It's Only Natural!
First, Do No Harma Paddler's Decalogue
By Tamia Nelson
March 26, 2002
It's human nature to be curious about the world around us. This is
a Good Thing. Our curiosity has helped make us what we aretop dog in the animal kingdom,
at least for the moment. We have the power, in short. But with this power comes responsibility.
Our curiosity can kill.
This isn't something we like to talk about. Canoeing and kayaking are "quiet" sports, after
all. Whatever the state of our waistlines, and whatever our political opinions, most of us like
to think of ourselves as lean, Green, paddling machines. Was a love of wild creatures one of the
things that brought you to paddling? Me, too. We're in the same boat. So it's even more
important that we never lose sight of one unpalatable truth: it's all too easy to kill the
things we love. The paddle can be as deadly as a gun.
What do we have to do? Give up paddling? Not likely! And it's not necessary, either. The key
lies in that word "responsibility." It's nobody's favorite word, I know. "Freedom" has a much
bigger fan club, and for good reason. Freedom's an important part of paddling. But freedom and
responsibility go hand in hand. If we don't listen to the "cop in our heads," then we'll lose
our freedom to paddle when and where we like. Not all at once, of course. We'll lose it a little
bit at a time, but the end result will be the same. We'll have traded the cop in our heads for a
real-life cop on the beat. That's when television starts looking attractive.
OK. What are the rules for responsible paddling? You won't be surprised to hear that I've got
a little list. Call it the paddler's decalogue, if you wantten Pretty Good Ideas to help
preserve the watery world that we all love. And here they are:
FIRST, DO NO HARM
It sounded more impressive in the Latin: Primum non nocere"First, do no
harm"but it's good advice in any language. Think before you act. Everything else follows
Want an example? Take beaver dams. Beaver dams are a nuisance, especially to kayakers. Even
paddling naturalists sometimes find it hard to resist the temptation to knock holes in them, if
only to ease the passage downstream. But a beaver pond is home to an entire living community.
Think twice before you start dismantling the dam that created it. Tearing even a small hole in a
dam is damned hard work, too. It's better to save your energy for paddling. An exhausted paddler
is only one step away from injury. "Do no harm" also means "don't hurt yourself"!
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
Wild animals can be loved to death. Literally. It's easy to become so engrossed while
watching wildlife that you get too close. And getting too close can have tragic consequences.
Repeated disturbance can prevent wildlife from eating, sleeping, or caring for their young.
Stressed mammals and birds may abandon nursing infants and fledglings, and even adults can die
You know how you feel when you get a call from a salesperson at dinnertime, or when the
office bore stops by your desk on a particularly hectic day to tell you about his new Norwegian
pine shelving? You get angry, right? And your blood pressure rises in step with your anxiety
level. Well, it's a thousand times worse for wild animalsand they can't unplug the phone
or tell the office bore to go away.
How close is "too close"? That's an easy one. If you're close enough to elicit a response of
any kind from a bird or animal, then you're already too close. You want to see without being
seen, or at least without being seen as a threat. This is where binoculars come in mighty
handy. Get a good pairwaterproof, if possibleand then use them. You'll see more,
even as you keep your distance.
Humans are animals, too. Keeping your distance also means asking permission to use or cross
private property. It's more than good manners. It's also good public relations. And it might
even save your life. "Commando camping" is for
commandos. Period. Unless you're hoping for a midnight fire-fight, leave commando camping to the
guys and gals in uniform.
KEEP IT CLEAN
No responsible paddler wants to trash her world. Many of us go one step further, picking up
other folks' garbage whenever we can. Trash kills wildlife. Monofilament strangles. Plastic bags
choke. Even yogurt cups can kill. (Small foraging animals get their heads stuck in them. Then,
if they can't get them offand the designer cups with the reverse taper are the
worstthe trapped animals are left to stagger around, blinded and starving.)
And what happens when you gotta go? That's an easy one. Go away! Away from the water,
that isat least 150 feet. Even more, if possible. Don't forget to bury your contribution
when you're done, too. Human turds won't improve the look of any landscape, and they're a source
of disease into the bargain. ("Beaver fever" is spread by people and their pets, for example.
Beavers have little or nothing to do with it.) Better still, use a "jordan," or portable potty,
and take your turds home for proper disposal. You've got a small boat? No problem. You can now
get jordans compact enough to carry in a kayak. Cleaning a jordan's not much fun, I admit, but
no one ever said that doing the right thing was easy, did they?
LEAVE THE LANDSCAPE AS YOU FOUND IT
The Age of the Collector is over. Don't try to put the scenery in your pack. Take pictures or
make sketches, instead. Collecting without a permit is illegal in American national parks, and
on many other public lands, as well. Even where it's legal, it's almost never a good idea.
