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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

April Fools

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

It's April 1st, 2001. April Fool's Day. Ed, Brenna, and the rest of the gang from "Friends and Lovers" are on the Battenkill—everybody's first time on moving water after a long winter. Things are looking pretty good. So far, the shakedown cruise is going fine, but Ken still can't get rid of the feeling that Linda's wolf-dog is out to get him. Could he be right?

A reminder: This is a work of fiction. Ed and Brenna's Battenkill isn't exactly like the real thing, and this article is not a river guide. If you're planning to paddle the real Battenkill, get a copy of the AMC River Guide or some equally authoritative volume. 'Nuff said.

January 16, 2001

Chapter Eight

Sunday morning was cool and cloudy. Three vehicles rolled north through the village of Arlington, Vermont. All had New York plates. All were carrying canoes. Ed and Brenna's Ford pickup was in the lead, their aging Tripper lashed securely to the crossbars of the home-made rack. Brenna was driving.

Ed gazed out the window. Red Mountain rose high in the west, tendrils of mist drifting down its steep shoulders. In the valley below, tourists and locals filed out of white clapboard churches. The tourists pointed their video cameras at the canoe-laden convoy. They smiled and waved. The locals trudged to their cars, their hands in their pockets. They'd seen canoeists before.

A pothole swallowed the Ford's right front tire, bouncing Ed and Brenna hard against their seat belts. A sign on the side of the road reminded them that they were driving on "Historic Route 7A."

"'Historic Route 7A'? Damn right it's historic!" Ed spluttered. "Bet that pothole's been there since the Revolution!"

Brenna had her mind on other things. Alerted by the sound of squealing brakes, she was watching Pete and Karin Neary's Explorer in the rear-view mirror. Pete had swerved to avoid the pothole that had claimed the Ford, nearly wiping out a family on mountain bikes who were struggling painfully along the highway's narrow, rutted shoulder. The father shook his fist at the rapidly-disappearing SUV. He was shouting, too. Brenna couldn't hear what he was saying, but she was pretty sure it wasn't "Have a nice day."

The Neary's Explorer sped ahead impatiently, closing the distance until it was no more than a couple of car lengths behind the Ford. "If Pete get's any closer," Brenna grumbled, turning her attention back to the road, "he's going to have our Tripper for a hood ornament. That'll be one hell of an April Fool."

"I suppose Ken's still back there somewhere," said Ed, rolling down the window and looking over his shoulder to see if he could catch a glimpse of the silver Caravan with Ken's old Blue Hole OCA and Brick Johnson's Dagger Legend on top. "Yep. There he is. Missed the pothole, too." Ed wondered how Ken was coping with Fenris. Linda had promised to give the wolf-dog a tranquilizer, but even if Fenris was on her best behavior, Ed didn't imagine the atmosphere in the Caravan was very chummy.

"Not my problem, though," he thought, and went back to surveying the spring landscape. Now and again he caught a glimpse of the Battenkill off to the left. It was an impressive sight. Flowing almost even with the top of its banks, the placid summer trout stream had been transformed by meltwater and runoff into a turbid, gray-green torrent. Earlier, after dropping off Linda Carney's Jeep Wagoneer at the take-out in Shushan, they'd stopped to scout the weir above the Tackle Box bridge. Water was pouring over the low dam, with a powerful reversal extending downstream of the drop.

"She's pretty ugly today," Ed had said when he first saw the weir from the bridge, watching a good-sized birch log spin round and round in the backwash. "Maybe we'd better plan to portage." After he'd walked upstream for a better look, however, he'd decided that it was runnable near the bank on the right, and Ken and the others had agreed.

Now they were approaching Roaring Branch. Usually a subject for wisecracks—the stream was little more than a trickle in summer—it was living up to its name today.

"Just look at that!" exclaimed Ed. "Bet Brick wishes he brought his creek boat."

"Yeah, well, we're gonna have to warn the guys to watch for strainers under the cutbank on the right, just below where the Branch comes in," Brenna reminded him. "Even Brick. He wouldn't want to drown in a little Class II drop, would he? He'll be mighty disappointed if he checks out in anything less than Class V."

In no time at all they were at the Fish and Wildlife parking area. It was a good thing Vermont trout season didn't open for another week, Brenna thought, watching Pete and Ken drive in. The three vehicles just about filled the small lot.

As soon as their feet touched the ground, all the men headed for the bushes. Karin winked at Brenna. "Guys just can't hold their water," she said, nodding in the direction where the men had gone. But her joke fell flat. Brenna, too, was looking for a shrub to shelter behind. "Better now than later," she said. "A wet-suit doesn't make this any easier."

"You got a point there," replied Karin, and followed Brenna's example.

Soon, after a short struggle with wet-suits that seemed to have shrunk during the long winter months, everyone was dressed and ready to go. Canoes rested on the ground. Spare paddles were stowed, float bags topped up, and car doors locked. Ed eyeballed the group. Everybody's life-jacket was zipped. That was good. He could still remember watching Brenna being drawn into the massive standing waves of the Blue Ledges with her life-jacket only half-closed. The minutes until he knew she was safe had been some of the longest of his life. They'd been even longer for Brenna.

Ed went over to her, took her hand, and together they walked down to the river bank. They stared into the deep, swirling water, breathing in the pungent smell of spring. The meltwater-swollen current tugged at partially-submerged alders. Ed thought of the line from T. S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages":

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable….

"Except that this river isn't brown," he said suddenly, breaking the silence.

