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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


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 wind—a 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 small—it was only five miles long—but 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 cutting remark.

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. Perhaps—but 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 use—but be sure to test any "waterproof" pack before trusting it—and 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 garden—or 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 squirrels—if 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.

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