I recently read Stephen Ambrose’s historical review of the Lewis and Clark cross-continent expedition of 1804-06, Undaunted Courage. The account of their boating the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, the overland crossing of the Rockies and treks along some of the rivers’ tributaries is truly inspiring.
Lewis and Clark were able to see the country in some of its most pristine condition. At that time, only Native Americans and a few Spanish, French and Canadian traders and trappers had penetrated the region that is now the central and northwestern US. They encountered vast herds of bison on the prairie. Large herds of elk inhabited the plains; herds that have now largely been driven into the mountains. Prairie dog colonies extended for miles, grizzly bears roamed the plains, salmon filled the Columbia. They saw a grand, wild panorama of biodiversity.
I live in some of the country they came through and I’ve driven, boated and hiked along much of their route. The lay of the land is still the same and if you squint your eyes and tune out the manmade infrastructure, you can still visualize the landscape as they must have beheld it.
What’s missing is the vast biodiversity. Bison are confined to parks and private ranches. Prairie dogs have been eliminated over much of their range. The plains have been plowed and only scattered remnants of the original prairie remain. We’ve gained many advantages from modern technology. What we’ve lost in the process is harder to quantify.
I believe one of the things that draws me back to the outdoors, to the backcountry and especially to wilderness and the still wild places is the desire to experience, even in small part, a feeling of exploration and discovery. Explorers like Lewis, Clark, Livingstone, Powell, Burton and Byrd blazed trails into the unknown, going places for the first time that few of us today can duplicate. However, we can still capture some of that excitement and wonder, if we give ourselves over to it.
Many times as I’ve prowled around the woods, deserts, beaches and river banks of the West, I’ve wondered if human feet ever stood in this “exact spot”. I’ve never discovered new lands like the explorers of old, but I’ve made personal discoveries of beautiful, magical places. These discoveries inspire me to keep going out, to keep wondering what’s around the next bend in the river or trail…to keep exploring.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many of you that I talk and correspond with and folks that I’ve shared trips with express the same kind of thoughts, the same sense of personal exploration. And in one very real sense, each of us who ventures out on the water in a boat is an adventurous explorer. As a species, we humans are land animals. While our ancestors may have evolved from the sea, we are now tied to the land.
Just as Lewis and Clark left their less curious and adventurous fellow citizens in the East when they headed west, so do we leave behind our land-bound peers when we set out upon the water. There’s a heightened awareness, a feeling of anticipation, of discovery when we shove off from shore. In some ways it’s serious business; we have to pay attention, to take care to survive out there. But it’s also fun and invigorating! As Rat said to Mole in that enduring children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING - absolute nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Amen.
Whether we’re skimming along the coast in a sea kayak, floating down a river in a raft or kayak, or prowling a lake or bayou in a canoe or rec boat, we’re seeing the scenery and nature in ways that can’t be experienced from the highway. It’s a casting away of the everyday that helps recharge the batteries and nurture the soul. Think of it as stress relief and preventative medicine.
Damn, we ought to be able to work this into the new overhaul of the health care system and get tax breaks for our boating gear. Write your congressman!
Boat Often, Boat Safe, Breathe Deeply,