Soloing in the Red Canoe

I pulled the paddle into my lap and raised my gaze from the bow of the canoe to the sky. Insects thrummed from both banks of the river. Over my head, the telltale wings of raptors drifted. The smaller sets of wings belonged to hawks, the larger to the few eagles that patrolled the river. One began to circle—head down, eyes scanning the water, wings in a sturdy glide—one loop then another, as it made its way upriver, as slowly as my canoe drifted downriver. “Does it see me?” I wondered. “Does it care?”

I hadn’t looked up much. I paddled alone; that’s not true. I paddled in a group of sixteen students and five adults. A momentary miscalculation and late invitation made our group oddly numbered, which does not suit traveling in canoes. Yes, of course, one canoe could have set off with three. Still, three in a canoe with a river running low after a summer of less rain (I opened an umbrella once or twice and almost always—and only—during summer afternoon downpours) leads to too much scraping through what would have been more boisterous water. As our party assembled, I suggested that I would paddle solo. There was one slightly smaller canoe. Advice was offered. Off we went.

A very long time ago—almost fifty years now—I was required to solo to pass a course. I remember being in some quiet part of Pickering Creek and rocking the canoe from side to side to watch the ripples cascade against the shore. The instructor chastised me and threatened to withhold certification. What fourteen-year-old boy does not revel in the movement of water, whether caused by throwing rocks as heavy as he could muster from whatever height was possible or watching a leaf float down a dreary current in August? YMCA instructors advocate safety and not exuberance. I passed.

So as I took my seat—the molded plastic bow seat now used as a midstern soloists bench—I began simple “J” strokes, gauging how much my pull would shift the canoe on either side. One of the joys of canoeing with a partner is that you can take full strokes. While it’s not like lifting weights, catching the water and pulling the canoe forward with the strength of one’s arms, shoulders, back, and hips is gratifying. Exertion that has an immediate result is a pleasure. With a partner in the canoe, finding a rhythm and effort that matches and propels the boat forward in a resolutely straight line is like singing in an improvised harmony. Get it right, and it’s beautiful and swift.

I realized quickly that I was slower than the other canoes in the flotilla; I paddled with half the horsepower of the other boats. If the day before my partner and I had led us at a crisp, easy pace, today I would be challenged to keep up with eighteen-year-olds who were quick to fire. If the young like ripples, speed—whether running, swimming, paddling, or (prepare for this) driving—is an intoxication. Fortunately, after the first flurry, effort abates. I played the part of the tortoise and kept at it.

However, when soloing, each stroke contains a moment of counterpoise. Paddle too strongly, and the canoe will veer hard to the right or left, depending on which side of the boat you paddle. Fast in the wrong direction will not do. And so each stroke ends with a curl—the bottom of the “J”—that corrects direction but slows the boat. You are constantly foiling your effort to proceed forward. Think of it as “Yippee! Damn! Yippee! Damn!” I learned quickly that my right-armed strokes were too strong; they needed more “J” and, therefore, more slowing than my left-armed strokes. I am, after all, right-handed—naturally unbalanced.

The whole reason we were on the river was to forge bonds going into senior year. My school gathers the seniors for an overnight trip during which they hike and canoe together. Paddling alone ran counter to the purpose of our journey. Yet, there I was as they pushed ahead. I caught them when they rested, proceeded onward while they snacked, and then greeted them again as they passed me. Again. And again.

I scanned the water ahead and planned and planned and planned, reading and, almost as often, misreading the lay of the river. Paddling alone, I stayed focused on the water because the water was low, and I needed to find a way forward. Too often, I lacked the speed to catch the right course through the rocks that rested just below the surface and scraped to a halt, losing all the advantage of the river’s brief flurry of forward momentum.

The Hound and Hunter, Winlsow Homer

However, keeping my eyes at river level meant that I witnessed turtles sunning themselves on rocks, a family of brown feathered ducks tucked in against the river bank, and once, when I was well ahead, a doe and fawn swimming across the river. At first, it looked like one small brown lump—I thought some small river mammal. I had never seen a deer in the water; the closest thing was a painting by Winslow Homer, The Hound and the Hunter. The deer I saw transforming from a brown lump to a full-bodied animal had no horns. She slowly emerged, an entire brown body of deer, picking its way across the rocks and onto the ledge at the river’s edge. Then the second body, still adorned with a fawn’s spotted coat, followed its mother. They stood by the water, then proceeded through the weeds covering the bank—eschewing a man-made stairway that led from a shed to the water—and into the woods. I was aware that they were aware and that if I had been surrounded by my group, their passage would have been quicker, affording a glimpse at best. Alone, I had moments with them.

Later, when I joined the crowd for lunch, one of the grown-ups recounted all the raptors they had seen along the way. I left the lunchers for a final three miles and put my paddle down, this time looking up. I had not looked up, my attention so much on the water and the passage.

On the final stretch, the wind picked up, and because canoes are keel-less, it pulled arrow-like into the wind, pulling me off the straight line of the river. However, if I paddled on my left side, I discovered that I could lay into my strokes more aggressively. The wind corrected my course without the impediment of the “J.” I began, over otherwise flat water, to make speed. I watch the blade of my paddle cut whirlpools that trailed deep. I watched my arm and hand as they worked lightly with effort. I may be sixty-two, and my knees ache, but movement delights me. I was delighted. Then the wind slackened, and my course went cattywampus. Everything is adjustment.

I arrived at our pick-up spot minutes before the students and teachers arrived. I pulled my canoe onto shore, tipped it over to expel the little water that had trickled into it while I shifted my paddle from side to side, and waited. Not long. One of my fellow grown-ups said, “You’ll sleep well tonight.” Little did he know that what would blanket me wasn’t lingering exhaustion but abundant happiness.

As I write, I realize that I have so much out; brief conversations as students and colleagues paddled around, then by me; a turtle that fell from a branch of a fallen tree; the angle of the sun. More. There is always more. And I acknowledge that there are several metaphors and lessons just below the water, and for once, I will ask you to avoid them as best you can. You won’t miss them all, just as I did not miss all the rock ledges that cut along the bottom of the south fork of the Shenandoah River. This is just about canoeing solo and together and the three and a half hours it took to go from Point A to Point B. Of course, it’s not, but put the paddle in and see where you go.