Magazine article The American Prospect

Canoeing Life's River

Magazine article The American Prospect

Canoeing Life's River

Article excerpt

I GREW UP IN AN URBAN WORLD OF CONCRETE AND asphalt. Nature was a few weeds sprouting up from sidewalk cracks in August. Summer camp was for rich kids. So I spent a lot of time dreaming of living in the wilderness, fueled by images from James Fenimore Cooper--the buckskin-clad deerslayer paddling down rivers, hunting, fishing, and fighting bad guys. Most kids saw their first car as a ticket out of the neighborhood. I dreamed of owning a canoe.

It was a long time coming. I spent my first decade as an adult fighting a war on poverty and against a war in Vietnam. Then, burned out after the 1972 defeat of George McGovern, I joined other despairing lefties to find hope in rural life. I cashed in everything and moved my family to a run-down blueberry farm in Maine.

One spring day, a neighbor told me he was selling his canoe. The canoes of my childhood fantasies were birch bark; this was 16 feet of banged up fiberglass. But it was $60, with three paddles and a patch kit thrown in. The day after I bought it, with my (now ex-) wife in the bow, I confidently pushed out into the seemingly friendly rippling current of a local river.

Having paddled canoes in my dreams for years, I never considered that it might actually require some skill. Happy as a clam, I splashed from one side to another, the canoe zig-zagging down the now accelerating river with an increasingly terrified woman in the bow. When we hit the first set of rapids, the canoe dipped sideways, swamped, and dumped us into the current. We scrambled on to the shore, and watched the river break the canoe into pieces--paddles, sneakers, and lunch sailing downstream. The river fiasco was not the cause of my later divorce, but neither was it very helpful.

A few weeks later, a Maine friend taught me the J-stroke, the maneuver that allows you to control the canoe from one side. It transformed my life. I quickly bought another canoe, went on to master the cross-stroke, the back paddle, and how to ferry across a strong current. I learned to read the river--the inverted v that tells you where the rocks are, the difference between a patch of foaming water that is benign and one that will suck you under, and the way a slight alternation in the water level can turn a safe passage through the rocks into a disaster. …

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