Keep It Clean!
Practical Ecology for Paddlers
by Tamia Nelson
Ecology and the environmental movement have had a bad time of it
lately. In New York's North Country, where Farwell and I live,
"environmentalist" has replaced Communist as the universal,
one-size-fits-all epithet. Has a troublemaking neighbor been
complaining again about your wayward dog, the noise from your
all-night parties, or the smoke from your burn barrel? Need a little
slack from the cops? No problem. Just tell them that the
troublemaker's one of those, you know, environmentalists.
You'll be off the hook in no time.
For maximum effect, of course, each damning syllable should be
chewed-on for a while before being spat out, the better to convey your
contempt. "Shoot, officer. Don't know what he's talking about. He must
be some kind of En - vi - ro - men - al - ist!" (For some reason, the
second "n" and first "t" are usually swallowed whole.)
From what I hear, this phenomenon isn't confined to northern New
York. That's not good news for paddlers. Canoeists and kayakers get up
close and personal with the rivers that flow through our villages and
cities, and we spend a lot of time on the lakes around which we build
our summer homes. Sadly, the view we get is sometimes pretty
disheartening. It's hard to be a paddler and not be an
We shake our heads over the trash that litters the banks of our
favorite rivers. We look on with dismay as a kid on a jet-ski tries to
run down a female common merganser and her brood of chicks. We curse
the midnight ramblers whose unmuffled powerboats wake us repeatedly in
the small hours of the night. And we pat ourselves on the back.
We're not the problem, we tell ourselves. We're the good guys.
Well, I suppose it's true in a way. Paddlesport is a quiet
sport. One day last year I looked up from my desk and was astonished
to see a whole flotilla of paddlers going by my window. They were
participants in a citizens' race sponsored by the local lake
association. There were nearly a hundred of them, and the closest was
no more than 100 feet away. But I didn't even know they were there
until I raised my head and looked out the window. If they'd been
So, yes, even when we whoop and holler, we don't make much noise.
But that's not the end of the story, is it? A tour of paddling put-ins
and popular camping areas won't turn up much cause for
self-congratulation. At many heavily-used sites, you can find your way
to the water by following a trail of human turdseach one topped
off with a garnish of toilet paper. If you gotta go, you gotta go,
after all. It seems that a lot of us just don't care where.
And that's only the beginning. Many paddlers are also anglers. The
next time you're out in your boat, visit the local fishing hot-spot.
What do you find? Coils of monofilament lying in wait to ensnare
waterbirds or small mammals. Plugs and jigs hanging from tree limbs,
each one bristling with multiple treble-hooks. Piles and piles of
Now look beneath the surface. Scoop up some of the muck or sand
from the lake- or river-bottom near shore. Sift through it. Chances
are good that you'll find at least a few lead sinkers and split-shot,
and one or more lead-headed jigs. If eaten by a duck or loon, any of
these can kill. The United Kingdom has banned lead sinkers, but we in
the United States haven'tyet. We seem to think we've got
waterfowl and shorebirds to spare.
OK. Enough of this. If you paddle, you know what I'm talking about.
Ours is already a quiet sport, but it could be a cleaner one. What can
we do to clean up our act?
First, and perhaps most important: Don't add to the problem. Bag
your trash and bring it home with you. On day trips to heavily-used
areas, and on overnights at popular campsites, consider the ultimate
in "no-trace" technique"bring an air-tight "honey bucket" along
with you, and use it when the need arises. It's not much fun to clean
it out at the end of the trip, I admit, but it's more pleasant than
pitching your tent in a clearing studded with human turds.
If you fish, replace your lead sinkers and split-shot with
non-toxic alternatives made of bismuth, tin, or tungsten. True,
they're all more expensive than lead, but the cost is small when you
consider the toll taken by lead over the decades. Wherever possible,
retrieve snapped leaders and snagged lures, and pick up any
monofilament you see anywhere.
Thinking about getting a motor for your fishing canoe? Check out
Honda's little 2-h.p. four-stroke, orfor larger boatsthe
new Yamaha 4 h.p. or the Nissan 5. Four-stroke outboards pollute far
less than than their two-stroke counterparts: hydrocarbon emissions
are reduced by 90 percent or more. (A carbureted two-stroke sends as
much as 25 percent of its fuel-oil mix straight out the pipe
unburneddirectly into the air and water. On a calm day, when the
light is right, you can sometimes see an oily sheen spreading out in
the wake behind a two-stroke outboard.)
You don't fish, you say? Maybe you're a bird watcher or wildlife
photographer, then. Happily, not many paddlers deliberately harass
wildlife, but we can love some creatures to death. Loons, for
example, are especially sensitive to disturbance. They nest on islands
or in remote coves, and their nests are usually only a foot or two
from the shoreline. If a canoe, kayak or other boat approaches too
closely, the parent birds will leave their nest and attempt to drive
the "intruder" away. Their tremolo call and territorial display are
often mistaken for a courtship ritual. While water-skiers and
jet-boaters will quickly zoom on without even noticing, canoeists and
kayakers often hang around, entranced by the big birds' "penguin
dance." If the paddlers stay too long, the loons' eggs will cool past
the point of no return, and the developing chicks will die.
By a cruel irony, the U.S. Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays
coincide with critical times in loon chicks' embryonic development. As
a result, it's not unusual for a mated pair to lose two clutches of
eggs in a single yearand to fly south without having produced a
single surviving offspring.
This doesn't have to happen. Learn to recognize the loons' alarm
call (tremolo) and their territorial display (the "penguin dance"
mentioned above). Then move away at the first warning. With a good
pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens, you can observe or photograph
loons and other wildlife at a safe distance. Binoculars, in
particular, are wonderful things. They bring the whole world closer.
Buy your first pair, use them just once, and you'll immediately wonder
how you ever lived without them.
Lastly, give something back to your local rivers and lakes in
return for the pleasure they've given you. At the end of every trip,
take out a small bag of other people's garbage. We all complain
about the trash we find in our favorite spots, but how many of us do
something about it? Maybe it's time for an attitude adjustment. The
next time you find a put-in trashed, don't bitchjust bag it!
It's not somebody else's job, after all; it's ours. We're all in the
same boat, aren't we?
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
The first of the year's big holiday weekends is coming up in
America, and folks die on the water every summer while having fun.
Don't be one of them. Read Farwell's next column on "Staying Alive."
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