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If I knew this were my last day on earth, I‘d gather my wife and kids, strap the canoes on my old truck and head off to our nearby river. If I knew I faced my last minutes on this earth, I’d give my wife a long sweet kiss, I’d look full into the faces of my kids and tell them that I loved them and that they make me proud and I’d have them set me adrift in my canoe. And in my final moments I’d queue up the Alison Krause playlist on my ipod, lie back along the gunnels of my canoe and watch a wild Wisconsin landscape drift by at the speed of a gentle current. And were I not blessed to be received into heaven and greeted by a chorus of angels, at least I‘ll have had its equivalent on earth.

The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats: the sky, the water, the shores.

Sigurd F. Olson, 1984.

There are 2 canoes in my family, the Ferrari and my canoe. The Ferrari is high tech – and it’s fast. It’s a marvel of modern materials science, with every molecule engineered for speed and efficiency. Its superstructure is a weave of mysterious fibers that are as thin as spidersilk but with a tensile strength so massive that it defies description using the intermolecular forces known to science. The superstructure is embedded in a rigid polymer matrix that is hard as industrial diamonds. The alchemy of combining these materials enables the outer surface of the canoe to generate a minute force field such that the canoe never really comes in contact with the water but rather slips though on a levitating but very thin and friction-free cushion of magic. The molecules of the superstructure have a self-organizing polarity that re-aligns itself within earth’s magnetic field – hence the earth’s own magnetic field holds the canoe on perfect course until the paddler makes a conscience decision to adjust (the canoe can read your mind). And it’s light. To portage it, I simply tie a line to the bow and let it trail along behind me down the portage trail like a balloon.

Our other canoe, my canoe, is made of wood – authentic wood with all the original gravity still attached.  I built it one steamy summer many years ago with my own twenty-one-year-old hands. I laid up the hull with 1/4 by 1 inch red cedar strips and the gunnels, thwarts, yoke, and seat pieces were made of native New England ash from a storm-toppled tree that I wrestled out of the woods. I milled the ash myself in between long pulls on icy cans of Coors light (cut me some slack – I was 21). I used a rasp and sandpaper to carve a graceful portage yoke that is custom-fit my shoulders and a friend and I stayed up all night one night caning the seats. The hull is sandwiched between layers of exopy-saturated fiberglass cloth that cured nearly clear like a thick coat of varnish. It’s beautiful but it’s heavy. At 18 ½ feet long and 36 inches wide it was 95 lbs when I last weighed it and it gets heavier each year.

My canoe and I have carried each other over miles and miles of wild country and its age is showing in terms of rock scratches and the yellowing of sun-baked wood. When the trail was wet, it carried me. When the trail was dry, I carried it and whatever I’ve invested in short bursts of sweaty belligerent labor I’ve recovered manifold in long bouts of peaceful paddling in some of the loveliest scenery in the world.  I look for my recreation outdoors and I seek quiet means of travel. Canoes are freedom. My canoe frees my physical self from further tethering to yet another goddamn internal combustion engine and it free my intellectual self from the day to day obsessions that keep me up at night. Forward progress in a canoe is a negotiated truce between the elemental forces of wind and current and muscle and bone. When the forces consent, it can be effortless and graceful. Modern materials and design help but hand-tooled wood feeds my soul. My canoe is nowhere near as efficient as the Ferrari, it’s just better.

My wife has been my favorite paddling partner since before we married. If you’ve ever watched a long-distance tandem canoe race (and really, who hasn’t?) you’d notice that canoe partners use subtle communications to coordinate navigation and which side of the canoe to paddle on. My wife and I have a system that we’ve evolved after much experimentation and discussion: she does whatever she wants, I adjust and keep the canoe going where it needs to. Our marriage works the same way (ha!). Among our first canoe-camping trips was a river trip with another couple who were friends of ours. One night while snuggled into a sleeping bag, we were awakened to a robust summer thunderstorm outside and a robust argument occurring in the neighboring tent. Our friends had gotten wet and one of them freaked out about it and demanded that the other hike out to the nearest road and flag someone down for a ride back to civilization. When morning broke, we were alone.  

Days that follow summer thunderstorms in the Midwest are magic. The air is scrubbed clean, the humidity blows out, and the vegetation saturates with more pulsing shades of brilliant green than one would have thought possible. Bird songs sparkle with clarity. We woke and organized ourselves with a minimum of talk as if wary of breaking the spell. After a pleasant breakfast and a savored cup of instant coffee, we packed our gear into my canoe and started out again down an impossibly cold Michigan river – alone and quiet.  The water was so clear that but for the surface ripples and eddy foam, you’d swear that the canoe was suspended over a curvilinear world of undulating vegetation and darting chubs, sculpins, and trout. The sun was warm, the air was fresh and the lush fragrant forests of the riverside unfolded anew with each bend, spangled with jewelweed. We surprised a heron, and a deer, and played tag with cedar waxwings and common mergansers and apart from the loveliness of the river corridor; my sole distraction was watching the loveliness in the rhythmic grace of my young wife’s back and shoulders as she worked her paddle. We were living on my grad student stipend at the time and could barely afford the gas to get to the jumping off point but at that moment I knew I was the richest man on earth.

In a canoe a man changes...

The way of a canoe is the way of wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.

Sigurd F. Olson, 1984.

My office desk is pushed up against a window and on the sill is a cheap plastic picture frame facing back at me. It’s one of those affairs designed for schools to buy for students to use to make gifts from their artwork.  The frame itself is about 2 inches wide. Mine frames a photo of my daughter when she was about eight. She’s standing with a big smile on the black sand shoreline of Yellowstone Lake with snowy mountains in the background. It was taken during a side-trip from a family canoeing adventure. Her face and legs are tanned and the wind is pulling at her shirt and hair. The camera caught her in mid motion and her demeanor is the utter absence of pretense that only kids are capable of. The frame was a gift from her and she decorated it such that her photo is framed on both sides by magic marker drawings of a wooden canoe with caned seats and a graceful yoke. The bottom is adorned with crossed beavertail paddles and the remaining space is filled with the following 3 words in emphatic 8-year-old handwriting: Peace, Love, and Canoes !!! (note the 3 exclamation points) that I read daily.

She’s no longer that little girl and I am proud that she paddles her own canoe with poise and authority. For several years, I read those words as a simple cheer, as an 8-year-old’s attempt to rally her dad to a smile and a warm memory. And she was correct. More recently, though, the words jump off the frame as an exhortation: Peace, Love, and Canoes!!!  - an exhortation to look up from my day-to-day work and to refocus on the things that are important and the things that bring joy.  I am fortunate to have a great job that gives much satisfaction but even so, the administrative and bureaucratic necessities can take on a life of their own and assume an outsize importance. Similarly, we visit this place because we are activists of a sort – but fighting the good fight sustainably may depend on taking the time now and again to refocus on why the fight is good to begin with – and to nourish one’s soul with the things that bring joy.

I want my kids..., everyone’s kids to know peace. I want them to love and be loved with abandon. I want them to revel in joy where they find it and then share that joy with others. Let’s start with that.

Summer is winding down. The beauty of fall is coming.

So to you, Kossacks: Peace, Love, and Canoes!!!

Block quotes from:

Sigurd F. Olson, 1984. Sigurd F. Olson's Wilderness Days, Alfred A. Knopf. New York.

Originally posted to OldJackPine on Sun Sep 08, 2013 at 05:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science, Badger State Progressive, and Community Spotlight.

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