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A boy and his canoe

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The Bear Creek Canoe Company’s Mirage

When I canoed the Missouri River from Montana to Kansas City, I used a 16-foot boat from the Bear Creek Canoe Company in Limerick, Maine, called the Mirage. The canoe maker, a man whose name has long escaped me, was laying up a new fiberglass and Kevlar design and wanted someone to test it out on a big river. He sent me the canoe and a lifejacket gratis to Helena, where it sat for a week in the back room of a sporting goods store. The canoe maker even sent me $40 to buy paddles, rope, and other necessities.

I used that canoe for a 2,000 mile trip down the Missouri. It saw eleven years and multiple trips down the Missouri—day trips, weekends, overnights—with me. It was a dreamy boat. It’s low profile and square-ish bow and stern cut through the water straight and true. In many ways, the boat formed me to itself over the years. It had become as much a part of me as my own feet.

But someone stole that boat from me in 2006. My son Nick, Ken Larson, his daughter Ava, and I made a little afternoon trip from Parkville, Missouri, to the old Riverfront Park in Kansas City. We put the canoe in the woods and took off in Ken’s car to get mine from English Landing Park in Parkville. I had stashed the canoe and left it offshore tens of times over the years and had no problem. But this time, someone with the means to transport the boat must have seen us and took advantage of the opportunity.

The boat’s loss was personal. It hurt the same way a stolen bicycle creates pain. Take my car, steal my furniture, rob me on the street. Things can be replaced. I can recover from a mugging. But something as well formed to body and mind as a canoe, and a body and mind formed to a canoe in which a person has traveled thousands of miles are irreplaceable.

After the canoe was stolen, I found a little boat and motor for $300. It was a nice boat—14-feet-long, wide on the beam, and sturdy. We used the boat from time to time on the Missouri. The vessel was a pain in the ass, though. Not just anyone has a trailer hitch to pick you up downstream. You can’t put a boat like that on the top of the car with a couple of ropes and spongy pads.

The boat just wasn’t like the canoe. Just about everything concerning the canoe connects me with the river. In a canoe, I feel the river in my hands. The river is immediate, its actions demand my attention. My head sits just three feet above the water. In fact, part of my body rides beneath the surface of the river. I feel the temperature of the river through the bottom of the canoe. The water splashes up over my face. Drips from the paddles soak my pants. I can dip my hat in the water as respite from the hot sun.

The distance from the river increases the more modern conveniences I put between it and me. The boat disconnects me from the waves and the water. I don’t feel the river in the boat. My responses to the river are leaden and delayed. The river runs its own way, and I mine. I know nothing of the river’s nuances. It acts and I act any way I want. I don’t depend on it for anything but its ability to float me on its surface.

After a few years of sitting in the driveway, the boat became a source of worry and woe. Here I had a perfectly good boat that I paid taxes on. I kept the registration sticker current. I made sure the lights worked so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a ticket. Sure, it was great when I put it on the river and used the oars to stroke us downstream. But I rarely used the boat and when I did I couldn’t relax. The boat motor ran sometimes and balked and coughed at others. I was never sure I would make it back to upstream when I used the motor and getting anyone to pick me up downstream was nearly impossible. I feared losing a kid to the waves. I was jittery.

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It kept me up at night.

I lay awake at night thinking about the boat. I should use it. I was fearful of using it. I never knew if that crooked wheel would detach itself from the axle. I didn’t have a spare in case one of the tires went flat. What happened if I had to leave it on the side of the highway? Where would I get the boat repaired? Over the years, I tried to find a repair shop for the engine, but everyone I called didn’t work on engines that old—it was built in 1950.

Finally, this summer, I decided to sell the boat. I asked $500 and sold thee boat in two days. The family that bought it was cute. They were working-class people with happy children who were excited about the possibilities. I had to correct a mistake on the title a few days after I sold the boat to them. When I visited them at their house, they had already bought life jackets and a trolling motor. The man had stripped the old paint off the hull and was spraying new marine paint on it. They were anxious to get the boat on a lake for the fourth of July. After I delivered the title to them, the man left right away for the DMV to get new plates for the trailer.

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The Wenonah Canoe Company’s Adirondack

A few days later, I found a canoe on Craigslist. An army officer and lawyer on the base at Leavenworth was selling a 16-foot Wenonah Adirondack for $900 (new, $2,300). I had $500 from the boat or I would have thought twice about buying such an expensive craft. The boat design resembled my Bear Creek Mirage. The Adirondack is rated for 650 pounds. The canoe makers laid up the boat with 100 percent Kevlar. It weighs only 49 pounds. (The Mirage was made of Kevlar and fiberglass and weighed 68 pounds.) Since I have broad shoulders, I find the three-foot beam, just like the Mirage, comfortable.

But again, fear paralyzed me. I didn’t have a proper rack for the car. Never having even looked at one before, I had no idea what I was buying. I went cheap first. It took a month to find out from the people I ordered it from that they cancelled the order. They didn’t have one in their warehouse. I ordered another cheap one online, but it didn’t fit the car. I wanted it all to be settled so I could get on the Missouri with a group of paddlers who had canoed all or part of the Missouri t one time or another. But I didn’t have the rack and instead had to watch them pull away from shore near Columbia, knowing that their next week together was going to be a dream and that I was ashore due to my own fear and insecurity.

I ordered another rack online, this one fit the car. But it didn’t show up until two days after those paddlers left the bank. When I watched them pull away, I decided not to let my anxieties rule my life. I put that rack on the car. It was sturdy and steady.

We put my new canoe on the car a couple of days ago and headed out for Longview Lake. The boat rode steady at 35, 45, the 55 and 65 miles an hour. I found myself forgetting that the boat was even on the car, despite it hanging right in my face over the windshield. We got the boat off the car in seconds. Nick had no problem helping me carry our light canoe to the water.

Once we were on the lake–my first time on any body of water outside the Missouri–the wind kicked up waves and at first I found getting the canoe under control difficult. Then I realized that the front of that boat stuck up out of the water like a weathervane, and the wind was in our faces. I weigh 215 pounds. Nick weighs maybe 90. I sat in the back to steer, he in the front. I climbed into the middle of the canoe and found controlling the boat—when it was level—to be easy. It reminded me of taking my Mirage, also a tandem boat, solo. It felt good. I would be taking the Adirondack out solo sometime. I dreamed of it and looked forward to another trip by myself on the Missouri.

We paddled around that lake for a couple of hours. Just paddling, getting used to the boat. I explained to Nick how things worked. He responded with a host of questions. We had a blast.

We left the lake just in front of a storm. The winds buffeted our little craft and it shifted around some on top of the car, making me nervous. But we made it home just fine. The only hitch was that I saw that one of the ratchet straps with which we attached the canoe to the rack came loose—not so much that it put the boat or us in danger, but enough to make me think, my god, I’m glad we didn’t come undone.

I sit here now thinking about that canoe. We are taking it out again today. I am anxious about the wind and the precarious way the boat sits on the rack. But I have decided not to let fear rule my life. We will go out there. If we lose a $900 boat to the highway, then we did it trying to get it on the water and not by letting it rot in the backyard.

And I’m also thinking of the Missouri and the long weekends, weeks, and months on that mighty stream to come.

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