I have paddled remote, wild rivers in northern Canada as well as urban rivers like the Mississippi. When I'm asked the inevitable question—"Well, how did it go?"—after a wilderness trip, I simply respond, "It was great!" and delve into a story of arctic wolves or moment of self-reflection.
But when I'm faced with the same question after paddling an urban river I say, "Sit down, you need to hear this." Why? Because there are added elements to paddling urban rivers that can change the way paddlers understand their environment and their place in it. Paddling your local river has personal and community benefits that last a lifetime. Here are a few things I have learned from paddling in non-wilderness areas:
* Understanding of impact: Placing more value on wilderness areas than local areas neglects our immediate natural surroundings. It is so easy to ignore our impact on the land by living in a city and recreating in a wilderness area. We are responsible for the land around us and it is our job to show city planners and government officials that paddlers care about the health of their local watershed. If we recreated locally, I believe that contemporary paddlers would learn to appreciate the power plants, parks, dams, and native species we encounter. This gives us a better sense of place and encourages communities to value their waterways.
* Sense of place: My heart belongs to the river and I want the river to be healthy, just as I want the people I love to be healthy. I feel an intense ownership over issues concerning the river. If I live on or by a river, I can visit it as much as I like. I can grow and change with it. I can appreciate its different moods and varying levels. Paddling locally has taught me how to put down roots in my own community. Of course I still daydream about Arctic waterways and I plan to visit them again. But on any given day I can paddle on "my" river and build a relationship with my immediate environment and the people I encounter along the way.
* Accessibility: A trip to a remote wilderness area requires a certain amount of previous skill, gear, preparation, travel time—and costs big money. There has been a lot of attention towards making the outdoors accessible to people of all ages, financial backgrounds, and cultures. We have the ability to encourage the next generation of paddlers to recreate on remote rivers for multiple days and local rivers for just a few hours. That way, we are not leaving anyone out in the paddling community. It's not go big or go home—it's paddle big and paddle at home!
I would like to see more people paddling their local rivers. I want to see cities embrace their waterfronts and small towns along the river revitalize their economies by turning inward toward the water. I believe that true paddlers paddle—not just for two weeks out of every summer or for 70 days in the Arctic once or twice in their lifetime. They paddle whenever they can, near or far, urban or wilderness.
In 2011, Natalie Warren and her friend, Ann Raiho, became the first women to retrace Eric Severeid's historic "Canoeing with the Cree" route from Minneapolis, Minn. to Hudson Bay. Last fall she paddled the length of the Mississippi River with an 11-person crew in support of outdoor education and local waterways.
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