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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

Looking for a Boat

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Not long ago, Ed Fletcher had good reason to doubt that "Everything Was Wonderful," but now things are looking up. Ed and Brenna are on their way to check out the canoe of their dreams. It promises to be a good day.

March 20, 2001

Chapter Thirteen

"There should be a stream crossing just ahead. It's the next right after that." Brenna almost had to yell to make herself heard over the racket as their pickup bounced along the dirt road.

"We'll have to get new shocks before we go north, that's for sure," Ed replied, as he tried to steer around the biggest potholes.

"There's the stream," said Brenna, suddenly. "The turn-off should be right beyond it."

They rattled over an ancient culvert, its corrugated steel exposed by the spring floodwaters that had washed out most of the fill. Brenna leaned forward against the tug of her shoulder-belt to get a better view down the road. "There it is!" she shouted, as a barely-visible track opened up on the right.

Ed braked hard. Too late. The truck skidded on the loose dirt. Easing off the brakes, he missed the turn completely. Backing up, he found a cobbled driveway, almost hidden by a thicket of red osiers. Turning in, he drove a hundred yards under an archway of overhanging maples, each sprouting tiny new leaves. Then the road opened onto gently rolling fields. Brenna pointed to a woodchuck watching from a burrow entrance on a hillside. At the top of a rise sat a rambling old farmhouse, sheathed in white clapboard. They knew they'd arrived.

As Ed slowed to a stop, a black Labrador retriever bounded toward the truck, barking and pumping her tail furiously. A sturdy man emerged from the open garage. He had a seamed face and thinning ginger hair, and he wore a black wool roll-top sweater.

"Shadow! You dam' fool dog. Come here! Right now, girl. Not yesterday!" The dog obeyed, and the man walked over toward the truck, the Lab bounding at his heels. "She wouldn't hurt a fly," the man said, smiling at Ed and Brenna as they stepped out of the cab.

"I can see that," said Ed, bending down and scratching behind Shadow's ears. Then he straightened up and extended his hand. "Mr. Grainger? Hi. Ed Fletcher. My wife, Brenna Trent. You two have already talked on the phone, I think."

"Max Grainger. Call me Max. And you've already met Shadow." The man grinned, shaking hands with Ed and Brenna in turn. Shadow held her head low, weaving from side to side in an agony of indecision, her watery brown eyes shifting from one visitor to the other. Brenna, too, gave the dog's ears a scratch. Satisfied that the necessary introductions had been made, Shadow capered away, shooting glances over her shoulder and barking, her tail sketching circles in the air.

"The boats are back in the barn," Max said. "Shadow'll show us the way."

Following Shadow, they walked around the house to a one-time milking barn with weathered board siding and a sagging ridge line. Small smears of rusty paint showed that it had once been red. Max pulled a large door to one side, and Ed and Brenna stopped in their tracks, astonished. Where cows once waited patiently in their stalls, boat after boat now rested on cradles built along the walls.

"You don't half like boats, do you, Max?" Brenna joked.

"You could say that, I suppose," he drawled, emphasizing the irony with an exaggerated wink. "In fact, I love boats. Always have."

They walked into the barn. Small square windows extended down both sides. It was surprisingly light and airy. Ed looked around him. An antique Chestnut Prospector rested on one padded cradle, next to a round-bottomed Adirondack guideboat. ("A Warren Cole, unless I miss my guess," Ed thought.) Further along, he noted a Mad River Courier, a green Old Town XL Tripper, and an old Grumman seventeen-footer with a shoe keel. A wooden sailboat with a glossy black hull rested on a trailer at the far end of the barn, hard against the wall. Ed walked back to it.

"Like this one, do you?" Max asked, coming over to stand beside him. He was a good six inches taller than Ed. "Know what she is?"

"Some kind of dory, I'd guess," replied Ed. "A Banks dory by the look of her sides." He glanced at the sails, each rolled around a spar and stowed in the boat. "Sprit main. And a jib, I think."

"Not bad!" Max's voice echoed from the barn's high rafters. "She does look like a dory. But she's not. She's a Parrett River flatner. An old-style Brit fishing boat. Saw a picture of one in this book I have. Liked her so much that I built one."

"Beautiful boat," Ed said, squatting to check the sailboat's lines. "Sail her much?"

