Part 4Picking Up the Thread
By Tamia Nelson
March 12, 2002
A waterway ramble needn't have a destination.
Like Robert Louis Stevenson, most ramblers "travel not to go anywhere, but
to go." But movement alone isn't enough. Every journey must have a
soul. Whether it's a trip across a nearby pond or a circumnavigation of
Greenland, each ramble has a purpose. For some, rambling's a chance to get
up close and personal with wildlife. For others, it's a way to connect with
the past. For still others, it's just being there, getting out on the water,
buffeted by wind and wavebecoming an active participant in life's
unfolding drama, rather than simply looking on from the bleachers.
The "where" doesn't matter much. There's something new to be learned even
in a lake you've visited many times before. It also doesn't matter that
there aren't any blank spaces on the world's maps today. Wherever you live,
and however much you've travelled, there are unknown countries only a few
miles from your front door. Each pond and stream boasts unfamiliar shores.
Waterways are explorers' natural highways, after all. Water is the living
filament that binds all life together, both past and present, from one
end of the globe to the other. It unites us historically and geographically.
So wherever you start, the knack of waterway rambling lies in picking up a
particular thread and following it home.
How to begin? Sometimes serendipity is enough. Recently, and for no
particular reason, I turned on the TV and found myself watching a
documentary film about Fort Ticonderoga, the reconstructed colonial fortress
perched high above the western shore of Lake Champlain, in northern New
York. It wasn't exactly unfamiliar country. For several years I drove past
the turn-off to "Fort Ti" every other weekend, but for one reason or another
I never left the main highway. Now, however, my chance encounter with a film
has planted a seed in my imagination. In timein weeks, months, or
yearsthat seed will grow into a voyage of discovery. Fort Ticonderoga
won't be my destination, though. Instead, it will be the soul of the
journey. I don't just want to snap a photo of Farwell and me standing on the
battlements, looking eastward toward Vermont. I want to follow a thread in
which the Fort itself is but a single fiber, to explore the Fort's physical
setting and probe its historical context. And I plan to do it from the seat
of a canoe or kayak.
Of course, you can't always count on Lady Luck to hand you a journey
ready-made, so to speak. Sometimes you have to go looking. All you need is a
point of departure. Once you have that, you're on your way.
And how do you find your starting point? First, pick a navigable
waterway. Any waterway will do, so long as it's safe to
paddlesafe for you to paddle, that isand open to
recreational travel. Then get to know something about it. Study maps and
charts. Read up on its history. Keep notes. Make sketches. You may even want
to make a map of your own. Start a scrapbook or clipping file. Make
connections. Soon your journey will have a soul, and you'll have your point
But what if no waterway suggests itself to your imagination? What then?
Get yourself a paddler's guidebook covering a region that interests you.
Browse through it, reading whatever catches your eye. Pay attention to
difficulty and accessibility, but don't ignore other things, as well. Read
all the sidebars. Read between the lines. You're not looking for an
off-the-shelf "experience." You're starting on a voyage of discovery. Your
guidebook's only the beginning.
Can't find a guidebook for your area? Or maybe you're one of those people
who can't read any guidebook without falling asleep. (If that's the
case, you've got company! We're in the same boat.) Then pick a river or lake
that's near to something that intrigues youa wildlife refuge, perhaps,
or a historic battlefield, or the city you grew up in. Whatever it is, this
"something" is already more than a destination. It's the soul of your
journey. Be prepared to be surprised by what you discover. Familiar places
can look mighty different when first glimpsed from the seat of a kayak or
Need more help? Here are just a few ways to prime the pump:
- Read a book
- See a movie
- Study a map
- Revisit your roots
- Talk to a friend
Nothing especially mysterious here, is there? If you're a reader, and you
probably are if you've come this far with me, then you'll turn to books
without any urging on my part. Don't look down your nose at movies, either.
I've already told you about the documentary that awakened my interest in
Fort Ti. But a movie needn't be a documentary to get you started. Many years
ago, I saw a film version of Jerome K. Jerome's classic Victorian comic
novel Three Men in a Boat. Fascinating! And very funny, too. Someday,
I said, I'm going to paddle up the River Thames and see what's changed since
Jerome's time. I haven't done it yet, but I haven't given up on the idea,
And maps. Don't forget maps. Maps and
dreams go together. To those who can read what they have to say, all
maps are sources of wonder and inspiration. If you've paddled very long, you
probably own at least a few topographic maps, and nearly everyone has a
stack of road maps or a road atlas somewhere in the house. So get 'em out
and start exploring. State atlases like those published by DeLorme are
particularly useful. Not only do you have maps for a whole state at your
fingertips, but you'll also find listings of unique natural features,
historic sites, museums, beaches, and wildlife areas. Always remember,
though, that you're not looking for a destination. You're starting a
Don't overlook historic maps, either. Large libraries and local
historical societies often have collections of old topographic maps, tax
maps, and county atlases. Studying these is like travelling back in time,
and if you live on or near a dammed river, you probably have one or more
drowned hamlets right in your backyard. How's that for a magical mystery
tour? Lost Atlantis on your doorstep! And a good battery-powered fish-finder
can show you things long hidden beneath the waves. You can even dive down
and investigate first-hand. If you decide on a submarine tour, though,
make sure you have the necessary skills and expert companions.
Farwell once spent a lonely ten minutes disentangling himself from a
barbed-wire fence, fifty feet below the surface of a small reservoir.
Needless to say, he didn't make the same mistake again.
Would you rather stay on the surface? No problem. So would I. Old maps
will also guide you to cemeteries, abandoned water-mills, and other relics
of our shared past. Be careful, though. Ruins can be dangerous places, and
owning a canoe or kayak doesn't give anyone a license to trespass. So always
ask permission before you begin exploringand never pick up
souvenirs. The past may belong to all of us, but historic artifacts are
always someone's property.
What's that? Water-mills don't tickle your fancy? Then perhaps covered
bridges turn you on. Or maybe you like to tempt the wily trout. Or tour
vineyards. Whatever your interest, there's a waterway running through it
somewhere. And don't neglect your own roots. My grandfather was an Adirondack
guide. He introduced me to many North Country waterways, and his stories
of abandoned settlements, old logging camps, and derelict tanneries got me
started on a never-ending journey through my own past.
Don't be shy. Everyone needs a guide now and then. It's nothing to be
ashamed of. And there's probably someone like my grandfather in your family,
too. Or maybe your guide is simply an old friend. But whether family member,
friend, or chance acquaintance, there's nothing like the human touch. Books
can speak volumes, but only people can bring a landscape and its history to
life. I didn't really get to know the river of my
youth until I met an ancient angler named Harry. He taught me to see the
river as a living thing, and introduced me to its secrets. And he, too,
started me off on a voyage of discovery through time and space.
Waterway rambling. It's as easy as following the thread of the current.
Just pick your point of departure and go. Does this sound like fun? Good!
Spring's making its way up through the northern hemisphere. It's the season
for new beginnings and new adventures. What better time to embark on your
own voyage of discovery?
To be continued on April 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights