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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

A Wink is as Good as a Nod

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest and

A Note to the Reader

It's a hot Memorial Day Weekend and Adirondack waterways are crowded with holiday-makers. On the first leg of their shake-down cruise, Ed, Brenna and the gang crossed wakes with Deputy Sheriff "Bubba" Buck, radio host "Jerkin' Jake" Slaughter, and the Hollywood Lady. Now some of the gang are continuing on down the Raquette River.

A REMINDER A new chapter in Trip of a Lifetime, our paddlesport novel-in-progress, will appear on the first Tuesday of each month. If you've missed a chapter, or if you're joining us for the first time and you want to catch up, just use the hot-linked title to go to the In the Same Boat Archives. It's all there.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and incidents are the product of the authors' imaginations. While real maps of New York State show both a Long Lake and Long Lake Village in the Adirondack Mountains, the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors' minds—and in yours.

Our story continues….

September 4, 2001

Chapter Eighteen

Zoe Grimes' cough rattled over the water as Ed and Brenna paddled their big canoe along the northern shore of Long Lake. Two pontoon boats idled opposite them, the occupants leaning against their rails, waiting for signs the fish were rising. They sipped coffee from insulated mugs and talked in quiet tones as they watched the remaining wisps of early-morning fog dissipate. A distant peal of bells welcomed worshippers to eight-o'clock services in the village church.

The thunderstorm of the evening before had done nothing to break the steamy heat. The air already shimmered with humidity, and water droplets sparkled on every twig and needle. If anything, it was even more tropical than yesterday, and no breeze dried the paddlers' sticky bodies. A lemon-yellow sun shone through a gauze-curtain haze. Ed and Brenna paddled hard, hoping to outpace the swarm of blackflies that had followed them since they'd left camp.

The fishermen on the pontoon boats noticed the canoe and raised their hands in silent greeting. "At least you can see them coming," Brenna said, remembering yesterday's close call near the island. "I wonder if Ken will ever wash his hand again? You'd think he'd never met a movie star before!" She giggled. "Come to think of it, I don't suppose he has. Who'd have thought we'd run into Chadd Wellington here, of all places?"

"Not me," Ed replied. "Then again, I don't read Variety."

Brenna tried to remember when she'd first seen Chaddwicke Wellington. Damn unlikely name, she thought. Was it in Bug-eyed Monsters or Jakarta? "Or was it Old Glory?" Without meaning too, she spoke out loud.

"What?" Ed asked, twisting round to look at his wife

"Huh?" Brenna said, startled out of her reverie. "Sorry about that. I was trying to remember when I first saw one of Chadd Wellington's pictures. Bet Ken has all her videos. I've never seen someone so gaga. I'd never have guessed he was the type."

"Mmm," Ed grunted. "Isn't every day you get to meet a real-life Hollywood star."

"That a fact?" Brenna made a wry face. "You're not smitten, too, by any chance, are you?"

"Naw. Got me a woman already." He looked back at Brenna again and winked. "Still, you gotta admire Ken. There's life in the old dog yet."

Brenna snorted.

Just ahead of the canoe, a beaver slapped its tail against the water's surface and dove. "He's out late," Ed said. "Or she…. Can't really tell, of course. Wonder where the lodge is?"

"You're just trying to change the subject," Brenna protested, squinting from under the brim of her faded jungle hat. But she put down her paddle and pulled her sketchbook out of her life-jacket pocket anyway. When the beaver surfaced, he was almost a hundred yards away. She scratched furiously with her pencil, letting the canoe drift down lake until the beaver vanished behind a snag.

They began to paddle again. The shorelines were closing in. The Raquette River lay ahead, and Ed and Brenna started looking for Pete and Karin Neary. Then a shout rang across the water from near the outlet of the lake.

"Hey! Pete and Karin! You made it!" Brenna yelled back, and then headed toward the Nearys. They looked like they'd had a bad night. Sweat dripped from their noses, and the skin around their eyes was puffy with blackfly bites. When the Tripper came alongside, Pete grabbed the gunwale.

"We wondered if you'd be here, what with the…uh…problem with your daughter," Brenna said.

Karin rolled her eyes skyward. "She had a fender-bender. Had to be picked up in Albany. No big deal. Anyway, here we are. Spent the night not far from one of the lean-tos. Glad we weren't planning to stay there ourselves. Six guys in a powerboat landed after we began setting up camp and moved in. Not exactly a quiet crowd. We barely got a wink of sleep! Got outta there at first light." Karin thrust a large naval orange out toward Brenna."Want one?" she asked. Brenna seized it greedily and began to strip off bits of peel, tossing them into the bottom of the canoe.

"Those guys were talking about some kind of accident," Pete said. "You know anything about it? Some speedboat hitting a rower, or something like that?"

"Did we see it?" Ed exploded. "Hell, we were there! Some local schlock-jock called 'Jerkin' Jake' was out for a cruise in a Hacker inboard. He wiped out a heirloom guideboat that belonged to Chadd Wellington…." Seeing the unspoken question in Pete's eyes, Ed added, "Yeah, that Chadd Wellington. Damn near wiped her out, too. Talk about pissed-off! By the time her lawyers finish with Jerkin' Jake, I'm betting he won't even have a pair of swim-trunks to his name. Serve him right, too. That Hacker smelled like a grass fire."

They paddled along side-by-side for a while, talking companionably, as the lake became a river, one or the other boat dropping back to pass in single file whenever the current wandered languidly among marshy islands and sandbars. Occasionally they passed lean-tos. Most of the campers were still sleeping in, but one lean-to hosted a lively party of card-players, sheltering from the blackflies behind an improvised curtain of mosquito-netting.

As they continued along the river, the two boats entered another world. The powerboats and jet-skis were left behind. A white-throated sparrow called from the depths of the forest. A muskrat slipped off its tussock into the river, making a soft plopping noise, while a great blue heron lifted heavily into the air, a still-struggling frog clamped in its long beak. Ed fitted the sections of his fly-rod together and cast a #10 muddler minnow into promising eddies from from time to, though with no real expectation of success. Soon Raquette Falls lay just ahead, and he put his rod away. Everyone wanted to get the mile-long carry done before lunch.

As the paddlers slowed down, clouds of blackflies gathered around them. Karin burrowed through her pack, looking for the plastic bottle of Buzz Off! Then she and Pete slathered themselves with the all-natural herbal repellent. She offered some to Ed and Brenna, but they simply donned head nets. Neither had much faith in herbal repellents, but neither much liked DEET, either. They kept their Jungle Juice in reserve.

"There it is!" Karin said suddenly, pointing to the signboard that marked the start of the portage trail. The rumble of rapids could just be heard downstream.

"I wonder if we could run that drop?" Pete mused, while the Neary's Explorer drifted toward the shore. As the canoe grounded, he half-rose, straining to see around the bend in the river just ahead. "Hell, I've been told there're only two real falls. The rest's just rapids."

Ed shook his head. He caught Brenna's eye, seeking agreement and finding it. "No thanks. Not today. Not for us, at any rate. We're looking forward to a relaxing trip." Brenna nodded vigorously. "Still, I wouldn't mind scouting the rapids. Might be worth coming back to run 'em some other time."

An unfamiliar voice boomed out from the trailhead. It sounded like the croak of a disappointed raven. "I wouldn't even think of runnin' those rapids if I was you, ya know!"

Startled, the two couples looked up, squinting to make out a solitary figure in the deep shade of a thicket of stunted spruce. It was a man, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, standing with his hands on his hips. Next to him, a chalky, dark-red Coleman canoe rested bottom-up, it's keel hogged and its bottom bearing evidence of many rough landings. Both boat and owner looked to Ed like they'd been ridden hard and put away wet.

