Famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun once said that the space rocket "will free man from ... the chains of gravity ... It will open to him the gates of heaven" [source: Gaither]. Is it possible the first canoeists felt the same way about their boats?
Like spaceships, canoes allowed our early ancestors to escape the confines of land, letting them explore places that were just as mysterious and alluring to them as outer space is to us today. Peoples around the globe -- from the Native North Americans to the Polynesians -- discovered that anywhere they could paddle a canoe, they could experience adventure; in fact, some experiences would have been impossible without them.
But what about today? Can you still seek out adventure via canoe? Sure you can; it just depends on what kind of adventure you crave. (Adventure is subjective, after all.) Whether you're looking to shoot the rapids, get an up-close look at exotic wildlife or simply taste the life of a vastly different culture, here are 10 canoe adventures (listed in horological order, eastward from the Prime Meridian) to consider.
If your ideal vacation combines canoeing with big-city sightseeing, Venice is for you. The city is built on a marsh bordering a lagoon, and daily transportation relies on an extensive system of canals. Paddling along the Grand Canal, Venice's bustling Main Street, you can glimpse the soaring Byzantine architecture of St. Mark's Basilica and admire the ornamentation of the Rialto Bridge up close. Keep an eye out for the vaporetti (water buses), delivery boats and other motorized traffic, however. You can easily get drenched by their wakes, and the water is far from pristine.
If you feel especially daring, book your trip for May or June, when you can join the motley flotilla in the Vogalonga. This 18.5-mile (30-kilometer) race in and around Venice is open to all paddled craft, including canoes. The atmosphere is decidedly noncompetitive; think of it as a street party on the water.
If you prefer a more relaxing experience, take to the Grand Canal after business hours. It's calmer then, and the lights reflect off the water, creating a silvery shimmer. You'll probably cross paths with tourists on romantic cruises aboard Venice's iconic gondolas. And you'll still have time to tie up along the bank for a late dinner of pasta, seafood and vegetables, all incredibly fresh and varied. Many restaurants serve until late in the evening.
For a rustic adventure, row across the lagoon to the farming island of Sant'Erasmo and on to Burano, a fishing community famed for its colorfully painted houses.
Niassa Reserve, Mozambique
Any foray into the wilds of Africa would constitute adventure for most people. The Niassa Reserve in Mozambique, a country on Africa's southeast coast, pushes the experience to the limit. This sprawling, 26,000-square-mile (42,000-square-kilometer) area was only recently opened for tourism. It has no roads, no power grid and no modern amenities. It's accessible only via small aircraft, provided by the few companies that currently operate tours there, and only during the dry season, roughly May through November. Wet season rainfall can reach 14 inches (350 millimeters) a month. Several indigenous tribes live on the Reserve, working as fishermen, sustenance farmers, and occasionally, as professional guides. And in a location this remote and undeveloped, you need them.
Although landlocked, the reserve is fed by the broad, free-flowing Lugenda River. You can explore the river by canoe, camp on the banks overnight, and safari into the savannah by day. You'll see isolated, inland mountains known as inselbergs and hike into forested tropical grasslands called miombo woodlands. Despite the poor soil, these ecosystems are among the richest, most diverse habitats known, and Niassa's is one of the biggest miombo woodlands on earth. The elephant, noted for its especially large tusks, rules here. Leopards, lions and sable antelope thrive, and impala and zebra are endemic. The Niassa also hosts a small but significant population of the critically endangered African wild dog. On the Lugenda you may encounter hippos, orange-billed water birds called African skimmers, and if you're not careful, crocodiles -- another reason to canoe with guides.
Located on India's border with Pakistan, the state of Kashmir may be best known these days for sectarian violence between those two countries. But its reputation for natural beauty goes back centuries, and it offers some of the most tranquil scenery in the Indian subcontinent.
Two destinations stand out for canoeists. One is Dal Lake, a centerpiece of Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar. Lotus flowers and water lilies grow along its 10-mile (16-kilometer) shoreline, and residents' vegetable gardens dot the waters. Hindu temples are visible on the hills overlooking the banks.
A second stop is Sonamarg, or "Golden Meadow." This popular resort sits in the Himalayas northeast of Srinagar at nearly 9,000 feet (2,740 meters). In the summer, it boasts placid lakes surrounded by meadows cloaked in wildflowers, a stunning contrast to the rim of pine tree forest and towering snow-capped mountains in the background. Yet you can get a taste of winter with a ride to Thajiwas Glacier on a sturdy mountain pony.
For a true test of canoeing skills, however, Kashmir and the rest of India have taken to a new sport: canoe polo. The game is similar to the equestrian version, with canoes replacing horses, paddles replacing mallets, and an Olympic-sized pool replacing the grassy field. The Kashmiri team did well in the 2012 national championship, collecting two silver medals despite playing with rented paddles and donated helmets designed for rock climbing.
As you probably remember, the island of Phuket bore the brunt of a 2004 tsunami that swept hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths and ravaged Thailand and other island nations in the Indian Ocean. Thankfully, Thailand is on its way to recovery, due in part to a rebounding tourist trade, as more people discover the natural beauty that survived the devastation.
Phuket offers canoeists a system of interior caves and lagoons called hongs, the Thai word for rooms. Hongs were formed over millions of years. Undersea deposits of limestone, sand and clay were thrust upward due to shifts in the Earth's crust. Over time, wind and water eroded the softer minerals. In some places they ate through from the top down, creating open-aired channels. In others, they carved horizontally, leaving water-filled tunnels.
Paddling through the hongs is an awe-inspiring, and sometimes nerve-wracking, experience. Limestone stalactites hang down from some of the larger tunnels. Other tunnels look like little more than crevices, and you have to lie down in the canoe to avoid scraping your head on the sharp rock. The journey can be taken only at a certain point in the day (or night, for the bolder canoeist). At low tide, the waters are too shallow to float the canoe. At high tide, you risk being squeezed against a tunnel ceiling.
Katherine Gorge, Australia
Like a string of Australian opals, Katherine Gorge is a continuous strand -- 13 separate gorges stretched over 8 miles (13-kilometers), carved through layers of sandstone by the Katherine River. The gorges are divided by rock bars on the river bed. Don't let them stop you, however. Like Australia's chocolate-coated Lamington cake, Katherine Gorge gets better as you dig into it.
Katherine Gorge is located in Nitmiluk National Park, in Australia's Northern Territory. Nitmiluk itself is unusual, in that it's owned by its Aboriginal inhabitants, the Jawoyn, and run with respect for their law.
The first three gorges are easily accessible. Touring them makes a full day trip for most people. To reach successive gorges requires a portage -- hauling the canoe along the shore, due to the rocks and the rapids. Longer forays also entail camping on the riverbank. Campsites with toilets are available up to the ninth gorge. Visitors can catch Barramundi, a gamefish, and cook them over a camp stove.
However far you make it, you'll be rewarded with the dramatic beauty that has made the Australian outback famous. Craggy gray sandstone walls rise like an unfinished cathedral, draped here and there with hanging gardens. Red-flowered mangrove trees dot the banks. Kingfishers, cormorants and other waterfowl skim the surface of the river, snatching up prey. Just below the crystalline waters you might see snake-necked turtles, yellow-spotted water monitors and the occasional freshwater crocodile. According to Jawoyn legend, Bulong, the rainbow serpent, a mythical figure, also lives here.
South Nahanni River, Canada
No roads take you to the South Nahanni River. You have to fly in via charter plane, but that's the easy part. The South Nahanni is considered one of North America's premier wilderness rivers. It runs 370 miles (600 kilometers) through Canada's remote Northwest Territory.
Few people paddle the whole way, however. Typically, no more than 900 people even set on the water every year, and here's why: First, the South Nahanni is best tackled only between July and August, after the spring floods but before the short days of autumn. Also, it's marked by long stretches of powerful currents and rapids that test even strong canoeists with whitewater experience. Rapids range from Class II, which may include log jams, gravel bars and jutting boulders, to Class IV, which carry the risk of forceful waves and circular, sucking currents called boiling eddies.
But the South Nahanni is also a Canadian Natural Heritage River. The calmer stretches, where the current flows at a leisurely 2 miles (3 kilometers) an hour, let you appreciate the breathtaking natural beauty that merits that designation. Pine and aspen forests give way to emerald green fields that lead to distant blue-gray mountains streaked with snow. Large tufa mounds, deposits of calcium carbonate, rise like giant molars. As for wildlife, look for moose, caribou, wolverines, trumpeter swans, Dall's sheep and grizzly bears. Don't be surprised if you spend from five days to two weeks taking it all in.
Bayou Teche, Louisiana
This is one canoe adventure where you may spend as much time on land as in the water. Not to say that the view from the canoe isn't stunning. Bayou Teche (a bayou is a slow-moving stream) meanders 130 miles (48 kilometers) through Southwest Louisiana, much of it in the Atchafalaya Basin. The basin is the largest inland swamp in North America and it possesses the eerie beauty typical of any great swamp: Live oak trees drip with Spanish moss. Cypress trees with gnarled "knees," part of the root system, rise from the water. Wildlife abounds. You might see egrets, bobcats, otters and alligators.
The Teche was also the landing point of the Cajun people. Cajuns are descendents of French Canadians who were driven from Nova Scotia by the English in 1755. They settled on the prairies and bayous, blending into an eclectic mix with European, African-American and Native American neighbors. Living off the land, isolated from mainstream America, they developed one of the most distinct cultures in the country. Tie up at any small town along the Teche (many have a public boat launch) and you'll find their traditions alive and well. In a café, for example, you may hear Cajun French as well as English being spoken. Your meal will likely be local fare -- from the pork, rice and peppers in the jambalaya, to the sugar and sweet potatoes in the sweet potato pie.
Although it's one of our safest adventures, touring the Teche requires one special precaution: lots of bug spray. In Louisiana, as the joke goes, the mosquito is the state dog.
Ain't Louie Fest, Tennessee
Ain't Louie Fest is named (or not) for its founder. The event began around 2005 in Lenoir City, Tenn., where white-water canoeing legend Michael "Louie" Lewis hosted outings on the Tellico River. The get-together became known informally as Louie Fest, which bothered Lewis. "Call it whatever you want," he would say, "but it ain't Louie Fest" [source: Grace]. His friends honored his wishes (or not). Ain't Louie Fest became the official name, sometimes shortened to ALF.
By any name, Ain't Louie Fest is a bonafide happening, a 10-day open house held in March for white-water canoeists. Champions in the sport and weekend paddlers alike come from across the United States to socialize, shoot the rapids and just show off. The 2012 event drew some 200 people, who were treated to the debut of one canoe maker's innovative new model and freestyle performances by big-name pros.
Ain't Louie Fest culminates in the Upper Tellico Race, which includes Class IV rapids -- marked by high, irregular waves and dangerous, exposed rock, recommended for expert paddlers in covered boats only -- and ends with a 14-foot (22.5-meter) splashdown at Baby Falls.
La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, Belize
Belize is a small Central American nation, barely the size of Massachusetts. Yet it takes four days to cross it -- the short way, from west to east. By canoe, that is. Every March, hundreds of people do just that, racing in the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.
The race recalls Belize's history, both ancient and recent. La Ruta Maya, or the Mayan Route, is a string of Mayan ruins dotting the Central American isthmus from Mexico, across Belize and into El Salvador. The event is also a highlight of a four-day national holiday, Baron Bliss Day. In 1929, Bliss bequeathed Belize a trust fund of more than $1 million. The interest on the fund has paid for public works across the country, from a nursing school to a city water system.
Competitors in the La Ruta Maya Challenge spend all four days paddling. Each entry consists of a three-member team, and no substitutions are allowed. They start at San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border and end in Belize City on the Caribbean Sea, covering between 25 miles (40 kilometers) and 60 miles (96 kilometers) each day. The total distance of 170 miles (272 kilometers) makes the Challenge the longest canoe race in Central America.
Great Glen Canoe Trail, Scotland
We wrap up our worldwide tour with a destination for canoeists who like their outdoor adventure seasoned with a dash of city life and culture. The Great Glen Canoe Trail takes you across the Scottish Highlands from Fort William in the west to Inverness near the northeastern coast. Of the Trail's 60 miles (96 kilometers), 40 miles (64 kilometers) traverse the country's lochs (lakes), including Loch Ness, reputed home of the Loch Ness Monster. The remainder is on connecting canals.
The Highlands are known for their rugged beauty. Broad, tranquil waterways pass through rolling, verdant hills and unkempt fields of wildflowers. Mist-shrouded mountains rise in the distance. For added adventure, bypass the portages and take to the rivers.
The Trail takes about five days to paddle, but you'll want to allow time for other attractions. You might take a day to tour the 1,500-year-old Urquhart Castle that overlooks Loch Ness, for example. Or, get cleaned up for an evening at Inverness' Eden Court. The state-of-the-art theater hosts musical, dance and dramatic performances, and its restaurant serves a gourmet menu with an emphasis on local foods, including lamb, haddock and the legendary Scottish haggis. Given this steamed pudding's esteemed status in Scottish lore, some people consider eating it an adventure in its own right.
It sometimes seems that, with Google maps and GPS, there couldn't possibly be an unturned stone anywhere on the planet, but that's far from true.
Author's Note: 10 Places to Take a Canoe Adventure Journey
Much like planning a real round-the-world trip, trying to pick out just 10 destinations for this list was exhausting. Each one sounds better than the last. And most of them aren't well-known except to the people who live there. It's another reminder that just about every place on Earth has beauty and appeal all its own.
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