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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

I've Got a Little List

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

It's March, 2001. Brenna Trent and Ed Fletcher are sorting through their gear and making list after list, getting ready for three months on a northern river. Less than a week ago they'd just about given up the idea. Faced with one problem after another, they'd been hoping against hope that "something would turn up" to help them out. Then someone did, and Jack Van Dorn's already proving invaluable. The story continues.

December 5, 2000

Chapter Four

Brenna stood on the flagstone patio behind The Book Locker. It was Sunday morning. From loudspeakers in six steeples, scratchy recordings of church bells blared out over the small city of Fort Hudson. Sparrows chattered among the just-swelling buds of a nearby maple, and cardinals fluted in the ragged hawthorn hedge forming the garden border. Closer still, a blue jay scolded a portly gray squirrel at the feeder. High above Brenna, perched right on the edge of the flat roof of the boarded-up furniture store next door, a noisy mob of crows looked out on the world beneath them. The big, black birds tilted and swiveled their heads constantly, erupting every so often in a chorus of caws and rattles. Drawn by the chance to join the gossip, three more crows flew in and jostled for position with those already there.

Breaking free of the low haze, the morning sun gathered strength and highlighted the crows' glossy feathers. It was noticeably warmer. The vernal equinox was only days away, and the recent late-winter storm already a distant memory. Tattered drifts of smutty snow hung on in just a handful of shaded pockets. In the damp soil along the south side of the shop, the first green shoots of daffodils were already poking up into the light. Spring was in the air.

Barely-ordered chaos reigned in The Book Locker, spilling out onto the back porch, the narrow back garden, and beyond, all the way into the small, sagging barn that now did double-duty as both garage and storage shed. A bright yellow dome tent—an old North Face VE-24—sat like an exotic mushroom on top of the picnic table, well off the muddy ground. New clotheslines stretched taut from the back porch to hooks screwed into the side of the barn. A big Eureka Timberline tent and fly hung from one of the lines, flapping lazily in the breeze alongside two scarlet sleeping bags and a dark green tarp.

Ed emerged from the shop, struggling to keep an armload of paddles from tripping him up. Lurching down the steps, he lumbered over to the picnic table and propped the paddles against one of the benches, lining up the four ash beavertails and four fiberglass T-grips as if they were troops awaiting inspection. Just as he finished, Jack Van Dorn stumbled out from the back room, too, bent double under a wooden crate. He staggered along the flagged path, setting the crate down on a patch of dry ground under a hastily-hung blue plastic tarp. Several sets of nesting aluminum pots, a cast-iron dutch oven, a fire-pan, and a cook's tool-roll protruded from the open top. The crate joined a rapidly-growing jumble of other boxes and duffles

Brenna tore herself away from watching the crows' antics, squatted, and worked the little priming pump attached to a dented brass Svea 123 stove sitting upright on the flagstones at her feet. "Everybody ready?" she asked. Ed and Jack each took one step back as Brenna pulled off the pump and turned the key to open the valve. A jet of gas splashed against the burner plate and ran down the generator, filling the small cup at the base. Closing the valve and thrusting a hastily-struck match through a cut-out in the wind-screen, Brenna lit the puddled fuel. Seconds later, just as the pre-heating flame began to die down, she turned the key to open the valve again. The stove gave a jet-engine-like roar and then erupted in an impressive fireball. Darting her hand forward—expecting just such a blow-out, she'd kept the wind to her back—she deftly closed the valve down, bringing the stove under control. Then she set a small, blackened kettle of water carefully on the wire pot supports, and settled back on her haunches.

"Damn!" said Jack, raising his voice just a bit to make himself heard over the roar of the stove's burner. "Good thing you got short hair, girl!"

"Yeah, well, I do miss my Optimus 111B," Brenna replied, her eyes never leaving the precariously balanced pot. "It was heavy, sure—it was a moose, in fact!—but it was a lot less fussy than this little Svea, and it put out a helluva hot flame. You could simmer with it, too. Can't really do that with the Svea. Turn the flame down too far and it just goes out." Brenna hooked her arms over her knees and then rested her chin on her forearms. She remembered what they said about a watched pot never boiling, and wondered how long she'd have to wait.

