inspected the remaining bungee cord and retightened the bow and stern tie-downs.

When she rolled up the drive at 5:10, Jack was standing at the back door with a worried look on his face, hands thrust deep into his pockets and a bulky turtleneck sweater crowding his jawline. He noticed the bright yellow poly rope right away, though, and walked over to the truck. “Plastic rope and rubber bands,” he said, shaking his head. “Time ya figgered out how to tie things down proper.” The rebuke stung Brenna a little, but Jack smiled when he said it and that took much of the sting away.

Somewhat sheepishly, she nodded in agreement, and told Jack about her misadventure on the trip home. “Got any suggestions for a good book on knots?” she joked.

“Well, now,” Jack replied, smiling even more broadly, “I don’ know about a book, but I think I know where ya can find someone to help ya learn!”

To be continued…

 


 

Brenna’s just come back from Snyder’s Pond. It was her first trip of the year and she had a great time, but when a bungee cord let go on the drive home, she nearly lost her kayak. Now she’s eager to learn more about tying things down. It’s a Knotty Problem, all right, but fortunately Jack’s there to help her.

Trip of a Lifetime: Knotty Problem

by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
December 19, 2000
_________________________

A Note to the Reader

It’s late March, 2001. Ed’s in Albany at a book fair, and Brenna’s just gotten home from a day on Snyder’s Pond. It was her first trip of the year and she had a great time, but when a bungee cord let go on the drive home, she nearly lost her kayak. Now Jack’s promised to teach her how to tie things down so they stay put. The story continues.

Chapter Six

Ape Crapaud peered around the big display of decorative moldings. He was watching two people deep in conversation next to the large spools of rope and cordage over by the counter at the custom shop. They were a funny-looking couple, too. A tall, white-haired guy and a younger lady with short, brown hair. He leaned closer, trying to hear what they were saying. It was noisy in the store. Saturday morning was a busy time at Deane’s Good-Deal Hardware. They opened early and added extra staff to serve the crowds of lawn rangers gearing up for spring chores. That’s where Ape came in. He’d just retired after thirty years with the county highway department. Time hung heavy on his hands. He wasn’t what you’d call a self-starter. Ape missed the regular schedule. He missed getting away from the wife for nine-ten-eleven hours a day. He missed being able to borrow stuff from the maintenance shed. That was a big one, all right. He had a garage full of borrowed stuff, some of it nearly thirty years old. Some of it pretty valuable. Ape missed his old job something awful.

He even missed being called Ape. The wife never called him anything but Chuck, and that hurt more than he could say. It was kinda funny, really. He’d hated the nickname at first, but now it’d gotten so it felt more like his real name than, well, his real name did. He’d had it for twenty years. Got it right after he’d been promoted to foreman, when an angry highway engineer had come out from the county garage to fix the screw-up he’d made of a culvert installation and had christened him on the spot.

It had been a memorable name-day. The whole crew had been standing around when that snotty-nosed college boy with a tie and a pocket-protector tore into him. “Jesus H. Christ!” the kid had screamed. He’d yelled so loud they probably heard him back at the county garage. “You half-wit SOB. You ain’t got no more sense than an ape. And you look just like an ape, too. Now get outta my sight, you friggin’ retarded ape. Jesus!” And the engineer had turned his back on Ape like he wasn’t there and started shouting orders at the man on the digger.

That hadn’t been an easy thing to live down, especially because he did look a lot like an ape — a pasty-faced ape with a straggly beard. He had a stooped, shambling walk, and his arms hung down a good six inches further than they should have. The guys on the crew picked up on the nickname right away, of course. They started calling him Ape, too, first behind his back and later to his face. Funny thing, though. He’d gone through hell for a couple of years, and then it had started to seem right, somehow. The old guys on the crew retired. The new guys didn’t know nothing. And that was all right with Ape. He was the big gorilla now, and he liked to imagine the guys thought he had a whole harem of females, just like on the nature shows on TV. Ape Crapaud. When he was driving his county pick-up, Ape was King of the Road.

