Our Readers Write
Letters Too Good to Keep to Ourselves
By Tamia Nelson
April 30, 2002
Two recent seriesWaterway
RamblingRediscovering Our Heritage by Canoe or Kayak and It's Only
Natural! Getting Close to Nature in a Canoe or Kayakhave
brought us some of the most interesting mail we've received in the four
years we've been writing for Paddling.net. 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 flowas well as what the flow itself was used
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
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
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
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 levelwhich
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
countrysidefarmlandgiven 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 aboutfishermen 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
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, thoughexcept 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
bridgea 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
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 darknessto 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 trailexcept 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
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
"Only a few. Thank you, sir, for telling us about the big ones out
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
"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 flouran experiment that workedand
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.
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 swimand 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
roadwaysthe 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,
And public parks, even when liberally sprinkled with receptacles for
trashas were all the Olympic venueslook 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 reasonsand laziness has to be one of
themit 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.
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
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights