We’ll have a short briefing at 0730 hours.” ¶ A short briefing? At 0730 hours? When my husband, Nick, began using military time, I should have realized I was in over my head. ¶ The briefing was held in our rented cabin on Lake Superior, from which we were about to head out on a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters. Not a week-long deal, or even all day. Just six miles—four hours of easy paddling. Sure, the portages would not be sign-posted, but they would be in obvious places, easily identified, according to our outfitter. ¶ “Stick together,” Nick advised us, as though we could wander very far in a canoe. “Help each other. Be careful.”
That was the briefing. Then he had us place our smaller belongings into Ziploc bags and grab some bungee cords to secure our supplies to the canoes. Why we needed the briefing or the bungees was beyond me. I didn’t mind the Ziploc bags, though. They organized everything nicely.
We rented three canoes. Nick and I in settled into one, our two teenaged sons shared the second, our young-adult son took the last with our 13-year-old daughter. We would consider it a victory if our daughter was still speaking to us at the end of the trip. Our sons, we figured, would either be best friends or have killed each other. With six life jackets and three bungee cords firmly in place, we pushed off.
Well, “pushed off” may be exaggerating. Lurched, perhaps. Nick kept assuring me that the kids would be paddling like pros soon enough—despite the fact that only one of them had ever paddled a canoe before. One canoe zigzagged like a water bug. The other lagged far behind as our eldest yelled at his sister: “Try harder!”
Eventually we reached the first portage. “Is this fun for you?” my daughter asked me quietly. I assured her that it was, and she assured me that she was hating it.
Truthfully, I was concerned: I couldn’t have spotted this portage if it was lit in neon. Sure, there were a few light scratches on the rocks—signs that other canoes had been pulled up on them. But mostly this place didn’t look any different than the area around it. How had Nick known where it was? Had he just gotten lucky?
The three oldest males swung the canoes onto their shoulders and followed the dirt path to the water on the other side. The river we entered seemed much slower, more placid than the water we’d vacated. Feeling better now, I informed my husband how much I love canoeing, that we should buy a canoe someday. Then I realized there was a fallen tree just beneath the water’s surface. I pushed against it with my paddle and then—oh!
I think it’s safe to say it was my fault the canoe tipped over. But when your canoe tips in the Boundary Waters, you don’t waste time arguing whose fault it was. As I flailed to the surface, my husband pulled alongside. He was speaking calm, encouraging words—nothing from the military. That was a good thing.
I sat shivering in the canoe. Nick spoke eloquently of the beauty of nature. That helped. That and the hope that somebody would shortly send a helicopter.
We portaged again, and cautiously slipped into a large lake with high waves, even white caps. “Rocks!” someone yelled. “Look out for the rocks!” It was as if we had put down in the North Atlantic.
I felt an urge to jump in and end it all. But then I realized that Nick would only jump in and save me, shouting military phrases I don’t understand and some I probably do but never say. I’ve always striven to be a good girl and now here I was, some extraordinary words on the tip of my tongue.
Finally, using his sixth sense, his ability to detect portages, Nick figured we were close to the next one. We crept along, scouring the shore for signs of, well, I’m not sure what. When Nick shouted, “Here it is!” I breathed a sigh of relief.
Our last lake was much calmer and, the wind at our backs now, we needed only 20 minutes to paddle to the end. When we came ashore for good, we dumped the water from the canoes like refugees from a storm, removed our life jackets, and unbuckled those wonderful bungee cords. Wet, sunburned, and tired, our children were best friends again. We all were.
It was about 1430 hours.
Kristi Scorcio is a freelance writer from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.