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Bending Branches

Starting Out

Vade Mecum—A Paddler's Booklist

Photo by Waldo Young

By Tamia Nelson
Reading, I guess?

Vade mecum. My Latin's getting a little rusty, but I still remember what it means: "Go with me." And you can't find a better name for any portable reference book. Something to study at home and then take along with you, to consult as needed.

OK. This is the Internet, right? So who needs books? Can't I find everything I need to know right here?

Well, maybe. I'd be the last person to disparage the medium that puts food on my table. Still, you can't get too much information, can you? And as useful as the Internet is, books have their place, too. You probably won't want to take your computer with you into your boat, for one thing. After all, even the best batteries go dead sooner or later, and it's hard finding a current bush with just the right voltage.

Printouts? Sure. But you'll have to bind them or corral them in a file folder. If you don't, wind and water will disperse your take-along library to all the points of the compass. Either way, it's a lot of trouble. Call me old-fashioned, if you will, but I like books. Books can go anywhere—and survive just about anything. I've got books that have come through fire and flood. They're a little careworn, to be sure, but they're all still readable.

With this in mind, here's a short list of the books I've found most helpful in twenty-five years as a canoeist and kayaker. Many of the titles are out-of-print now, but good books like these don't have a fixed shelf-life. They're all useful, and all of them should be easy to find in a local second-hand book store, or at one of the many on-line booksellers.

Primus inter pares. Latin again. "First among equals." And that's Bill Mason's Path of the Paddle (Van Nostrand, 1980). There are many good canoeing books, but this one stands out. I have a first edition, and it's a superb text-book. It's well organized, clearly written, and wonderfully illustrated. And it's not just for canoeists. It does a first-rate job of describing the dynamics of moving water, so it's equally valuable for kayakers. I just wish I'd had a copy when I was studying hydrology!

And, speaking of kayaking, I learned to kayak the hard way—with a paddle in one hand and a book in the other. The book was the White Water Handbook, 2d edition, by John T. Urban and T. Walley Williams. It was published by the Appalachian Mountain Club way back in 1981, but despite its age and the poorly-executed illustrations, I've found no better primer. It's useful for canoeists, too. (NB The AMC recently brought out an updated edition. It has a slightly different title—Whitewater Handbook—and a different author.)

Once you've learned to paddle, you'll probably want to go somewhere. Extended voyages by sea kayak require more than water-reading ability and good boat-control. John Dowd's Sea Kayaking: a Manual for Long-Distance Touring (University of Washington, 1988) is an excellent introduction to the art. It's also the one book I'd recommend for boaters who think they might be interested in folding kayaks.

Even in the GPS era, you can't get where you want to go without knowing something about navigation. Dowd prefaces his chapter on this subject by referring readers to David Burch's Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation (Globe Pequot, 1993). It's a good call. If you're a stranger to nautical charts and tide tables, or if references to "compass deviation" and "dead reckoning" leave you scratching your head, then this is the book for you.

Going somewhere by canoe or kayak often means camping out, of course. I learned to live "under canvas" by trial and error. If I'd had Robert Douglas Meade's The Canoer's Bible (Doubleday, 1976), I'd have had a much easier time of it. Skip over the discussion of canoes, paddles, and canoe handling—Mason does a much better job with these. Go right to the chapters on gear. You can't do better. The possibility of finding a copy of this long out-of-print volume is one of the many things that makes visiting second-hand bookstores worthwhile.

Lastly, I'd recommend Heather Angel's The Water Naturalist (Facts On File, 1982) to any paddler with an interest in the environment through which she voyages. Although most of the examples are drawn from the UK, I've found no other book which does as good a job of taking curious readers from "Still Waters" to "The Open Sea." It's no substitute for a local field guide, but it's an eye-opening read nonetheless.

That's it. Books to read at home. Books to take along. And until I add a few titles of my own to the list, they're all I need on my paddler's bookshelf. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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