- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In white water the bow paddler should be the lighter one so that the bow rides higher than the stern. This has led to the common but fallacious assumption that the bow position is somehow inferior to the stern. The truth is, in white water the bow paddler, having the best vantage point, is the tactical commander, picking the best route through the turbulence. The bow is responsible for getting the first half of the canoe through an opening into a chute or over a rapids. The stern must then follow with the second section. It is not as simple as it may sound, which is one reason in heavy white-water courses you often see abandoned canoes, bent at right angles around rocks. Improvising always, the bow throws strokes back to his or her partner, who tries to catch them, follow and adapt. It is very free-form maneuvering—in some ways like dancing—with almost no repetition, because the beat and temper of the river are never exactly the same in any two places. White water can and should be paddle-danced without a lot of chatter, strokes following observation and feel rather than commands or comment.
As it happened, Lyn had forgotten very little and, more important, had indisputably retained a certain aggressiveness of personality which makes for a good bow paddler. She began taking charge, reading the water, decisively picking holes—usually the right ones—taking what the current and river topography gave us. After a day or so of adjusting in the shallow water upstream, we were working nicely by the time we hit bigger rapids in the downstream canyons. And there was no yelling.
For me, memories of particular places are usually as much aural as visual. One summer I walked the length of the Appalachian Trail, and one of my most vivid recollections is the song of white-throated sparrows, heard everywhere as I moved north with the spring from Georgia to Maine. Northern lakes are loon cries. The tundra is the whine of mosquitoes. Los Angeles is the roar of traffic, Las Vegas the clank of slots.
On any white water there is a basic sound of current slapping and swooshing against rock, but the special sound of the West Branch, the one that I suspect both of us will always associate with that trip, was of chirping chipmunks. I have no zoological data to support the claim but it may be there are more chipmunks along that river than anywhere else in the world. They are there because there are tons of acorn and other mast and an infinite number of superb den sites in the pockets of humus between the rocks and roots. In part because it is such a good place for chipmunks, the narrow West Branch vales are hunted by hawks, owls, foxes and other predators.
One morning we tried to make a crude estimate of the chipmunk population, counting all the little ground squirrels we definitely saw or heard while floating along a mile of riverbank. A chipmunk every 20 feet seemed to be the situation, but these were just the ones lined up on the shore. Behind them, extending back to the cliff, were additional ranks. And presumably they were as numerous on the other side of the river as on ours. All in all, 5,000 chipmunks a mile, a million or so in the 200 miles of river, did not seem exaggerative. Whatever the true number, we were seldom out of sound of their chirping, which is very nice music for traveling.
One great convenience of river travel is that there is seldom any need to plan ahead, to push on to find a desirable stopping place. In the entire 200 miles of the West Branch we paddled there were probably no more than 30 that were not suitable for camping. Late on the first afternoon we came around a bend, and ahead, on a mini-delta created by the outflow of a tiny streamlet, we saw a doe and two fawns drinking. Above the gravel bar was a flat, clear bench shaded by hemlocks and sprinkled with blooming trillium. The deer ran off but we stayed there for the night.
"Exit at the second fawn. Turn left at the trillium patch," Lyn commented. "What a wonderful way to end the day."
There are five dams on the West Branch. The lower four are minor obstacles around which a canoe can be carried without much inconvenience. The fifth—the first met upstream, at Curwensville—is a brutish structure and it requires a brutish portage: a 150-foot, 45-degree ascent of the breast, which is made of loose riprap liberally mulched with broken beer bottles, then a half-mile descent to return to the river. This takes an hour of sweating and cursing.
The Curwensville dam is about 130 feet high and half a mile long; it creates a seven-mile lake. The dam is the work of the Army Corps of Engineers. Like every canoeist I know, I am not fond of portages of any sort, and man-made ones always seem to be the worst. In strict recreational terms, therefore, I am not a fan of the Army Engineers, our leading portage makers. Also, like most canoeists and environmentalists in general, I am suspicious that if given their head the Engineers, like so many crazed beavers, might stop up every bit of flowing water we have. The following incident (others can cite similar or worse ones) is of the sort that breeds this suspicion.
The year before, I had called on the Engineers' office in charge of good and bad works in the Susquehanna basin. I had heard a rumor that a dam was being planned on the West Branch near a place called Keating. If it were to be built it would create an impoundment that would drown a section of canyon I particularly admire. I think it is of special natural significance. Indeed, said the Engineer informant, some studies were in progress. Eight or nine Susquehanna dam sites were being investigated, including the one at Keating. However, not to worry. As this Engineer explained it, Engineers spend a lot of time and money investigating the feasibility of dams. Potential hydroelectric, flood-control and recreational uses are considered and assigned numerical values. These must add up to a plus factor—i.e., the dam must have some utility, at least on paper, before blueprints are drawn or concrete poured. In the case of the proposed Keating site, the preliminary utility figure had come up negative; there were more reasons not to build it than to build it.