Tipping Point

Gulley on the end of a canoe
Illustration by Ryan Snook

AROUND THIS TIME every summer, during my teenage years, my father would take me canoeing on Sugar Creek in Parke County. He would invariably upset the canoe, usually in the deepest, darkest pools where tangled clumps of snakes were mating. I was a poor swimmer and would thrash around, ingesting large amounts of water while my father busied himself saving the cooler. It was always just me and my father, and when both of us would return home, I’d sense a palpable air of disappointment. In my absence, my chest of drawers had been cleaned out, my bicycle sold, my bedroom taken over by my brother Glenn. There was something afoot, some darkness I couldn’t quite name. As you might imagine, this soured me on canoeing, though every now and then I forget how much canoeing sucks and drive to Parke County, rent a canoe, and spend the day paddling down Sugar Creek, slapping at mosquitoes, careening from one boulder to another, finally beaching around sundown to be driven back to my car in a used prison bus with 20 other damp, disillusioned souls.

There are some things better in theory than in actual practice, and canoeing is one of them. I realized this on a recent trip to Alaska when my wife, son, and daughter-in-law persuaded me to spend a day paddling around what can only be described as an uphill lake, where I expended untold energy making no discernible progress. The canoe might well have been a technological marvel when it was first invented, but it should have been retired in 1907 when Ole Evinrude, may his name be praised, invented the outboard motor.

When our Alaskan son was 14, he bartered for a used canoe that sat on sawhorses behind our woodpile. His brother, who has always had an expansive view of community property, traded it for a bass boat, which he still has and uses once a year to hunt geese at Frank Gladden’s pond. He shoots from a blind on the shore, watches as the goose spirals into the water like a stricken aircraft from World War II, climbs in the boat, retrieves the goose, then repeats the process until he has reached his limit. He takes his dog, Hank, with him, talking him through it, hoping Hank will get with the plan and take over the retrieving. But Hank never does, having no more use for water work than I do.

While I hold the canoe in contempt, some boats appeal to me. My buddy, Dave, keeps a small houseboat at Patoka Lake, and from time to time, he cruises to a quiet alcove, shuts off the motor, drops the anchor, and enjoys a quiet evening with his wife and dog. I’m for any boat that permits me to nap, and I’ve often thought of buying my own little houseboat and seeking out my own quiet alcove, though Dave cautions against it, saying the two happiest days in a boater’s life are the day he purchases a boat and the day he sells it. He reminds me that the word “boat” is an acronym for “break out another thousand.” On the other hand, Dave loves the simplicity of the canoe, and even built one, a comely cedar vessel as striking as any sculpture. I’ve offered to take it off his hands, should he wish to part with it, but so far he has resisted my generosity. I wouldn’t use it, of course. I’d hang it in the vaulted ceiling at my farmhouse as a reminder of the hazards of canoeing.

It’s not just canoes that are dangerous. Another friend, Jim, is an avid sailor, despite his boat trying to kill him several times, most recently at Eagle Creek Reservoir when the boom swung around and coldcocked him, shattering his jaw into several pieces. The doctor said if the boom had struck an inch higher, Jim would have lost an eye. I was in Danville at the time, so the boom missed me by 20 miles, which is my preferred minimum distance from peril.

When I was a child, several years before our late-summer jaunts, my father carved a toy canoe for me from a block of scrap lumber. It was finely balanced and righted itself perfectly in the bathtub whenever I sunk it in battle. For the several years I owned it, I was the cleanest child in Danville, and would have been well advised to limit my sailing to the bathtub, the most pacific of waters.