Spotlight: Good Guidebooks
Portrait of a Thoroughbred
Paul Jamieson's North Flow
By Farwell Forrest
May 13, 2003
Guidebooks crowd outfitters' shelves and fill
the pages of their catalogs, but not all guidebooks merit a place on
your bookshelf. Last month we explored several ways to separate the
the Guidebook Stakes from the also-rans. This time around we'll look at
a real thoroughbred, a veteran entry that's made it to the winner's circle
many times. Even if you'll never paddle the waters it describes, you can
learn a thing or two just by studying its championship form.
Before we join the crowd down at the paddock, though, here's a tip:
every champion has to be put out to pasture sooner or later, and guidebooks
are no exception. What can you do about this? Be sure you've got the latest
printing of the most recent edition, for one thing. That's only common
sense. But it's not enough in itself. You have to learn to listen to your inner
voice as well. If what you see on the water doesn't fit the description
in your guidebook, trust the evidence of your own eyes and not the printed
page. Always. After all, the author of the guidebook won't go for a swim if
things aren't quite as he described them. But you may.
Of course, rank beginners will have to rely almost entirely on the
judgement of others. More experienced boaters, however, would be wise to
weigh the words of James West Davidson and John Rugge: "The best policy, if
you're going to make mistakes, is to make your own." Not that you'll have
much choice in the matter. Whether you paddle a canoe or a kayak,
you are the captain of your little ship. The guidebook hasn't been
written that can substitute for a trained eye or on-the-water competence.
Nor is there necessarily safety in numbers, no matter how numerous or how
skilled your companions. Once you lower your butt into a small boat you're
mostly on your own. The buck stops where you sit. It's your butt that's on
the line, too. Good guidebooks can help you stay out of trouble, but they
can't save you from yourself. There's just no substitute for good
Now, with those cautionary words in mind, let's take a closer look at a
real thoroughbred. He's a little long in tooth, but you can still see the
form that made him a champion. And speaking of form, guidebooks may not win
Nobel Prizes for literature, but that doesn't mean they're all the same.
Most fall into one of three categories. The first is the
nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am school. These are spare and straightforward
books that tell you where to go, how to get there, and what to expect when
you arrive. Their authors' motto might well be taken from the Adirondack
Mountain Club's Canoe Guide to Western and Central New York State,
itself an excellent example of the type: "What the buyer wants from a
guidebook is a clear, simple, and above all, accurate description of the
canoe trip to be taken."
Well, yes, that's true of some guidebook purchasers, certainly.
But many readers want more from paddling than a change of scene and a
pounding pulse. Maybe you're one of them. If you are if you like to
know more about a river than the location of the put-in and the difficulty
of the rapids then books like the Appalachian Mountain Club's
Quiet Water series merit your attention. The New York Canoe
Guide, in particular, is a sort of latter-day Walden with maps.
The authors' short "nature essays" are excellent introductions to the world
glimpsed from a seat on the water, and I'll have more to say about their
book in a later article. Today, however, I'd like to consider an example
drawn from the third school of guidebook writing the guidebook as
gateway to history.
These books won't appeal to everyone. Some paddlers are perfectly happy
carving endless figure-eights in flooded quarries, or seeing how many times
they can cheat death in Class V-VI drops. For a few of us, however, the
real lure of waterways is the window they open on forgotten scenes from our
species' collective past. Tamia and I have explored this subject at length
For the present, though, it's enough to note that writers haven't
altogether neglected the interests of history buffs. Indeed, some of the
best guidebooks have been written with them in mind.
Paul Jamieson's Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Third
Edition (Adirondack Mountain Club, 1988; revised 1994) is a case in point.
The author of this guide to the waterways of the St. Lawrence and Lake
Champlain Basins of the Adirondacks was for many years a professor of
English at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He was already
an old man in 1975, when the first edition of North Flow appeared.
Now he's a very old man, and the job of keeping his book up to date
has fallen to Donald Morris. It's not yet clear what this will mean for
future editions. Jamieson was a canoeist, with only a passing interest in
technically-difficult whitewater, and his narrative style matched his
temperament. It was discursive, leisurely, and academic. He devotes two
pages to weighing the merits of spelling the name of the Grass River with
an added "e," for example. A few readers and I freely admit that I'm
one will find such prosy back-eddies fascinating. Many more will
think them maddening, however.
