May 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

This article appears first in the May 2013 issue of Spinsheet Magazine.


As a kid, my all-time favorite book was Paddle-to-the-Sea. Remember it? Author Holling Clancy Holling takes us on a trip with a toy indian in a birchbark canoe from a Canadian headwater north of Lake Huron, through the Great Lakes, down the St. Lawrence river, past Montreal, and onto the Atlantic Ocean.


The story begins with an indian boy, perhaps 10 years old, carving “Paddle” during the winter months after learning that the water in the brook near his home is destined to tumble over the land all the way to the sea. He thinks he might never make the trip himself, so he decides to send a representative in his place.

Paddle has many adventures on his way to the sea. He is visited by snakes and birds. He is nearly sliced up in a saw mill, run down by ships, and he disappears for months under snow and ice during the long winter. He plummets down the falls at Niagara, and slips silently past noisy, dirty cities. He soldiers on and eventually reaches the Atlantic.

I need not retell the entire story. The book, a 1942 Caldecott Medal winner, is timeless and still in print.

As a kid, I was spellbound by the possibility that a bold traveller could go so far with his tiny boat, never stepping a foot on shore. No roads. No trains. No traffic. No un-passable obstructions.

From the first reading, I’ve been called to connected waterways and the boats that are designed to navigate them. I recall being asked, at about the age of 7, whether I wanted to go boating on a pond or canoeing on a river with my parents. Of course, I voted for the canoe and the river. What good is rowing around in a circle? You can work all day and not get anywhere! But on a river, even the tiny Cedar Creek near my home, one would eventually spill to a bigger river, and then to a lake, and a bigger river, and then the ocean and the rest of the world, given time.

At summer camp, I preferred the spring-fed lake to the pool for swimming. A pool was for swimming laps. But you could swim to a place in the lake, like a beach or a garden of reeds, or the mouth of the creek that poured water in. And I sidestepped basic boating lessons — shunning face-backwards-see-behind rowboating in particular, which seemed so brute-force, uninspired and inefficient — to have a chance to be on the sleeker face-forward-see-ahead canoes, and then, yes, on a boat with sails. True, sailing wasn’t canoeing, but I believed it honored Paddle’s spirit, combining a connected waterway with an infinite source of power (though you might have to wait for it). My logic was that Paddle didn’t need sails. He didn’t have to eat and could wait out the winter in the icepack. I didn’t have the luxury of being a hunk of oak. Had he needed them, Paddle would’ve made sails. He was resourceful that way, I thought.

To this day, I feel best when I am linked to the global water cycle in the ways that Paddle taught. I have the sense that as water is animated, I can be too. I tend to think of buoy racing and day sailing as practice for a longer voyage. The highlight of a summer is the offshore race, when I enjoy a tiny taste of Paddle’s journey.

Moreover, I take a certain comfort knowing that I have an escape valve as long as I live near a navigable body. If things go to hell-in-a-hand-basket, I’ll just shove off. More realistically, my wife and I hope one day to not live on land at all, but to sell our stuff and live-aboard. Whether we sail far or not will matter little. The trick will be knowing that we can. I bet you’ve had similar ideas. Water can go anywhere and so can we.

Credit Paddle, in part, for the vision that led to this sailing life.

Paddle-to-the-Sea is a book about freedom, connectedness, opportunity and patience. It teaches the simple truth that there are great adventures and magical places here, now, and they are within our reach, given some basic choices regarding time and things. And it puts our planet in perspective. I’m lucky to have read it, or more accurately, I’m lucky my parents read it to me. It has helped set the course of my life for five decades.

I wonder: What are the big, aspirational stories that a child might read in 2013? Where does a child go to be inspired to explore? To simply go outside? To take worthwhile risks? To want to be on the ocean or in distant lands? To be unencumbered? To travel at night among the animals and the stars? To go where the current and the rapids take them?

If you have found one, please share it with me below. I’d like to read it, share it and be inspired.

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§ One Response to Sail-to-the-sea

  • I love Paddle to the Sea and I have a copy on my bookshelf to this day, and I periodically reread it. And, I did eventually get to voyage on the sea. There are still many inspirational stories out there for kids to read, including Paddle to the Sea, but many are now digital. Check out the Blue Planet series of DVDs from the BBC, which my kids first watched onboard a boat anchored in the San Blas Islands of Panama. I’m not worried about kids dreaming–I’ve watched my two computer-generation kids grow up dreaming all the time. We still sometimes lie out under the stars somewhere and talk about the wonder of what might be around the bend or over the horizon. Don’t worry about the kids–they’re OK.

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