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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Waterway Rambling

Part 1—Making Connections

By Tamia Nelson

December 11, 2001

Recreation. RE-creation. Renewal. That's why most of us paddle. But recreation means different things to different paddlers. Some of us thrive on the challenge of technical whitewater. Others look forward to long summer days on a lazy river. Still others turn their gaze northward—toward the few remaining places on the map not crowded with towns and criss-crossed with highways.

For almost all of us, though, canoeing and kayaking are ways "to get away from it all," to break as many connections as possible with our everyday lives. Often our pilgrimage takes us to a wilderness, one of the many more or less protected enclaves where, in the words of the United States Wilderness Act of 1964, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, [and] man…is a visitor who does not remain."

Well, as most back-country travelers can attest, wilderness isn't what it used to be. For one thing, there aren't many places left that are "untrammeled by man." Ask any biologist, anthropologist, or archaeologist. The human species has left its mark just about everywhere—even in the icy fastnesses of the Antarctic plateau. If you know even a little bit about history and ecology, you'll see our species' impress on every landscape. The only "real" wilderness left is in the country of the mind.

And then there's the question of numbers—our numbers, that is. In the last century, world population has doubled every 50 years or so. This can't continue indefinitely, of course, and the rate of growth is already slowing, but the engine won't come to a stop anytime soon. Today there are six billion of us. By the middle of this century there may be eight, or ten, or even twelve billion. Already the trickle of visitors to the world's wilderness parks has become a stream. Soon it will be a torrent.

This isn't something that happens only to other people. On fine summer mornings, when the jet-skiers are still in bed and the 'Flow is quiet, Farwell and I look out over an all but empty waterscape. A heron fishes undisturbed in the shallows. A beaver or muskrat returns home after a hard night's work. And that's all. Despite being ringed by cottages and camps, and despite the fact that it enjoys no legislative protection whatsoever, the 'Flow is ours and ours alone for a few golden moments. It's almost possible to imagine that here, too, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

The illusion doesn't last long, of course. Within minutes, the first jet-ski coughs into life. Others soon join the rasping chorus. Then the heron flies off in search of a less-disturbed diner, and the beaver seeks the shelter of its lodge. Man is back in the picture.

Is it different in the wilderness? Not necessarily. Suppose we'd been standing on the summit of New York's highest mountain, instead—right at the center of the celebrated High Peaks Wilderness. Then we'd have been denied even the brief, nurturing illusion that we enjoyed on the 'Flow. Long before daybreak a line of figures would have started trudging upward on the summit trail, each one eager to bag the peak and partake of a wilderness experience. By the dawn's early light, we (and they) would have had lots of company, all jostling for position on a few acres of trampled ground.

Let's call it the paradox of wilderness, shall we? When we want to get away from it all, we flock in great numbers to protected enclaves of woodland or water. The result? Hordes of seekers after solitude crowd the wilderness. At the same time, though, many corners of the workaday world on our doorsteps—the world we've left behind—offer at least occasional moments of serenity and fleeting glimpses of untrammeled nature. Go figure. It's really one of life's better jokes.

Perhaps the problem lies in the very idea of "getting away from it all." To me, at least, this now seems a little too much like running away. Our everyday world, the world in which we spend most of our lives, is the world we've made for ourselves, after all. It serves our needs and interests best. Why should we feel we have to flee from it? And, anyway, isn't it better to run toward something, rather than running away? I think so, at any rate. I'd rather make connections than break them. I don't want to get away from it all. I want to come home.

Does this mean I want to sit in front of the TV until I die? Certainly not! Nor do I want to discourage anyone from making the trip of a lifetime she's been dreaming about for years. Far from it. I've a few such trips I'd like to take myself. No, I've got something else in mind altogether. Call it "waterway rambling."

What do I mean? Simple. The next time the urge to paddle hits you, stop and think. Instead of "running away" to whatever wilderness park is being featured in this month's issue of Paddle Shafts, why not get to know your neighborhood, instead? True, I'm luckier than many. I live almost close enough to the water to jump into it from my bedroom window. But most of us are within an hour's drive of navigable water. Wherever you live, you probably pass a pond or stream, or cross a river, every day on your way to work. So why not plan your next trip around your "home waters"?

Get to know the neighborhood. That's good advice to anyone moving into a new place—and every place is new until you've explored it. In fact, every place is new each time you explore it. I've watched dawn come to the 'Flow more than 6,000 times now, and I've made hundreds of trips out onto its waters. Yet no two trips have ever been the same. And each new day has brought me some fresh gift, teaching me things I didn't know before or helping me make connections I'd only guessed at.

No, the 'Flow's not a wilderness. And chances are that you won't find a wilderness on your doorstep, either. But that doesn't mean you won't find beauty, or that you won't start making connections of your own. Even the dirtiest and most congested urban waterfront has oases of loveliness, and all waterways offer you a guided tour right into the heart of our history. Every country was once roadless, and in lands without roads, rivers were the only highways. Wherever we humans have lived, rivers have fed us, watered our crops, powered our industries, transported our chattels, and carried away our waste. They still do.

And the sea—what of the sea? It, too, has been a human highway and larder for millennia. Nearly all the world's big cities are located on great rivers, or on the sea itself. Water—the fresh water of rivers and lakes, as well as the salt water of the oceans—is the filament that binds us all together, a living thread linking nation to nation and generation to generation, out to the utmost limit of geography and human history.

That's why, in the months to come, when winter locks the 'Flow in ice and our paddling trips begin and end at the kitchen sink, Farwell and I will be planning a series of waterway rambles. We won't be looking for wilderness, and we won't be attempting to get away from it all. Instead, we'll be getting ready to make connections—to follow the silver thread of water outward from our doorstep, probing through time and space until our journey brings us back home again. If our past experience is any guide, we'll discover beauty in places we didn't even know existed. And while that would be enough in itself, it's only the beginning. We'll also learn more about our land and its people, both the people who called it home before we came along and the folks who live in it today.

It should be fun, and there's no reason why you shouldn't join us. Unless you live in one of the world's deserts—and maybe even if you do—there's a river, lake, or seacoast near you. Pick a starting point, and begin making plans to get to know your neighborhood. Winter won't last forever, after all, and it's never too early to start making connections!

To be continued on January 8, 2002….

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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