Saturday, December 31, 2016

In sync

I think it was the summer I turned 11, my parents rented a cabin on Cobboseecontee Lake in Maine, for a week's vacation. Each of us four kids brought a friend or two, so there were about 12 of us stuck in every which where.

The cabin itself was no frills, but it had a dock with a couple of canoes tied up. We passed the time swimming, boating, playing cards and board games when it was raining, eating, and enjoying the summer.

With Dad's Super 8 camera, we made a short silent movie, "Flaws," which aspired to be a parody of "Jaws." My brother Joe was the distressed mother of the shark's first victim. He was also the shark, swimming under water in his flesh-toned bathing suit, carrying a piece of a broken garbage-can lid as the shark's fin breaking through the surface of the water. My friend Ta was the might fisher who eventually captured the fiend, which turned out to be nothing but a small sunfish. I think I was a mighty-hunter-turned-hapless-victim.

One afternoon I decided it would be neat to check out an island that we could see from the dock, so I got in a canoe and paddled out to it. I don't remember if I made it to the island, or if it turned out to be further than I expected and turned back short of it. At any rate, when I got back, my parents were upset with me - and also relieved, though the "upset" part made the sharper impression at the time.

They were of course unhappy that I'd gone off without letting anyone know where I was going. They were also concerned that I could have gotten into real trouble if a contrary wind had come up. An 11-year-old usually doesn't have the strength to handle a canoe in adverse conditions, and on top of that, I didn't know what I was doing. I could paddle in the front when someone else was in charge, but I didn't really know how to control the boat.

Before the week was out, Dad made sure to teach me how to handle a canoe solo.

You sit closer to the middle, to balance the boat better and reduce the course-distorting effect of your stroke on one side of the boat. And you use a J-stroke, where you finish your regular front-to-back stroke with a little turn away from the boat; the first part of the stroke nudges the boat one way, then the "J" brings it back the other. You can keep going on one side until you get tired, rather than having to switch every three strokes. If you have someone in the bow, you modify your "J" as needed so that your combined strokes point the boat where you want to go.

I think it was the summers that I was 14, 15, and 16 that we did a series of canoe-camping trips in northern Maine, along the West Branch of the Penobscot River, on Chesuncook Lake, and in parts of the Allagash River. The constant on those trips was Dad's college roommate Karl, rounded out by different constellations of other friends.

The third time, we started at Churchill Dam and paddled through easy-to-moderate white water to where the Allagash joins the St. John's on the Canadian border. To get ready for that tip, Dad and I took an introductory class in white-water canoeing, at a lake somewhere west of Boston. The instructors warned that couples sometimes ended up separating.

With whitewater conoeing, if you're in the bow, you're upright on your knees at the very front of the boat to be able to see a little further down the river than if you were seated. You have to "read the river" to figure out what course is going to work. Then you have to figure out what combination of your own moves and those of the person in the back will get the boat to where you think it should go, taking into account the movement of the water itself. You call out your partner's moves - "Stroke right! Draw left! Back left!" - while doing your own moves. It's easy for the person in front to make a bad decision somewhere in that chain, or just to get tangled up between their own moves and what they're asking the other person to do. And there's the chance that the person behind won't follow your calls. Plenty of opportunity to end up with the current pinning your boat to a rock, or bumping down the current on your own after the boat tips over.

And there's your marriage, dashed on an undetected rock in the middle of some damned river.

Dad and I had better success than that. A couple of passages that didn't go as smoothly as they might have, but nothing drastic. Sometimes when he was in front, he would just come to his knees, but would gingerly rise to his feet and stand in the bow of the canoe, all 6 feet 1 inch of him, to get a better sense of what was ahead (though he'd come back to his knees as we got the end of the calm water).

Our next big canoe outing was in the Boundary Waters area in northern Minnesota. My parents, my sister Lauren, and I had driven from Boston to Seattle to see my sister Mara, who had just finished her first year of graduate school. Rather than driving our own car, we'd been transporting a car for a colleague who was moving to the west coast but didn't want to drive. So after our visit we took the ferry from Seattle to Victoria, then another ferry to Vancouver, and from there we rode the Trans Canada train.

Mom and Lauren went all the way to Montreal then flew home to Boston. Dad and I got off in Thunder Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior. Karl met us there with my brother Joe, my friend Geoff; he also had two canoes strapped to the top of his pickup truck.

The Boundary Waters is a large area of lakes, rivers, and streams that could probably provide weeks of uninterrupted travel as you cross one lake, down a stream, portage to another lake, up another stream, and on and on. We only did three or four nights.

On one portage I thought I'd "man up" and take one of the boats myself. I hadn't gotten far along the trail before I was really not cutting it. Joe came along and took over. He was 24, a former track star in college and a running coach at the school where he was then teaching. I had just turned 17; I wasn't unathletic, but I wasn't in particularly good shape. Joe seemed not to be working that hard as he carried the canoe on his shoulders the remaining quarter mile to the next lake.

A couple of days later we finished our last portage, arriving at the lake where we'd initially put in. All that was left was to cross that lake to get back to Karl's pickup. Dad and I pushed off, aiming for the put-in dock.

Dad was experimenting with a different stroke. The J-stroke is effective, but it can also put you out of your rhythm. Dad's technique was just to angle the blade of his paddle while he did the main stroke. If you turn the outside edge of the paddle forward, you offset the tendency of your own stroke to push the boat away from the side you're paddling on. The more you angled your outside edge toward the back, the more you could let the boat turn the way your stroke wanted it to go. And you could keep a steady pace.

For 45 minutes Dad and I paddled straight across the lake, the only break coming when one of us would call, "Switch!" and we'd bring our paddles across the boat to change which side we were paddling on, then fall right back into rhythm.

The other boat was slowed by having three people, but we still felt good about how much time there was to enjoy sitting on the dock, waiting for Karl, Joe, and Geoff to arrive.

Goodbye 2016.

Farewell, Dad.

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