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Spotlight: Good Guidebooks

Portrait of a Thoroughbred —
Paul Jamieson's North Flow

By Farwell Forrest
farwell@paddling.net

May 13, 2003

Guidebooks crowd outfitters' shelves and fill the pages of their catalogs, but not all guidebooks merit a place on your bookshelf. Last month we explored several ways to separate the winners in the Guidebook Stakes from the also-rans. This time around we'll look at a real thoroughbred, a veteran entry that's made it to the winner's circle many times. Even if you'll never paddle the waters it describes, you can learn a thing or two just by studying its championship form.

Before we join the crowd down at the paddock, though, here's a tip: every champion has to be put out to pasture sooner or later, and guidebooks are no exception. What can you do about this? Be sure you've got the latest printing of the most recent edition, for one thing. That's only common sense. But it's not enough in itself. You have to learn to listen to your inner voice as well. If what you see on the water doesn't fit the description in your guidebook, trust the evidence of your own eyes and not the printed page. Always. After all, the author of the guidebook won't go for a swim if things aren't quite as he described them. But you may.

Of course, rank beginners will have to rely almost entirely on the judgement of others. More experienced boaters, however, would be wise to weigh the words of James West Davidson and John Rugge: "The best policy, if you're going to make mistakes, is to make your own." Not that you'll have much choice in the matter. Whether you paddle a canoe or a kayak, you are the captain of your little ship. The guidebook hasn't been written that can substitute for a trained eye or on-the-water competence. Nor is there necessarily safety in numbers, no matter how numerous or how skilled your companions. Once you lower your butt into a small boat you're mostly on your own. The buck stops where you sit. It's your butt that's on the line, too. Good guidebooks can help you stay out of trouble, but they can't save you from yourself. There's just no substitute for good judgement.

Now, with those cautionary words in mind, let's take a closer look at a real thoroughbred. He's a little long in tooth, but you can still see the form that made him a champion. And speaking of form, guidebooks may not win Nobel Prizes for literature, but that doesn't mean they're all the same. Most fall into one of three categories. The first is the nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am school. These are spare and straightforward books that tell you where to go, how to get there, and what to expect when you arrive. Their authors' motto might well be taken from the Adirondack Mountain Club's Canoe Guide to Western and Central New York State, itself an excellent example of the type: "What the buyer wants from a guidebook is a clear, simple, and above all, accurate description of the canoe trip to be taken."

Well, yes, that's true of some guidebook purchasers, certainly. But many readers want more from paddling than a change of scene and a pounding pulse. Maybe you're one of them. If you are — if you like to know more about a river than the location of the put-in and the difficulty of the rapids — then books like the Appalachian Mountain Club's Quiet Water series merit your attention. The New York Canoe Guide, in particular, is a sort of latter-day Walden with maps. The authors' short "nature essays" are excellent introductions to the world glimpsed from a seat on the water, and I'll have more to say about their book in a later article. Today, however, I'd like to consider an example drawn from the third school of guidebook writing — the guidebook as gateway to history.

These books won't appeal to everyone. Some paddlers are perfectly happy carving endless figure-eights in flooded quarries, or seeing how many times they can cheat death in Class V-VI drops. For a few of us, however, the real lure of waterways is the window they open on forgotten scenes from our species' collective past. Tamia and I have explored this subject at length elsewhere. For the present, though, it's enough to note that writers haven't altogether neglected the interests of history buffs. Indeed, some of the best guidebooks have been written with them in mind.

Paul Jamieson's Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Third Edition (Adirondack Mountain Club, 1988; revised 1994) is a case in point. The author of this guide to the waterways of the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain Basins of the Adirondacks was for many years a professor of English at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He was already an old man in 1975, when the first edition of North Flow appeared. Now he's a very old man, and the job of keeping his book up to date has fallen to Donald Morris. It's not yet clear what this will mean for future editions. Jamieson was a canoeist, with only a passing interest in technically-difficult whitewater, and his narrative style matched his temperament. It was discursive, leisurely, and academic. He devotes two pages to weighing the merits of spelling the name of the Grass River with an added "e," for example. A few readers — and I freely admit that I'm one — will find such prosy back-eddies fascinating. Many more will think them maddening, however.

