Book Review - On The Water


On The Water:
Discovering America in a Rowboat
by Nathaniel Stone

Review by Peter H. Vanderwaart

One of the ideas that comes up over and over on internet boating forums is doing the Great Loop, or traveling around the eastern half of the United States by water. This unlikely circuit is made possible by a canal at Chicago from Lake Michigan to an upper tributary of the Ohio River. A Google search on "Great Loop" will return a number of relevant web sites and web logs. At any one time, there may be a half dozen or more boats en route. Much of the internet forum chatter has to do with choosing the right boat. A typical choice is a small trawler.

Nathaniel Stone made an unlikely choice: he set out from New York City in a rowing scull. It offered no protection from the elements and had scarcely the carrying capacity for a small tent and some jars of peanut butter. Averaging about 30 miles a day, he took a little over three months to reach the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. At this point, he interrupted his journey for about six months to earn a little money and to change boats. The new vessel was a double-ended rowing boat of Canadian origins, much better suited to coastal navigation. He finished his Loop by rowing from New Orleans around Key West, and up the East Coast to New York City. As a coda, he continued down east to the Canadian Border at Eastport, Maine.

Stone's route was a variant. He made the eight mile portage from Lake Erie at Barcelona, NY to Chautauqua Lake at Mayville, NY. According to Yahoo Maps, this is S. Portage Street, and a sign noted by Stone calls it the Old Portage Road, dated to 1749. We'll allow for historic precedent. This shortcut saved perhaps a thousand miles of rowing on the exposed Great Lakes, but the route along Chadekoin Creek, Cassadaga Creek, and the Conewago River has rapids and low bridges that make it off limits to any but the smallest craft.

Stone is observant of people and writes very well. His portraits of people met along the way are worthy of Charles Kuralt. He has great respect for people struggling to maintain a historic, out-of-the-mainstream culture, whether they are native, Native American, Cajun, or South African. The book dwells on the times when Stone was befriended by those who live along the waterways, and mentions only in passing the places and people who have turned their backs on the occasional waterborne traveler.

If you are thinking of traveling the Great Loop yourself, read this book by all means, but not for practical, how-to-do-it information. Stone did not practice or train, made minimal preparations, and learned as he went. His planning horizon was a day and his response to uncertainty was to press ahead. If I was to choose from history's great sayings one line to describe his approach it would be from the Chinese: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Most of the book deals with the fresh water half of the journey. The trip from Key West to Eastport is covered in a rush. If you believe in such things, then by this time Stone had a severe addiction to endorphins, the brain chemicals responsible for the so-called "runner's high". He writes "For lately I've become, as much as ever on the trip, obsessed by rowing....The rowing itself is no longer work. I go to sleep shortly after the sun sets and wake up at dawn, and each morning, though I anticipate rowing for most of the day, I feel no need to coax myself into taking the first stroke. In the same casual way you might put down a cup of coffee, open the newspaper, and start reading at your kitchen table, I restore the cap on my water jug, reach for the oar handles, and start rowing."

This book is worth reading as Americana, as inspiration for open boat cruising, or just for fun. There are a few drawings, mostly after photographs that appear on the author's web site. The title, incidentally, is a catch phrase that Stone found to be a common valedictory on the rivers of mid-America, "On the water, buddy, on the water."

Peter Vanderwaart