El and Bill and Steamboat Pilot House



-----We learned in biology that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.' Simply said, that the developement of the individual appears, superficially at least, to follow the historical development of the larger group. So it would appear in our lives. El and I have developed as boaters through a process that roughly parallels that of the history of boating in America.


-----A river offers more choices to a cruising boater than the candy counter at the supermarket. First, there is the fundamental choice of up river or down. That decision is usually easy - it depends upon your craft. Later choices are almost endless - like the lure of a candy counter to a kid, each delightful choice wrapped in their own colors and promising savory delights.

-----Your choice of craft dictates your cruising lifestyle. A canoe, kayak, raft, or shantyboat virtually assures downriver passage. Powered by human muscles, it is simply much easier to let the current do most of the work. Oh, it can be done the other way, of course. In the early days of river travel, the canoe was the craft of choice. North America was explored and traveled by Native Americans for thousands of years. Some canoes were heavy dug-outs but the apex of the art of construction was the light-weight birch-bark design perfected by artisans of river travel. When Europeans settled on this continent, they adopted the canoe for trade and travel. It was from canoes that North America was explored by Europeans. So did we.

-----My first experience living on a river was on a canoe. Never has a craft been better designed for the purpose of river travel. Light-weight, graceful, and maneuverable it is the ideal craft for transporting people and their needs. My mentor was an Adirondack guide, Captain George Martin. He was tall and lanky. His long arms dangled and jostled as he walked - but he had the grace of a deer. His face was weather-beaten and creased from a life outdoors. He taught by doing. His laconic instructional style was as spare and efficient as his canoe strokes. At the campfire, in the evening, after our chores were done and the clients were off fishing, he would talk about his life in the woods. He didn't carry matches. "Some day, when it really matters, I might not have them," he replied when I asked why. Observing and mimicking his skill, I soon could start a fire with flint almost as quickly as he. We didn't carry tents, but built lean-to shelters from hemlocks. They kept out most of the rain, and all of it, if we took the time to weave the boughs. We slept on hemlock, carefully chosen and placed, and I have never slept better on any mattress. We baked bannock on sticks before the fire and fixed venison stew in cast iron over the small fire. "You can tell a woodsman," the Captain would say, "by the size of his fire." Most importantly, for me, he loved rivers and canoes. After accompanying him, as a swamper, on two down-river trips with clients, he cut me free and said, "Now you do it." And I did - for two summers under his watchful eye. And I've been 'running rivers' ever since.

-----In America's maritime history, wind power was used, wherever possible, to move people and goods. The lakes, coasts, and tidal rivers were covered with the white wings of sailboats in the Colonial days of America.

-----El taught me how to sail, as I taught her to paddle. Now that's truly a fine marriage. She grew up hair tussled in wind, sheet in the teeth, and heeling high into the puffs. Hers was a salt water world - pungent smells of low tide, gulls mewing, sails flapping. We merged our loves - for each other - and for water.

-----At different times, we owned two canoes, a kayak, and three sailboats. We were teachers, so had our summers free. Our children grew up surrounded by water. Together, we paddled rivers in Canada, Maine, and Rhode Island (yep, and they have some of the most beautiful rivers anywhere) - and all over the West. We sailed on lakes and salt water, but never traveled long distances on a sailboat as we did with canoe, kayak or rafts. When the last kid went to college, the two of us had two months together alone, down the upper Missouri through Montana and the Dakotas. We paddled and sailed a double kayak, slept on the banks, and cooked over a little fire, in iron. We merged the ancient arts of paddle and sail. Except that we carried matches, the Captain would have been pleased.

-----The end of a river trip is a melancholy time. The daily pattern of outdoor living, with its basics of food, shelter, warmth, and wind, was about to end. The isolation from the human world, and its self-created ephemeral problems, was almost over. El quietly said, "Lets do this all the time."

-----The next year we quit our jobs. We paddled rivers, from the Canadian Arctic to the Rio Grande - from Georgia's swamps to Oregon's pine forests. Then we moved onto a cruising sailboat - a tough little 20-footer - and she took us from the Gulf to Canada, and down the rivers back to the Gulf. She was a beautiful home, and her wind-powered ways were well-adapted to lakes and coasts. Rivers, however, were not her element. With all sails set, a strong following wind, and the little 9-hp diesel hammering away, she barely got up the Ohio from the Mississippi to the Tennessee River. On the Mississippi, from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois and on the river through New Orleans, the river was in charge. We could only proceed downstream - even when heading upriver. She could cross the Pacific, and her sisters did, but she could not get from New Orleans to St. Louis.

-----Americans moved from muscle power, to wind energy, to engines in their use of rivers - and so did we. We skipped the steam power phase and moved from the sailboat to a 22-foot power boat, with twin outboard engines. Now, just as occurred in 19th century America, we had the ability to go up river. The candy counter suddenly extended from horizon to horizon. We stare at maps and all we see are trees - each major river system with its sturdy trunk, and then the many branches of tributaries off that trunk, and then the plethora of twigs off the branches. Now, the coasts, lakes, canals, and all those branched rivers are possible. We can trailer to any of those watery candies and choose bonbons, chocolates, or toffees. The choices are almost overwhelming in their complexity, each with their own savory flavor and style. We have, in the past year, sampled the Gulf coast and rivers of Alabama, Chesapeake Bay, coastal Maine, and the Mississippi River in Minnesota - about as much variety and challenge as a cruiser can imagine. Each with unique cultures, climate, and cruising conditions. We live at the candy counter.


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