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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Beyond Dueling Banjos

What I Learned from Deliverance

By Tamia Nelson

March 11, 2003

Like Rick, we came for the waters. Unlike the wise-cracking proprietor of Casablanca's hottest nightspot, however, we found them. We'd come to scout a whitewater drop on a river only ten miles from our home. So far, everything had gone according to plan. The two-lane town road narrowed to one. The pavement gave way to gravel, then the gravel turned to dirt and the road ended in a bulldozed clearing. Just beyond lay a towering mound of trash and discarded household appliances. This didn't appear on the Chamber of Commerce's recreation map, but we weren't surprised. The distinction between public land and public dump is often ignored in New York's North Country.

We didn't let this discourage us, though. We ignored the stink of rotting garbage and the lazy, droning flies. It was a glorious autumn day, and we could hear falling water singing in the distance. Leaving our kayaks on the roof rack, we bushwhacked down to the riverbank through a tangle of mixed second-growth. One look round and we knew it was no-go: the stream was too narrow and too obstructed for our touring kayaks. The next time, we agreed, we'd bring the pack canoes.

We climbed back toward the truck, enjoying the unusually warm fall weather and paying little attention to our route. After all, we were on public land. Or so we thought. We began to have doubts when we came across the first salt block. By the time we saw a permanent tree-stand, our doubts had become certainties. We knew we were trespassing.

So did the four guys standing on the road where we broke out of the woods. They were all suited up in woodland camouflage, and each cradled a rifle in his arms. They didn't look welcoming. "Oh, Hell!" we both muttered. And the chords of "Dueling Banjos" started echoing in my imagination.

Happily, life doesn't always emulate art. We introduced ourselves to the deer hunters, explained what we were doing, and apologized for straying onto private land. We said absolutely nothing about the salt blocks we'd seen. Frowns soon became smiles. Somebody asked if we really planned on "running the creek in them funny little boats." More explanations followed. An hour later we were in our truck, heading home. The banjos in my head were silent.

And that was that. Then, a few months ago, a friend sent me a CD with the "Dueling Banjos" track. Suddenly, memories of our "Deliverance moment" came flooding back, along with an urge to see the movie once again. So we trotted over to the local library to get the tape, made some popcorn, and settled down in front of the TV.

I'm glad we did. Deliverance is a classic. It probably did more to popularize whitewater canoeing than any film before or since. But there's a lot more to the movie than that. If you watch it critically, it's also an instructive, cautionary tale, with lessons for any paddler who wants to tackle moving water.

Here are just a few:

Experience Counts. Serious whitewater is no place for novice paddlers. None of the men in Deliverance is a skilled whitewater canoeist. In fact, two of them have never paddled before, and their lack of experience shows. In moving water, boat control is everything, and good control comes only with practice—another word for experience. Experience also builds judgment, the knack of knowing when to say No. There simply isn't any substitute for good judgment. It can't be learned from books, however. Of course books help. They're just not enough.

OK. Experience counts. But how can a novice acquire it? There's only one way: paddle. Start on easy water. Go slow. Be patient. And don't think you can learn everything you need to know at the put-in or on the first quarter-mile of the river. You can't.

There's No Substitute for Good Judgment. I'm repeating myself, I know. Still, it's in a good cause. Bad judgment and lack of experience often go hand-in-hand. So don't bite off more than you can chew, and stay humble. The river—any river—is stronger than you are.

What's that? You're already a competent paddler? Excellent. But don't assume that you've automatically got what it takes to be a leader. Trip leaders need more than flawless paddling technique. They need enough good judgment for the whole group, coupled with well-honed "people skills." The answer? More experience, of course. That won't come as any surprise, I'm sure.

And what if trouble finds you despite your best efforts? This is where your good judgment is really tested. The rules are easy to write down, but hard to follow. Stay calm. Think things through. Weigh the odds. And carry a good first-aid kit. Most important, don't rely on the kindness of strangers. There may not be one around when you need her.

Little Things Matter a Lot. Don't follow the example of the paddlers in Deliverance. Whether you're a weak swimmer or a strong one, wear a life jacket. Always. And keep it zipped up. Your life jacket won't help you if it slips off. (A snug-fitting life jacket provides thermal insulation, too. That's especially important in spring and fall—and on dam-controlled rivers at all seasons.)

Your Boat Can't Float Alone. Most—but not all!—canoes and kayaks float when swamped, but they don't float very high. If you're taking your boat into whitewater, fill the empty spaces with float bags or other supplementary flotation. It's a lot easier to recover a boat if it's riding high in the water, and there's a much better chance it will still be intact when you get it back.

Don't Go Down the Creek without TWO Paddles. Always carry a spare paddle in your boat, even on a farm pond. In whitewater, carry a spare for each paddler. You can't control your boat in big waves or strong currents with your bare hands, and no paddle—however well made—is unbreakable. (It's surprisingly easy to lose a paddle, too.)

Listen to the Locals. They may not be paddlers, but they probably know what last year's flood did down in the gorge. Listen and learn, even if you don't always believe what you're told. (How do you know what to believe? Judgment. Again.) Chances are pretty good that you'll pick up valuable information. When the canoeists in Deliverance try to explain why they want to paddle the Cahulawassee, one of them hits on the old chestnut: "Because it's there." A short-tempered local man isn't impressed. His reply? "If yew git yerselves in there and cain't git out, yew're goin' to wish it wudn't." He was right.

Don't Trespass. This should go without saying, but even people who ought to know better treat trespass casually. That's a big mistake. Country folks don't always take kindly to strangers. We were lucky when we inadvertently blundered onto private property. The four guys in Deliverance weren't. It's better not to rely on luck.

If in Doubt, Scout. Always scout rapids, even if you've run a river many times. Sometimes you can do it from your boat, but often you'll have to go ashore and scramble over cobbles or bull your way through an alder hell. Either way, it's a pain, but it's nowhere near as painful as a fractured femur or a funeral. So do it, every time. Rivers change with each spring flood. Banks slump, and sweepers convert safe routes into death traps. Even on relatively quiet streams it's worth scouting ahead. A new beaver dam can turn an easy passage into an obstacle course. Want to avoid unpleasant surprises? Who doesn't? Scout.

Stay Dry. That's "dry" as in "keep the beer in the cooler." Obvious? Maybe. But a lot of paddlers I've met were liquid fueled, nonetheless. This is a Bad Idea, however thirsty the day. I've seen a single lunch-stop beer turn a world-class water-dancer into a rock-bashing bumbler. And he was lucky. He only broke his boat. It could have been his head. Whitewater paddling requires both good coordination and sound judgment. Beer doesn't improve either one. Neither does wine or whisky. So save the booze for the end of the day.

*   *   *

That's enough, I think. If you've seen the movie, you'll remember scenes where every one of these common-sense rules was bent or broken, with predictable results. And what if you haven't seen it? Don't wait any longer. You'll be surprized at what you'll learn. The most important lesson? It's a lot easier to avoid Deliverance moments than to pick up the pieces afterward.

The music's pretty good, too.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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