"T. S. Eliot, right?" said Brenna. "Great minds think alike, I guess." And she giggled, remembering the river at other times, and in other places. Warm, quiet June evenings on gravel bars. Trout sipping mayflies from the sap-green surfaces of still pools. A mother whitetail deer and two fawns drinking in the shallows, not in the least disturbed by a freight train—"Freight train?" she said to herself. "God, was it that long ago? It was!"—rattling over a stone-pier bridge nearby….

"Remember?" asked Brenna quietly. And Ed, not needing to ask what, replied, "Yes," and, just for a moment, they embraced and kissed.

"Hey, guys!" called Linda from the parking lot. "This is a river trip, you know what I mean? Let's get going!"

Pete and Karin put in first. They ferried across to the opposite bank and parked their green Mad River Explorer in a small eddy below an almost-submerged rock. Brick and Linda took their places in the Legend, Brick in the stern and Linda in the bow. Linda began coaxing Fenris into the boat. At first the wolf-dog hesitated. Then, without warning, she leapt in, nearly rolling the canoe over. Brick braced frantically. Fenris settled down behind Linda, squatting on her haunches and looking back at Brick, her tongue lolling. Linda drew the bow out into the current and leaned downstream. The boat pivoted round. In an instant, they were away down the river. A little distance below the put-in, they, too, pulled into an eddy near the opposite bank.

Next, Ed and Brenna slid their Tripper into the water. While Brenna held the canoe, Ed got into the bow, facing upriver. Then Brenna knelt in the stern. They peeled out and paddled downstream, picking a holding eddy below Brick and Linda.

Ken was the last to leave. He splashed his Blue Hole into the water, hopped in amidships, and headed downriver, a big smile on his face. Pete and Karin left their eddy and followed him, as did Brick and Linda. Ed and Brenna brought up the rear.

"Isn't it great to be on the water again?" Karin shouted. Ken grinned in silent agreement.

The four boats continued downstream in easy Class I-II water, losing no opportunity to play the river. Ed surrendered himself to the pleasures of the moment. The canoe moved like a live thing beneath him. Water surged around the bow, and the boat quivered in response to the ever-changing thrust of the current.

Meanwhile, Ken was catching and leaving a succession of tiny, almost imperceptible eddies. Sprinting ahead, he pulled even with Brick's purple Legend, now bobbing in the shadow of the shore eddy along the right bank. From her place amidships, between Linda and Brick, Fenris sat very still, her pale yellow eyes fixed on Ken. She turned her head to follow him, her face an expressionless gray mask. Ken felt his hair stand on end. He stepped up his stroke rate. Soon he was alongside Ed and Brenna, who'd just leap-frogged into the lead. In the distance, there was a bass rumble. It reminded Ken of the sound of heavy traffic.

"Hear that?" asked Brenna. "That's Roaring Branch. Good name, right? Well, just after it comes in, the river makes a sharp turn to the left. There's a hell of a cutbank on the outside of the bend, and a big rock smack in the middle. Bound to be a strainer or two on the right, and at this water level the rock'll have a pretty good-sized hole below it. You can sneak through the high-water channel to the left of the big rock, or you can cut the rock close on the right, but whatever you do, stay out of the strainers!"

Ed and Brenna hung back, repeating their warning to each boat as it came up. One by one, the canoes negotiated the bend, each one spurning the high-water sneak on the left for the more challenging route to the right of the big mid-stream rock. Ed and Brenna went last, making a snap decision to drop into the hole, surf across the standing wave at its downstream end and peel out on the other side.

After a breather in the shore eddy below the drop, they continued on downriver. Before they knew it, the current had carried them to the Route 313 bridge. Then the Battenkill turned west. Soon steep hills rose on either side of them, as the river cut its way through the Taconic range.

They stopped for lunch at the West Arlington covered bridge. Cloud blanketed Big Spruce Mountain, towering high above Norman Rockwell's old studio. Linda and Brick spread natural cashew butter and banana slices on whole wheat bread. They poured mint tea from a thermos. Pete and Karin contented themselves with imported salami on sourdough, washing it down with Chianti.

Seeing the bottle of wine, Ken winced. He chewed his ham sub in thoughtful silence, remembering the day on the upper Sacandaga when he cracked two planks and three ribs in his prized Old Town Guide. It had been a low-water trip at the end of the season, and no place for a wood-canvas boat. Still, he'd made a flawless morning run, following the thread of deep water right across the bony river and back again, time after time, without touching once. Then he'd had a can of beer with his lunch. The afternoon had been a disaster. A single, lousy can of beer! That was all. But he'd lost his edge, and his timing had deserted him. He hit one rock after another all the way down to the take-out. It had been months before he'd finished repairing the damage to his boat. He'd never drunk anything stronger than tea on a whitewater trip since.

For their part, Ed and Brenna had their usual riverbank lunch: Swiss cheese slabs on a baguette. They boiled water on the little Svea and shared a pot of Darjeeling tea with Ken. Fenris gnawed on a beef knuckle bone.

"Look!" said Ed suddenly, pointing with the heel of his sandwich to a rift in the clouds above Big Spruce Mountain. "Blue sky!" By the time everyone was ready to head back to the boats, the clouds were breaking up everywhere. Soon the paddlers were under way again. Ed and Brenna had swapped places, with Ed taking the stern. As they crossed into New York, a shaft of sunlight illuminated the dark slopes to the north. They'd had the river to themselves so far, but now they saw fishermen by the dozens. It was April 1st—the start of trout season in New York. "April Fool's Day," Ed muttered to himself, and shook his head. He'd been outwitted by quite a few Battenkill trout over the years. "If that isn't just about perfect!"

To be continued…


Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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