Gently down the stream, then gently back up again

Canoeing on a pond, or around a lake, is a logistically simple pastime. But it's a different story when my husband and I prepare for our annual bobble down a lazy local river. Every summer, I must scratch my head anew as I review our shuttling protocol.

After caravaning the 40-mile drive to the river in two vehicles, we drop off the canoe at Point A (the "put-in"). Then Ken motors our minivan, which carries the canoe rack, downriver to Point B (the "take-out"). I follow in our "shuttle" car. Upon our arrival, he hops in with me to return to Point A, where we launch our boat and begin our float.

Some 10 river miles and several hours later, we load the boat onto the minivan and drive back upriver to reclaim the shuttle car. Then I follow Ken home.

Our system really isn't so complicated; it's just cumbersome to describe. Sometimes, when puzzling it through, I'll get Ken confused, too, and we sound like Abbott and Costello trying to figure out who's on first.

Drawing the route and sequencing the steps on paper helps, once we clarify which squiggly line is the river, which is the (roughly) parallel road, and which end is north.

Once our itinerary is fixed in our minds, our execution is still prone to pitfalls. No error is so ignominious to an eager canoeist as parking the canoe vehicle downstream, then driving the shuttle car back to the preplanted canoe, only to find oneself literally up the creek without a paddle, having left those helpful appurtenances in the Point-B vehicle.

One summer, when Ken and I were in footrace trim, we streamlined our procedure by planting the canoe, driving downriver together, parking the minivan, then running the eight road miles back to Point A.

Jogging along, we savored the prospect of pushing off in the canoe, shedding socks and shoes, and dangling tired toes in cool water.

Not only would our float seem the sweeter for this exercise stint, but also since we'd only brought one vehicle, we'd have no pesky Point-A car to reclaim at day's end.

But upon sliding the canoe into the shallows that day, ready to relax and float gently down the stream, it struck us: Where was the thermos of lemonade, the picnic lunch that we'd packed? Ten minutes later, we found said provisions, which I'd hidden a little too well in nearby underbrush.

In the end, they tasted better for our having first faced the prospect of a long, thirsty float trip surrounded by water everywhere yet nary a drop to drink.

This summer, however, we completed our standard shuttling scheme without a hitch. With our canoe's cruise control set on "slow," courtesy of the placid current, we floated through idyllic surroundings, content on this fine summer day to contend with whatever came along, or didn't.

Painted turtles sunned themselves on fallen logs. Orioles and buntings made sorties overhead, singing as they went. We craned our necks skyward to admire them, only to be startled back to earth, as it were, by smallmouth bass splashing just inches from our indolent, trailing paddles.

As always, early in our trip, a lone, great blue heron rose with soundless grace from overhanging branches just ahead, as if he were being lifted by invisible strings. The gangly bird glided southward, out of sight, then reappeared on a new perch as we rounded the bend. He repeated his routine periodically for the duration of our trip, as if to say, "Right this way, folks; just follow me."

Hours later, when our white minivan beckoned mutely through the trees at the take-out point, our hearts sank slightly, then settled. We'd enjoyed our float trip, but it would be good to get home.

Clambering ashore, we loaded the boat, drove upriver to retrieve the shuttle car, then headed for home.

We sometimes talk about renting a second canoe and inviting friends (and their helpful car) to join us. This would allow Ken and me to ride to and from the river together. But it seems we prefer drifting down this lovely, peaceful stretch of river unaccompanied - except for our self-appointed navigator, the flappable heron.

I haven't told him his assistance is superfluous, since the winding river will never steer us wrong. I'm hoping that one of these times, he will offer to airlift us back to Point A.

Elizabeth Weber

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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