Part 1Making Connections
By Tamia Nelson
December 11, 2001
Recreation. RE-creation. Renewal. That's
why most of us paddle. But recreation means different things to different
paddlers. Some of us thrive on the challenge of technical whitewater.
Others look forward to long summer days on a lazy river. Still others
turn their gaze northwardtoward the few remaining places on the map
not crowded with towns and criss-crossed with highways.
For almost all of us, though, canoeing and kayaking are ways "to get
away from it all," to break as many connections as possible with our
everyday lives. Often our pilgrimage takes us to a wilderness, one of the
many more or less protected enclaves where, in the words of the United
States Wilderness Act of 1964, "the earth and its community of life are
untrammeled by man, [and] man
is a visitor who does not remain."
Well, as most back-country travelers can attest, wilderness isn't what
it used to be. For one thing, there aren't many places left that are
"untrammeled by man." Ask any biologist, anthropologist, or
archaeologist. The human species has left its mark just about
everywhereeven in the icy fastnesses of the Antarctic plateau. If
you know even a little bit about history and ecology, you'll see our
species' impress on every landscape. The only "real" wilderness left is
in the country
of the mind.
And then there's the question of numbersour numbers, that is.
In the last century, world population has doubled every 50 years or
so. This can't continue indefinitely, of course, and the rate of
growth is already slowing, but the engine won't come to a stop anytime
soon. Today there are six billion of us. By the middle of this century
there may be eight, or ten, or even twelve billion. Already the
trickle of visitors to the world's wilderness parks has become a
stream. Soon it will be a torrent.
This isn't something that happens only to other people. On fine summer
mornings, when the jet-skiers are still in bed and the 'Flow is quiet,
Farwell and I look out over an all but empty waterscape. A heron fishes
undisturbed in the shallows. A beaver or muskrat returns home after a
hard night's work. And that's all. Despite being ringed by cottages and
camps, and despite the fact that it enjoys no legislative protection
whatsoever, the 'Flow is ours and ours alone for a few golden moments.
It's almost possible to imagine that here, too, "the earth and its
community of life are untrammeled by man."
The illusion doesn't last long, of course. Within minutes, the first
jet-ski coughs into life. Others soon join the rasping chorus. Then the
heron flies off in search of a less-disturbed diner, and the beaver seeks
the shelter of its lodge. Man is back in the picture.
Is it different in the wilderness? Not necessarily. Suppose we'd been
standing on the summit of New York's highest mountain, insteadright
at the center of the celebrated High Peaks Wilderness. Then we'd have
been denied even the brief, nurturing illusion that we enjoyed on the
'Flow. Long before daybreak a line of figures would have started trudging
upward on the summit trail, each one eager to bag the peak and partake of
a wilderness experience. By the dawn's early light, we (and they) would
have had lots of company, all jostling for position on a few acres of
Let's call it the paradox of wilderness, shall we? When we want to get
away from it all, we flock in great numbers to protected enclaves of
woodland or water. The result? Hordes of seekers after solitude crowd the
wilderness. At the same time, though, many corners of the workaday world
on our doorstepsthe world we've left behindoffer at least
occasional moments of serenity and fleeting glimpses of untrammeled
nature. Go figure. It's really one of life's better jokes.
Perhaps the problem lies in the very idea of "getting away from it
all." To me, at least, this now seems a little too much like running
away. Our everyday world, the world in which we spend most of our lives,
is the world we've made for ourselves, after all. It serves our needs and
interests best. Why should we feel we have to flee from it? And, anyway,
isn't it better to run toward something, rather than running away?
I think so, at any rate. I'd rather make connections than break them. I
don't want to get away from it all. I want to come home.
Does this mean I want to sit in front of the TV until I die? Certainly
not! Nor do I want to discourage anyone from making the trip of a
lifetime she's been dreaming about for years. Far from it. I've a few
such trips I'd like to take myself. No, I've got something else in mind
altogether. Call it "waterway rambling."
What do I mean? Simple. The next time the urge to paddle hits you,
stop and think. Instead of "running away" to whatever wilderness park is
being featured in this month's issue of Paddle Shafts, why not get
to know your neighborhood, instead? True, I'm luckier than many. I live
almost close enough to the water to jump into it from my bedroom window.
But most of us are within an hour's drive of navigable water. Wherever
you live, you probably pass a pond or stream, or cross a river, every day
on your way to work. So why not plan your next trip around your "home
Get to know the neighborhood. That's good advice to anyone
moving into a new placeand every place is new until you've explored
it. In fact, every place is new each time you explore it. I've
watched dawn come to the 'Flow more than 6,000 times now, and I've made
hundreds of trips out onto its waters. Yet no two trips have ever been
the same. And each new day has brought me some fresh gift, teaching me
things I didn't know before or helping me make connections I'd only
No, the 'Flow's not a wilderness. And chances are that you won't find
a wilderness on your doorstep, either. But that doesn't mean you won't
find beauty, or that you won't start making connections of your own. Even
the dirtiest and most congested urban waterfront has oases of loveliness,
and all waterways offer you a guided tour right into the heart of our
history. Every country was once roadless, and in lands without roads,
rivers were the only highways. Wherever we humans have lived, rivers have
fed us, watered our crops, powered our industries, transported our
chattels, and carried away our waste. They still do.
And the seawhat of the sea? It, too, has been a human highway
and larder for millennia. Nearly all the world's big cities are located
on great rivers, or on the sea itself. Waterthe fresh water of
rivers and lakes, as well as the salt water of the oceansis the
filament that binds us all together, a living thread linking nation to
nation and generation to generation, out to the utmost limit of
geography and human history.
That's why, in the months to come, when winter locks the 'Flow in ice
and our paddling trips begin and end at the kitchen sink, Farwell and I
will be planning a series of waterway rambles. We won't be looking for
wilderness, and we won't be attempting to get away from it all. Instead,
we'll be getting ready to make connectionsto follow the silver
thread of water outward from our doorstep, probing through time and space
until our journey brings us back home again. If our past experience is
any guide, we'll discover beauty in places we didn't even know existed.
And while that would be enough in itself, it's only the beginning. We'll
also learn more about our land and its people, both the people who called
it home before we came along and the folks who live in it today.
It should be fun, and there's no reason why you shouldn't join us.
Unless you live in one of the world's desertsand maybe even if you
dothere's a river, lake, or seacoast near you. Pick a starting
point, and begin making plans to get to know your neighborhood. Winter
won't last forever, after all, and it's never too early to start making
To be continued on January 8, 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights