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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Streams in the Desert

Wildness in Man's Shadow

By Tamia Nelson

December 5, 2006

Many of us prefer to paddle far from the spoor of our own species. After all, we give over most of our waking hours to the job of making a living, moving among crowds of strangers, always in the shadow of man's works. On our days off we need a change. We want to escape from the madding crowd to a simpler, quieter, cleaner place. A place where we can forget the pressures of the workaday world. Out of sight, out of mind, in other words — at least for a short while. And this is perfectly understandable. But it has a downside, too. In our scramble to break away, it's far too easy to overlook the beauty right under our noses. And what we don't see, we often don't value. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

This isn't a good thing. America is no longer a rural nation. Most of us live in cities or somewhere on the expending penumbra of suburban development. Breaking free from the familiar landscape of the work week takes both time and money, and for many of us, one or the other of these is almost always in short supply. So we live (and save) for our annual vacations. The rest of the time we make do with what we can get: the canned images of television nature shows and the canned sweat on offer in the neighborhood fitness center.

There is another way, however. If we only look, we can find opportunities for exercise and wildlife-watching right on our doorsteps. Even a drainage ditch at the edge of a shopping mall is probably home to someone. Wildlife is drawn to water like metal filings to a magnet. So the next time you set out on your daily commute or embark on the weekly trek to the mall, put down the cell phone, leave the supersized coffee cooling in the cup holder, and ease up on the accelerator. Look around you whenever it's safe to do so. Better yet, ride along in someone else's car, or take the bus or trolley. Or ride a bike. And if you can, bring your binoculars with you, too. Now open your eyes. You'll be surprised by what you see.

I was reminded of this recently during a 6,000-mile bus trip in which I crossed — and then re-crossed — the North American continent. It was a bit like scouting a river from headwaters to mouth and back again, in fact. I left Canoe Country in the midst of a lake-effect snowstorm, only to pass from winter into fall and then from fall into summer, ending the outbound leg of my journey in Southern California. Cross-country bus travel is a curious hybrid. You're not a prisoner behind the wheel, as you are when you drive long distances in your car, but you're not exactly a free spirit, either. Life on the bus is dictated by a printed schedule, and the hours of compulsory idleness are broken by brief intervals of frantic activity at station-stops. Still, you have lots of time to think — and plenty of opportunities to take in the passing scene. My latest bus trip took me south and west, through the heart of the Great American Desert. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I discovered paddling opportunities nearly everywhere I looked. Not for the first time, I wished I had a folding bike and an inflatable boat stowed in the luggage hold beneath my seat.

At first, however, there was little that wasn't familiar. New York is a well-watered state, and I was rarely out of sight of swamps, streams, ponds, and lakes, many of them old friends. But Ohio's bumper crop of kettle lakes was new to me. Some could even be spotted among the oaks and maples on the median that divided the Interstate's east- and west-bound rivers of asphalt. Countless globular, leafy nests — the homes of gray squirrels — occupied commanding heights in the trees that towered above the little lakes, while migrating waterfowl rested and ate along the sheltered shores. Deer and foxes slaked their thirsts at the water's edge, too, and herons strutted in the shallows.

All of this passed before my window. As day faded into soft dusk over a swamp not far from Indianapolis, the dying light silhouetted a flight of ducks setting down on a weedy slough, safe from shot for one night. Freshly peeled and neatly trimmed limbs floated on the water near a beaver lodge. It was as wild a scene as any I'd ever witnessed. Yet this was no wilderness. The headlights from a steady stream of passing cars and trucks swept down the frontage road that paralleled the Interstate, and the glow of Indianapolis did battle with the dark. Further down the road, the Embarras River flowed beneath the highway. It was a river in name only here, no larger than many New York creeks. But the dabbling ducks drifting in its current gave no sign that this bothered them.

The bus continued westward with the night. Before long, we'd put the Ozarks behind us, and the arid plains of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle lay ahead. I was sure that I'd seen the last well-watered land. But I was wrong. The rising sun disclosed a tattered cloak of scrub and shrub, nourished by seasonal rains and irrigation canals. Flocks of geese wheeled low over the cotton fields outside Amarillo, while the warm morning light disclosed the nest holes of thousands of bank swallows, strung out along the red bluffs flanking the Llano. Miles passed. The hours ticked by. But when we reached the desert Southwest, it, too, revealed unexpected treasures. Even here, amidst the buttes and dry washes, there were scores of pools, each with its attendant guard of ducks and songbirds. We crossed the Pecos, Gila, and Colorado Rivers. And who would expect to find wetlands in California's Mojave Desert? Not I. But they were there, thanks to irrigation agriculture. These weren't wild waters, to be sure, but I didn't once hear the snowy egrets and herons complaining. Like Blue Duck, the arch-villain in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, they asked only that their water be wet.

