Thursday, July 3, 2014

Canoeing, a brief personal history

In the canoe last summer, on the big lake

Rumor has it that there were four water rescues out in Lake Michigan last week. At least, four near where I am, on the Leelanau peninsula. The big lake is big, and can go from glassy calm to six-foot swells in a matter of minutes, if the wind direction shifts just slightly. The new craze for paddle boards seems to have promoted a false sense of security on the lake, as if these picturesque northern bays should naturally behave like tropical coves: warm, languid, and predictable. But they don't, and no matter how expensive your board is, and no matter how hip your sunglasses and low-profile your personal flotation device, the water is very cold and you won't last long once you are tossed into it.

I'm terrified of the big lake. I always have been. When I was seven or eight, at summer camp, I went out with a group on a Hobie Cat and it flipped in high wind; I recall the feeling of total dread as we bobbed in the deep blue and our counselor worked to right the seemingly minuscule, flimsy vessel. I don't even recall what happened: did we sail back? Were we rescued by a motorboat? I know I cried. I sobbed, blubbering my tiny tears into indifferent cresting waves. I never went out on a sailboat again. (Maybe once, on a tranquil day ten years later, on a Sunfish with an expert sailor—I don't know, I've blocked it out.)

I learned to canoe, and this felt better—more stable, less audacious when it came to speed and long sprints away from shore. Paddling parallel to the shore on flat water was perfectly acceptable, learning to switch places bow and stern, balancing on the gunwales; how to re-flip a capsized canoe in deep water using the air trapped beneath the hull, lifting the gunwales straight up while simultaneously swiftly kicking hard in the water and hurling the craft over, ideally empty of all water. When done right it was a thing to see.

I grew up canoeing the inland lakes and rivers each summer, but never really thinking about it as anything romantic. Heavy plastic green canoes, occasionally a red one, or lighter-weight but clumsier (because longer) aluminum ones, banging on the ground at the put-in, screeching past low hanging branches down sluggish brown rivers. Ramshackle week-long trips with tasteless Sysco foodstuffs cooked at night over smoky fires. Leeches horrifyingly elastic and bloated; leaky dry-bags; soggy sleeping bags; the dank smell of tents encrusted with blood splatters from communally feasting mosquitos slapped onto the tentwalls season after season, overlapping sepia stains.

Later I was wooed by sea kayaks: they seemed more elegant and sporty (the colors alone!). But I never could master the roll, with that magical twist of the hips. During my early twenties I lead kayaking tours on Yellowstone Lake and on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Parks. These were fairly low key trips, even if the landscapes were dramatic. Mostly day trips, we could paddle around 'interpreting' the geography, flora, and fauna, acting like we knew a lot more than we actually did. I tried river kayaking one time with a highly skilled friend who had a couple short whitewater boats; after attempting a few moves in the swift current I got slammed into a canyon wall, flipped, and ended up swimming the next few miles.

In Wyoming another part of that job was leading river trips, on inflatable rafts. Our company took a scenic trip down ten miles of the Upper Snake River, on a large raft with an oar rig—this was a meandering journey through meadows and steadily rising foothills just north of Jackson Lake. Then there was a quick three-mile section above that, through a whitewater canyon with some standing waves that peaked in late May and could reach astonishing intensity for a few days (the site of my botched kayaking adventure). I found I was quite good at navigating the smaller inflatable rafts, where we all used paddles (and the guide in the back with a longer paddle commanded the paddlers up front, aka "guests" or "customers"). I quickly realized that all those years in crappy canoes with lousy partners in the bow had given me an intuitive sense of how to wrangle a large vessel from a single point of contact with the water. A single paddle blade moved just right can do amazing things.

In the spring of 2013 my father-in-law died, leaving me to more or less tacitly inherit his fifty-year-old Grumman canoe: an aluminum, mass produced piece of art that had been in his family for decades, moving around all along the east coast before ending up here in northern Michigan. The rivets are all sound, and the keel tracks like it is fresh off the assembly line. Last summer I took the canoe out several times on the big lake—on exceptionally calm days, staying near shore. At the end of the summer I took my father-in-law's ashes out on Lake Michigan and spread them where he used to love to swim; the gray ashen mist itself swam and swirled as it descended through fifteen feet of water and disappeared.

This summer I installed cross bars on the roof our small Subaru, and I've been taking the canoe to all the inland lakes I fished every day when I was growing up. I know these lakes like the back of my hand and it has been thrilling, eerie, and in short kind of delightfully strange to take my son Julien to these lakes and tell him stories that I dredge up from twenty-some years ago, sense impressions unleashed by sudden flights of sandhill cranes, fish explosions on the lake's surface, cloud formations that tumble over the forested hillsides.

I have things to write about each of these lakes, these depthless glacial pockets along the lakeshore. This is just a beginning, an attempt to briefly sketch out a personal history of canoeing. Actually the more I think about it, the more I see I've left some important chapters out already.* But this will suffice for now, as a start. One of the hardest parts of writing is just getting started.

Julien in the canoe this summer, on a small lake



* Two come to mind that I want to remember for later: canoeing Algonquin Provincial Park when I was seventeen, and canoeing on Hyalite Lake with Greg Keeler, where we'd fish for cutthroat trout.