Looking for companionship a few years after moving to the Adirondacks, I found myself sitting with a group of eight women on a rocky outcrop on Moose Pond, taking a lunch break on a canoe outing. “We went to Germany for three weeks this winter” one of the women said. “Our trip with the grandchildren turned into a nightmare” replied a second. They go on-and-on talking about their travels and grandchildren. What’s happening? Why am I here listening to all this chatter in this supposedly tranquil wilderness, my confused mind shouted. We might as well be in Starbucks!
To calm myself, I escaped to a nearby wooded area and continued down the bank to my canoe. Gail followed and the two of us paddled around the lake, respecting each other’s need for solitude, for experiencing our surroundings together as if we were alone. I listened to the water lapping against the side of the canoe and the rocks on the shoreline. I marveled at the clouds in the sky partially hiding the tops of the mountains.
After this trip I often thought about how to be with others on the water, while maintaining the tranquility of the natural environment. Some of my companions expressed the same need as me, and kept their talking to a minimum – others did not. I was reluctant to place restrictions on how people should act, seldom expressing my desire to request that they delay their idle chatter for another time.
That’s what I’ll do, I said to some friends after hearing about a hiking trip where folks were asked not to speak while on the trail. I’ll organize a canoe trip where people will be told up-front that they can’t talk. And that’s what I did, through the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. The trip, advertised as “a wonderful meditative opportunity and a chance to really ‘hear’ and absorb your surroundings,” drew thirteen people to this first ‘Silent Canoe Trip.’
September 7th, 2006 we gathered at a parking lot near Black Pond on Keese Mill Road, a few miles from Paul Smiths College, ready to venture onto the water. Most had solo canoes and kayaks, I was paddling my 12 Spitfire solo canoe, from Placid Boat Works. There were only two tandem canoes.
I explained the rules of the game:
“First of all, you are not to speak to one another, unless there is an emergency. Not only speak in terms of talking – also don’t gesture to each other. If you see a loon, that is your loon to experience as a solitary experience. Don’t even point towards it. Give everyone space, don’t bunch up your boats. The lake is small enough so we won’t lose anyone; large enough to explore on your own. We’ll first paddle through an outlet that leads to the lake.
We’ll meet in 1 ½ hours at the bridge by the lean-to. Then we can all share what we experienced.”
A friend put duct tape on her partner’s mouth, as he was a big talker. He may have gotten the not-so-subtle message about keeping our mouths shut, neglecting to internalize that we were not to communicate in any way. I know this because after about ½ hour, while searching out red berries near the shore, I sensed someone behind me. I turned around to see a kayak almost touching the back of my canoe. The paddler raised his arms in a form of a greeting, with a smile I had seen on little kids after they were found while playing hide-and-seek, wanting to be found.
We stopped for lunch at the appointed time and shared our stories. They expressed gratitude for the opportunity to experience aquatic life in a new way. The loons provided us with the best show. Two, sometimes three, loons swam amongst our boats, diving and serenading us with their haunting wails. I felt they liked that we were all quiet.
The couples in the tandem canoes experienced the most trouble keeping to themselves. One woman in the bow of a tandem just gave up paddling and relaxed because of the unspoken conflicts between she and her canoe partner.
The reaction to the trip was generally positive. Others who had not paddled with us on this first “Silent Canoe Trip” questioned our motives. “Why would you want to go on a canoe trip with a group and not talk? Why not just go alone?” one person asked as I was planning the second outing. I answered, “I do go canoeing alone, just as I meditate alone. I also like to paddle the waters with others, just as I like to meditate with others. It’s hard to explain what happens differently. I just know I like to peacefully share the waters with other paddlers.”
A participant in the first trip expressed a desire to have the trip last longer and go on a larger body-of-water.” So on our second “Silent Canoe Trip” we went to Round Lake, near Little Tupper Lake. Paddling the inlet to the Lake went just fine. The wind picked up as we crossed the lake, making paddling difficult as we made our way to the designated lunch spot on a sandy beach. We all agreed then that the lake was too large, in contrast to last trip on Black Pond.
Returning to the parking lot after our sojourn on Round Lake, I slipped my canoe into the back of the Ford pickup truck over the open tailgate, securing it with straps to the cargo bed. I surveyed the parking lot to make sure our paddlers were all OK and ready to leave. After returning to the truck, I carelessly backed it into a nearby parked vehicle, causing the canoe to buckle and damaging the hatchback of a Honda CRV. The vehicle must have been owned by two men we had seen fishing in the Inlet, as everyone but Mary had left. She ran over after hearing the crunch of my canoe as it collapsed between the CRV and the bed of the truck. We both lamented over the stupidity of my actions, and the state of damage to my canoe, which was obviously unrepairable – with numerous holes in the carbon/Kevlar hull and torn and splintered wooden gunnels.
Being in a remote area with no cell phone coverage I could not call in the accident and did not want to wait, not knowing when the owners would return. So I left a note on the car with my name and home phone number, along with my insurance information. The next day the New York State Police notified me that they were going to give me a ticket for leaving the scene of the accident. They relented after I visited the Police Headquarters in Ray Brook, highlighting the remoteness of the area, and stating that I could have just left without notifying the owners of the accident.
I stopped by at Placid Boat Works on my way home with the damaged Spitfire hanging out of the back of the truck. The grief on Charlie’s face said it all, as he scolded me for carrying one of his precious boats so carelessly.
A regretful finish to a “Silent Canoe Trip.”
Silent paddles start in many ways. One evening at an event at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, Gail and I lamented about the lack of times we’d been out on our canoes. How’s tomorrow for you? It’s supposed to be a beautiful day,” I suggested. So the two of us met at the put-in for Little Lake Clear – the eastern end of the St. Regis Canoe area. We paddled out to an island, sat in our solo canoes by the shore (in the shade to get some respite from the sun) and chatted briefly, catching up on each others lives. Mostly, however, we kept to ourselves, stopping for a swim at a lone sandy beach, immersing ourselves in the clear cool water, silently.
Photo: A lunch break on the first silent canoe trip.