The Joys Of Paddling a Cheap Canoe

After having paddled canoes and sundry small watercraft for 35 years, I am still not an expert canoeist.  A beat up aluminum Grumman delights me as much as a high end Kevlar composite boat. I love the idea of a beautiful handmade wooden canoe, but have only ever owned a Royalex Old Town that was older than me.

The beauty of a cheap canoe is that you just don’t care about the craft as much as you do about the location and experience. Instead of worrying about scraping the hull on a rock, you are looking at the pine trees around the lake. Instead of marveling at how the canoe handles and tracks, you are absorbed in the beauty of sun glinting off the water.

I was reminded of these simple delights recently when a last minute trip to NY included a few fleeting days in a cabin on the shore of a lake in the southern Adirondacks. Bethany and I arrived late at night on a Sunday.

Upon arising in the morning, I promptly wandered outside and dove off the dock into the clear, surprisingly warm water of Pleasant Lake. After swimming for awhile, watching the morning sun dissipate tendrils of fog from the surface of the water, I side-stroked toward the cabin, coffee on my mind.

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Morning mist on Pleasant Lake

The Cheap Canoe

It was then that I spotted the Cheap Canoe. Emblazoned apologetically along it’s hull was the word that has defined outdoor gear mediocrity for decades: Coleman! I knew immediately that she would be a beaut!

She had the graceful lines of an overfed circus elephant, the crappy aluminum supporting structure and plasticy hull that define the genre, and was accompanied by 2 cracked wooden paddles. I couldn’t wait to put her in the water.

After coffee, I did. It was a beautiful experience. She floated, that was all I cared about. J-stroking from the stern, I headed out around a point where I had swum earlier. The waves kicked up as a brisk breeze kissed my port hull. Sun and clouds played hide-and-seek in a classic Adirondack sky. I praised the Creator as spray on my legs told me I was alive.

The air hummed with the early Autumn excitement peculiar to the region. A season was preparing to repose. Bits of deciduous color were just beginning to speckle the maples. The stalwart pines, green sentinels, beckoned from the granite-studded shoreline. I paddled closer, not caring a bit if I scratched the boat. A loon floated nearby, then dipped adroitly beneath the surface to escape this desert interloper.

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Paddling solo towards the piney shore.

Later, my parents, native Adirondackers, came to our rented cabin for a visit. They brought Saranac beer and thus deserved a voyage in the cheap canoe.

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Saranac- Tasty before microbrews were cool!

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Canoebrew!

The Joys

Off we went, Dad in the bow, having relinquished his customary place in the stern to his upstart son. Mom hunkered amidships sipping a lager and sporting a fetching PFD.

We didn’t paddle fast; cheap canoes aren’t made for that. They exist to serve, to transport, not to race or compete. They are the progeny of a utilitarian race, more Tlingit dugout than Ojibway birchbark.

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With the folks!

The precious time with my parents,  the afternoon sun and the warm water brought back memories of childhood times spent in cheap canoes. I heard in my minds ear the ping of inexpertly wielded paddles striking aluminum gunwales. I recalled places like Kayuta Lake and Wolf Island, Chub Pond and Black Lake, the towpath along the Black River Canal in Boonville, Raquette Lake and Moose River, Crandalls Falls.

People and names from those canoe-tinged memories floated disjointedly through my mind: Grandpa Lauderdale, Brian Belknap, Mark, Andy, Z. Valmas, Dick Dorn and his dog Missy, Randy and Cindy sitting low, the Schoellig family,  Jace, Kyle, Coda…. Cheap canoes transport in more ways than one.

Our cheap canoe made us new memories. Bethany and I paddled out with our nephew Josh, yesterday a tiny child floating in his huge tuxedo at our wedding, now a lanky, hairy-chested 21 year-old paddling at the bow. Yesterday a little boy plying us with questions, today a witty man making plans for his life.

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Josh and me.

Bethany took her mom Dianne, aunt Wendy and niece Erica on another epic paddle.

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Peaceful it was, she said. The women talked about deceased loved ones, Sarah and Grandma Pritchard. They cried together, dripping their tears over the edge of that cheap canoe to mingle in the limpid waters of Pleasant Lake. Wendy, non-swimmer, not a water person, was emboldened by her time in that humble vessel to request to paddle, changing places mid-lake.

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Wendy paddling

Good Night

Night paddling, a near full moon ricocheting it’s vanilla beams off the glassy lake surface. Bethany, Erica and I let the canoe convey us where she will, drifting with the lull and lap of the peaceful nightwater. We talk and laugh, gentling our voices to correspond with the quiet of the slumbering forest. 

Two days, a lake in the Adirondacks, new memories forged and old ones surfaced…

She has done her job well, that cheap canoe, and now, like us, deserves a good nights sleep.

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Rest well, cheap canoe!