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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Batteries Not Included

The Virtues of Simplicity

By Farwell Forrest

March 6, 2001

As I write this, a major winter storm is threatening the mid-Atlantic coast. Some parts of the country where a couple of inches of snow usually brings traffic to a standstill are going to get a couple of feet. Funnily enough, though, New York's northern mountains will be spared the worst. We're unlikely to see more than a foot of snow in all, and that's just business as usual for the North Country.

A little more than three weeks ago, the shoe—make that the snow—was on the other foot. While the rest of the state dealt with downpours and minor flooding, we were expecting a one-two punch of heavy ice and high winds. Surrounded as we are by 80-foot-tall white pines, many of them already bearing the scars of earlier storms, we were on the alert. And let it never be said that we don't heed our own advice. Following Tamia's lead (see " Under Pressure"), I was keeping a close eye on the barometric trace on our Casio 950 watch, a marvel of technology combining a digital timepiece, an altimeter, a barograph, and a thermometer, all in a package no larger than an old-style silver dollar.

The trace wasn't encouraging. Updated automatically every two hours, it dropped steadily, first by single 0.05-inHg increments and then by bounds of two and three. Already the wind was a steady 20 miles per hour or so, with gusts to 30 or more. A blow was clearly in the offing. We watched helplessly as a glaze of ice began to build up on the trees, listened to the wind rise relentlessly in pitch, and jumped whenever small branches blew down onto the sheet steel of our roof. Several hours later, the National Weather Service finally caught up with us and posted high wind warnings.

Then the impossible happened. When I went to the shelf where the Casio sits, planning to check the updated trace and decide if the time had come to start digging a snow-shelter well away from our towering pines, I found…nothing at all. The watch's display was blank. I then did what any intelligent, technologically-savvy person would do in such a situation: I picked up the watch, shook it, and cursed. "We're depending on you!" I muttered under my breath. "How dare you let us down—now, of all times!"

But the watch was unaffected by my passionate entreaties. Its display remained blank. Having failed to move it by appeal, I resorted to science. I pressed the button to change modes, hoping to awaken the watch to its duty. No joy. True, one button elicited a feeble ghost image. It gave me the time and date, but then it, too, died. After that, nothing. Our faithful atmospheric monitor had abandoned its post under fire. Outside, the wind was rising. A branch banged down on the roof. It was a fairly big branch, I realized, the biggest to fall so far.

By this time Tamia was standing by my side, drawn by my steady drizzle of epithets. She sized up the situation in a glance, then took the watch from me and proceeded to remove the cover. The problem, she pointed out—in the same gentle, reassuring tone I've heard her use in speaking to lost children—was almost certainly a dying battery. Sometimes, she reminded me, you can buy a few extra hours or days of service simply by removing the battery, cleaning the contacts, and replacing it. And she did just that.

But my attention was already elsewhere. On the same shelf that had held our electronic weather watchdog I found Tamia's thirty-year-old Thommen altimeter. Tucked away in a corner, covered with dust, and all but forgotten, to be sure, but working. Epiphany! We take the Thommen on nearly all our trips, logging pressures every so often as part of our routine, but we seldom look at it at home. That was about to change, however. I took the Thommen off the shelf and tapped it gently. The needle settled at 28.65 inHg. I set the pointer. Then I looked among the scattered papers on my desk for a sheet of graph paper. When I found one, I ruled off a vertical scale and logged the point. We were back in business. All I had to do was look at the barometer every hour or two and plot the pressure. The resulting graph would tell us how the storm was progressing and warn us when to expect the worst winds. Better yet, there'd be no worries about batteries.

Just then, Tamia rejoined me. She'd had no luck with the Casio. The display was finally and irretrievably lost. That wonderful, intricate, compact technology was useless—and all because a three-dollar battery had failed.

"Guess we'll have to use the Thommen," she said. "I'll get some graph paper."

"No need," I replied. And I showed her the point I'd just plotted. It felt good.

That storm is history now, happily. The winds mounted higher and higher, until 60-mile-per-hour gusts were tearing the tops off nearby trees and sending limbs as big around as my thigh crashing down on our roof. We lost power for much of the next day, and even in the intervals when we had power, the voltage was so low that light bulbs gave only a feeble glow. Bad enough, certainly, but not so bad as it would have been if we'd also lost the ability to track the passage of the storm. Thanks to Tamia's veteran altimeter we knew when the worst was over—and we knew it hours before the official forecast sounded the all-clear.

Now another storm is buffeting the eastern seaboard. Chances are that we'll escape unscathed this time, but Tamia and I will still be graphing the pressure every few hours, just in case the Weather Service gets it wrong.

And what about our Casio? The genie's fled that bottle, I'm afraid. Despite a new battery, the display's still blank. Nothing we've been able to do has enticed it back into life. Of course it is ten years old. Who'd expect a ten-year-old television to work? Or a ten-year-old computer? No one with any sense, I suppose. Then again, the Thommen altimeter is thirty years old if it's a day. It's been carried up and down mountains, bounced through rapids, spent sub-zero nights in unheated tents—and yet it's still functioning flawlessly. Best of all, it will never need to have its battery replaced.

There's a lesson here, I think. Yes, technology is wonderful. It makes it possible for a couple of hacks in a shack in the northern Adirondack foothills to speak to a global audience, for instance. But nothing comes without a price. Technology can't make us free. It can only help us exchange one set of fetters for another. And in liberating us from the constraints of the past, it makes us newly dependent in unexpected ways. Canoeists and kayakers are quick to embrace the new—new designs, new materials, new techniques. But we can't afford to turn our backs on the old, either. Ours is a sport rooted in "elective anachronism," after all. We choose to embrace the past. It's one of the things that define us.

What does this mean? Simple. In an age shaped by the internal-combustion engine, canoeists and kayakers still travel from place to place propelled only by muscle, gravity and wind. Self-reliance and simplicity lie at the heart of what we do. So when we thumb through the catalogs and marvel at the newest and latest of the engineers' offerings, it's important that we heed the warning implicit in the note, "Batteries not included." We ignore it at our peril.

Gotta go. It's time to check the barometer.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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