Why not? Everything's connected, for one thing. Bones are sources of vital minerals for small
mammals. Wildflowers may take years to establish themselves, and many more years to reproduce.
Rotting logs are living communities. Even dead leaves are part of the process of renewal. And
nothing's limitless. Fossil beds are finite. (Many have already been exhausted by school groups
and commercial collectors.) Flint projectile points and other artifacts are irreplaceable pages
from the book of history. Once you tear them out, no one will ever be able to read their story.
Lastly, everything's somebody's home. Even the spaces between the grains of sand on a beach
are colonized by tiny organisms.
But what do you do if the collecting bug bites hard? By all means visit the great collections
in natural history museums and universities. That will help. Better still, volunteer your time
at an archaeological dig or offer to assist in a biological survey. That way you'll scratch the
collecting itch and add to the world's store of knowledge at the same time. It's a
LIMIT GROUP SIZE
Of course it's fun to share your adventures with family and friends, but you can still have
too much of a good thing. Just ask any Scout leadermoving large groups of people from
place to place requires meticulous organization and painstaking planning. It's the exact
opposite of a carefree outing. More important, though, large groups simply have a larger
footprint. They're noisier, for one thing. If you always paddle in a large group, you'll see
How large is too large? Good question. Many parks and wilderness areas limit group size. In
such cases, "too large" is whatever the administering authority says it is. Elsewhere, you'll
have to rely on your common sense and good judgement. Solo travel is always dangerous,
obviously, and no prudent paddler tackles any but the easiest whitewater with less than three
boats. Safety considerations aside, I've found that groups of two to fourin two to four
boatsusually strike the best balance. If you want to talk, you always have someone to talk
to, but there aren't so many of you that you dominate the landscape.
REMEMBER THAT SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Don't imitate wildlife calls. I might as well confess, I suppose: I'm a reformed mimic.
Though I can't sing a note, I've got something close to perfect pitch, and I can produce
passable imitations of everything from the yodel of a loon to the whistle of a marmot. It's easy
and it's fun, but I don't do it anymore.
Why not? Simple. Birds sing and wolves howl for a reason. They're not just making noise.
They're communicating, and we're only now beginning to understand the complexity of their
languages. When we warble, hoot, or wail, we're talking. Too often, however, we don't know what
we're sayingand we could be saying anything. That "harmless" tremolo I used to uncork
whenever I saw a loon is the avian equivalent of "Fire!" or "Incoming!" and the loon responds
accordingly. The result? At best, needless anxiety. At worst, death. That's much too high a
price for a little fun.
KEEP FIDO CLOSE TO YOU
I grew up with dogs. I've raised them, groomed them, and hunted with them. I know they're
great companions. But they're also predators. So if you take your dog with you on your paddling
excursions, keep him close to you, and be sure to have a leash ready for the times when the
temptation to roam proves too great for him to resist.
You might also want to leave Fido at home now and again. You'll see less wildlife, perhaps,
but the animals that you do see will be less likely to run.
And what about cats? Not in my boat, thanksand not in the back-country either.
Ground-nesting birds have enough to worry about as it is, and one "skunked" cat is one too many
on any trip!
LEAVE BABY ANIMALS ALONE
If you spend enough time poking your organ of perception into wild places, sooner or later
you'll probably come across an "orphan" baby bird or other animal. This is especially likely
during the spring months. Tragedy? No. Usually the "orphan" is nothing of the sort. Mom's just
gone off to hunt or forage and will be back momentarily. Nothing's wrong, in other words. But
few people realize this, and many fledglings and other infant wildlife are "kidnapped"
needlessly every year by well-meaning humans. Most of these infants die.
The moral? It's best to leave "abandoned" wildlife alone. If you want to know moreif,
for example, you'd like to know how to recognize a real orphan when you see onetalk to a
wildlife rehabilitator or read chapters 20 and 21 of Shannon Jacobs excellent Healers of the
Wild. A little knowledge can sometimes be a very good thing!
GIVE SOMETHING BACK
Waviessnow geesewere flying over the 'Flow yesterday, riding a blustery south
wind home to their Arctic breeding range. They're the living embodiment of freedom, and their
hoarse, croaking call is a vital anthem to wildness. But of course nothing's really free, and in
an increasingly crowded world, open land and wildlife both carry big price tags. If you can,
spend some money and time to make certain that ours isn't the last generation to "hear a voice
in every wind, and snatch a fearful joy."
And what if you're one of the many folks with too little money, and even less time? Then
just follow Hippocrates' maxim: "Non nocere." Do no harm. It's a small thing, to be sure,
but it's within the reach of every paddler. If we each do only that much and nothing more, wild
voices will continue to sound their joyful clarion in the winds for many, many years to come.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights