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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Waterway Rambling

Part 2—Back to the Future

By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

The premier article in this series was "Making Connections." The next will go on-line on February 12th.

January 8, 2002

When the first recreational canoeists took to the water in the second half of the nineteenth century, wilderness didn't exist. Yes, it's perfectly true that a lot of North America hadn't been surveyed and properly mapped then, but this didn't mean that the country that wasn't on the map wasn't already home to tens of thousands of people. Even the great expanse of the Canadian North was the center of a bustling commercial empire, dotted with factories—the headquarters of "factors," or Hudson's Bay Company agents, and not manufacturing centers, though many were that, too— and crisscrossed with highways. Most of these highways were waterways, of course. They followed rivers and traversed lakes, but they were highways nonetheless, and they spanned the continent, from Montreal on the St. Lawrence to Fort McPherson on the Mackenzie Delta.

South of the border, in the United States, everyday commodities ranging from wheat to rum to petticoats moved along rivers and canals in a bewildering assortment of craft, including barges, scows, flatboats, and river steamers. America's waterways were the arteries of nineteenth-century enterprise. To be sure, the railroad and the internal combustion engine changed all this, but these changes still lay in the future.

Europe was no different. When, in 1865, John ("Rob Roy") MacGregor first dipped his paddle into the River Thames, he was no runaway orphan boy intent on lighting out for the Territory. Not at all. He was the very archetype of the Victorian gentleman: a barrister, a philanthropist, and a Protestant evangelist. And the sport that he promoted with tireless, evangelic zeal attracted well-to-do professionals like himself, along with many Oxbridge undergraduates. Not surprisingly, most of his converts were men, though a few bold women defied the conventions of the day and took paddle in hand. Both men and women found MacGregor's "romantic voyaging" to be a simple and satisfying recreation, and it enjoyed immense popularity. As described by Arthur Ransome,

You took your canoe…by train or diligence [stage-coach] or farm cart to the upper waters of your chosen river, and then descended, with current, tide, and tiny sail to help you, finding lodging for the night ashore.

What could be more straightforward? And MacGregor led the way, exploring rivers from the mercantile Thames to the holy Jordan in a succession of decked "canoes" (his boats would be labelled "kayaks" today), then publishing enthusiastic accounts of his travels immediately on his return to London.

The fad crossed the Atlantic, where it quickly surmounted barriers of class and income. Popularized by a ne'er-do-well cobbler who wrote about his Adirondack trips under the pen-name "Nessmuk," canoeing struck a sympathetic chord among sportsmen. Before long, canoeists were as common a sight on America's rivers and lakes as they were on the waterways of the Continent.

New York's "Northern Wilderness" got more than its share of this traffic. In truth, however, Nessmuk's Adirondacks weren't much more of a wilderness than was MacGregor's Europe. The little cobbler was no glutton for punishment. "We do not go to the…woods…to rough it," he wrote, "we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home." With this in mind, and though he carried a minimalist camping kit in his tiny, open canoe, Nessmuk preferred to spend his nights at Adirondack hotels. And he had plenty to choose from. In 1880, when he made his first trip into New York's mountains, the Adirondacks were in the middle of a tourist boom. Heavily-travelled wagon roads led from one settlement to another, guides and outfitters competed for the business of wealthy "sports," and most larger lakes boasted a resort hotel or two.

Nessmuk couldn't afford to hire a guide. Indeed, so deep was his poverty—and so great his hurry to return to his beloved Adirondacks—that he sometimes left his wife and children without the means to feed themselves. (Perhaps this was why he found it "rough" at home.) But he soon discovered that he could often talk his way into a hotel or a guide's camp, whatever the state of his purse. It became even easier after his articles began appearing in Forest and Stream.

Still, although Nessmuk slept under canvas only when he had to, he preached the gospel of the open-air life. And his ringing words continued to echo in the ears of the generations that followed in his wake. For many (if not in fact most) modern canoeists and kayakers, paddling means camping out in wilderness parks or making day-trips to favorite whitewater rivers. While cyclists and cross-country skiers eagerly embraced "inn-to-inn" touring, paddlers were reluctant to revisit the roots of their sport, let alone explore its pleasures and possibilities.

I'm not sure why this was, but it remains true even today. On the other hand, camping out has fewer attractions than it once did for a growing number of paddlers. Age is one explanation, I suppose. Sleeping on the ground is easy when you're twenty. Most fifty-year-olds, however, find that the ground has grown harder over the years. Geology has yet to explain this phenomenon, but it appears to be nearly universal.

It's not only creaky old fossils who find camping to be a bit of a chore, of course. People of all ages are disappointed when they discover that popular campsites—even "wilderness" campsites—frequently bear an unsettling resemblance to refugee camps or recent battle-fields, particularly in the summer season. The soil is compacted to concrete, stumps of recently-felled saplings threaten to slash open the calves of unwary walkers, and little cairns of human turds (each one crowned with an origami garnish of toilet paper) march off into the woods in every direction. And then there are the boom-boxes and barking dogs, not to mention the occasional paint-ball marksman. The list is as long as it is depressing, and it's a far cry from Nessmuk's "cool waters and calm shades." After a few such wilderness experiences, even the most enthusiastic camper may start wondering if it isn't time to take up stamp-collecting.

Happily, there's an alternative to philately: all we need to do is emulate the founding fathers of the sport. MacGregor and Nessmuk were very different men, but they had a lot in common, too. Each sought beauty along well-travelled waterways. And though they both went prepared to camp out, each preferred more comfortable accommodation than the average tent site afforded.

It's not as easy today as it once was, of course. Most of the resort hotels and travelers' inns from the nineteenth century are long gone. And while commercial traffic is now almost unknown on many rivers and lakes, canoes and kayaks must compete for space with a growing number of motorized recreational craft, all of which move a lot faster. Still, there are very few places where a careful and competent paddler can't venture safely, and rural redevelopment programs have resulted in more and more reasonably-priced tourist inns and bed-and-breakfasts opening for business along North American waterways.

Then there's the Internet. Sites like welcome inquiries from would-be waterway ramblers, as do recreational newsgroups and mailing-lists. All of these can help you make connections. If you're interested in a particular river or lake, chances are good that you'll find someone on the Web with exactly the local knowledge you need. And who knows? You might even be invited to stay the night when your route brings you into town. So whether your journey takes you from friend to friend or inn to inn, canoeing's nineteenth-century pioneers have shown all of us the way back to the future—with just a little help from twenty-first-century technology.

Now it's up to you.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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