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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Weekend Adventures

How To Get Away From It All
And Still Be Back at Work on Monday

By Farwell Forrest

May 24, 2005

We were all feeling seedy.… What it was that was actually the matter with us, we none of us could be sure of; but the unanimous opinion was that it — whatever it was — had been brought on by overwork.

"What we want is rest," said Harris.

"Rest and a complete change," said George.… "Let's go up the river."

      Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat


Sound familiar? I'll bet it does. Yes, Three Men in a Boat was written when Queen Victoria ruled an empire on which the sun never set. The American Civil War was still a living memory. Yet the complaint voiced by the anonymous narrator is a familiar one. We all get a bit "seedy" from time to time, though today we'd probably call it "stressed out." We all feel the need for "rest and a complete change." And just like Jerome's three heroes, we find what we're looking for by going up a river. Of course, we're more likely to go down a river nowadays, but then not every river is as tractable as the Thames above Kingston. Going up most small North American rivers can be anything but restful. Even so, the principle remains the same. We're tired or bored by our day-to-day round and we want to escape. In other words, we want adventure. Or — bearing in mind what Vilhjalmur Stefansson had to say on that subject — we want to live through something that's as close to real adventure as we can get without actually putting our lives on the line. There's such a thing as too much change, after all.

That's the Why of it. But the How can be a lot harder to pull off. Employers don't always understand our need to get away from it all, particularly if getting away means not being back in the office (or the plant) on Monday morning. Our spouses and partners may have other ideas, as well, or one of the kids may need to be taken to the dentist next Wednesday. And even if the kids have all left home, the grandchildren may be coming to stay for the summer. Whatever the reason, a great many would-be adventurers find the classic lose-yourself-in-the-landscape Big Trip an impossible dream, at least in most years.

Does this mean we're condemned to spend our free time in front of the television, watching professional travelers doing things we can only daydream about? Fortunately, no. There are thousands of outfitters eager to help paddlers get away, whether for a weekend or a week. We only need to put ourselves in their hands and they'll do the rest, tailoring a trip to suit any window in our schedules. And for many canoeists and kayakers this is the perfect solution. But it won't be cheap. What about those of us who find spare cash as hard to come by as free time? Parents with kids in college, say, or folks just starting out, or any of the millions of hard-working men and women who do whatever needs to be done for little more than the minimum wage. What can we do to scratch our itch for adventure? Is the Outdoor Channel our only option?

No way. The secret to low-budget escapes lies in thinking small — in the miniaturized adventure, to be exact. As far as I can tell, this phrase was coined by writer Richard Frisbie, whose long out-of-print It's a Wise Woodsman Who Knows What's Biting Him is the definitive guide to the art of getting away "to the ends of the earth between breakfast and dinner." I can't recommend this little gem of a book too highly, but for those of you who don't find a copy in your local library, I'll offer my own somewhat idiosyncratic approach. Remember, though, that my suggestions are just that — suggestions. In the art of adventure, as in so many other areas of life, the most effective prescription is almost always the one you write for yourself.


Let's begin. First, and most important, lower your sights. It would indeed be wonderful to kayak in the Hindu Kush, but if you postpone your search for that much-needed "rest and change" till you have both the time and the money to venture so far from home, you may find you've left things a little too late. And in an age when polar trekkers give phone interviews from camps within a few feet of the North Pole, it's easy to discount the opportunities for adventure that lie right on your own doorstep. There's no denying the lure of the exotic, of course. Charles Dickens wrote scathingly of "telescopic philanthropists," well-to-do Englishmen and women who ignored the poverty and squalor of nineteenth-century London while lavishing fortunes on the "moral improvement" of far-distant tribespeople. I suppose a similar impulse must be at work in shaping our dreams of travel and adventure. Our own neighborhood is just too familiar, too commonplace, too everyday to be interesting. If we want to escape we have to travel far, far away. That's a no-brainer, right?

Wrong. Some fifteen years ago, I drew a circle with a radius of 30 miles on a map, centering it on my home in the Adirondack foothills. I picked 30 miles for a simple reason. It was the longest distance I could count on driving in an hour along narrow county roads and forest tracks, and two hours was the most I was prepared to spend in the car on any single day. A single day was often all I had. I wanted my miniature adventures to be invigorating escapes, not frenzied highway marathons that compelled me to breakfast at o-dark-thirty in order to be sure I'd return in time for a (late) dinner. I also wanted to spend more hours on the water than I did on the road. So 30 miles was about right, I thought. One hour out and one hour back. Still, it seemed a very short distance. Even though I lived on the edge of what the travel-and-tourism folks like to call the largest wilderness park east of the Mississippi — it doesn't quite live up to this billing, I'm sorry to say; at a least it isn't a wilderness — I wasn't at all sure I'd find adventure so close to home.

But I was mistaken. I quickly discovered places within the circle that were as foreign to me as the mountain torrents of the Hindu Kush. And the more I looked, the more I found. I had countless streams and numberless lakes and ponds to explore. Many of them — most of them, in fact — weren't described in any guidebook that I'd seen, and every one of them was completely new to me. I don't need to tell you how surprised I was. But I shouldn't have been. After all, my modest circle contained nearly 2 million acres. That's a pretty tidy piece of real estate. It wasn't always easy, however. Exploring, real exploring, never is. NO TRESPASSING signs often stopped my adventures before they'd begun, and many promising streams petered out in impenetrable tangles of alders within a few hundred yards of my put-in. It wasn't all picture-postcard sunsets and idyllic pine-girt islands, either. I discovered a lot of things that were downright ugly. Whole hillsides stripped bare by the tires of ATVs. Out-of-season deer left to rot where they fell before some market-hunter's gun, with only their velvet-draped antlers cut away. Free-running rills choked into fetid stillness by disposable diapers, household garbage, and discarded automobile tires. The rainbow sheen of motor oil on the placid surface of remote beaver ponds. The stink of raw sewage wafting from the waterfront lawns of 4,000-square-foot vacation homes. Packs of jet-skis racing in circles around lakes that I could paddle across in ten minutes without breaking into a sweat. Fish too full of poison to eat.

It's a long and melancholy catalog. Yet I kept on planning miniature adventures. I wanted to know what was going on in my neighborhood. And like Oliver Cromwell, whose stern instructions to the man who came to paint his picture are the stuff of legend, I prefer portraits that reflect the truth of the sitter, that show everything and omit nothing, with all the "roughnesses, pimples, [and] warts" accurately and exactly drawn. After all, the petulant whine of the jet-ski is now as much a part of the modern Adirondack soundscape as the call of the loon.

There were many happy surprises, too, of course. Every new day brought the possibility of a crimson sunset, loons could still be heard wailing on quiet summer evenings, and a few towering white pines survived to awe and inspire, stubbornly defying both thunderstorm-generated microburst winds and bulldozers. And then there was the happiest surprise of them all. More than fifteen years after I started exploring close to home, I've only just begun to fill in the blanks on my map. In fact, my circle's recently gotten much bigger, even though the furthest point on its circumference is the same distance from my house that it was at the start: 30 miles. Impossible, you say? Not at all. But the explanation of this seeming paradox will have to wait till next time.

Overworked? Run-down? Need a holiday? But you say you can only spare a weekend away from the office? Don't give up and settle down in front of the tube. Plan a miniature adventure, instead. You can get away from it all and still be back at your job on Monday. It's cheap. It's easy. And it's fun. Take it from me — you'll be mighty glad you did.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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