But now he was retired, and a kid no more than twenty-five years old had his brand-new Chevy pick-up with the county seal on the driver’s door, and nobody called him Ape any more.

Not until he got this new job, that is. Clerk in the fasteners and fittings section. Only half-time now, but he’d move up. It was great. All sorts of stuff to borrow. Better yet, he’d told everybody to call him Ape. And they did. The King was back.

But first he had a little problem to solve. His borrowing was attracting attention. This was something new. Ape had borrowed stuff from the county for thirty years and no one had ever said anything about it. Everybody borrowed stuff. The janitors pinched toilet rolls. The county’s executive officer took a new computer home one weekend and forgot to return it. Nobody noticed Ape’s borrowing — or, at least, nobody cared.

Deane’s Hardware was different, though. The monthly inventories had already picked up big stock shortfalls in fasteners and fittings. The owner was thinking about putting in closed-circuit video surveillance. Ape wasn’t happy about this. But maybe, he thought, if he nabbed a shoplifter or two, he could talk his boss out of putting in the cameras. So he was keeping a careful eye on the oddly-matched couple over by the reels of rope. They looked different, for one thing. They weren’t normal people. The tall guy dressed like he did all his shopping at the Salvation Army. The lady was wearing high rubber boots. Weirdos. No doubt about it. Wait for them to pocket something and then call in the boss. That ought to put a stop to all this talk about cameras. Maybe even get him a raise.

Meanwhile, Jack and Brenna stood among the towering displays of bulk rope and cord. They talked quietly, stepping aside from time to time to allow other customers to squeeze by. A speaker mounted high on the wall broadcast one country hit after another, punctuated by the running commentary of the WBAM disk-jockey. Jack reached out and grabbed the end of some three-strand polypro line in one gnarled fist, held it out toward Brenna, and said, “See this stuff, here? Plastic rope, I call it. Slicker ‘n….” He remembered where he was, just in time. “Slicker ‘n snot. Won’t hold a knot worth a damn.” And he tied a figure-eight in the end by way of demonstration, drawing it up tight and then letting go. The knot started to open up right away.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jack continued. “There’s nothin’ better than good, sound line for lashing things down. Those rubber bands you used on your little boat don’t come close to doin’ the job.” He shook his head. “Now this stuff here” — he pulled a length of three-strand nylon off a big spool — “this stuff’s what you want. It’ll hold a knot real good, and you can splice it easy, not like that braided stuff.” He pointed over to another spool labeled “yacht braid,” and then continued, “Course nylon’s not manila, but….” His voice trailed off, and he looked around for some manila rope. Finding it, he pulled a length off the reel, twisted the end to unlay the strands, looked closely at the fibers, frowned, and rolled it back on the reel. “Junk, that’s what that is. Jes’ can’t get good manila nowadays,” he said sadly. Then he added, his face brightening, “But nylon’ll do ya for most things. Stretchy stuff, sure. Don’t want it for riggin’, but for most other things it’s not so bad. Soaks up the shock, like.”

The two friends continued to examine the rope, neither one aware of Ape’s constant scrutiny. At one point, Jack picked up a plastic fid from an adjoining shelf, looked at it briefly and than stuck it absent-mindedly in his pocket. Ape smiled. He had his man!

Under Jack’s watchful gaze, Brenna was now tying a bowline in a length of 3/8″ nylon three-strand she’d pulled off a spool. It wasn’t going well. As she often did when she was in a hurry, she made the first loop the wrong way round. Then, when she tried to snug it down, it collapsed into an overhand knot. Jack’s patience was at an end. Before Brenna could try again, he’d grabbed the rope out of her hands. “You jes’ watch me, girl!” he said.

