Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Returns, Part II

I was going to tell you about the first Christmas and birthday present I ever gave to Mike.  That first December was ten months after the stories I told you about winter camp and the time I broke my thumb.  By then, we'd gone on a seven day canoe trip in the Adirondacks with a bunch of Explorers.  People keep telling me they're called Venture Scouts now.  Back then, Mike was an assistant advisor of an Explorer Post and I happily joined him.  None of them even wore uniforms that I can remember, not even the leaders.  I didn't feel like much of a leader yet. Remember, I was not expected to have expertise, just a willingness to go, to try new things, to learn more about the old ones.  Canoeing was an old thing for me. If you'd heard me bragging to Mike back then, you might have thought I was born in a canoe.  I wasn't.  I had, however, slept overnight in the bottom of one. 

I will admit to you that I was one of those little sisters who was always hanging around when it came to Boy Scouts.  Oh, I would stand on the concrete step when my mother was doing the laundry after a particularly good campout and look at those dirty clothes in absolute awe.

"These pants very nearly stand up by themselves," my mother would groan.  I leaned in to see the dirt caked on the knees and nodded my head.  Boy Scouts.

"I'm never going to get out these stains," my mother would say, just like in the commercials.  I agreed.  That red clay stain would never ever come out of that white T-shirt. I wondered what wonderful mud rucking had caused that stain.  Boy Scouts. 

My brother didn't help.  He came home from camping trips with stories of tracking animals, setting snares, learning how to tie up an escaped convict, not that one ever showed up for them to practice on.  My brother single-handedly taught me how to light a vertical strike-anywhere match stuck into a chopping block using only a hatchet struck down from a standing position with my arms raised to their full length.  Now, those were skills I needed to know, I thought.  I was that kind of tree-climbing, opossum-poking, fire-starting variety of girl. 

I'll tell you that I tried joining the Brownies at school, but they never once went outside in the three meetings I went to.  I could tell you, it was not my thing, to make cookies and flowers out of tissue paper.  Well, in all honesty, I liked making cookies, but I'd already done that.  I wanted to learn how to build an igloo or live in the woods for a week without dying.  Those were lessons that were worth learning.  What I didn't know when I got older was that my town had an active and quite outdoorsy Girl Scout Troop.  How I missed out on that is a story for another day.

So, my brother took it upon himself to offer second-hand lessons in Scouting.  He showed me how to eat an ant.  The red ones, he said, were tastier, like pepper, but you had to bite them good so that they didn't bite you on the way down. He taught me how to make a lean-to shelter out of sticks and leafy boughs if I got stuck in the woods overnight.  I spent hours perfecting my shelter, but then refused to go back into it when the spiders took up residence inside.  He taught me how to climb a rope and to balance while walking across a fallen tree using a long stick.  He taught me how to split wood, though it took a glancing blow to my shin for me to figure out that a wide stance was the way to go.  He taught me how to start a fire with a single match, tinder, and kindling, though I'll also admit that I never got a fire going using the friction method.  It wasn't for lack of trying or teaching. 

The best thing my brother taught me was how to paddle a canoe. 

For three years in a row, my brother and his team won the annual canoe race on the White River.  Isn't it sad that the White River is now one of the most polluted rivers in the state of Indiana?  We spent the whole day chasing from bridge to bridge, trying to get there before the boys and shouting, "Stroke, stroke, stroke" as they paddled under us and on down the river.  Oh, how I wanted to get into one of those canoes and join the race. 

So when someone started bringing a battered Grumman canoe to our family camping trips, I was in heaven.  My brother taught me how to paddle, how to dump most of the water out of a canoe without swimming it to the shore, and how to get into an empty canoe without tipping it over.  Boy, I'd never be able to do that now. Even when I was a kid, getting back into the canoe after falling out was a challenge and always left bruises.  Who cared about bruises, though?  I was planning to build a canoe from scratch using birch bark and ash poles and paddle it across the country for a year all the while eating only what I could collect or capture along the way.  Bruises were just a part of the deal.

The best thing my brother taught me was gunnel-jumping.  The gunnels of a canoe are the top edges where you bang your knees and elbows climbing back in after you've fallen out.  Gunnel-jumping is the fine art of balancing with one foot on either gunnel near the back of the canoe.  This raises the front end of the canoe high in the air and, if you can keep your balance long enough to begin, the trick is to begin to hop up and down.  At this point, the motion of keel bouncing against the water will propel you forward. It makes a great hollow sound, all that thrashing about in an aluminum canoe.  My mother would point out to you that the aluminum doesn't scrub off your hands and knees, or your bathing suit, for that matter. 

I even slept in that canoe for one night that summer.  I can tell you that the water cools the aluminum, you're bound to get your sleeping bag wet, there is no rolling over, and you'll have a bar shaped bruise across your forehead in the morning when you forget about the existence of the yoke. 

Can you picture that?  So there I was, the kid who spent hours perfecting the art of falling out of the canoe.  I got pretty decent at getting back in, though my canoe always had too much water remaining in the bottom, according to my brother.  I found that the easiest thing was grab the gunnels on each side, then to put one foot as far back on the end plate as I could and the other one slightly forward of it.  Then, the balancing act was to stand up while letting go of the gunnels.  And eventually, after an entire summer spent trying, I managed to get three or four good hops, along with a serious forward motion of the entire seventeen foot canoe and so I had finally mastered the fine art of gunnel jumping.  It was just too bad all the people, the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles sitting in their lawn chairs on the shore had gotten so wrapped up in their talking that they missed the awe-inspiring event.

So, when Mike asked me if I had any experience with a canoe, I told him that I did with an emphatic nod. 

You know, I'm going to have to tell you about that Christmas present next time.  I keep running out of blank sheets of paper.

Thank you for listening, jb


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