The Amphibious Paddler
On Your Bike? Why Not!
By Tamia Nelson
April 27, 2004
Grandad was a fisherman. He wasn't a snob. Sometimes he
waded icy mountain torrents, standing motionless in much-patched canvas waders
while tempting wary brown trout with a dead-drift Elkhair Caddis. On other days,
he dropped a ball of night crawlers over a cutbank and dozed in the sun while
unseen leviathans stole his bait. But he was happiest when he was angling for
brookies in his favorite beaver pond, drifting from one sweet spot to the next
in a battered Grumman canoe.
This "tin tank" was hidden behind a thicket of alders, tethered to a towering
white pine with a rusty logger's chain and an equally rusty padlock "To
keep honest men honest," he said. A nearby fire ring
marked the spot of many a shore lunch, and a resident chipmunk
announced each visitor to the pond from a vantage point atop a pile of
beaver-gnawn poplar branches. Grandad's paddles were hidden under the tangle of
branches, wrapped in oilcloth and guarded by the ever-vigilant chipmunk.
Most days, the chipmunk didn't have many visitors to announce. Reaching
Grandad's pond required trekking upstream on a muddy trail alongside a brook
that often forgot to run between its banks. And this was the easy bit. The real
challenge lay in getting to the trailhead. Casual fishermen took one look at the
rutted, cobble-strewn track as it left the state highway and turned around on
the spot. Only Grandad and a handful of other old-timers ventured farther. It
was worth it. Their reward for risking their cars' axles and transmissions among
the boulders and bottomless pot-holes was a glimpse of an anglers' paradise.
That, and long minutes of silence, a stillness broken only by the cheerful "Sam
Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of the white-throated sparrow, the wail of a
distant loon, the slap of a
beaver's tail, or the whisper of the wind in the tops of the pines.
Or and this was the sound nearest my Grandad's heart the gentle
plop! of a wild brookie, sipping mayflies from the quiet surface of the
pond. There were other sounds, of course. The whine of
impudent mosquitos, for example, and the manic,
maddening buzz of blackflies out for blood. My Grandad never complained,
though. "If it weren't for the flies, there'd be no fish," he reminded me each
time I grumbled. And after a while I understood.
I understood, too, why Grandad left his canoe at the pond from one year to
the next. The trail was hard enough to negotiate without an eighty-pound burden
on your back. So I was overjoyed when my grandfather gave me permission to use
his canoe whenever I wanted. There was just one problem. I now had a key to the
padlock on the Grumman, but I didn't have the keys to Grandad's Jeep. (I
wouldn't have dared ask him for them, anyway.) If I wanted to fish the pond, I
had to hike all the way in from Grandad's cabin. That took most of the morning.
The return trip took most of the rest of the day. This didn't leave much time
for paddling. Night comes
early in mountain valleys, even in summer.
I tried it anyway, and on more than one occasion. I was glad I did. The silty
sand left behind by the retreating glaciers preserved the tiniest tracks in all
their detail, enabling me to follow white-footed
mice as they went about their daily errands. Deer grazed unafraid among the
succulent growth of old burns
as I walked past. And I filled my felt cruiser with ripe raspberries, following
paths blazed by hungry bears. (Curiously, I never saw a bear in the berries. I
often met a porcupine and her offspring, though. The little porcupette liked
berries even more than the bears and I did.)
Still, as much as I enjoyed these walks, I wished it were possible to get to
the pond more quickly. Summer vacations were never long enough, and mine was
fast drawing to a close. I wanted to paddle, not plod. Then, one day as I set
out on my walk, I had a vision. Actually, as visions go, it wasn't much. I
looked down the road and saw
A kid on a bicycle. That was enough. I had a bicycle. And I could ride
my bike a lot faster than I could walk. Back home, I rode it everywhere. My bike
took me to my favorite swimming hole. It carried me up and down the length of the 'Kill,
where I spent long hours studying the
current as it slipped around
bends, changed direction in eddies,
and rushed over gravel
bars. I didn't yet have a canoe of my own, but I knew I'd get one
soon. In the meantime, I studied "my" river from the road.
Now I had the use of a canoe my Grandad's canoe. It was too good an
opportunity not to make the most of it. So I did. A week later, I was riding my
bike down the trail, headed for the beaver pond. It wasn't easy. I had to carry
the bike almost as much as it carried me, but I still got to the pond in half
the time it took me to walk there. Minutes after I arrived, I was paddling out
across the placid surface. I could hear a bittern boom in the weedy shallows on
the far side of the pond. And then I heard the splash of a feeding trout.
That was many years ago. Now, I'm on my bike again, exploring watersheds
throughout the northern Adirondacks. Farwell and I meet other cyclists from time
to time, but we almost never meet canoeists or kayakers. And that's a surprise.
Are we the only amphibious paddlers? I doubt it. But there certainly aren't many
of us. Yet. Still, tomorrow is another day. Let's look at a few reasons why you
might want to join our ranks. I'm betting you'll never see your old bike in
quite the same light again.
Getting to Know Your Neighborhood
First things first. Unless you live in a desert or smack in the center of a
dry-as-dust urban megapolis, chances are pretty good that there's a waterway you
haven't paddled no more than twenty miles from your door. In fact, there's
probably more than one. And twenty miles just happens to be a comfortable
distance to ride a bike. That being the case, why not get to know your
neighborhood?. Better yet, why not do it on a bike?
