The first time I went canoeing, my friend, Danny borrowed a canoe and we went along with a second pair of friends in their own canoe and had an uneventful trip, due principally to my skilled canoeing partners. In fact, it went so well that Danny offered to borrow the canoe for another trip the following weekend and explore the river further upstream.
But when the next weekend rolled around, Danny was unable to go. He encouraged me to invite another friend and continue on without him.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I told him. “I mean, it’s not even your canoe and you won’t be going. I’m afraid we’ll mess up that nice Gruman, flush-riveted, aluminum canoe.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “What could you possibly do to mess up a canoe?” he said.
With only one canoeing trip under my belt, I had no good answer. But you know that little voice you hear in the back of your head sometimes? Well mine was screaming, “Bad idea! Bad idea!” But of course, I ignored it and replied, “Good point,” and we proceeded to load up the canoe he had not yet returned to its rightful owner.
With the canoe tied down on the roof rack of my dad’s old station wagon, off I went to pick up my friend, Rick, who had actually sounded pretty excited about being included in my plans. We launched the canoe, and Rick leaped into the back seat, leaving me to the bow.
It took a while to hone our canoe navigation skills. When we began to veer off course, each of us would try to correct our course, with one of us generally doing the opposite of what was necessary. As we continued to veer toward the riverbank, we would both change up what we were doing, thus counteracting each other, right before crashing into the riverbank.
Each time the canoe struck the bank, we would bounce off and continue down the river backwards, with me now in the rear facing upstream, frantically trying to correct course once again.
Though I lacked an understanding of the linkage between the monsoon-like rainstorms we had earlier in the week and the river level, I soon gained an appreciation. I noticed right off that morning when we started a couple of miles upstream, that the river seemed much larger. We had travelled only a short distance when the river widened to the point that the only way we could tell where the river normally ran was by the top foot of fence line that ran alongside and parallel to the river.
From time to time, it felt like I was doing most of the paddling. But every time I looked back, sure enough Rick was paddling just as hard as I. I’m still not sure if he was really paddling when I wasn’t looking, but soon enough it didn’t matter.
Since the rain had increased the water level, that meant lots more water was flowing, much faster, and as we proceeded downstream, we found that the current was so swift we didn’t have to paddle at all, which we thought was pretty cool. As we continued on our downstream voyage, we continued to pick up speed.
I think at one point, the canoe actually got up on a plane, which I didn’t believe was even possible. It was pretty thrilling to be moving along so fast. That is, until we rounded a bend and much to my horror, spotted an enormous tree blocking the river.
There appeared to be a small open area to the left, and I attempted to draw upon my newly found navigation skills to frantically steer us to the left. But we didn’t make it, and the river pinned us sideways against the tree.
My plan B was to push us off the tree and work our way to the open spot. But a large branch of the tree angled below the water and the river was attempting to push us up the branch, thus tilting the canoe.
Any illusions I had about making it to the clear spot on the left disappeared when I felt water rising inside the canoe. I glanced back to discover that Rick had exited the canoe and was now seated on the tree attempting to push the canoe off with his feet. I floated out of our vessel as it sank and stood up, still brandishing my trusty paddle.
Good thing, because by this time Rick’s foot had become pinned between the tree and the canoe as it sank, and he was trapped. Fighting the wicked current, I waded over and used my paddle to pry with all my strength. Just as the paddle broke, his foot popped free.
As he recovered, he began to grumble about his unsecured gear, including an expensive camera we soon saw floating downstream. Assuming there was a reasonable chance that we could end up capsizing at some point, I had chosen to lash all my gear to the seat struts. This was good because it meant that my gear was not headed for the Gulf of Mexico, but bad because the canoe was now totally submerged.
We waded to shore and made our way back to our car for the quiet ride home. A couple of days later, the river level had dropped and we returned in my dad’s station wagon, driving back down to the last place we remembered seeing the canoe. We were relieved to find the bow of the canoe poking above the water beside the tree.
Our relief was short lived when we freed the canoe and dragged it to the river bank, at which time we discovered that it had been wrapped around the tree branch by the rushing water and now was more or less u-shaped. We straightened it out as best we could, waded through the mud carrying out restyled canoe, and tied it onto the station wagon’s roof rack.
Wet, muddy, and miserable, we climbed into the station wagon to head back home. However, we traveled only about two feet before becoming bogged down axle deep in slimy mud.
We then hiked a mile or so down the road and found a farmer who for a small fee, towed our station wagon bearing our modified canoe out to the road. When we reached my buddy’s house, the same buddy who had lent us the ill-fated canoe that he didn’t own, I parked the canoe-transporting station wagon, calmly walked up to his apartment door, and knocked.
When he answered the door, I asked him, “Remember when you asked me, ‘What could I possibly do to a canoe?’” He nodded, and I silently motioned for him to follow me back downstairs. I can still recall the expression on his face as we rounded the corner and he got his very first look at the restyled canoe. It wasn’t a smile.