Apparently, I cannot get into a canoe without tipping it over. I'm famous for it. I dumped my wife of only a few weeks into the boggy waters of a swamp on her very first time in a canoe. (It says a lot for her that she did not hold that forever against me, as we have canoed together since.)
Then there's my friend Ross. I got out. He was in the stern. The canoe tipped over. He got good and wet. My brother Gus was more fortunate. He held the canoe while I got in, maneuvered myself to the stern seat, sat down, and tipped over. And this in the very same canoe I'd canoed in successfully since a child.
I'm OK in other small boats. Well, pretty OK. There was one trip in my son Paul's kayak, successful right up to - though not including - the very end. Apparently, the moment of truth is the getting in and the getting out.
My father was a great canoeist. I've seen pictures of him poling up rapids, smiling a jaunty smile. My sister and I were taken on countless camping trips when we were growing up. We were taught how to canoe, how to walk on slippery rocks without falling down, and how to cook on a campfire without burning the hash or spilling the coffee pot. Toast never tasted so good, and trout crisping in the pan for breakfast was a culinary treat unmatched by anything at The Four Seasons.
We canoed across lakes (the wind seemed always against us), down rocky streams, and back up them again. Usually, I was in the bow and my mother and sister chatted behind me, packed in among the gear and groceries.
Or we'd go for the day to Tunk Lake or Flanders's Pond or Spring River. We'd picnic, swim, and turn the canoe over and dive under it. We were always surprised to find all that air, always slightly spooked by the dimness of the light and how loud your voice sounded when you talked or shouted.
My father taught me how to fish for trout in a canoe. We'd leave when it was still dark, the canoe tied down on top of the wood-paneled station wagon, two burlap cylinders stuffed with straw for it to rest on. The ropes passed through the windows, so you had to untie them before you could get out.
The little brooks we fished in were deep and choked with alders and bushes, and sometimes the fly would have to be flipped forward rather than cast, there was so little room. Only one of us fished at a time. We fished standing up, feet spread wide apart. Neither one of us ever tipped over the canoe.
"Tippecanoe and Tyler too." When I first heard this political slogan (or read it, more likely), I instantly understood it - incorrectly - as describing a game, a form of jousting, played standing up in a canoe. Tyler would be the champion, the Paul Bunyan of canoeists. He would be standing there like Little John, pole grasped before him in both hands, waiting for his opponent to make a move. Thrust. Parry. Thrust. Have at him!
More than likely, it would be the other fellow thrashing about in the water, his canoe bobbing at his side. The thing about Tyler was, that to knock him over, you had to knock over his canoe. They were that bonded. He was like a centaur - half man, half canoe. We tried that game, my friends and I, but without much success. Tyler was a mythic hero. We were only boys.
Nowadays, mostly, I canoe by myself - when I canoe at all. Once placed, I can go on forever - a veritable rock of Gibraltar, stability itself, seated in the bottom of the canoe, knees touching either side, about one-third of the vessel behind me, a small boulder in the bow for ballast.
It's not that people won't canoe with me. I've already mentioned my wife's willingness. It's easier, that's all, to go it alone than to round up someone. Less chance of tipping over, too, I suppose.