Blind Man’s Bluff

Another rolling wave lifts the stern (and my heart) and starts to swing us
around. I drag hard with my paddle to keep us in line, thinking that the
once-far shore is coming up, and a choice will have to be made before then –
in the breakers is no place to be trying to turn around. This is the easy
part, as the strong tailwind blows on our backs as if on sails and piles the
lake up into Pacific Ocean rollers, smooth and long, with enough amplitude to
rest between them. As they get to shore, though, they compress, the next
one’s kinetic energy too committed to pause for the last one’s encounter
with land, and they break upon the rocks in a churning soup, an ingredient of
which I want to avoid being. So, much as I dread turning sideways to these
waves, I shout to Dan in the bow my intentions and begin.

What must he be thinking? Arguably, the stern paddler has the most control,
and my size and strength concretely ratify this concept. And given my
weight, there’s no question about my paddling stern – I’ve only been bow
once in my life, but that’s entirely another story. Dan may have experience
in both positions, but his back is a very familiar sight to me, as the
exposed view from the bow must be for him. Behind us, Mark Queijo has my
view of Michael, and Michael Dan’s view of the water (Mr. Schreiber is our
passenger, but more on that later). If Dan is thinking about our maneuver,
he must have a trust in me that is for me more parts weight than comfort.
Not that it means he abdicates control – I know Dan knows he’s a vital part
of our waterborne partnership – but he must somehow reconcile himself with a
rather one-sided relationship. I can shout instructions to him more easily
than he to me, and I am strong enough to overwhelm most of his divergent
maneuvers should we independently act on differing opinions about how to

Part of my mind is on Dan’s state of mind, which I hope is oblivious, not to
the conditions, but to the concerns I project onto him. The rest of me is
engaged in equal parts wry self-deprecation (“How’d we decide this was a
good idea?”), and in evaluating the limited degree of relevant practice we
have together, the foggy sense I have of the skills Dan and I have to bring
to whatever conditions confront us. A lousy time to decide one or both of
you might not be adequate to the conditions. A lousy time to think about
cooperation for the first time today.


Leaving camp that morning was not without the warning signs of weather, but
the island seemed so close, the calm of our lee campsite so beguiling, and
our need for an excursion so acute, that those warning signs seemed mild.
Forgotten, too, was this year’s arrival on this lake, which involved being
blown backwards by a gale-force snow squall that forced us to camp on an
island downriver in the opposite direction from that which led to this lake.
Force of will and denial were inadequate to the forces arrayed against our
reaching said lee campsite on our first day, but perhaps the extremity of the
conditions that so pointedly defined our limits for us that first day
precluded any instructive parallels that later, infinitely milder afternoon.
So much is taken for granted. To our credit, we know this about ourselves.
And also to our credit, we do discuss this. But almost never in the middle
of the situations we later discuss, and certainly never just before getting
into those situations. So here I am about to swing our canoe sideways to
some mighty uppity water, with no sure awareness of our skills, either
individually or collectively.

Many Octobers ago as a complete novice kayaker, I went on a guided day trip
in the ocean waters off Cohasset. I was fine near shore, learning how to
ferry currents, lean into breaking waves coming across the boat sideways,
surf a little those breakers headed for shore. But when our guide turned us
out to the open ocean and that day’s five-foot seas, I was gripped by fear, a
nd though I gamely joined in, I was the only one to capsize out there. Four
times. After the fourth dunk and rescue, I was hypothermic and vomiting
despite the wet suit, so our leader towed me to shore with a volunteer
steadying my boat. After lunch, I remained shivering on the shore while the
rest went out and played in the tidal rips and visited the lighthouse that
had been our original destination. They picked me up on the way home and
were all very kind.

Looking back, I’m quite clear that fear was my basic problem. I was so
afraid of capsizing that I was stiff and resistive to the water. I tried to
balance like a tightrope walker when a challenging swell passed. The
critical lessons learned that day were to breathe through the fear and try to
keep some fluidity in my body, and most importantly, a paddle in the water is
the surest means of balance and counterbalance. The secondary lesson of
leaning into waves is not universally applicable, but all three were on my
mind as we negotiated our turn in order to head back into the waves away from
shore and round the peninsula to our right, hopefully into calmer waters.

Page (not chapter) 3

Dan does his bit, adding muscle and momentum, watching for rocks. I switch
from mere steering to hard sweeps to bring us around, keeping my body low in
the boat and trying to feel the water, focusing hard on what’s rolling
towards us and letting my peripheral senses monitor our own attitude. My
occasional shouted commands to Dan to switch sides must telegraph some of my
tension, but we both manage a pretty smooth transition, and we’re now headed
into, or at least across, the oncoming waves. I risk a look over at Michael
and Mark, now beginning the same process.

No way to tell from a distance if they’re feeling any tension. They’re both
easygoing, natural paddlers, and I’ve been through some challenging water
with Michael. I wouldn’t have reason to expect him to be tense -- he had not
yet written his short piece, “Christmas Trees”, which gives voice to some of
the concerns I’ve wondered if I were alone in having when paddling rough
water that is well below 50 degrees. However, despite “Christmas Trees” and
a couple of memorable canoe disasters since, for me he will always embody the
aplomb he had standing in his underwear on a rock in the middle of the Moose
River one October 15 years ago when we failed to negotiate a pretty
impossible rip and found ourselves hung on a rock over a four-foot drop.
Unable to free ourselves, he clambered to the stern, stripped, pushed me over
the drop, and fought the current to shore, then ran through the woods to
where I waited with his clothes arrayed in sequence. That story deserves
better than that, but it conveys the presence of mind and fortitude of will I
know I can count on. Still, I move our canoe forward only enough for
stability, waiting to make sure Mike and Mark manage the transition well.

Waiting for each other. Staying in touch visually, verbally. Not one of our
strengths. On placid rivers, when one party stops to photograph something,
or to drift in silent contemplation, gaps open up between canoes that don’t
concern me. The lead boat will wait after awhile. But on open lakes, where
capsized paddlers might need instant aid to avoid hypothermia, we should stay
closer than we often do. Another thing we know and have talked about. To
the best of my knowledge, none of has ever capsized a canoe, and certainly
not in these conditions, but we arguably put ourselves in peril of it with
some regularity. The weather changes so fast out on these lakes that it’s
almost unavoidable, and you’d think people who come out here would have that
particular skill set well practiced. And would never abandon each other.