"Next time give it fewer pumps," Ed suggested, only to be rewarded with a withering stare. Brenna remembered when he last fired up the Svea. They'd been lucky they hadn't both been sent into orbit. Ed could take a hint. He busied himself pouring packets of Lipton instant pea soup mix into each of three mugs lined up on the porch rail.

Jack shaded his eyes and gazed up at the crows. "Those blackbirds are havin' a good laugh," he said. Just as he spoke, one crow dropped from the roof next door and flew down to the barn to get a closer look. "Always liked them crows. Mighty smart birds."

Ed and Brenna nodded in silent agreement. They'd hit it off with Jack right away. After he made the emergency repair to the broken pipe in the back room, he'd offered to put the entire heating system to rights. "Fix it good and proper," he'd said. "Won't take no time." And it didn't, either. He was finished in a day. Not a very long time, at all—but long enough for them to get to know each other.

But then Jack wouldn't take any money for the job. Ed and Brenna were flabbergasted. They'd learned something about Jack's hand-to-mouth existence while he was working on the heat. He lived in a barren room in a motel out on the state highway. It was no place for an old Labrador hand, they thought. And now he wouldn't take a penny for the work he'd done.

That's when Brenna first voiced the idea that had been on both their minds. She and Ed needed someone to keep an eye on the shop while they were away up North, after all, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to have an extra set of hands around the place until then. (Ed nodded, thinking of the long list of unfinished maintenance jobs he had on his desk.) Jack needed a proper place to live. He wouldn't take money for his work. OK. But maybe—just maybe—they could clear out the old downstairs apartment and give it to Jack rent-free.

It seemed like a good idea to both of them. So, not knowing quite what to expect, Ed and Brenna put the offer to Jack. He accepted. Now they had a live-in caretaker for the shop.

Clearing out the apartment took less time then they thought it would, and there was an unexpected bonus. When Ed and Brenna had first moved in, years ago, the shop had been full of old furniture and other junk. They'd been too busy to sort it out, so they'd just crammed it into the downstairs apartment. Now, when Ed got ready to haul it off to the landfill, Jack stepped in. "You're not gonna throw this stuff away, are ya?" he'd exclaimed. "That's like throwin' money away! I'll bet I can get somethin' for almost everything ya got there."

And he did, too. They opened the double-door on the barn, rigged up a plastic tarp over part of the drive, and put a big "Barn Sale" banner across the shop front. Meanwhile, Jack passed the word in the diner and on the street. Before long, people were stopping by. Then Jack circulated through the browsers, working the crowd like a carnival barker. In two days' time they'd sold just about everything but a few cracked plates and a couple of tineless forks. And they were two thousand dollars richer! Ed and Brenna insisted that Jack take half the proceeds. He moved into his new home that evening. Brenna, remembering what brought Jack to the shop in the first place, gave him a copy of Life on the Mississippi as a housewarming gift.

The rattle of the pot lid brought Brenna back to the present. The water was boiling at last. She closed the valve on the stove. As the flame sputtered and died, she grabbed at the bail and lifted the pot off the Svea, handing it up to Ed, who poured boiling water into the three waiting mugs, stirred each one, and passed the soup round.

Brenna looked thoughtfully at the still-sputtering stove, then got to her feet and joined Ed and Jack on the porch. "You know," she said, "the community college outing club's holding a gear swap sometime before Easter. Maybe we can pick up another stove."

"Yeah," said Ed. "Maybe we can. It'd be good to have a burner that you could control. Then again, the Svea's never failed us, has it? And there's something to be said for simplicity."

Brenna walked over to the Tripper, which rested upside-down on two sawhorses and which was now doing double duty as a desk. She set her mug down on the scarred bottom and lifted a small piece of red Potsdam sandstone that kept a stack of computer printouts from blowing away in the gentle breeze. With a stubby pencil, she wrote "Gear swap" at the bottom of the page headed "Things to Do," and then crossed out "Check Svea." No list is ever finished, she thought, shaking her head silently.

"Mind if I take a look at them lists?" Jack asked, walking over to her. Brenna handed the sheaf of print-outs to him. He shuffled through them, running his forefinger down every page as his eyes scanned each item.

When he finished, he scratched his head. "Don't see no sextant on this gear list here," he said, trying unsuccessfully to keep a note of horror out of his voice. "Don't tell me you're goin' North without a sextant! How you gonna know where you are on that big, lonely Bay?"