The demonstration didn’t last long. Jack formed a bight in the line, holding the free end in his right hand, pointing away from him. He brought that end down across the other part — “That’s the standing part,” muttered Brenna to herself — and twisted it down and around, forming a loop through which the end protruded, again pointing away from him. Now he wove the free end under the main part of the line and tucked it back through the already-formed loop. He pulled the knot tight, held it up for Brenna to see, and then undid his handiwork.

“OK, girl,” he said. “Your turn now.” He handed the end of the rope to Brenna.

In her mind’s eye, Brenna ran through Jack’s deft movements. “No reason why I can’t do that,” she thought. And she did. Grinning from ear to ear, she showed her bowline to Jack. “Do I pass?” she asked.

A loud crash sounded behind them. Spinning round, they saw Ape sprawled over a toppled rack of wood moldings. The display stand had caught the edge of a bin of #4 flathead screws on its way down. Hundreds of screws were now rolling across the floor. Ape scrambled to his feet. From the other side of the counter at the custom shop, Craig Deane looked up. Ape was down on all fours now, chasing wood screws around the aisle. Craig worked hard not to laugh. He raised the flap on the counter and walked over to the fasteners and fittings aisle.

“Hey, Brenna! Haven’t seen you for a while. How’s things?” he called out in passing, on his way to speak to Ape. That done, he turned back to where Jack and Brenna stood. “Ape’s kinda klutzy,” he said. “Sorry ’bout the excitement. So, how’s Ed?”

“No problem, Craig,” replied Brenna. “Ed and me are both fine. Getting ready for a big canoe trip, in fact. You know Jack?” she asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, she made the introductions. “Jack Van Dorn. Craig Deane.” The two men shook hands. “Jack’s teaching me the ropes,” Brenna joked, giggling at her own wit

Craig smiled. He always smiled at customers’ jokes, however many times he’d heard them. It cost nothing to be nice, after all. “Rope, eh? Sell a lot of twine. Buy a lot of it myself. My wife’s always making macrame stuff. Goes through millions of feet a year, seems like. Don’t sell too much of this bulk rope, though.”

While Craig was talking, Jack pulled the plastic fid out of his pocket. “This the only one you got?” he asked.

“‘Fraid so,” said Craig. “Don’t have much call for them, either. Course we can special order one for you.”

Jack shook his head and replaced the fid on the shelf. “No need,” he said. “I’ll just get myself a billet of hickory and whittle one out.”

They talked for a while longer. Then Brenna checked her watch. Nearly ten. Time to open the shop. With Jack’s nodded OK, she picked up a half reel of quarter-inch, three-stand nylon rope, a spool of waxed nylon twine, and a tube of heavy needles, along with a couple of yards of 10-oz. treated canvas. When they left to go over to the check-out, Ape was still chasing screws under the shelving units. He didn’t look up as they passed.

Walking home with their purchases, Jack and Brenna stopped at Shirley’s for four of her World Famous cinnamon buns. Back at the shop, Jack carried the new rope and the other stuff through to the work room while Brenna opened the till and sat down behind the long counter. Soon she smelled brewing coffee. Jack must have decided that a fresh pot would go well with Shirley’s buns, she thought. Looking out the shop window, Brenna noticed that a gentle rain was starting to fall. Before long, it was bucketing down. Not a good day for walk-in trade, Brenna concluded, and she was right.

Still, the time passed quickly. Jack tested Brenna on the bowline, figure-eight, reef knot, and clove hitch. Then, when he was satisfied with her progress, he showed her a couple of new ways to tie the bowline, including a tricky one she realized she’d seen a logger use in some movie, long ago. It starred Paul Newman, she remembered, but try as she might she couldn’t think of the name of the flick.

Jack interrupted her reverie. “Gonna show ya the trucker’s hitch,” he said. “That taut-line hitch of yours is all right for tent guys, but you need somethin’ better when you hafta secure a load.”

