My nautical experience in life has been limited to a sizable investment but lackluster effort in paddle boarding, one well-documented misuse of a canoe, and a great love of whaling literature.
Back when it was socially and environmentally acceptable to be a whaler, those men (and occasional chest-bound women) were the arguable maniacs and extreme athletes of the sea, outdone only by the likes of some early explorers and every man on the crew of Shackleton’s Endurance.
Inasmuch, I was influenced by my romantic naivety when we planned a family vacation to float the Green River in Utah. Like Powell. Only we have all our arms and actually do know how to swim. We, as a family, were going to explore.
When I think of exploring waterways, I am reminded of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, portaging over treacherous terrain with oil lanterns and heavy chests, a first encounter with the mighty grizzly bear. I assumed our bodies would be leathered by the sun, leaned out by scarcity and tenacity, blistered and bludgeoned by sand and stone.
Instead, I got a farmer’s tan and gained 6 pounds. The only things chapped on my body were my lips and rear end.
Floating rivers, it would seem, is not like in the days of old. They ruined it by making maps for us. It’s a sort of slow-motion, beer-swilling, camp-judging, nap-taking, star-gazing activity now. There are Chacos and dry ice. And no one gets cholera anymore.
Upon arriving at the river’s edge, there was a chaotic mayhem of paddles and coolers and boats and who-does-this-PFD-belong-to. It looked like an outdoor store had barfed on the beach while parasitic frail-limbed youths scraped about for the snack box. Bottles of sunscreen were tossed to and fro. Someone had to run a mile upstream to the truck because a thing was forgotten (only to be discovered later in my craft).
In time, all of this spread of duffles and sun hats condensed itself into four canoes, teetering awkwardly in the brown flatwater as we all held our breath to see if Grandma still had the flexibility to clear the gunwale. Precious cargo safely loaded – looking rather like a sale rack at Big 5 – our energetic group of dogs and kids and adults and reluctant geriatrics launched at last!
Then nothing happened for the next 6 hours.
Occasionally, a paddle would be dunked in the docile water to encourage a canoe a little more to the center or a little less to the edge. A cooler would open and a beverage would be passed. Someone read an entire novel. There were words exchanged about a camp, a bend, a distance.
Just before I atrophied to the seat, someone pointed out a bank that would serve as our pull-out for the campsite above. It was a beautiful bar of sandy bend with huge trees that whispered in the afternoon wind. They were swaying and peaceful, accustomed to the mellow, unchanging ripple of the river. Until we landed.
In a sudden flurry of madness and shouting, boat after boat was turned just so as a group of inexperienced crew persons issued useless commands.
“Paddle left, hard!”
“Is that port or starboard?”
“You can’t land with the starboard side to port! It’s bad form!”
“Stop steering! You’re in front! Just follow directions!”
The river’s edge erupted in an invasion of boats that scrape-thudded against the bank and then poured all their innards onto the sandy ledge in a stream of gear and dripping bodies.
“Make a fireman’s line!” Because most important on a relaxing river trip is that you don’t get soft from all the inertia. The act of setting up camp should always be done as though you are firemen responding to an emergency and everyone’s very life depends on getting the kitchen box to the right bush in short order.
Heavy bag after heavy bag was tossed fast, then faster until they knocked over the recipients and hit the ground in a cloud of dust, causing grasshoppers and bees asthmatic attacks. A cacophony of orders was barked in no particular direction from no particular persons.
“Put the kitchen here! Where’s the water? Pick a tent site! Rinse the boats! Where’s my ChapStick? Start the dinner!”
After a good 45 minutes or so of panicked delegating and tent-village establishment, everyone was frustrated enough to only converse in single syllables through dinner. Except for the children, who articulated their demands for adequate desserts throughout the expedition.
Exhausted and slightly traumatized from the ever-present fear of being the one fool who tips their boat, we all collapsed in the safety of our tents. By morning, we were sufficiently slept to begin the crescendo of crisis all over again. It inevitably culminated in who is going to share a boat with who until, somehow, everyone was loaded and only the dogs or Grandma had been forgotten on the beach.
The morning mad dash to get back on the water was invariably met with the muted momentum of the rest of the day. Even the blue herons seemed unperturbed by our trickling past. I daydreamed about pillaging other campsites like Viking raiders, stealing their tent stakes and supply of hot chocolate, then laughing hysterically as we floated away in slow motion.
Strangely, I came home from vacation relaxed and restored rather than my usual despondent, injured and desperately in need of an office job. Next year, I’m suggesting lumberjack camp or perhaps a family mining holiday.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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