ArticlesPersonal EssaysTent Bound

The Joy of Canoe


The ripples slap against the sea green hull of my canoe and the light wind rumbles in my ears as I paddle towards the clam, leeside of Devil Track Lake. Kneeling in the center of the canoe, leaning the boat to make it easy to reach the water, I take strokes only on one side of the hull. A bow draw blended with a forward blended with a “J” keeps the canoe going straight despite the wind. When my attention wanders, the wind changes my course and I have to pull harder on the draw and push harder on the pry until the canoe reclaims the correct direction.

canoe on shoreWhether I need a “correct” direction or a course, I don’t know. I have no destination. I’m simply out on a mid-October day, enjoying a day of warm weather on an otherwise cold month. When I reach the shelter of the leeside shore and its mirror-like surface, I sweep my paddle blade just under the water’s surface from the bow, out away from the canoe as far as I can reach to the stern. The canoe swings 90 degrees in one stroke. I let it continue to swing to the left from the stroke’s momentum.

Straight ahead the lake narrows and shallows. A rock bar stretches from the south shore towards an island just a canoe width from shore. On the island, the white trunks of birches rise from brown, now dry, grasses, and an open-water passage leads me across the rock bar and through wild rice. The afternoon’s golden light shines on the spruce and fir on the shoreline, and the blue sky creates a contrast between dreaming and firmament.

honey-colored sun
the sound of bees missing
this late in autumn

The sun warms my back, and it feels good, especially with not even a touch of wind on this shore. I paddle forwards past the lake’s dam. The water just slips over concrete and between braches of down trees clogging the spillway. I pause for a moment to watch the moving water. It’s hypnotizing. The sound of the water in a rapid below comes to my attention. I can almost just make out the smell of ozone from it.

bow of a canoe, paddle, bearMy attention wanders again to my ankles and my knees. I can feel the pressure of knelling and notice that I’m stiff from an hour in the canoe. I sit up on the rear thwart and stretch my legs out in front of me before weaving around the grey, creased, barkless trucks of white cedars long dead from the dam’s flood. I caught a half-dollar-sized turtle here earlier in the year, but don’t see one here now. The only thing to see is the mud on the lake’s bottom just three feet away.

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I round bay and head back towards the little island. A beaver has built a stick and rock dam closing the gap between it and the land. I wonder if the beaver will now try to close the 60 or 70 yard opening over the rock bar on the other side. I go around, and listen to the creaking of the wood canoe. It groans with every stroke and the paddle clunks against the outwale on every pry. It becomes a pattern of a caplunk, swish, creak, clunk. Caplunk, swish, creak, clunk. Caplunk, swish, creak, clunk. And the sun on my face now.

splash of a paddle —
cold water droplets
on wrinkled hands

Out on the lake again, I stare down the five-mile reach – much too far for a day like today. I swing around a point, faster now despite keeping my paddling pace. The wind, although light, pushes me along. I watch the leafless birch go by; the tree branches seem to reach upward. I look upward at a few puffy clouds in an otherwise clear sky.

I pass my takeout, because I can hardly bare to put the canoe away. I drift in the wind, sun on my back, wind in my ears, caplunk of my paddle, creak of the gunwales, the ripples against my hull, then the end of the lake. I drop back to my knees, lean forward and set a post with my paddle. The canoe spins around 180 degrees. It’s time to go home. It’s time to put the canoe away before the lakes form that oil-like slick of first ice.

The joy of canoe is over for another season.