A Guest Article by Paul Fattig of the Mail Tribune
Contrary to what my mutinous crew would tell you, I really do know my aft from my bow.
It's just that it gets a little confusing when both ends of the boat are pointy. Besides, nomenclature loses its import when you are careening sideways around a bend in the river toward an overhanging tree intent on swamping you.
My wife, Maureen, bought the forest-green fiberglass canoe with its beautiful wooden seats for my birthday in July. Suddenly I was a full-fledged canoe captain.
I was no longer someone to be trifled with. "You realize this makes me the stern man when we take 'er out," I told Maureen. "That, of course, would make you the bow woman." "OK, sailor, you can be the person in the stern if that floats your boat," she responded. Real funny. I sniffed about the quality of canoe crews one has to put up with these days.
But I was one happy camper. At long last, I had my very own canoe, something I've dreamed of since I was a kid back in Kerby half a century ago. True, it wasn't birch bark but it was an honest-to-goodness Old Town from Maine.
Life was good.
Canoes have taken me along on several trips over the years, including floating down canoe-friendly rivers in Alaska. Yet it was always as the fellow in the bow, not the stern man. But I always knew I was made of sterner stuff. Now I would be the manly fellow in the stern using the famous "J" stroke to guide us swiftly to our destination. That's the stroke that puts you in the driver's seat. You guide the canoe by pushing the paddle blade sideways at the end of each stroke.
A dusty old booklet I have on canoeing explained what was what for the canoe-challenged. I quickly scanned it — port, starboard, keel, trim, gunwale and something called a thwart.
But the bow woman, about to embark on her maiden canoe voyage, was more interested in the pamphlet accompanying the canoe. It promised the watercraft would float if swamped. "That's reassuring," she said. Rather loudly, it seemed to me.
But we spent many summer weekends peacefully paddling around mountain lakes. It was uneventful, except for that little incident when the captain stood up to stretch, nearly rolling the canoe. The angry bow woman shrieked a bad word and threatened grievous bodily harm with the paddle should the captain ever try that again. Hey, I had a cramp. Geez.
Then last Sunday friends Bob and Gretchen invited us to join them on a canoeing trip down the Wood River in Klamath County. They have a sleek 17-footer that is a veteran of several rivers, including portions of the Rogue. It's powered by real wooden paddles and seasoned canoeists.
But the Wood River was an old chum of mine. Back when I was a Duck of the U of O variety I had floated the Wood with a couple of other fishing majors in a johnboat. We're talking about a bonny brook that meanders like a drunken sailor through the Wood River Valley before stumbling into Agency Lake. It takes its own good time. There are places where it appears undecided about where it wants to go and splits off into two streams that rejoin after the indecisive mood has run its course.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle when the canoe captain requested the bow woman step smartly aboard. "You are sitting in the bow," she calmly observed. She politely pointed out that the bow seat is farther back toward center, allowing her to put her feet forward. There is no room for her feet in the stern, she noted. "Well, yeah, if you want to be nit picky about it," I nearly mumbled. Instead, I meekly left the bow in search of my aft — which I found with both hands, of course.
Bob and Gretchen led the way, seeming to dip lightly in the river. Yet their canoe leaped along the surface like a gazelle across the Serengeti. We splashed about with our plastic and metal paddles. Our 14-foot barge lumbered forward. Bob and Gretchen gracefully disappeared around a corner where the river decided to form two streams.
Me and my crew unknowingly took a fork less traveled. That's when we discovered there are monstrous things in rivers called sweepers eager to reach out and grab canoe, stern man and bow woman.
Our canoe had gained a head of steam as it rounded the bend. Approaching swiftly was a tree that had fallen across part of the river, its limbs reaching out to grab the canoe. Uh, hard on the port side! No, no, I mean starboard!" I yelled.
But the bow woman wisely ignored the captain and expertly deflected the sweeper, then paddled us on down around the corner to where Bob and Gretchen were waiting.
"Thought we lost you," Bob said of our delay. "Naw, just admiring the scenery," I replied nonchalantly. The bow woman just sat there and smiled.
Reprinted with permission. Thanks to the Mail Tribune at www.mailtribune.com and Paul Fattig.