"I've been thinking about that," Ed replied. "We could take a GPS, of course, but…." Seeing the unspoken question in Jack's eyes, he added, "GPS? That's 'Global Positioning System.' Satellite navigation. A little plastic box with a circuit board inside. Press a couple of buttons and it tells you where you are. No muss, no fuss, no bother." Ed paused, searching for words. "Handy enough gadget, I guess. Great toy. Good in fog. Good if you're driving a supertanker into New York harbor, too. But…for us? Don't think so. I suppose I've always liked doing things the hard way." He glanced down at the battered yellow Tripper and shrugged his shoulders. "Hell, a canoe isn't exactly state-of-the-art transport, is it?"

"So, you're going to get a sextant, right?" Jack asked, wanting to make certain. When Ed grunted affirmatively, Jack turned back to Brenna and handed her the sheaf of papers, adding, "You write sextant down there right now, hear me, girl?" And he smiled broadly.

Ed was less sure, but he kept his doubts to himself. Another thing to shop for, he thought, and he'd bet sextants didn't come cheap. The windfall from their barn sale didn't look to last long. Still, it wouldn't hurt to get some catalogs, would it? He sighed.

The soup break was over in minutes. There was still a lot to do and Sunday was the only day The Book Locker was closed. Everyone wanted to make the best of the pleasant weather while it lasted. Just then a teenage couple with a baby in a squeaky stroller walked up the drive to find out if there was anything left over from the sale. Stammering a little, the boy explained that they had a new apartment to furnish and not very much cash. Jack took them to the barn to see what he could do.

While he was gone, Ed and Brenna hung eight big Duluth sacks on the line. Three had never been used. They'd been a bargain, bought cheap during an off-season sale. "Too good a deal to pass up," Ed had said at the time. Then he'd added, "Just in case." The three packs still looked brand-new, though they were all a little musty from long storage. The other five bore scuffs and scars identifying them as old campaigners. One had a long tear in the canvas and a badly-chewed strap.

Seeing the torn pack, Ed remembered when the strap got chewed. It had been the last night of a late November trip to the Ponds some years back—northern lights shimmering over the trees when they'd gone to bed and, in the morning, a glaze of ice newly-formed in the shallows. Mice had scampered around the Adirondack lean-to all through the long night, climbing the gear packs and sliding down them again and again, with squeaks that sounded suspiciously like shouts of joy. He and Brenna hadn't known about the chewed strap till the next day's portage. It parted with a snap just as Brenna heaved a second pack on top of it, and the suddenly-unbalanced load sent her flying off the trail into the prickly embrace of a black spruce. It'd been a nuisance at the time, all right, but the annoyance hadn't lasted. They'd both decided it was a small price to pay for the pleasures of the night—the aurora, the gleeful mice, and the crystalline rime on the margin of the silent pond.

Ed looked at the other packs. One had a thick fuzz of green mildew on all the leather straps, so Brenna soaked a sponge in a solution of vinegar and water and scrubbed off the mold. It took only a minute to do, and then she hung the pack back on the line to dry in the sun. Once they'd checked all the packs, she and Ed examined every inch of every seam and panel of both tents, and each of the paddles, too. They found several seams that needed re-sealing, a small hole in the netting of the VE-24, and a hairline crack in the blade of one of the fiberglass Iliad paddles. Brenna made more notes on her lists.

When she was finished, they both walked back to the Tripper. Ed had checked the old boat over already, right after they first started talking about going north. It didn't take long to confirm his earlier suspicions. The veteran was showing her years.

"I've been thinking," he said.

"Don't do that!" Brenna joked.

"No danger," said Ed ruefully. "Not more than once a month, at any rate." Then he was serious. "We need to find another canoe." Ed rubbed his bristled chin, where an unfamiliar beard was taking hold. "This old barge'll have a hard time carrying us and our gear. It's not only her age. She's just too small."

Brenna pursed her lips. The big canoe had been with them since their honeymoon trip down the Missinaibi. It had been new then, just like their marriage. Until now, Brenna hadn't realized how attached she'd become to the old canoe.

Ed brought Brenna back from her reverie. "We can't put this off any longer. I've made a list of some expedition boats. I'll go to that paddlesport website you found a couple of days ago…." He paused, ransacking his memory unsuccessfully, and then asked, "What's the name again?"

