Letter to P.J

You, my dear, have a remarkable facility for asking questions that have very long answers. Allow me to try to explain to myself why I love canoeing. I do remember. I remember being born, but that is a story for another time. I remember reading in a Cub Scout book, all about canoeing, both paragraphs. I was, perhaps 9 ?, 10 years old? We lived in the farm country, on a dirt road , West Bloomfield, Michigan. (You may not believe this, it is still a dirt road.) My parents had one car. So, I called, on the party line (4 rings was us), to Heavner canoe rental, in Milford. On the appointed day, Pat drove Pete to work and had the car for the day. With sisters in the car, I had a brown paper lunch bag, she kinda slowed down a bit when we passed Heavner’s and let me out. I walked around to the rear of the house, the rental counter, and reached up to put the ten dollar bill, deposit money, on the counter. And Mrs Heavner leaned over the counter and said, “Your mother or father have to sign for it.” “Uh, you didn’t say anything about that on the phone.” “Mom dropped me off. She’ll be back at around 5.” We just stared at each other, a solid minute. I was already thinking I’d just walk home.12 miles, and then she relented. “She’ll have to sign when she picks you up.” This was 60 years ago.

I have taught hundreds of scouts and people how to paddle a canoe, maybe thousands now. And, I have never once seen anyone as bad or as ill prepared as I was that day. I knew absolutely ‘jack shit’ about how to make a canoe go ‘that way’. I still remember trying to pass one fisherman, less than 200 yards after I began. I was in a 17 foot canoe, as was he, I hit his canoe three times in the 34 possible feet as I attempted to pass him. He was not moving, he was stationary against the bank.

It took me 6 hours to go the 1.8 miles upstream to the weir dam. Bright blue clear sky hot day. Found a state park hand pump to drink some water, I ate my sandwich. I was wearing shorts and at-shirt. I was early in the summer, maybe late June.

By the time I had reached the dam, I had it sort of figured out. The return took less than an hour. I got another drink of water from Mrs. Heavner and then sat at the front of her house in the shade until my mom picked me up. I have never since been so dehydrated, I never have had anywhere near as bad a sunburn since. My arms and hands were bad, but my legs from shorts to knees were nearly 3nd degree. I sat in the shade a bit for the next week. When the skin peeled off 10 days later it was so thick you could have sewn a baseball glove out of it.

The next year, I conned several of my friends, 8 of us total I think. And we did it again. And the year after that, and the year after that. And then it began in earnest. My first extended solo wilderness jaunt I was 13 or 14, northern Ontario.

A canoe is the only mode of travel with zero moving parts. It is only the tiniest remove from laying down on a floating log and paddling with your hands to cross a stream. That IS how it all began. Someone hollowed out the log and put larger hands on his hands to paddle with.

A canoe is a nearly silent and extremely artful way to travel. There is a feel to the blade, there are infinite subtleties to the entry , exit, and angle of the blade. having made several 10s of millions of strokes with a paddle, I can make a paddle sing, as beautiful and powerful, as effortless, or as sweet a song as any bird. Paddles talk to my hands, and I listen. And then couple that with travel into wilderness, often 20 or 50 miles from the nearest light bulb, the heart breaking beauty of a red rock Utah canyon, the Green River, the entire length, some of it twice now. Cataract Canyon and the Colorado River, I have canoed through the Grand Canyon. The 200 mile length of Lake Powell, the 60 miles of Lake Mead, Lake Mojave, Lake Havasu, Flaming Gorge Desolation, Gray, Labyrinth, Stillwater, Gates of Ladore Parts of the Lewis and Clark route in Montana on the Marias and Missouri River, New England, northern Ontario,… And worse, far worse, I go not for the adventure, Class III and Class IV, and Class V rapids can scare the poop out of me. (Literally) But look at where I am, I do not go for adventure, that is hogwash. I go because something in me is at peace when I am far from the things of people. I have had conversations, real conversations with crows. They have told me where the rattlesnake was and is, and I have shared my breakfast. I have politely asked a rattlesnake to please move, because that was the best place to set up my tent, and had a N.P. ranger call me the snake whisperer. The snake did give up his good spot, but the body language was almost, “Oh shit, there goes the neighborhood.” He crawled slowly away, almost in disgust. I have had rocky mountain sheep stare at me from a few feet away. Bear walk through camp and entirely ignore me. or twice, younger bears, gruff and threaten, and I gruffed right back. And they left.

Something is said by knowledgeable people about the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in Montana, 150 plus miles of the Missouri River. "It is a hiking trip. You just use a canoe to get there. " It is something like that, I am unsure what ‘there’ is, but I just use a canoe to get ‘there’.