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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Mucking About in Boats

Navigating the Heart of Darkness

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

July 11, 2006

Earlier in the day, the sun had shone golden in a cloudless sky, and a party mood had prevailed among the four friends as they left the dock in their rented rowboat, bent on a picnic on some secluded beach. Now, however, the mood had changed. The four were stranded on an uncharted backwater, all their oars lost overboard in a freak accident, while dark clouds roiled overhead and tendrils of mist from the neighboring marsh writhed around them. Soon their horizon was reduced to a few yards of fetid water. Suddenly, one of the four lost his nerve entirely. He stood up in the boat and screamed, begging anyone within earshot for help. Then, just as suddenly, he lapsed into silence. Still standing, balanced precariously in the gently rocking boat, his face a mask of despair, the man waited anxiously for a reply.

But no voice answered. The only sound was the slap of ripples against the turn of the bilge. As the man reluctantly resumed his seat, a sense of doom settled on the four picnickers.

 

Seem familiar? Then maybe you've seen "Hearts of Darkness," an episode from the blackly comic — and sidesplittingly funny — television series One Foot in the Grave. Of course, in real life getting lost is no joke. And it can happen to anyone, even on Golden Pond. After all, there's no mistaking the direction of a fast-flowing river. It's hard to get completely turned around. But quiet water is a very different world. Beaver ponds, reedy backwaters, river-mouth deltas, swamps and marshes — all these are fascinating places to paddle. The downside? They can also be a nightmare to navigate. Prominent landmarks are few and far between. Currents are either weak or nonexistent. And fog is a frequent visitor.

All these things conspire to make the navigator's job harder. That's the problem in a nutshell. Is there a solution? You bet. In fact, there are two: high-tech and low cunning. The high-tech version is simple. Buy a GPS with a good display and load a large-scale map in its memory. If the cartographers and software engineers have done their jobs properly, and if you've read the instructions, you'll find it hard to get lost — as long as your batteries don't go dead, at any rate. Then again, batteries do go dead, don't they? Maybe it's a good idea to have a fall-back position. Call it Plan B, if you want. Or call it low cunning. Whatever name you give it, it's helped generations of woodsmen avoid embarrassment. And it begins with…

Staying Found

You can't get lost if you always know where you are. That much is obvious. And you know where you're starting from, don't you? (If you don't know where you are when you put your boat in the water, you're really asking for trouble!) Now just make sure you know where each paddle stroke takes you as you leave the put-in. It's easier than it sounds. Just keep track of courses and distances whenever you're on the water. Your compass tells you the course. Your watch — coupled with a knowledge of your paddling speed under prevailing conditions — tells how far you've traveled. Whatever you do, don't stuff your map or chart in your pack and leave it there until you're lost. That's leaving it much too late. Instead, keep it in front of you and record your progress on it, noting course and distance for every leg of your journey and marking down your new position each time your heading changes. At first, the job will seem almost overwhelming, but don't get discouraged. With practice, it becomes second nature. Old salts call this "dead reckoning." I think of it as staying found.

But a map is much more than a handy place to log your position. It's also a guide to the landscape. So pay attention to your surroundings as you paddle, too. You may get lucky. Even "featureless" swamps have distinctive landmarks. Remember the tall pine with an osprey's nest in the topmost branches that you noticed when you were unloading your gear from the car? You won't find it on any map, but it can still help you make your way back to the put-in at the end of the day. So can power lines and cell-phone towers — and these manmade landmarks are much more likely to have caught the attention of the map-makers.

When all is said and done, however, it's still disconcertingly easy to lose the plot when navigating quiet backwaters in a canoe or kayak. All it takes is a fraction of an hour spent drifting and daydreaming on a hot summer's day, compass and chart momentarily forgotten. Then, when you wake from your revery at last, what do you see? Willows hanging low over the water. Rushes and cattails towering overhead. And a promising channel that peters out in a muddy cul-de-sac. It's a magical world, to be sure, made even more mysterious by the haunting songs of unseen birds. Yet the magic of these secret waters is wasted on you and your companions. Why? You're lost, that's why. And the same question is now on everyone's lips — "What next?"