"Paddling.net," Brenna replied, adding, "It looked pretty good, too. I've been meaning to go back, but I've been so busy."

"Tell me about it," Ed said, grinning. "They've got hundreds of boat reviews, right? And a free classified section?" Brenna nodded. "Sounds perfect," Ed continued. "New canoes aren't cheap. Maybe we can find a good used boat."

"Can we really afford this trip, Ed?" Brenna asked, thinking about the balance in their bank account.

"Hope so. Thanks to Jack we made a nice piece of change on that barn sale. Now we just have to sell some books. Every little bit helps."

"Jack's one in a million," Brenna said. She hesitated, still thinking of their old canoe, and of money. Suddenly, she was all business. "I guess we'll have to go to the book show in Albany, huh?"

"Yeah," replied Ed. "I'll do the show while you mind the shop." Then he ran his hand along the bottom of their battered old canoe. "Don't worry, Brenn," he said, answering her unvoiced question. "We'll keep the old barge. Of course we will. We can use her on local rivers. We couldn't sell her, could we? She's like a member of the family now."

"What about the tents?" asked Brenna, relieved. "Should we take the VE-24 or the Timberline? I love my old dome, but it'd be really nice to have the high roof and the extra room of the 4-man Timberline."

"Yep," agreed Ed. "If we have day after day of rain—and we will, no doubt about it—it'll sure be good to have space to spread out a bit."

The rest of the day passed quickly. When Jack saw the torn Duluth sack on the line, he fetched his ditty bag from his apartment and sat down on the porch with the pack over his knees. Rummaging in the ditty bag, he pulled out a leather sailor's palm and a heavy needle. Then he slipped the palm over his right hand and started closing the torn edges of the tear with a herringbone stitch. When he finished, he flat-stitched a canvas patch down over the repair. Then he hung the pack back on the line, reminding himself to hunt up a piece of leather for the strap.

With the sun sinking low, Ed and Brenna removed the airing gear from the lines, and stowed it away on shelves in the back room. Ed noticed the neat, new stitching on the old pack. He ought to ask Jack for a quick lesson in canvas repair, he thought. Brenna made what she hoped were the final additions to the "Stuff to Take" and "Things to Do" lists on the computer, working from the printouts she'd spent all day annotating.

That done, they went back outside. Even though there was no more heat to be had from the setting sun, the air was still pleasantly warm. No one really wanted to stay indoors, not after four months of winter. Brenna carried a big pot of beef stew out onto the porch. (It had been simmering all afternoon on the stove.) Ed poured mulled cider into mugs, and Jack set three bowls out on a little folding table he'd kept back from the barn sale.

Each of them ladled out a steaming bowl of stew, and then they all sat side-by-side on the porch steps. A chipmunk, exploring her world anew after her long winter's sleep, scampered from the bird-feeder to a burrow entrance under a lilac bush, her cheeks swelling with stolen seed. Even the traffic on Main Street hummed along quietly. No brakes squealed. No horns bleated. It was as if all the inhabitants of Fort Hudson, human and animal alike, were making the most of every second of the warm day. Now and again, a dog barked lazily in the distance, and Ed thought he heard the song of a robin. Then they heard something else. Walking out from beneath the porch roof, Brenna cocked her head toward the sky.

Ed and Jack stopped eating and held their breaths. There it was again. At first it sounded almost like an overheard conversation, right at the threshold of hearing. Then it became louder, until they heard the unmistakable honking call of geese. Jack was the first to spot them. Pointing toward the twilight-darkened eastern horizon, he cried out, "There they are! Just above the trees."

And there they were! Hundreds of Canada geese flying north in a fluid echelon, new vees forming and old ones splitting up even as they watched. Ed, Brenna, and Jack stood in awed silence, their cooling stew forgotten. Then, just as the last of the big birds faded from sight, they heard a second honking chorus. It was more nasal, harsher and somehow wilder. The three friends craned their necks. Right overhead—high, high up against the deep purple sky—they saw an undulating formation of a hundred white snow geese. The snow geese, too, were heading north.

"Wavies!" Ed whispered, half to himself and half out loud. His spirits soared. "We'll be right behind you," he said, almost shouting. "See you on the Bay!"

To be continued…

Crows

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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