Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"Summer Times - Canoe Trips - Part Two"

For greater enjoyment, read yesterday’s “Canoe Trips” post first. Just a suggestion. You’re grownups. You can do what you want.

We were on our way. Four canoes, filled with “Indians”, as they labeled the campers who were heading off on a three-day canoe trip to Antler Island, about ten miles’ distance from our camp. The “Settlers”, who hadn’t passed the swimming requirements, remained behind, to till the soil, or play badminton, I’m not sure which, since I was an “Indian” and I went. Though I didn’t pass the swimming requirement. See yesterday’s story.

We paddled away from shore, turned left, then left again, making our way down a swampy, frog-filled river that bordered camp property. We had travelled barely ten minutes, when we hit land.

It was time to portage.

You know what that means? It means we hit land, and we couldn’t paddle anymore. What was now required was to get out of our canoes, empty them of their contents, and then carry everything across the land to a body of water on the other side, where we’d reload the canoes and paddle away, until we hit land again, at which point, another portage.

There are more popular blogs than this one. But how many of them explain portaging?

Okay, here we go. The packs were unloaded and strapped on campers’ backs. You bent your knees, slipped your arms through two leather straps, then straightened up, but not too much; otherwise you’d fall backwards from the weight of the pack.

There was another supporting strap that slipped over your head and pressed tightly onto your forehead. I’m not sure how that helped, but I guess it was supposed to transfer some of the pack’s weight away from your back and shoulders, and onto your neck. I may need clarification here.

“Mike the Blogger”, please? I know him. He’s a former tripper – meaning he guided canoe trips – and he occasionally writes in. In contrast to some others, Mike was a tripper you were certain wouldn’t do injury to you in your sleep.

Once you were set up with your pack, you trudged down a path to the other side, a distance, in this case, of about half a mile. I was not assigned a pack to carry.

The counselors and the tripper would each carry a canoe. In later years, I tried carrying a canoe. I got about fifty feet, then stopped, and leaned the top of the canoe against a tree, and took a breather, which lasted for the rest of my life.

I did not carry a canoe on that first canoe trip. No campers carried canoes, so this was not considered a negative distinction. The following task, which I did perform on my first canoe trip, was.

I carried the paddles.

Not just the paddles. I also carried the “Medicine Kit”, which was a metal fishing tackle box filled with First Aid supplies. So, paddles and the “Medicine Kit.” Both. Two things, I carried. More than two, because there were twelve paddles. So, twelve, plus the “Medicine Kit.” I carried thirteen things.

Have I managed to make this sound impressive?

It wasn’t easy. Kinda like handling an octopus with twelve legs. (The octopus, not me.) Of course, I didn’t make it easier by the technique I adopted for carrying the paddles. How would I describe that technique?


We’ve all seen clowns and ice skaters who act awkward to humorous effect. Those clowns and ice skaters are actually graceful performers pretending to be awkward. I, by contrast, am naturally awkward. With me, there is no pretending. Nor an alternative. Awkward is the only thing I can do.

You’ve also seen the classic comedy routine where a comedian, loaded down with packages, or whatever, reaches down to pick up another package, and drops two other packages in the process. Then they pick up the two fallen packages, and drop three. And it just gets worse after that? Delete “packages” from this description and replace it with paddles, and that’s me on the portage.

And I haven’t even mentioned the “Medicine Kit.”

With twelve paddles finally cradled in my arms, I hoisted the “Medicine Kit”, which weighed about five pounds, with my baby finger, and headed made my way painstakingly down the path.

It wasn’t just the physical challenge for the portage; sometimes, you needed to use your head. At those points where the path was too narrow for the width of the paddles, I resourcefully shifted my body ninety degrees and continued along the trail sideways. I was very proud of that maneuver. Remember, I’d never been on a canoe trip before.

I finally made it to the other end. The canoes were already in the water, the packs securely strapped in place. We were ready to go. In fact, they’d been ready to go for about half an hour, but, you know, they needed the paddles.

We were now traversing a, comparatively, big lake, Lake Vernon, our armada of four canoes, gliding over its gently wavy surface. It was time to irritate my companions in an entirely new manner. I broke into song, bellowing the theme song to every cowboy show on TV.

“Bat Masterson”, “Maverick”, “Rawhide”, “Wyatt Earp”, “Yancey Derringer”, “Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie, he was a bold, adventurin’ man…”, “Tombstone Territory.” I knew them all, and I sang them at the top of my lungs. The songs brought me comfort in the wilderness. They also covered the fact that I wasn’t paddling very hard. You’d have detected my unmuscular stroke, if I hadn’t obscured my “lily-dipping” with my rousing musical interlude.

Lake Vernon opened into Fairy Lake. Or was it Mary Lake, rhyming lake names generally confuse me. ("Mike the Blogger" informs me it was Fairy. But there is also a Mary.) Our tripper pointed to a tiny spec on the horizon. Antler Island.

We were there.

We pulled up our canoes and began to make camp. Campers were assigned to set up the tent. Others arranged our provisions on a rubber “ground sheet.” I was part of a contingent sent to gather wood for the fire. I returned in ten minutes, announcing that I couldn’t find any.

The direction: “No firewood, no food” sent me back to the forest. It’s amazing how much wood pops into view when you’re threatened with starvation. And you’re in a forest.

