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Spotlight: Good Guidebooks

A Triple Crown Winner —
Hayes' and Wilson's Quiet Water Canoe Guide

By Farwell Forrest
farwell@paddling.net

June 10, 2003

What makes a good guidebook good? I suggested several answers to this question two months ago. Then, last month, I looked at a veteran entry in the Guidebook Stakes, a thoroughbred who's already made it to the winner's circle many times. Today I'm going to talk about a young champion, a Triple Crown winner among guidebooks — John Hayes' and Alex Wilson's Quiet Water Canoe Guide: New York (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 1996).

How does Quiet Water succeed, when so many guidebooks fail? Let me count the ways:

  1. The authors give concise, straightforward, honest descriptions of waterways throughout New York, from hydropower impoundments to wilderness ponds.

  2. They never leave paddlers wondering if they've taken the wrong turn on the way to their put-in. Hayes' and Wilson's instructions for "Getting There" not only take you to the water, but they tell you how to buy a parking permit (if one is needed), and where you can rent a canoe in the neighborhood, as well.

  3. The maps prepared by cartographer Ian Duncan and archivist sameboatv Malin are models of clarity, economy, and style.

  4. Each of the eight "Nature Essays" scattered through the book is a minor masterpiece of exposition.

  5. With one significant exception — why is there no comprehensive index? — Quiet Water is a textbook example of good organization.

I'd like to take a closer look at each of these points, but before I begin, perhaps I should say a word or two about the notion of a "quiet water" guide. It's a novel idea, really. Whitewater boaters turn to guidebooks as a matter of course. No (sane) novice wants to plan his weekend around a trip down a Class V river, after all. And at the other end of the spectrum, few hard-core creek boaters will want to waste their time on anything less than a solid Class IV. Guidebooks help avoid such mismatches. But who needs a guide to quiet waters? They're…well…quiet, aren't they? The only danger is boredom.

True. Almost. Summer thunderstorms make even quiet waters roar, and on a bad day you can drown in a farm pond. But guidebooks can do more than save your life (or your weekend). They also open doors. Even familiar waters look different when seen through someone else's eyes, and when that someone else is an observant and expert naturalist, they will look very different indeed. I can still remember the day when I learned that the "moss" I was accustomed to seeing on the rocks of a tiny, swift-flowing stream was really a living carpet of blackfly larvae. After that, I was seeing blackfly larvae everywhere. Then I started looking closer, and a new world opened before me. From that day on, every paddling trip was a voyage of discovery — in three dimensions.

Fast forward to another time, and another river. This was no tiny stream, however. It was the upper Hudson in April. The day was drawing to a close. We were running the last long rapid before the Glen, a lively Class III known as Race Horse. Suddenly, I saw ducks playing in the pounding water, diving and bobbing in the eddies and chutes. They seemed very much at home there. I was flabbergasted. The ducks looked like wood ducks, but I'd never heard of wood ducks swimming in rapids. I turned my head to keep them in view. WHAP! The bow of the canoe hit a rock, and I sprawled forward over the deck. By the time I'd levered myself upright and we'd gotten the boat back under control, the ducks were long gone.

The next day I picked up my copy of Peterson and began leafing through the pages. I'd been thinking about the "wood ducks" I'd seen in the rapids. Something didn't add up. The silhouette wasn't right, to begin with, and the colors — what I'd been able to see of them, at any rate — weren't quite right, either. Then I came to page 56 of A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies. I found myself staring at a portrait of the harlequin duck. That was all I needed. "Habitat," the description read, "turbulent mountain streams." I hadn't seen wood ducks at all. I'd seen harlequin ducks, stopping over to refuel on their way north to the Arctic. At least I thought they were harlequin ducks. If only I'd had time to look at them properly.…

Quiet water. It may lack thrills, but it offers you a chance to take a second look at a duck without hitting a rock. It's easier to know where to look if you have an experienced guide, however. That's reason enough for a guidebook.

Now let's take a second look at Hayes' and Wilson's Quiet Water.

Honesty is the Best Policy. Let's face it. Many of us want guidebook writers to lie to us. Not big lies, of course. Little lies. Lies of omission. Will we share our weekend retreat with a squadron of jet-ski jocks? We don't want to know. Will the designated campsites all look (and smell) like poorly-maintained privies? Don't tell us now! That would spoil the pleasurable anticipation that's half the fun of any holiday.

I understand. Honesty murders Romance, and many of us get very good at not seeing what we don't want to see. I suppose it's an essential survival skill for some. I do it myself, in fact. But I fight against it when I can. I try to face bad news squarely, and I'm happiest when guidebook writers tell me the whole truth, even if it shatters the illusion of the forest primeval. Jet-skiers and slobs always ye have with you. In fact, their numbers are growing hourly. So to hell with Romance, I say. I like to have some idea what to expect when I venture outside my neighborhood. That's why I like Quiet Water.

Honesty cuts both ways, of course. Sometimes the news is good, and when it is, Hayes and Wilson let you know. Maybe the noise from the nearby road isn't deafening. Or the mud in the shallows gums up jet-ski intakes. Or the campsites are clean. When this happens, you're in luck. Next weekend, while 250 canoeists and kayakers compete for 10 sites among the unregistered landfills at Lonesome Lake — and the National Guard rehearses close air-support missions 100 feet over their heads — you'll have Mud Pond all to yourself, with only a booming bittern for company and a few hundred dragonflies hunting targets of opportunity among the mosquitoes. Bliss!

Getting There Is Half the Fun. Losing my way somewhere in a maze of logging roads isn't my idea of a good time. Despite this, not every guidebook writer takes you in hand before you get to the water. Hayes and Wilson do. 'Nuff said.

Is It on the Map? With Hayes and Wilson, it is. You'll still want quads to navigate, but you won't need an atlas to follow their descriptions. Their maps are first-rate.

It's Only Natural. Have you ever wondered how to retrieve a corpse from the bottom of a pond without a dive team? Open Water lets you in on the secret. (A hint: make friends with a snapping turtle.) Or maybe you've asked yourself if there were real-life counterparts to Audrey II, the flesh-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. There are. You can read all about them in "The Tables Get Turned." Get the idea? Hayes' and Wilson's trenchant essays make this book delightful bedtime reading. How many other guidebooks can you say that about?

Organization, Man! Organization. A place for everything, and everything in its place. It's like, you know, key, the sine qua non of any reference book, and guidebooks are reference books. Why, then, do so many guidebook writers throw everything in the pot and stir, leaving it to the reader to pick through the resulting shepherd's pie and pull out the good bits (if any). Beats me. They ought to take a lesson from Hayes and Wilson.

Is Quiet Water perfect? No. Though the authors have added a helpful alphabetical list of lakes and ponds, their book needs a comprehensive index. A reference book without one is only half-finished. Fortunately, their publisher has a perfect opportunity to rectify this oversight. Quiet Water is starting to show its age. It's time for a new edition. What better time to complete the job Hayes and Wilson have begun so well?

Ladies and gentlemen, a toast: I give you Quiet Water forever!

*

Quiet waters are great places to take kids, but some parents need a little help getting underway. What's available? More than you might think. Join me next time, when I spotlight "Kid Stuff."

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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