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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Home Water

A Purpose in Liquidity

By Tamia Nelson

June 12, 2001

We took the pack canoes out on our home water late last Friday. It was a lovely evening: cool, clear, and still. The moon lolled in the southeast, only a couple of days past full but already lagging nightfall. In less than two weeks, it will rise invisibly with the sun. Guided as much by our noses and ears as by the moonlight dancing on the ripples, we paddled our little boats slowly around the margins of the 'Flow. Now and again, a splash from near the shore revealed the presence of a muskrat, and from time to time a loon yodeled in the far distance.

We were gone only a couple of hours, but we returned to our cabin refreshed and happy, our sense of place and purpose renewed yet again.

Note that I didn't say we returned home. We didn't. We couldn't. We'd never left. The 'Flow is as much our home as the small frame camp in which we work, eat, and sleep. "Home water." That says it all.

Well, not quite all, perhaps.

The 'Flow isn't a wilderness. With the exception of one small enclave of public land, it isn't even especially wild. It's one of many aging, multiple-use reservoirs on the "best-dammed little river in the world." All along its shores, tiny shacks jostle for pride of place with 4,000-square-foot split-levels, nearly all of them on manicured quarter-acre lots. There's none of the fecund untidiness of a natural landscape. Timber sea-walls protect valuable waterfront from the wakes of passing powerboats, and jets-skis bob at docks in front of signs invoking the "Peace of the Water."

It's not exactly Golden Pond, let alone Ultima Thule. And yet, every spring, life returns to the 'Flow. Even before all the ice goes out in April, waterfowl of every description break their northward journey here. Once we saw an Arctic loon, very far from its native western waters. This year, two northern shoveler drakes paddled up-river, resplendent in emerald green and rusty red, their long bills and small bodies advertising their identity. They were soon joined in mid-channel by wood ducks and mallards, while mergansers fished in the near-shore shallows and wild turkeys watched from the slope beneath our window.

Beaver, too, continue to cruise the 'Flow, and somehow find enough trees still standing on the landscaped lots to sustain them. Muskrats forage happily among the shoreline rip-rap for snails, while river otters compete with the mergansers for fish. And beaver or shoveler, wood duck or arctic loon—whether long-time resident or "foreign" visitor—each bird and mammal that we see finds a place in my natural history journal. Not many cabin-dwellers bother with this sort of "guest book," I suppose, but I do. That's how I keep in touch with the osprey pair that once nested in the tall white pine towering over a nearby bay. Their pine came down in a winter ice-storm three years ago, but the ospreys still drop by every spring nonetheless.

As spring gives way to summer, however, the osprey pair and most of the waterfowl move on to less congested waters. Some always remain, though, and broods of young mergansers and Canada geese are still common sights, hugging the shoreline to avoid the jet-skis and other powerboats. They don't always succeed. A few hours before we put our pack canoes on the water, we watched helplessly as a teenage couple amused themselves by trying to run down a family of geese. The goslings, I'm happy to say, found shelter under a rare overhanging tree, along with one of the parents, while the other adult managed to get airborne just before being struck. We took note of the boat's registration number, of course, but we didn't bother calling the local Conservation Officer to report the incident. We've learned not to waste our time. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) doesn't deem the 'Flow "significant habitat." In consequence, its wildlife aren't judged worthy of protection.

I have a hard time understanding this. While waterways vary greatly in productivity, and reservoirs are often comparatively unproductive, the 'Flow and its environs are the year-round homes of many legally-protected species of plants and animals. And they're important to still more. In a busy and crowded world, no habitat can now be said to lack significance. Such is the power of bureaucratic tags, however, that this inescapable fact is universally ignored.

I admit that I'm no stranger to the game. For years I prospected in advance of contractors and public agencies, digging in farm fields, highway margins, and cellar-holes for relics of past habitation. What was I looking for? For "significant" archaeological resources. I found no skeletons, no gold coins, and no ancient camp-sites. What I did find—hundred-year-old kitchen refuse, patent medicine bottles discarded in a privy pit, scraps of nineteenth-century hardware—were invariably judged "not significant." The contractors and agencies rejoiced. Their projects went through on schedule, and everyone was happy, including me. I cashed my check and went prospecting elsewhere.

So I'm in no position to point fingers at the DEC. They, too, have their priorities, and their paychecks naturally come first. Protecting the 'Flow and its wildlife isn't even a close second—quite understandably, perhaps.

It's high on my list, however. This, too, is understandable. The 'Flow is my home. It isn't wilderness, and it isn't wild, but it plays host to an incredible diversity of life. And it's still relatively clean. In a world with six billion thirsty human mouths, that's not insignificant. Already the nightly news hints at plans to pipe water from the Great Lakes to the booming cities of the arid Southwest. In Texas—and in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, as well—folks are mining "fossil water," tapping irreplaceable reserves first laid down when beaver the size of black bears were digging the spiral burrows known today as "devil's corkscrews." This water-mining can't go on forever, and it won't.

What, then, does the future hold? The handwriting's on the wall. Even today, many canoeists in England, William Blake's "green & pleasant Land," now paddle their boats in circles on flooded quarries. And, no, they're not resentful. They're glad to have any opportunity to practice their sport, however circumscribed. In an island nation with a population density somewhere between Haiti and India, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers are all valuable resources. Fresh water is allocated to the highest bidder, and a lot of folks, including many canoeists and kayakers, are priced right out of the market.

It could happen here. Indeed, it will happen here, probably within the lifetimes of many readers. That being the case, all freshwater habitats are "significant" now—not only to you and to me, but to the loons I hear calling in the distance as I write these words.

Two years before he died, Rupert Brooke, the "golden young Apollo" of British poetry who was spared the ordeal of the Dardanelles Campaign by a fatal attack of blood-poisoning, wrote a charming poem about a fish's view of heaven:

One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.

"A Purpose in Liquidity." This makes sense, doesn't it? Fish would certainly think so. And loons. And the mergansers splashing in the shallows.

And me? I think so, too. In one way or another, in one sense or another, all the world's waters are home to each and every one of us, whether we're year-round residents or only passing through. That's a good thing to remember.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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