The best trips aren't always smooth sailing

'OK," my husband said. "You say we don't do enough together; well, I've got a great plan for us for Saturday." He handed me a slick, colorful brochure featuring a laughing couple, oars in hand, rowing down a river.

"A canoe trip?" I asked, incredulously. "Have you forgotten so easily?"

I winced, remembering our only canoe experience several years back. Twenty-five years of marriage had all but unraveled by the time we returned our boat.

"This is different," he said. "It's kayaking, not canoeing, and I've reserved us separate kayaks."

"How is that doing something as a couple?" I asked.

"We'll be near each other. Just look at the brochure."

The day of the trip, a small van deposited eight of us at a site on Florida's Hillsborough River. There, an instructor waited, ready to tell us how to use the kayaks and also what sort of wildlife to look for on the river. "You'll see herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, otters, badgers, and lots of gators," he said.

"No badgers on this river," the man next to me whispered, but I was focused only on the gators. Where would they be when we saw them?

"Remember," the instructor said, "push backward to the right if you want to turn left, and vice versa."

With the life jacket propping up my back and a straw hat pulled down just short of my eyes, I began to row slowly and with little difficulty. My husband was just ahead of me. "This isn't hard," I thought, relieved. I had only one long oar to maneuver, alternating left, then right.

"Watch the log," my husband called back. Proudly, I skirted around it and rowed on, noting several curve-beaked ibises and a great blue heron off to the right, sitting in a tree. "How lovely," I thought. "It's a bit warm, but so rich in wildlife."

"Gator!" he called back. Staring straight ahead, I saw what looked like a muddy tire tread with eyes, blocking my husband's boat. Suddenly, the gator submerged itself, and my husband paddled on.

I noticed several other gators sunning themselves along the bank, but they seemed disinterested in me. Where, I wondered, were the other people from the van? I was hot, covered with small gnat-like insects, and totally alone. I paddled faster.

Up ahead, I caught a glimpse of my husband, navigating through a series of small logs and rocks. The river had narrowed.

Paddling left to turn right didn't work smoothly for me. "Physical coordination has never been my strong suit," I thought, remembering my frustration in aerobics classes when our feet did one thing and our arms another. I'd finally dropped out.

Suddenly, a huge log appeared, almost totally blocking the narrow passage. My husband had stopped there. "I don't think we can do this," he said, eyeing the thickness of the log and the dearth of free passage around it. "We'll have to get out and push the kayaks under, then get back in."

"OK," I said. "It's not deep."

"You go first," he said; "Let's push the boat under, and I'll help you get back in."

That sounded easy enough, but my coordination failed me again. As I tried to get out of the boat, it slid away from me and tipped over. My efforts to grab it, as my husband held my other hand, left me thigh deep in mud, and I started sinking deeper.

My husband, who had righted my boat and pushed it under the log, now pushed his own kayak under. We finally climbed over the log and fell back into our kayaks.

"Stay close behind me," he said, carefully folding his 6-ft.-4-in. frame back into the small boat. But within minutes of rowing, I knew I'd lost control of the boat; there was too much water in the bottom.

My husband vanished. "Great way to spend time together," I thought.

As I crashed from rock to rock, spiraling around in the freewheeling kayak, I watched two women from the van approach our nemesis, the thick log. After only one glance, each to the other, they flattened themselves out on their backs, reached up their hands to push themselves under the log, sat up, and continued rowing smoothly up the river. I was soaking wet and filthy, and they had floated under the log with such ease! Grounded on a sandy bank, I sulked, fighting off tears.

"Maybe we can help you," said a soft voice off to my side. A young couple, paddling in one kayak - the first thing I noticed, of course - came aground and then, knee-deep in mud themselves, offered to upend my boat and get the water out.

"I'm so grateful to you," I said. "My husband must be wondering why I'm so slow."

After emptying my little boat, they held it while I got in, pushed me off, and then, effortlessly, reclaimed their own kayak and paddled away. "It's OK," the woman called back. "It's the least we could do."

IT didn't take long to realize that this act of compassion had been the best part of the trip. I slapped at several mosquitoes and set off as quickly as I could, praying there'd be no more giant logs to battle before I reached our pickup point.

"We'll have to try it again," my husband said that evening. "You can't let one mishap turn you away from something that might turn into a good husband-wife activity."

"Only one request," I said. "Whether we stay afloat or sink into the mire, let's try it in the same boat next time."

Looking at me with a sly smile, he said, "Or maybe we should just go to Blockbuster and rent 'Ship of Fools.' "

Maybe he's right.

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