Where Am I to Go?
Finding a Place to Paddle
by Farwell Forrest
"Where am I to go, me Johnnies? O, where am I to go?" This
plaintive refrain from one of the better-known halyard shanties of the
age of sail has echoes in the present day. Hardly a week passes when
Tamia and I don't get at least one letter from someone asking us to
recommend a river or lake suitable for a day-trip or a weekend
outing. And the enquiries come from all over the map of North America,
from people with very different interests. Some are looking for peace
and quiet in settings of great natural beauty. Other writers want a
physical challenge. Still others are looking for "adventure."
These requests often leave us scratching our heads. We're always
glad to get letters, of course, and we're flattered that folks imagine
us to be on first-name terms with all of North America's waterways.
But, more often than not, we have to disappoint our correspondents.
In truth, no one individualno ten
individualscould hope to sample even a representative selection
of the continents' waters. Between us, Tamia and I have been paddling
canoes and kayaks for sixty-odd years. We live in northern New York
now, but we've paddled as far afield as James Bay, the Bay of Fundy
and the inland waters of Florida. For all this, though, there are
canoeable creeks and beaver ponds not two miles from where we live
that we've never visited.
What, then, of the waters we have paddled? Surely we have
favorites that we'd be happy to recommend to others? Well,
yesand no. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed some
2,500 years ago, you can't step twice in the same river. All waterways
are dynamic systems. Even the most placid pond alters from one year to
the next, and rivers change with every spring flood and summer
Nor is any waterway in North America so remote as to be free from
human influence. We've found whole islands in northern Quebec
knee-deep in beer bottles and aluminum cans, and we've paddled through
stinking mats of floating human turds on the margins of James Bay
The little river where Tamia learned to canoe is a case in point.
Twenty years ago it was largely ignored by paddlers. A storied trout
stream, it wound its way between forested banks westward from its
Vermont headwaters, through a landscape dominated by picture-book New
No longer. Today, this little river boasts several active canoe
liveries, and second homes have replaced many of the ancient sycamores
that used to line the banks. On a hot July day it's now possible to
look down from one of the many highway bridges and see an endless
parade of canoes bumping and jostling their way downriver. The
fishermen are still there, though there's a set to their jaws neither
of us can remember from our earlier encounters. They work the pools
and eddies as before, but they're now spending as much time dodging
out-of-control canoes as they are matching Blue-Winged Olives to the
midsummer hatches of Ephemerella and Baetis. Few of them
look like they're having a good time.
Nor are such changes confined to rivers. The small reservoir on
which we live is far busier today than it was when we first moved into
the old hunting camp we call home. Where once we could actually smell
the mingled scents of pine and balsam in the heavy summer air, and
hear the cries of loons and heron, we now smell only gasoline and hear
only the whine of runabouts and jet-skis.
We are seeing more canoeists, to be sureand many more
kayakers than before. Too often, however, they resemble the family
group we watched pass by our window only yesterday: a man and woman
with two children, in a battered old aluminum canoe.
A water-ski towboat approached them at perhaps 35 mph on their
left, the skier carving a wide arc behind his tow. At almost the same
instant, two jet-skis passed the family from behind, one on each side,
both going at more than 40 mph. Just as soon as the jet-ski on the
left was clear of the canoe, he cut across its bow to avoid the
water-skier. The rooster tail from the jet-ski wetted the paddlers
down. Within seconds, the fan of spray from the water-skier wetted
them again. Through all this, the woman in the bow of the canoe sat
motionless, her paddle resting across her thighs while she gripped the
gunwales, her face set in an anxious scowl. The man, grim and
determined, paddled furiously, first on one side and then on the
other. The canoe veered from right to left. One of the two children
sat silent and staring. The other clung to the right gunwale and
wailed, tears streaming down her face.
Seconds later, they were lost from view. Theirs will be a vacation
they'll long remember, I'm sure. I doubt that they'll be coming back.
Rivers change. Lakes change. More of us flee to the water every
year, and every year there are fewer and fewer places where it's
pleasantor even safeto paddle. How can you find your way
to one of the few remaining enclaves?
First, ask around. Talk to other paddlers, face-to-face, if
possible. See if there's a paddling club near your home. Most major
cities have at least one, as do many universities. Their members are
probably your best source of information about local and regional
waters. Just be sure that you're both talking about the same thing. If
members of the local club are all nationally-ranked downriver racers,
their idea of good water may be quite different from yours.
Can't find a paddling club? Then talk to the folks at local
outfitters and liveries. Here, too, you'll have to be careful. An
outfitter will probably touch lightly, if at all, on any
less-than-attractive aspects of his home waters. He shouldn't be
blamed for this, of course. It's simply not in his interest to
discourage business. With luck, you'll get useful recommendations.
Don't expect more.
No outfitter or livery nearby? Then check out the offerings of
state or provincial tourism and conservation agencies. While these are
perhaps the least useful sources of all, there are happy exceptions.
Too often, though, the best you can hope for is the roughest sort of
rough guide, couched in language so exaggerated that it would make
even a veteran political consultant blush. Unless I miss my guess, the
frightened family that Tamia and I saw navigating the perils of our
reservoir had been taken in by just this sort of irresponsible public
Guidebooks are another source of information about waterways near
and far. Unfortunately, they vary enormously in quality, and even the
better ones are often out of date before they're published. Conditions
change, after alland the changes often come rapidly and
unpredictably. Still, it's almost always worthwhile searching out the
guidebooks for any area that interests you. The best are very good
indeed. In the northeastern United States, you'd be hard pressed to do
better than the several series published by the Appalachian Mountain
Club. Their River Guidestake the AMC River Guide: New
Hampshire, Vermont, edited by Victoria Jas, for exampleare
models of their type: coherent, concise and well-organized. And the
AMC's relatively new "quiet water" guides are, if anything, even
better. The New York volume (Quiet Water Canoe Guide, New York,
by John Hayes and Alex Wilson) is quite simply the best guidebook I've
Lastly, of course, there are maps, though many experienced paddlers
turn to a map first whenever they're looking for new worlds to
conquer. Tamia's covered the use of maps in some detail already, in an
article entitled "Maps
and Dreams." While there's no need for me to repeat what she's
written, I'd be thoughtless indeed if I didn't mention the DeLorme
Mapping Company's series of state atlases. Combining
intermediate-scale topographic maps with helpful lists of everything
from "unique natural features" to historic sites to canoe trips, the
DeLorme atlases are an invaluable resource for any canoeist or
kayaker, whatever his or her other interests. Whether you turn to them
first or last, you won't find a better starting place for any trip.
Ours is an increasingly crowded and busy world. If you hope to
paddle away from it all for a little while, you'll have your work cut
out for you. Fortunately, you're not entirely on your own. Other
paddlers, published guidebooks and maps can all help. It's a short
list, but somewhere on it is an answer for everyone who's ever asked
the question "Where am I to go?"
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
Summer's coming to an end in the northern hemisphere. That's
good news for paddlers. Join Tamia next week as she looks ahead to the
joys of the third season. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you.
Send your comments and questions to us at email@example.com. (No
attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise
that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read
every oneand we will. 'Nuff said.