Escape in a bubbling, burbling little boat

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half as much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Ratty's comment, which I lifted straight out of Kenneth Grahame's classic "Wind in the Willows," is right on the button. And let's get this cleared right up front: Neither Ratty nor I are talking about big boats. Forget cruise liners. Being imprisoned in one of those monsters, being ferried with thousands of other "fun" seekers from one overcrowded port to another, seems to me an appalling fate that, apart from a few dreadful Atlantic crossings decades ago, I have diligently managed to avoid. [Editor's note: The original version misattributed Ratty's comment.]

But little boats ... now they are something else altogether.

My grandson Cullen and I, for instance, have just been searching for Captain Bluebeard's pirate treasure. We're using Bluebeard's map of nearby Mosquito Island (a "parchment" document discovered, amazingly, in our kitchen and now safely wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag.) On it, of course, "X" marks the spot where the fabulous treasure was buried.

We boarded our pirates' clipper - a two-person kayak - at our dock. With lusty pirate songs of "Ho, ho, ho, off we go, to search for treasure on Mosquito...." powering our paddles, we churned out across the "Spanish Main" to "Bluebeard Landing" on the tiny, uninhabited island. After sorting out north from south and determining which was the "Great Hemlock Tree" and which was the "Clump of Berried Bushes," Cullen unearthed the treasure trove - buried in 1802 and inauspiciously wrapped in supermarket plastic bags.

Another heave-ho paddle back across the "Spanish Main" to the dock, and Cullen was playing with Bluebeard's bubble gun and sucking the good pirate's remarkably well- preserved lollipop. As evening set in, the young man drove (with close supervision) Poppa's battered old motorboat back to his parents' place a mile away.

Earlier, we had taken two other grandsons tubing on a breezy, wavy day. Conrad proved adept at holding on as the "Screamer" tube, tied to a line and pulled by Poppa's boat, bounced over the waves. He and Andrew rode together in similar style.

Poppa was subjected to the same treatment, rediscovering just how fast the water seems to fly by when it's two inches from your nose, and remembering how his wife once pulled him at what felt like 100 m.p.h. while his sister, theoretically "the spotter," laughed so hard she forgot to relay his frantic "slow down" signals to the boat driver.

Then there are those early mornings when an utterly still lake perfectly reflects pink clouds and rising sun as your paddle dips silently into a translucent world, and loons watch unworried as you glide by.

Yes, Ratty was onto something for sure. It takes a lot to beat messing about in boats. Yet it's only fair to warn you that Ratty neglected to mention one not-insignificant point: Boats can be like those famous Florida sinkholes when it comes to money.

If they're new, even little motorboats can cost a fortune upfront. If they're old, they still cost a fortune over time. Batteries fade, starters falter, outboard motors fall off (it was a rather large wave that upended us), windshields shatter (another rather large wave), ancient seals decay (we noticed it just before the boat sank), lake ice forces boats into marina-profit-generating storage, and heavy docks need teams of muscled young men in wetsuits to remove them each winter and rebuild them each spring. Such financial sinkholes seem to get deeper every year.

But, all in all, Ratty was right. When the news is grim, politicians are feuding, and the economy is sputtering; when all the dismal events the media can find come flooding in at the twist of a TV dial, then the time has come to escape to a rebalancing of life in a bouncing, bubbling, burbling little boat.

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