My son was in crisis. He would shortly begin middle school and had conjured up all sorts of threatening scenarios to rationalize his dread of this big step.
"Some of the teachers are mean," he said, as if speaking from experience. "And what if I don't know where to go?"
To these dire concerns were appended the fear of bullies, not knowing when to eat lunch, and an urban legend about getting detention for dropping your calculator.
What encouragement could I offer? "You'll do fine," I told him. "Just the way you did fine when you started elementary school." I knew these were hollow words, with no power to dispel the image of fire-breathing teachers stalking the hallways in search of malingerers.
I offered to take Anton for a canoe ride – my universal antidote for any and all concerns. The Penobscot River is right in our backyard and is especially lovely during these late afternoons of early September, when the river has slowed to a crawl and the sun glints off a surface as placid as glass.
But Anton wasn't biting. "You're just trying to make me feel better," he said, as if accusing me of a felony.
Well, he was right. I was trying to make him feel better. I knew his fears of middle school were unfounded, and I knew that his first few days there would demonstrate to him that he was in a good and affirming place and that all would be well. But communicating this seemed impossible.
"Come out with me," I urged him again, and he relented.
I held the canoe as Anton climbed in. Once aboard, he oriented himself to the river, always fascinated, as young boys are, by the creatures it harbors. Rivers are dark, and dark places hide things. Here in Maine, these things are known as snapping turtles. There are also lamprey eels and the occasional garter snake, an excellent swimmer.
As if these hobgoblins weren't enough, I once saw a hairy wolf spider as big as a child's fist, hitching a ride on a piece of wood, its eight eyes sparkling as if they were tiny black pearls.
In actuality, one rarely sees these cryptic beings, and the stunning beauty of the Penobscot allays fears of what lies beneath. Who in possession of a canoe would not want to set out on this meandering ribbon of water, its banks lined with white birches and silver maples?
Who wouldn't want to paddle under a sky in which swallows dip and soar, and ospreys and bald eagles glide in search of bass and perch?
Hesitating to go canoeing on a river because of its creepy mysteries is like refusing to enjoy the cultural benefits of a city because of the crime rate.
I took one paddle and handed the other to Anton. Setting one foot in the canoe, I pushed off from shore with the other, the way a kid propels a scooter. The canoe moved out onto the river as smoothly as a puck on wet ice. The experience was made sweeter by the realization that there wasn't another soul on the water. We had the Penobscot all to ourselves.
The only question was, where to explore. The shaded bank? The midchannel? One of the feeder streams? We decided to visit a small island, really no more than a large, rounded rock, from which we could watch the sunset.
We put in neatly on the shoreward side of the island and clambered out of the canoe, which I pulled partway onto dry rock, as there was no place to tie up.
Then we went over and sat on the river side to take in the scene before us. The waning sunlight skirted the tops of the trees like orange frosting.
Anton reiterated his apprehensions about middle school. "I'm not going to like it," he concluded, to which I replied, "Sometimes we have to do things we don't think we're going to like."
Anton was skeptical. "Like what?" he probed. But I was spared the specifics when my son's eyes flew open. "Look!" he said, pointing out over the water.
The only thing I could compare the feeling to is the experience of reaching for one's wallet and finding an empty pocket. I squinted in the fading light and there it was, our red canoe, gliding silently downriver.
Some gentle swell, perhaps conspiring with a gust of wind, had set it on its way. It had only two passengers, our paddles.
Anton threw me a worried look. "Now what are we going to do?" he fretted.
Indecision was not an option. There was nobody else on the water, and no homes within shouting distance. In addition, the canoe was only drifting farther away with each passing moment.
Standing there in my life jacket, I looked down at the dark water. I kicked off my shoes and waded in.
"Dad!" shouted Anton. "There are snapping turtles down there!"
"Yes, I know," I told him. "And eels and spiders. Despite these horrors, we must get the canoe."
Having made my speech, I entered the water and swam after our lifeboat. The river was chilly at first, not to mention eerie. But I was nothing if not focused.
I managed to reach the canoe without incident, thereby assuring Anton's appointment with his middle school destiny. I'm happy to report that this, too, went off without a hitch.