Don Morris may change all this. His first love is the kayak. Leisurely drifts down forested backwaters are not for him. He delights in pitting his skill against the Adirondack's most challenging whitewater runs. He doesn't seem to have much interest in the minutia of history, either. So the next edition of North Flow may well be both meaner and leaner, and perhaps that's for the best.

No matter how the book's character may change under Morris' stewardship, though, I wish he'd get a move on. The route descriptions in North Flow are long overdue for a sweeping editorial spring-cleaning. A lot has happened since the last revision. A hurricane-force windstorm in 1995 knocked down a wide swathe of forest scenery in the west-central Adirondacks, for one thing, and while the portage trails have been cleared of deadfalls by now, much of the forest landscape that Jamieson knew and wrote about no longer exists. And that's not all. A catastrophic ice-storm in 1998 brought down several million more trees, although in this instance most of the damage was done in areas outside the Adirondack Park, in places which Jamieson dismisses (using words borrowed from Lord Byron) as "having too much of man" in them.

"Too much of man"? Coming from a writer with an obvious love of history, this is a curious comment. What is history but the story of man's impress on the land, after all? More to the point, however, Jamieson's throwaway line highlights a further shortcoming of his book. Man hasn't been idle in the nine years since 1994. There have been far-reaching changes in the interpretation of the laws governing trespass on New York's inland waters, for one thing. Waterways that had been closed to travel for a century are once again open to itinerant canoeists and kayakers. This is hinted at in the latest (1994) printing of North Flow, but much more than mere hints are needed. There are hundreds of miles of "new" routes to catalog and describe.

Good news? Certainly. But not all the news is equally good. A boom in waterfront property development has also taken place in the years since North Flow was last revised, limiting paddlers' opportunities rather than expanding them. Here, too, Jamieson nods. Many waterways which still retained some wild forest character in 1994 are now ringed with new vacation homes. In such places, the snarl of the jet-ski has nearly silenced the cry of the loon, and the Blue Line — the name usually given to the Adirondack Park boundary — has offered no sure defense against this mechanized assault. The reader can no longer rely on North Flow to steer him away from the madding crowds.

This makes Jamieson's airy dismissal of waterways outside the Park particularly hard to fathom. The differences between them and their counterparts inside the Blue Line are at most differences in degree — and they are rather small differences, at that. Indeed, there may now be more solitude to be found outside the Blue Line than within it. Nonetheless, it is just such idiosyncratic observations that give North Flow its undoubted charm. Of course, charm is a double-edged blade. It cuts both ways. All paddlers appreciate good maps, yet everyone who picks up a copy of North Flow will soon be reminded that "charming" can be a term of opprobrium as well as praise. The book's maps are charming in the same way that a five-year-old's crayon drawing is charming. A guidebook isn't a refrigerator door, however, and the poorly-reproduced, scratchy, sketchy maps are certain to lead even the most determined route-finder astray, if only temporarily. The waters of the Adirondacks deserve better.

Fortunately, Jamieson's words can't be diminished by an artist's leaky pen, and his book's many virtues outweigh its few blemishes. Early editions of North Flow will warrant shelf-space in paddlers' libraries long after more up-to-date volumes have replaced them in day packs and dry bags. Whether Jamieson is lamenting the "degradation" of the lost "wilderness-in-miniature" that was the Saranac headwaters, recounting the delphic utterances of three otters he once encountered on Tupper Lake, or describing "the most exciting canoe chase in American literature" — it took place on Lake George, by the way — he cannot help but charm the patient reader. Nor will he fail to open his readers' eyes to new possibilities for exploration, even on familiar waterways. This, to my mind, is the first purpose of a guidebook. It is also the secret of North Flow's enduring appeal. I hope that at least a little of its charm survives in future revisions.

*

Next month, I'll take a closer look at Quiet Water. It would be hard to imagine a book less like North Flow, but they do have at least one thing in common: Quiet Water, too, is an eye-opener.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.







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