Somewhere along the way modern America lost its sense of scale. The coasts seem to have grown more proximate. Our neighbors have inched closer. Everyone appears to know everything about everybody. Maybe the Internet is to blame, or the airplane, or even the car. But no one seems to notice. At least I didn’t—not until last summer, when a friend and I embarked on an unorthodox trip from Buffalo to New York City.
The plan was to paddle the decade-old, 17-foot, obnoxiously red, recreational Old Town canoe my father had given my mother for their 19th anniversary. We were going to go along the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River. By car Buffalo to New York is seven hours and a tank and a half of gas. By canoe, it’s three weeks and 20 cans of soup. Setting out, we weren’t sure if we would encounter a small portion of a big world or a big portion of a small one.
We felt every mile. The canal has a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit—a restriction I’d always thought laughingly slow until I considered it from the stern of a canoe. Paddling as hard as we could—dip, swing, dip, swing, dip, swing, j-stroke—we’d hit about 5 mph tops. But after 20 minutes, even that was out of reach.
I was surprised our slow progress wasn’t demoralizing. Instead, as we slipped along past farmland that endlessly stretched from the water’s edge—past abandoned mills and factories, past dense tree cover—our journey’s slowness accentuated the distance we covered. There was something deeply satisfying about every day’s small progress. Thirty miles on the water contained more than 300 on the interstate.
There were pieces of the canal that I had crossed daily for a large part of my life—mundane trips in the car headed to school or the store—but from the water everything was different.
I barely recognized my own community. From the canoe I saw the backs of buildings or a random swing set, and my brain wouldn’t register these familiar landmarks from a different vantage point. And the canal itself was unfamiliar. What I had always assumed was a meandering vestigial feature of a less-refined era revealed its elegance in gentle curves and long straights that were far more direct than the ribbon of roads we passed under.
Leaving the canal behind, the Hudson brought further revelations. Every mile
possessed abundant detail—the smell of pine needles, the hum of the freeway that was almost always in sight, bald eagles soaring overhead, aquatic life just beneath the water’s surface.
And then there were revelatory moments: container ships on the Hudson sound like a cross between a jet engine and a dinosaur, and when I viewed them from the surface of the water, I found judging their distance or movement almost impossible. With their skyscraper stacks and mammoth hulls, these water-crawling beasts obscure both the shore and landmarks. For what seems like hours, they don’t appear to move. Until suddenly a ship rushes past, leaving a fury of displaced water in its wake.
And then those moments, too, passed.
When we reached the Inwood Canoe Club in Manhattan—19 days and 450 miles from where we’d begun—I was relieved, satisfied. Still, I couldn’t shake one feeling. With all of the new sensations I’d experienced, I started wondering what I’d missed while looking the other way—or not looking at all.
The world no longer seemed quite so small.
James Lynch ’16 interned with the magazine last summer and is continuing on as a contributing editor. An English major, he is writing his senior thesis on his canoe trip down the Hudson.