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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Bad Idea!

Trespass and "Commando Camping"

By Tamia Nelson

Private property. In 1840 the French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote, "Property is theft," but this view doesn't have much support today. It never had a big following in the United States. With the collapse of Communism, private property is now the central icon of the world's only universal faith: free-market capitalism. The dictatorship of the proletariat be damned. Nowadays, it's I've got mine, Jack, and to hell with you. "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted!"

OK. That's a bit over the top, I admit. Still, most of the world venerates private property. Property means wealth. It means security. It means home.

It's a funny thing, though. Here in America, where the belief in the sanctity of private property has always been an article of faith (and law), we've got an oddly ambivalent attitude toward it. We mortgage our futures to acquire our own piece of paradise. Then we post it and patrol it to keep strangers out. Yet we resent it when others do the same.

Here's a case in point. Some years ago, before kayaks were a common sight on flatwater, I looked up from my desk to see a whole flotilla of sleek touring boats in the main channel, moving downstream. That got my attention right away. Back then, ours were just about the only kayaks on the Flow. To see others was a treat. It meant we weren't completely alone. And these guys were good. Even though there was a brisk north wind kicking up a good chop as it met the north-flowing current, the kayakers stroked steadily along, cool and confident. When they got to the end of the island, they turned into the big eddy at the foot and paddled up to the owner's dock.

Now I was really curious. The fellow whose cabin stands on this particular island isn't exactly a paddlesport fanatic. He discarded his Old Town Pack canoe long ago in favor of a Coleman Crawdad, and he hasn't looked back since. So how did it happen that he had so many paddling buddies, I wondered?

Well, to make a long story short, things weren't quite what they seemed. The island's owner—let's call him Nemo, shall we?—wasn't home. I didn't realize this at first, though. The kayakers tied their boats up to Nemo's dock and got out to do a little sight-seeing. Some, however, had more urgent matters to attend to. They rushed off into the trees along the island's margin, dropped their shorts, and squatted.

This, I thought, was certainly odd behavior for house guests. Still, country ways and all that. I've been caught short myself, more than once. Something they ate, no doubt.

As it turned out, I wasn't the only one who'd witnessed their arrival. Just as the boys were pulling up their shorts, I heard Nemo's little outboard sputter into life on the other side of the Flow. The Lord of the Isle was coming home. In less than a minute he'd crossed the narrow channel between the west bank and the island. When he turned in toward his dock, though, all the spaces were taken. He stood up in the Crawdad—carefully—and surveyed the scene. I could see him shaking his head. That's when I realized that this wasn't going to be a happy homecoming and a warm reunion.

Nemo sat down and steered for shore. He tied the Crawdad to a big white pine at the water's edge and clambered up. Then he slipped on the steep, wave-eroded cobble bank. Ker-splash! Nemo was soaked to the waist.

Some of the kayakers had strolled back out on the dock to watch. They had sandwiches and cups of coffee in their hands. Clearly, somewhere on the island a picnic lunch was in progress. But Nemo hadn't been invited. Instead, he was the entertainment. The kayakers on the dock called to their buddies, pointing to the old guy in the sodden jeans clambering up the cobble bank. Everybody howled with laughter. Everybody but Nemo, that is. He wasn't laughing at all. His Crawdad beat against the rocks as the waves lifted it and let it down. He finished clawing his way to the top of the bank and walked over to the dock—his dock.

The boyz on the dock stood there, waiting.

It was a very short conversation. Nemo didn't raise his voice once, but the kayakers' laughter died out fast. In less than a minute they were in their boats and on their way downstream. I wish I could say they apologized to Nemo, but I can't. Their parting gift to their (involuntary) host was a flurry of shouted threats and angry gestures, delivered from the safety of the main channel. These guys handled their boats with grace and skill, to be sure, but that was the only graceful thing about them. They weren't "sportsmen" at all. They were just a bunch of louts who happened to own kayaks.

