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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Art of Planning a Big Trip

Part 4: Staying Found

by Farwell Forrest

Canoe country. What does this much-used phrase mean, exactly? It's not hard to figure it out. Look at a map of any popular paddling destination. What do you see? Lakes, lots of lakes. Large lakes, small lakes, middle-sized lakes. Lakes make canoe country what it is.

Chances are very good, therefore, that your Big Trip will take you to one or more lakes. (Kayakers who spend their time along the sea coast are the obvious exception here, but we'll leave that sort of Big Trip to a later column.) As Tamia pointed out last week, lakes have their own distinctive character. You don't have to worry about rapids or falls. You probably don't have to worry about sudden floods. You do have to stay found, however, and that's not always as easy as it sounds.

Lakes, of course, can be big or small, from tiny, spring-fed seeps the size of farm ponds to the huge, freshwater seas we in North America call the Great Lakes. You'll have to work hard to get lost on a farm pond, I admit, but as lakes get bigger, the problem of staying found gets harder and harder. Notice that I've written "staying found." I could have chosen something a little more up-scale—"inland navigation," say—but I think "staying found" is simpler. It serves as a reminder of the first principle of navigation. If you don't know where you are all the time, then you can't tell which way to head to get where you're going, can you? And getting where you want to go is the ultimate purpose of navigation.

It all looks so easy. Topographic maps let you look down on the surface of the earth in a way once possible only for birds and gods. In fact, this Olympian perspective gives you a pretty good idea why so many of our gods have either been attended by birds, or taken the shape of birds themselves. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Horus, the sacred falcon. The Norse god Odin was accompanied everywhere by the ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory). Eagle, Raven and Owl play their parts in many of the sacred stories of America's First Nations. The dove figures prominently in the imagery of both Old and New Testaments. It's not hard to see why, really. As they soar high above the ground on which we mortals are condemned to make our way, the world can keep no secrets from these privileged, airborne figures. From their lofty vantage points the see all and know everything.

And with a good map in your hands, the world holds no secrets from you. Or so it seems at first. The location of the hidden stream which marks the outlet of the lake is obvious at a glance. The route through a seemingly impossible tangle of swamps and small ponds is crystal-clear. A maze of channels around a cluster of islands is resolved in a moment. How could anyone get lost here? you ask yourself, looking down at the maps spread out on your dining room table. This is a piece of cake!

Well, maybe. None of us are birds, and it's a pretty safe bet that there aren't any gods among us, either. Our perspective is necessarily earth-bound. What we see from the surface of a lake won't be anything like the marvelous landscape shown on our maps. Away from the dining-room table, things look much, much different. When seen by a bow-paddler, trying to match what he can see around him with what his maps show, that hidden outlet I mentioned earlier is just that—hidden. The route through the swamps and ponds, obvious on the map, now appears as an unbroken sea of rushes and sedges. And what about the islands? The bow-paddler can't see even one. Island overlaps with island, and all of them are indistinguishable from the forested shore behind.

What to do? The stern-paddler is getting impatient. She sees thunderheads building up to windward. She wants to get off the lake before the wind hits. "Which way do we point this thing?" she asks, slapping the side of the big canoe for emphasis. She doesn't sound happy. She wants an answer. Now.

But the bow-paddler (and navigator by default) doesn't have any answers. He's been relaxing, following a general compass bearing across this first lake of the trip and not paying close attention to the route. How can you get lost on a lake that's only twelve miles long, after all? The route's as clear as can be—on the map. Now, three hours into the Big Trip, the navigator's just realized what happens when you don't stay found all the time. This isn't going to be the piece of cake he thought.

Just then, he hears a rumble of thunder. The stern-paddler hears it too, and she must have read his thoughts. "Piece of cake?" she snorts. "Humble pie, more like!"

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

How will Farwell get out of this one? Come back next week and find out. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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