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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural!

Write On! Fixing Images on the Emulsion of Memory

By Tamia Nelson

May 21, 2002

When Colin Fletcher smashed his only camera, far down a trail in the depths of the Grand Canyon, he cursed his luck. After all, he was walking through country he'd probably never visit again. Before long, however, his mood had changed. He discovered that he'd escaped from the "tyranny" of photography. "Instead of stopping briefly to photograph and forget," he later wrote, "I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory."

Wonderful turn of phrase, isn't it? "Emulsion of memory." But there's a problem. This emulsion isn't any too stable—at least mine isn't. As years pass, even vivid memories begin to fade, like old photos pinned on a sunlit wall. And sooner or later, the images vanish completely.

That's when the questions start to nag. Just when did the ice go out in the year of the big blizzard? What was the name of that couple we met at Little Clear Pond in '98? When did we see our first hooded merganser last year? There's no end to such puzzles. Sometimes, with luck, the emulsion clears and the image snaps back into focus. At other times, though, it doesn't. Then I'm glad that I've kept a journal.

I'm grateful to earlier scribblers, too. I'll never have a chance to paddle with Samuel Hearne, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, or Raymond Patterson, but I can read what they wrote during their travels. They all kept journals. So did Mina Hubbard. After her husband died of starvation while trying to cross Labrador by canoe in 1903, she travelled to Goose Bay herself, determined to finish the job that he'd begun. Her husband was dead, but she and her three canoemen weren't alone on the river: they had her husband's journal with them. Two months after she'd started, Mina reached Ungava Bay, where she wrote the final chapter in her husband's interrupted tale. It was published in the May 1906 issue of Harper's Magazine. That's how I learned about her trip.

Nearly all explorers made written records of their travels, in fact. It was a big part of their job. And their notes and comments make for mighty interesting reading today. So do the diaries and sketch-books of naturalists. Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, Beatrix Potter, and Helen Hoover are long gone, but their descriptions of animals and plants survive—and they're still fascinating.

Diaries and sketch books. Words and pictures. There's a place for both in every paddler's journal. Even if you never get beyond stick figures, there are times when a picture—any picture—is worth a thousand words. You don't need to be another Leonardo da Vinci to sketch a bird or a leaf or a range of hills, any more than you need to be another Pepys to describe what you had for dinner. You just need to learn to see, and then put it down on paper. That's all there is to it. Keeping a journal is a very democratic art.

Oddly enough, though, I was slow to catch on. When most other teen-age girls I knew were keeping diaries, I was staying up past midnight waiting table and washing dishes in my parent's restaurant. By the time I got to bed at the end of a long day, I was too tired to write anything at all, and on my rare free weekends I just wanted to head for the hills.

Even the "writing breaks" in the Outward Bound course I took later didn't give me the habit. Once I'd filled the spiral-bound notebook I'd taken into the mountains, I put it away. End of story.

Then I found myself in college, standing next to an anticline on a petrology field trip. My assignment? Map the anticline and write up a report. I had an hour to study the outcrop. That was all. I didn't have a car, so I knew I wouldn't get a second chance. My professor had just one piece of advice: "Take notes as if you knew you'll never come back again." I knew I wouldn't, so I did as he suggested, and I was glad that I did. While my well-wheeled classmates were making frantic midnight trips back to the outcrop to fill in the blanks in their notes by flashlight, I was writing up my final report. Piece of cake.

I'd learned my lesson. From that day forward, I carried a notebook with me on every field trip, and always took notes as if I knew I'd never come back. Years later, when Farwell and I surveyed a thirty-mile pipeline corridor, my field notes included detailed information about topography, soils, forest cover, ruins, watercourses, weather, and wildlife. And that was just the beginning.

Our report at the end of this job ran to hundreds of pages, but my notes made it easy to write. I only had to crack the cover on one of my orange notebooks and we were immediately transported back into the field. This gave us another idea. What worked on the job ought to work on the weekend. So we started taking notebooks on all our paddling and camping trips. Within a year, I was keeping a daily journal at home, too. I still do. Now, when Farwell wonders when we last saw an otter fishing in the shallows in front of our house, I know just where to look. No longer are we dependent on the fading emulsion of our memories to hold the past. We've fixed the images forever.

You can do the same thing. You don't need anything special to start. You just need a notebook and a pen or pencil. Some people like using diaries with the date and day of week pre-printed on the pages. Others get by with spiral-bound steno pads. I've used both, as well as hardbound surveyor's field books with water-resistant paper. These are expensive, but they're very tough, and the orange covers make them hard to lose. My current favorite? An inexpensive bound 5" x 7" drawing pad. It's perfect for field sketching, and I find the absence of blue lines wonderfully liberating. I can write where (and how) I want to.

But don't agonize over choosing the perfect journal. Grab whatever appeals to you and get started. If you think you'll have trouble finding something to write about, think again. Once you've got the habit, you'll have just the opposite problem: you'll have so much to say that you'll be hard-pressed to find the time. Difficult as it is, however, it's worth the effort to make time, even at the end of a long day. The rest is easy. You just pick up your pencil or pen—pencil's less likely to run if it gets wet—and write or draw to your heart's content. You'll find yourself describing wildlife and weather, making sketches of rapids run (or portaged), jotting down names and addresses of people you've met, making lists of gear to take next time (or leave behind)…. The possibilities are endless. Don't worry about spelling or punctuation. Don't worry about perspective. Don't worry, period. Just do it! Don't forget to date your entries, though.

Of course, if you're a photographer, you'll want to illustrate the entries in your journal with photos. Be sure to jot down where each photo was taken—you may even want to add a sketch map—along with the subject of the photo and anything else that's relevant. (When I do a formal field survey, I even keep a separate photo log.)

That's all there is to it. Simple, isn't it? Better yet, it's fun. Just wait till you need to answer a question about some almost forgotten incident or half-remembered trip. That's when you'll reach for your journals and start renewing the emulsion of memory. Soon you'll be journeying back in time, revisiting places you thought you'd never see again—without even leaving your chair. And you'll be in good company.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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