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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Our Readers Write

Letters Too Good to Keep to Ourselves By Tamia Nelson

April 30, 2002

Two recent series—Waterway Rambling—Rediscovering Our Heritage by Canoe or Kayak and It's Only Natural! Getting Close to Nature in a Canoe or Kayak—have brought us some of the most interesting mail we've received in the four years we've been writing for Illuminating, lyrical, and provocative by turns, it was simply too good to keep to ourselves, so we've asked three writers' permission to share their letters with you. Here they are.

In Thoreau's Wake

Dear Tamia and Farwell,

How well I remember my own canoe ramblings in the rivers of southeastern Massachusetts in the mid-1970s! Finding myself between careers, I flipped a metaphorical coin and fastened upon the idea of exploring and documenting the now long-abandoned small rivers and streams that once played a key role in the economic life of Plymouth County.

For months afterward I lived out of a 13' fiberglass canoe while threading my way joyfully along the miles and miles of fresh and tidal streams that once hosted shipyards, foundries, manufacturing plants of one kind or another (from nails to shovels to shoes), and a virtual cornucopia of other human and not so human endeavors.

The Town River, the North River, the Weeweantic River, the Hocomock River, the South River, the Nemasket River, the Taunton River, the Jones River, the Nipennicket Stream …. The list goes on and on and on.

Littered with the worn, lichen-covered granite footings of a once water-power dependent society, these lovely little streams wound their way softly through back yards, along the shoulders of major highways, through industrial parks, and across cow pastures. (On one occasion, I was unfortunate enough to paddle round the stern of a Holstein just as she chose to let drop a rather large cow flop!)

Across one of these streams, a crude stone bridge still spans the border between the towns of Bridgewater and Taunton. In the early 1700s, a horse-drawn carriage clattered its way to the nearest church where the two eloping occupants intended to get married. Just minutes later, the stone rang out again with the hoof beats of Reverend Davis's horse as he rushed to stop the marriage of his daughter to a young man from the "wrong side of the river." Now there is no roadway left, only a hand-hewn stone bridge spanning a tiny stream in the middle of a field of corn.

Alongside the Town River, the ruins of the Ames Shovel Works stand guard over the labyrinth of stone-lined canals that once powered water-wheels driving trip hammers, forge bellows, and any number of other contrivances. I spent hours exploring this area trying to figure out how they controlled the flow—as well as what the flow itself was used for.

What memories I have of those many hours in which I found myself (once again) in the role of outsider looking in. And how greatly those voyages, through a vast shift in perspective, changed who I was and what I was to become.

As my friend Thoreau indicated in his most often misquoted statement, "In wildness is the preservation of the world," these tiny now-forgotten little streams represent the essence of wildness in areas where the word "wild" most often is used to describe the nature of a teenage party in the local newspaper's Police Beat.

By all means encourage your readers to explore the waters of their own back yards! Perhaps their imaginations will take root in the still fertile soils through which these meandering watercourses make their way to the sea. Better yet, perhaps while following the course of a local stream they will change the course of their own journey through this life in ways they never dared imagine.

Captain Winston Shaw
Sea Venture Custom Boat Tours
Bar Harbor, Maine

On the Red River Above Texoma

Dear Tamia,

I've been enjoying your articles. Since my last letter I have been out on Lake Texoma twice. The first excursion was a study in how to do it wrong. The second went well except in my over-exuberance I wore out my wife. But I am learning from each experience, and the bottom line is that they give a magical uplift to my life. May I tell you about my latest outing?

I finally got to the Red River at five o'clock last Saturday. Why I was so late is another story, but late or no, the hour-and-a-half paddle from the dam to the bridge and back transformed my weekend.

North of the Texoma Lake Eisenhower Dam, beyond the spillway, the Red River meanders northeast before turning east-southeast beyond the Interstate 75 bridge. It goes on to skirt the north border of Texas clear to Louisiana, where it turns south through the bayous and eventually joins the Mississippi. At Texoma, the Red is wide and flat and not very deep. Today it was running slow and clear, about normal level—which means hardly over eight feet anywhere, and only a few inches in some places. The bottom is shale covered with thin green moss. The banks are sand or shale or earth, red or black, sloped or cut straight down through sediment layers. At a glance the riverbed seems much too wide for the water it contains. Numerous driftwood snags lie beached along the banks and wherever the shallows grab them. Some lie hidden beneath the water. Stones, small and large, also lie among them. One must take care to avoid bumping into these. This is a low-hills-to-flat countryside—farmland—given mostly to woods and grazing.

I parked above the soft sand, off the road that runs along the northeast base of the dam. A few large trees are scattered here and there in a short maze of sandy roads that soon end at a barbed-wire fence. The sandbanks slope down to the water, with some ideal kayak launching spots. Five or six other pickups and vans were parked about—fishermen or picnickers or lovers or drinkers or whatnot. Here, one usually finds fishermen standing along the banks casting out as far as possible, on both sides of the river. The water is too shallow for most powerboats; I saw none.

