By Darren Bush
When visiting Pompeii many years ago, I was impressed by the roads. Sturdy and timeless, they were works of art.
But what really impressed me were the ruts. Two or three inches deep and as narrow as chariot wheel, they were obviously worn down by thousands of wheels passing along the streets. While every street showed ruts, the deepest ones were along the main drags, as you would expect.
A few years ago I found myself on a gravel road to a put-in, the snow compacted into ruts that reminded me of Pompeii. The freezing and thawing had filled the ruts with ice and my wheels fell into them and I crept along the road, my foot off the throttle, letting the engine idle pull me along. There was a slight downhill going in, and of course, that meant a slight uphill half a mile back up to the asphalt.
Two-wheel-drive trucks aren’t the most sure-footed, and my wheels spun at the lightest touch of the throttle. On one side of the road was a sheer bluff; on the other side, down about ten feet, was a creek. After a few minutes, I got out of the truck, still running, and still idling, and started throwing pine needles under the wheels. They’d hiccup and catch, and the truck would lurch forward. After a few dozen handfuls of detritus, I had enough momentum and hopped into the driver’s seat. It was a stupid thing to do, in retrospect, but it got me out.
In 2015, I was in just as much of a rut as I was twenty years ago. I had to go back and look at my calendar. I came to the conclusion that in 2015, I did not paddle in one place that I had never paddled before. Not one.
I have a dozen go-tos within two or three hours of my home, and of those, I spend 80% of my time on three or four. That’s because I love them, and they are comforting and as familiar to me as an old paddle. There’s nothing wrong with these wonderful places; they continue to be wonderful.
But I had to ask myself, “Why, with the abundance of rivers and lakes around me, why have I stayed in my comfortable rut?”
Lots of reasons.
Laziness is one. It takes time to research a new destination. If I already love the Grant River, why consider the Platte River? Why drive over to the Bark River when the Sugar River is closer? There is no good answer to this question. It’s not like I am bored on my home rivers, for as you know, you never paddle the same river twice. This is especially true when you come around the corner and a new weeping willow has fallen across the stream.
Familiarity is another. I have three pairs of hiking boots, all the same, all comfortable, and I know they fit my foot perfectly. No need to break them in, they just work, all the time. I know that a certain stretch of the Lower Wisconsin, unless the water is crazy high, will always have a good sandbar for a camp. There are two trees on said island for a hammock, so why give this up?
I asked Merriam and Webster. They told me that a rut is a, “Usual or fixed practice; especially: a monotonous routine.” I asked Oxford and they told me that a rut is a, “Habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive, but is hard to change.”
Hmm. Dull? Not really.
But a usual or fixed practice? Absolutely.
I know it’s good for me to branch out, quite literally. In 2014, I paddled some smaller streams in Iowa that have been on my list for a long time. The Yellow and Upper Iowa Rivers are well-known to many readers, but for me, they were names and blue squiggles on a map or pictures on Facebook.
I took a few days off, put a canoe, a kayak, and a bicycle on my truck and set off for Northeast Iowa. I am so glad I did. The Yellow was a pleasant jaunt, and the Upper Iowa was spectacular. I was totally alone on both of them.
This season I am going to pop out of my rut. I’m going to spur on my Roman steeds and jump out of the rut. Publicly-stated goals are hard to retract, so here I am, standing on my chariot, wind blowing in my strictly figurative hair, and state I am going to paddle two new rivers and one new canoe route. Here are mine.
Replace Sugar River with Turtle Creek, Walworth County. It’s only thirty minutes further away, but it looks beautiful, intimate. I will do this in May. Instead of 35 minutes, Google says it’s an hour away.
Replace the Grant River with the Galena/Fever River. This is one that has been on my list forever. This year, I will drive past the turn-off to Highway 18 and keep heading southwest on Highway 151. It is exactly the same distance to both.
Replace Saganaga Lake with Little Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters. This is already a done deal as I bought the permit. It’s a lake I have always wanted to see, and now I will. I have an old map that belonged to my late friend Jim (Sullivan), with his favorite camping spots marked. I will cook a walleye at the same fire-pit he did.
That seems like a great reason to pop out of my paddling rut. I encourage all to do the same.