"Hel…lo!" Karin was the first to speak. "We didn't see you."

The man remained standing beside his canoe. "Ya know, I'm not surprised ya didn't see me. Ya weren't supposed ta. Ya know what I'm sayin'? Like, I'm trained to blend into the background." He paused, then suddenly screamed "Hiii-yaah!" and assumed a fighting crouch. He waited for a moment for a reaction, but getting nothing but puzzled stares from the four canoeists, he straightened up. "Don't worry. Just jokin'! I'm Stu Clayfoot, by the way. Please ta meetcha." And he walked toward the two boats, his right hand extended.

Once the introductions had been completed—still seated in their canoes, the four friends were too stunned to do more than shake hands, nod, and mumble their names—Stu continued without a pause. "Ya can trust me. About those rapids, I mean. I've run 'em dozens of times. OK for an expert, sure, but beginners like you guys…no way." He waved his hands lazily in the air, as if simultaneously dismissing his accomplishments and warning off any attempt to emulate him. "Anyway, ya gotta be prepared to die for the thrill. Ya don't look like the type. Trust me. And think about it."

Ed stepped out of the XL Tripper, followed by Brenna. Together, they hauled their boat ashore. Ed walked over to the Coleman and studied its bottom. Stu's eyes followed his. "I know what you're thinkin'. Why ain't I runnin' those falls today? Well, I'd be doin' jes' that, except I got this little leak in my boat. Ya know what I'm sayin'? Still, I've got the perfect thing for it." And he bent down and pulled a plastic bag from the side pocket of a camouflage frame pack, "Here it is. Ya ain't never seen nothin' like this glue. Trust me. It's from a secret lab in Rooshee-a. I know what I'm talkin' about. I'm a Fed." He stopped for a minute, bent down, and studied Ed's face carefully. "I shouldn't a said that. But ya look OK. I can usually tell. You don't look like a bad guy to me. I work for the D-O-E—that's the Department of Energy, understand?— in D-C."

Ed finished examining the Coleman, straightened up, and turned his gaze on its owner. His first impression strengthened on closer acquaintance. Stu was middle-aged. Middle height. Slim to skinny, with a budding pot. His face was divided by a single eyebrow like an overgrown median-strip on a deserted highway. One ear-lobe was gone—it looked as if it had been torn off. A receding chin bristled with rusty stubble, and tired ringlets of rusty hair poked out from under a baseball-cap worn backwards. Even when he was talking—and that was just about non-stop—Stu's lips seemed to be set in a permanent smirk. Without quite knowing why, Ed found himself thinking of the president.

Stu didn't have the president's tailor, though. His threadbare jeans were caked with mud at the knees, cuffs and rump. His white Converse sneakers, too, were clotted with black muck. Mud stains smeared his hairy forearms and neck. He wore an olive-drab pistol belt around his waist. A huge sheath knife hung from the belt, the tip smacking against Stu's knees as he shuffled back and forth, looking for the hole in his boat.

The final fashion touch was a once-black t-shirt now faded to gray and stretched tight over Stu's curiously prominent belly. Bleached yellow letters across the sunken chest proclaimed "Gabba Gabba Hey Forever," and, just below that, "I Wanna be Sedated." When Stu turned round, Ed could read "Addicted to Noise" on the back. He wasn't inclined to argue, and he headed off to help Brenna with their gear.

"What asylum do you think he escaped from? " Karin whispered to Brenna as the two of them hauled packs from their boats. Brenna just shrugged and shook her head.

Pete couldn't contain his curiosity any longer. He left Karin to finish unloading their boat, and walked over to where Stu was working on the Coleman, winking at Ed in passing. "Uh, Stu…" he began. "Did I hear you say you've got a leak?"

