How We Were: The Canoe as Camel

The time Frank Green and I paddled the canoe through the dry hills of King George Country in search of water would, I suppose, discourage naval historians. Fact is, we’d have had a better chance of finding water in the Sahara in mid-August of a drought year. I will say, however, that the adventure got us covered with some the finest ticks bred on the Southern seaboard, which is the best tick country on this or any other continent.

We were fifteen and didn’t have a brain in our combined heads. Frank was from a family that made its living by getting up at four a.m. and pulling crab pots on the Potomac, because people in Washington wanted to eat crabs. He eventually became an electrical engineer. King George was wooded hills and fields full of deer and whistle pigs and reasonably poor people who actually worked for a living. I was just me.

I had bought the canoe a few months before with paper-route money. Frank and I had proceeded to do with it every wrong-headed thing we could come up with. We had capsized it in the Potomac and gotten it full of jellyfish. We had loaded it to the gills with Pepsi and paddled the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg to Port Royal. We put girls in it — three of them once, which was more that it would hold, so one of them was always falling out and we had to tow her home, as she couldn’t get back in without tipping us over.

At this point there was nothing left to do. The flavor went out of life. We were thrown back on our usual pursuits of reckless driving, purloined beer, and wild, fruitless dreams of lechery.

Then Frank asked why we didn’t explore Peppermill Creek. On Route 206 a few miles out of metropolitan Owens, a conurbation of population maybe thirty, the road drops sharply into an outsized ravine and crosses a rivulet running through the woods. As a body of water it is, if not navigable, at least wet.

The hill itself will live forever in local lore. Kids liked to lie about losing the cops on it at 130 miles an hour, generally in unmuffled wrecks that could have made 90 if you had pushed them out of an airplane.

Friends dropped canoe and us at the reedy marge of the alleged stream. It was one impoverished waterway — about three inches deep on the average. Salamanders lived in it, along with brown scum and the occasional water snake. We found a channel deep enough to float the canoe, but not straight enough: If the stern was afloat, the bow was on solid ground.

We picked up our vessel and carried it fifty yards down the middle of the stream. Here the channel straightened out. Both ends of the boat would float at once — but not with us in it. Our weight pressed it firmly into the mud.

You begin to get the flavor of the voyage.

The United States is a great country, and certainly a marvel to the world, because its citizens don’t ask whether a thing is reasonable, or even possible, before doing it. We were as American as you could get.

I heaved on the bow painter, which is technical for a piece of rope stuck to the front. Frank shoved mightily on the back. Twigs scratched us. Deer flies bit us. We sweated and swore with fervor and artistry. At intervals we sat in the canoe and drank Pepsis. Clouds drifted past above the thicket and birds made bird noises and dragonflies sat on the paddles and watched us. Life was mighty satisfactory, we said.

It was not travelsome, however. We heaved and hoved and huffed through the undergrowth, a yard at a time. We were establishing that you can go anywhere with a canoe, but not necessarily in a canoe. The rivulet did not behave as in all honor it should have, deepening with distance from its source. Instead it spread out into an almost-marsh of soggy earth, thickly covered with swamp grass. For practical purposes, we were in a canoe on a prairie.

We drank more Pepsis and pondered. Common sense suggested surrender. We couldn’t have picked common sense out of a lineup if it had waved at us. We were determined not to accede to reason, mass, topography, or the sheer intransigence of life. Boyhood doesn’t work that way. We didn’t, anyway.

With great perseverance but little intelligence — and, by now, with a spirit of sheer vengeful stubbornness — we began poling the canoe across the field, rather like demented gondoliers. Exactly like them, in fact.

You can propel a light canoe across slick grass by putting the paddle in the ground in front of you, but at a backward angle, and pulling down on it fiercely, as if chinning yourself. Which sometimes happened: Either the canoe moved, or we found ourselves, so to speak, up the paddle without a creek. It was a new concept in wrong-headedness. Once the canoe slipped out from under me, and I was left hanging on my paddle, and had to walk back.

We expected the creek to resume, but it didn’t. Once I actually climbed a tree looking for water, while Frank sat in the canoe. The Pepsis dwindled in number. We started to get tired, a rare state for a country boy. We rested and looked at the swamp grass glowing pale green as the sunlight began to come at it from a lower angle and the shadows of things got longer.

Finally we gave up. We seemed to be heading west and the next body of water might be the Mississippi. We consulted the sun to determine the time. No, we were unlikely to reach California by dinnertime.

We carried the canoe out through a nearby cow pasture and got just covered with ticks. They came to latch onto the cows, and brought all their sisters and granduncles and in-laws, and covered everything, like a speckled rug. I had never seen such robust ticks, or so much dry land.

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