To begin with, let's hope that you've heeded the counsel of Baden-Powell and the generations of scout leaders who followed him:

Be Prepared

Common sense and a clear head are your most important assets. Without them you're really and truly lost, even if you never go beyond The Lake in New York City's Central Park. That said, it's easier to keep your wits about you if you know you have the tools you'll need to triumph in adversity. Map and compass head the list, of course, but don't overlook the importance of the other essentials, including potable water, insect repellent (and maybe a head net, too), rain gear, spare clothing (a warm jacket or sweater and a hat, say), a medical kit, and some food. These things, and a good deal more besides, are always in my getaway pack. It goes with me even on day trips. Because I never know when I'll need it.

Being prepared also embraces route planning. Study your map before you leave the put-in. If the area is new to you, take the time to orient the map and compare it with the surrounding terrain. Get a feel for the lay of the land. Identify several turn-back points and possible lines of retreat, in case the weather changes for the worse or someone is injured. And don't forget to leave a float plan with a responsible friend or family member.

So much for preparation. Now it's time to address the question that's been hanging on everyone's lips since you realized you'd gotten turned around: "What next?" To begin with…

Look Up!

It's only common sense. When the horizon closes in, you'll need a higher vantage point than your seat if you want to orient yourself. Sometimes it's enough just to stand up in your boat. (That's easier in a tandem canoe or sponson-equipped double kayak than in a solo boat, obviously, though in shallow water a pair of trekking poles can give solo paddlers a leg up.) No good? All right. Cast about for a tall tree or a rocky point that you can climb. Maybe you'll get lucky.

Or maybe you can make your own luck. If you have a camcorder or digital camera in your gear and you don't mind putting it at risk, you may be able to suspend it high over your head on a paddle or pole while you shoot a 360. Then review the panorama in your camera's viewfinder to get an idea of what lies just over the horizon. A long shot? Sure. But I can think of situations where it would be worth trying. Of course, you will need a camera.

Still no joy? Then it's time to drop your gaze and…

Look Down

There's a current in even the most sluggish river. The trick is finding it, though if the wind isn't raising a chop and the water's clear, the submerged stems of pondweed will show you the way to go with the flow. They won't be much use on a lake, however, and eddies can always confuse matters. No go? OK…

Use Your Ears and Nose

Perhaps you'll hear the muted roar of distant falls, the gurgle of a nearby brook, the swash of waves breaking on a beach, or the hum of traffic on the closest highway. Make use of any clues that come your way. Farwell once oriented himself on a fog-shrouded mountain peak by taking note of the dogs barking in a faraway village. Smells can guide you, too. Smoke from a fire, the pungent stink of a sulfur spring, the perfume of a balsam wood — any one of these can put a straying paddler back on the map.

Or not. If night is falling or a storm is closing in, it's sometimes best just to…

Stay Put

And wait for better conditions. Make camp if you can. If not — if the only land in sight is a morass of mud, for instance — you'll probably want to stay in your boat. This needn't be a great hardship. A couple in a big freighter can spend a fairly comfortable night in anything short of a hurricane, though a paddler in a creek boat will probably find herself wishing for more room. In any case, make the best of it. A little sleep is better than none at all, and you can always while away the time by exercising your whistle. (You do have a whistle in your kit, don't you?) Three sustained blasts in close succession is one widely recognized distress signal. Blow your whistle. Listen. Blow again. Repeat until you hear an answering signal — or until you fall asleep. It's almost as good as counting sheep. In any case, don't worry unnecessarily. You left a float plan with a friend, remember? When you don't return on schedule, someone will be looking for you. So there's no need to panic. Instead, pour yourself a cup of tea from your thermos. Have a snack. Look up at the stars. Listen to the wind in the rushes. Relax. Tomorrow is another day.

Stillwaters, backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands are fascinating places, well worth exploring. But it's all too easy to get turned around in a world without prominent landmarks. And just what is the best way to avoid getting lost in such places? Easy. Know where you are every minute you're on the water. And if you ever find yourself becoming "confused," stop then and there and figure out where you went wrong. Above all, be prepared. There's no better way to navigate through the heart of darkness.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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