Women on Water is a difficult book to categorize. It looks like a guidebook, with a table of contents that lists twenty-five day trips, most of them in the southwestern Adirondacks. Flipping through the book I admired the hand-drawn maps, beautiful pen-and-ink drawings that reminded me of Nancy Bernstein’s work in the Adirondack Explorer. Black-and-white photos show kayakers in scenic locations and close-ups of loons and butterflies.
But don’t expect many facts and figures in this book. The trip descriptions rarely include landmarks or mileage, and the maps do not include a scale. I wondered, is the Francis Lake trip half a mile long, or five?
At first I resented a guidebook that didn’t provide much guidance, but I had been forewarned in the introduction. The group of “mature” women from Utica, who call themselves WOW, for Women on Water, “intend to tell the stories of our journeys on the water as we have grown to be serious paddlers, explorers, and, most importantly, good friends.”
I tried to let go of my pre-conceived notions about guidebooks and continued to read about kayak trips accompanied by loons and water lilies and beaver dams and floating lunches. Soon it ceased to matter that I wasn’t getting all the facts. These women were having a wonderful time without a GPS or a waterproof map. Here’s a passage from the end of a description of a trip to Moss Lake near Old Forge:
The lake seems small at first glance, and the hiking trail short. Unfamiliar visitors might be inclined to schedule a brief stay. Though the confines of the lake can be kayaked or the trail trekked in probably an hour or so, the quick visit will not provide the true flavor of the place, which is all about losing time, freeing body and soul to drift on calm waters, the heartbeat to slow to the rhythm of the wind, the mind to meander smoothly like a loon, without considering time or the world beyond the borders of the lake, beyond the foot of the mountain, beyond the simplicity and satiety of the earth, water, and sky. Give yourself the morning or the afternoon. Give yourself the day. It will be a present you’ll savor later in traffic jams, at office meetings, in crowded buildings, waiting in line at grocery stores.
The book does have a formal structure. All of the trips lie within a few hours of Utica, including sixteen in the Park. Each trip gets two maps, a long view with the highways and villages along the route to the trip destination and a close-up map of the chosen lake or river, with an X marked at the put-in spot. “The Way There” offers directions to the site from a start in Utica, and the “Reflections on the Water” would be called the trip description in a more traditional guidebook. In Women on Water, this section includes observations of birds and plants, what the group ate for lunch, a swimming break that included water ballet, a bit of Adirondack history, and lots of unabashed joy. In “Diversions,” the authors tell of what else there is to do in the area. They are particularly fond of the ice-cream shop in Inlet that serves homemade gelato. And finally, “Considerations” is a practical advice section that warns of afternoon winds that can sweep across a lake, where the outhouses are located, and that low water might make it tricky to get across the beaver dams.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the occasional bright flare in the prose. “Entry into Elm Lake is worth any effort. It’s like crossing a border into a fairy tale.” At the end of another trip the women stop at the beach in Long Lake. “In litigious New York State, here is a raft, lifeguardless, with a slide, a trampoline, and three rope swings …we enter the water as more-than-middle-aged women and surface like nine-year-old boys, gleefully immersed in the late summer pursuit.” And at Seventh Lake, during a rainstorm, the women find “the exposed base of an overturned tree, a natural cathedral of intricately laced roots, tendrils woven of wonder and the search for water. We linger under its protection, its mammoth reminder that right side up and normal is not the only place to find beauty.”
And Women on Water is a reminder that one does not have to be young and athletic to find beauty and awe in kayaking the lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks.■