I look down and see these deep grooves etched across both of my knees. This is not “What’s that bump?” your tongue startlingly finds in your mouth triggering paroxysms of panic. These grooves have been with me for decades.
I shall now reveal how they got there.
Are you excited? I am. (That’s called “Priming the Pump.”)
You go to camp because you are tired of the city.
You go on canoe trips because you are tired of camp.
That’s how I annually found myself on canoe trips. I had no pressing desire to sleep on a tree root, cowering in a tent while a bear eats our salami. I needed a break from the monotony of camp, and, short of running away or dallying with the cook’s daughter – an unlikely occurrence if you are nine, or if you are me at any age – canoe trips were the only mode of possible egress.
Let me paint you a picture. (And don’t be surprised if at some point you feel reflexive sympathetic “knee twinges.”)
I don’t know how much you know about canoeing, but here’s how it works. Or at least how it worked on my canoe trips.
There were traditionally three paddlers to a canoe. There was the “Bowman.” (Adjust for “Gender identification”, though however you see yourself, the experience is identical.)
The “Bowman” (as in “take a bow… man”) sits on a seat at the front of the canoe, paddling, while watching for protruding tree stumps, when they call, “‘Deadhead’, at (whatever) o’clock.”
This shouted announcement is a warning to the “Stern’s Man” occupying a seat at the narrower back of the canoe to steer to another “o’clock”, to avoid crashing into the “Deadhead” and sinking the canoe.
The ”Stern’s Man’s” primary task is to keep the canoe headed in the proper direction, a feat accomplished through a series of strokes, including the “J-stroke”, the “Sweeps” – both “back” and “front” sweep, and, when sidling up to a dock, “The Feather.”
(I took “Canoe Instruction” for more than a decade. I never mastered “The Feather.”)
The third paddler is the “Middle Man.” I know a lot about that assignment, because I was the “Middle Man” on all my canoe trips.
Okay. Get ready for some complaining.
"In this post, that goes without mentioning."
The “Middle Man” has no seat. “Middle Men” sit atop a canvas pack, stuffed with sleeping bags and provisions, meaning there is invariably a 48-ounce tin of Donald Duck Orange Juice softening your perch.
And that’s the good news.
The bad news is if the water is “choppy”, the “Middle Man” is required to paddle, kneeling on the bottom of the canoe, which had these protruding wooden “ribs” arcing across it.
Hence, the permanent grooving, indelibly denting my knees.
(Do you feel your knees going, “Oh, my!” That’s because “All knees are brothers.” Or whatever. I am telling you, it’s identical.)
Paddling kneeling fosters further discomfort, none of it shared by the seated “Bowman” and “Stern’s Man.”
The widest part of the canoe is the middle. Paddling from a kneeling position forces the “Middle Man” to reach up and over the gunwales, pronounced “gunnels” boundarying the top edge of the canoe, so they can dip their paddle into the water.
The result of this reaching maneuver was that, on every stroking repetition, “Middle Men” scraped the bottom of their wrists against the menacing gunwale.
(I can hear weeping wrists everywhere kindly commiserating.)
At that point, my cherished fantasy was to reach land, so I could stop hurting myself paddling.
Leading to the “canoe trip” version of “Be careful what you wish for.“
Do you know what a portage is? (Rhymes with “garage”, but with the emphasis on the “por.”)
A portage is a portion of land between two bodies of water, small enough to traverse on foot. You paddled up to the portage, unpacked the canoes, carried everything including the canoes over the portage, where you followed the same steps, but in the opposite order.
The “carrying options” on portages were: The canoes, the packs, and the paddles.
I carried the paddles.
When you’re a “Middle Man”, the humiliations mount up.
Not entirely their fault. The packs were heavy. The canoes were heavier. The paddles were all I could handle.
And handle them, I didn’t.
Imagine an octopus, with nine for three canoes twelve for four, detachable tentacles.
I don’t try to be funny. (See: The recent “Savart’s Toothed Wheel” story.) I just naturally am. (To onlookers, although less so to myself.)
Yielding this lamentable tableau.
I hold two paddles, and try to pick up a third. One paddle drops to the ground. I retrieve that paddle and the third paddle, then reach down for a fourth.
Two paddles drop to the ground.
That’s me, carrying the paddles.
Finally, with all paddles in tow, I trudge across the portage – dropping some paddles and picking them up, dropping more paddles and picking them up – finally reaching the other end of the portage, where I climb back into my canoe,
And dutifully return to my paddling.
I think back fondly on those canoe trips.
I have no idea why.