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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Keep It Clean!

Practical Ecology for Paddlers

by Tamia Nelson

Ecology and the environmental movement have had a bad time of it lately. In New York's North Country, where Farwell and I live, "environmentalist" has replaced Communist as the universal, one-size-fits-all epithet. Has a troublemaking neighbor been complaining again about your wayward dog, the noise from your all-night parties, or the smoke from your burn barrel? Need a little slack from the cops? No problem. Just tell them that the troublemaker's one of those, you know, environmentalists. You'll be off the hook in no time.

For maximum effect, of course, each damning syllable should be chewed-on for a while before being spat out, the better to convey your contempt. "Shoot, officer. Don't know what he's talking about. He must be some kind of En - vi - ro - men - al - ist!" (For some reason, the second "n" and first "t" are usually swallowed whole.)

From what I hear, this phenomenon isn't confined to northern New York. That's not good news for paddlers. Canoeists and kayakers get up close and personal with the rivers that flow through our villages and cities, and we spend a lot of time on the lakes around which we build our summer homes. Sadly, the view we get is sometimes pretty disheartening. It's hard to be a paddler and not be an environmentalist.

We shake our heads over the trash that litters the banks of our favorite rivers. We look on with dismay as a kid on a jet-ski tries to run down a female common merganser and her brood of chicks. We curse the midnight ramblers whose unmuffled powerboats wake us repeatedly in the small hours of the night. And we pat ourselves on the back. We're not the problem, we tell ourselves. We're the good guys.

Well, I suppose it's true in a way. Paddlesport is a quiet sport. One day last year I looked up from my desk and was astonished to see a whole flotilla of paddlers going by my window. They were participants in a citizens' race sponsored by the local lake association. There were nearly a hundred of them, and the closest was no more than 100 feet away. But I didn't even know they were there until I raised my head and looked out the window. If they'd been driving jet-skis....

So, yes, even when we whoop and holler, we don't make much noise. But that's not the end of the story, is it? A tour of paddling put-ins and popular camping areas won't turn up much cause for self-congratulation. At many heavily-used sites, you can find your way to the water by following a trail of human turds—each one topped off with a garnish of toilet paper. If you gotta go, you gotta go, after all. It seems that a lot of us just don't care where.

And that's only the beginning. Many paddlers are also anglers. The next time you're out in your boat, visit the local fishing hot-spot. What do you find? Coils of monofilament lying in wait to ensnare waterbirds or small mammals. Plugs and jigs hanging from tree limbs, each one bristling with multiple treble-hooks. Piles and piles of trash.

Now look beneath the surface. Scoop up some of the muck or sand from the lake- or river-bottom near shore. Sift through it. Chances are good that you'll find at least a few lead sinkers and split-shot, and one or more lead-headed jigs. If eaten by a duck or loon, any of these can kill. The United Kingdom has banned lead sinkers, but we in the United States haven't—yet. We seem to think we've got waterfowl and shorebirds to spare.

OK. Enough of this. If you paddle, you know what I'm talking about. Ours is already a quiet sport, but it could be a cleaner one. What can we do to clean up our act?

First, and perhaps most important: Don't add to the problem. Bag your trash and bring it home with you. On day trips to heavily-used areas, and on overnights at popular campsites, consider the ultimate in "no-trace" technique"—bring an air-tight "honey bucket" along with you, and use it when the need arises. It's not much fun to clean it out at the end of the trip, I admit, but it's more pleasant than pitching your tent in a clearing studded with human turds.

If you fish, replace your lead sinkers and split-shot with non-toxic alternatives made of bismuth, tin, or tungsten. True, they're all more expensive than lead, but the cost is small when you consider the toll taken by lead over the decades. Wherever possible, retrieve snapped leaders and snagged lures, and pick up any monofilament you see anywhere.

Thinking about getting a motor for your fishing canoe? Check out Honda's little 2-h.p. four-stroke, or—for larger boats—the new Yamaha 4 h.p. or the Nissan 5. Four-stroke outboards pollute far less than than their two-stroke counterparts: hydrocarbon emissions are reduced by 90 percent or more. (A carbureted two-stroke sends as much as 25 percent of its fuel-oil mix straight out the pipe unburned—directly into the air and water. On a calm day, when the light is right, you can sometimes see an oily sheen spreading out in the wake behind a two-stroke outboard.)

You don't fish, you say? Maybe you're a bird watcher or wildlife photographer, then. Happily, not many paddlers deliberately harass wildlife, but we can love some creatures to death. Loons, for example, are especially sensitive to disturbance. They nest on islands or in remote coves, and their nests are usually only a foot or two from the shoreline. If a canoe, kayak or other boat approaches too closely, the parent birds will leave their nest and attempt to drive the "intruder" away. Their tremolo call and territorial display are often mistaken for a courtship ritual. While water-skiers and jet-boaters will quickly zoom on without even noticing, canoeists and kayakers often hang around, entranced by the big birds' "penguin dance." If the paddlers stay too long, the loons' eggs will cool past the point of no return, and the developing chicks will die.

By a cruel irony, the U.S. Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays coincide with critical times in loon chicks' embryonic development. As a result, it's not unusual for a mated pair to lose two clutches of eggs in a single year—and to fly south without having produced a single surviving offspring.

This doesn't have to happen. Learn to recognize the loons' alarm call (tremolo) and their territorial display (the "penguin dance" mentioned above). Then move away at the first warning. With a good pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens, you can observe or photograph loons and other wildlife at a safe distance. Binoculars, in particular, are wonderful things. They bring the whole world closer. Buy your first pair, use them just once, and you'll immediately wonder how you ever lived without them.

Lastly, give something back to your local rivers and lakes in return for the pleasure they've given you. At the end of every trip, take out a small bag of other people's garbage. We all complain about the trash we find in our favorite spots, but how many of us do something about it? Maybe it's time for an attitude adjustment. The next time you find a put-in trashed, don't bitch—just bag it! It's not somebody else's job, after all; it's ours. We're all in the same boat, aren't we?

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

The first of the year's big holiday weekends is coming up in America, and folks die on the water every summer while having fun. Don't be one of them. Read Farwell's next column on "Staying Alive." 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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