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Water: The great unifier

May 4, 2011
By JOE HACKETT, News Outdoors Columnist
For most of the past week, the region has experienced serious issues with flooding and high-water conditions. Roads and bridges were washed out, homes and camps flooded and dams were jeopardized.

It’s encouraging to witness how neighbors and complete strangers offered to pitch in to help each other. Thanks also to the many volunteers that came to the rescue of local businesses to fill sandbags and move equipment. Certainly, the volunteer rescue squads and local fire departments deserve our congratulations, as well as the many state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers and ECOs who put in long hours during the recent floods.

Local streams and rivers will continue to flow at flood stage or beyond, while many area lakes and ponds have reached historic water levels. While fishing in the St. Regis Canoe Area last weekend, I discovered a rushing stream flowing over the canoe carry between Bog Pond and Bear Pond. It was deep enough to float a boat.

Conditions have created a dangerous mix of swollen, swift and extremely cold waters. Boaters and paddlers should be on alert, as the saturated ground weakens the root structure of trees along the riverbanks.

Although I have yet to paddle the Saranac, there are reports of fallen trees choking the river channel. I expect the same holds true for other rivers, such as the Boquet, Chubb and AuSable. The Raquette River should be considered extremely dangerous, as the flow contains considerable debris washed from the forested banks.

This flotsam can create strainers — or natural dams — where trees, logs and additional debris obstruct the river’s flow. With the swift flow of the current, paddlers or their boats can easily become ensnared in these natural barriers.

If you plan to paddle, be sure to scout the route thoroughly. Exercise caution while walking the riverbanks, as the erosion has created extensive undercuts. 

If you have plans to take a hike or a mountain bike trip, it would be wise to reconsider. The combination of mud, water and snowmelt has effectively closed many local routes. The DEC has issued advisories for hiking in the High Peaks, where considerable snow remains and trails are flowing with water.

Motor boaters should likewise be alert for floating debris and submerged trees. What may at first appear to be a small branch could well be the tip of a limb attached to a submerged tree. If you must go, take it slow, trim your prop and bring a spare. Be sure you have extra sheer pins and secure your PFD.

Despite the awesome force and destructive powers of the raging waters, it is difficult not to appreciate the unique beauty and incredible flow. At the height of the flooding last week, I pulled over in the Cascade Notch to view the massive waterfalls spilling off the surrounding high peaks. Long ribbons of frothing white water could be seen snaking through the forest to the valleys below.

Bringing people together

With current weather, I’ve had water on the brain.

Water is a most unique medium. It carries with it power and pain, wonder and awe, grace and glory. It also has an unusual affect on our psyche. In the Adirondacks, water continues to bind our towns and villages with a never-ending flow. Rare is a local community that doesn’t have a lake, pond, river or stream within close proximity to town.

Although water’s destructive power can never be ignored, we often fail to recognize its ability to bring people together, to connect folks who may never get together under any other circumstances.

While the great comic W.C. Fields referred to H2O as “hell twice over,” in many ways water soothes the human soul. It slows things down and relaxes us. Water engenders camaraderie and good times to be shared. Naturally, it makes us civil.

On the lakes, it is an unusual occurrence when boaters fail to wave in passing. For some odd reason, water makes us friendly. Even when we don’t know each other, there is always a cordial wave or a kind remark offered in passing.

“Nice day to be out,” we’ll say to a complete stranger at the locks, with a hearty reply kindly returned. We’ll stop to let faster boats pass or slow down to pass paddlers or other smaller boats.

We may rush to pass other paddlers while lugging a boat over the carries, but once on the water we’ll take a more leisurely track rather than crowd a sinuous and narrow channel.

On the water, we naturally look after each other. If someone appears stranded with a cover removed from the boat’s motor, we’ll flock to their aid like ants to a picnic. I can’t recall the number of boats I’ve towed to the dock over the years, nor the amount of gas I’ve supplied. Fortunately, comparable kindness has always been reciprocated whenever I found myself in similar circumstances.

On the water we are equals, sharing a precious natural resource and enjoying the good times. Yet it also provides for an odd contrast of roles and behaviors. The very same folks who happily wave to each other out on the lake, or exchange jokes at the locks, will oddly be willing to duke it out as they jockey for position back at the dock or in the parking lot.

On pavement, those friendly waves may become one-finger salutes as common courtesy goes out the window. It is very unusual and difficult to understand why returning to civilization causes us to become increasingly uncivil.

Along a remote stretch of highway if there is a car with the hood open, most will pass right by. But if the same family is stuck out on the lake with the cover off their motor, nine out of 10 boaters will stop. Gas or mechanical assistance will be offered and if nothing can be done, somebody will surely tow them back to the landing with no expectation or reward expected, beyond a handshake and a kind word of thanks.

The same is true for hitchhikers. If we see someone holding a paddle along a lonely stretch of river or a remote lakeshore, the question will always be asked, “Can I give you a lift, is everything all right?” 

Yet on the highway, the same individual may have their thumb out for hours, and folks will motor right by without so much as a glance. 

I’ve never been able to understand why water so affects our collective mentality, but I’ve witnessed it over and again.

Despite differences between various user groups — paddlers occasionally cursing speeding motor boats or motor boaters offering a Bronx Cheer to a group of canoes choking the river channel — we are usually able to coexist quite amicably on the water. Inexplicably, the environment seems to soothe the raging beast within.

Fortunately, boaters have been able to retain and maintain such common courtesies even in this modern age. In some way, water causes us to revert to a slower, gentler pace and returns us to a place where manners still matter.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
It’s difficult to be uncivil on the water when viewing surroundings like this scene from St. Regis Pond.



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