Jun 05 2015

Road Work Ahead at TN Outside

Remember the Information Superhighway? Well, TN Outside has never been more than a byway on that great thoroughfare. But even byways need regular maintenance, and as work crews attend to long-deferred chores, signs like the one in the photo below are popping up all over northern North America.

TN Outside is no exception. For the next few months, we’ll be trimming our overgrown verges, regrading our base course, and laying a new reading surface. We’ll also be surveying rights of way for a couple of new routes. This will keep us pretty busy — too busy to maintain our regular schedule of articles. So don’t look for much that’s new until later in the year. We’ll keep posting links to current Paddling.net columns on Thursdays, however, and most of what’s now on the site will remain, though it will likely end up in a different place.

The bottom line? If you’re looking for something you saw here in the past, and you can’t find it, just let us know. We’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. And in the meantime, check “below the fold” for any breaking news.

Work Ahead


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Jun 25 2015

Tanks for the Memories! Readers Weigh In on Aluminum Canoes

The Fleet in Readiness

Plastic is forever, at least when measured against the scale of human life. Scraps of lawn chairs, shreds of shopping bags, and fragments of soft drink bottles will be circulating around the world’s seas — and poisoning marine life — long after our cities go the way of the fabled Ozymandias’ “sneer of cold command.” But while plastic itself is almost eternal, the things that we make from it — including lawn chairs, shopping bags, and soft drink bottles — have a much shorter life expectancy. They are, in fact, almost ephemeral. This is true of plastic canoes, as well. Farwell’s and my veteran Old Town Tripper is a case in point. It grew progressively more brittle as the decades passed, succumbing at last to the combined assaults of sunlight and subzero temperatures. We then had no choice but to pension it off.

The result? There’s an opening for a tandem canoe in our fleet. And when we’ve put enough cash aside to go shopping, we’ll probably fill the vacancy with a “tin tank.” It will be like going home again. I was thinking about this — and about the place of the aluminum canoe in history, as well as its prospects in the years ahead — when I wrote “Requiem or Renaissance?” That column was part eulogy and part paean, the sort of tribute that might have been paid to an elder statesman, suddenly recalled from retirement to meet a looming existential threat: Churchill, for instance, brought out of the political wilderness at the age of 65 to lead his country into war. And like Churchill, the tin tank elicits strong emotions. Some paddlers loathe aluminum boats. Others love them. Curiously, though, almost all the e‑mail around the column came from tin tank lovers. The loathers apparently contented themselves with one‑line put‑downs on Facebook. A sociologist could make something out of this, I suppose. I can’t.


But I don’t need to. The letters that found their way to my virtual mailbag were uniformly interesting, and since the writers have been good enough to allow me to reprint their e‑mails, I thought I’d pass along a representative sample of their observations and insights. And I’ll begin with an astral connection … Read more…

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Jun 18 2015

Keeping Your Food to Yourself Where the Wild Things Are

Picnic Time...

Ah, wilderness! The annual flight from the cities and suburbs is about to kick off in earnest. Soon many popular waterways will boast their own traffic jams, as canoes and kayaks jostle tentatively with darting jet‑skis and lumbering party barges. Lighting out for the territory just ain’t what it was in Huck Finn’s day. But some things don’t change. Beyond the boundaries of the tent cities now springing up in established campsites — the line of demarcation is easily identified by the sudden and unexpected appearance of lower limbs on trees — the natives go about their business as best they can. That’s natives with a small “N,” of course. I’m referring to the furred and feathered creatures who make their homes in the world’s remaining enclaves of wilderness.

Wilderness, you may remember, has been sanctified in law in the States. It is the place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A noble sentiment, indeed, if woefully wide of the mark. Still, how often do hacks like me get to use “untrammeled” in a sentence? And notwithstanding the overheated language, the text of the Wilderness Act does make one useful distinction: In what now passes for wilderness, we humans are indeed “visitors.” We’re just passing through. In fact, in the eyes of the natives, we’re merely blow‑ins — unwelcome guests, to be tolerated rather than embraced.

That said, I have an alternative definition of wilderness to propose: Wilderness is where the wild things are. This lacks the soaring rhetoric of the Act, but it’s much easier to translate into operational terms, even if some of the consequences are a trifle unexpected. For example, many urban apartments would probably earn wilderness status. After all, visitors to New York City are often told they’re never more than six feet away from a rat, and if a stroppy, streetwise rodent who eats tame tabbies for breakfast isn’t a wild thing, what is?


