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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Where Am I to Go?

Finding a Place to Paddle

by Farwell Forrest

"Where am I to go, me Johnnies? O, where am I to go?" This plaintive refrain from one of the better-known halyard shanties of the age of sail has echoes in the present day. Hardly a week passes when Tamia and I don't get at least one letter from someone asking us to recommend a river or lake suitable for a day-trip or a weekend outing. And the enquiries come from all over the map of North America, from people with very different interests. Some are looking for peace and quiet in settings of great natural beauty. Other writers want a physical challenge. Still others are looking for "adventure."

These requests often leave us scratching our heads. We're always glad to get letters, of course, and we're flattered that folks imagine us to be on first-name terms with all of North America's waterways. But, more often than not, we have to disappoint our correspondents.

In truth, no one individual—no ten individuals—could hope to sample even a representative selection of the continents' waters. Between us, Tamia and I have been paddling canoes and kayaks for sixty-odd years. We live in northern New York now, but we've paddled as far afield as James Bay, the Bay of Fundy and the inland waters of Florida. For all this, though, there are canoeable creeks and beaver ponds not two miles from where we live that we've never visited.

What, then, of the waters we have paddled? Surely we have favorites that we'd be happy to recommend to others? Well, yes—and no. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed some 2,500 years ago, you can't step twice in the same river. All waterways are dynamic systems. Even the most placid pond alters from one year to the next, and rivers change with every spring flood and summer thunderstorm.

Nor is any waterway in North America so remote as to be free from human influence. We've found whole islands in northern Quebec knee-deep in beer bottles and aluminum cans, and we've paddled through stinking mats of floating human turds on the margins of James Bay itself.

The little river where Tamia learned to canoe is a case in point. Twenty years ago it was largely ignored by paddlers. A storied trout stream, it wound its way between forested banks westward from its Vermont headwaters, through a landscape dominated by picture-book New England farms.

No longer. Today, this little river boasts several active canoe liveries, and second homes have replaced many of the ancient sycamores that used to line the banks. On a hot July day it's now possible to look down from one of the many highway bridges and see an endless parade of canoes bumping and jostling their way downriver. The fishermen are still there, though there's a set to their jaws neither of us can remember from our earlier encounters. They work the pools and eddies as before, but they're now spending as much time dodging out-of-control canoes as they are matching Blue-Winged Olives to the midsummer hatches of Ephemerella and Baetis. Few of them look like they're having a good time.

Nor are such changes confined to rivers. The small reservoir on which we live is far busier today than it was when we first moved into the old hunting camp we call home. Where once we could actually smell the mingled scents of pine and balsam in the heavy summer air, and hear the cries of loons and heron, we now smell only gasoline and hear only the whine of runabouts and jet-skis.

We are seeing more canoeists, to be sure—and many more kayakers than before. Too often, however, they resemble the family group we watched pass by our window only yesterday: a man and woman with two children, in a battered old aluminum canoe.

A water-ski towboat approached them at perhaps 35 mph on their left, the skier carving a wide arc behind his tow. At almost the same instant, two jet-skis passed the family from behind, one on each side, both going at more than 40 mph. Just as soon as the jet-ski on the left was clear of the canoe, he cut across its bow to avoid the water-skier. The rooster tail from the jet-ski wetted the paddlers down. Within seconds, the fan of spray from the water-skier wetted them again. Through all this, the woman in the bow of the canoe sat motionless, her paddle resting across her thighs while she gripped the gunwales, her face set in an anxious scowl. The man, grim and determined, paddled furiously, first on one side and then on the other. The canoe veered from right to left. One of the two children sat silent and staring. The other clung to the right gunwale and wailed, tears streaming down her face.

Seconds later, they were lost from view. Theirs will be a vacation they'll long remember, I'm sure. I doubt that they'll be coming back.

Rivers change. Lakes change. More of us flee to the water every year, and every year there are fewer and fewer places where it's pleasant—or even safe—to paddle. How can you find your way to one of the few remaining enclaves?

First, ask around. Talk to other paddlers, face-to-face, if possible. See if there's a paddling club near your home. Most major cities have at least one, as do many universities. Their members are probably your best source of information about local and regional waters. Just be sure that you're both talking about the same thing. If members of the local club are all nationally-ranked downriver racers, their idea of good water may be quite different from yours.

Can't find a paddling club? Then talk to the folks at local outfitters and liveries. Here, too, you'll have to be careful. An outfitter will probably touch lightly, if at all, on any less-than-attractive aspects of his home waters. He shouldn't be blamed for this, of course. It's simply not in his interest to discourage business. With luck, you'll get useful recommendations. Don't expect more.

No outfitter or livery nearby? Then check out the offerings of state or provincial tourism and conservation agencies. While these are perhaps the least useful sources of all, there are happy exceptions. Too often, though, the best you can hope for is the roughest sort of rough guide, couched in language so exaggerated that it would make even a veteran political consultant blush. Unless I miss my guess, the frightened family that Tamia and I saw navigating the perils of our reservoir had been taken in by just this sort of irresponsible public relations fantasy.

Guidebooks are another source of information about waterways near and far. Unfortunately, they vary enormously in quality, and even the better ones are often out of date before they're published. Conditions change, after all—and the changes often come rapidly and unpredictably. Still, it's almost always worthwhile searching out the guidebooks for any area that interests you. The best are very good indeed. In the northeastern United States, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the several series published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Their River Guides—take the AMC River Guide: New Hampshire, Vermont, edited by Victoria Jas, for example—are models of their type: coherent, concise and well-organized. And the AMC's relatively new "quiet water" guides are, if anything, even better. The New York volume (Quiet Water Canoe Guide, New York, by John Hayes and Alex Wilson) is quite simply the best guidebook I've ever seen.

Lastly, of course, there are maps, though many experienced paddlers turn to a map first whenever they're looking for new worlds to conquer. Tamia's covered the use of maps in some detail already, in an article entitled "Maps and Dreams." While there's no need for me to repeat what she's written, I'd be thoughtless indeed if I didn't mention the DeLorme Mapping Company's series of state atlases. Combining intermediate-scale topographic maps with helpful lists of everything from "unique natural features" to historic sites to canoe trips, the DeLorme atlases are an invaluable resource for any canoeist or kayaker, whatever his or her other interests. Whether you turn to them first or last, you won't find a better starting place for any trip.

Ours is an increasingly crowded and busy world. If you hope to paddle away from it all for a little while, you'll have your work cut out for you. Fortunately, you're not entirely on your own. Other paddlers, published guidebooks and maps can all help. It's a short list, but somewhere on it is an answer for everyone who's ever asked the question "Where am I to go?"

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Summer's coming to an end in the northern hemisphere. That's good news for paddlers. Join Tamia next week as she looks ahead to the joys of the third season. 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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