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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Wheel of the Year

"Study to be Quiet"

By Farwell Forrest

Suddenly, almost without warning, it's fall. The signs are everywhere around me. The roads leading south out of the Adirondacks are choked with vans and recreational vehicles, many of them sporting Florida or North Carolina plates. Camps and summer homes, crowded with families only one week ago, stand shuttered and empty today. The late afternoon sun, long hidden behind the big white pine to the north of our cabin, can now be seen framed by the west-facing window overlooking the 'Flow. Gourds and squash have taken the place of ears of sweet corn at the farmhouse produce stand out on the highway. And there are countless new faces among the squirrels and chipmunks scouring our slope for beechnuts and maple keys.

Most striking of all, however, is the sudden silence. For nearly four months, a continuous drumbeat of sound has echoed between the low hills that enclose the three-mile-long 'Flow. The buzz of bass-boats in the hours before dawn. The petulant whine of jet-skis from mid-morning until long after dark. The asthmatic sputter of pontoon boats in the evening. The throaty rumble of inboard runabouts round the clock. Now, suddenly, they're all gone. The 'Flow is quiet. And Tamia and I, having learned to raise our voices to a shout in order to be sure our words will be heard, find ourselves shouting into stillness. It's an eerie feeling.

Not that we mind. Writers lead curiously constrained lives. Their working day begins when they finish breakfast, and it doesn't really end till they're in bed—if then. Chances are good, in fact, that every writer has a notebook on his (or her) nightstand. Like the chipmunks frantically gathering nuts and seeds outside our door, writers work constantly to store up great stocks of words against their own uncertain future.

Tamia and I are no exception. We write about canoeing and kayaking every week—thousands of words between us—but we seldom have the chance to take our own boats out. The marathon road trips of a few years ago, when we rose before sunrise to chase the run-off on whitewater rivers hundreds of miles away, are now only memories from some unreachably distant, antediluvian past. Today we're lucky if we can sneak our pack canoes out onto the 'Flow two or three times a week for an hour or two at a time, usually at night or in the early morning. Like beaver in places where trappers are active, we've been forced to become nocturnal. Throughout the summer, the 'Flow is quieter after dark than during the day, and the night air is nearly free of the stink of unburned gasoline.

But now, quite suddenly, it's quiet even at noon. So rapid was the change, in fact, that we really didn't take it in at first. Just as sailors fresh from a long voyage will stand braced in anticipation of the next lurch of a heaving deck for hours after reaching shore, Tamia and I continued to shout at each other across the twenty-five-foot gulf between our desks. Only when I heard two people talking outside our windows did I notice that something was different.

Two people—a man and a woman—talking quietly outside our windows. Nothing remarkable about that, is there? Except that theirs were the first voices I'd heard coming from the 'Flow in months. Shouts, yes. I'd heard plenty of shouts. Screams, too. The screams of a child, for example, newly thrown off a tube in mid-channel and now watching his family's boat disappear into the distance. And then the shouts of the child's parents, struggling to make themselves heard over the roar of many motors as they turned their boat around to pick up their precious cargo. But quiet voices? A couple conversing in ordinary tones out on the 'Flow? I hadn't heard that since sometime in April.

I was curious. I got up from my desk and walked over to the west-facing window. What did I see? Nothing remarkable at all. Just two people in a canoe, paddling upriver and talking quietly as they went. And they were perfectly ordinary people, too. They didn't have the look of athletes, or even "paddlesport enthusiasts." The man was heavily-built and well-muscled, and he had a spectacular beer-belly. He looked a lot like the mechanic who used to work on our truck. The woman was small and thin, with hair hanging down below her waist. She looked like one of the check-out clerks at the big grocery store in the college town some twelve miles up the road. Neither one was wearing fleece. They were ordinary people.

The man was in the stern, of course, and the woman was in the bow. From what I could see in the few minutes they were in view, neither was a particularly skillful paddler. The man didn't even attempt a "J." He simply switched sides with every stroke, and not very well, at that. The woman, to be honest, didn't paddle much at all. But none of this really mattered. The day was a smiling end-of-summer day. A light southerly breeze teased ripples from the water, and the ripples caught the mid-day sun. The 'Flow was covered with thousands of short-lived points of light. And the beauty of the day, an entirely ordinary late-summer day, wasn't lost on the couple. I caught quick glimpses of their faces as they paddled by. Each was suffused with the kind of joy that I don't often see among more serious paddlers. It was just the sort of joy I remember feeling on the day I first stepped into a canoe, when I was five years old.

Funnily enough, the couple were paddling the very same type of canoe I paddled on my maiden voyage: a 15-foot aluminum Grumman. True, "my" Grumman was the dull gray of weathered metal, while theirs sported an immaculate red and white paint job, but the two boats were otherwise identical. Neither would get so much as a second look from most "serious" paddlers today. What was Harry Roberts' dismissive gibe for boats like these? "Garbage barges"? "Gravy boats"? Or was it "meat platters"? Well, it was something like that, anyway. Of course, Harry was an outfitter, as well as being editor of Wilderness Camping magazine. (An excellent magazine, by the way. I miss it.) He had a whole barn full of long, lean Sawyer and We-no-nah boats. And he was an extremely serious paddler.

Yet, from what I can remember of Harry—and I used to drop in at his Albany, New York, shop now and again—he didn't often look like the man and woman I saw paddling up the 'Flow. There wasn't much joy on Harry's face that I can recall. Harry looked driven, in fact. He looked as if something with sharp teeth had made its way down into his belly and was eating its way out again. Still, whether the couple in the Grumman were paddling a "meat platter" or not, I'll bet Harry would have liked watching them discover the joy of canoeing for themselves. I know I did. And I know that Harry would have joined me in rejoicing at the return of silence to the 'Flow.

"Study to be quiet." Those are the last words in the last chapter of Izaak Walton's seventeenth-century classic, The Compleat Angler. They're from the New Testament—1 Thessalonians 4:11, to be exact. Such simple, valuable counsel, too: "Study to be quiet." It's certainly good advice for any fisherman, and it's not such a bad idea for the rest of us, either.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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