Goodbye, Canoe

This small boat held a lot of memories

I just watched my old Mad River Explorer—the one with the dope-smoking rabbit at the center of the logo—roll down the road atop somebody else’s car. It was time. I hadn’t put it in the water for over a year. I’m moving to a smaller place with a smaller yard. And I don’t feel particularly secure with a 75-pound canoe on my shoulders. I put it on Craigslist and threw in accessories: foam roof blocks, two wooden Sawyer paddles, two plastic paddles (“Have the kids use these,” I wrote), two L.L. Bean Sit Backer canoe seats, and a set of nylon tie-down straps. It went for my asking price of $500.

I’d had it for two decades and through three used cars and a bunch of girlfriends. I loved that thing. It always looked like God’s entry in a boat-building contest: elegant, restrained, embodying everything needed for the purpose and nothing that wasn’t. Nothing to rust out, no moving parts, timeless. True, the original cane seats were more elegant than functional, but I replaced them long ago with a kit that used nylon strapping. At some point, I decided to bulletproof it with skid plates fore and aft. I remember roughing up the hull with sandpaper, fitting and cutting the oblong strips, the smell of the brain-cell-destroying resin, and the satisfaction I got from knowing no amount of hard landings on beaches would be the death of my boat.

I remember a three-day trip down the New River with a girl I was quite serious about at the time. I misjudged a rapid, and the next thing I knew we’d gone over, gear floating downstream, the boat itself wrapped under boulders just below the surface. I figured it was done for and that we would have to find a way to hike out through the snakes and poison ivy. But about then, three newly minted U.S. Marines, young and leather-lean, rounded the bend upstream in their own canoe. Seeing the situation, they stopped, jumped in, and began manhandling boulders upstream of the boat. Suddenly the thing popped free like a cork and uncrumpled to its original shape.

I remember the time we were at the lake and Emma wouldn’t get into my boat or anyone else’s. We’d recently watched a National Geographic documentary together about Gustave, a huge croc who lived at the northern end of Lake Tanganyika and was thought to have eaten 300 people over the years. Gustave had three old bullet scars, but they didn’t seem to have slowed him down. Towards the end of a trip, some French scientists had tried to catch him in a 30-foot-long steel trap that weighted nearly 20,000 pounds and was baited with a live goat. The next morning the cage was bent horribly, the goat was gone, and they went home. Which meant that Gustave could be anywhere. No way, Daddy.

The guy who bought the canoe showed up in a Suburban. He said he wanted to use it at the beach house he’d just bought 70 miles down the Potomac. He’d never had a boat atop his car and couldn’t tie a bowline to get started. Maybe he’d never been in a canoe. I strapped it on for him, tied trucker’s hitches to the front and back bumpers, and told him to check the straps and ropes every 10 miles.

And then I watched 20 years’ worth of memories and dreams roll down the road on his car, sliding away and out of my life just like a river does.