Boy Scouts’ canoe trip stirs up stories of Vikings and friends like Huck Finn

“Life sure is easy on a raft, ain’t it Huck?” said Tom Sawyer as he and Huck Finn floated the river.

  • Monday, March 16, 2009 10:00pm
  • Life

“Life sure is easy on a raft, ain’t it Huck?” said Tom Sawyer as he and Huck Finn floated the river.

As Mark Twain’s characters had the river flow, we had the wind. On the last day of our canoe trip, our square-sail rig resembled a Viking ship and we were whisked before the wind without effort. Under a summer sun, sailing our twin-hulled, canoe-catamaran down Forked Lake (pronounced For-ked, like Wic-ked), we were Vikings, braving unknown seas for wealth and adventure. At times the breeze would get stronger and we would leave a wake behind like a speedboat; other times, we ghosted along in a breeze so light we could swim alongside. Nothing could have been more fun.

Our trip leader predicted the fair winds of Forked Lake and he showed us how to rig our canoes as catamarans. We cut poles and lashed them across the two canoes, holding them rigidly parallel and about 1 foot apart. Then we lashed together a tripod mast and from this we hung a crosspiece to hold a plastic tarp attached as a sail.

With a crew of four, one person steered with a paddle while the other three could relax or climb around on the boat, the two hulls making the canoes stable as a barge. We jumped off the boat and swam in the warm waters of the lake as we sailed along, while a rope trailed behind the boat so the swimmers could grab it and be dragged through the water. Sometimes we steered erratically, with the abandon of carefree youth. The ability to make progress toward our goal without the hard work of paddling made us giddy with delight.

This trip, organized by Boy Scout leaders for some of the older scouts (16 years old) in the troop, was the culmination of five years of learning outdoor skills necessary to live outside and, in this case, to travel by canoe through wild country. These skills included fire building, shelter building, camp cooking, stalking, knot tying, axemanship, hiking and navigation with map and compass. In he early 1960s, in rural Connecticut, we did not do “backpacking.” On most of our trips, we drove to a remote cabin where the adults slept, while the kids pitched tents around the cabin and practiced camp skills. My woodsman apprenticeship started at the age of 11 with a difficult trip which was so bad I’m surprised I ever went camping again.

On a cold and rainy weekend, I was teamed with two older scouts and we set up two tents, one for sleeping and a smaller one for equipment. My partners quickly left me alone and, since I was cold and wet, I started to build a fire. Now, I had built many fires in our fireplace at home but what I did not know was that fire building in my living room with dry wood had not prepared me for these conditions. The rain and dampness required sophisticated skills I did not have: how to find dry tinder, kindling and fuel, how to protect it from moisture, how to prepare it properly and turn it into a healthy, possibly life-saving blaze. Today, 40 years later, environmental considerations have relegated campfires to a rare occurrence. Most people use small gas stoves for cooking due to lack of firewood in popular backpacking areas and too many fire pits. Though these low-impact camping techniques are necessary and beneficial, traditional woodcraft skills are important in emergency situations and rewarding in remote regions where the impact of fire building is relatively minimal. Anyway, I had a tough time in the rain that day.

My first real experience with canoes came in Boy Scout Camp that same year. Our camp, called Lake of Isles, was situated in the far northwest corner of Connecticut and, to me, it was big wilderness. At Lake of Isles, scouts learned swimming, lifesaving, canoeing, sailing, woodcarving and many other skills. My best friend Bill bought a woodcarving knife kit in the morning and by afternoon he was covered with bandages on his hands and his legs from carving accidents. For me, boating was the main attraction. Besides canoes and sailboats, there was an old 30-foot lifeboat. Pointed on both ends, weighing more than a ton and 8 feet wide, it was so old that it looked like it had saved some people on the Titanic. Twenty rowers manned the “Cutter” and one evening the grownups called us together to take out the Cutter. We piled in and took our seats at the big oars while our group leader stood in the back, steering and giving orders.

Twenty kids rowing in unison got the heavy boat moving, though the effort seemed like a tractor pull where a tractor tries to pull a giant pile of concrete blocks across the ground. We rowed in a droning rhythm called out by our scout leader. I’m Charlton Heston in “Ben Hur.” Sentenced to the Roman galleys. Chained to the ship, pulling on an oar 100 feet long. With great effort and coordinated pulling, we galley slaves got the boat moving, slowly gaining speed.

We cruised out to the middle of the lake. Finally we were really moving that one-ton tub, speeding along, it seemed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a canoe flew up to the Cutter and turned quickly away. The canoe sliced through the water like a knife and handled like a sports car, able to accelerate quickly and turn on a dime. The Cutter didn’t seem to be going so fast after all. I knew right then, I would become a canoeist. The image of that canoe doing circles around us that evening is still with me.

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that is so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows

Eventually, I got plenty of canoe time on Lake of Isles, learning the famous “J” stroke. With this stroke the paddle is pulled straight back through the water and hooked around to the outside, scribing a “J” in the water. This stroke is used in the stern or back of the canoe to correct the tendency of the boat to turn off to one side while the bow person supplies forward power by pulling the paddle straight back. We also learned the “T” rescue technique. In this maneuver, a canoe is paddled up to one that has flipped and filled with water. Approaching one end of the sunken canoe with the center of the rescue canoe forms the “T.” This formation stabilizes the rescue boat like an outrigger. Then the rescuers rotate the flooded boat so it is upside down and they pull the end of it up over the edge, or gunwale (pronounced GUN-el). It is slowly dragged across the gunwales until it is completely out of the water and balanced. Then it is rolled right side up and slid back into the water. After a training period, I earned my canoe merit badge and wore it proudly.

My scouting career continued and I had my first winter campout when I was 14. There was 4 feet of powder snow on the ground and the temperature was in the teens. My partner was Dave Dorighi, nicknamed Yogi. We set up our tent after packing down the snow. We had pine branches for insulation under our sleeping bags and we built a fire right in front of the canvas tent. It was open in the front and we placed a big, flat-sided slab of wood on the outer side of the fire. This would reflect the heat into the tent and help keep us warm. I placed a log right at our heads as a sort of barrier. We went to sleep, cozy and warm despite the harsh elements. In the middle of the night we awoke with alarm. The fire had burned itself down and the log at our heads was finally burning. Our heads were about to light up! In seconds we were dancing around in deep snow in our underwear. Disaster averted.

That was winter camping and the following year I was the older scout taking younger scouts on winter camping trips. On one trip my buddy Bill and I cooked a fried egg on a rock, just to impress the younger kids. We took a flat rock and scuffed snow over it with our boots to wash off the dirt. We didn’t even take our hands out of our pockets, but just kicked it into place on the fire. When we ate the egg, the dirt and grit crunched between my teeth. The egg was filthy, but the scouts were very impressed.

In 1966, at the age of 16, some of the older scouts in Boy Scout Troop 11 were asked to participate in a three-day canoe-camping trip. We were ready for something more than our regular camping trips. For this trip, we traveled from our homes in Connecticut to the Adirondack Mountains of New York. After a full day drive, we arrived at a rustic lodge at the end of a dirt road. We must have been at the edge of civilization. We were not in Kansas anymore. The lodge had a view of a big lake with several wooded islands lying a quarter mile offshore from a sandy beach and, except for the dirt road, we were surrounded by forest. We entered the lodge and stood beneath big, log roof beams. The floors were shiny with varnish and squeaked when you walked across them and mounted on the wall was a moose head as big as the front end of our family station wagon. A rotating rack of postcards stood near the dining area where we ordered breakfast. Exaggerated by the ambiance of the lodge, the excitement of our beginning adventure and, no doubt, the hormones of adolescence, the waitress seemed very attractive. I had bacon and eggs and felt the hearty appetite of a rugged trapper on his way to the wildlands.

After breakfast we carried the canoes down to the lakeshore and got ready to go. We packed food and clothing in waterproof bags and put them in canvas packs. The gear was loaded in the canoes and everything was tied to the boat with a length of cord. It was tied to the thwart, the cross piece of the canoe and threaded through each piece of baggage and secured at the other end. That would keep our equipment from getting away if we capsized.

The first stretch of paddling took us across part of the lake to a narrow strip of rocky shore separating two lakes. As we neared the spot, we saw there was an opening wide enough to paddle through. Not only that, but there was a current flowing through the opening. Wow! This lake is higher than the next lake. I had never realized that lakes actually went anywhere. The water was flowing off the land to somewhere unknown. Our canoe would take us with the flow and we would find adventure along the way. I now know this is a great metaphor for life, but at the time it was just an exciting realization of the geography around us.

It didn’t take long for the pre-trip euphoria to wear off. Paddling a heavily loaded canoe was hard work. Steering was tricky, too. A slight over-correction sometimes caused swerving. And when I did sweve, Yogi cracked wise. This caused some yelling but it would soon turn to laughter. Actually, we got along fine. It was that great kind of relationship you could have at that age where insults and wisecracks just bounce off with no hard feelings. Just lots of fun.

