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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Question Time

Moving On —
When You're No Longer a Beginner

By Tamia Nelson

July 20, 2004

A Note to the Reader  This is the second in a series. If you're just starting out, you'll probably want to read "Answers to Questions that New Paddlers Ask" first.

You're no longer a beginner. You've got a boat of your own, you've been paddling on local lakes, and you've learned a trick or two. You're really starting to feel at home on — and sometimes in — the water. It's a funny thing, though. The learning curve doesn't seem to be leveling off. Each time you find the answer to a question, a new one pops up. Or maybe three. And the challenges keep coming. Sometimes it gets a little discouraging.

Sound familiar? I thought it might. But don't let it get you down. There are a lot of people in the same boat. Folks like you write to us every week. And we answer their questions as best we can, one letter at a time. That's about to change. Now you don't even have to hit the Send button. Just sit back and read. Chances are pretty good that you'll find an answer to your questions right here. And what if you don't? No problem. Just write to us. Let us know. Question Time never ends.

Ready to move on? Then let's get going.


This safety thing keeps coming up. My wife didn't say much when I headed out on Golden Pond, but since I've started talking about learning to run whitewater and maybe do a little coastal paddling, she's been telling me I'm crazy. So I keep telling her that paddling is safe. I haven't convinced her, though, and now I'm starting to worry. Which of us is right?

You are — up to a point. You'll meet hazards on moving water and the ocean's margin that you won't find on Golden Pond. Yet there's truth in the old Border Scots' rhyme describing a taunting exchange between two rivers, too:

Says Tweed to Till —
"What makes you run so still?"
Says Till to Tweed —
"Though you run with speed
And I run slow,
For each man that you drown
I drown two."

I've brought the language up to date, and the rhyme has suffered as a result, but the message still comes through loud and clear: there are dangers aplenty on any water, be it fast or slow. Whether you're a raw beginner or an expert, it makes no difference. We're all happiest when our heads are in the air. Period. And we can't pass the buck when things go wrong. Whenever we're on the water, we hold our fate in our own hands.

What are the best safeguards? Knowledge. Proper equipment. Skill. Experience. Good judgment. When you venture out beyond Golden Pond, you'll need to know more than a beginner — a lot more. And you can't learn it all in your living room. It's seat-of-the-pants time. So take a course, if you can, and paddle with experienced companions every chance you get.

Still, a little reading can't hurt. It can even open windows on the larger world beyond the Pond. Here's a start:


OK. My safety's in my hands. I understand that. So I guess it makes sense for me to go paddling on a small stream or creek for my first trips on moving water. If it's small, it must be safer, right?

Not necessarily. Streams and creeks can be very tricky places to paddle. They're narrow by definition. You don't get much choice about where to go. Waterfalls, undercut banks, low-hanging trees, weirs, even beaver dams and barbed-wire fences — all of these can make a paddler's life very…er…interesting. And creeks are often twisty, swift, and steep into the bargain. You don't get much warning about what lies ahead, and you've even less time to react. When trouble comes on small streams it usually hits fast and hard.

That's not great news for inexperienced and unprepared paddlers. It doesn't mean that your creek won't be a great place to paddle, of course. But be sure to check it out before you launch. Read what the guidebooks have to say. Talk to folks who've paddled it. And scout it for yourself. Only then will you know if it's the right place to begin learning your moves on moving water.

Want to know more? Then read…


Scouting. I've heard a lot about that, and about "reading the water." But I'm still not exactly sure what that means. What's it all about, anyway?

Reading is the art of interpreting signs and symbols. A book's meaning is contained in printed words. If you know the writer's language, you shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out what he's got to say. But if you don't know the language — if it's all Greek to you, for instance, and you don't know any Greek — then the book is just marks on paper. Its meaning is forever hidden from you.

A river's secrets are revealed by its chutes and swirls, and by the hydraulic interplay of rock and water. You could say that reading a river is a study in current affairs. Each eddy, tongue, and wave tells part of the story. When you can understand what they're saying, you've learned to read the river. Where the inexperienced paddler sees only chaos, the seasoned water rat delights in an endless tale of infinite variety.

