photo of mourning doves


We had just bought the Titanic of canoes. It had one of the widest bottoms we’d ever seen and was designed to be unflippable and unflappable in even the roughest rapids. With quarter-inch gashes on the underside and innumerable scratches and scrapes, it was obvious that the previous owners had given it a thorough testing. But the canoe still had one last tribulation to survive: my dad.

My dad is infamous for his homemade handiworks. If it can’t be found at a thrift store or a Wal-Mart, he’ll make it himself. Sometimes, even if he can find it cheap, he’s sure he can build it in his garage for less. A good example was my first basketball hoop. It was a spokeless bicycle rim nailed to a scrap of plywood. He only let us play with it using a toy ball, for fear an actual basketball might break it.

Now, with the arrival of the canoe, my dad moved from children’s playthings to more important matters: men’s playthings. More specifically, an anchor.

My dad and I had always enjoyed bass fishing on the lazy Illinois River. We would get our canoe parallel to the bank, and then he’d pick up his rod and cast his favorite purple rubber worm somewhere that looked “fishy.” But there was a problem. Right after the cast, a rock or submerged tree limb always seemed to pop up to threaten our canoe’s well-being. Whenever this happened, my dad would speed-reel in his lure, drop the rod, grab the paddle, and narrowly avert disaster. After about the fifth time my dad had to retrieve his worm at Mach 5 just to avoid a log, he got a little perturbed. Dad went home that time frowning and fishless, swearing revenge on that dastardly river and its “raging” currents.

He grumbled over the idea of how he could stop the river from flowing, and then wisely moved on to the more rational question of how he could stop us from moving downstream. And the anchor obsession began. “If you want something made right, you have to make it yourself” is his rule. And as the world’s biggest pack rat when it came to construction materials, my dad had plenty to work with.

To begin his uber-anchor, he chose an assortment of old segments of lead gas pipes that he’d scavenged over the years. He fiddled with the different elbows and fittings, and eventually the earth’s ugliest and most awkward anchor began to take shape. It had started out looking like any normal anchor, with one long prong flanked by two shorter ones. But this traditional design bored him. He took the two outside prongs and bent them at opposing 45-degree angles, creating what from the side looked like an arrow, pointing downward. With this dad-certified anchor, we set out again, armed to take on the roaring Illinois River.

It was a fine spring day when we paddled to the testing grounds for my dad’s new weapon. He picked the deepest spot he could find, chucked the anchor overboard, let the slack out, and grabbed his rod. He got off a few triumphant casts and grinned as he bobbed his purple rubber worm through the water at his own pace. But it wasn’t long before trouble popped up like one of his hated logs. The anchor line tied to the back of our canoe was getting progressively tighter. Apparently, the anchor itself was firmly snagged on something on the bottom of the river, and it was dragging the back of the boat down as the current pulled us forward. The nose of the canoe started lifting higher, boosting both my end of the boat and my anxiety.

“Dad, look! We’re about to capsize!” The waterline was about 4 inches from spilling into the back of our canoe.

“I’ll get it, just cool your horses,” he said, pulling and tugging at the wayward weight. The water in the Illinois is very muddy, so my dad couldn’t see the bottom and where or on what the anchor was caught. It had just rained, so the water was running faster than usual, and the gap between our dryness and a lot of wetness was quickly narrowing. Three inches. Then two.

“Dad, just cut the line and let’s go! This isn’t worth it!”

“I got it, just hold on!” he shouted, and by some miracle the anchor came loose and he hauled it back in.

Thinking he had learned his lesson, I started to relax, hoping to enjoy the remainder of the trip. But a mere 20 minutes later, my dad reminded me exactly who I was with on this trip by plopping the anchor right back into the water. I think it was Churchill who said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” He had obviously gone fishing with my dad. Once again the water came closer and closer to the edge of the canoe. Finally, my dad’s voice of reason kicked in, my screams of terror singing backup, and he cut the line, millimeters before our untimely demise.

So today, somewhere at the bottom of the Illinois River sits a submerged, jury-rigged anchor. And on the surface right above it is my dad. Alone. Trying to canoe and fish at the same time.