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Paddling together, lessons from family canoeing

August 21, 2012

Paddling Together:  Lessons from Family Canoeing

as published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

We finally bought a canoe. Three years ago, when leaving our adventurous mountain lifestyle in Colorado, my wife, Lori, and I fantasized about family canoeing near our new home in water-abundant New England. So, it wasn’t exactly an impulse-buy.

It’s a 15-foot, forest green fiberglass model, ringed from bow to stern by aluminum gunwales, and sporting two padded seats, skillfully crafted by the Bateaux St-Maurice boat manufacturer in Quebec, Canada, 25 years ago. It’s a beauty.

Still, shortly after our purchase I experienced buyer’s remorse.

Our purchase included four fitted, foam blocks that sit between the aluminum rails of the upside down canoe and the roof of our car. Unfortunately, our car’s roof rack is about 2 inches narrower than the beam of the canoe. So, with the foam blocks riding a bit off balance, they produce road noise whose pitch and volume is akin to nails on a chalkboard through a megaphone. By simply lashing a couple of cedar 2-by-2s across the roof rack, and using some old carpet scraps for padding, I devised an inexpensive solution to this auditory torture.

Along with the foam blocks came a set of specialized straps, which appear strong enough to hold down a load of bricks on a flatbed truck. They have steel S-shaped hooks that connect the bow and stern to the undersides of the car. The straps were apparently developed when automobiles were still made primarily from metal. While the back of our car has one metal tow loop, ideal for the strap’s hook, the front of our car, top and bottom, is made of molded plastic, safety tested no doubt.

Perplexed, I did a Google search and learned that I could place the two bow hooks through metal framing under the engine’s hood. This worked perfectly, the first three trips. The next time, when I attempted to remove the straps the hood would not budge. One of the hooks had shifted during transport and was jammed in the hood lock. For $90 our mechanic put the car up on a lift, disassembled part of the front end, unjammed the lock and, for no additional charge, kindly suggested I find a different place for the canoe strap.

As we imagined, the canoe, once it’s in the water, has offered a new and exciting way to engage our family in outdoor adventure. The kids are ecstatic from the moment we all don our life-jackets. From their cushion-seats on the floor their fingertips skim the surface as we glide passed lily pads and rushes. Peering into the depths they marvel as we pass over submerged rocks and logs. Up on their knees they spot jumping fish, waterfowl, and even five baby river otters loping along the shoreline.

Unexpectedly, canoeing has also been good for our relationship. Lori and I learned quickly that paddling a canoe together requires as much coordination as muscle. Being clear and consistent with our communication allows us to power, steer and make mid-course adjustments with a degree of rhythm and grace, most of the time.

Recently, while Lori was attending a weekend professional conference, I paddled with the kids on the calm morning water of the Long Island Sound. From the beach, we rounded the lighthouse and entered the harbor where the kids celebrated a water-level view of yachts and sailboats galore. The highlight was passing under a steel bridge, where we looked up through the metal grates to see and hear cars pass over us.

Steering proved surprisingly easy. I quickly made adjustments without the need to coordinate with another paddler and managed to hold a fairly steady course. But on the return, with a sea breeze in our face and the wake of boat traffic building, I was working hard to propel our craft through the harbor channel and along the shoreline.

While Lori and I know that practicing skillful communication with each other requires ongoing attention, when paddling a canoe and raising a family, two of us pulling in the same direction is much easier than paddling alone. This reminder is worth far more than the price of the canoe, including the mechanic’s bill.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    August 22, 2012 1:50 pm

    Hey John,
    Someone just suggested to our family that canoeing is a great way to actually get into the backcountry with kids (since they don’t have to carry huge backpacks). My next task is getting the thing strapped onto our car– thanks for the inspiration!

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