I remain, in one of the constants of my fragmented life, enthralled by the magical and enchanting drift of small craft over deep water, the wonder of a canoe or kayak afloat in the thin water film, seeming to defy all we take as certain. We are creatures of land, crawled out of the muck of eons past, able to swim only with rudimentary strokes and little grace (think otters for comparison). We are tethered to the earth as if with leaden feet unable to take flight (think any common bird). We are so suited for land that we may as well grow roots.
Given our unwieldy bulk and weight we will sink like the proverbial rock should we venture out over deep water, giving up to gravity and impaired buoyancy any attempt to stay afloat save for mighty thrashing about as our puppies did when we put them to water; head up, eyes wide, paws reaching for purpose, finding none, splashing desperately. We were no more made for water than for winged flight.
Enter small craft. Enter to our lives kayaks and canoes. In their fold we defy all that we take as dogma and the craft becomes as a wizard’s flying carpet of ancient lore and legend.
There is primal thrill in pushing a small boat off, away from the firmness of ground, over the sandy shallows, to the place where the water grows dim, then darker, then black beneath the boat. We, the boat and I, are afloat.
The sky above lifts to infinity; unanswerable questions on that rise. The dark water sinks to blackness; endless mystery there. For all we know it goes to center earth. The canoe (for I have spent time in a canoe of late) rides the balance of the two, the dark water mystery and the high sky questions, floats between two worlds like the center of a balance scale; weights equal.
A few weeks ago we paddled with a convivial group on the Rum River, near Princeton, Minn., Princeton being the home of Northstar Canoes that put the outing together. It was my first time this season in a canoe, an act of tardiness that would seem unconscionable except that April had run off the rails in terms of predictability and historical precedent and time normally spent on the water was better served by an amazing run of late season cross country skiing. Given lemons one best make lemonade and skiing filled the glass full in that regard.
We paddled near 20 miles that day which sounds somewhat heroic but must be tempered with the simple fact that the Rum was in flood with late snowmelt and the current surged and carried us along like frisky colts on May’s breezes. We could have covered the twenty in a raft should we have wished, though the mere thought of trading a canoe for a raft seems a sacrilegious exercise even in passing.
It was a good day. High sun brought heat and mild burn. Ducks flushed from the edges of the Rum; woodies and mallards and an occasional merganser. Warblers flashed in jeweled glory; an eagle watched us pass, holding its ground, unconcerned. The current moved silent but strong; canoes rode easy, paddles flashing in the sun.
They say the Rum was so named because early settlers thought the color of the water looked like rum which may say something about their vivid imaginations. Then again I’ve often thought the tannin stained water in this area looks like root beer though no river that I know of carries that for a name.
It felt good to be back in a canoe.
Toward evening we had hamburgers and grilled asparagus and mushrooms skewered and cooked on the grill. After dinner we stopped, Sally and I, on a side street in Princeton for ice cream at the oddly named Saint Lucia’s Ice Cream to top the day.
Two weeks later on a weekday afternoon on a hot spring day I took my own canoe out. It is a Northstar canoe that Sally got me for my birthday last year. It is called, appropriately enough, the Magic for what else is a canoe ‘cept for magic?
I put the canoe to water on the Wisconsin River downstream from town where the river runs wide and slow. I pushed off, over the narrow strand of gold colored sand next to shore. The canoe moved like a breath of wind across the shallows and out, over the dark water. I paddled slow and easy, got comfortable, picked up the pace and held it steady.
I was alone with my canoe and felt as if in the presence of enchantment and wonder. A good canoe floats on the water, not a part of it, not apart from it; floats like a needle in a compass, quivering as if with life, like the tail of a dog on point swinging and seemingly tentative but pointing, invariably, true. Follow the canoe as you follow a compass needle; all will be as it should. Follow it as you would a bird dog on scent; all will be well.
I followed my canoe that afternoon against a gentle current of moving water, over water in varied shades of darkness, from a blue-black to gunmetal charcoal to the color of root beer, under blue sky that showed cloud at the horizon.
Canoes are simple; no moving parts. My Magic is built of Kevlar and yet connects to bark canoes of ancient times in a way my pickup truck does not connect with a Model T. A good canoe is a simple solution to a complex problem, the problem being the complexities and vagaries of lives we lead.
We will never float in space, poised over eternity; we will never lift wings and fly. The best we can be is in a canoe over dark water, as if weightless, untethered, free in a way we can never be on solid ground. In this, magic.