"Now and again. She's no Laser, obviously—and she's a handful when you're running fast before the wind. But I like her for all that. She's a spirited boat, you see. Even named her after my wife, I did." And Max gestured to the elegant yellow lettering on the bow: Lou Grainger. Then he started to pack tobacco into a big-bowled meerschaum pipe. "You do any sailing?" he asked.

"A bit," Ed replied. "Sailed a Snipe off the North Carolina coast a good while back. And I've fooled around with sail rigs in canoes now and again. That's about it."

Brenna tore herself away from the immaculate Prospector and joined the two men. She, too, couldn't help but be impressed. "Wouldn't Jack love this boat, Ed!" she declared.

"I'll bet he would," Ed agreed. He looked over at Max and explained, "Jack's a friend. He minds the store for us when we're away, but you might say it's a bit of a career change for him. He sailed on schooners back in the days of the Labrador missions. I doubt there are many like him left."

As the conversation ebbed and flowed, Shadow wove her way from one person to the next, stopping at each one only long enough to have her ears scratched and then moving on, never allowing anyone to monopolize her attentions.

Soon the foursome turned away from the flatner and made their way back to the XL Tripper. Ed and Brenna noticed that there were still more boats in the barn. An elegant solo rowing shell hung suspended from a cradle between two windows. In a dark recess beneath the shell was an odd-looking circular craft about four feet across. Ed asked Max what it was.

Max chuckled, "I wondered if you'd notice that." He walked across the barn and lifted it up into the light.

"A coracle!" exclaimed Ed. "My God, you've got a coracle!"

Max laughed heartily. He passed the coracle to Brenna with one hand.

"It's so light!" she said. "Where in the world did you get a coracle?" Shadow slapped Brenna with her wagging tail and sniffed the boat.

"My son, Brendan." Max replied. "He made it. Caught his old man's disease when he was a little boy. He saw a picture of a coracle in a book and knew he had to have one. And it had to be right, too. Couldn't use canvas, no sir. So we got some steer hides, and cut willow for the frame. Brendan'd paddle around for hours in the local ponds. He even carved his own paddle out of a plank. He loved those little ponds. Still does. He's a wetlands biologist up in Maine now."

"This barn's like a museum," Brenna marveled. "Would I be right in thinking your wife shares your interest in boats?"

"She sure does," Max said. "Lou and I got to know each other in a canoe. It was one way for us to get away on our own. More fun than a drive-in movie. Used to call 'em courting canoes, you know." He chuckled. "My daughter Emma—she's a lawyer in Seattle now; Lou's out there visiting her—she's mad about sea kayaking. Been meaning to give that a try myself, but I just haven't had the time."

The conversation flagged for a minute. Max returned the coracle to its place beneath the rowing shell. Then, almost as if remembering the purpose of their trip for the first time, Ed and Brenna walked back over to the XL Tripper. Max came with them. He ran his hand over the Tripper's big green hull. "This is the boat you called about. The one I advertised in the Pennysaver. Nearly good as new. Always stored her inside. Only a few scratches. She's a fine boat, but I never used her much."

"Mind if we take her off the cradle?" Ed asked.

"'Course not," said Max, and Ed and Brenna lifted the big canoe off the rack, setting it down gently on the barn's plank floor. They both grunted involuntarily at the effort involved. The boat was no lightweight. Still, they'd known that before they came. And it was in fine shape. Brenna wondered why it had seen so little use.

Almost as if he was reading her thoughts, Max blurted out, "Bet you're curious why I'm selling her. It's a funny thing, really. I bought her about five years back for waterfowl hunting. Did a lot of shooting down in the marshes when I was boy, but I never seemed to find much time for it when the kids were growing up. And Lou, she never wanted to go with me, either. She's a birder, you see. Joined the local Audubon chapter and all. Goes out on the Christmas count. Then she read this book by a guy who started a waterfowl and wildlife refuge somewhere in Britain, and she learned how a lot of ducks and geese mate for life. After that she started calling me a home-wrecker when I'd go out shooting for the day. Just kidding me, you know, but…you've been married a while, right? You know what it's like. Well, it is a funny thing. I've got the time now, but I've just…sort of…lost interest in duck hunting. It's like me and Lou want to make the most of our time now. Do things together—things we both enjoy. So maybe we'll go sailing or paddling instead. Lou really loves being out on the water."

A short silence followed. First Ed and then Brenna scratched behind Shadow's ears. Then Brenna asked, "That book your wife read—it wasn't Peter Scott's autobiography, was it? Title's "Eye-something"…Got it! Eye of the Wind. We had a copy in the shop some years back and I read most of it. Scott was a sailor, too, I think. An Olympic racer. And a painter. It's a good book."

