Sep 10 2015

Picture This! The Many Faces of Whispering Death

The Many Faces of Whispering Death

I call them strainers. Others call them sieves or sifters. The names may differ, but the threat is always the same. A strainer lets water pass through. But it stops boats (and boaters) in their tracks. And all too often, the force of the moving water then holds both boat and boater prisoner. That’s bad enough, of course, yet if boater and boat now part company, much worse can follow — and follow with astonishing speed.

One of the earliest descriptions of the perils awaiting boaters who fall foul of strainers came from the hand that later wrote Treasure Island. While still a young man, Robert Louis Stevenson got the canoeing bug. His “canoe” was decked, and he propelled it with a double‑bladed paddle — making it what North Americans (and a growing number of Britons, as well) would call a kayak. But that’s beside the point. The important thing is what happened to Stevenson when he tried to force his way through the tangled limbs of a toppled tree. We’ve told the story of Stevenson’s Inland Voyage before (and you can read the book at the Internet Archive if you’re of a mind), so I’ll content myself with one short quote, Stevenson’s own summary of his narrow escape: “Death himself had me by the heels.” It wasn’t an exaggeration.

The bottom line? If you paddle, swim, or wade in rivers and don’t fear strainers, you’re not thinking clearly. In an earlier article, I tagged them “whispering death,” in honor of the ominous sibilance made by rushing water when it flows through a maze of submerged branches, a menacing music that’s best appreciated at a distance. Now, with that goal uppermost in mind, let’s take the opportunity to look death in the face… Read more…

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Sep 03 2015

Folding Scissors Make the Cut

Just a Little Snip of a Thing

Human history is marked by numerous “watershed crossings,” discoveries or innovations that enabled our species to surmount some heretofore insuperable barrier. The domestication of fire, for instance. Or the invention of edged tools. Or the development of a written alphabet. Or — and please don’t laugh — the creation of the first pair of scissors.

OK. I certainly wouldn’t rank scissors on a par with domestic hearths or the alphabet in humankind’s gallery of achievements, though by a happy coincidence, the first scissors probably saw the light of day in Egypt around 1500 BC, just about the time that Egypt’s Phoenician neighbors were devising the earliest alphabet. That said, it’s important not to minimize scissors’ contribution to our material well‑being. Knives and axes, useful as they undoubtedly are, simply aren’t up to some common tasks. Try cutting your toenails with an ax, for instance. Or trimming your unkempt mustache — no, Farwell, I’m not thinking of you! — with your trusty river knife. Or shaping the hackle on an Adams dry fly with a Buck Personal. Scissors make all these chores (and many more) dead easy.

Nonetheless, they’re often forgotten by paddlers when preparing for a trip, an oversight that more than a few of us have had reason to regret. I have a small scar on my hand to remind me of the time when I tried to trim a hangnail with the lancet‑like blade on a Buck Bird Knife. I learned a valuable lesson that day: It pays to use the proper tool for a job. Now I’m never without a pair of scissors in my dunnage… Read more…

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Aug 27 2015

In a Worst-Case Scenario, Let Dog Tags Speak for You

ID Est

Who am I? That’s a question we all ask ourselves from time to time. Usually, it arises in connection with a fork in life’s road: a new job, a new love, a new home… The list is as long as it is varied. But every now and then the question assumes immediate, practical importance. A while back, Farwell went over the ‘bars of his bike. He wasn’t going very fast at the time — 20 mph or thereabouts — but he landed hard, scrubbing off much of one cheek on the asphalt and ripping an eyelid in the process. These were the least of his problems, however. Notwithstanding his helmet, his brain‑housing group took most of the impact, and he lay unconscious in the road for several minutes.

The real trouble began when he came to. For one thing, he couldn’t see. Blood obscured the vision in his “good” eye. But that wasn’t his worst problem. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember his name. Who am I? he asked himself. And answer came there none. Nor did he have any idea where he was, or why he was lying in the road, surrounded by bits of broken bicycle.

Luckily, Farwell’s story had a happy ending. After several more minutes, during which he staggered around more or less aimlessly, the fog that had settled over his wits began to lift. He remembered who he was. He found his cell phone (and miracle of miracles, the cell phone found a network). And he got himself to hospital, where a nimble‑fingered surgeon stitched his torn eyelid back in place. Then, over the next several weeks, his face healed. But his predicament during those first few minutes after regaining consciousness was a salutary reminder. Every time any of us ventures off the beaten track, we’re gambling with fate, and if we lose the bet, we may be unable to answer even the simplest questions about ourselves. This could be more than embarrassing.

It’s something I often think about. With millions of acres of well‑watered, densely forested public land almost on my doorstep, I have a wide choice of places to explore. So I make the most of my good fortune by straying far from the madding crowd. I leave the popular, publicized destinations to the folks who don’t have time to pioneer. Pack canoe, bicycle, and compass give me the freedom of the hills, a freedom denied once‑a‑year holiday‑makers with a schedule to keep and a long drive home to look forward to. But the freedom that I enjoy isn’t free. It carries a hefty price tag. If I get into trouble, and if I happen to be alone at the time, I can’t rely on someone coming down the trail (or over the portage) in the next few minutes. Nor can I rely on cell phone coverage. I also know I might be unable to give a good account of myself should a stranger find me. I might not even be able to remember my name.

And I do enough solo wandering for this concern to weigh heavily, particularly with friends and family. I take reasonable steps to keep the odds on my side, of course. I expect that things will go badly wrong now and then, and I prepare for those times. I stay on the qui vive, too, even when I’m on my home waters. But this may not be enough. All activities involve an irreducible element of risk, and nemesis delights in confounding any mortal whose pride outstrips her prudence.

That being said, what else can I (or anyone) do? … Read more…

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