It would be great if this were an isolated occurrence, but it's not, is it? I'd guess there are very few paddlers who haven't witnessed something of the sort. And that's a problem for us all—a very big problem. Paddlers are at the bottom of the recreational food-chain. We don't bring big bucks into tourist communities. We don't have any organized public relations. To the people on the shore we're just strangers passing through.

Just how will they remember us, those people on the shore? When we revisit waterways where we've been before, will we be welcomed back or cursed? That depends on us, doesn't it? All of us. This being the case, it would be good if we could depend on our sport's gurus to set a good example. Unhappily, though, we can't. The people who ought to be leading all of us along the path of righteousness sometimes let us all down, instead.

What do I mean? Here's the deal. Farwell and I are shopping for new kayaks. Well, OK—"shopping" is probably the wrong word. We're dreaming of the new boats we'll buy when our ship comes in. And we're seeing folding kayaks in these dreams with increasing frequency. Farwell paddled an old Folbot in North Carolina waters years ago. He liked the convenience of a boat that could be packed up and taken along in the back seat of his VW Beetle. He even took it with him on bus trips a couple of times. Still, Farwell would be the first to admit that he's no expert on folding boats. And I've never gotten any closer to one than watching a couple in a tandem Klepper run the upper Hudson from North Creek down to the Glen. It was an impressive performance, I admit, and the boat came through fine, but I was glad I was in my Tripper.

Now we're both taking another look at folding kayaks. We may not be experts, but our local library has a copy of Ralph Díaz's Complete Folding Kayaker. Here was what we needed, we thought. It's a bit dated, to be sure (it was published in 1994), and Díaz gets his history wrong now and again, but we both liked the book. It's not "complete," of course—no how-to book is ever really complete. But it's useful. And well worth recommending to others.

Or so we thought. Then we came to Díaz's section on "Commando Camping."

Like a lot of us, Díaz doesn't have much use for progress. "A half century ago," he writes, "you could pull up just about anywhere and find a spot to camp." That's all changed, though. Nowadays, Díaz notes, "you ... must be sensitive to the rights of property owners and to local laws. You don't want to ruffle anyone's feathers."

So far, so good. But what comes next? A short course in the art of "commando camping," that's what. If you've never heard of commando camping before, I'm not surprised. It's Díaz's euphemism for trespass. "It's not legal," Díaz points out, and "few of us who are responsible citizens ever wish to do [it]," but, hey, he concludes, not missing a beat, we just gotta. "[I]f you don't [commando camp], you're not going to sleep." Case closed.

The kindest word to describe this sort of literary side-step is "disingenuous." It has all the candor and openness of a presidential news conference. The law of trespass is inconvenient, Díaz tells us. And we paddlers can't count on property owners letting us do what we want if we ask permission first. So what! he implies. We're gonna do it anyway—but we're going to be real sneaky about it so we won't be caught. Ain't we clever?

Not all that clever, I'm afraid. Here's Díaz's advice to paddlers: Don't ask if you can camp on private property in populated areas, "especially near a private home." Chances are you won't get permission. Not don't camp on private property, mind you. Just don't ask. Díaz then goes on to tell readers with a yen to trespass exactly how to avoid being seen. "Set up late, leave early.... Hide your tent and boat.... Show little light, make less noise." Except for the first one, this is good advice for paddlers who don't want to disturb others, of course. But deliberate trespass is never a good idea, no matter how much care the trespasser takes not to be noticed. If there's any better way to make enemies for paddlesport, I can't think of it. I'm sure this wasn't Díaz's intent—at least I hope it wasn't—but that's exactly what he's done.

The law is sometimes a pain. No doubt about it. Still, it's often the only thing protecting what we value most: our safety and that of our loved ones, clean water and air, even our right of access to navigable waters. We paddlers are supposed to be the good guys, after all—what Díaz calls "responsible citizens." Our sport is clean, safe, and non-threatening. We don't want to be seen as scofflaws, do we? It's just not smart. Díaz should understand this, but it seems he doesn't.

Trespass or commando camping—call it what you will. By either name, it's a very bad idea. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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