"Yeah," said Max. "That's the one. Anyway, the XL's way too much boat for me to paddle solo. Hell, she's even too much for Lou and me together. We won't be out for more than a week or so at a time, after all. That's why I'm selling the XL." Max's pipe had gone out. He re-started it and was immediately wreathed in a fog of aromatic smoke. He turned to Brenna. "You said on the phone that you're going up North for the whole summer, that right?"

"Three months," Brenna replied with a grin. "Going to need a big boat."

"Well," said Max, patting the boat as if it was a big Labrador, "this could be just the canoe you're looking for. You checked out many others?"

"Yeah. We've looked at all sorts," Ed replied. "Even an umiak that someone built out of coated nylon and aluminum tubing! The closest we've come so far is an old Grumman eighteen-footer with a shoe keel. There are some nice big Kevlar trippers, of course, but we really can't afford to drop two grand or more on a boat."

"Can't blame you there," Max said. "Up North, eh? Where you going?"

"James Bay," Brenna answered. "Down the Albany River to the Bay, then down the Bay to Moose Factory. Then out on the train to Cochrane."

"Sounds like one hell of a trip!" Max exclaimed. He seemed a little wistful. "Wish I could come with you." He looked at the floor.

"Why couldn't you?" Ed asked.

"Too many obligations. I'm a judge, you know. Calendar's full. If it was next year, I could. I'm retiring come December. But, well, you know how hard it is to get away." He shrugged his shoulders, then brightened. "The Albany. It's a big river, right?. And James Bay. I'll bet my flatner'd be a good boat for the trip. How are the rapids?"

"The headwaters drop pretty fast," Brenna answered. "A lot of small, scrappy rivers. A lot of portages, narrow chutes, that sort of thing."

Ed broke in. "You know, Max, I bet your flatner could make it. At least from the Albany on down. The Hudson's Bay Company used York boats on the Albany, and your flatner's what—twenty feet, more or less?—a lot smaller than a York boat, anyway. If you could get her to the river, I'll bet it'd be a piece of cake." Ed got a far-away look in his eyes as he considered the possibilities. "Hell, you could sleep aboard her most days. Put up a boom tent, and sack out on the bottom!"

"Yo, dreamer," Brenna interrupted in a take-charge voice. "The headwaters, remember? Rapids. Long portages. That says 'canoe' to me. Right?"

Ed's flight of fancy augered in for a crash landing. Brenna was right. He knew that. So he nodded in agreement. But Brenna noticed that the far-away look remained.

Max had been standing a little to one side, but now he walked closer and said, "If you like the idea of sailing…well, you know, you could rig the XL for sailing real easy. And put oarlocks on her, too, if you wanted. You put oarlocks on her and you won't both have to paddle. Once you're on the big river, you can take turns at the oars. Run watch and watch. Whoever's off duty can eyeball the scenery. Take some pictures. Even catch some Zs."

Max pointed the stem of his pipe at Ed to emphasize the point. "Sail rig. Oarlocks. No problem." He smiled. "If you want me to, I'll help you figure out how to do it. With a properly-rigged big canoe, you'll have the best of both worlds. I've got a copy of an old article that'll give you some idea what I'm talking about."

Motioning for them to follow him, Max led Ed and Brenna over to a big workbench running along one side of the barn. Pinned haphazardly on the wall over the bench were a hodgepodge of curling photographs and faded sketches. A stool stood next to the bench, with a small Scandinavian woodstove nearby. Woodworking tools hung neatly from a pegboard rack further down the wall, and a battered metal filing cabinet was wedged under the bench. Max pulled out the upper drawer of the file and rummaged through it while he explained, "This barn is my getaway. I come here to think. Now, let me see if I can find that article…."

Shadow flopped down on a plaid dog-bed next to the stove. Brenna scanned the photos pinned to the wall. There were two shots of Max holding babies—his kids, Brenna guessed—one of a young Max hugging a pretty, red-haired girl in front of a church—the girl was Lou, surely—and—no surprise!—three recent snaps of Shadow. In yet another shot, a very young Max in a flak jacket and green fatigue pants stood on the deck of a big drably-painted boat, one arm thrown over a buddy's shoulder, the other hugging a mounted machine gun. The water in the photo's background was the color of milky coffee and the distant shore was a long, unbroken green smear. Brenna caught Ed's eye and nodded toward the picture. Ed followed her gaze and then looked back at her. He silently mouthed the letters "P - B - R." Brenna understood.

