By Warren Steptoe

The Steptoe's reflect on life from their camp on the Wenlock River.

Not too long ago my wife, Mary, and I reflected that if ever we were forced to, we could actually live without both our boats and be quite happy with just our canoe. If that seems an anathema in present company, please allow me to elaborate.

At the time we were contemplating a camp fire beside Cape York's Wenlock River, lazing back in a comfortable chair each and sipping a good red while a poetically fiery sun sank into the forest to the west. The odometer in our 4WD parked over beside the tent read some 2,348 kilometers from home, our toes were curled into clean sand, and a fresh barramundi awaited the coals our fire would die down to about the time the bottle of red emptied.

 

The air rang with that pathetic racket the far north's blue-winged kookaburras call their sundown chorus. Our southern kookaburras would find it a laugh that's for sure. When the noisy northeners paused for breath, the male palm cockatoo displaying from a dead tree on the bank high above us managed to get a few melodic whistles in edgewise. In the river rainbow fish and coal grunter any southern aquarium aficionado would die for cruised the shallows while nearby a potentially tasty cherabin (freshwater prawn, actually a type of shrimp) grazed on filamentous algae trailing from a fallen branch bobbing metronomically in the current.

In short, life was looking pretty good - until we surfaced in civilisation days later to find that terrorists had flown passenger jets into the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, Ansett had bitten the dust andÉ

While the world we knew changed forever it was just us, our camp and a pristine river for five days without seeing another soul. Five days of paddling and fishing so far removed from what was happening in the outside world we were, however temporarily, oblivious. Now we are so thankful for the interlude.

Sometimes the water gets a bit thin even for canoes (Kendall River, Cape York.)

What's special about canoes isn't so much that they open the door to a unique world; any type of boat does that - and quite a few of them make available a world best experienced their way. Boating covers an enormous spectrum from fumes and mechanical thunder to the immensity of an open ocean under sail, not to mention any other superlatives a more eloquent writer than I might pen.

A canoe's world is one of intimacy with environment and indeed the environment you are allowed intimacy with while in one. That trip to Cape York illustrates the point perfectly. It's impossible to set aside events of the time, but even they can't blunt the treasured memories.

We carried our 15 foot Canadian atop our 4WD for over 7500 kilometres. Lashed to the roof rack it sat secure despite the worst efforts of horrific road conditions, interspersed with a few spicy Ks of serious 4WDing, until unloaded and carried to the water.

On the water it transported us. Insulated by the air-conditioned confines of a vehicle you never hear bird calls nor experience goings on amongst the creatures of the natural world. Even on foot you are man; even in the literal wilds of Cape York a bipedal threat who sends wildlife packing at a mere glimpse.

A canoe glides along, fish cruise by, birds go about their business, calling as if 'man' is not there, bankside wildlife gazes as you pass.

On Cape York there is one kind of wildlife which checks you out. Crocs. On the Coen River a four-metre odd reptile watched casually while we left the scene in some hast.

Despite demonstrable odds that crossing any urban street is way more dangerous than canoeing in crocodile country, everyone, including we who have paddled many hundreds of Ks in their territory over a decade and a half, has crocs in mind. Funnily enough, during all that, it's only been the supposedly harmless freshies, which have caused us any concern.

Like the two and a half metre specimen basking on a sand bank unseen as we rounded a tight corner in fast water on the Mitchell River. It was just as scared as we were as it panicked and leapt towards the water. Problem was the canoe was about a metre and a half from the bank. How it managed to get into the water, when it looked every bit as if the most direct route of escape was across the load of camping gear lashed between Gary Cotter and myself, I'll never know.

Gary Cotter (in bow) and Kurt Watter in the middle of a week-long drift down Cape York's Wenlock River.

Or the 'little' feller (around a metre and a half) fishing mate Kurt Watter dropped a lure in front of out of curiosity to see whether crocs eat lures. They do; with enthusiasm!

Unlike his erstwhile fishing mates who replied to pleas for help to recover 15 bucks worth of (by now quite) battered timber with cries of, "You're the veterinarian mate."

Seriously though, crocs don't rush out of nowhere and attack something as big as a canoe and therefore (usually) much bigger than they are. With a nut size brain the theory is that they can't differentiate the edible stuff from the plastic and certainly we've never experienced threatening behaviour from a saltie.

This is possibly because we never enter their world during the breeding and nesting season (November to March) when a canoe might be perceived as another croc thus inviting either a competitive or an amorous reaction. Or possibly because any sighted croc is invariably given as wide a berth as humanly possible meanwhile. And probably because we tend to restrict our Cape York canoeing to upper reaches which are typically shallow, sandy and fast running.

There's just so much fantastic canoeing water on Cape York, which is not generally big croc habitat and is highly unlikely to hold salties large enough to be a worry anyway. Obviously a 'presence' is always possible but by never bending the rule about keeping your body OUT of water where the bottom isn't clearly visible for a considerable distance, the canoeing can be as great as canoeing can be.

Melissa Nicholls with a neat tarpon.

Enough about crocodiles. If you can't live with them, stay south of Rockhampton where they aren't a possibility. It leaves an awful lot of water to experience the genuine and absolute delights of canoeing. To boating folk like us, a canoe is often an extra rather an end in itself. Besides those esoteric "intimacy with the environment" aspects of these paddle-powered boats with a point at both ends, one of the things which really appeals is their simplicity.

Nothing to break down, wear out, or fail, well apart from the people working the paddles. They do sometimes whinge after the physical side wears them down and in truth the physical factor is one which makes canoes unattractive to some.

You can fit a motor, or rig a sail, but when you do it seems to me that they take away as much from the basic simplicity of canoeing as they offer. The very fact that our canoe waits obediently and always ready for use. It doesn't have to be serviced or fuelled, doesn't cost an arm and a leg to store (dare we mention insure here), have batteries to charge, temperamental electrical connections or need a ramp to launch and so on and so on.

We could have taken a light tinnie to Cape York for example and one certainly is useful there. But its weight would have stressed our roof rack to carry, and then we would have to find room for the motor, and added the concerns of a fuel tank and it wouldn't have accessed some of the several exquisite pieces of water we fished anyway.

As for fishing, hey it'd take some doing to keep me from my open water and offshore fishing; but to go back to the fireside sentiments expressed at the beginning, we catch heaps of fish from our canoe and not just in the wilderness of Cape York either.

Bass, tarpon, mangrove jacks, bream, and Murray cod are all accessible by canoe from our southern Queensland home base. Being the way I am about fishing, herein lies another perfectly good reason for enthusiasm about canoes.

Cape York's lagoons contain world class fly fishing for saratoga, a species of international significance in the fly fishing world. The best way to access them in a land with no ramps - and for that matter few roads, is you guessed it.

A canoe being so easy to handle on tight, shallow, fast water where conventional boats become a clumsy liability makes it something of a fishing magic carpet. From tiny pockets of water hidden away even within the confines of urban Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts where bream, tarpon and mangrove jacks lurk. To the western slopes of the Great Divide where Murray cod still frequent deeper holes carved when the tumbling waters of the shingle country meet solid rock outcrops and are forced to bend. To the mirrored magic of the upper Noosa River where (albeit questionable) wisdom bans craft with motors pursuing bass. Our canoe has us fishing places we simply can't fish any other way.

Fishing results in today's world require an extent of effort and as in the mountain bike story in the last issue of Club Marine, our canoe is a means of catching fish few others have access to; or perhaps, can be bothered with. It's a powerful motivation and much more so when the magic carpet also offers intimacy with wildlife like platypus in an environment that often as not soothes the soul.

We chose the so-called Canadian-style canoe because they are both more stable than the kayak type and are more roomy inside. The interior space allows us to carry camping gear (in water tight screw top drums) and enough food for a week or more drifting downriver.

Closer to civilisation (on our beloved upper Noosa especially) one of the drums is replaced by an icebox enabling a more sophisticated and appetising diet. That plus of course luxuries such as the cold beer so welcome after a long day's paddling and of course properly chilling appropriate whites to match the fancy diet.

Other than immediate crocodile questions whenever canoeing Cape York comes up in conversation, the other misconception non-canoeing boating people invariably offer is about falling out of them. Those who have never spent time in canoes always seem to have the opinion that they are unstable.

Perhaps if we're talking Olympic competition kayaks it does need some skill to keep them upright. But given that you sit down and accept the limitations, canoes and particularly big fat Canadian canoes like our Coleman aren't really unstable at all.

Some readers might be thinking to themselves that this is coming from a bloke who so recently was extolling the virtues of going fishing on push bikes. OK, but our street is full of kids who are just starting school and every afternoon they're out there tearing about on their bikes. It doesn't take long at all for little kids to gain confidence on pushies and at least a canoe can be stopped and allowed to stand still without doing its darndest to shed its occupants.

Canoes can access shallow water, however sometimes the tide goes out and you have no choice but to wait awhile.

Canoes aren't overly unstable and like a bike it doesn't take long to gain confidence and maintain equilibrium unconsciously. It's one of those things which is nothing like the perception too many people have of it.

Having said that, there are certain skills involved. We use single paddles and steering is something easier to learn from someone who is conversant with it. If no experience is available amongst your circle of friends there are many courses run by canoe clubs and sometimes the TAFE college system where skills can be learned.

Obviously white water is out of the question for the inexperienced. We avoid serious white water, that's a whole different scene than using a canoe for fishing and/or simply enjoying the scenery the way we choose to do.

When choosing a canoe we opted for one with a plastic hull instead of the fibreglass hulls perhaps more commonly available. Our reasoning was that plastic hulls, while certainly less efficient, are more resilient. While 'glass canoes definitely paddle better because their hulls are straighter, more rigid and slip through the water better, a lot of the water we canoe (the shingle country we fish for Murray cod for example) is pretty hard on gel coat.