It needn't be complicated. To get started, hop on your bike. I'm assuming
that you can ride a bike, of course. If you can't, learn. I can all but
guarantee you'll have fun. I'm also assuming that you have a bike to ride. If
not, borrow one from a friend (or your kid), or rent one from a nearby shop. A
quick mechanical check, and you're ready to go. Now follow your nose. But bring
a good map with you. And if it's been a few years since you rode a bike, take it
very easy at first. You want to get back in time for supper and you want
to get back in one piece. (A few words to the wise: Wear a helmet. You've only
got one head. Bring clip-on head- and taillights, too, even if you don't plan to
be on the road after dark. Sometimes you get held up. Flat tires happen even to
Where you go is up to you. Explore. When you travel at only 10 or 12
miles per hour, you'll see a lot that you miss when you whoosh by at 50. Take
the road less traveled. Turn off the highway and ride down the roads you drive
past every day. Look for water. Any water. A stream. A pond. A swamp. A bay.
Check out possible put-ins. Be alert for Posted
signs, and jot down the landowners' names so that you can ask permission to
carry your boat across their land later on. Take in the view from bridges. Get
to know the neighborhood.
Then, when you return home, sit down with the best maps you can lay your
hands on. Identify what you saw. Trace the course of the stream you crossed on
that old iron bridge. Follow the shoreline of the lake you
glimpsed through the trees, or the contours of the bay that
lay behind the dunes. Now decide where you want to go on your next road
trip. You're on your way. Before you know it, your list of local paddling
destinations will be longer than you dreamed possible and you'll have a
lot of fun in the process.
Is this seat-of-the-pants approach to exploration too haphazard for you? If so,
do a little
advance planning before you plop your seat on the saddle. This, too, means
getting out the maps. There's nothing
like a map for quickening the pulse. Topographic quad, atlas, or globe, it
makes no difference. Each one seems to whisper, "Come and see what lies beyond
the horizon." Who among us can resist that invitation? And of all the colors on
a modern map, the most enticing is blue the blue of waterways, of ponds
and lakes, of streams and rivers. The blue of the deep blue sea. Simply find the
blue on the map of your neighborhood, and then
go see it for
Here's where a bicycle really shines. You can tackle the roughest roads in
the county without worry. Just take it slow and easy. Walk when the going gets
too tough to ride. Carry your bike when you must. You'll still cover the miles.
And you'll return from each ride knowing the location of every pothole and
washout. Annotate your map while the memory is fresh. There's more to scouting a
river than eyeballing the
drops. You've got to scout the roads to the put-in, too. Your car will thank
In time, you'll find yourself taking longer and longer trips. Enjoy the ride.
Pack a lunch. Bring plenty
of drinking water. Make a day of it. Want to go further still? Add some
camping kit and sleep out along the way. Or, if that doesn't appeal, experiment
with "multi-modal transport." Get a bike rack for your car and drive to a safe parking
area. Then continue on into the unknown on two wheels, even as "Dueling
Banjos" echoes in your head. Don't hold back on that account, though. Nobody
Deliverance moment in his life, of course, but if you've done your
homework, you'll be fine.
Once you've found a new waterway that captures your heart, it's time to put
your boat on the car and head for the put-in. Can't bear to leave the bike
behind? Then bring it along, and make the end-of-the-day shuttle part of the
fun, instead of a chore to be got over as quickly as possible.
Beating the Shuttle Blues
How? Easy. With your bike at
the take-out it's easy to return to your car. But you'll want to be sure
your two-wheeled transport is waiting for you when you arrive. If another member
of your group is leaving a vehicle at the take-out, you can probably store your
bike and accessories in the trunk. Ask. No room? Don't worry. You can almost
always hide your bike back in the bush. (That's one of the things you can check
during your pre-float reconnaissance.) Lock it to a good-sized tree, and be sure
to remove any portable accessories, too. Helmets, lights, pumps, panniers, and
cyclometers sometimes walk away from unattended bikes, as do saddles and
seatposts secured with quick-release clamps. This isn't very likely if you've
chosen a good place to leave your bike, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
Once you've gotten a couple of these amphibious journeys under your saddle,
you may start wondering if you couldn't do without the car altogether. The
answer? You can.
Going the Whole Frog
But it's not as easy as it looks. Bikes can haul a prodigious amount of gear,
but it's best if the load comes in small packages. Hard-shell canoes and kayaks
don't qualify. You can get a boat-trailer for your bike, but a bike with
a seventeen-foot-long tail isn't something I'd want to take too many miles down
the road. Even folding canoes and
kayaks make awkward burdens. What's the solution? Inflatables. From
four-pound "trail boats" for paddling gingerly around beaver ponds to
45-pound kayaks at home in Class III water or ocean surf, there's an inflatable
for every budget and purpose. The heavier ones are best carried in a bike
trailer, but unlike the boat-trailers for hard-shells, these trailers are
compact and relatively easy to haul, both on the road and off. They're the
perfect rigs for uncompromising amphibians.
Who says that bicycling and paddling can't go together? Sometimes two wheels
are better than four. You'll save money on gas and get some exercise into the
bargain and that's only the beginning. Scouting put-ins is a blast.
Shuttles are simpler. And with the right boat-in-a-bag in your trailer, no
waterway in the world is too remote. Why shouldn't the road trip be part of the
fun, after all? It can be. Just get on your bike and go.
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights