Stopping a bullet isn't very high on the list of dangers run by paddlers. But it does happen. So this week Tamia takes a look at the risk, and at the things you can do to protect yourself.
By Tamia Nelson
March 7, 2017
Many years ago—William Jefferson Clinton was still living in the White House, and Farwell and I were just starting to write for what was then Paddling.net—I was skimming through a not-very-good book on waterfront photography when I came to a chapter titled "You Can Shoot Them From Shore." The subject was photographing boat races with long lenses, but I couldn't help thinking that the title hinted at another, darker meaning. And no, I wasn't being alarmist. I'd already come under fire when I was on the water. A young man—the son of a neighbor, as it turned out—decided to amuse himself by sending a few rounds over our heads as we took the Tripper out on the 'Flow for an evening paddle. He'd apparently concluded that he could shoot us from shore with complete impunity. He was right, too. The long arm of the law often proves to be pitifully short in the Adirondack foothills. The "jes' havin' a little fun" defense may not figure prominently in the statute books, but it commands respect from many rural cops and courts to this day.
In any event, we escaped unharmed from the shoreline shooter. (It helped to have a bowman with no small experience in assessing—and evading—incoming fire.) Nor did the incident recur. But it served to remind me that paddlers can easily pass for sitting ducks. Deliverance may have been fiction, but almost any one of us could someday share Drew Ballinger's fate.
I hasten to add that this isn't very probable. Though something like 30,000 Americans die of gunshot wounds every year, very few of them die with a paddle in their hands. To keep things in perspective, it's important to remember that a steering wheel is our usual companion when we meet a violent end: The automobile is the reigning champion in America's trauma stakes. Back-of-the-envelope extrapolations suggest that one in every 115 Americans will be killed in or by a car, with two out of every three of us sustaining crash injuries that require medical attention at some point in our lives. And far too many of these injuries will lead to crippling disabilities. My conclusion? The most dangerous part of any paddling holiday is the drive to and from the put-in.
That being said, there's still a chance that you'll someday find yourself on the wrong end of a gun. A case in point: Only a month ago, four kayakers came under fire in Arizona. You can read the details in the Mohave Valley Daily News, but here's the executive summary: The kayakers incurred the wrath of a waterfront property owner, who allegedly expressed his displeasure by shooting at them. One quick-thinking boater made his escape downriver, but his companions were less fortunate. According to newspaper accounts, they were held at gunpoint and forced to leave the water. Luckily, none of the four was injured or killed, but the property owner now faces an impressive roster of felony charges.
Could you someday find yourself in the same boat? Yes. Most navigable rivers pass through private lands, at least now and then, and many rural landowners keep a gun within easy reach. But is it likely you'll ever end up in someone's sights? No. There's comfort to be had in statistics. Still, given the often life-changing (or life-ending) consequences of stopping a bullet, it pays to be prepared. You could add body armor and a Kevlar helmet to your gear list, of course, but unless you're paddling down the Tigris, this would be…er…overkill. The best way to avoid trouble is—you guessed it—to avoid trouble. In short,…
Keep your eyes and ears open and your brain engaged. There's just no substitute for situational awareness. (Be especially alert on holiday weekends in summer. These are reliably "lively" times on and around the water.) If you think you hear gunshots in the distance, don't paddle blindly into danger. Scope things out first: stop, look, and listen. Proceed only when you're satisfied that the way ahead is safe. On the other hand, if you hear the unmistakable crack, hiss, or warble of a near miss, head for cover immediately. That's not easy to find in the middle of a stream or lake, obviously. but do the best you can. If you come under fire when you're on moving water, and if safety lies upriver, you'll be mighty glad you've mastered the arts of two-way travel.
In extremis, kayakers can roll—and hope they can hold their breath long enough to put a little distance between themselves and the gunman. One of the paddlers in the Arizona incident did just that, as it happens. Canoeists, few of whom have progressed beyond the first half of the roll, may instead wish to abandon ship, perhaps surfacing beneath their overturned boat from time to time, just long enough to snatch a quick breath. Neither alternative is fail-safe, but if someone is shooting at you, anything that makes you a smaller or less vulnerable target is welcome. (Why would you want to take to the water? Easy. Water is dense and incompressible. On striking the surface, low-velocity rounds tend to wander away from their original flight path, whereas high-velocity rounds often fragment. Either way, the bullets run out steam in a hurry. So if someone is shooting at you, the water offers a refuge of sorts.)
All well and good, I suppose, but by the time you're contemplating abandoning ship, you've already passed the point at which avoiding trouble is an option, and you'll probably be wishing you'd made more of an effort to…
Acquire local knowledge. Call it "intelligence," if you're of a mind. Before you head off to explore unfamiliar waters, take time to learn the lie of the land. If you have friends who know the area, ask them about potential trouble spots. Or if you've no local contacts, read the local paper (the Internet makes this easy), paying special attention to the police blotter and any end-of-article comments. Check out paddlers' forums, too. And then, before you launch, eat a leisurely meal at a local diner or grab some food at a convenience store near the water. Avoid the touristy places and gift shops, and while you're eating, keep your ears open and your opinions to yourself. If you've chosen your listening post well, you'll be surprised at what you can learn.
Expect to hear a lot about…
Landowner concerns. No place is immune. Over a period of several decades, I watched a famous trout stream become a paddling hot spot. The water temperature rose every year. The emotional temperature, that is. (This was before the ice caps had started to melt and the alcohol in the thermometer outside my office window topped sixty degrees in February.) What had once been a bucolic retreat for old money—mostly weekending bankers and stockbrokers—slowly but inexorably changed into a sort of water fun theme park. Summer days often found dozens of boats and scores of tubes bobbing and jostling down popular stretches, with queues of paddlers forming in many pools, draining can after can of Miller High Life as they waited their turn to wobble over the next riffle.
To make matters worse, this explosion of recreational traffic coincided with a waterfront real estate boom, as meadows and woodlands were sold off to developers. The result was entirely predictable. The bankers' pastoral retreat soon become a commons, with all that this entails. Anglers hooked more canoes than trout, the banks of the little stream now resembled a poorly managed landfill, and waterfront homeowners sometimes arrived at their weekend residences to find mobs of strangers partying on their front lawns. There was no going back. Their part-time paradise was well and truly lost, never to return.
That scene is replayed on many more rivers and streams today, and in view of the semisacramental status of private property in the States, it's a miracle that more paddlers aren't shot—or at least shot at. In any case, you don't want to be among the first to fall, do you? So…
Don't trespass! There's no easier way to make enemies. "Commando camping" only makes sense if you're a commando. Most paddlers are in no position to dispute possession of a gravel bar with an armed and angry landowner, let alone defend an illegal beachhead on that landowner's home turf. And why would any sane person want to?
Let's recap. We've looked at two ways a paddler can find herself on the wrong end of a gun barrel: chance encounters with wild men—let's call these "jes' havin' fun" shootings—and unsanctioned incursions on private property. But there's a third way: the "mistaken for game" scenario. This is perhaps the rarest one of all. Sport hunters are, by and large, a responsible and law-abiding lot. I know that I was both. But even responsible, law-abiding hunters sometimes make tragic mistakes, and those mistakes can have lethal consequences. It doesn't happen often, and when it does, the hapless victim is almost always another hunter, but why take chances? If you like to venture into the woods and onto the water in the third season, it pays to…
Emulate the pumpkin. When, in the words of one-time Royal Marine Commando Colin Fletcher, "the calendar springs the hunters loose," international ("hunter") orange is your friend. Unless, that is, you wish to follow the lead of a certain Adirondack legislator, who campaigned successfully for fluorescent "hunter pink"—not to be confused with hunting pinks, mind—to be accorded the same status in law as hunter orange, in order that girls who take to the woods in pursuit of whitetail deer could still feel girly.
The upshot of all this? Can "they"—the fun-seeking good old boys (and girls), the angry landowners, and the few feckless hunters—shoot you from shore? Yes, indeed. Just about anyone can muster the energy to squeeze off a round if they're of a mind, and firearms aren't hard to come by in America. But the risk is very small. So unless you're about to ship out for a tour in Syria, Yemen, or Iraq, it's not likely you'll ever find yourself on the wrong end of a gun. And you can do a lot to make the already small risk smaller still. I'm sure you'll agree that this is worth a small amount of trouble.
Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Then e-mail Tamia.
Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.