Jan 14 2016

Unbending Determination: Now Hear This! Canoeing and Kayaking Aren’t Just for the Young and Fit

What Do I Do Now?

I’ve been hearing a crackling noise lately, and it isn’t the sound of bacon frying. It’s the sound my knees make when I squat down to feed a fire or settle myself in a canoe, and it’s not exactly unexpected. My knees have been voicing their protests about real and imagined abuses for many years now. But the chorus of complaint has gotten a bit more strident of late, reminding me of my grandfather’s wry references to his life membership in the Gimpy Knee Club. He owed his election to that august fellowship to exertions occasioned by the Great Depression. I, on the other hand, received my invitation to join while I was working in the stones‑and‑bones trade — I once passed an instructive month on my hands and knees, troweling down through stratified dejecta in a 19th‑century cesspit — though the years I spent chimneying up rock crevices and crawling about on all fours in search of novel photographic subjects probably helped clinch my nomination.

In any event, painful knees do little to make canoeing and kayaking more pleasurable. I’ve addressed this problem before, but I’ve long thought that the subject warranted another look, and a letter I received from a 74‑year‑old kayak‑camper spurred me to do just that. Chuck Neubauer has been around the block a few times, and his knees bear the scars. But he’s not ready for a La‑Z‑Boy… Read more…

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Jan 07 2016

Headwaters: The Book That Launched a Million Boats
by Farwell Forrest

Astride the Stern

Three years ago, almost to the day, the first of my “Backwaters” pieces appeared in this spot. The backwaters in question were literary, not geographic, and I hoped that these occasional columns might encourage paddlers to seek out a few almost forgotten books “now slumber[ing] undisturbed in the dusty basements of public libraries.” You’ll understand, then, why I thought Backwaters was a good title for the series. But on further reflection — and quiet backwaters are great places for reflections — I’ve decided that “Headwaters” would have been a far better choice. After all, these books were the wellsprings from which all subsequent recreational canoeing* literature flowed. And honest writers, like honest cooks, would do well to admit that a good part of every dish they serve up to the public is no more than old fare newly garnished.

But the book I’m writing about today is a signal exception to this rule — an old book that was, in its time, something entirely new, the first book to suggest that paddling a canoe for days on end, and taking the rough with the smooth as fortune dictates, could be — can be — great fun. The title of this pioneering work? A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe. Copies first appeared in shop windows in 1866, and the book offered readers a lively yet meticulous account of a three‑month‑long grand tour of European waterways, undertaken in a craft of the author’s own invention… Read more…

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Dec 30 2015

Picture This! The Yoke’s on You

The Yoke's on Sancho

With the onset of winter, I’ve had more time to attend to make‑and‑mend. And I have a long list of minor repairs and routine maintenance chores ahead of me. But of late I’ve taken the idea a bit further. For quite a while now, I’ve been cursing the shortcomings of my desk, an aging piece of flat‑pack, particle‑board origami. It was never very well adapted to my needs, and with the passage of the years it had become dangerously rickety. So its days were numbered. I knew just what I wanted in a new desk, too. There was only one problem: I couldn’t afford the cost.

This obstacle seemed insuperable at first. But then I realized I could build my own desk, and build it to my exact specifications. And that’s what I did, using inexpensive dimension lumber. The result will never get a photo spread in Fine Woodworking, but it suits me to a T.

Once I’d downed tools, all that remained was to transfer the contents of my old desk — temporarily heaped around me in ziggurat‑like piles — to the new one. And the tallest ziggurat contained my collection of journals. These are hardbacked field books, each one spanning a calendar year and incorporating both trip notes and work notes, along with such geologic divertimenti as sketches of outcrops and descriptions of the rock specimens that found their way into my sample bag. (I don’t do much plucking and picking now, even in places where it’s permitted. Photos are all I need. But following rivers remains a wonderful way to get to know the geology of an area.)

Anyway, I told myself I’d have the pile of notebooks shifted from floor to desk in a couple of minutes. But I should have known better. It proved impossible to resist the temptation to leaf through each of the old journals. And one of the first things that caught my eye was an entry describing a bushwhack with my pack canoe,* a trek made much easier by an improvised yoke… Read more…

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