March 7, 2016
HULBERT OUTDOOR CENTER, FAIRLEE, VT – I looked out my cabin window a little past six this morning. The temperature stood at a few degrees above zero. The lawn between the cabin and the main building was studded with about half a dozen large canvas tents. Skinny four-inch stovepipes stuck out of them at odd angles through metal shields. Modest plumes of wood smoke trailed away from them to leeward. Inside, the hard-core campers were warming their boots and mukluks by the stoves and pulling on their winter clothes. It looked like one of those Civil War camps we see in old photos. With a surprisingly small twinge of guilt, I threw a towel over my shoulder and headed for a hot shower.
The Wilderness Paddlers’ Gathering has been going strong here at Hulbert for almost 25 years. Inspired by a similar, and much larger, annual rendezvous in Toronto, it features two days of presentations and practical workshops by canoeists, kayakers, and, lately, inflatable-boat voyageurs who’ve explored new wild territory or paddled ancient classic First Nation and fur trade routes. The canvas tents out there on the lawn are a tangible expression of the traditionalist spirit of the group.
In recent years, with the development of ever-cheaper and stronger composite materials, extreme water sports have blossomed. The same phenomenon that’s occurred in skiing – stunts. flips, and hurtling down impossible avalanche slopes – has happened on the rivers. Kayakers shoot off the tops of high waterfalls, dropping dozens of feet into plunge pools below; or submarine through standing waves. popping up downstream many seconds later.
The folks here express no interest in putting their canoes, loaded with tents, sleeping bags, fishing gear, and several weeks’ supplies of food, through shenanigans like that. Their boats are vehicles – just as they were for their original native developers – that take them to far-off places where stunting is a bad idea and tourism is virtually nonexistent. Broken boats or bones, far from help in the wilderness, are not their thing. And if you could see some of their photographs of mosquitoes clustered on their shirts, you’d also see why they so infrequently meet other travelers on their voyages.
We started Friday evening with a half-hour video of a family canoe-camping trip reprising another 44 years earlier, with 8 mm film clips of the first trip. Then an enthusiastic lightweight boat builder showed how to build a small craft weighing under twenty pounds. We ended with the illustrated story of a long trip by inflatable boats down a river in western Mongolia, gazing across vast, unbroken brown pastureland to distant snow-covered mountains. Yurts and herds of horses, camels, and sheep lined the banks almost the whole distance. The trip was unfortunately marked by an attack of what was later diagnosed as epididymitis (look it up; it can be excruciating), probably caused by the sufferer’s bottom bumping over rocks in stretches of shallow going. We older paddlers found the description to be TMI; but we’re from the Downton Abbey generation of paddlers, more given to restraint and understatement than graphic details.
Which raises an issue that’s been bubbling among paddlers for years: age. It’s sometimes seemed, in recent years that our wet-footed fraternity, like many American institutions, is growing ever more gray-haired. But, almost as if at once, the outdoor education values long espoused by, for example, Outward Bound and NOLS, have spread to traditional young people’s camps, residential schools, and even reformatories Suddenly there are kids everywhere – both boys and girls – following leaders not much older than themselves on extended wilderness trips during which they’re gradually given more and more decision-making authority, the leaders intervening only in matters of risk management. Two of those leaders are speaking here this weekend. It’s delightful to know that as we old-timers pass into senescence, our rivers will be in capable hands.
Two of the presenters have completed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, 740 miles of lakes, rivers (upstream and down), with 55 miles of portaging, between Old Forge, New York, and Fort Kent, Maine. Another recently paddled with a friend from the Missisquoi River to New York City. Favorite features of the trip: no portages and lots of breweries and small-boat clubs along the Hudson. A retired doctor and his wife described their kayaking trip along the south coast of Cuba. No kayaking on the north coast yet; don’t want to give people ideas.
The talk I especially wanted to hear was given by Ben McGrath, a New Yorker staff writer who wrote a fascinating article, “The Wayfarer,” for the December 14 issue of the magazine. He’d happened to meet a man named Richard Conant, a sort of long-distance paddling hobo, as Conant passed his home near the lower Hudson on Labor Day 2014. A Navy veteran and a genuine charmer who occasionally replenished his medications at VA hospitals along the paths of his amazing travels, he’d bought a Coleman fiberglass canoe in Plattsburgh and headed for Florida. Ever the journalist, McGrath interviewed him for several days, and they promised to keep in touch by e-mail as Conant made his laborious way south toward Florida in his overloaded boat.
On November 29, 2014, McGrath got a call from a North Carolina wildlife officer. Ben’s name and contact information had turned up in some piles of gear salvaged from an overturned canoe washed against a swampy shore along the Carolina coast. It was the beginning of a year of travel, talking with people who’d met Conant along the way, relatives, and former employers. Conant’s body, however, has never been found; nor has the life jacket he always wore. The swamps are impenetrable. No one knows if perhaps he’s off on another voyage, or the last one this time.