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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Wheel of the Year

Silence, Snow and Sewage

By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Ed and Brenna will be back next week, eager to put their new boat to the test as they get ready for their "Trip of a Lifetime." Today, however, Farwell salutes the arrival of spring, even as a north wind brings a late-season snowfall. But snow's not all that's in the air.

March 27, 2001

I lay awake in the early morning light, listening to an unfamiliar sound: a faint whirring, just at the threshold of hearing. I couldn't place it at first. I moved my head from side to side, trying to locate the source. It seemed to be coming from the small, battery-powered clock radio on the bedside table, but…. Then I realized what I was hearing—it was the tiny electric motor that drives the clock's hands.

I was astonished. I'd never heard this motor before. In fact, under normal circumstances I'd be lucky to hear it with my ear pressed tight against the radio's plastic case. Then I understood. A glance out the window revealed a blanket of new snow on the branches of the towering white pine just outside our bedroom. Heavy, wet snow. That was the reason for the unexpected stillness.

A word of explanation is in order here, I suppose. Although Tamia and I live on the margins of a reservoir in the northern foothills of New York's Adirondack Mountains, we're by no means isolated. There's a state highway only a quarter mile from us, and it's the major north-south route linking the towns of the St. Lawrence Valley with those in the central Adirondacks, as well as the larger cities beyond. In consequence, it carries a steady stream of cars and trucks. Night and day, at all seasons of the year, we hear the hum of distant traffic—braking, accelerating, moving on.

Nor is that all. A large Army training base lies only fifty miles to the southwest, and a military flight path runs directly over our home. Training goes on round the clock. As a result, few days pass without us hearing the boom of jets or the rhythmic chutter of helicopters. During live-fire exercises, the quiet of the night is often broken by the muffled thud of exploding ordnance. "It's like living in a war zone!" a dinner guest exclaimed wonderingly some years ago. In truth, I don't think he'd ever been closer to a war zone than Central Park, but he wasn't far wrong.

And, then, of course, there's the drone of motorized recreational vehicles from the 'Flow and the surrounding woods. In winter, snowmobiles buzz or roar along nearby roads and woodland trails at all hours of the day and night. In summer, jet-skis and runabouts whine in ceaseless circumnavigations of the three-mile-long reservoir. The jet-skis, at least, are supposed to be off the water at night. That's the law, at any rate. But I learned long ago not to expect this law to be obeyed—or enforced, for that matter.

What with one thing and another, therefore, the 'Flow and its environs are pretty noisy places in most seasons of the year. No, they can't compare with the East Side Expressway—except, that is, on holiday weekends in summer. Then, an acrid brown fog hangs over the water, and dinnertime conversation is reduced to staccato bursts, timed to fit into moments of comparative quiet and often ending in parade-ground bellows. All in all, the only really peaceful times come in fall and spring, when early- (or late-) season snowstorms slow the stream of traffic and dampen the noise of any vehicles still on the road. Since the 'Flow is usually frozen then, no jet-skis roil the waters, and since wet, clinging snow makes for poor "sledding," the snowmobilers stay home.

By happy accident, then, the spring and fall equinoxes bring brief, occasional oases of quiet in an otherwise busy, noisy year. Sometimes, in fact, it's so quiet that you can hear the whir of a tiny electric motor in a clock.

As I did, lying awake in bed that morning. Soon, Tamia and I were eating breakfast, with the BBC's Newshour for company. It was then that I learned it was World Water Day. "A billion people are affected by water shortages and contamination," the Newshour presenter noted, his carefully-modulated Oxbridge accent conveying appropriate, if somewhat distant, concern. It was, he seemed to suggest, Someone Else's Problem. And, when I looked out over the frozen 'Flow, imagining the volume of water rushing north toward the St. Lawrence beneath the rapidly-eroding skin of ice, it was hard not to agree with him. It was Someone Else's Problem. I turned my attention to the bowl of cereal in front of me.

Later in the day, however, as we left the house to haul water from a nearby spring, I smelled the unmistakable stink of human shit. Even though it came as an unpleasant surprise, I didn't have to guess where it originated. The wind was blowing out of the north. For three days before the latest storm, we'd had wonderfully warm, sunny weather. Much of the snow in the woods had melted, and pools of run-off were everywhere. One of them, I knew, lay right over a neighbor's leach field.

The story's the same every year. The local soil is thin, with bedrock close to the surface. There are few places anywhere around the 'Flow to put a leach field, and those few places are usually located in sags or hollows. In spring, these hollows fill with water, the leach fields flood, and pools of standing sewage soon form.

I know this all too well. During our first spring on the 'Flow, I stepped out of the house one morning to find a small river of sewage running down our slope, right into the reservoir. That was many years ago, however. We didn't like the idea of fouling the water on our doorstep, so we did what we had to do. Among other things, we cut our use of water to a bare minimum. Long showers and running the tap while we brush our teeth are things of the past, as is the notion that every use of the toilet warrants a five-gallon flush. It's something of a sacrifice, of course, but it's been worth it. Our leach field no longer spills over into the reservoir.

Not everyone would agree that this small victory is worth the trouble, though. A lot of folks still see any nearby river or pond as a handy waste disposal facility. The neighbor whose flooded leach field perfumes the springtime air is one of these folks. Every March, without fail, a pool of standing sewage forms in front of her house. Some years it lasts into June, overflowing into the reservoir with each rain. Fifty feet downriver, another neighbor has his water intake. What the first neighbor puts into the 'Flow, the second takes out. I guess you could call it recycling. That's not what the second neighbor calls it, I'm afraid, but he, too, has learned not to expect help from the law—or anyone else, for that matter. So he drinks beer or bottled water. I imagine he keeps his mouth shut tight when he showers, too. I don't envy him.

It's a funny thing. The first neighbor—the one with the ornamental sewage lagoon in her front yard—is an enthusiastic paddler and a committed environmentalist. She takes long trips every year to exotic places, returning with a new crop of bumperstickers each time. She works hard to save the wolf. When she goes camping, she worries herself sick about the possibility of contracting giardiasis or some other waterborne disease. Now and again, in the intervals between trophy trips, she even takes her Kevlar pack canoe out onto the 'Flow to watch the sunset. But she doesn't linger near her shoreline. She knows better.

She's not alone, of course. In the next week or two, when the ice breaks up and the waters of the 'Flow come alive again, I'll be able to look out my window at almost any time of day and watch long streaks of detergent foam and the occasional raft of toilet paper ride the current downstream. This used to surprise me. Nowadays I'm no longer surprised, but I'm still not happy to see it. In the years we've lived on the 'Flow, we've learned to love this stretch of dammed river. The play of sunlight on the ripples in summer. The waterfowl and wildlife who call it home. The long shadows on the ice on January evenings. Even the howling winds and winter blizzards. But we've also learned that not many people share our love. That's too bad, but that's the way it is, isn't it? It's only water, right?

Right. And the stink of shit on the north wind is just another sign of spring.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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