We went canoeing two nights ago.
I love canoeing. Everything about it. The precarious way you get in, the fact that someone has to sit childlike in the middle. I like to steer so I can be the behind the scenes strength of the operation, ready to pick up the pieces should we veer in to something unpleasant. I love wooden oars. The sounds paddles make when they slurp into the water. I love how canoeing makes people reflect and appreciate silence.
We four paddled through a marsh in the hazy dusky time of night when you no longer need sunglasses but you don’t yet need lights. We took off our shoes and dipped oars in water while ospreys flew around, discussing the day’s events in their comically giant nests. We tied up at the little shack on the marsh.
I sat with my boat crew friends on the rickety dock just as the stars started poking out. I kept looking at the canoe, just sitting there empty in the water and couldn’t resist another trip. How is a person expected to sit still when there’s a canoe and a sky full of stars to row under? I hopped right back in, with our new crew member as my partner in crime.
Our newbie and I paddled along. She’s 18, just out of high school and we talked in that kind of graceful way you can when you realize someone is very young but has their shit together, way more than you did at their age. We talked about how big the world is and how incredible it feels to look at stars that people saw thousands of years ago. How constellations are one thing that never go out of style. A motorboat sped past us out of nowhere, prompting me to remember to turn on the head lamp that served as our running lights. The men driving, with their loud motor and even louder voices were jarring and out of place. Our paddle continued as the current picked up against us. I love the way you communicate wordlessly while canoeing. One person picks it up so the other matches pace and we can fight the current without a word. It’s such a pretty way of speaking. Before long, we were almost back to the little shack on the rickety dock.
After we tied up, Katie began to identify the constellations swirling overhead. I laid my head on the dock and listened to her lesson, intended for elementary students. I heard her talk about the vain queen who was doomed to be upside down in the sky forever with her skirt over her head; of the little hummingbird who poked holes in the blanket over the Earth in the shape of all her friends, creating all the animal constellations we see. My eyelids started drooping and the time had come when those of us who weren’t weren’t sleeping over were heading back.
A group went off in the motorboat. When Josh came back, he told Katie and I, the only two remaining, that the tide was too low to make another trip. This meant two choices existed: Stay overnight or take the canoe and have some kind of adventure. Obviously we took the canoe. We paddled, Katie in the front, me in the back. We went toward the house and our paddles hit bottom. The tide was ripping out and things started to get murky. The path to Laura’s house was now thick with marsh plants. There was no way through. We could turn back, which meant almost certain ridicule or we could continue on in the spirit of exploration.
We kept going.Each turn got us more confused. For all our talk of stars, we couldn’t navigate our way out of a paper bag at this point.
We laughed the whole time. Every time we got stuck in the mud. Every time we thought we were back on track and were actually lost. Hours went by this way. It sounds ridiculous but it you’ve ever canoed through a corn maze in the dark, you’ll have some idea why it was so hard. The moment came when we realized there was a house ahead but it wasn’t Laura’s. We pulled up to the dock and had to choose. An animal that had to weigh *200 pounds thundered through the marsh grass so close to the canoe that I pushed us off the mud bank. In the dark everything sounds much more dangerous than it is. In reality, our loud clumsy selves were the most menacing things in that place.
I climbed out first, barefoot in the mud and pulled myself up on the dock that was now over my head. I was to scout it to make sure it could hold us and the canoe.
Instead, I saw a goose. It stared me down in that bird way and I must admit I panicked for a second. “Katie, I can’t go any further. There’s a watch goose.”
She laughed but I was serious. We decided to use all our remaining strength and lug the canoe out. As we pulled it awkwardly down the narrow dock,Katie plowed into the goose by accident, terrifying both of them. The goose took off through the marsh, weaving frantically away from these two humans.
We lugged that canoe that I love so much up toward a stranger’s house. I speculated that they might have a gun and shoot trespassers. Katie told me to can it. We lugged that canoe barefoot over thistle and sticks, uphill and through the woods. Every time we got tired, one of us would start laughing and we would drop the canoe and have to start over.
Finally, we heard cars. We burst through the bush and onto the shoulder of and I could not make this up if I tried, Buckshutem Road.
At this point, we are barefoot, carrying a four person canoe down the side of a road at midnight in New Jersey. We are unsure just how far away Laura’s house is, having only seen it by daylight. We are tired, it’s been hours and we just want to get home. I spot the mailbox and we know we’re almost there.
What happened next will make me laugh when I am an old woman.
We got pulled over for walking with a canoe by the New Jersey police.
Two squad cars.Katie and I started laughing and slowly set down the canoe. The dramatic moments cops take to get out of the car happened and two of New Jersey’s finest approached us, all swagger.
“What are you doing tonight, ladies?”
um. We sort of gestured to the canoe.
The questioning went on- why were we out late, what were we doing? How did we get so lost? They asked for our id’s.
One cop was really into it while the other recognized the ridiculousness of what was happening. He told us he was just concerned for our safety. They would not “allow” us to continue walking. His plan was for us to wake up Laura, who works in the sailing office and ask for her help.
I vetoed that plan. Not happening, I said kindly. He then suggested that Katie get her car and we rig up the canoe on top of it.
She vetoed that one.
We sat there for a long time, laughing about this. My education coordinator, a policeman and me. The other cop came back from his power trip and handed us our id’s. To Katie- “Do I know you from somewhere? You look really familiar.”
Katie shook her head, instantly weirded out by this. The guy recognized her but never said how and was smug about it for the rest of the proceedings.
Finally, when I realized we weren’t getting anywhere with these two guys in charge, I asked for what I really wanted.
“do you think you could give us a police escort if we carry the canoe back?”
I could tell he was trying not to laugh and so was I. He didn’t want to say yes but he knew it made the most sense if he was genuinely worried about our safety. The thought occurs in these moments that we were definitely two white women- that what to us was a stupid exchange was actually a measure of the privilege of being white. This is a story I can tell with a smile on my face and not one that turned into a tragedy.
“Yea, I guess we could do that.”
So Katie and I hoisted up that canoe one last time, illuminated in the red and blue glow of police lights. We walked shaking with laughter, as if we were in some weird parade in the middle of the night.
When we finally arrived at Laura’s house, the nice cop came out to say goodbye.
I had to ask. “Did you have to call this in?”
He had, but had left out the part about the canoe.
“I’ll probably say the canoe part when I give the all-clear,” he said. “This is a pretty good story.”
And with that, he wished us a good night and they sped away.
I have always loved canoeing.
*night time exxageration