Soon we were climbing the rubbly shoulders of the Coyote Mountains. The Pacific coast lay just ahead, but now, for the first time in my journey, the land along the highway was truly arid. Cacti and spiky desert shrubs competed for each drop of ground water, and taps bloomed at intervals like iron flowers to replenish the radiators of overheated RVs, if not to refresh their thirsty drivers. (Signs repeatedly warned, DO NOT DRINK THIS WATER!) Still, far out to the west, I saw the first hint of the cloud bank associated with the humid air mass known as the "marine layer" — unmistakable evidence that the hydrologic cycle was alive and well.


Then the outbound leg of my long journey was over, and I was examining the coarse sands of a crowded La Jolla beach while the Pacific bathed my feet. Pelicans, gulls, and gray squirrels soaked up the sun or explored the nearby cliffs, as ocean swells foamed over hidden reefs and bars. Farther down the coast, in San Diego Bay, green turtles foraged patiently in shallow waters warmed by the waste heat from an adjacent power plant. I waited watchfully, hoping to see one of the whales that occasionally venture into the sheltered bay. And I, in turn, was watched by curious seals, whose heads bobbed just above the gentle waves. I also heard the familiar husky trill of white-crowned sparrows, western cousins of the arctic migrants I'd last seen a month earlier, when they sheltered from the chill autumn rains in the jack pines along The River.

I was far from the forested valley of The River now, though. The long bay before me was cloaked in haze, the slate-colored water almost calm. The blades of distant kayakers flashed with each stroke as they inched their way along the opposite shore. I rested for a moment at a bend in a winding channel through a salt marsh, only to realize I wasn't alone. A brown pelican perched contentedly on the twisted remnants of a partially submerged shopping cart, his body outlined against a horizon broken by the battleship-gray bridges of naval warships. Moving lazily, he preened and stretched his wings in the shadow of steel pylons supporting high-tension powerlines. Overhead, rush-hour traffic raced noisily by on an elevated highway.

The pelican didn't care. Neither did the snowy egret who drifted down to land nearby. Nor for that matter did I. I felt the warm breeze on my bare neck, and I looked around me. Despite shopping cart, warships, powerlines, and expressways, I realized I was surrounded by beauty. The air was richly scented with the perfume of bougainvillaea blossoms and the salt tang of the sea. Like the pelican, I also stretched and preened, and then I relaxed. I'd left Canoe Country just as winter was preparing to lock its waters in ice. Now I was in a salt marsh 3,000 miles away, and it, too, felt like home, as had each kettle lake, stream, swamp, and irrigation canal I'd passed along the way.

So I watched the pelican watching me, and I remembered a story I'd heard long ago from a wildlife rehabber, who told it to anyone who asked why she bothered to nurse orphaned wildlife back to health. The story goes like this: A man is walking along a beach. The tide is out, and the foreshore is littered with stranded starfish, all of them baking in the hot sun. As he walks, the man bends down again and again, picking up a starfish each time and tossing it back into the ocean. Seeing him hard at this seemingly hopeless task, another man ambles up to him and asks, point blank, "Why bother? There are thousands of starfish stranded on this beach. You can't toss them all back. What's the use of saving just a few? What can it matter?"

The first man throws another starfish back in the sea before replying. "That's easy," he says. "It matters to them. It matters to the ones I save." And then he continues on down the beach.

Our orphaned urban and suburban waterways are like those stranded starfish. In a world where clean water is already scarce, and where it grows steadily scarcer with each passing day, we can't hope to protect every stream and pond and swamp. Greed (and need) will doom many. But each time we do succeed in saving one, it matters. To each of us. And to the wild creatures who know no other home. First, though, we have to look around us — and the easiest place to begin looking is on our own doorstep.

Wherever water is found, and whatever form it takes, it supports a living community, even in places where the heavy hand of humankind is most evident. You needn't travel across a continent to find examples — just look around your own neighborhood. Whether your eyes light on a wild river or an irrigation ditch is unimportant. All living waters are home to somebody. And that somebody might just as well be you.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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