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OCT. 8, 2014

Reading Our Landscape

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What does it mean to read a landscape? Such a question has puzzled many over the years, including Emerson and Thoreau in our literary heritage and Hutton and Clements in the scientific. It is also a question that students at OA face after they hop into their canoes and slide from shore into deeper, faster water. But any canoeist faces that question in the moments and hours after setting out on a river, especially if they slam into rock after rock, jarring the boat, their bodies, and sometimes bringing their vessel to a complete stop.

The boulders, especially on the second day of our final paddle/climb weekend, lie just beneath the water’s surface, a place we think of often with trepidation, think of as a place to avoid visiting for long without SCUBA gear or submarines.  Even the idea there are things under the water sometimes escapes us. Fortunately for our paddling group, there are signs and clues for those who look that reveal what lurks below. Our OA semester has been making a concerted effort to be among those who look. The French Broad River, a river that passes by the OA campus doorstep and meanders northward, is an integral part of our environment, an environment we are continually trying to better understand. That is why we devote 4 beautiful autumn days to exploring a 25-mile stretch of it in one of our National Forests.

As I sit in the stern of a Mohawk canoe, with Myles in the bow, we discuss water currents and how they change to accommodate the space occupied by rocks, making lumps and ripples in the water’s surface that we call “pillows” and “V’s”. The submerged boulder field around us transforms from a sun-streaked mass of frothy, chaotic water to a technical obstacle course through which we can navigate. Students in other boats whiz past the rocks that are no longer hidden beneath the waves. Information and commands are yelled back and forth. Memories of a bumpy ride the day before fade in the face of this newfound expertise. We pass cliffs only visible from the river and forested mountains.  We even found a mudpuppy—an enormous salamander with external gills—drifting along the bottom of an eddy, and surf waves curling in the river currents. The environment we pass through is wonderfully rich, varied, and always poses a new challenge, canoeing gives us a way to push a little deeper into that environment.

Franklin Jacoby
Resident Wilderness Educator