Dinner was grilled steaks, and creamed corn mixed with twigs. The twigs hadn’t come with the corn; they fell into it from overhanging trees. Somehow, probably due to our day’s exertions, it all tasted delicious. Today, creamed corn without twigs? Something always seems missing.

At night, we slipped into our tent, where our sleeping bags were already laid out. Our counselor sprayed the enclosure with noxious billows of mosquito repellent, which managed to repel no mosquitoes, though it did induce some serious coughing fits among the campers, especially the asthmatics.

The night’s excitement was provided by the arrival of a bear. What bears are doing on an island, I have no idea. It must have swum over from shore, lured by the enticing aroma of our three-foot salami.

Our tripper had hung the salami from a branch high off the ground, but any bear motivated enough to swim a lake for some kosher cured meat was hardly going to be deterred by a little climbing. The bear also broke into a paint-can sized peanut butter tin and a jam tin of equal enormity. As it enjoyed a midnight snack of peanut butter, jam and salami, we cowered in our tent, hoping the bear would be too full to eat us.

I have other canoe trip stories, but this next one comes accompanied by philosophical implications, which, for me, puts it at the head of the line.

During the night, before the bear showed up, our counselors planted some arrowheads in the ground, somewhere on Antler Island. The plan was that, the next day, we “Indians” would discover them, and be excited.

The “discovery party” lined up in single file, our objective, to uncover archeological artifacts of cultures past. I was second to last in line and behind me, was Jerry Wiseman, a good-natured fellow, who was not in my cabin. (It was a two-cabin canoe trip.) On the signal, we started down the path. We had barely departed the campsite when Jerry Wiseman got stung by a bee.

We returned to the campsite to treat Jerry’s bee sting. Everyone showed due concern, but Jerry was taking it very well. To me, it seemed strange that an entire line of people had walked past the same place, and it was the last one who got stung. I guess these things happen.

The counselor left it to Jerry to decide whether we would abandon the archeological “dig” or get back on the trail. Jerry opted to keep going. We lined up again, and headed out.

Jerry Wiseman got stung again.

This time there was crying. The natural question arose:

“Why me?”

My response came in two sections. The first one was laughter, which I successfully subdued. I can’t help it. When an outrageous thing happens, even if it’s painful, especially if it’s painful, my initial reaction is a manic hilarity.

What else can you do? Especially if the bad thing didn’t happen to me? Part of the laughter may be out of relief that it didn’t happen to me. The other part relates to the incomprehensibility of such an occurrence ever taking place.

This is the Job story, with bee stings. There were terrible people in my cabin. None of them got stung. This nice kid, Jerry Wiseman – everybody likes him – he gets stung twice. What the heck is going on?

Okay, maybe there’s a biological explanation, involving Jerry Wiseman’s…essence. Maybe he’s a bee magnet. I don’t know. “I don’t know” led to Part Two of my response to the incident:

Sadness and confusion.

I know I’m just nine. But after my inappropriate laughter response, these are the thoughts that, maybe not in this form, but these types of questions went racing through my mind:

Is there no order in the world? Is everything random? Could any of us be struck down at any time? And then, be struck down again?

What about justice? The evildoers are duly punished and the good remain safe? Is that just some fairy tale we tell ourselves so we’ll feel better about things, but the truth is there’s no connection and nobody’s safe?

Jerry Wiseman got stung twice! How do you possibly explain that? The space I’m allotting to this reflects the fact that I took what happened that day very seriously. I never truly felt safe again.

By the way, we found the arrowheads and were very excited. Jerry Wiseman was not along for the discovery.

Our reintroduction to camp the following day was designed as an “Indian raid.” Beaching our canoes, we crept stealthily up from the waterfront, taking the “Settlers” by surprise. A fierce battle ensued. During the melee, I noticed my “Settler” friend, Shelly, whom I promptly whacked on the back of the head with a hand crafted tomahawk the tripper had made me. Shelly immediately whirled around and socked me in the jaw. We were clearly happy to see each other.

Though the canoe trip had been an adventure, it was wonderful to sleep – and go to the bathroom – indoors again. It was also comforting to know that whatever adversity that would befall me, and there would be many to come, none of them would include a bear.


Pidgy Gordon said...

Hi Earl
This reminds me of my very first canoe trip as a counselor. I, too, had great difficulty qualifying for the swimsuit portion of the event but I guess they really needed me. It rained for 5 days straight and I recall just wanting to die, but I had to take care of the kids in my charge, so I kept paddling. On the last day, our tripper took us across Opeongo (a very big lake) in a thunderstorm to meet the bus and I was torn by conflict. Was it really safe to venture onto a lake during an electrical display? I crouched low in the stern so as not to tempt the forks of lightening, desperate to get back to camp. Like you, I also recall being impressed by nature, but all in all, happy to be back on dry land.
Much more fun for me was the 'ride' we took in the Rockies where, I recall, you sang a pretty thorough encore medley of Western themesongs.

MikeThe Blogger said...

"There are more popular blogs than this one. But how many of them explain portaging?" - According to a Google search...2,280,000 for "blog portaging".

Earl thanks so much for your wonderful writing and to be reminded of the details of camp Ogama (what a memory you have -- but I too remember so much about camp). And thanks for teaching me ALL the words to the Wyatt Earp song. LOL!!!