Different Strokes

by Melinda Nye

The journey begins in a neighbor's garage. He wipes the cobwebs off two personal flotation devices while you stare at a long, ungainly thing with stained, leaf-strewn seats. In an apparent effort to fool ducks, your neighbor spray-painted the exterior a hideous camo-color. "What do you want it for?" he asks. "To stay dry." He responds by throwing two PFDs in the canoe. For the next fifteen minutes said neighbor rambles on about heat-tempered alloys and rivets, before digressing into a spiel about plasticcore and vinyl and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene and ultraviolet light. At last he switches to English and pats the canoe. "That's why I bought aluminum. It's almost indestructible. Only one downside. It sticks to rocks." Imagining boulders on the Colorado River, you let that comment go.

A few days later, you stand by an access point to a broad but quiet stream. A firm believer in the buddy system, you've brought along Your Beloved. Sunglasses, dry bags with sandwiches and cookies, hats, paddles and seat cushions lie in the canoe. Two wear-at-all-times flotation devices are already buckled on. You are suited up and ready to rock 'n roll. This stream won't ­ you honestly believe ­ warrant lessons. Clearly unconvinced, YB frowns. You point at the slow-moving water and insist there will be no need to learn the difference between the bang plate and the bilge, or riffles, rips and rapids. Together you lift the canoe from the truck with the serenity born of utter ignorance. There is one thing you need to know...

You Can't Do This

Not the way you've imagined. Not the first time. You have forgotten a key dynamic. This craft demands that two minds (and bodies) function as one. The two of you can't even agree on how to load a dishwasher. "Hop in front." "Where's the front?" YB asks. You choose the seat with the greatest distance to the nearest pointy end, which is almost the last correct thing you will do that morning. YB pulls the boat around until the front end is farthest from shore and steps in, causing the canoe to rock from side to side. Grabbing the sides, YB crawls to the seat. You wade in, shove off and jump in, causing the canoe to rock even more wildly, and causing a very hard landing on the wood seat. (Pretend THAT didn't hurt.) You and YB reach for the paddles when the canoe scrapes over a submerged rock ­ and grinds to a halt. For the next five minutes, huffing and puffing, the two of you will poke the rock with the paddle and move your weight from side to side until the canoe drifts free.

The next step is to drift into a half submerged bush. Together you push free and are, at last, on your way. YB paddles on the right side, then the left, in a way that seems as mindlessly erratic as the movements of the waterbugs around the hull. Trying to second guess YB, you too paddle on one side, then the other. The oars become malfunctioning pistons. Any notion about increased efficiency is dispelled by the zig-zagging path in the shore weeds.

As the only one who can appreciate what both parties are doing, you call out strokes. YBs back stiffens but the canoe moves forward as the two of you work in tandem. For the next half hour you practice paddling. The backstroke offers promise, swinging the hull around brilliantly as water gushes around the paddle. Tangled underwater plants fail to trap the canoe. In fact, you have worked things out when YB paddles furiously to the right. The canoe settles on a submerged log. "Why'd you do that?" You ask. "I was trying to avoid it." "Avoid it?" "OK. You sit up front." YB, thankfully, does not say a word about lessons. Five minutes later, the canoe is off the log and, incredibly, you have managed to switch seats. The current swings the canoe sideways. Working furiously, you straighten out the craft as sweat pools under the PFD. Then you turn to comment on the struggle and see YB, binoculars raised, following the flight of a distant bird. All at once it hits you. You've NEVER shared the same work ethic. At that point a crisis looms. What experts call...

The Canoe Fight

The Native Americans had canoe fights. French trappers had canoe fights. ("Sacre bleu, you paddle like my sister.") You stare at YB, who still follows the bird, when a submerged tree rips the paddle from your hands. The ensuing lunge rocks the boat and increases exponentially the chance of using the PFD. The next move is to fall on one's knees. YB drops binoculars and paddles furiously. The small but oh-so-crucial bit of wood spirals downstream to nestle in a fallen tree. YB plows canoe directly into said tree. Branches scrape your face and arms as you retrieve the paddle. Words arise from the bow. YB releases a powerful backstroke as you shout "Wait!" A familiar scraping sound arises from the hull. The canoe doesn't just stick to rocks. It seeks them out and embraces them.

Breathe deeply. Lesser mortals might succumb to The Canoe Fight; instead you slide the canoe off the rock and drift downstream in silence. It is, at least, a sunny spring day. And the excursion is about friendship, love, and the great outdoors. YB says "we're getting good at this," and you both laugh. Together you navigate the bends in the deepening river. The canoe fails to find more rocks; time loses its importance. Your shoulders, arms, and thighs get a good workout. In fact a great workout. YB points out the fish in the waving aquatic plants. A great blue heron lift off from shore with a rude squawk. You propel the canoe onto a beach and rest under a tree. "I could do this again," YB says. "This is nice." It is. The sandwiches and cookies are dry and the drinks are still cool. You pretend the paddle is a banjo and serenade YB, who laughs. The fantasy that got you out on the water seems within reach. You both agree to spend the entire summer outside, in a better canoe. With perhaps a lesson or two under your PFDs. You laze around until YB says "shouldn't we be heading back?"

The launch goes smoothly. Working mightily, the two of you point the canoe upstream, when a distressing fact becomes apparent. Having traveled with the current, you must now work exponentially harder to travel against it. The meaning of "portage" (French for "stupid pack mule carrying a boat") becomes terribly clear. The shore that had seemed wooded, cool and laced with footpaths now contains snarled thickets of rhododendron and thorn bushes.

You refuse to sacrifice the earlier happiness. At least you're not lost; a road follows the river. It is time to retreat to the beach, where YB ties the canoe to a tree. You plant a kiss on YBs head and utter sweet, welcome words: "I'll get the car."