Max, meanwhile, had continued to burrow through the contents of the file drawer. Suddenly, he cried "Here it is!" and slapped a file folder on the bench. "Knew I'd saved a copy. Article from an old WoodenBoat on how to rig a canoe—any canoe—for sailing or rowing."

As he rose to his feet, he noticed Ed and Brenna looking at his photo gallery. "Every picture tells a story," he joked. Then he saw Ed looking at the PBR. "Of course some stories are happier than others."

Ed nodded in agreement. "The Delta? he asked.

"Yep," Max replied. "You…?"

"No." Ed answered in a carefully measured tone. "Not the Delta. You could say—well, you could say I went underground." And Ed grinned.

Max looked carefully at Ed. Shorter than average. And compact, even in late middle-age. A skinny kid, Max thought, quick as a weasel and slippery as an eel. And probably wearing the same big, unselfconscious grin he was now. "Underground, eh?" Max said, reflectively. "Don't imagine you mean Canada?" Ed's grin got broader in reply. Max continued, "I'll bet it felt good to get back to the World."

"It did," Ed replied. "It was time for me to move up." And his grin widened even more.

Max started to say something else, but the look in Ed's eyes told him that he'd already said all he wanted to. Max knew the feeling. Instead, he turned gratefully to the file folder on the bench, picked it up and thrust it into Ed's hands. "Take a look at this article," he said. "It's by Sam Manning. Great illustrations. It oughta get you started. Bring it back when you're done with it."

"Thanks, Max," said Ed. "Better give the XL a try on the water first, though. Just to be sure she's the boat for us. That a pond I saw out back?"

"Sure is," replied Max. "Let me give you a hand hauling her."

"No need," said Ed. "Unless you're fixing to spend the summer up North, that is." The big grin flashed across Ed's face again. "We'll have to carry her ourselves sooner or later, after all." Then he walked back to the truck for their life jackets and paddles, while Brenna clamped the portage yoke to the gunwales. By the time Ed returned, she had the canoe out of the barn and on her shoulders, and she was walking toward the pond.

Max was standing outside the door, shaking his head in disbelief. "That XL weighs in at maybe a hundred - hundred and ten pounds. But she rolled it up like it was a thirty-pound pack canoe!"

Ed shrugged his shoulders. "Brenna's used to lifting boxes of books. A lot of 'em go over a hundred pounds. She can't wait around for help." He turned toward her rapidly retreating figure. "Now, if you'll excuse me…." And he sprinted after Brenna. Thirty minutes later they were both back, their faces flushed and smiling. Ed was carrying the boat this time. He put it down carefully on the grass in front of the barn and turned to Max. He didn't waste words.

"Five hundred, you said?" When Max nodded, Ed continued, "Sounds more than fair to me. The boat's in like-new condition. Big, sure. Heavy, too. But she handles like a dream. Unless you've had second thoughts, Max, we've found our boat. I'm giving you fair warning, though—I'm going to hold you to your offer to help us rig her."

Max laughed. "Good! Wouldn't want it any other way! And no, I'm not having any second thoughts. You and Brenna seem made for that boat. I'm happy she's found such a good home." He paused. "She ought to have a name, though. You got anything in mind?"

"Can't say we have," said Brenna. "Great idea, though." And she looked at Ed. "Any suggestions?"

"Well," replied Ed, "she's a whale of a boat. How about Leviathan? We could call her "Livy" for short."

"Perfect!" said Brenna and Max simultaneously. Then Max added an invitation to come in for a drink to seal the bargain.

Minutes later, standing in a room filled with bookshelves, Ed and Brenna watched Max pour generous measures of Laphroaig into three glasses. A subtle fragrance of peat smoke filled the room.

"Water, anyone?" asked Max.

"Sacrilege," replied Brenna, with Ed nodding in silent agreement. "Add water to single malt whisky? Add water to Laphroaig?! Unthinkable!"

Max smiled. "I'm glad we see eye to eye," he said. "Now I'm sure Leviathan has found a good home." He raised his glass. "To Leviathan, then, and to all who sail…." He paused. "Or paddle, of course. To all who sail or paddle in her. Good health and Godspeed."

"Woof!" Shadow barked. And three glasses turned bottom up.

To be continued…

Single Sculls

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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