Tippy Canoe


When I was in high school many years ago, I decided to join the Boy Scouts. I didn’t have any real reason to do so; it was just something to do. This motivation was reflected in my performance during my scouting years – I never got past achieving a First Class rating, hardly an ambitious career.

That said, I did attain a Canoeing Merit Badge, which served me in good stead a few years later. I won my badge by learning how to right a swamped canoe and inflating my buttoned shirt to turn it into a somewhat effective life jacket.

All of these accomplishments were achieved during a two-week stay at Camp Massawepie (yep that was and is its’ name). Massawepie is a scout camp in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. The Camp had one distinguishing feature – the coldest lake water this scout ever stuck his big toe in! Nonetheless, I vigorously pursued my Canoeing badge and was rewarded with it when the camping session was over.

Fast-forward to one year later, I’m now in the Explorer Scouts, with the same kind of unambitious participation.  Our troop was small one with just eight members, seven of whom reluctantly show up at the weekly meetings where we discuss projects to undertake, none of which ever went anywhere.

Finally, at one meeting, our Fearless Leader (we never called him that to his face), Bill G., our Scoutmaster came up with a pretty interesting idea.

“Men,” he intoned, “I think we should undertake a canoe trip!”

A canoe trip? When? Where to?

“Why, this summer and to Canada, of course?”

Canada? Where in Canada (a destination that sounded like the most exotic location in the world)?

“Why to Algonquin Provincial Park, naturally!”

Bill went on to explain that Algonquin is the oldest park in Canada that it covers nearly 3,000 square miles and contains approximately 2,400 lakes!

Wow, this sounded like an amazing experience. The group vote was universal, “Let’s go!” – especially since it beat hanging around our hot and dead slow town all summer.

Our Fearless Leader failed to mention that the Park lies some 350 miles north of our little hometown on the southern shore of Lake Ontario and that it will take over five hours to get to the edge of the Park; and by the way, the journey will be undertaken in his aging panel truck with no seats in the back, so those of us who decide to join this expedition will have to do so lying down since he will be doing the driving and “Big Tom” his Assistant Scoutmaster will be riding shotgun up front.

A word about “Big Tom.” He earned his nickname because of height and weight. Tom was a very good defensive lineman on our high school football team, so when Bill gave our group a “to do” list, Big Tom saw that it was done. As far as I can remember, no one argued with him.

Finally, after much deliberation, six of us signed on and along with Bill and “Big Tom, we could man four two-man canoes.

Had Bill ever been to Algonquin? No, but he assured us that he could read a map with the best of them.  And as to canoeing experience, Bill had some, but the rest of us were novices. But then, why bother with details? How tough can paddling a canoe be? We’ll all gain on-the-job experience.

With the sordid details behind us, we all eagerly packed whatever gear we could find at home, borrow from neighbors or purchase second-hand. We tied down the borrowed canoes on a trailer behind the van and set out for our two-week experience in the Canadian wilds. We all agreed that big time adventure was straight ahead!

The trip north was long, hot and awful. No point going into the details, just picture six restless teenage boys packed in the back of a windowless van and you can imagine the rest.

After what seemed like days later, we approached the camp entry checkpoint and Bill G. unveiled his masterstroke idea; we needed to don full Explorer regalia to enter the park. After all, we’re from the U.S. of A. and should be regarded as official representatives of our country. Amid loud groans, we dug out our uniforms and with considerable struggle, put them on.

If the guard at the gate had any appreciation of our efforts, it didn’t show on his face as we paid our entry fee and he waved us past.

After another interminable drive, we arrived at our home base, a campground and general store. It was a hot, dusty, tired-looking place complete with a Canadian sunset not far off. With that in mind, Bill and Tom made for the store to stock up on supplies. The rest of us were charged with unloading the canoes and equipment, which we more or less accomplished in front of an audience – a gaggle of giggling teenage girls. While we manfully struggled with the canoes (Old Town wooden monsters), they tittered in the background. Despite our uniforms, they were clearly unimpressed.

Nonetheless, we made camp for the night, cooked our supper such as it was and the next morning loaded our canoes and set off.

I won’t even begin to describe the next two weeks, save to say that the scenery was magnificent, the swimming great fun, the food plentiful, but not that good, the paddling and portages hard work (the canoes weighed a ton), and we quickly discovered that our Fearless Leader could not read a map with the best of them. All that said, the overall experience amazing.

Two weeks later, having survived a run-in with a bear, kept the beavers from chewing our paddles (they liked the salt on the handles), encounters with several rather large snakes on the portage trails and assorted other challenges, we approached our base camp. We were hot, tired, sunburned, but undaunted. We now considered ourselves true Explorer Scouts, even though our paddle stokes still betrayed our lack of experience.

Bill then announced his next grand idea.

“Men,” he shouted, “Get into uniform!” After muttered threats and more groans, we donned our uniforms. This time, Bill even added his big flat rim hat, complete with a chinstrap.

And now for the final stroke.

“Men, we need to sing as we approach the dock.”

We reluctantly broke into a ragged version of “The Happy Wanderer” … you know “Val-deri, Val-dera, Val-der ha, ha, ha, etc.” – We were mortified, but complied.

It turned out that an audience was on had to witness our triumphant reentry into civilization. The same gaggle of girls was assembled on a hillside overlooking the dock. They viewed our arrival with disdain and mild amusement.

“Big Tom” was in the bow of the lead canoe, with Bill handling the stern. As their craft nudged alongside of the dock and was still in motion, “Big Tom” leapt from the bow onto the worn dock planking. That is to say, he nearly leapt onto the dock.

Tom managed to get one foot on the dock, but as he attempted to complete his leap of faith, his trailing leg got tangled in the bow line and he was yanked backwards. Luckily he wasn’t hurt, but his legs caught the far side of the canoe — which prompted capsized, dumping both him and Bill and all of the remaining supplies into the drink.

Most of the supplies immediately sank to the bottom of the lake with the notable exception of Bill’s hat, which majestically floated off down the lake accompanied by wild shrieks of laughter from the female audience.

Bill and “Big Tom” bobbed to the surface to a satiric round of applause from our audience. To Bill’s credit, he rewarded their cheering by bowing to them. Tom just stood there apparently dumfounded by what had just happened.

The rest of the Explorers sat in their respective craft in stunned silence. Our Canadian adventure had come to an unexpected end. Fortunately, my experience in righting a capsized vessel came in handy, and we were able to right the canoe and empty it of lake water.

Regretfully, our audience had retired and did not witness that last act of Explorer know-how. Perhaps that was just as fortunate since Bill’s hat had floated off in the  general direction of Hudson Bay and the far north. We never were able to recover it.

As you might imagine, there was little conversation on the way home.

(photo courtesy of EA/Freedigitalphotos.net)