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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Fall of the Leaf

The Art of Peaceful Coexistence

By Tamia Nelson

October 12, 2004

Paddlers who live in North America's Canoe Country cherish autumn. It's got everything a canoeist or kayaker could ask for. Breathtaking colors. Invigorating weather. High water. And that's not all. It doesn't have some things we're happy to do without. There are fewer biting flies to torment us, for example, and most of the jet-ski jockeys have buzzed off, too. But there's one thing missing that we all wish we had more of — time. The interval between summer and the season of hard water is painfully brief. Even the days are short.

We're not alone as we scramble to make the most of these precious autumn days. Fall is also a busy time for wildlife. Summer's bounty has to be snatched up before somebody else gets it, or before it's buried deep under new snow. There's a sense of urgency in the air. All this frantic activity has an upside, of course. A paddler who arms herself with a sketchpad, paintbrush, or camera is almost certain to bag a trophy worthy of a place on the wall back home. And if that's not enough, add scarlet sunsets. Foggy mornings. A rich palette of reds, browns, and yellows splashed across the hills. Not to mention wavering skeins of southbound geese stretching across the dome of the sky from one horizon to the other. How can you go wrong?

But there's no such thing as a free lunch. Along with the multifold gifts of this too-short season come many new responsibilities. It's easy to be so consumed by the chore of composing the perfect picture that you put yourself or the object of your attentions at risk. And that isn't good.

All Creatures Great…

We see the woods and waters as something outside the ordinary. We think of them as "landscape," a thing apart from the business and busy-ness of our everyday lives. But for the wild creatures who live among the pines and ponds, this landscape is home. We're uninvited guests — what the mountainy men of the Irish hills used to call "blow-ins." We're here today and gone tomorrow, with no more lasting connection to the land than a drifting leaf.

No matter. Invited or not, it's up to guests to learn the rules of the house they're staying in. And one of the most glaringly obvious is the rule that says, "Thou shalt not enter thy host's bedroom without knocking." In fact, it's better not to enter at all, for any reason. Why? There's romance in the autumn air, and any paddler who gets between a lovesick bull moose and his intended is obviously asking for trouble. It happens every year to some hapless backcountry traveler, and not just to greenhorns. Even R.M. Patterson very nearly fell victim to a young bull's jealous rage. RMP spent several hours up a tree as result, and he was lucky. Sometimes there isn't a tree around when you need one.

Think you can just run away? You can't. Bull moose can weigh as much as some subcompact cars, yet they can move through the woods faster than most of us can ride a bike on a good road. They're strong swimmers, too, and cows with calves in tow are just as nervy as bulls on the make. The moral? Whatever the season — but especially during the fall rut — don't plan to get up close and personal with a moose. Keep your distance, instead. That's what binoculars are for, isn't it?

And give the moose's diminutive cousins a wide berth, too. Most whitetails will flee at the first sight (or smell) of a human intruder, but the rut emboldens some bucks. Don't make the mistake a few hunters have. Every now and again a clueless nimrod tries to cut the throat of a not-quite-dead whitetail, only to learn that antlers and hooves can do as much damage as a sharp blade. Whether or not you'll be stalking big game this fall, it pays to be careful around all deer, both great and small.

House Rule #2: If your host lets you use the kitchen, clean up when you're done. Or else. Not many paddlers need to be reminded to stay away from grizzly and polar bears, I hope, but some of us still confuse the much more common black bears with cuddly stuffed toys. Bad idea. It's true that bears aren't interested in love in autumn. They've got something else on their minds — food. No surprise there. If you were getting ready for a four-month-long nap, you'd probably be looking for a good meal, too. Hungry bears aren't fussy eaters, nor do they always wait to be invited to dinner. After all, the backcountry is their home. So, unless you like the idea of sharing your Thanksgiving feast with a hairy stranger whose table manners are a bit…well…eccentric, keep a clean camp. Hang food packs high. Better yet, store all your food in sturdy, airtight plastic drums. Don't eat in bed, either. And never clean fish near your camp.

Speaking of fish, if your travels take you to a river with a late-season salmon run, keep your eyes open. Fishing bears have the right of way over canoeists and kayakers. Always.

Warning! Right-of-way disputes aren't confined to salmon rivers. Stay alert on the drive to and from the put-in, too, especially in the half-light of dawn and dusk, and any time it's foggy. And go slow. If you hit a moose, chances are good that he won't be the only casualty. You may not live to regret your carelessness.

