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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime


By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest


Throughout much of North America, the first snows of winter have already fallen. The paddling season is drawing to a close. But winter doesn't put a stop to imagination, does it? As ice locks up the lakes and rivers, and as the snowbanks grow deeper outside our doors, we can still re-live past trips and look forward to next spring. Even in the darkest, coldest days of January, we can hear the cries of the returning geese and see bare earth poking up through the melting snow, if only in our minds.

For Brenna Trent and her husband Ed Fletcher, however, March has already arrived. Beginning this week, we'll follow them as they get ready for the "trip of a lifetime." We'll look over their shoulders as they plan, and join them in checking off all the items on their gear and food lists. Then, once everything is ready, we'll go along with them as they head north to chart the last voyage of Henry Hudson—and maybe to learn why he never returned.

A reminder: This is a work of fiction. With the exception of a few public figures, whose actions and utterances are the products of the authors' imaginations, all the characters described in this work are fictitious. And, while many locales named in this work do exist, others are entirely imaginary. Even the geography of real places has been altered from time to time for dramatic purposes. This is a work of the imagination. It isn't a river guide.

October 31, 2000

Chapter One

Brenna Trent leaned heavily against the scuffed wooden counter, sitting half on and half off her stool. She made swift, slashing strokes with a soft pencil in a sketchbook that rested on her knee. Every so often, she glanced up at the customer standing in the cone of light illuminating the narrow aisle between two of the shop's floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

The man was wrapped up in a wool greatcoat whose ragged hem fell below his knees. He was a terrific model for an artist, with his wild white hair and immense, straggly moustache. His jowls sagged in folds and bloomed with broken veins, framing a magnificent hawk's beak of a nose. His eyes, too, were hawk-like, set deep in dark sockets. He looked like an Old Testament prophet who'd fallen on hard times, and he'd been browsing through the books for well over an hour. He gave no indication that he intended to buy anything.

Brenna smeared her little finger across the pencil line to enhance a shadow. When she looked up again, her eyes met the man's. She smiled. He smirked furtively. He'd noticed her watching him before, and now he saw she was doing something—making notes, maybe?—in some kind of big pad. He started to feel nervous. He wasn't much of a reader, but he'd come into The Book Locker to escape the chill March wind that was driving cold rain against the shop windows and rattling the bare maple branches outside. Maybe this lady knew he wasn't going to buy anything, he thought. Even though she was smiling, her alert eyes scared him. He was scared of a lot of things these days. He grabbed a paperback off the shelf without looking at the title and took it to the counter.

"Will that be all?" Brenna asked pleasantly.

"Yep, that's all," the man said, rummaging for the tattered wallet in the deep pocket of his brown corduroys. Brenna set her pad down on the counter. The man saw the sketch.

"Hey," he said, both startled and flattered to see his penciled likeness, "that's pretty damn good." The man grinned as he handed over two worn, one-dollar bills. "Where'd you learn to draw like that, anyway?"

"Oh, I taught myself," Brenna said, giving the man a few pennies in change and slipping the book into a small paper bag. "Do you want the sketch?"

"Naw," the man said, suddenly embarrassed. "Ain't got no place to put it." And he turned without another word and bolted for the door, brushing past the postman in the entry alcove. An icy gust blew through the stacks of musty old books.

"Brenna Trent, Edward Fletcher, The Book Locker, Occupant.... Yep. It's all here," said Dan, slapping the wad of mail down on the wooden counter. He paused for breath. He wasn't as young as he used to be, and the mail bag seemed to get heavier now when he walked his route, instead of lighter, like it ought to do. Didn't make no sort of sense, he thought. His breath returning, he checked his watch. Always time for a little conversation.

"How's things today, Brenna?" he asked, wheezing a little, and then he shrugged his shoulders to take some of the bite out of his load.

"So-so, Dan. And you?" Brenna raised her eyebrows in a good approximation of interest while she thumbed through the stack of letters. Bills and junk-mail mostly. "Visit Exotic Vietnam," one brochure read. Ed's going to like that, she thought. Trip of a lifetime!

More bills. And one catalog—BBHaricot's Guide to Gear for 2001. There was a lemon-yellow kayak on the cover and a tree-lined lake in the background.