Jack uncoiled one of the 25-foot lengths of Goldline that Brenna had used to tie down the kayak on her trip to Snyder’s Pond. With an easy flick of his wrist, he threw the rope over a heating pipe that hung suspended from a ceiling bracket above the counter. Next, he gave one end to Brenna to hold, and passed the other under the heavy, cast-iron foot of the old-fashioned radiator. Holding the free end of the rope in his right hand, with his left he formed two parallel bights in the part of the line running from ceiling to floor. One bight pointed down. The other pointed up. He twisted the upward-pointing bight over and around the standing part of the line and poked it back through the newly-formed loop, just like he was tying a bowline. Then he threaded the free end through the resulting noose, pulled it tight, and secured it with a couple of half-hitches.

“See that?” he asked. “Now give me that end you got there and you try it. Careful you don’t pull too hard, though,” he said, rolling his eyes up toward the ceiling. “You’re multiplyin’ your force, see? You tighten down too much, and you’ll most likely yank that pipe right off its bracket. Don’t want ta have ta do any more emergency repairs like the one I did in the back room, do I?” And he chuckled.

Brenna copied Jack’s moves and made the hitch work on her first try. The rest of the day slipped away pleasantly, with Jack showing her the sheet bend and gasket coil after lunch — to complete her schooling, he said. Then he went to his apartment to read, while Brenna minded the store till closing time at five.

The rain continued all through the next day. Brenna practiced her new repertoire of knots and hitches, and Jack gave her what he wryly called the “college course,” showing her how to whip and splice lines. By the time Ed turned into the drive late Sunday evening, Brenna was almost convinced she could pass for able seaman. It was a good feeling.

She met Ed at the back door, hugging him to her. She was bursting to tell him about the snapper on Snyder’s Pond and show him all the knots she’d learned. For his part, Ed was tired and hungry, but he was mighty pleased with the sales he’d made. He got Jack and Brenna to give him a hand taking the book crates out of the rented van and bringing them into the shop. Ed noted with satisfaction that they were a lot lighter than they’d been when he’d left on Friday. The last load he carried in wasn’t a book crate, though. It was big cardboard box with “Old Sarge’s Super Surplus” stenciled on the side.

Up in their second-floor apartment, his mouth watering as he smelled the pungent steam wafting from the pot of chili simmering on the stove, Ed opened the box and showed Brenna his newly-purchased treasures. Two pairs of NATO wool pants, two pairs of khaki shorts formerly worn by French Legionnaires, two broad-brimmed bush hats, and two head nets. A rubber-handled diver’s knife with a saw-tooth back edge and a profile that looked a lot like an old rigging knife. There was even a pair of leather combat boots in size 13 for Jack.

“Won’t he be pleased!” Brenna exclaimed when she saw the boots, thinking about Jack’s old and much-repaired work shoes. Then she saw what looked like a big coil of heavy wire in the bottom of the box. “What’s that?” she asked.

“A real bargain, Brenn!” Ed replied proudly. “And I’ll bet it’s something you hadn’t even thought of. One hundred and fifty feet of genuine GI climbing rope. We’re going to need a lot of rope, you know….” His voice trailed off, all but drowned out by Brenna’s howls of laughter. It was a good minute before she stopped. She stumbled over to the bed and sat down, still shaking with barely-suppressed glee. Then, while she was wiping her streaming eyes on her sleeve, Ed asked, “What the hell’s matter? I got a great price on that rope, you know.”

“I’m sure you did,” said Brenna. “And never mind what’s the matter. I’ll tell you later. Now come over here and kiss me.”

To be continued…

 


 

Brenna and Ed are taking a short break. They’ll be back on January 9th. This week, however, Tamia has a holiday message for all our readers. In the northern hemisphere, midwinter’s day has passed. Now spring is on its way. It’s time to celebrate the “Return of the Light.” Won’t you join us?

