Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Pedaling and Paddling in City and Wilderness

Dateline: 12:42 pm August 8, 2011 Filed under:

What is the best way to experience and be a part of your surroundings? In city or countryside, this urbanist knows being on foot is tough to beat, but a recent trip to the Boundary Waters (BWCAW) caused me to reconsider. A canoe is hard to beat as the best way to experience wilderness lakes in northern Minnesota. Could a bicycle be the best way to experience the city? Perhaps the canoe and bicycle are kindered spirits.

In his 1956 collection of essays about the Boundary Waters entitled “The Singing Wilderness,” author Sigurd Olson describes “The Way of a Canoe” as an excellent means of experiencing the wilderness. The fluidity of dipping a paddle in the water and the responsiveness of the canoe allows one to truly experience the beauty and wilderness the Boundary Waters has to offer.

If the canoe is the best way to experience wilderness lakes, then perhaps the best way to experience a city is on a bicycle. Sigurd Olson describes the pace of canoe time, and slowing down to get in to the rhythms of the wilderness. Slowing down in a city is similar; you can’t race through it nor experience it properly from behind the glass of a motorized vehicle. Call this bicycle time.

Olson describes the canoe as enabling “near flight” across the water, allowing “a sense of harmony and oneness with the earth.” Just as the paddle is an “extension of your arm” in a canoe, the bicycle is an extension of your feet, enabling harmony and oneness with the street and buildings around you. As well, a canoe can cut almost silently through water, and a bicycle slices a quiet path through urbanity. Paddling gracefully across a wilderness lake allows you to see, hear, feel and smell the wilderness as you slip by. A bicycle in the city is no different. Paddling across Long Island Lake in the Boundary Waters is amazingly similar to bicycling through Haight Ashbury in San Francisco or along the canals in Amsterdam; you are at one with your surroundings. The pace feels right.

Need convincing? The pace of a canoe is slow enough so as to not miss the scenery but fast enough to get across several lakes in a day. Each stroke of the paddle brings a new vista of water, rock and tree. Likewise, you can pedal at a pace slow enough to view street life and architecture around you, yet traverse a neighborhood in no time at all. Each street and intersection is a new perspective.

The canoe is silent, allowing you to hear the breeze in the pines, the call of the loon, and the music of songbirds. On a bicycle, you can hear the boisterous laughter of sidewalk cafes, the revving and honking of traffic, air traffic overhead, and the clinking of bottles dumped in the recycling bin behind a restaurant.

From a canoe you can smell the damp, mossy woods in the morning, the mists on the water, and the warm wind drying out the pines. On a bicycle you can smell the changing seasons in a city, the tantalizing scents of different restaurants, coffee shops, or bakeries beckoning as you pass by, garbage water spilled on the pavement, and the exhaust of vehicles passing you or idling in traffic as you glide by in the bike lane.

Be it sight, sound, or smell, you are acutely aware of your surroundings. Likewise, you are exposed to the elements, at one with the weather, be it in a canoe or bicycle, for better or worse. When it is hot, you sweat. When it rains, you get wet. Just as fighting a stiff breeze builds character, pedaling or paddling downwind is like being on top of the world. On the water, the shade of morning gives way to the potent sun overhead. In a city, during a twilight ride you can pass from the heat of daytime pavement to the relief and cool of evening wafting across the road. But you are not just passing through it, you are part of it.

We must balance the wilderness and the city. As Ed Glaeser explains in “Truimph of the City” we need urban places more than ever in order to interact and prosper. Perhaps as well, as another Ed (Edward Abbey) wrote in Desert Solitaire,” we need wilderness more than ever. Certainly to experience it and get away from it all, but even if we never visit, just to know it is there. Regardless, wherever you are, it is important to know how to navigate it; to slow down enough to properly experience it. Pdealing and paddling are perhaps one in the same. That said, if you spend a little time in a canoe in the wilderness and on a bicycle in the city, you will come to know each in a way not possible from the confines of a motorized vehicle. At the end of the day, perhaps that is most important of all.

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