"The wife's all in a fever for spring," Dan continued. "Wants ta get the garden in. I tell her it's too early. Anybody can see it's too early. But does she listen to me? No. She ain't listened to me for gettin' onta twenty years now." Brenna nodded sympathetically, with an expression that suggested she thought the wife oughta listen. But she didn't say anything. Dan looked at his watch. Gettin' late, and the mailbag wasn't gettin' any lighter. Time to go. "See ya tomorra!" he said, and he headed toward the door.

Brenna shivered as a gust hit her again, then started leafing through the catalog, pausing as she always did at the two-page spread of canoes and kayaks. "This year's models!" the copy said, and all around them were pictures of smiling, fit, tanned folks frolicking on sunlit beaches and hanging out on weathered timber docks. They're this year's models, too, she though enviously.

It had been a long time since she and Ed had frolicked on a sunlit beach or hung out around a dock. Every year, when the sun started getting up earlier and the ice went out on the river that ran through town, Brenna would feel funny. Restless and uneasy. Then a day would come when she'd hear the big Canada geese calling to each other, way, way up, heading north. And she'd start smelling the earth again, and remembering the years when spring meant whitewater and long weekends in the old VW, its shaky front-end held together with wrappings of leather boot-lace. Those were the years when she and Ed went off every chance they got, chasing the runoff from river to river all over northern New York and Vermont. That was a long time ago, she thought.

Brenna sighed. She hadn't heard any geese yet, and the neglected garden at the back of the shop was still buried deep in dirty snow. She glanced again at the two-page spread of canoes and kayaks, wondering if spring would ever return. She shrugged her shoulders unconsciously, looking for just a minute a lot like Dan the postman. Then she slipped off the stool and made a half-hearted attack on the books nearest the counter with a feather duster. When she reached the end of the first aisle, the door to the back room creaked open and Ed walked in. He saw her and smiled. She forgave him.

"Look at what I found in that box of magazines we bought from the Norman estate," Ed said, holding up a copy of something called Mercator's World. Brenna tilted her head to see. What a wonderful, terrible cover, she thought. It showed a painting—nineteenth century by the look of it. A bearded man sat in the sternsheets of a big open boat, tiller in one hand, staring out with mixture of sadness and determination. A boy knelt at his feet, gazing pleadingly up at him. The boy looked close to tears. In the foreground, a young man sprawled listlessly under a fur robe, obviously weakened by sickness or exhaustion. Behind them all, ice flows towered menacingly. The small boat and its occupants were alone in a wilderness of ice and water. Brenna shuddered involuntarily. It didn't look like anyone was going to get out of that wilderness alive.

"What do you think?" Ed asked. He hadn't noticed the shudder. When Brenna didn't answer, he repeated, "What do you think?"

"I think," Brenna said abruptly, "that the guys in that painting died a long way from home."

"Of course they did," said Ed. "Look at the title. It's a painting of Henry Hudson. Remember what happened to him? He sailed into James Bay, looking for the Northwest Passage. After wintering-over at the bottom of the Bay and nearly starving, his crew mutinied. They set Hudson, his son, and all the crew-members who were too sick to work adrift in the ship's boat. Nobody knows exactly what happened to them, but one thing's for sure—they died a very long way from home."

Brenna took another look at the cover of the magazine. Written in bold letters across a snow-covered peak were the words "Charting Hudson's Last Voyage." "Not exactly a cheerful read," Brenna commented wryly, wondering where this conversation was headed.

"Nope. Not at all," said Ed. He sounded pretty happy about it, though. "How'd you like to do it?"

"Die surrounded by icebergs somewhere near the bottom of the Bay? No thanks." Brenna's voice had a sarcastic edge. She was finding it harder and harder to follow Ed's drift among the flows. She turned away and reached out reflexively to dust a section of shelf.

Ed touched her arm. She stopped dusting and turned back toward him. He looked amused, and a little bit worried, too. "Not die, Brenna. Live. For the first time in a long time. Follow the geese north. Go right up to the Bay. Shut up the shop. Go north. Maybe even chart Hudson's last voyage."

Brenna was silent. She looked at Ed. She looked at the magazine cover. At the bearded old man and the pleading boy. At the implacable, waiting ice. She raised her head again, staring hard into Ed's blue eyes.

"Yes," she said. "I'd like that very much."

Behind her, the ancient Chauncey Jerome clock on the shelf over the shop counter started to strike the hour—ten minutes early, as usual. Five o'clock. Quitting time.

"Yes," Brenna said again, quietly. "Let's go."

To be continued ...

Last Voyage

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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