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Beyond Stroking: Messing About in Boats

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

August 3, 2004

A Note to the Reader  This is the third of three related columns. The first two articles in the series are "Starting Out: Answers to Questions that New Paddlers Ask" and "Moving On: When You're No Longer a Beginner."

The quotation's overworked, I admit, but there's a reason for this. It's hard to fault Ratty's advice to Mole:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Those words come from The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame's classic tale of life along The River. And what paddler would argue with Ratty? Of course, there's a lot more to messing about in boats than just paddling from Point A to Point B. Depending on your tastes, it could mean running waterfalls for the fun of it, or dodging rocks in boulder gardens, or riding the broad rollers beyond the surf line, or drifting along the shore of a tiny beaver pond. If there's magic in water — and there is; ask any chemist — there's something magical about being on it, too. However hard-nosed and pragmatic we paddlers may be in other matters, few of us fail to fall under its spell.

Sometimes, though, we all grow deaf to the music of the waters. Occasionally, when a reader writes to us with a question about an item of gear or some fine point of technique, we get the sense that their real concern lies elsewhere, that they've left the most important question unasked. If it were ever given voice, perhaps it would run a little like this:

I love the physical challenge of paddling, and I enjoy camping out with family and friends, but something's missing. I used to think it was just that I didn't have the right boat (or the right paddle or the right gear). So I bought a new boat. Then I thought that maybe I ought to learn a different roll or master the Capistrano Flip. So I learned to roll with a pen-knife. And then I decided I needed to get away to someplace on the far edge of the map, like the Winisk or the Xingu or Lake Baikal. So I booked a trip and bought the t-shirt. But now I still feel like I'm missing something. Any ideas?

How would we reply, if this silent question were blurted out in so many words? The angler and the hunter don't need any help from us, to be sure, but others may. Here are some of the many ways we've enjoyed messing about in boats over the years.

 

It's a Wild Life

Bird watchers ("twitchers" to some) are often figures of fun, but there's a little bit of the twitcher in all of us. In fact, wildlife watching — why stick to birds, after all? — is now a big-money business. And a lot of wildlife watchers have discovered that kayaks and canoes make great observation platforms, especially since binoculars bring even far-distant creatures up close. That's a good thing, too, because keeping your distance is always wise, whether you've got your eye on a loon or a moose. Disturb a pair of loons too often, and their chicks may die. That's bad enough. Surprise a bull moose just once during the rut, however, and you might be the one to end up on the casualty list. (No paddler has to be reminded to watch bears from a safe distance, right?)

Wildlife watching also introduces you to the art of observation. This has a downside. The harder you look, the more evidence you'll find of the imprint of our heavy hand on the earth and its waters, the sort of thing that flannel-tongued policy wonks like to call the "adverse environmental impacts of human activities." By this or any other euphemism, the trash that fouls the world's rivers, lakes, and seacoasts doesn't make for good holiday snaps, and it's not very good for the creatures that make their homes in and around water, either. Can individual paddlers do anything about it? Yes. Pick up all the garbage you can and pack it out. That isn't the solution to the problem, obviously, but it's a start — and we have to start somewhere.

For more about taking in the trash, see…

How about wildlife, wildlife watching, and the watery environment? Try…

And then, for a somewhat different perspective, take a look at…

 

Always Scribble, Scribble, Scribble!

OK. Watching what the wildlife are up to is fun. (Remember Peter Sellers in Being There? He'd certainly agree.) But most of us want to bring something tangible back home with us. For many paddlers, this means taking a photograph or making a video, and there's nothing wrong with that. There are other ways of capturing the fleeting present, though, and two of them are worth considering: writing and sketching (or painting). You don't have to be a journalist to keep a journal, and you don't have to be an artist to sketch a shoreline scene. Old-fashioned? You bet. It's a little bit like moving a boat by pulling a stick through the water — inefficient, perhaps, and terribly impractical, yet curiously satisfying. And unlike point-and-shoot photography, making a sketch forces you to look closely at what you're trying to copy. You don't have to take my word for it. Another amateur painter put it this way: "[N]othing will make one observe more quickly or more thoroughly than having to face the difficulty of representing the thing observed." He added that "This heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint."

The enthusiastic amateur's name? Winston Churchill. Whatever the technical shortcomings of our diaries and daubs, we scribblers and scratchers keep mighty good company.

Want to know more about bringing home a different sort of trophy from your travels? Take a look at…

 

The Consolations of Natural Philosophy

Or maybe you have your eye on loftier goals. Back in the days when science was strictly a hobby for wealthy gentlemen, it was known as "natural philosophy." Scientific instruments were few and costly then, so the art of observation reigned supreme. It was also an age of diarists. Well, paddlers are observers, too, and as I've already noted, quite a few of us keep journals. Once acquired, this habit of observation is hard to break. So if you're curious about the workings of the watery world, you may want to undertake a little scientific enquiry of your own. Make a secchi disk and measure the turbidity of a nearby pond through the cycle of the seasons. Keep a weather log. Map algal blooms. Compile lists of all the bird, animal, and plant species that you see, recording each arrival and departure, each flowering and fruiting. Keep notes. Make connections. Before you know it, you too will be a natural philosopher.

Does this appeal? Then get started by reading…

 

Everything Tastes Better Out of Doors

You're just not into taking notes and making sketches? No problem. I'll bet you like to eat. And there's no reason why camp meals can't tempt the palate. If you're ready to explore the farther shores beyond the freeze-dried entrée and the retort pack, you've got a different sort of voyage of discovery to look forward to. Take your passion for food outside and away from the confines of the kitchen. Learn how to cook over a camp stove or wood fire. You'll eat mighty well, and your paddling partner will, too.

Whet your appetite with…

 

And on into Winter

But what about the season of hard water, the long months between freeze-up and ice-out? Good question. There's always ice-boating, I suppose. And if being blown down a frozen lake at 100 mph doesn't interest you? Then why not spend a little time in the workshop, making and mending gear? Folks who are good with a needle and palm can sew and patch, while paddlers with a knack for woodworking can build wannigans (or even boats). Winter's a good time to learn the ropes, too. That's knot…er…not such a bad idea for any canoeist or kayaker.

You'll find a few projects for your winter workshop in…

You say you'd rather settle down for a good read? Then cast your eyes over…

Along with a couple of offerings from our own keyboards…

Maps make mighty good reading too, once you've learned the language, and winter's the perfect time to pore over a stack of quadrangles and dream of open water. You'll find a helping hand in…

 

Is that all? Not on your life. Let your imagination run free. No matter how you decide to mess about in your boat, though, try to leave no trace of your passage beyond your ever-expanding wake. You'll almost certainly want to come back someday, and whenever you're afloat, you're a guest in someone else's home.

One of the saddest sights on the water is a bored paddler. But no paddler has to stay bored for long. That's the joy of messing about in boats.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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