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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Amphibious Paddler

On Your Bike? Why Not!

By Tamia Nelson

April 27, 2004

Grandad was a fisherman. He wasn't a snob. Sometimes he waded icy mountain torrents, standing motionless in much-patched canvas waders while tempting wary brown trout with a dead-drift Elkhair Caddis. On other days, he dropped a ball of night crawlers over a cutbank and dozed in the sun while unseen leviathans stole his bait. But he was happiest when he was angling for brookies in his favorite beaver pond, drifting from one sweet spot to the next in a battered Grumman canoe.

This "tin tank" was hidden behind a thicket of alders, tethered to a towering white pine with a rusty logger's chain and an equally rusty padlock — "To keep honest men honest," he said. A nearby fire ring marked the spot of many a shore lunch, and a resident chipmunk announced each visitor to the pond from a vantage point atop a pile of beaver-gnawn poplar branches. Grandad's paddles were hidden under the tangle of branches, wrapped in oilcloth and guarded by the ever-vigilant chipmunk.

Most days, the chipmunk didn't have many visitors to announce. Reaching Grandad's pond required trekking upstream on a muddy trail alongside a brook that often forgot to run between its banks. And this was the easy bit. The real challenge lay in getting to the trailhead. Casual fishermen took one look at the rutted, cobble-strewn track as it left the state highway and turned around on the spot. Only Grandad and a handful of other old-timers ventured farther. It was worth it. Their reward for risking their cars' axles and transmissions among the boulders and bottomless pot-holes was a glimpse of an anglers' paradise. That, and long minutes of silence, a stillness broken only by the cheerful "Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of the white-throated sparrow, the wail of a distant loon, the slap of a beaver's tail, or the whisper of the wind in the tops of the pines.

Or — and this was the sound nearest my Grandad's heart — the gentle plop! of a wild brookie, sipping mayflies from the quiet surface of the pond. There were other sounds, of course. The whine of impudent mosquitos, for example, and the manic, maddening buzz of blackflies out for blood. My Grandad never complained, though. "If it weren't for the flies, there'd be no fish," he reminded me each time I grumbled. And after a while I understood.

I understood, too, why Grandad left his canoe at the pond from one year to the next. The trail was hard enough to negotiate without an eighty-pound burden on your back. So I was overjoyed when my grandfather gave me permission to use his canoe whenever I wanted. There was just one problem. I now had a key to the padlock on the Grumman, but I didn't have the keys to Grandad's Jeep. (I wouldn't have dared ask him for them, anyway.) If I wanted to fish the pond, I had to hike all the way in from Grandad's cabin. That took most of the morning. The return trip took most of the rest of the day. This didn't leave much time for paddling. Night comes early in mountain valleys, even in summer.

I tried it anyway, and on more than one occasion. I was glad I did. The silty sand left behind by the retreating glaciers preserved the tiniest tracks in all their detail, enabling me to follow white-footed mice as they went about their daily errands. Deer grazed unafraid among the succulent growth of old burns as I walked past. And I filled my felt cruiser with ripe raspberries, following paths blazed by hungry bears. (Curiously, I never saw a bear in the berries. I often met a porcupine and her offspring, though. The little porcupette liked berries even more than the bears and I did.)

Still, as much as I enjoyed these walks, I wished it were possible to get to the pond more quickly. Summer vacations were never long enough, and mine was fast drawing to a close. I wanted to paddle, not plod. Then, one day as I set out on my walk, I had a vision. Actually, as visions go, it wasn't much. I looked down the road and saw…

A kid on a bicycle. That was enough. I had a bicycle. And I could ride my bike a lot faster than I could walk. Back home, I rode it everywhere. My bike took me to my favorite swimming hole. It carried me up and down the length of the 'Kill, where I spent long hours studying the current as it slipped around bends, changed direction in eddies, and rushed over gravel bars. I didn't yet have a canoe of my own, but I knew I'd get one soon. In the meantime, I studied "my" river from the road.

Now I had the use of a canoe — my Grandad's canoe. It was too good an opportunity not to make the most of it. So I did. A week later, I was riding my bike down the trail, headed for the beaver pond. It wasn't easy. I had to carry the bike almost as much as it carried me, but I still got to the pond in half the time it took me to walk there. Minutes after I arrived, I was paddling out across the placid surface. I could hear a bittern boom in the weedy shallows on the far side of the pond. And then I heard the splash of a feeding trout. Paradise, indeed!


That was many years ago. Now, I'm on my bike again, exploring watersheds throughout the northern Adirondacks. Farwell and I meet other cyclists from time to time, but we almost never meet canoeists or kayakers. And that's a surprise. Are we the only amphibious paddlers? I doubt it. But there certainly aren't many of us. Yet. Still, tomorrow is another day. Let's look at a few reasons why you might want to join our ranks. I'm betting you'll never see your old bike in quite the same light again.

Getting to Know Your Neighborhood

First things first. Unless you live in a desert or smack in the center of a dry-as-dust urban megapolis, chances are pretty good that there's a waterway you haven't paddled no more than twenty miles from your door. In fact, there's probably more than one. And twenty miles just happens to be a comfortable distance to ride a bike. That being the case, why not get to know your neighborhood?. Better yet, why not do it on a bike?

It needn't be complicated. To get started, hop on your bike. I'm assuming that you can ride a bike, of course. If you can't, learn. I can all but guarantee you'll have fun. I'm also assuming that you have a bike to ride. If not, borrow one from a friend (or your kid), or rent one from a nearby shop. A quick mechanical check, and you're ready to go. Now follow your nose. But bring a good map with you. And if it's been a few years since you rode a bike, take it very easy at first. You want to get back in time for supper — and you want to get back in one piece. (A few words to the wise: Wear a helmet. You've only got one head. Bring clip-on head- and taillights, too, even if you don't plan to be on the road after dark. Sometimes you get held up. Flat tires happen even to good people.)

Where you go is up to you. Explore. When you travel at only 10 or 12 miles per hour, you'll see a lot that you miss when you whoosh by at 50. Take the road less traveled. Turn off the highway and ride down the roads you drive past every day. Look for water. Any water. A stream. A pond. A swamp. A bay. Check out possible put-ins. Be alert for Posted signs, and jot down the landowners' names so that you can ask permission to carry your boat across their land later on. Take in the view from bridges. Get to know the neighborhood.

Then, when you return home, sit down with the best maps you can lay your hands on. Identify what you saw. Trace the course of the stream you crossed on that old iron bridge. Follow the shoreline of the lake you glimpsed through the trees, or the contours of the bay that lay behind the dunes. Now decide where you want to go on your next road trip. You're on your way. Before you know it, your list of local paddling destinations will be longer than you dreamed possible — and you'll have a lot of fun in the process.

Is this seat-of-the-pants approach to exploration too haphazard for you? If so, do a little advance planning before you plop your seat on the saddle. This, too, means getting out the maps. There's nothing like a map for quickening the pulse. Topographic quad, atlas, or globe, it makes no difference. Each one seems to whisper, "Come and see what lies beyond the horizon." Who among us can resist that invitation? And of all the colors on a modern map, the most enticing is blue — the blue of waterways, of ponds and lakes, of streams and rivers. The blue of the deep blue sea. Simply find the blue on the map of your neighborhood, and then…go see it for yourself.

Here's where a bicycle really shines. You can tackle the roughest roads in the county without worry. Just take it slow and easy. Walk when the going gets too tough to ride. Carry your bike when you must. You'll still cover the miles. And you'll return from each ride knowing the location of every pothole and washout. Annotate your map while the memory is fresh. There's more to scouting a river than eyeballing the drops. You've got to scout the roads to the put-in, too. Your car will thank you.

In time, you'll find yourself taking longer and longer trips. Enjoy the ride. Pack a lunch. Bring plenty of drinking water. Make a day of it. Want to go further still? Add some camping kit and sleep out along the way. Or, if that doesn't appeal, experiment with "multi-modal transport." Get a bike rack for your car and drive to a safe parking area. Then continue on into the unknown on two wheels, even as "Dueling Banjos" echoes in your head. Don't hold back on that account, though. Nobody needs a Deliverance moment in his life, of course, but if you've done your homework, you'll be fine.

Once you've found a new waterway that captures your heart, it's time to put your boat on the car and head for the put-in. Can't bear to leave the bike behind? Then bring it along, and make the end-of-the-day shuttle part of the fun, instead of a chore to be got over as quickly as possible.

Beating the Shuttle Blues

How? Easy. With your bike at the take-out it's easy to return to your car. But you'll want to be sure your two-wheeled transport is waiting for you when you arrive. If another member of your group is leaving a vehicle at the take-out, you can probably store your bike and accessories in the trunk. Ask. No room? Don't worry. You can almost always hide your bike back in the bush. (That's one of the things you can check during your pre-float reconnaissance.) Lock it to a good-sized tree, and be sure to remove any portable accessories, too. Helmets, lights, pumps, panniers, and cyclometers sometimes walk away from unattended bikes, as do saddles and seatposts secured with quick-release clamps. This isn't very likely if you've chosen a good place to leave your bike, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Once you've gotten a couple of these amphibious journeys under your saddle, you may start wondering if you couldn't do without the car altogether. The answer? You can.

Going the Whole Frog

But it's not as easy as it looks. Bikes can haul a prodigious amount of gear, but it's best if the load comes in small packages. Hard-shell canoes and kayaks don't qualify. You can get a boat-trailer for your bike, but a bike with a seventeen-foot-long tail isn't something I'd want to take too many miles down the road. Even folding canoes and kayaks make awkward burdens. What's the solution? Inflatables. From four-pound "trail boats" for paddling gingerly around beaver ponds to 45-pound kayaks at home in Class III water or ocean surf, there's an inflatable for every budget and purpose. The heavier ones are best carried in a bike trailer, but unlike the boat-trailers for hard-shells, these trailers are compact and relatively easy to haul, both on the road and off. They're the perfect rigs for uncompromising amphibians.

Who says that bicycling and paddling can't go together? Sometimes two wheels are better than four. You'll save money on gas and get some exercise into the bargain — and that's only the beginning. Scouting put-ins is a blast. Shuttles are simpler. And with the right boat-in-a-bag in your trailer, no waterway in the world is too remote. Why shouldn't the road trip be part of the fun, after all? It can be. Just get on your bike and go.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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