The Far-Seeing Eye: Binoculars for Paddlers (Part 1)
By Tamia Nelson
We were on a lake in northern Quebec. Lowering cloud held the
promise of heavy, sustained rain. The winda head wind,
naturally!was strengthening by the minute. Our Tripper bobbed in
the sheltered lee of a small island, one of many that dotted the lake.
We were cold, tired and hungry. Worse yet, we were lost.
Well, that's not entirely true. We weren't completely lost.
We had no trouble finding our lake on the map. But we weren't sure
which island we were sheltering behind. And now, as if that weren't
bad enough, we couldn't find the river we were looking for, the river
which drained the lake. We'd planned to camp at a beach near the
river's head. But where was it? We had no idea.
This wasn't really surprising. Our navigator had been careless.
Even Farwell admitted as much, and he'd been the navigator. Lulled by
the easy paddling and the good visibility as we started down the lake,
he hadn't followed his usual practice of keeping a running check on
our progress. Now, in the dull, flat light of the rapidly darkening
day, we couldn't tell a blind bay from the head of a river. We
couldn't even distinguish islands from the shoreline behind them.
Things looked grim. The lake was smallit was only five miles
longbut there was still too much shoreline to search in the
remaining hours of daylight. It looked like we'd be spending a stormy
night clinging to the granite dome of some little island, caught in
the prickly embrace of a thicket of stunted spruce. Or, worse yet,
we'd be bedded down in the canoe.
This wasn't an attractive prospect. So, for what must have been the
tenth time in as many minutes, I scanned the lake's shoreline to the
southwest, hoping against hope that I'd catch a telltale glimpse of
the tiny beach that was our destination. Then I noticed that Farwell
had stopped looking around. Instead, he was rummaging in his
waterproof day-bag. "Damn' funny time to be looking for something to
eat," I thought, and I readied what I hoped would be a suitably
As I was about to speak, however, Farwell shouted, "Aha!" And he
lifted what looked like a small camera up to his eyes. Suddenly, I
understood. My acerbic commentary died on my lips. Farwell had our
binoculars. He panned along the shoreline slowly, investigating every
bay and indentation. Then he handed the binoculars to me and gestured
to a barely-visible rock spur. "See that point?" he asked. "Look just
to the right of it. There's a tiny scrap of sand beach there. I think
it marks the head of our river."
I looked. It did. In a minute we'd stowed the binoculars and were
on our way. It wasn't easy. We had to fight against the rising wind.
But at least we now knew where we were going. We weren't lost anymore.
This happened years ago, but I can still remember the relief I felt
when the beach materialized before my eyes. And I'm still surprised at
how many paddlers don't carry (or use) binoculars. It's not as if
they're some newfangled invention, after all. Hans Lippershey, the
Dutch spectacle-maker who's usually given credit for the invention of
the telescope, made his first "binocular telescope" in 1608. These
early instruments weren't really practical field glasses, of course.
The problem of keeping two long, awkward tubes in alignment made the
ordinary (monocular) telescope the choice of mariners and explorers
for nearly three centuries. But Professor Abbe of the Zeiss Jena
optical works changed all that, and by 1900 his prism
binoculars were readily available. Sold as "hunting telescopes," they
were everything that a sportsman could want: light, compact, sturdy,
and reasonably weatherproof. Before long, other manufacturers were
copying the Zeiss design, and binoculars soon became a familiar sight
in the hands of hunters and bird-watchers. Even today, big-game
hunters prize their binoculars almost as much as they do their rifles,
and for good reason.
Canoeists and kayakers, however, are slow to appreciate the virtues
of a far-seeing eye. Why is this? I'm not sure I know. It's certainly
not the weight or bulk. There are binoculars that take up no more
space than a paperback book, and aren't much heavier, into the
bargain. Nor can it be the cost. It's perfectly possible to buy good
binoculars for the price of a touring paddle. Perhaps paddlers think
that binoculars are too fragile, or too easily ruined by water.
Perhapsbut this, too, is wrong. Binoculars aren't any more
fragile or vulnerable to damp than cameras, and most paddlers carry a
camera with them. Indeed, it's now possible to buy binoculars
advertised as truly waterproof, though these aren't really necessary.
Farwell and I have taken our decidedly non-waterproof binoculars on
scores of trips, totaling hundreds of days, and we've never had any
trouble. Simply keep your binoculars in a waterproof pack or ammo-can
when they're not in usebut be sure to test any "waterproof" pack
before trusting itand don't drop them in the water. That's all
there is to it.
This being the case, I can't understand why paddlers don't take
binoculars along on every trip. They're good for route-finding,
obviously, but that's only the beginning. They also open up whole new
worlds, among them bird- and wildlife-watching. And the fun doesn't
stop with getting closer to a distant, soaring golden eagle, either.
You'll be surprised what you learn when you point your binoculars at
the nearby and familiar. Good binoculars focus close. We have one pair
that can be focused down to eight feet or so. Try watching a red
squirrel stripping a pine cone of seeds, or a ruby-throated
hummingbird visiting the touch-me-not in your gardenor a city
pigeon patrolling a sidewalk for crumbs. Wherever you turn your
binoculars, you'll be amazed at how everyday sights suddenly become
exotic when seen close-up.
And what happens when you get tired of watching birds and
squirrelsif you ever do, that is? What then? That's easy. Wait
until dark and turn your binoculars up toward the stars. Even on the
fringes of smoggy, over-lighted cities, you'll be surprised at what
you can see. In the black, back-country night, you'll be astonished.
You'll find thousands of stars that you didn't even know were there,
for one thing. You'll see the lunar craters. You can even see the
planet Jupiter's four largest moons. It's been nearly 400 years since
Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and discovered its
satellites, but I think you'll find it every bit as exciting when you
first "discover" them for yourself. Do this sort of thing often
enough, in fact, and you may get hooked on astronomy. There's nothing
wrong with that. You can't toast marshmallows around the campfire
every night, after all. The universe we live in is a fascinating
place. It's a good idea to get to know the neighborhood.
What's that? You've never owned any binoculars? And you're put off
by the strident techno-babble in the outfitters' catalogs? You don't
know what to make of "rugged roof-prism design" or "multi-coated
optical system," to say nothing of "extended eye relief"? Well, you're
not alone. I've been there myself. But don't worry. Buying binoculars
isn't rocket science. It's really no more difficult than choosing
which TV show to watch, and it's far more rewarding. Next week, in
Part 2 of "The Far-Seeing Eye," we'll tell you just what to look for
when you go shopping for your first pair of binoculars.
Copyright © 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.