As we traveled, sometimes Yogi stopped and put the paddle across his lap. Since I was steering, I could not stop because we would go off course. I would yell at him. He would laugh at me and eventually start paddling again. After a while, I got the hang of steering a straight course and we started to look around and enjoy ourselves. We had made it through the day with a few blisters, finally arriving at our camp for the night.

The adults were doing the cooking while we four teens got out the fishing poles and paddled out on the lake. We didn’t catch any fish but when we got back, my buddy, Bill fell out of the boat in six inches of water. The rest of us howled with laughter at his expense. Dinner that night tasted as good as if we had been starving for weeks. The smell of wood smoke from the fire and the day’s efforts made for tremendous appetites. I shoveled the food in like coal into a boiler.

The next morning was more lake paddling, more zigzagging and more goofing around. At lunch, they got out the biggest can of peanut butter I had ever seen and a big can of jelly. I don’t know where they got them, but these cans were not the kind you can buy in a store, but the kind they have in restaurants. We had the boundless appetites of teenage boys. Food “in” equals miles paddled. Again with the shoveling.

In the afternoon, the lake narrowed and we came to a stream flowing out of the lake. We moved right in to the stream and began our first “river” experience. The current was sluggish but it certainly made control of the boat trickier and my course looked like a drunk driver was at the wheel. Yogi was goofing off again and I was yelling at him to get paddling. I was tired and frustrated. He was laughing and resting. It was great fun! After a couple of hours it was time to portage. This means to carry the canoe from one body of navigable water to another. Portaging is hard work but it is what makes the canoe such a wonderful kind of boat. The canoe is light enough to carry, holds plenty of gear and food and so allows long-distance travel in watery country where lakes and rivers are the best avenues.

The packs were unloaded and made ready for carrying through the woods to the next lake. How to carry the canoe? I saw the trip leader take off alone with the canoe balanced upside down on his shoulders. It must be easier with two. Yogi and I got the boat tipped upside down and lifted it over our heads. With one person at each end, the weight was divided between us, but we could not see very well with our heads up inside the boat. Like the two-person horse costume, we were two guys stumbling along, sometimes in different directions. Sweat streamed off my face. Feels like the canoe is cutting into my shoulders. Can’t go much further. The effort was too great and we dropped the boat and fell to the ground in exhaustion. The awkwardness seemed to be the hardest part.

“Hey Yogi! I’m going to try the one-man carry.”

Yogi held up the canoe at one end while I walked underneath. He let it down on my shoulders and I began to walk with the upside down canoe balanced in the center. The load was heavier, but the awkwardness of one person stumbling was less than of two people stumbling. Now I know why the leader did the one-person carry. The techniquie was working and when I got too tired to continue, I tipped the front end of the canoe up and rested it in the crotch of a tree branch. Then I got out from under it and took a rest. When I was ready, I just stooped under the canoe, stood tall, adjusted the balance and walked away, looking like a 17 foot aluminum canoe with legs!

The portage seemed endless. Even though I had discovered the proper carrying technique, the weight was still great and it seemed to be driving me into the ground. I figured I would be about 4 inches shorter by the end of the trail. Yogi took a pack and he got way ahead of me. Portaging had become a solitary experience and I saw Yogi only when he came back down the trail to get another pack. I made one more trip over the trail to get the last pack and we regrouped at the end. Here was our last camp and the evening meal was better than the last.

After dinner we sat by the campfire, staring into the glowing coals. Things on a canoe trip are very simple. You set a goal. Work very hard. Stay warm and dry. Find a place to eat and sleep. And do it again till you get there. I can’t say I saw it on that trip. But now, I see. I see that life is like a canoe trip. We talked about the day’s adventures and about tomorrow’s adventure. Tomorrow we would sail.

That day, so long ago, we sailed Forked Lake like Leif Ericson, the Viking, sailing to the New World. To the end of the lake and the end of our trip we went. I always had it in my mind to go on another canoe trip, but working my way from teen years to adulthood distracted me for a while. A most notable distraction was getting a driver’s license. That little piece of paper spells freedom to a young adult. Little did I realize at the time what feelings of freedom would be mine when I returned to the simple life of a wilderness traveler. Later, I would recapture that feeling of life’s simplicity and life’s possibilities for adventure by going on bigger, longer, more remote canoe trips. That canoe trip to the Adirondacks changed my life. Its secret gift was eternal youth, for now, 37 years later, I am planning several canoe trips. I do this every year and I do it with enthusiasm springing from my memories of a wondrous journey of my youth.

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