I sold my old canoe a few weeks ago. It was unceremoniously hoisted atop the new family’s pickup, money placed in my hand and, with the sound of gravel crunched by tires, off they went. With my old canoe.
I’m happy and sad at the same time. Happy that my old canoe will find new life with a boisterous family who will fill it up with kids and gear for all kinds of adventures. And they won’t have a care in the world, because that old canoe can carry 1200 pounds without blinking.
Happy, because the woman who bought it knew nothing about canoes but, when she saw the photos on Craigslist, felt it would be a good, strong canoe for her grandkids returning from the East Coast to live here. She didn’t want some dinky little plastic thing that wouldn’t do their big family justice. No, she wanted a long, heavy, powerful canoe that had stood the test of time and still had lots of years left. She wanted something they could take out on the Columbia and know that, even if the worst happened and they should capsize, the canoe would float and they’d all be safe, life jackets on every one. Finally, she wanted a boat they could maneuver down beautiful rocky rivers and, even if the current smashed them up against a boulder and wrapped the boat around it, its venerable Royalex hull would bounce back into shape and return to them unscathed.
Yep, this lady wanted a strong, safe, responsive, proven traveling boat that wouldn’t take any crap from anybody.
That was my old canoe. Its history matched mine for over thirty years. And I’m sad to see it go.
I moved to Portland, Oregon, way back while in the midst of the biggest life upheaval I had ever experienced. Suffice it to say that, like many in these circumstances, I felt isolated, scared, and worried about my future. I was setting a new course, starting a new relationship in unfamiliar territory and would soon find myself mothering two young boys. Not knowing anything about raising kids, I looked back into my own childhood for clues about what made me happy. The answer was easy: boats. Rowing boats, sailing boats, fixing boats, paddling boats. Boats that get you out of your comfy little pillow life in your living room and tempt you with the most enticing of possibilities: “Pssst! Want an adventure? Get up! Come with me!”
So, scraping together every last dime, I went down the river and bought an Old Town canoe. Seventeen feet long, all Royalex and vinyl, fire-engine red, from Maine, where people really know how to canoe, I figured. We put that big red canoe on top of the station wagon and took it everywhere: rivers, lakes, streams, camping, day trips. We even took it to the ocean once and dared the waves from the shore. We were just crazy! And having fun. So, during their formative years, those boys knew how to paddle a canoe by the age of four. I often think of them now, as middle-aged men, maybe paddling down a river, feeling the confidence of paddle strokes they learned so early on.
After a good many years, life changed and those boys, sadly, moved out of my life. I used to look at the red canoe and think how empty it seemed. So I filled it with more adventures, got lucky again in finding someone to share them with and, once more, the canoe bounced happily down rivers, exploring the nooks and crannies of northwest waters. I even gave it a sailboat for a sister, thinking the more the merrier. But the sailboat, and more life changes, overshadowed the big red canoe and it sat, forlorn, in a dark corner of my property. I rarely looked at it, fearing I might hear it speak, truthfully, of its abandonment: “Don’t you love me anymore?”
In my life, boats have been mirrors of life’s reality and companions on the journey. When life gives me difficult quandaries to ponder, I pull hard on an oar and let my thoughts work, looking for conclusions, or satisfaction, or peace. When life gives me sadness, I pull out a boat, slip it into the water and paddle fast, trying to move ahead toward understanding or acceptance. When I am immobilized by deep emotion, I sometimes just stare at my boat and relate to its neglected look, luxuriating in an obstinate resistance to making life feel better for either of us: “No! I will not go out and lovingly remove the mold off your hull. We will sit right here and eat Oreos for dinner and be miserable.” Then, eventually, hours or days or even weeks later, I can’t stand the boat’s pain (or mine) any longer and wash off the mess with a strong hose and good soap. For both of us.
At one point four years ago, after I’d been badly buffeted about by a grueling, unexpected turn of events and truly wondered if this was the end of my allotment of resilience, life came roaring back saying, “Here’s something even better! The life you wanted and the kind of person you need to share it with. And the package comes complete with a boy. Go out and get that canoe in the water.”
So I grabbed for the brass ring and, lucky me, got it. I cleaned up the canoe and we took a day trip on the lake. Likely, the boy had no idea how much my heart sang that day, that month, that year. But we knew. The two of us, the guardians of this lovely, fragile, fledgling life.
And still, four years later, my heart sings. Every day.
I sold my old canoe, but I have the love of a family and a small stable of our own little boats to carry us through whatever storms life should bring. I can only hope the folks who bought my old canoe are lucky enough to feel the same.