I’ve had many pleasant hours in boats with motors. I water-skied behind big motors as a boy. I’ve fished from powerboats. I’ve been whisked across lakes at high speed, thumping over the wakes of other powerboats with wind and spray in my face. I’ve even rented power boats of my own free will. But there is something about the speed that ultimately leaves me unsatisfied: I don’t recall having seen anything. Moreover, boat engines are noisy, but don’t get me started.
Canoes, I learned long ago, go just the right speed.
Back in the ’70s, before children, when it seemed we had all the time in the world, my wife and I paddled with friends on the Saco River in Maine. The image remains to this day. I remember vivid blues and dark greens splashed with light, a Winslow Homer-like scene that is soothing to summon and excuse enough to jump into a canoe again. We toasted the glory of the Saco with a six-pack that day, though, in all honesty, we toasted every river with a six-pack in those days.
We dawdled, paddling maybe two miles an hour, talking much of the while, taking in the scenery. We stopped and swam off a sand beach. But we were in a hurry in another way in those days, starting our careers, already working long hours. Little did we know. Suddenly, the river that was our lives quickened like that tongue of water dropping into a rapid. Into the maelstrom we went. Children came. The canoe sat idle for months at a time.
But each spring I’d get the itch and find a way to get out, if only for a half day now and then. I’d pore over my maps, pick a river not too far away, and set off. I returned wet, tired and grinning. My notes – I have to write everything down – bring back sights and random thoughts from those outings: Osprey dropped from sky and snatched trout smack in front of me; Hemlocks along Shepaug magnificent today; Wow, New Milford has changed – is sprawl containable?; Time for kids’ dental checkup?
One summer in the ’90s, my son, Scott and I were canoeing the West Branch of the Penobscot River in northern Maine during the precious, too-brief interlude between his summer hockey, baseball and soccer camps and the start of his fall hockey, baseball and soccer games.
The West Branch is a fairly wild river in the North Maine Woods, and you don’t see many people even in summer. We camped alone on an island one night, made breakfast of bacon and eggs when we awoke, and began paddling on a late-summer, nippy morning. We came upon a cow moose at the edge of the river, water dripping from her mouth, with a calf at her side. I reached for my camera, fumbled with its waterproof bag and watched as both of them lumbered away before I ever got the lens cap off. We paddled mostly in silence for another hour, taking in the quiet, the scenery and the stillness, while the exercise warmed us.
There is a pattern when two people paddle a canoe alone for long distances. The day begins with conversation, the continuation of all the talk that goes into loading the canoe and departing – “Watch that rock.” “Did you douse the fire?” Then, after an hour or so on the water, conversation trails off, minds wander.
This is the Zen of canoeing, when all the preparation is behind you, when all the cares and stresses – that would include the drive up on Interstate 95 – recede with the tail water. Now it is the boat, the scenery and your mind. It can take hours to reach this Jello-like state, or it can take days. When it happens, you realize that part of the appeal of a canoe, in addition to its consummately graceful-but-utilitarian form, is that it is a reasonably comfortable platform from which to let the mind’s eye roam.
You can get a little spacey in a canoe and it’s OK.
We had been quiet some time when Scott, age 10 at the time, asked, “How do rivers begin?” I explained, best I could. That led to a discussion of oceans, where the rivers end up, which led to a conversation about the sky and the clouds and the universe. Scott was sure space was not infinite. “It has to stop. It can’t go on forever,” he said. We kicked that around for a mile or two, which is how you measure time in a canoe. Scott occasionally flipped a lure from the bow in search of trout. Eventually, the conversation veered to a discussion about God, heaven and, finally, should we pull over for lunch?
Would we ever have spent the morning pondering those questions if we weren’t paddling 12 miles over the course of a day on a river in Maine, often in silence, under an expansive blue sky, not having seen anyone else since the night before? It wouldn’t happen driving to soccer practice, I don’t think.
The speed of a canoe is pretty much whatever speed you want it to be at a given moment – up to full throttle of say, 4 or 5 miles an hour if you want to make something aerobic of it. Need to blow off steam? Well, go ahead. Want to chill? Sure. But paddle long enough and your speed will become the one that makes you one with the river. Rhythmic paddling, the melodious drip of water off blade. Now you are connected.
I don’t want to suggest that you have to spend days in the wilderness far from humanity to appreciate canoe travel, however. Unlike other means of transportation, most notably those high-speed power boats, in which your entire relationship to other boaters is a jerk of the wheel to avoid hitting them, a canoe practically guarantees a civil exchange with others.
In fact, I like to say that the canoe is the only civilized form of transportation. I’ve been saying that for so many years that my wife and friends now let it whistle by without comment. While allowing that some may find it a tad hyperbolic and uninclusive, I stand by it.
Spend a day on a river or a lake, and there’s a good chance you’ll come upon another party who will wave and exchange a greeting. To see a canoe in the distance does not bring a grimace, but the prospect of a conversation. “Are you on a trip?” “Catch anything?” “Did you see the otters playing?”
I can’t think of a better example of this than another day on the Penobscot a couple of days after our metaphysical flight, when Scott and I paddled away from a sandy campsite on Chesuncook Lake, also part of the West Branch river system. Almost immediately we happened upon a family of three, also from Connecticut. We talked as we paddled, side by side, as the sun rose higher and higher. By late morning, we reached Mauser Island, still together, and decided it was time for a swim. The five of us found a perfect spot in a cove on the back side of the island. Mount Katahdin loomed in the distance. A gently sloping, mossy ledge rose six feet above the water and ended many feet below the surface. Splashed with water it became a chute. We swam together for a half hour, the five of us, new friends.
I see it clearly today – vivid blues and dark greens, splashed with light.
This essay first appeared in Northeast Magazine.