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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Beyond the Beauty Strip

When It's Not a Good Idea to Look the Other Way

By Tamia Nelson

Have you ever seen the television drama Final Cut? I won't be surprised if you haven't. It's a favorite of mine, to be sure, but it was only shown once on PBS and I don't think that too many folks caught it. In any case, it has nothing to do with canoeing or kayaking.

Still, there's a scene towards the end that has a great deal to say to every canoeist or kayaker who dreams of paddling in wild, unspoiled places. Here's how it goes: Claire Carlson, Parliamentary Private Secretary to British Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, is being a naughty girl. She's at the Ministry of Defence, attempting to steal an incriminating and highly secret document for her lover, who hopes to use it to force Urquhart from office. She's not breaking and entering, though. She's simply pretending that Urquhart himself has asked for the document, and that she's been sent to pick it up.

After identifying herself at the reception desk, Claire is ushered into the office of the senior archivist. The document she's come to steal carries such a high security classification that even the archivist himself isn't authorized to read it, yet she sees it lying in plain sight on his desk, protected only by a transparent envelope.

Claire is shocked. "It's in a clear folder!" she blurts out. "You could read it easily."

The archivist, a spare, unsmiling man, considers this suggestion carefully. It's clear that he's never given the possibility any thought before. At last, though, he replies: "But I don't, Mrs. Carlson. I don't. I avert my eyes."

"I avert my eyes." I admit that I didn't see the relevance this remark has to canoeing and kayaking. Not at first, that is.

Late last fall, however, Farwell and I were on our way home from a day trip in the northern Adirondacks. We passed the Ray Brook Regional Office of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and, as we usually do, we stopped in.

We didn't do it for the atmosphere. We both find DEC offices rather ... well ... depressing is as good a word as any, I suppose. Maybe it's the ubiquitous mounted wildlife "specimens" in the lobby, or the exhibit of historic leg-hold traps, or maybe it's just the administrative memos about coffee-cup shortages that are posted on every bulletin board. Whatever the cause, we usually end up feeling like we're visiting a neglected crypt in an abandoned cemetery. We don't stay any longer than we have to.

But the DEC usually has a good collection of pamphlets on offer: trail guides, notices of regulatory changes, even things like bird check-lists. So we stop and browse and pick up anything that looks interesting.

This time, a leaflet entitled "Timber Harvesting Guidelines" caught my eye. Farwell and I had just revisited one of our old haunts in the previous week—a county forest that runs along the Raquette River. It had been a favorite place of ours. Had been. When we returned to it that fall, however, we found it clear-cut right down to the water's edge. Worse yet, the ground was littered with slash and the entire parcel was criss-crossed with new roads, gouged deep into the thin soil of the fragile slopes. The roads were already turning to gullies in the autumn rains.

So, when I saw "Timber Harvesting Guidelines" on the shelf, I picked it up. This, I thought, is a very good thing. DEC has recognized a problem and is taking action. Better yet, they've prepared a guide to doing it right.

I hadn't read far, though, before I knew I was wrong. True, the booklet did list harvesting recommendations, but this advice had less to do with avoiding soil erosion and siltation than with correcting what the booklet's author termed "inattention to aesthetics."

"Some people," the pamphlet cautioned, "object to logging slash, hung-up trees, poor utilization, deeply rutted roads ... and the like." Do they indeed? I thought. Some people. Imagine that.

And DEC's solution to this problem? Easy. If logging along major travel corridors "isn't screened by a hill, ... maintain a 100-foot wide scenic buffer strip along the roadside."

OK. I get it now, I thought. The problem isn't poor logging practices. Silly me. It's the failure to conceal those practices from the public. I understand. And the solution isn't greater care and professionalism in timber harvesting. Not at all. The solution is to do a better job of hiding what you're about. Just keep a 100-foot wide "beauty strip" along the major highways and the public won't know—or care—what's going on out of their sight.

