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Decades in the past this time of year was my great torture looking, seeking, waiting for that first chance of the season to put paddle in water and move out down some body of water. For me there was and is something in the smooth push of my paddle and the responding glide of a canoe that encapsulated many of the things I found most essential and enjoyable about being alive. Of course it wasn’t only paddle and canoe that did this magic for me. There is a certain “feel” in the air when near water that tingles the senses. And of course, especially for those of you who know it from direct experience there are uncountable scents and hints on the breeze that tell of nearby balsam fir, a lily pad and cat tail shallow, or a weather change signaled on a shifting breeze. Being outdoors is a total thing, an immersion in senses and sensibilities.
Like people drawn to use of nature as a toy or supreme test, I was often pulled to amp up my style or drive as a canoeist. I’d get curious about what was called “fastest” or hit the scene as latest, highest tech. But I’d always manage to pull back from that plunge by asking the basic question. What difference did it make? Was a minor tweak in paddle shape more determining and important than the experienced skill of the paddler? And so what if I clipped a minute off doing the length of Pine? Could I save up those minutes and cash them in for a crossing of Cache Bay? Isn’t time spent wisely and happily of even greater importance to the outdoor traveler or canoe paddler than time narrowed to small stopwatch increments under an otherwise endless vault of universe?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s an old fashioned something in me or merely too much simplistic Boy Scout in my personal creed that prefers to see vistas and human interactions as more vital to a human condition than artificial challenges and contests. I feel sorry for those who “go at” nature as if it was an obstacle or was merely their vehicle for ego set in leafy borders. A lake, long portage, or swift rapids is not a toy to dabble with as a toddler might only to find equal accomplishment in sucking a big toe the next. Shabby intellectual consideration of nature is too common, as is overdone glorification of the impossible pristine. What I came to feel was that if two people left on a canoe trip there was a third companion called nature. In that third were many, many other parts of the whole; parts known as lake, flowage, path, scent of pine, thunk of axe, dip of paddle, stir of wood smoke curling upward in the wind. If the focus is too much on the limited goal it’s too sadly easy to miss the routine beauty of the whirl behind a paddle or the dance of a spruce needle on its voyage into the infinite.
How tragic it is to speed by a flicker of beauty without a pause or in haste miss sight of a child’s eyes reacting to any of life’s daily fables enacted in nature. Is a minute of faster transit more important than the quality of companionship, or must all your companions be driven to the same automata goal and rhythm? My version (human after all) of racing past small opportunities to share enjoyment took the form of missing the value of the unwanted wait. The tween time before wetting a paddle was something to hurry through before I saw its special place in something simple as a preseason road tour to some of the places I’d visit later with canoes and gear.
The tween season before buds make the hillsides pretty with pastel green is ideal for long views uncluttered by millions of waving leafs. Roughly the same view exists in winter, but covered in snow the earth’s rocky forms are obscured under white as they will be overtopped by green. The preseason is a fortunate time for seeing things not spotted in the full flush of summer. Marveling at how “navigable” in flood the Pigeon appeared would appear the warning not to try it. Experience tells that some conditions are beyond skill or reason. You could get on the river in that state, but how you’d get off would be either by chance or through death. A portage in spring high water might begin a quarter mile from the summer landing and be otherwise unused except that brief while of spring flood. Unless you’re sure certain of the return way it’s best not to play with tons of hurtling icy water. White water looks pretty and appears comfortably cushiony, but each watery white hillock is pale because the water has much air and will act more like a hole if entered or skirted too near. Fall in a watery hole with a canoe and it will fill, end of your ride and possibly more. You can neither stop no hurry the river. It goes on with relentless force. If you resist it for five minutes can you endure five hours?
I don’t have to say I wasn’t an adventurer in nature. Perhaps I was more a guest, one happy to meet old acquaintances like the Bailey Bridges on the Arrow. Many readers will have to look up Bailey Bridge, a clever and practical bridging system of great use in WWII. There’s a bit of history plus engineering, plus fondness, and quaintness rumbling over a Bailey deck. Einstein and Hawking saw time their way. I see it mine by meshing here and there with snips of the past that have extended beyond and above their time. I never met a Bailey Bridge I didn’t like. Nor do I ever see a grouse at mid-road in spring and not know it’s busy little mind is on things more elemental to it than the danger of an approaching car. I brake for grouse and let it take its own sweet time clucking along to the other side