Don Morris may change all this. His first love is the kayak. Leisurely
drifts down forested backwaters are not for him. He delights in pitting his
skill against the Adirondack's most challenging whitewater runs. He doesn't
seem to have much interest in the minutia of history, either. So the next
edition of North Flow may well be both meaner and leaner, and
perhaps that's for the best.
No matter how the book's character may change under Morris' stewardship,
though, I wish he'd get a move on. The route descriptions in North
Flow are long overdue for a sweeping editorial spring-cleaning. A lot
has happened since the last revision. A hurricane-force windstorm in 1995
knocked down a wide swathe of forest scenery in the west-central
Adirondacks, for one thing, and while the portage trails have been cleared
of deadfalls by now, much of the forest landscape that Jamieson knew and
wrote about no longer exists. And that's not all. A catastrophic ice-storm
in 1998 brought down several million more trees, although in this instance
most of the damage was done in areas outside the Adirondack Park, in places
which Jamieson dismisses (using words borrowed from Lord Byron) as "having
too much of man" in them.
"Too much of man"? Coming from a writer with an obvious love of history,
this is a curious comment. What is history but the story of man's
impress on the land, after all? More to the point, however, Jamieson's
throwaway line highlights a further shortcoming of his book. Man hasn't
been idle in the nine years since 1994. There have been far-reaching
changes in the interpretation of the laws governing trespass on New York's
inland waters, for one thing. Waterways that had been closed to travel for
a century are once again open to itinerant canoeists and kayakers. This is
hinted at in the latest (1994) printing of North Flow, but much more
than mere hints are needed. There are hundreds of miles of "new" routes to
catalog and describe.
Good news? Certainly. But not all the news is equally good. A boom in
waterfront property development has also taken place in the years since
North Flow was last revised, limiting paddlers' opportunities rather
than expanding them. Here, too, Jamieson nods. Many waterways which still
retained some wild forest character in 1994 are now ringed with new
vacation homes. In such places, the snarl of the
jet-ski has nearly silenced the cry of the loon, and the Blue Line
the name usually given to the Adirondack Park boundary has
offered no sure defense against this mechanized assault. The reader can no
longer rely on North Flow to steer him away from the madding crowds.
This makes Jamieson's airy dismissal of waterways outside the Park
particularly hard to fathom. The differences between them and their
counterparts inside the Blue Line are at most differences in degree
and they are rather small differences, at that. Indeed, there may now be
to be found outside the Blue Line than within it. Nonetheless, it is just
such idiosyncratic observations that give North Flow its undoubted
charm. Of course, charm is a double-edged blade. It cuts both ways. All
paddlers appreciate good maps, yet everyone who picks up a copy of
North Flow will soon be reminded that "charming" can be a term of
opprobrium as well as praise. The book's maps are charming in the same way
that a five-year-old's crayon drawing is charming. A guidebook isn't a
refrigerator door, however, and the poorly-reproduced, scratchy, sketchy
maps are certain to lead even the most determined route-finder astray, if
only temporarily. The waters of the Adirondacks deserve better.
Fortunately, Jamieson's words can't be diminished by an artist's leaky
pen, and his book's many virtues outweigh its few blemishes. Early editions
of North Flow will warrant shelf-space in paddlers' libraries long
after more up-to-date volumes have replaced them in day packs and dry bags.
Whether Jamieson is lamenting the "degradation" of the lost
"wilderness-in-miniature" that was the Saranac headwaters, recounting the
delphic utterances of three otters he once encountered on Tupper Lake, or
describing "the most exciting canoe chase in American literature" it
took place on Lake George, by the way he cannot help but charm the
patient reader. Nor will he fail to open his readers' eyes to new
possibilities for exploration, even on familiar waterways. This, to my
mind, is the first purpose of a guidebook. It is also the secret of
North Flow's enduring appeal. I hope that at least a little of its
charm survives in future revisions.
Next month, I'll take a closer look at Quiet Water. It would be
hard to imagine a book less like North Flow, but they do have at
least one thing in common: Quiet Water, too, is an eye-opener.
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights