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Bruce Campbell with his kayak, below the Titicut Street Bridge, after a paddle on the Taunton River.

Photo Credit: Irma Campbell

Cell Phone On the Water

As John Denver might sing it (to the tune of Sunrise on the Water, a 70's classic):

Cell phone on the water makes me awkward

Cell phone on the water makes me sigh

Cell phone on the water looks so geeky

Cell phone on the water makes me...

Oh, hello, I’ll just cut it off right there as the jury is still out.

As a recent addition to the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance board, I find myself with the opportunity to introduce myself to the readership (that’s you, for example). Along with Jim who joined the board at the same time, I hope to serve Rhode Island’s waters by helping get more people out paddling upon them.

I recently attended a really interesting RIBA board meeting my first (such great people representing RI waters — I am humbled to work alongside them). When the agenda moved to new business, we brought up the business of signage for our blueways. Signage can be so beautiful when done artistically with consideration for the location by which it is to accent and inform about place. Two years ago I had the distinct pleasure of curating an art show with a history of subway maps exhibit that presented thirty-some historical subway maps from Great Britain, Europe and the United States. Standing amidst them all, I found myself giddy with a sense of possibility... if only I could time travel and visit all those glorious cities during their heyday of train and subway travel (not to say that isn’t today in some cases). I love to root for the artist and the opportunity to create a beautiful map for public consideration tastefully presented in an appropriate location.

Our blue trails deserve recognition. They deserve visual displays that inform potential paddlers on opportunities and suggestions for safe and optimal passage in the channel of their choosing. I have been aghast when noticing evidence of the gaul of some of our fellow citizens as they ‘tag’ signage with graffiti or even pilfer a beautiful sign for their personal collection (wherever that may be). As I listened to new business, I imagined the high of commemorating a new artistic blueways map by the shore of a mighty river journey but I also imagined the low of neglect or vandalism of that same map weeks, months, or years later.

Google maps shows me a map view by
default and I can see the name of the street I just paddled under about two minutes ago...

I asked myself, “what is the alternative”? My students in unison immediately chanted to me inside my head: “a cell phone app for us to use from within the canoe (though some said kayak, of course)”. See, I have the distinct pleasure of teaching twenty and thirty-somethings (and occasionally a teen or two) visual design and Web integration skills to fine-tune their beautiful natural abilities. And, my wife had been lauding the benefits of a cell phone use for years before I agreed to participate in that particular collective (actually, I only folded once she made it a condition of her acceptance of my marriage proposal but that can be a sore subject).

I am ashamed to say I have let my generation down by actually using a cell phone from deep within the George Washington management area on a long, investigatory hike. I had an ex-student with me and we were waxing nostalgic and philosophic about our industry and careers (plotting to find funding in these slim pickings years). We had walked and walked and walked until we were hungry. I was not willing to suggest I had no idea where we were specifically (thankfully, in Rhode Island, you know where you are relatively well) and so I snuck a peek at my cell phone... in the woods... on a hike !

Oh, what a slippery slope we travel some days, eh? I was hooked at that moment (and sadly have been using my cell phone in the woods all too often now). For that first moment, I used the most basic of cell phone services (basic Google Maps,, from within in a Safari browser) and was somewhat shocked to find the trails visually identified and named... with a blue dot flashing as to where I was standing at that particular moment. I zoomed in and out into my current location and within seconds had a complete awareness of my situation. Not being able to contain my enthusiasm, I showed the cell phone screen to my ex-student and... guess what? He didn’t admonish me for using a cell phone in nature! He hovered over the screen and gave his opinion about which path he’d like to pursue back to our parked car immediate immersion in the mind of a thirty-something and their comfortable relationship to gadgetry.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that whole experience, as I participated in my first new business discussion for the board, flashed back to my memory as I was thinking about that poor vandalized signage that used to be so beautiful. I made a “note to self” to be brave enough to take my cell phone with me on the water for my first paddles of 2014 just in case I had a similar feeling about the phone in that situation.

I think I dislike what I experienced with a cell phone in the kayak but only for how useful and enjoyable the experience became within minutes. I disliked it as a traitor to my generation and as a traitor to canvas-based artists all the way back to those first, highly publicized, cave dwellers. The experience felt even greater when I imagined myself someone doing the paddles for the first time (I had chosen two very familiar paddles on which to bring the phone just in case the phone sunk the boat in some spontaneous combustion episode and I would have to swim to shore).

Photo Credit: Bruce Campbell

Consider these two images. They come from my experience using Google Maps within my Safari browser on a (barely) smart phone. In both cases, the blue dot is my location, in channel drifting ever so slightly, as I capture the screenshot of the smart phone in action from within the boat. On the left, I am navigating the Woonasquatucket River just upstream of its confluence with the Moshassuck River downstream. Google maps shows me a map view by default and I can see the name of the street I just paddled under about two minutes ago: Acorn Street. The satellite icon in the lower left provides the opportunity to see where I am in an aerial photograph of the area taken some time in the past.

The image on the right shows my location on the Narrow River as I drift south towards the Narragansett Town Beach. I can imagine myself looking down on myself from above. It’s easy for me to return to map view to get my whereabouts or to terrain view to get a sense of the topology of the land in the area. In both cases, I have recorded another sense of where I am in my mind’s eye for memories’ sake. I can appreciate how I am moving within the waters of lovely Rhode Island. And, I can investigate potential places I may want to pull up to shore to experience something noted on the map.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was only willing to use the cell phone for a couple of minutes in each case, as an experiment and opportunity to share my findings with our readership. There was no way I was going to let that darn phone get in the way of a perfectly awesome paddle I was on the river to escape the day-to-day demands of a manmade world, after all. As mentioned in my land-based cell phone experience, I was not happy that I enjoyed the experience of using a cell phone on the water. But, I now think I can bond with all my students and suggest it is a rather useful thing to do minimalistically and with the right intentions, of course.

Having submitted my first app to the Apple Store and hearing wonderful feedback from friends and family (well, the kids of my friends who are their family mainly), I am keen to spend time imagining what the killer Rhode Island Blueways Alliance app would be for my interests (and yours) when upon the river. Certainly I would like to have some sense of the tides for that upstream paddle on the Narrow. I would also like to have some sense of where I have been on the current paddle and an estimate of how long it will take to paddle back to where I put in (but only for those times where I am at risk of exhausting myself thanks to the over-exuberance that is apt to hit me on the water). I’d like to know about any wildlife sightings perhaps for those times where I am having a hard time choosing which blue trail to take for the afternoon. In fact, I start to imagine tens if not hundreds of interesting features I would be willing to consider once I got my etiquette down for cell phone use on the water (for, of course, there will have to be some ground rules set).

Since my exploratory adventure mentioned here, I have also learned there is a built-in Map app that came with my phone. It even has a directional arrow as to which way I am facing when I give it my permission to use my current location with the app and that works reasonably well without me doing anything except make sure I can be reached by satellite communications.

Oh well. I now am rather convinced the daze (days) of the cell phone water experience is going to continue despite my best intentions. As the board has agreed to pursue new, “old-school” signage for your information and enjoyment by the river’s edge, I think I am going to keep a part of my mind dancing with thoughts of what will become of such experiences in the twenty-first century.

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