Your #1 source for kayaking and canoeing information.               FREE Newsletter!
my Profile
Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural!

First, Do No Harm—a 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 are—top 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 want—ten Pretty Good Ideas to help preserve the watery world that we all love. And here they are:


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 from this.

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"!


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 from exhaustion.

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 animals—and 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 pair—waterproof, if possible—and 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.


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 off—and the designer cups with the reverse taper are the worst—the 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 is—at 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?


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 win-win solution.


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 leader—moving 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 less.

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 four—in two to four boats—usually 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.


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 saying—and 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.


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, thanks—and 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!


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 more—if, for example, you'd like to know how to recognize a real orphan when you see one—talk 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!


Wavies—snow geese—were 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 reserved.

Sponsored Ad:
Follow us on:
Free Newsletter | About Us | Site Map | Advertising Info | Contact Us


©2015 Inc.