Fine words, these, but they don't tell you much about how to learn to read a river, do they? No, they don't — and there's a reason. Like so much else, reading water is a practical art: you learn it by doing it. Begin by watching water when it's on the move. It doesn't have to be a river. You can learn a lot from the water flowing off your driveway after a heavy rain. Drop a pebble in the current and see what happens. Watch how the tiny stream divides when it passes over sand. Follow the course of a wayward leaf or grass clipping caught up in the flow: see it swirl round and round in circular eddies and hesitate in the pools below each miniature falls, and watch it drift to the outside of every bend. Then, the next time you cross a bridge over a small stream on a lightly-traveled road, park your car on the shoulder and walk back for a closer look. Follow the flow of the water as plunges, divides, and eddies. Toss a small stick into the stream and watch what happens to it as it's swept away

Now you're starting to learn to read, but you haven't really gotten much beyond the water's alphabet. A good teacher is almost essential at this point. Paddle easy rivers in the company of experienced boaters. Listen to them as they scout the drops. Ask questions. Learn the language. Build your vocabulary. Here's where a little reading of the more familiar sort can help. Start with…

just to set the scene. Then join me as I follow an imaginary river from its headwaters almost to the sea, scouting as I go:

Next, take a closer look at eddies. Learn how you can use them to help you out:

Lastly, join us for an outing on another stream, where it all comes together:


That's fine for whitewater paddlers, but I can't wait to begin exploring the seacoast in my kayak, not to mention venturing out onto really big lakes. Where does reading the water fit in here?

Everywhere. Even in a flat calm, the ocean is seldom still. The tides drive currents around headlands, stacks, and spits. Water flows in and out of lagoons and estuaries. And wherever moving water meets an obstacle, you'll find eddies. Lakes don't have tides, of course, but that doesn't mean the water isn't going somewhere. Many lakes — and most reservoirs — have noticeable currents, reminders of rivers long since silenced but still flowing strong, deep beneath the surface. And water isn't the only fluid that paddlers have to come to grips with. Whether you're hugging the shore or one mile out, the wind can't be ignored for long. Moving air makes eddies, too. Wind-driven waves scud along and crash against exposed beaches, while sheltered bays and island lees barely raise a ripple.

The savvy kayaker (or sailor) can read the waters of a lake or the ocean margin as readily as a whitewater canoeist or kayaker can read a river, and she's no stranger to the ways of the wind. If open water is calling to you, begin your apprenticeship by looking at these articles:

Reading the water takes on a broader significance when the horizon moves back beyond the next bend in the river, too. Sea and lake kayakers will want to learn something about the "lost art" of non-electronic navigation. It's a big subject, and one which we've only just begun to write about. If you'd like to join us as we travel down this long road, start here:

Nor is that all. Lakes and estuaries are usually busy places, and whenever you share a shipping lane or harbor with other craft, there's yet another dimension to reading the water. Whether your companions for the day are jet-skis or Very Large Crude Carriers, you'll need to know how to stay out of harm's way. Unfortunately, you won't find all of the rules written up in the books. To get a heads-up on keeping your head in heavy traffic, check out:


Heavy traffic? No thanks! I want to get away from the crowds, to relax and enjoy nature. Can I camp out without roughing it?

Of course! Like Nessmuk said, "We go to the woods to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home." (You don't have to be a feminist to conclude that Nessmuk's wife and kids had the worst of the deal, however. But that's another story.) No one has to be miserable on a canoe or kayak camping trip. The key to smoothing it is planning, and you should prepare for overnighters as carefully as you'd plan a month-long expedition. List all the gear you'll need — and don't overburden yourself. You'll be packing and unpacking twice a day, and you've got to carry every ounce over all the portages. But don't cut it too close to the bone, either. Be sure you bring "enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing." That was J's advice in the nineteenth-century classic Three Men in a Boat. A century later, it's still difficult to fault.

Planning doesn't stop with your check-list, though. It embraces route selection, too. Preview every trip on a good map. Identify likely camping spots, and make sure they're not too far apart. A twenty-mile day sounds easy in your living room, but on the water, with half a gale of wind against you at every turn and a mile-long portage breaking the day into two parts, that same twenty miles can seem more like two hundred.

The remedy? Take things easy. A long weekend makes a good shakedown cruise before any extended trip, and it's a chance for you and your paddling partners to get to know each other. Choose your companions with care. Hares and turtles seldom enjoy each other's company for long. And leave a broad margin on your day. Once you're underway, start looking for a campsite by mid-afternoon, and set up camp while there's still plenty of light. There are a lot of things worth doing besides cleaving the water. Make time for photography, painting, swimming, stargazing, and fishing. And leave time for serendipity.

One last thing: Take a notebook with you on every trip, long or short. Not only will it be supremely useful in planning your next adventure — Where did the tent leak? Why was the stovetop pizza a flop? Who's allergic to blackfly bites? — but there's no better way to retouch the fading emulsion of memory, even after the passage of thirty years or more.

Smoothing it. It's the key to living well in the out-of-doors. Here are a few articles to help you on your way:


Sounds like a lot, right? It is. But learning never stops. Each day on the water has something to teach us. New questions. New answers. New horizons. And we wouldn't have it any other way, would we? That's what moving on is all about.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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