And Small

Bears aren't the only creatures looking for fast food, of course. Mice, voles, chipmunks, and squirrels are all in a hurry to fill their pantries before snowdrifts blanket the land. It's hard to resist the temptation to help them out with tidbits from the camp larder, I know, but any wildlife rehabber or vet will tell you that it's never a good idea. Keep the wild in wildlife. Keep a clean camp, and keep your food to yourself. Everyone will be happier in the end.

And what about domestic pets? Fido may be man's best friend, but he, too, is an uninvited guest in the backcountry, and it's up to you to make sure he minds his manners. It's in his interest, as well. Few dogs enjoy a run-in with a porcupine or skunk, and a dog that chases deer may not get a second chance if he's seen by a conservation officer. A sturdy leash is good insurance, even for well-behaved dogs. Leave boisterous or poorly-disciplined pets at home. It's better to be separated from Fido for a weekend than to be parted from him forever.

Back on the wild side, cold-blooded creatures are also making the most of the waning rays of the retreating sun. If you're in snake country, get in the habit of looking before you sit, particularly if you're about to plop down on a sun-warmed rock. Do I need to remind you not to stick your hands into rock crevices or other dark places? I didn't think so. Oh, yes — cover your kayak's cockpit when you're not in the boat. A snake isn't everybody's idea of a good traveling companion on the water, even if he's just along for the ride.

Birds of a Feather

Look up. Almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere, you'll see birds on the move. Hummingbirds and harlequins. Grosbeaks and geese. Robins and redstarts. Coots and curlews. The list is long and endlessly varied, but they all have one thing in common — they've got many miles to go, and each mile is full of dangers. Don't make a hard journey even harder. Give them plenty of space and wish them well.

Spare a thought for yourself, while you're at it. Hunters are now scanning the skies, woods, and waters for targets of opportunity, and not all of their kills will enjoy the sanction of law. In truth, the overwhelming majority of human hunting fatalities are other hunters, but unwary paddlers sometimes venture into harm's way. Farwell and I have both come under fire from time to time over the years. So far, we've been lucky, and we do what we can to keep luck on our side. We keep a lookout each time we move out along the trail or across the water. We wear "hunter orange" clothing. And we're careful to avoid trespassing. If you think that these precautions take some of the carefree enjoyment out of autumn trips, you're right. But consider the alternative. There aren't many laughs to be had on a morgue slab.

The Big Chill

Rational paddlers resist the temptation to personalize inanimate nature, I suppose, but who among us is wholly rational? In summer, it's easy to think of the natural world as a nurturing mother, compassionate, generous, and forgiving. But summer is now only a memory, and mother nature shows her sharp teeth in the fall. Nights are long, and though the short days are often warm, frost touches the land when the sun goes down. The water is getting colder, too. Plan accordingly. Don't try to go too far in a day, and get your wetsuit out of the closet. It's essential survival gear on open-water crossings, not to mention being a good idea on any body of water, even a placid beaver pond. Cold water can kill, and it often does. You can't talk your way out of hypothermia, after all.

And while we're confronting cold facts, we can't forget that the change of the seasons also brings a change in the weather. Hot and cold air masses struggle for dominance across Canoe Country, with predictably stormy results. No, better make that unpredictably stormy results. In fall, weather changes so fast that even veteran forecasters are frequently caught off guard. Freak storms make for fascinating television, to be sure — when they happen to other people. Viewed from the seat of a small boat on a big lake, however, a sudden squall is a lot less entertaining. It can even be your passport to worst-case scenario country, and that's one place none of us wants to visit. By all means check the forecast before you leave for the put-in, but don't depend on a weatherman in a distant city to tell you which way the wind is blowing. Learn something about our restless sea of air, and then keep your eye on the sky. Watch what the wild things are doing, too. Weather is what they live in.

Back on the Home Front

You don't leave the wilderness behind when you go home after a trip. There's a lot of it on your doorstep. Coyotes, deer, and deer mice like the suburbs as much as we do. The same is true of racoons and skunks. And these critters never say no to an easy meal or a cozy billet. That's why you'll want to store your boats and gear where they won't send invitations to all your wild neighbors. Fortunately, it's not hard to make a kayak unattractive to prospective tenants. Just dry it out and cover the cockpit. Canoes present more difficulties. If you have to store yours outside, all you can do is remove the float bags, wash the boat thoroughly, and let it dry. Then cover it with a tarp, lock it up, and hope for the best. Wash your paddles and packs, too, paying special attention to sweat-soaked grips and straps and smelly food bags. It's more than good housekeeping. If you don't want uninvited guests in your home, never store wet or dirty gear.

Autumn is a delightful time of year. However far we travel into the backcountry, though, and however often we return, we remain uninvited guests. Remember just this one thing, and you're well on your way to mastering the art of peaceful coexistence.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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