On the water
When I was growing up a lot of our hours were spent by and in the river fishing. We got fairly good at catching enough trout for regular fish fries at home. We learned where all the best holes were and even got to know some particularly large fish that lurked in the river and evaded our attempts at catching them. My youngest brother was by far the best fisherman of our clan. He could see and catch more fish than the rest of us combined.
One of the things that we did was to laugh at other fishermen. Especially funny to us in those days were the out of town fishermen who were geared up with all of the latest equipment including hip waders. We fished in cutoffs and old tennis shoes. We believed that hip waders were a definite danger on the river. If the fisherman were to fall down, we reasoned. the waders would fill with water and become so heavy that he’d never be able to get up. I know of no such tragedy ever occurring on our river, but we were convinced that those who had all of that equipment were destined to not catch fish. Ou father never wore waders and his favorite method of catching fish was to put a hook through a grasshopper and float the insect down the river until he got a strike. He was a pretty good fisherman.
I’ve never worn waders for fishing. There is something about being able to feel the texture and temperature of the water that makes me feel closer to the environment of the fish. Sure the water in the river is cold and you don’t want to stay immersed very long even in the heat of summer, but you’d be surprised at how much you can tolerate. The cold is invigorating and makes you feel alive. then again, I used to find a very warm place in the pool of a hot springs and when I got all warmed up, get out and roll in the snow before getting back into the hot water. I haven’t felt the urge to do that in many years.
There is, however, something about allowing your gear and equipment to get between you and the world that detracts from the experience of being in the world.
In the winter we made similar fun of skiers who had matched outfits and fancy clothes. We wore coveralls from the shop or doubled up our jeans. We used to say that if a skier lacked duct tape on his or her jacket, he or she couldn’t ski. A good “equipment sale” crash and slide down the mountain was a mark of valor in our world.
I was thinking about my childhood a bit yesterday as I paddled my smallest and lightest canoe on a completely calm reservoir at 5:30 in the morning. I had the lake to my self. The sun was up. The air was beginning to warm, though I was glad to be wearing a jacket under my life jacket. In that particular boat I sit about 2 inches from the bottom of the boat, which doesn’t have much draft, so my bottom is right at the waterline. It gives me a good angle for viewing the geese, who are out with their chicks, and the red-winged black birds who sing along the shore and dance on the trees that have fallen near the water. My wooden paddle doesn’t make much sound at all and I can even hear the sound of the boat neatly parting the water as I paddle.
The world of the water, especially the world beneath the water, is a bit of an alien environment for humans. We can’t breathe under water. Our vision isn’t perfect down there. I enjoy swimming, but I am aware that my survival depends upon skill and keeping my focus. In the cold water of the streams and reservoirs around here you won’t survive long just swimming unless you are wearing a wet or dry suit. So I don’t go out without equipment. On the other hand, I enjoy using a minimal amount of equipment. I have not need for a motor or a big boat. The reservoir where I paddled yesterday, Sheridan Lake, is small enough to explore with a small boat and a paddle. There is no need for more speed than I can achieve by a less-than-strenuous pace.
Our lives are improved by our ingenious machines. I’m not opposed to the inventiveness that has produced speed boats and jet skis. I simply have no need of those devices to enjoy the lake. Something inside of me takes pride in getting around in a boat I built with my own two hands, with modest means and available materials. It makes me feel connected to generations of humans who have made simple machines to solve problems of how to gather food and get from one place to another. Paddles and canoes have moved huge amounts of freight, provided transportation to explorers and been the tools of indigenous peoples for centuries. When European settlers arrived on the shores of this continent in their giant sailing vessels, they lowered their row boats, in which rowers faced the stern and the drag of the boat required significant effort. The discovered indigenous paddlers facing forward in lighter, sleeker craft that were, by comparison to the rowboats, very fast. Before the conquering of the continent, there was an encounter of technologies, each adapted to a different need. More than a few of the settlers recognized the canoe as superior technology and adopted the boats for travel on inland rivers and lakes.
Aside from my thoughts about history and culture and technology, there is a great sense of freedom that comes from paddling a light boat. I can go where I want when I want. I’m not constrained by the need for fuel or support services. If I needed, I could make another boat and carve another paddle and travel by the strength of my own arms. It is the feeling of freedom - a feeling we all need.