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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


Hiawatha Meets the Dismal Science

By Farwell Forrest

June 26, 2001

In less than a week, a voice that Tamia and I have been accustomed to hearing at our breakfast table for more than a decade will be stilled. The British Broadcasting Corporation—better known as the BBC to many listeners, and as "Auntie Beeb" to still others—will discontinue its shortwave service to North America on the 1st of July. For Tamia and me, and for many others like us, this will be a sad occasion. For many years now, we've started our day by listening to News Hour, the flagship program of the BBC's World Service. Now, however, the BBC's world stops short at the borders of North America.

The World Service will continue on satellite and cable services and the Internet, however, and some FM stations will offer scraps of programming tailored to the presumed interests of American audiences—jazz and upbeat lifestyle features, mostly. But those of us beyond the reach of cable and high-speed Internet connections, and prevented by penury or geography from signing up with a satellite service, are simply out of luck.

What does all this have to do with canoeing and kayaking, you ask? Here's the connection. I discovered the BBC during a trip down the Moose River in northern Ontario, more than twenty years ago. One of my companions on the river was a man who introduced himself as either Jim or Ernie, however the mood of the moment struck him. There were, I believe, a number of ex-wives who knew him by yet another name. Jim (or Ernie) was a currency speculator by trade. And even though he was powerless to profit from movements in the markets while we were in the bush—this was before the days of satellite phones, remember—he took a perverse satisfaction in tuning into the BBC's global business report every evening, using a bulky Zenith portable shortwave receiver that he somehow kept dry through days of continuous rain and heavy rapids.

As luck would have it, the markets weren't moving in Jim's favor. While we wound our way down the river, he grew more and more anxious to dump his options. When we finally reached Moose River Crossing, he leaped out of his canoe and sprinted into the village. Several dozen sleepy dogs roused themselves and immediately gave chase, followed closely by at least as many screaming children, all of whom joined in pelting the dogs with stones. Somehow, Jim avoided being bitten or stoned, only to learn that the one phone in the village was dead. By the time we reached tidal water at Moosonee, two days later, Jim was pretty sure that his net worth had entered what he referred to as "deep negative territory." A short but extremely expensive phone call to his accountant confirmed this melancholy fact.

Jim bounced back quickly, I'm happy to say. He was already smiling when he returned from making the call. "Easy come, easy go," was all he said when we offered our condolences. On the trip down south, he even treated us all to a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Temagami, paying the tab with hundred-dollar notes peeled from a thick roll of Canadian currency. This wad had been in his pocket all the way down the river, and it was all the money he had left in the world. He didn't seem the least bit disheartened, though. Perhaps he thought his ex-wives would nowabandon the chase. Or perhaps it was something else.

In any case, I enjoyed the meal in Temagami, and I also liked what I'd heard of BBC reporting. It was crisp, informed, well-organized, and witty. It was light-years removed from America's own National Public Radio, in short. I was hooked. And ten years later, when at last I had the money to buy a shortwave receiver of my own, I did. Now, however, the British are once again abandoning North America, and Tamia and I and tens of thousands of other regular listeners will have to cope as best we can.

Why, you may ask, did the BBC beat retreat? The reason isn't hard to find. Money. The BBC World Service carries no advertising, not even advertising in the guise of "underwriters' messages." And Auntie Beeb holds no "friend-raisers," either—she thrusts no begging bowl under her listeners' noses. The World Service is supported entirely by the British taxpayer, and by whatever licensing fees it can garner from cable and satellite services and American FM rebroadcasters. That's the key to the puzzle, I think. Why give something away when you can charge for it? In the jargon of economics, shortwave listeners are "free riders." Listeners who subscribe to cable and satellite services, on the other hand, are "customers." There's a world of difference between the two.

And there's also a larger lesson here, at least for North American paddlers. We, too, are free riders. We grudgingly fork over entrance, permit, parking, and launch-ramp fees when we can't avoid it, but we'd really rather not pay to spend time on the water. Any suggestion that we ought to do so is met with scornful allusions to the fact that the rivers run free, or with strained explanations of the historic freedom of navigation. "Pay to paddle?!" we fume. "Why should we pay?"

Why, indeed? But wait a minute. Think about the BBC World Service. It, too, was free to anyone with a short-wave receiver. And then, with almost no notice, the free ride ended, leaving tens of thousands of North Americans straining to make sense of a new silence. Now only those who can afford a high-speed Internet connection, cable service, or a satellite dish can listen in.

Could this same thing happen to paddlers? I afraid I don't see why not. The rivers don't run free, of course. They have to be patrolled, monitored, and cleaned up, and feckless (or unlucky) paddlers have to be rescued. More often than not, our rivers now originate in reservoirs, and those reservoirs serve many competing needs. If you think that recreation is high on the hydro engineers' list of priorities, just talk to a paddler in California or the Pacific Northwest. Don't call during a blackout, though.

And what about the freedom of navigation? Well, a sea-kayak isn't a super-tanker or a container ship. Kayakers don't have Exxon and Shell lobbying for their interests. To many commercial watermen and merchant mariners, recreational boaters are more of a nuisance than sea-fog and shifting shoals, and about as welcome as a Coast Guard boarding party. They'd be delighted to see us chased off the water. That would mean a little less liability exposure for the owners and shareholders, after all, and maybe a little more money for them, too.

Sound implausible? It's not. Rivers, lakes and coastal waters are finite resources, just like the broadcast spectrum and the operating budget of the BBC's World Service. And things stay free only so long as no one's willing to pay for them. The classic examples of "free goods"—clean air, for instance, or potable water—have long since acquired a price tag. Recreational rights on North American waterways won't be far behind. In much of the world, people already pay serious money in order to practice their chosen sports on rivers and lakes, and to keep other people off them, as well. It can happen here, too, and it will. Sooner, rather than later, unless I miss my guess.

What can we do about it? Well, we can continue to babble about the rivers always running free and our historic rights and so on, while other folks' lobbyists and lawyers work patiently to find ways to make "public" waters earn money for their clients and squeeze free riders like us out of the picture. Or we can tune into 9515 kHz any morning after 1 July and hear the message broadcast to the world in the crackling stillness. In the near future—the very near future, I think—those who won't pay simply won't be able to play anywhere. We should all thank the BBC for reminding us of this unpalatable truth. And then we should start talking about how we can best secure the future of our sport, rather than leaving our fate in the hands of strangers.

It's our choice. It won't be easy. It will mean putting The Song of Hiawatha on the shelf next to Anne of Green Gables and other childhood favorites. And in the end it will mean paying for something we all think should be ours by right. Pretty grim? Yes, it is. Childhood's end is always painful. But remember the words of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein: "[T]anstaafl'[?] Means 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.'…[A]nything free costs twice as much in the long run…."

If Hiawatha were with us today, I'd bet that even he would agree.

Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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