Wheel of the Year: The Return of the Light

by Tamia Nelson
December 26, 2000
_________________________

A Note to our Readers

We’re giving Ed and Brenna a short break over the holidays. “Trip of a Lifetime” will return on January 9, 2001.

Our cabin looks out to the west, across the Flow. Whenever possible we take a minute at twilight to mark the point on the horizon where the sun sets. Only a few days ago it reached its ultimate south. From now until late June the sun will travel relentlessly northward, and each day will be just a little longer and lighter than the one before. Far from being the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere, therefore, December 21st is midwinter’s day — one of the great fixed points in the astronomical calendar.

Our canoes may be buried under rapidly-deepening drifts, and we may go about our daily chores on snowshoes, but the season of darkness is even now giving way to that of light — grudgingly at first, to be sure, but the return of the sun is nonetheless assured. It’s no surprise, then, that midwinter festivals have figured prominently in the religious traditions of all northern peoples, at all times in human history of which we can claim any knowledge. Long before the great holy days of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were celebrated in prayer and song, men and women who knew nothing of Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad rejoiced in the annual renewal of the sun’s promise.

It was these same men and women who gave us a unique gift. In learning how to travel along northern waterways, they built the boats which bring us all together here today. True, few modern canoes and kayaks bear more than a passing resemblance to their aboriginal precursors. And we’re many generations removed from the northern artisans who first shaped skin, wood, and bark into light, responsive craft. But despite this unbridgeable gulf of years, we are still the same people now that we were then. We can no more help being stirred by the simple, elemental wonder of the sun’s return than we can escape delight in breathing.

This is a time, then, for celebration, for rejoicing, and for thanks. Farwell and I are no exception. We have much to be thankful for. For the extraordinary energy and remarkable patience of Brian Van Drie and Brent Vredevoogd, for one thing. Without them, Paddling.net would not exist, and canoeists and kayakers on every continent would be poorer.

And what of you, our readers? You, too, are equally important to us. However busy he or she may be, a writer’s life is an oddly solitary one, and no life, however full, can comprehend more than a tiny portion of the range of human experience. Fortunately for us both, from the first weeks of our column right up until today, we’ve been blessed with readers who continue to challenge, instruct, and gladden us. You questions us. You correct our errors. You remind us of things we’ve forgotten. In short, you teach us something every day, and our lives are forever enriched by your letters.

We hope to hear from even more of you in the months to come. If you don’t tell us what’s on your minds, we can’t know what you’re thinking. So don’t be shy, and don’t hold back. We have thick skins and broad shoulders. Tell us what we’ve written that you’ve enjoyed or found useful. What you’ve found boring. What you’d like to see more of — and less of. We want to know. While we certainly can’t please everyone, we’ll always do our best. You are the reason that we’re here, after all. ‘Nuff said.

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve. It will be dark soon, and Farwell and I are already surrounded by gifts. None is wrapped in colored paper, however. The ice on the Flow murmurs and sings with each surge of hidden water. On the slope behind our cabin, juncos and chickadees scratch for seeds in sheltered hollows under the cedars. At any moment now, a mother deer and her two yearling bucks will emerge from the woods to forage in the second-growth along the road. For these presents and many others Farwell and I give daily thanks.

The greatest gift of all, though, is the gift of friendship. Here, too, Farwell and I have been fortunate indeed. In particular, we’d like to thank two North Country neighbors, Don and Leslie. Neither will be sitting at our table tonight, but each will be present in our thoughts, as will Brent, Brian, and all our readers, as well.

To Leslie, therefore, and to Don, and to the entire Paddling.net family, we raise our glasses to you, each and every one — in gratitude, in affection, and in celebration. In this season when we join together in rejoicing, perhaps no better invocation can be found than that of Ecclesiasticus: “A faithful friend is the medicine of life.”

To life, then, and to warmth and color. To the Return of the Light.

Holiday Greetings from In the Same Boat - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

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