"Yep," Stu replied. "That's right. A leak. I'm gonna find the sucker an' plug it." He stooped over the hull of his canoe, while a swarm of shade-loving mosquitos took the opportunity to exploit an avenue of attack left by a growing gap between his t-shirt and jeans. "Like I was telling…uh…Ed there, I've got jes what the doctor ordered." As he spoke, he dipped his middle-finger into the plastic bag and scooped out a bead of viscous, yellow-brown goo. It clung tenaciously to his gesticulating finger. "Got it!" he exclaimed suddenly, smearing the goo over a hair-thin crack on the hull. Then he wiped what remained on his stomach and stood up.

"Bet you're wondering why I covered my arms with mud aren't you?" he asked Pete, and Pete, who'd hadn't been wondering any such thing, could only nod in bemused wonderment. "It's an old Special Forces trick. Keeps the bugs off you and acts as camouflage. Think about it."

Stu's voice enveloped Pete like steam in a sauna. He fought an urge to run back to the water's edge. Instead, he just said, "I will, Stu. Thanks." And rejoined Karin.

Brenna was helping Ed lash two paddles onto the thwarts to supplement the XL Tripper's center yoke. When she'd tied off her last lashing, she shrugged her way into the straps of one Duluth pack, settled the tump over her forehead, and then waited for Ed to set the second pack down on top of the first. Pete adjusted the shoulder straps of his Gregory, and Karin cinched the waistbelt of her smaller counterpart. In the shadows of the hemlocks, Stu was satisfied that his "Rooshee-an" super-goop had done the job. He flipped the Coleman upright and then struggled into his frame pack. Gear hung from every tab and grommet. Walking past him, Brenna noticed a Sierra Club cup, a large metal canteen, a machete in a hard plastic sheath, and a three-quart pot. She was quite sure she'd missed a few things.

Pete now rolled the Explorer onto his shoulders, settled the Gregory behind the thwart, and headed out after Brenna. Ed hefted Leviathan up with an ostentatious groan and followed, walking with the characteristic plodding pace of a man carrying a hundred-and-twenty pound load. Karin grabbed the remaining paddles and brought up the rear. When she passed Stu, she heard him muttering something, but he didn't seem to be talking to her. She picked up her pace, nearly running headlong into the stern peak of the XL Tripper. "Hurry up!" she called out to Ed in a stage whisper. "You don't want to have to listen to that crazy guy all along the carry, do you?"

Ed simply grunted and plodded on, though at a slightly faster pace. He was already winded. Worse yet, three blackflies were flying around inside his head-net. "Wonderful!" he said to himself. It was going to be a very long mile, he thought. At the first place where the trail widened, Karin passed him.

Pete was now in the lead. Brenna had stopped by the side of the path, trying without success to identify a small cluster of white blossoms that had caught her eye. Karin caught up with her, and they started to walk down the trail together. They could hear Stu Clayfoot somewhere behind Ed. He was still talking to no one in particular. Now and again his boat would slam into a tree, to be followed immediately by a torrent of curses.

"That guy's a fruitcake!" Karin said. She gestured back with her thumb, forgetting that Brenna, burdened with a double load, couldn't see more than the ground in front of her feet. "Did you see the size of that blade he was carrying?"

"Yeah. A real commando, all right," Brenna laughed. "And an ace paddler, too, at least the way he tells it. Aren't we lucky, though!" Karin giggled in reply. In companionable silence, the two women walked along.

Some minutes later and several hundred yards ahead, Pete glimpsed the clearing at the end of the carry under the bow of his canoe. Sighing with relief, he set his boat down in the shade of a huge white pine and dropped his pack inside. Humming to himself, he checked his pulse. Good, he thought. Right in his training range. He looked back down the trail. Brenna and Karin were just visible. There was no sign of Ed, though. So Pete started back up the trail.

He found Ed a hundred yards behind the women, puffing like a steam train but feeling fine. When Ed had rolled the big boat down off his shoulders, Pete hefted it. "Jeeze!" he exclaimed. "That thing weighs more than my boat and pack put together.

