such a great concept – a natural blend of exercise and relaxation in a beautiful setting –
one of my daughters and i were enjoying a vacation together in northern michigan and decided it would be a great idea to take a day canoe trip. what better way to experience the local beauty than to actively immerse ourselves?
we imagined drifting down a sparkling, fresh water river, paddling when inspired, taking pictures, drinking and eating at our leisure, feeling the warm hug of the sun, listening to music, enjoying the thrill of occasional rapids, jumping in for a swim to cool off, soaking in the view, singing badly, and having some good conversation – pure and easy bliss.
we looked through the local yellow pages and chose a local outfitter based upon their retro-looking cool logo and i gave them a call to see what time they opened in the morning. it was 4th of July week and we wanted to make sure we had a chance to get an early canoe. in response to my time query, the woman on the other end of the phone replied, ‘twenty to 11.‘
judging by her answer i guessed this wasn’t a large corporate operation. their choice of selecting their own random hours, seemingly at their whim, was the first sign of their obvious lack of adherence to any of the usual standards of business. (in looking back, maybe their logo wasn’t ‘retro’ at all, but rather one that had never changed or been updated.) we laughed off this eccentric time quirk and overlooked the thought of anything possibly being amiss – we were so excited and determined to spend the next day fully enjoying the river.
morning came and we drove to their location, far down a dirt road, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. pulling up at ‘twenty to 11’ as directed, we noticed there was only one other car in the lot and congratulated ourselves about being the first ones there.
walking in, a woman looked up from behind the counter and appeared surprised to see us. to say she was not welcoming or an assertive saleswoman is a bit of an understatement and judging by our conversation, she was clearly the same woman i’d spoken to the night before.
when we inquired about renting a canoe, this is how the conversation went: ‘so – you’re canoers?’, ‘today we are.’ no smile. ‘the canoe guy isn’t here yet.’ ‘okay.’ ‘what were you thinking of?’ ‘renting a canoe.’ ‘okay.’
we took a quick look at each other and then up at the sign above, offering the day trip options. it was apparent we needed to be our own advocates and that it would be pretty much up to us to set the whole thing up.
after a few minutes, we decided we’d take the trip with an ‘estimated duration’ of 4 to 5 hours/10 miles. we paid her in cash, as that was all they accepted, and she didn’t ask any of the usual time-killing questions such as our names, if we’d ever canoed before, or god forbid – if we had any questions for her. needless to say there were no disclaimers, forms or other paperwork of any kind. no record of our having come here, or even of our existence at all.
again, this was probably another opportunity to question our choice of outfitters, but we were so happy just to have scored a canoe that we didn’t really question it.
soon after, we heard a rough-sounding vehicle pull up and went outside to meet her brother/canoe-guy, (clearly a family operation), who would drop us and our canoe off at the river. we still were the only customer car in the lot at this point so he muttered something about taking us right away and not making us wait for the others. he seemed very shy and kind of shuffled from foot to foot, stuttered a bit, and wouldn’t really look us in the eye.
he handed us life vests that looked to be remnants from a former overseas conflict, (quite possibly WWI), and asked us if we wanted oars and seat cushions. (i didn’t really realize that oars were optional on a canoe trip), and we all climbed into the rusting, sputtering van with high hopes and canoes up top.
after driving in silence at a rate of approximately 27 mph, we decided to break the ice by asking a few questions:
- ‘where are we going to be dropped off?’ – ‘at marker 55.’
- ‘how is the river running?’ – ‘slow.’
- ‘why?’ – ‘they closed the dam and no rain.’
- ‘does it get really busy on the river?’ – ‘it’s pretty slow during the week.’
as explained by our enthusiastic guide, we eventually arrived at marker 55. after turning onto a small dirt road, we made our way into the middle of a beautiful state forest.
we climbed out, ready to begin the adventure, as he unloaded our canoe and dropped it into the water. again – no tips, no rules, no questions for us. we had just one more for him before beginning: ‘who sits where?’ – ‘the steerer sits in the back, but i put the canoe in backwards for some reason.’ with no further instructions, he turned and headed back to the van and sputtered off, back down the lonely gravel road.
we looked at each other and realized we were really, really alone, in quite a beautiful and remote setting, deep in the midst of a forest, with no one having the slightest idea we were even out there. knowing it was early, and that more canoers would arrive as the day went on, we got over it and climbed into our backwards boat.
