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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Waterway Rambling

Part 4—Picking Up the Thread

By Tamia Nelson

March 12, 2002

A waterway ramble needn't have a destination. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, most ramblers "travel not to go anywhere, but to go." But movement alone isn't enough. Every journey must have a soul. Whether it's a trip across a nearby pond or a circumnavigation of Greenland, each ramble has a purpose. For some, rambling's a chance to get up close and personal with wildlife. For others, it's a way to connect with the past. For still others, it's just being there, getting out on the water, buffeted by wind and wave—becoming an active participant in life's unfolding drama, rather than simply looking on from the bleachers.

The "where" doesn't matter much. There's something new to be learned even in a lake you've visited many times before. It also doesn't matter that there aren't any blank spaces on the world's maps today. Wherever you live, and however much you've travelled, there are unknown countries only a few miles from your front door. Each pond and stream boasts unfamiliar shores.

Waterways are explorers' natural highways, after all. Water is the living filament that binds all life together, both past and present, from one end of the globe to the other. It unites us historically and geographically. So wherever you start, the knack of waterway rambling lies in picking up a particular thread and following it home.

How to begin? Sometimes serendipity is enough. Recently, and for no particular reason, I turned on the TV and found myself watching a documentary film about Fort Ticonderoga, the reconstructed colonial fortress perched high above the western shore of Lake Champlain, in northern New York. It wasn't exactly unfamiliar country. For several years I drove past the turn-off to "Fort Ti" every other weekend, but for one reason or another I never left the main highway. Now, however, my chance encounter with a film has planted a seed in my imagination. In time—in weeks, months, or years—that seed will grow into a voyage of discovery. Fort Ticonderoga won't be my destination, though. Instead, it will be the soul of the journey. I don't just want to snap a photo of Farwell and me standing on the battlements, looking eastward toward Vermont. I want to follow a thread in which the Fort itself is but a single fiber, to explore the Fort's physical setting and probe its historical context. And I plan to do it from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Of course, you can't always count on Lady Luck to hand you a journey ready-made, so to speak. Sometimes you have to go looking. All you need is a point of departure. Once you have that, you're on your way.

And how do you find your starting point? First, pick a navigable waterway. Any waterway will do, so long as it's safe to paddle—safe for you to paddle, that is—and open to recreational travel. Then get to know something about it. Study maps and charts. Read up on its history. Keep notes. Make sketches. You may even want to make a map of your own. Start a scrapbook or clipping file. Make connections. Soon your journey will have a soul, and you'll have your point of departure.

But what if no waterway suggests itself to your imagination? What then? Get yourself a paddler's guidebook covering a region that interests you. Browse through it, reading whatever catches your eye. Pay attention to difficulty and accessibility, but don't ignore other things, as well. Read all the sidebars. Read between the lines. You're not looking for an off-the-shelf "experience." You're starting on a voyage of discovery. Your guidebook's only the beginning.

Can't find a guidebook for your area? Or maybe you're one of those people who can't read any guidebook without falling asleep. (If that's the case, you've got company! We're in the same boat.) Then pick a river or lake that's near to something that intrigues you—a wildlife refuge, perhaps, or a historic battlefield, or the city you grew up in. Whatever it is, this "something" is already more than a destination. It's the soul of your journey. Be prepared to be surprised by what you discover. Familiar places can look mighty different when first glimpsed from the seat of a kayak or canoe.

Need more help? Here are just a few ways to prime the pump:

  • Read a book
  • See a movie
  • Study a map
  • Revisit your roots
  • Talk to a friend

Nothing especially mysterious here, is there? If you're a reader, and you probably are if you've come this far with me, then you'll turn to books without any urging on my part. Don't look down your nose at movies, either. I've already told you about the documentary that awakened my interest in Fort Ti. But a movie needn't be a documentary to get you started. Many years ago, I saw a film version of Jerome K. Jerome's classic Victorian comic novel Three Men in a Boat. Fascinating! And very funny, too. Someday, I said, I'm going to paddle up the River Thames and see what's changed since Jerome's time. I haven't done it yet, but I haven't given up on the idea, either.

And maps. Don't forget maps. Maps and dreams go together. To those who can read what they have to say, all maps are sources of wonder and inspiration. If you've paddled very long, you probably own at least a few topographic maps, and nearly everyone has a stack of road maps or a road atlas somewhere in the house. So get 'em out and start exploring. State atlases like those published by DeLorme are particularly useful. Not only do you have maps for a whole state at your fingertips, but you'll also find listings of unique natural features, historic sites, museums, beaches, and wildlife areas. Always remember, though, that you're not looking for a destination. You're starting a journey.

Don't overlook historic maps, either. Large libraries and local historical societies often have collections of old topographic maps, tax maps, and county atlases. Studying these is like travelling back in time, and if you live on or near a dammed river, you probably have one or more drowned hamlets right in your backyard. How's that for a magical mystery tour? Lost Atlantis on your doorstep! And a good battery-powered fish-finder can show you things long hidden beneath the waves. You can even dive down and investigate first-hand. If you decide on a submarine tour, though, make sure you have the necessary skills and expert companions. Farwell once spent a lonely ten minutes disentangling himself from a barbed-wire fence, fifty feet below the surface of a small reservoir. Needless to say, he didn't make the same mistake again.

Would you rather stay on the surface? No problem. So would I. Old maps will also guide you to cemeteries, abandoned water-mills, and other relics of our shared past. Be careful, though. Ruins can be dangerous places, and owning a canoe or kayak doesn't give anyone a license to trespass. So always ask permission before you begin exploring—and never pick up souvenirs. The past may belong to all of us, but historic artifacts are always someone's property.

What's that? Water-mills don't tickle your fancy? Then perhaps covered bridges turn you on. Or maybe you like to tempt the wily trout. Or tour vineyards. Whatever your interest, there's a waterway running through it somewhere. And don't neglect your own roots. My grandfather was an Adirondack guide. He introduced me to many North Country waterways, and his stories of abandoned settlements, old logging camps, and derelict tanneries got me started on a never-ending journey through my own past.

Don't be shy. Everyone needs a guide now and then. It's nothing to be ashamed of. And there's probably someone like my grandfather in your family, too. Or maybe your guide is simply an old friend. But whether family member, friend, or chance acquaintance, there's nothing like the human touch. Books can speak volumes, but only people can bring a landscape and its history to life. I didn't really get to know the river of my youth until I met an ancient angler named Harry. He taught me to see the river as a living thing, and introduced me to its secrets. And he, too, started me off on a voyage of discovery through time and space.

Waterway rambling. It's as easy as following the thread of the current. Just pick your point of departure and go. Does this sound like fun? Good! Spring's making its way up through the northern hemisphere. It's the season for new beginnings and new adventures. What better time to embark on your own voyage of discovery?

To be continued on April 9, 2002….

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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