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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

In the Same Boat

Part 1: Getting Acquainted

by Farwell Forrest

Nearly twenty years ago, I found myself in an Old Town Tripper on a wild river in northern Quebec. With me in the boat was a young woman I hardly knew. We'd met several times, of course, usually in the little library that served the small upstate New York town we both called home. I'd noticed that we took out the same books. So had she. It was just about all we had in common.

We'd paddled together only once before—a hastily-planned canoe trip down a stretch of the Androscoggin. What brought us together on the river in northern Quebec is a story for another day. At the time, only one thing really mattered: we were there, we were in the same boat, and we had nearly two hundred miles of river and lake ahead of us.

Well, the trip spun itself out as such trips always do. The tempo varied, but the theme remained the same. River, lake and portage. Still water and fast. Gale-force wind and dead calm. Rain and sleet and cloudless skies. Halfway along, two of our companions wrapped their canoe around a rock in mid-river. We rescued their gear, pulled their boat off the rock, and helped them stomp it back into shape. The next day, they were standing on the tracks where the bush-line touched the river, flagging down a train. They couldn't wait to get home, back to the comfort and security of life in Albany, New York. Back to day-trips and weekends on familiar rivers.

My stern paddler and I, however, weren't in any hurry. Somewhere along the river—somewhere between the rail-station put-in and the scratchy little rapids where our companions came to grief—we'd fallen in love. We stayed with the river, and followed it down to its end, enjoying every minute of every portage, storm and rapid.

Twenty years on, we're still in the same boat. Yes, we have solo canoes and kayaks, but the Tripper we paddled in Quebec is still on its cradles, not far from the village we lived in when we first met, waiting patiently for winter to loosen its grip on the rivers of central New York. It's an old boat now, of course, weathered and brittle, with a big fiberglass patch covering the crack made when the woodpile fell on it during one cold winter night. Come to think of it, though, we're both a little weathered and cracked ourselves. No matter. We're still watertight, and the rivers are still running.

Did I mention that my stern-paddler's name is Tamia Nelson? I don't think I did. You'll see her name again, in any case. She'll be writing half the columns that appear here. She's a geologist by training. I'm an economist. And we've both worked as archeologists for much of our nearly twenty years together.

Stones, coins and bones. Together, they sum up of most of the world's history rather neatly. And history is never far from you when you're on a river or lake. Waterways have been human highways since ... well, since when, exactly? Who knows? Since long before human beings learned to write. That's long enough for me.

History follows waterways. Merchants, explorers, conquers, and traders. Poets and painters. Soldiers and scientists, speculators and schemers. They've all gravitated to the world's rivers, lakes and sea-coasts. Follow a drop of water from the moment it falls as a snowflake on a mountain peak until it disappears into a distant ocean. You've just recapitulated human history.

We're born. Each of us is unique. Each of us is an individual. We live. And then we die, joining the anonymous multitudes of unknown men and women who have lived before us. Nations, too, are born. Each is unique. Each struggles, climbs upward toward the light, flourishes and dies. And with the passage of time, even the greatest nations disappear into the desert ocean that is history. Remember the ancient ruler Ozymandias, whose shattered statue alone defied time, bringing a message of empty defiance to Shelley's "traveller from an antique land"?

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Of course, geologists, archeologists and poets have to take the long view. In this column we'll be more concerned with the here and now—and now that the introductions are over, it's time we got started.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

That's it for today. I'll be back next week to finish this up. In the meantime, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to me at sameboat@paddling.net. (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) I won't promise that I'll answer each letter, but I can promise that I'll read every one—and I will. 'Nuff said.






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