my daughter took the seat in front, making her the ‘helms-woman’, and i took the backseat, now officially the ‘steerer’ of our boat. after taking some time to get the boat turned around, a couple of things became apparent: the water was quite still without any sort of current, and the water level was extremely low, maybe 8-10 inches deep at best.
after a bit of trial and error, we determined the only way we would be able to actually get moving in the river was to use our oars ‘gondolier-style’ – by putting our sticks in the water, scraping them along the bottom, and pushing/pulling ourselves along.
this was just the beginning, and as more challenges came into play, our vision of a lazy river day quickly faded away. the realities were a bit different from what we had initially expected, and the trip played out with more unanticipated issues:
- fallen trees filled most of the water,
- water was quite smelly and stagnant
- the path through was only 2 feet wide in some spots
- ongoing climbing out of the canoe to walk it/drag it over shallow puddles and rocks and huge trees where the river was meant to flow
- biting black flies and dragonflies swarming us
- due to low water levels and no rain, flies were drawn to anything with moisture, including our eyeballs
- no way to eat or drink, as it would draw more flies and we had to physically work constantly just to move on the the river at all
- total solitude, meaning there were no other humans to help, laugh with, or rescue us
as we continued on, i brought up the fact that we had signed up for a 4 to 6 hour trip, assuming the river was flowing, so this might be a longer day than anticipated and we should look at this as an adventure.
at that point, my daughter got a horrible look on her face and said, ‘mom, i have a confession. i was trying to do something nice to surprise you and make this day even more special. after you walked out to talk to the canoe guy, i paid extra money to ‘upgrade’ our trip to the 8-10 hour/20 mile journey instead.’ we looked at each other and both sat in stunned silence for a moment, just as dead-still as our canoe sat in the water.
we continued on, as there was on other choice or way to get back to civilization – with many hours of swearing, bitching, proclamations of ‘who was doing more work’, yelling out and slapping our skin when bitten, trying to make jokes that were ‘not funny!’, pulling flies out of our eyes, ears and mouths, hungry, dehydrated, zig-zagging our way from bank to bank and tree to tree, sunburned – as many trees were in the river rather than standing and protecting us from the sun, and a never-ending very physical workout – and we came upon a wide river opening that was not a mirage!
there, in the middle of the river two men were standing – fishing and drinking and being silent. the water only came up to to their knees but apparently that fact did not deter them from being out there. we saw a remote shack there in the middle of nowhere, right along the bank of the river, where they must have come from. while we were happy to see other humans at last, a sudden feeling of foreboding and a bit of fear came over us as we whispered to each other, ‘deliverance!’
first of all, it was amazing there were any fish to be had and that they would be out there trying to find them. next, we were in a very remote location, with no record of us even having rented a canoe or existing, very alone, and ‘not at the top of our game’ to say the least. they, on the other hand, were drinking beers and hanging out without much of anything to do and lots of idle time on their hands.
we both had active imaginations and strong survival instincts, which inspired us to try to get through this part of the river as quickly and unscathed as possible. it wasn’t feasible not to make eye contact or draw attention to ourselves, apparently we were the only other people who had come this way in a long while, so we said hello as we scraped and dragged our way past them, in a style that would have made the venetian gondoliers proud. as you can imagine, this was the fastest we had moved on the river all day! they simply nodded and went back to sipping on their beers and enjoying their silence as we went by. in hindsight, i’m sure we probably looked much more frightening to them than they did to us – after all, who else but crazy freaks would be out trying to canoe on the river in these conditions?
after many, many hours, we actually made it back to our canoe outfitters’ place, as the sun began to get low, and running on empty. we never did see any other people canoeing on the river that day, no surprise – and as we came in, we were greeted by the sister and brother outfitters.
this time they both appeared surprised to see us, as if it would have been more expected for us not to show up. as the brother pulled our canoe from the water, the sister said, as only she could have put it – ‘wow, that took a long time. you made it back.’
walking back to our car and ready to call it a day, we saw a couple pull in and get out of our car. we asked them if they planned on canoeing. their reply – ‘no way, we tried that last year and the river was a horrible mess and flies bit us all day! no, we’re just here to see about renting some tubes to take to our lake.’ ‘oh’, was all we could say.
Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us whither we desire to go. ~ Pascal