Banging in the Canoe, Slapping the Water, Grimacing or Grinning the Whole Way

A day on the river, for me, used be wild, “boobs and beer, that’s why I’m here!” Umm… not so much anymore. I still like to get into a canoe and load up some supplies (water, tea, sierra mist, and snacks now). I enjoy lashing them down with bungee cords and telling the dog, Roxy, to jump in. I especially love, to see my wife, smile and shiver as she wades into the cold water to take her place in the front. A sunny morning, hearing the wet splashing, the chunky gravel scraping and watching the glitter of diamonds atop the water, as we launch for a day of floating in a canoe, is pure heaven to me.

Our anniversary weekend included a nice 14 mile float last Sunday at the Niangua River, fed by Bennet Springs, near Lebanon, Missouri. It was a perfect day, with perfect company, and I was glad to be there. As we set adrift on the slow current,  in our ‘cargo-style” limo-sized canoe, I watched several groups around us taking off in their big yellow rubber duck rafty things. I never was a fan of that type of floating. I have tried it a couple times. If you just need a platform that won’t tip, so you can be entirely punch-drunk, I guess it works, but, you lose so much of the art of maneuvering your craft.

By choosing the canoe to float in, I get to feel that I control the ship with every touch of the paddle to the water. From the rear I can propel us straight forward with a few strong strokes on each side. I can look ahead and see still waters, a deeper channel, and drive the vessel toward it. When obstacles are fast approaching, I can drive my oar deep beside me, holding it fast, ‘putting on the brakes’ and turning the canoe on a dime to avoid a crash. Sometimes I like to stand and captain the thing, gondola style. I balance on the back seat, or edges of the boat. I reach down and scoot us forward with a couple pulls, and then rest my hands on the end of the paddle. I love feeling the full breeze as I stand and survey the ripples ahead.

Anyway, I really like being in a canoe. It feels natural and right and connected to the flow of the river and to the flow of life, in those fleeting moments you catch in between the mental-everything, and notice the simplicity of nature.

Something not fun about the canoeing experience, is feeling the bottom drag on shallow rocks. There are parts of the river where only a couple inches of water move over vast gravelbars. I want to avoid these parts as much as possible. Usually when you have to jump out and let the canoe float on it’s own through these spots, you stub a toe, or slice a leg on some unseen sharp-edged rock. Nowadays, being sober while canoeing, does help this problem out. Less falling in the river, or onto other boats or people, and generally bruising up my whole body.

Also there are places where a bend in the stream will make a strong current, a deep and rushing shoot, that can also gather deadwood and brush piles. These places are not to be toyed with. Yes, maneuvering around them is fun, but it is risky. Smashing into some fallen trees while the river pushes against you can be dangerous. The suck while stopped can momentarily dip the edge in to the water, then a boat on it’s side will fill instantly. If you can get your body away fast enough, you will be alright, but the canoe will be hard to recover without help. Your snacks and drinks will bob along downstream without you 🙁

Luckily, with Lindsay and I (no help from Roxy) we communicate well in the canoe. We talk about how to navigate around these obstacles. We decide ahead, which way we want to enter the bends. We look downstream for the best places point the boat. When we arrive at a problem point, we are already ready for it. We brake or paddle hard to smooth through, and maybe a gentle bang or chunking sound will come from the stern as the tail end touches a submerged tree trunk. It is a beautiful thing, dancing with the river.

Funny though, lots of times, right after we sailed through a real trouble point, a deep bend with brush built up, there would immediately following, be a gently eddy in the flow. Just as we smiled and enjoyed the accomplishment of steering cleanly through the problems, this little circulating wash of current, would just slightly pull the bow. An almost undetectable shift would happen as the stern end would keep it’s speed and slide away with the still strong current.

Soon, Lindsay would be pointed right at the bank, maybe into a shallow spot. The gravel bits would grab the underside of the aluminum. I would be waay back in the deep and swift water. We would be side ways in the river.

At that exact moment there are two ways to handle the situation. If I want to keep our course, as it was, I need to paddle hard. I need to back up the boat. I need to ask Lindsay to push off, or to join in frantic splashings to avoid the inevitable. I most likely can get us pointed straight again, but it is a LOT of work. I am fighting the flow the river. I am nervous, being sideways for any amount of time is spooky. The more I try to keep us pointed in the ‘normal’ direction, the longer I will stay sideways. At the front, the water is still and shallow, at the back it rushes and pushes. I will be exhausted by the time, we get things ‘righted’ again, and can continue on downriver…

Another way to handle this moment is to realize that the river is doing all of the work here. Yes, there is a strong movement within the stream. It wants to help us continue on. The thing is, with the front-end lodged against the bank, the back end wants to continue. I can just let this ‘spin moment’ happen. I can do almost nothing, and the river itself will happily pull us along, but backwards. See the canoe is designed to work well, either front-ways or back-ways (to use the technical terminology :)) I can simply let this action happen, and all will be okay. Yes we are now facing upriver, we don’t want to carry on this way for the rest of the trip, but within a short distance we will again use the current to spin us proper.

This motion of pre-planning for the troubled bend, then spinning away from the ensuing eddy can be a delightful dance. It can feel smooth and flowy. It can be peaceful even, through the work and through the slight adjusting tensions, it can be soo gratifying. On the other hand, when I fear the danger, when I try too hard, things get worse. When I frantically slap the water with my oar, and beg the boat to stay pointed in the ‘right’ way, I exhaust myself. When I think there actually is a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’ to be, I am fighting a force bigger than myself. It’s a battle I will never, ever win.

I did notice on Sunday’s float trip, that just being on the water, pointed in either direction, is the key. Being pulled by the current, but floating along with it, is enjoyment. Just noticing the beauty of nature, the forces at play and the opportunity to drift with it, is an amazing thing.

Ironically, back in the olden days, my float trips were much different. I actually preferred back then to hang out on the banks. I didn’t want to be ‘on the water’ all day. I wanted to lounge and drink and chill beside it. I didn’t want to paddle at all, if possible. Back then, a 4 mile stretch of the river could entertain me from morning till sundown.

Lots of life changes have happened since then. New choices, different ones. 14 miles of the river went by rather quickly on Sunday. We were done before many other vessels. We were in the water and moving along. We experienced much more of what that place had to offer. We saw it all. We worked hard at times, but never to catch up. We together adventured beyond, where most folks get off. I am proud of that.

At the end of the day, a drunk guy asked me for beer. I offered water, tea and sierra mist. He took one of those little green cans. Sorry dude, I used be out of beer too, at the end of the float. I wanted more then too, like you. Now, I found more fun, without it. Different fun, but deeper. An understanding that we missed the real beauty in search of the beers and even the bouncing river boobies.

God’s delivering more than that. The current and flow is ours to harness, we can go far and beyond with Him. Unless we continue to try and fight it, doing things our own ways. It’s very tiring, wanting to be pointed in the ‘right’ direction. A little backwards motion would be much easier, if we can just accept it for the small passing moment. So He showed me, on the river that day 🙂


Aaron Nichols


3 thoughts on “Banging in the Canoe, Slapping the Water, Grimacing or Grinning the Whole Way

  1. Aaron & Lindsay– Many happy returns of the day!! Much love to you
    both! I share my feelings with Chris and we all know in our heart, our
    Creator is such a great guide, if we only use ears to hear. G’ma Smell

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