Wooden Canoe

I am now to the point where everything brings back memories… not even a single memory but a chain of them… separated by great space and greater time – yet linked by a single thing, the inside of my head.

Something as simple as a wooden canoe lying on a grassy bank:

I found a small dugout wooden canoe upside down in a tropical lake, abandoned and rotting in a bank of watery weeds along the shore. I came up under it with a scuba tank on my back, the bubbles catching in its concave interior and I, looking at the long oblong shape against the sun, wondered what it was. There was nobody in miles so I took it for my own.

The wood was soft and I could scrape out the rotten part with a hunting knife. The bow was broken but I fixed it with a piece of plywood and some marine glue. I found some half empty used cans of bilious old paint in a garage closet so I painted it black and gray. I cut a plastic Clorox bottle into a bailer and I was good to go.

I learned to paddle there on that humid lake. Learned to fish from a canoe, learned to navigate in the darkness, saw creatures I never thought existed in fresh water – they had followed ships in through the Gatun locks and most were slowly dying from the lack of salt.

Then I learned to maneuver a rented dented aluminum canoe through the spring flash flowing Ozark rivers on college weekends – the rocky adrenaline thrill of white water and the relaxing lazy languid sluggishness of deep dark green. I learned that a foot of water can be dangerous when it is moving fast under a fallen tree. Also, be careful when you stop in the middle of a ten mile stretch of isolated river for a quick refreshing swim on a gravel bank… don’t leave your car keys behind.

I paddled into the netherworld of Spanish Moss and Bald Cyprus in East Texas Caddo lake. A place out of time where you can find an abandoned church in a place where God has forgotten. I learned to always check the flow of the water before setting out. You are never as strong as you think you are – sometimes it is hard to get back.

Paddling on a lake with two little kids in the boat I learned that you not only have to check the flow of the water, but the strength of the wind. A damned up prairie lake can throw air fast enough to grab the bow and turn it the way you don’t want to go.

There is the sound of small waves banging against aluminum. The feeling of an ill-fitting life jacket while you are trying to work the paddle. The smell of old fish bait. The heat of the sun on the back of your neck. The sight of the little vortexes that spin off your paddle, the little drops of water when you swing it to the other side. There is the ache in your shoulders at the end of a long day and the anticipation when rounding a curve in the river.

Most of all the rhythm of boat, paddle, and water when you get moving across a lake. When it’s all working together and you feel sorry for the folks roaring by spewing oil out of their big outboards (though you do look jealously at that nice little sailboat).