Canoe trips offered a noticeable change in our quality of life. At camp, you lived worse than you did in the city. On canoe trips, you lived worse than you did at camp.
It didn’t matter. My cabin mates were going, and I wanted to go too. It’s interesting. No matter how terrible something sounds, you don’t want to be left out.
“I can’t eat woims, huh? Gimme dem woims!”
Unfortunately, to qualify to go on a canoe trip, you were required to swim twenty lengths of the swimming area. The closest I got to twenty was nine. After that, I was so exhausted, I needed help being hoisted onto the dock. The reason I was so worn out is that my “stroke of choice” (the only stroke I knew) was the “Dog Paddle”, the most energy depleting of all the swimming strokes.
You’ll never see a “Dog Paddle” competition at the Olympics. This is partly because this desperate flailing in water is not pleasing to the eye. But it’s also because, after engaging in the “Dog Paddle” for any extended period of time, swimmers are obliged to withdraw from further participation, return to the athlete’s compound, and take a nap.
Despite my being only nine-twentieths of my way to qualifying for canoe trips, my brother intervened, and got me what I wanted. He persuaded my counselor to take me along, with the understanding that I would be assigned to the tripper’s canoe, the tripper being the staff being member in charge of the canoe trip.
This resolution reflects two gifts my brother, a future lawyer, possessed to an astonishing degree – the gift of persuasion, and the gift of persuasion by the use of an argument, which, on careful scrutiny, didn’t make any sense.
If, on the canoe trip, I’d been dumped in the water more than nine lengths from shore, I would have drowned, no matter whose canoe I’d been dumped out of. When my brother explained the agreement, I remember telling him, “That doesn’t make sense.” I remember him being annoyed by my ingratitude.
Okay, so I was going. Yay. This made me, according to the program they built around the excursion, an “Indian.” My only cabin mate friend, Shelly, who swam as badly as I did but had a less resourceful older brother, would be a “Settler”, and remain at camp. Shelly kept to himself by choice. I kept to myself as a result of ostracism. Two loners. We were a perfect fit. (And we’re still friends today.)
Camp Ogama canoe trips lasted anywhere from three to seven days. Being Juniors, ours would be the shortest version. Instead of being trucked sixty miles to Algonquin (National) Park, where most of our canoe trips took place, ours would range within a few miles of camp.
A three-day canoe trip. Destination: Antler Island. (I never saw one antler on Antler Island.)
Our tripper came by our cabin to show us how to pack our sleeping bags. You unrolled your sleeping bag onto your bunk and you packed minimum clothing, each item laid out flat on the bag. You then rolled up your packed sleeping bag as tightly as you could, securing its tightness with the accompanying strings.
I followed the tripper’s instructions perfectly, laying my clothes flat, rolling up my sleeping bag and securing it as tightly as I could. When I finished, my sleeping bag was twice as thick as everyone else’s.
Part of that had to do with the sleeping bag itself. The snazzier sleeping bags were made from thin but insulating fabrics. My sleeping bag, I believe, had feathers in it. It also took powerful hands to roll a sleeping bag tightly, and that wasn’t me. The tripper had to roll it over again. I was quickly developing a reputation, or, more accurately, adding to it. I was the “nine lengths” guy who couldn’t roll up his own sleeping bag.
I was an outcast. And we hadn’t even left yet.
Our departure time was six A.M. It was still dark outside. Our party, as Lewis and Clark would call it – numbered twelve: eight campers (two cabin’s worth of qualified campers, plus me), three counselors and the tripper. We ate an early breakfast in an echoey Mess Hall. It would be the last time we’d be eating or going to the bathroom indoors for three days. Was it too late to get out of this?
When we finished, I remember our tripper getting up from the table and saying, “As ‘Rocket’ Richard said to ‘Boom Boom Geoffrion (both hockey players), ‘Let’s get the puck out of here.’” It was time to go.
When we got to the beach, four canoes were waiting for us, their front halves bobbing in the water, their back halves resting on the sand. Strapped into each canoe were two large, canvas packs, stuffed with sleeping bags and provisions. Being the “middleman” in my canoe, the pack would also serve as my seat. I took care not to sit on the metal buckle.
I don’t know how much of this you want to know, so I’ll keep it short. Each canoe held three paddlers – the “sterns man”, who sat in the back seat and controlled the direction of the canoe, the “bowman”, who sat in front seat and, besides paddling, served as “lookout” for protruding debris that could endanger the canoe, either by knocking it over, or by piercing the canvas, which, even a non-canoeing person can tell, is a not good thing.
Finally, there was the “middleman”, whom, as I mentioned, had no seat, but sat perched atop a pack. The “middleman”, placed – Duh – in the middle of the canoe, contributed to the paddling that allowed the canoe to glide forward.
Okay, so here’s where the complaining starts. I realize I was fortunate to be included on this canoe trip in the first place, but, like “paper covers rock”, whining obliterates appreciation.
The middle is the widest part of the canoe. That means that, in order to dip your paddle into the water, the “middleman” has to stretch the furthest over the side of the boat. Add to this fact that I’m nine years old. How long are my arms at that point?
So it’s like this. I lean over, to get my paddle in the water, and the “sterns man” (the tripper – I’m assigned to his canoe) yells, “Stay in the middle!” Leaning, you see, causes the canoe to become “tippy”, and that’s not good, so you have to stay in the middle.
Fine, I stay in the middle. But from the middle, I can barely reach my paddle into the water, which leads the tripper to shout, “Paddle!” You can see the problem here. I lean over to paddle…”Stay in the middle!” I stay in the middle…”Paddle!” There’s no way I can win.
I stay in the middle and I try to paddle. And with every stroke in this position, I lacerate the bottom of my wrist, as it scrapes along the edge of the canoe. The result of my efforts is this sound continually emanating from the tripper’s canoe:
Stroke. “Ow!” Stroke. “Ow!”
This adds a third instruction from the tripper, in addition to “Stay in the middle!” and “Paddle!”
One last…observation. If the water we’re paddling across is rough, adjustments need to be made to keep the canoe from capsizing. One of them is for the “middleman” to drop from his sitting position and kneel directly onto the floor of the canoe.
I won’t bore you with canoe construction, except to say that the bottom of it is comprised of parallel rows of wooden ribs, wrapping around the inside of the canoe. Being in this position places the weight of your body onto your knees, which, in turn, are being dug into by these protruding wooden ribs. As you lean into your padding, every stroke puts increased weight on your knees, which means that the music now emanating from the tripper’s canoe is,
Stroke. “Ow! Ohhhh!” Stroke. “Ow! Ohhhh!”
Or, more completely,
Stroke. “Ow! Ohhhh!”
This was the ordeal I’d been fighting to experience.
As we paddled away, I looked back at a camp where I’d received virtually no pleasure whatsoever, and sighed. I wondered if I’d ever see the place again.
Tomorrow: A bear eats our salami, and a great philosophical lesson.