by Steve on July 9, 2009

The mournful cry of a loon echoes across the glassy lake as I slip the canoe from the bank into the predawn mist. Just miles from the Atlantic time-zone in the great North Woods it’s not yet five in the morning but the eastern sky is already chasing darkness from the water. Fog curls from the surface teased by air currents seen but not yet mature enough to ripple the water.

The golden wood artfully bent into a graceful curve years ago glistens with morning dew as the hull comes to life under paddle. Dip, pull aft, curl out, slice forward in repetitive cadence turning energy into motion. The rhythm becomes the heartbeat, a controlled balance of thrust and unseen steerage keeping the track straight and true. Muscle memory refines the stroke as my body quits complaining and settles in for another return to the headwaters of the lake.

Dip, pull, curl, slice – one fluid motion. I break the glass with a silent wake that folds back in behind the stern, tracking across open water in the swirling vapor. An eagle soars overhead scanning for his next catch. The sun, not yet hitting the surface, sets his white head in brilliant contrast to a brown body designed by the master of aeronautics. Ahead of the bow he suddenly circles and tucks into a power dive, pulls out at the last moment and swings his talons, dipping for the grab. He pitches up, beating the air, struggling to regain airspeed and altitude with his breakfast: a grand fish that would have filled my pan.

I slip past the rocky point that marks the entrance to the marshy flowage and pause long enough to shed a layer. The sun has cleared the hill and my efforts have overcome the morning chill. Flowage, the fishing grounds, a place full of life where the food chain is visible and real. Bait fish feed in the shallow plant-rich marsh in constant alert to predators lurking above and below. A few casts along the fringes of the beds result in a mean strike as a toothy Pickerel mistakes my lure for a bait fish. After a short but energetic fight I reel the fish to my side but as I reach he makes one last play, slaps the side of the canoe and disappears.

The channels of open water winding through the marsh reveal surprises at every bend. Ducks blast off from hidden nests. A muskrat peers curiously from his swim, beavers slap the water in warning, and what initially appears to be the sun-bleached roots of a dead stump swings up from the forage. I drift in silent respect watching the old bull moose feed. Judging from the hump of his shoulders and spread of his antlers he has survived several winters. He feeds his way to the bank and with a last look over his shoulder, silently drifts into the trees. Not a sound as the giant slides from sight.

Paddle gives way to pole as the muck turns to rocky bottom too shallow for the blade. Trees and rocky banks close in as marsh narrows to stream. I pull over a beaver dam into a different world using pole and paddle to navigate up the small stream. Too soon it chokes down and the bugs attack. The current carries me back out of the woods reversing my path. Returning to the marsh I find a perfect landing spot on a rocky hump of high ground and slip the canoe between the boulders. A few trees have taken hold in the decaying material and their roots have enveloped boulders searching for something softer to sink into. I lay back against the sun-warmed granite and listen to the sound of the building breeze as it plays through the trees and grass knowing inevitably that it will be in my face when I have to cross open water. But I’m not ready to leave just yet. My mind ponders thoughts of being in a place where quite possibly no other human has been for decades. Was the last canoe to find this spot made of birch bark? The lake and the river that it feeds both carry the same Indian name on the older maps. There is no sign of human encroachment within view of this small piece of high ground and it doesn’t take much imagination to travel back in time. It’s the wooden craft that brought me here.

The timeless grace of a wooden canoe carries me back to my childhood reuniting me with the water, wind, and surrounding forest. The materials for the canoe came from these woods, it was built to travel the waterways within them, and its basic design traces back to a people that lived a balanced existence taking only what they needed from the land that sustained them. There’s a history in the ribs and planking that can’t be derived from plastic or metal.

Dip, pull, curl, slice. I glide back past the rocky point into the open water and shift my weight toward the center of the canoe kneeling in the curve of her ribs to balance fore and aft, lean her on her lines, and get the most efficient power out of my stroke against wind and wave. As it always seems to be when paddling, the wind is in my face. I track toward the microwave tower on the far hill that marks the final turn toward the camp.

As I lift the canoe from the water I hear the sounds of breakfast coming from the cramped kitchen. Muscles release from the return crossing as I stretch the stiffness from them.

“Where did you go so early?” she asks with a knowing smile.

17' Wetmore


Mom July 9, 2009 at 19:13

Are you really up in Maine or were you dreaming?
Thanks for including my rock in the picture.

Kath July 10, 2009 at 8:03

You parents don’t cut you a lot of slack, do they? 😉

I thought it was a nice story. Altho, now, of course, there is the question — where are you? You didn’t seriously drive from — is it Alabama? — to Maine???

Steve July 10, 2009 at 15:24

I have made the drive from AL to ME a few times, once in the old CJ-7. You have to stay a few weeks to make it worth it but if you’re not in a hurry it can be quite a road trip – plenty of things to see along the way if you avoid the I-95 corridor. With friends and family scattered all over I have plenty of places to take a day off the road. Really, it beats commercial air travel and I haven’t won the lottery yet so piloting my own way isn’t financially reachable.

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