From the Braver Institute
Last week I was telling a story about my canoe trip down the Indian River with my big brother Farr, and my nephew, Uncle Sam. You may have gotten the impression that this trip was some happy river cruise on a carefree afternoon, but I assure you that it was not. While the first day was pleasant enough, with above-average temperatures, a leaking canoe, shallow water, submerged obstacles, unsubmerged obstacles, etc., etc., nothing could have prepared us for the misery that the following day would bring. I should have known that we were doomed when Farr’s snoring kept me awake most of the night. In the morning, after coffee and breakfast, we loaded the canoes and set out for a long day on the water. We had roughly 28 miles to cover, which was more than twice the distance of the previous day. The condition of the river actually improved as we made our way along. There was a little more depth to the water and that allowed for more leisurely paddling. That is until we reached Stueben, where we were welcomed by a small set of rapids. I do not have a lot of experience with rapids, especially in a heavily loaded canoe, and though I had never tipped over in a canoe, I immediately accepted the fact that it would likely happen now. But it didn’t. No, the fast moving waters of the rapids didn’t get me, but a few yards downstream a shallow spot on a lazy bend caught me off guard, causing me to list just enough to take on water, the added weight of which helped complete the tip-over process. Into the kneedeep water I went, along with my bedroll, my favorite hat, and a few other items. Farr and Unc retrieved that which was floating away, while I fished for the items that sunk. Everything was recovered except for my hat. My faithful companion of many adventures was lost to the murky depths. After a little over two hours on the river, we had managed to cover almost six-and-a-half miles. We were making better time than yesterday, but that would soon change. It would take over five hours to cover the next three miles. The river narrowed and became a series of countless oxbows. These ever-present bends, with their narrow, navigable channel would have been challenge enough for me, but to accompany the perpetual bends were innumerable fallen trees. While navigating the other obstacles in the river, we often found ourselves pressed sideways by the current against the trees. We would have to fight our way upstream to try to get around them. Farr and Unc had twice the manpower to overcome the current. I did not. I began to get the impression that there were more trees in the river than there were in the woods along its banks. So often was I out of the canoe, pulling it over trees in the water, that I was seriously tempted to just stay in the water and walk the rest of the trip. It most likely would have been faster. I was pushed right over backward on more than one occasion as I went under trees that were high enough above the water for my canoe, but not high enough for me. I lost my paddle after one such limbo exercise, and had to fight my way upstream with my reserve to retrieve it. We reached a spot where there was a tree above the water, and another tree under the water directly below it. The gap between was too narrow for my canoe to fit. Farr and Unc made it though because their weight pushed the submerged tree down, and they could muscle the other tree up. There was nothing they could do to help me. I was ready to give up. The banks were too high to portage around the trees, and going back was not an option. With bucksaw in hand I jumped out of the canoe. In chest deep water I attempted to cut the submerged tree—a small cedar—with no success. As I cut, the top of the tree tended to float up, thus pinching the saw blade. I had no choice but to try to drag the tree upstream through the water, which I managed to do in spite of the current’s resistance to the idea. I was nearly out of energy, but I knew I was in for more warfare as I could hear Farr, further downstream, in a rage of fury as he and Unc fought against more trees and the current. My only hope was that we had not yet passed the Indian River campground, but I suspected that we already had. After what seemed an eternity of river battling, I saw that Farr and Unc had pulled up on shore ahead. They were at the campground and I was elated. At that moment, the river pushed me toward a large branch that was sticking out of the water at chest height. I could not avoid it. It turned me sideways, and with the current pushing the canoe, I was starting to tip over even though I was pushing back with all of my strength against the branch. I knew that if I went over I would be pinned under the canoe in the shallow water. At the top of my lungs I yelled “NO!”, and with every ounce of energy in me, I pushed away from the branch. I was not going to die here. On shore, Farr said “this isn’t fun anymore.” I agreed—what was once canoeing was now fighting. There would be no question of pressing on if we had to get the serum through to sick villagers deep in the forest, but we were doing this because it was supposed to be fun, and the fun was gone. I told Farr and Unc that I would walk to the Jack Pine Lodge to get help, which was just a short distance from the campground. I cannot recall a time when I was so happy to be soaking wet and walking down an isolated stretch of highway. Inside the Jack Pine, there was a group of executives, or accountants dressed up as bikers sitting at a table. I could see that they wanted to act as tough as they thought their clothing made them look, but I gave them an ‘I know who you really are look’ that apparently frightened them. With squinty, Clint Eastwood eyes, I walked past them in my dripping wet shorts and my water hiking shoes. After what I had been through, I was in no mood to be messed with. At the bar, with a calm and gravelly voice, I ordered a tall Coke, and then asked the bartender if I could use the phone to call my mommy.