After a hundred-yard carry in soft sand, I floated free at 5:34. Ah, yes! The sun was still fifteen degrees above the southwestern horizon, centered above the dam. The blue north-Texas sky held a few wispy clouds—"Mare's Tails" I think they're called. The wind was calm. I took neither coat nor spray skirt.

I pushed off beside a small stream that splashed down the sandbank into the river. A family waved from where they were building a campfire out among old bridge pilings that form a jetty across the water. I paddled through the narrow gap and headed north into open water.

Above the jetty, the riverbanks were deserted. This is far from pristine water, but almost immediately the wildlife which make the river home began to appear. On a far, flat, shale shore a group of black vultures surrounded a large stagnant pool. Their wing tips showed white as they flapped across the pool. Their hooked beaks were orange. Here and there, on both sides of the river, tall and graceful gray cranes fished the shores alone on long-stem legs. These usually took wing as I passed. They seem ungainly in flight, but they know what they are about in the air. They patrol the low skies above the water, skimming above sandbanks and trees. All up and down my route they seemed to take turns keeping a steady eye on me. A few lone sandpipers scurried busily in the shallows. I was too far from the tree-lined shores to hear the numerous small birds I could see flitting there.

There had been some kind of hatch. Swarms of black insects hovered above the water. Now and then a little fish broke the surface below them. Six mallards flew out from behind a driftwood tangle, their whirring wings pushing their graceful long necks steadfastly toward the sky. I like the way ducks seem to fly as though it will be their last chance in the air. Seagulls skimmed and pirouetted, some floating across just above me. Their graceful, slim wings showed sporty black tips. As the evening grew toward dusk, long lines of geese arose above the trees, zigging in long ranks across the eastern sky, high up, heading south toward the Haggerman Bird Sanctuary. These overflights lasted until the light died away. The long, black lines of geese undulated across the horizon, high above the dam, entering the realm of brilliant sunset colors. I lost count at about the seventh line.

The wide, brown riverbed came sometimes into view as I paddled northeast; wherever the river ran shallow I could see the tan-green rocky bottom. I steered toward the flats, looking for deeper water. In general I was successful, but in four places the bottom of my Necky Looksha scraped for a few hold-your-breath yards. The water always deepened again, though—except once when I did have to push backward. This came later, on my return, heading into the sunset, trying to follow the way I had come rather than my instincts. Here I backed out toward deep water. I had no desire to get my feet wet.

The I-75 Texas-Oklahoma bridge here is high and long. Low hills rise to meet it on both ends. It carries two wide concrete lanes in each direction. The bright colors of trucks streamed south as I approached. I finally paddled under the huge concrete columns, steering for the deepest water, and cringed as I felt the Looksha strike a submerged object. Beside the concrete automotive bridge runs a separate, older, railroad bridge—a steel span atop dark wooden pilings, equally high and long. The crumpled, black remains of an even older span lie in the riverbed beyond the railroad bridge. I floated slowly by. Before the bridges, I knew wagon trains had sought firm rock near here to cross in low water. And before them, probably the Indians had their own favorite crossing trails.

I turned about and headed back, facing upstream now. As I cleared the bridges, a train passed overhead and filled the river with a terrible, low-pitched rumble. The sound rolled down the river and up my spine.

The sun was setting behind the dam. Its flare was blinding. I set the brim of my hat low, but still could hardly see to navigate. I could see the passing river banks clearly, though, rising up from beneath the silver mirror of the perfectly calm water. Far ahead, coral clouds in a turquoise sky formed spectacular double images in air and water. The colors flared above and below the long gray bulk of the distant dam. My kayak floated in a turquoise and coral river, a perfect image of the sky. Into this image flew rank after rank of ragged-vee geese formations. I would gladly have paddled with them, but I could not seem to keep up.

The deep dusk seemed to excite the life of the river. Below the shining and now opaque surface, eddies and swirls rose from fish and other creatures I could only imagine. One fish broke the surface ahead of me with a huge splash. Startled in mid-stroke, I watched as its wide silver body flashed swiftly underneath my keel. I craned my neck around to see it break water again behind me. This fish was my big medicine of the trip. It gave me a glimpse of how wild the river really is, and what energetic life it holds, in spite of grazing cattle, bridges, rumbling trains, and passing kayaks.

Cranes now flew up and down the shores, black against the sky. More fish roiled the water, some large enough to form bow waves ahead of their rapid advance. Their wakes mingled with mine.

I strained forward to see into the glare and darkness—to guess which way best to steer. I knew I had started too late, that I should not have come alone, and that I should have brought my spray skirt in case of wind. Blows can spring up quickly here. I felt a mingle of concern and thrill, like an old pioneer on a new trail—except for the smooth molded-plastic perfection of the kayak around me. But even here I could imagine a skin-covered boat of similar, ancient design.