This is not The New Yorker, however, so I’ll limit myself to exploring relations between us and the wild things fortunate enough to live in places where trees outnumber cars. And those wild things, if given the choice, would likely be happier if we blow‑ins just stayed home. We, on the other hand, are keen to make their acquaintance. We want to get up close and personal with our new neighbors. Just not too close. And not too personal. A bear is a welcome sight when spotted at a distance during the hours of daylight, but the same can’t be said of chance encounters under the kitchen tarp at midnight.

The result? Backcountry wanderers walk a thin line in our dealings with the natives on whose doorsteps we camp. We want to be accepted by them, but we also want them to know their place and keep their distance. This is pretty presumptuous of us, really. Since when do house guests get to lay down rules for their hosts? Be that as it may, however, it’s much harder to strike the right balance than it used to be. Truly wild things treat infrequent blow‑ins with appropriate caution and circumspection. But tens of millions of us now invade the natives’ wilderness homes each summer in our collective search for solitude and serenity, and such familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. The natives have discovered that — outside of the hunting seasons, at any rate — most featherless bipeds are pilgrims ripe for the plucking. You could almost say we’ve become targets of opportunity. The smaller creatures have long since learned how to rob us of our tastier stores by stealth, while a few of the bigger beasts see us as possible entrées in our own right. To these more formidable natives, we look like nothing so much as not‑very‑fast food.

Needless to say, few people are happy with either state of affairs. We’re used to calling the shots wherever we set foot. We see ourselves as verbs, rather than objects. But that’s not how the natives see us. To them we’re clumsy, stupid, and clueless. If push comes to shove, as it sometimes does, the toothier wild things know we can’t put up much of a show. To borrow Admiral “Jacky” Fisher’s pithy phrase, we’re too weak to fight and too slow to run away. And whenever a blow‑in is injured or robbed by a native, our species’ wrath knows no bounds. Our revenge can be terrible. The bottom line? It’s in the interest of both natives and blow‑ins to keep encounters from escalating, and like it or not, the burden of responsibility rests on our shoulders. In other words, it’s up to us — paddlers, hillwalkers, campers, and cyclists — to keep wild things wild… Read more…

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Jun 11 2015

The Language of Maps: A Primer

Mappa Mundi

Not so very long ago, no paddler or hillwalker would head out the door without tucking a topographic map into his (or her) pack. But that was then. Today, even supposedly expert trekkers attempt winter ascents above treeline with no other navigational aid than a cell phone. And — no coincidence, this — I’ve lost count of the number of hikers I’ve met on nearby trails who were staring in obvious perplexity at a diminutive screen and wondering where the Google map went. They’ve learned, a little too late, that network coverage is a sometimes thing in much of northern New York.

“Do you know where The River is?” these would‑be aquarians almost invariably ask when they see me approach. I’m always at a loss how to answer. In truth, I’m reluctant to give directions to hapless pilgrims, even though I could easily show them the way to the water’s edge. (If they’d just unplug their ear‑buds, they’d likely hear the roar of the falls.) But I’m by no means sure that, having found The River, they could then find their way back to the trailhead. Which is why I started carrying a sheaf of photocopied topographic maps to give to anyone in need of direction. I figured this would solve the problem.

But it didn’t. Many in the Legion of the Lost looked at the photocopied maps with bemused bewilderment. I might as well have handed them a page from Newton’s Principia, in the original Latin, no less. That’s when it dawned on me that the art of map‑reading — at least the art of reading topographic maps — is very nearly a lost art. Like the Latin language, the language of maps must now be numbered among the dead, a relic of an extinct civilization. This is depressingly easy to understand. A lot of backcountry newcomers (not all of them young, by any means) have never seen a topographic map, let alone used one to navigate, and even some old hands have gone all‑electronic, convinced that the Age of Paper has ended forever. Still, newcomer or old hand, it makes no difference in the end. Any language grows stale for want of daily use, and the language of maps is no exception.

I’m going to try to do something about this. In short, I’m going to try to bring the art of map‑reading back from the dead. This won’t interest everyone, I know. Map language holds no mysteries for the dwindling number of paddlers who learned the art when they were young, and who have never ceased to practice it. They will find little or nothing here that is new. But others, less practiced or less adept, may indeed learn something to their advantage. It’s not as if Farwell and I haven’t written about maps and map language before, of course. We have. There’s a list of our earlier articles at the end of this column. Yet we’ve never attempted a primer on the subject. Until today.

So here goes. And I’ll start with the amo, amas, amat of cartography: The unveiling of the map… Read more…


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