Who knows why you start things. Your parents had a banged up aluminum canoe in the backyard and one day you and your neighborhood gang portaged it to the local creek. In college you wanted to impress your date on a river one weekend, or maybe a friend called to invite you on a wilderness canoe trip. You'd had enough of fishing from shore and getting hung up in shrubbery on the back cast. Could be anything.
For me, it was an all-of-the-above medley of motivations. My parents did have a dinged up aluminum canoe in the yard (still do), and we dragged it off on various misadventures, none of which would be sanctioned by the American Canoe Association. A friend, my brother, did call and invite me on an expedition to Quebec almost 30 years ago, which began a continuing career of northern forays. I did take a date on a trip to northern Manitoba, where we became paddling partners. Marriage, a few years later, was secondary to the boating bond.
Bottom line, though, is that I got seduced; quite happily seduced. In my book, nothing on the planet matches self-propelled boats and water for the spectrum of gratifications; from thrills to serenity, and from awe to that delicious touch of terror. Starting with those childhood explorations, a generation ago, and continuing to this winter's outing dodging ice floes on the Gallatin River, every time I slide a boat into current, or paddle onto a glass calm lake, I am more thoroughly sucked in.
Come to think of it, who needs a reason? But in case you do, here are a dozen. If none fit, hop in a boat and make up lucky number 13.
1. Pure adrenaline. Boats and moving current are like skis and deep powder, a dynamic immersion in synaptic thrill. Start with a Class II bounce on the Buffalo River in the Ozarks, and build up to Lava Falls on the Colorado. The only limit is how far you want to ride it.
2. Re-tracing history. Water has been the explorer's medium through millennia. Camp under the same cottonwoods as Lewis and Clark along the Missouri, paddle next to tow paths on the Erie Canal, kayak Lake Superior as the voyageurs did, or rekindle the Gold Rush on the Yukon.
3. Being one with the whales. And the seals, puffins, turtles, cranes, pelicans, and crocodiles. Water is rich with life. Why not join the scene? Think bird-watching along the Everglades waterway, whale nurseries in Baja, loons and wolves in the Boundary Waters, and, for that matter, tadpoles and turtles in your neighborhood marsh.
4. It's easy on the body. Listen, at some point in AARP age, it becomes clear that backpacking is becoming more work and pain than fun. That's where paddling/floating comes in. The boat brings along the creature comforts, you avoid the joint-bruising trails, and the adventure continues.
5. Fun for all ages. Infants and toddlers are out when it comes to most backcountry modes. So you're stuck with waiting till they're old enough, giving up adventure, or entering the KOA cult. Not with canoeing, rafting, sea kayaking; put those tykes in boats, take 'em along. Parents get to indulge their adventurous yearnings and kids get hooked before video arcades kidnap them.
6. Dancing with your partner. Salsa lessons have nothing on the music you can make with your sweetie on the water. You know those couples that glide effortlessly on the dance floor, who look like they move in wordless harmony? Same thing can happen between canoeists … really!
7. Because water is the way. The classic example is the Far North. Look at a map. It's all water. Who would even consider going overland? Rivers and lakes are the obvious route from Point A to Point B. Often as not, paddling is the way to go. Just ask the kayakers in the Apostle Islands, or any national seashore, or in the Everglades. Why cut out all that territory just because you haven't started paddling yet?
8. To sneak up on fish. Okay, you can tramp through the buggy shrubbery, rub elbows with poison ivy, and spend more time climbing trees to retrieve your fly than enticing fish … or you can get in a boat and actually go where the fish are. Let me think about that for a minute. Done!
9. To go for a soak! Any idea how many hot springs there are along waterways? Let's see … the lower canyons of the Rio Grande, the Salmon in Idaho, the Owyhee in Oregon … Here's the image: You're floating along on a misty, hypothermia-prone day when you notice steam rising from a pool near the bank. Somebody dips a toe in and pronounces it good. Pretty soon the clothes are off, the core temperatures are rising, and boating has just become your favorite activity.
10. It beats the singles scene. Paddling is one of those small-world deals. Join a paddling club, go on a trip, and before long you have more trips on the list than vacation time, you have an active, adventurous social group, and suddenly those singles ads in the paper have become someone else's compulsion.
11. Because you can bring it all. Who said anything about roughing it? In canoes, not to mention rafts, everything from lawn furniture to Dutch ovens are on the gear list, and backcountry life is anything but Spartan. More roast duck, anyone?
12. To pick your poison. The spectrum of paddling options is so broad that a custom fit is guaranteed. Misty lakes at dawn, steep-creek whitewater, ocean surf, boreal lakes, desert bloom, alpine splendor, mossy swamps, coral reef snorkeling, canyon depths … pick a boat and start the life list. Just be careful, it's addicting.