Far to the southwest a few electric lights came on and outlined the huge, black bulk at the top of the concrete dam. The dam itself and the overflow basin below were now shrouded in shadow. The sun had sunk below the horizontal line and was flaring at the center of my view. The dusky gray line of sky spread above and around the flare. The lights of traffic moved along the highway atop the dam. And then a gentle breeze sprang up and cast a rubbery ripple across the dark water, breaking up my perfect mirror.

By the time I reached my departure beach, the light had almost faded away. My pickup was barely visible among the trees. The dark shapes of fishing families moved on the sandy shore, in the deep gloom of dusk. I could hear voices, mostly Spanish. I floated soundlessly in toward them, resting my paddle, looking for a good place to bring my boat back onto the beach. When I found the spot, I paddled hard to glide as far up onto the sand as possible.

As I stepped ashore, placing my feet in my sandals, two boys came across the sand toward me. "Catch any fish?" they asked. I'm sure they assumed no one would be dumb enough to be on the river without a fishing pole. They had not been here to see me depart.

"No," I said, "but I saw some big ones. There are big ones out there in the middle."

"What kind are they?"

"I couldn't see what kind they were. Probably bass. You guys catching any?"

"Only a few. Thank you, sir, for telling us about the big ones out there."

The two boys stood a moment looking across the dark water, and then walked on. I took note of the "sir" and tried to imagine what they were thinking.

"Good luck with your fishing," I called out. I could tell that the family was making an evening of it. They had a low campfire flaring beyond the bend.

"Thank you, sir," the boys said again as I picked up my kayak and carried it across the sand toward my pickup, my paddle clutched in my left hand. I did not want to have to make a second trip across the wet sand. The 65-pound boat felt heavy against my leg now, and the soft sand oozed away beneath my feet, but I walked briskly, in what I hoped was the manner of a heroic river-man, come unexpectedly out of the night, alone in a magic fish-shaped craft. A river-man from the dark north water. A man could do worse than to inspire boys to paddle on a wide river, I thought. I hope they caught a good supper.

Back at Windyhill, after a thirty-minute drive, my wife had a good pinto bean supper ready. I showered up and made cornbread, using stone-ground corn and wheat flour—an experiment that worked—and buttermilk, of course. It was an excellent meal.

I sit here now in the middle of Dallas, with traffic roaring on the interchanges and freeways, and a constant stream of airliners overhead. The Looksha and rivers and sunset evenings all await my return. And the big-medicine fish. Next time I may well have a fishing rig along. For sure I will have my camera. I've been wondering today just how long a man is expected to endure the inconvenience of employment.

John Caywood
Windyhill Farm, Texas

Fouling Our Own Nest

Well done, Tamia! Great start on the new series. We ran across a seagull on the water this morning whose wing had become entangled in a string attached to a balloon, and it could not fly. We cornered it against a seawall, and it got away once, but it swam toward one of the other members in our party and he caught it. Another paddler provided a knife, and the unwilling and thrashing bird was freed, at least for the most part. It was able to fly after that, even though part of the string was not reachable. We have seen other birds tangled in flotsam, but usually they fly away from us. Note well that you can paddle faster than a seagull can swim—and they don't like people, either.

This episode got me thinking about the larger problem. The Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City are over, and we are left with images of memorable triumphs and disappointments to keep in our actual or virtual scrapbooks. One of the most memorable for me was the sight of numerous workers filling bag upon bag of trash left behind by spectators.

Sometime since my youth the message has gone forth to the multitudes: "Someone Else Will Pick It Up." Was it lax parenting? Hippie Counterculture? Who knows, but the message has been taken to heart. For years as a runner I saw increasing amounts of garbage along the roadways—the same you see if you commute or travel for pleasure along the freeway or tollway. Fast food outlets with drive-through lanes contribute mightily to the surfeit of trash and garbage along the roads. Some folks apparently think, "It came in through the window, so…."

And public parks, even when liberally sprinkled with receptacles for trash—as were all the Olympic venues—look as though it had snowed trash after a weekend. Now, as a kayak paddler, I find that San Diego Bay looks the same, especially after a high tide. Worse, this trash entangles, strangles, and smothers birds and other creatures, and the fuel and other chemicals make any fish a questionable trophy for the numerous anglers who try their hand in the tainted water. Floating trash and trash along the shore is both unsightly and unhealthy.

Regardless of the reasons—and laziness has to be one of them—it is vitally important that we change the attitude that someone else will clean it up and that the world is our trash can. Many "lower" species of organisms seem to be better at keeping their homes fit for living than are we. That is truly sad.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Gerry Adler
San Diego, California

That's all for now. Look for "Our Readers Write" again in July. In the meantime, keep reading, keep writing, and keep telling us what's on your minds!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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