Paddling my life away

I took my family canoeing for Memorial Day and had a great time. It's wonderful to float along on a placid river, enjoying the scenery and gawking at the huge houses overlooking your watery path. The peaceful gurgling of the water under your hull is a gentle counterpoint to your 4- and 5-year-olds' attempts to paddle. Everyone is calm and relaxed, as life slows to pace the meandering amble of the river.

That's the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, your pre-launch lecture on the importance of everyone staying still and hanging on to their paddles has worn off, and the you find yourself alternating between urgent commands as you continuously shift your seat to try to keep the boat afloat:

"Honey, please stop hitting my paddle with yours. I know it makes a great sound, but we're going to hit the bridge if I can't paddle."

"Sit down, please, unless you want to go swimming."

If you're going to hang over the side and drag your arms in the water, could you at least pull up your sleeves and try not to both be on the same side at the same time?"

"Didn't I tell you to hold on to the paddle with both hands?"

Still, the easy drift downstream was pleasant, and the scenery breathtaking. We saw baby ducks, and everyone got to pull leaves off the downed tree while we were tangled in it. We stopped at the Old North Bridge in Concord and paid our Memorial Day respects to the first men to die in battle for our country. The kids had a chance to run around the fields and climb some trees after the nearly unbearable restraint of nearly sitting still in a canoe for 45 minutes. Eventually, though, I felt we should be getting back. After all, we pay for the canoe whether it's in the water or out of it. It's not like there's a little meter in there that counts our mileage.

Come to think of it, that's probably a good thing, as I realized on the way back upstream. We probably traveled two miles as the river flows, but we paddled at least five. Our path back up the river described a perfect sine wave within the confines (mostly) of both river banks, as I tried to find a way to keep the canoe moving against the current while counteracting the activities of my fellow passengers. My son, who continued to drag his fingers, hand, or arm in the water, went from a playful child to demonic friction coefficient, as I began to resent every bit of drag he created. My daughter -- or as I came to think of her, "ballast," -- constantly shifted her position for a better view of birds, trees, rocks, or things floating in the water, when she wasn't making her own wake with her paddle. I'm sure that, from behind, I looked like I was sitting on a live beehive, the way I kept shifting my weight to keep the canoe on an even keel.

My wife, a lovely woman on land, has only been in a canoe once before in her life, back when we were still young lovers, and therefore has never received real instruction in how to operate one. (One attempt at teaching her to ski while we were dating was enough to scare me off of activity instruction for at least a decade.) On this day, she paddled hard and was impressed by my knowledge of proper form, but it never quite sank in that her strokes actually affected our direction. She paddled on one side until that arm got tired and then switched. From up front, that probably seemed like a perfectly reasonable approach. From the stern, it presented unique challenges.

I didn't want to be that guy that we have all seen in outdoor situations, shouting instructions at his poor harried family as he marches them out into the wilderness to have fun. This wasn't a competition, and it was OK if the eight-year-old in the kayak had already passed us going both downstream and up. I wasn't going to start barking out, "Right! Left! Now right again! Stroke, stroke, stroke!" I wanted this to be fun for everyone, or at least everyone else.

After a while, though, I did have to start giving some gentle guidance if I ever wanted to set foot on land again. It wasn't so much a matter of needing to do things correctly as a matter of seeking the shortest distance between two points. To put it bluntly, I was getting tired. That, combined with the knowledge that we had a narrow bridge arch coming up, urged me to finally start explaining the physics of the canoe to everyone, followed by some polite requests for my wife to paddle on one side or the other when I needed help steering. I will admit that the requests grew a little more urgent when the passenger barge nearly ran us down, and when we began to turn sideways in the current under the bridge, but they were always polite.

I think we'll try this again when my family comes to visit. Then we can let the grandparents take one child in their canoe. And we're going upstream first.

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