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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Moving On

Part 1: A River Runs Through It

by Tamia Nelson

Early last week, a line squall swept across the northern New York county where Farwell and I live. Though spawned by the same weather system that devastated parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area over the Fourth of July weekend, this storm were less violent. The wind blew hard enough to bring down dead branches from the white pines that surround our house, but the trees themselves remained standing. That's just as well. Some of these pines are over 80 feet tall.

The squalls also brought us rain. A lot of rain—perhaps one inch or more in less than two hours. After the squall line had passed, when the rain had slowed to a misting drizzle and the sky to our north had started to lighten, I went out. I wasn't just going for a stroll. The jeep track that serves as our access road passes over a culvert, through which a flashy little stream runs down out of a woods on its way to the Flow. Some years back, a neighbor "improved" the drainage on his property by digging a ditch from his driveway apron to a point just upstream of the culvert. Ever since then, the run-off that follows each heavy rain swells the little stream until it flows over the road, threatening to wash out our link with the larger world.

So I put on my wellies and slogged down the dirt track, wondering what I'd find when I got to the culvert. Long before I could see the culvert, however, my eye was caught by dozens of new streamlets criss-crossing the road surface. No two were exactly alike, but—as in the Bach harpsichord concerti playing in the background as I write—each one shared elements common to all the others. None proceeded in a straight line, for example: each looped and twisted, its descent checked or redirected by almost imperceptible irregularities in the dirt surface of the road.

Looking down at these streams-in-miniature, I forgot all about the culvert and my other business. In a sudden flood of recollection, I no longer saw the dirt surface of the road. I no longer even felt the steady, soaking drizzle. Instead, I found myself looking back to a sunny summer day, not so very long ago, when I stood on a rickety rail bridge over a small stream in eastern New York, gazing down at the water into which I was about to launch my canoe.

Some of you will find yourselves in the same situation soon. You're no longer novices. You're already at home on still waters. You've mastered the forward and back strokes, the sweep, draw and pry, and one or more variations on the "J." You've learned to work together with a partner, and you've discovered how much fun it can be to paddle alone. Many of you will have bought boats of your own. Now you're ready to begin learning the ways of moving water.

This moment is a watershed in the education of any canoeist. It opens up new country for exploration. It brings new challenges and wider opportunities—and it brings additional dangers, as well. It's not something to embark on alone.

How, then, should you proceed?

That's easy. By reading. If you're already familiar with Bill Mason's Path of the Paddle, re-read the section on running rapids. (It's Chapter 6 in my first edition.) If you haven't yet read this invaluable book, get hold of a copy and become familiar with it. Pay special attention to the photographs and paintings illustrating the infinitely variable interplay of current, streambed, riverbank, and rocks. Study it as you would a text-book. When you can look at an aerial photo of a river and trace the line of the main current, distinguish between the upstream V's marking the presence of rocks and the downstream V's indicating more-or-less clear routes, pick out the eddies, and identify areas of standing waves—when you can do all this, you're ready to leave the library for the river.

It's best to do this in company. Moving water has a power that has to be experienced to be believed. It's surprisingly easy to get yourself killed on a river—even a little river. Farwell once spent a very bad quarter-hour working alone to free a young woman who was pinned against a "sweeper"—a tree which had fallen into the river at the outside of a bend. The current flows through the branches of a sweeper without hindrance, but any paddler who is swept into those same branches will find herself pinned like a fly thrown against a screen by a gust of wind. If the paddler is strong and lucky, she'll be able to pull herself up and out of the water. If she's not lucky—if, for example, her head isn't above water when she's first pinned—and if there's no one around to help her, she'll have a minute at most to curse fate and the river before she starts to die. It's not my idea of a good time.

OK. It's best not to venture onto moving water alone. Where do you find companions? Try local paddling clubs first. Some of these are very good. Many have weekend whitewater workshops. There's no better way to learn the ways of moving water.

No paddling clubs near you? Check out nearby outfitters and liveries. Some operate as informal clearinghouses for paddlers looking for companions; a few even offer formal instruction—at a price. Ask around. You'll almost certainly find somebody to paddle with sooner or later. Just don't leave your common sense behind when you head for the river. If you drive to the put-in and find a bunch of jolly jocks getting ready to run what looks like Niagara Falls, you've made the wrong connections. Keep your boat on the rack, get back in your car, and drive home. Try again next weekend.

Still no luck? Then you're on your own. You'll be paddling in one boat, either solo or with another paddler who may have no more experience than you do yourself. Is this the end of the line? Are you condemned never to taste the joys of moving water? Maybe not. It is possible to venture out on a river alone and live to tell the tale. It isn't "safe," though. It's not even prudent. You could lose your boat. You could even get yourself killed. If you follow a few common-sense rules, the likelihood of either is small—but it's never zero. You might be the unlucky one. Think hard about it. Imagine yourself drowning on a lonely stretch of river in the middle of a bright summer's day. Only you can decide if this is a risk you're prepared to run.

You say it is, and the folks who love you agree? Then you need a river. But not just any river. If you can, begin on a small river in mid-summer. The ideal training ground is a river of the pool-and-drop variety—one in which moving pools alternate with short, easy rapids. It will also have a low gradient, with few sweepers, and no falls, ledges or dams. And it will be clean enough to swim in.

This seemingly modest list of requirements will be surprisingly hard to meet, even in well-watered regions. Many small rivers are too steep to make good "nursery" waters, and a lot of the rest are full of garbage or otherwise fouled. Ask around. Check the guidebooks. Sooner or later you'll find something suitable. When you do, you're ready to begin moving on.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Don't worry. Tamia won't leave you standing at the put-in. In Part 2 of "Moving On," you'll come to grips with a river for the very first time. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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