And the sad thing is that the DEC is probably right. How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? How many of us really want to? Aren't most of us, most of time, content to avert our eyes? I know I am.

A case in point: Farwell and I have lived on the reservoir we call the Flow for more than 15 years now. When we first moved up north, the Flow had some of the character of a remote wilderness lake. We took our boats out on the water almost every evening, from ice-out in April to freeze-up in December. Every day brought new discoveries.

But it wasn't really "wilderness," was it? Of course, it's hard to know exactly what wilderness is. Human beings have been living on the North American continent for at least 15,000 years, perhaps much longer. And nowadays we've got a mighty big footprint. Taken all in all, there aren't many places, however remote or well-protected, that we humans haven't changed in some way or other. When all is said and done, wilderness, too, is pretty much a matter of averting our eyes.

Well, you only have to look at the dam that holds back the water to know that the Flow isn't wilderness. Still, it once felt wild. That, of course, was 15 years ago. Now the Flow rocks from Memorial Day to Labor Day—and beyond. Twenty-foot inboards cruise endlessly back and forth, going nowhere in a hurry. (The Flow's only about three miles long. It doesn't take much time to cover three miles at 50 mph.) And there isn't a moment from dawn to dusk when you can't hear a jet-ski taking off or landing.

How has this affected us? We stopped going out regularly on the Flow years ago. The water-ski tow-boats, runabouts, and jet-skis got to be too many to ignore. It was just too much trouble to avert our eyes. When we did go out at all, we imitated the surviving beaver and ducks—we only went out after dark, and we stayed in the few, secluded places. Soon we stopped doing even that. There weren't many secluded places left on the Flow, after all. The ducks needed them more than we did.

So we went paddling, when we went paddling, in places where we didn't have to work so hard to avert our eyes. Places where it was easier to pretend that the jet-skis didn't already own the water—all the water—in the state. This proved surprisingly hard to do. Outside of the tiny, overused St. Regis Canoe Area, there aren't many public waters in New York that are closed to jet-skis and power boats. (There's one happy exception to this now: the new Whitney Preserve.)

It was wonderfully ironic, really. We lived on a reservoir, but we felt we had to drive somewhere else to paddle. Go figure.

Last year, we got tired of the endless road trip. We decided that the time had come to stop averting our eyes. We took our little pack canoes off the truck, and humped the big, 20-foot freighter down to the water. We needed the big boat. We'd had more than a few close calls in the pack canoes before we quit going out on the Flow. Some were accidents. Some—like the time a pack of jet-ski jockeys screamed in between us yelling "Get 'em!" and meant it—weren't.

We looked at the big canoe. Not much chance of a jet-skier failing to see this mother, we thought. And if they wanted to play chicken, we figured we could hold our own. OK, we said. This place is our home. We're going back out on the water.

And we did. We still do. We're not averting our eyes any more, either. True, we're finding a lot that we'd rather not see. The Flow's not a friendly place anymore. It's no longer wild. Most of the ducks are gone. There's oil on the water and smog in the air—all the time, and everywhere. We've seen families paddling rented canoes being wetted-down by packs of jet-skiers moving at 55 mph. Dad's red-faced and swearing, mom's white-faced and hanging on, and the kids are screaming in fear. (Where are the cops? Down at the other end of the Flow, ticketing a fisherman in a john-boat for having a tear in his life jacket. Or scarfing down doughnuts and coffee at the convenience store.)

Paddling the Flow isn't as much fun as it used to be, that's for sure. But it's good to be out on our "home waters" again, nevertheless. And who knows? If enough folks like us stop averting their eyes, and if we all work together, just think what we could do. I'd like to watch the ducks come back to the Flow in spring without wondering how many I'm going to see run down. And I'd just as soon never see another canoe filled with weeping, fearful kids being buzzed by a waterbike Wild Bunch.

It could happen. Things could change for the better. But first we've got to learn to look around us again—even when we don't like what we're seeing. It isn't easy, I admit, but it's easier than continuing to avert our eyes. At least I think so.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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