Ed didn't reply. He'd yanked off his headnet and was probing its recesses with his fingers. "Got the little bastards!" he cried suddenly holding up a thumb smeared with the remains of three blackflies. It was clear from the blood on Ed's thumb and the swelling over his eyes that all three had fed very well. Seeing the quizzical look on Pete's face, he added, "No, I'm not going crazy. They've been dining off me every step of the carry, and I was damned if was going to let them get away. Serves me right, though. Wearing a headnet on a day like this! Damn near suffocated."

"You need a Kevlar boat," Pete commented dryly.

"I'd need a bigger bank balance, first," Ed countered. "Come on, let's get something to eat." Before heading down to the river, however, he looked back along the way he'd come. "Hear anything?" he asked, and when Pete shook his head, he added "Me neither. You think the Clayfoot character's got himself lost?"

"Who cares?" Pete grunted, "So long's he's not here. Let's get some lunch, and then maybe walk up the river and take a look at the rapids. There's a sort of fishermen's trail right along the river bank."

Rejoining Brenna and Karin, they dug out their food bags and put together a meal to eat on the go. As they scrambled up the fishermen's trail, Pete and Karin nibbled energy bars, while Ed and Brenna gnawed on a couple of sticks of jerky, stopping from time to time to eyeball a particularly tricky drop. Returning, they discussed what they'd seen, shouting to make themselves heard over the roar of the water. It wouldn't exactly have been a piece of cake, they decided, particularly at this water level. Better safe than sorry.

There was no sign of Stu Clayfoot at the put-in. The place seemed unnaturally quiet after the roar of the water upstream and Stu's rapid-fire chatter."Maybe he's already headed off down-river," Brenna mused, wonderingly.

"Or maybe he's stuck to the trail with his super goop," Pete retorted. "Whatever."

Ed had pulled their old aneroid barometer from it's waterproof bag and was tapping the face. He looked up at the sky, but saw only a white sun in a milky haze. "Might be a good idea if we got started, too," he said at last. "Pressures dropping pretty fast. Might be a lively evening."

"Well, then, let's get going," Brenna said, and helped Ed haul the boat down to the water. They were under way in minutes. The river wound lazily between wooded hills. Ed assembled his rod once again, and tried a cast or two, but he had no more luck than he'd had earlier. They saw no other boats on the water. It was almost as if they were alone on the river, yet every lean-to and campsite they passed was full to overflowing. Then, in mid-afternoon, just as they were starting to get worried, they found what seemed to be an ideal camp, nestled in a wooded cove beyond the outlet of a marshy creek mouth. Astonishingly, it was deserted.

"Looks like home to me," Brenna said cheerfully, surveying a mixed stand of white birches and aspen from the middle of the river. The leaves quivered in a ghost of a breeze, their light green flashing against the dark background.

"About time, too," said Pete, pointing to the west, where anvil-shaped clouds were now pushing up above the forest fringe. Without more delay, they landed one at a time at a sand beach only large enough for single boat. Pete and Karin beached the Explorer first and carried their packs along a faint trail leading up the gentle slope, returning minutes later for their Explorer. Ed and Brenna followed, but they left Leviathan on the beach. Ed was determined to wet a fly under a cut-bank across the river, in a pool sheltered behind a pine that had long ago toppled into the water.

"This is great!" Brenna exclaimed when she reached the top of the rise, sweeping her arms wide and then allowing them to flop to her sides. A well-drained parkland opened before her. There'd be no problem finding places to pitch tents and tarps, she realized, and they lost no time setting up camp, collecting downed wood, and stacking it next to a ring of cracked and blackened stones marking the site of earlier fires. Karin then kindled a blaze and balanced a large pot of water on three rocks near its edge. She stayed behind to watch the fire while Brenna and Pete walked down to the water to rinse off some of the day's accumulated salt and sweat.

For his part, Ed took the big canoe out alone, intent on giving the cut-bank pool a try. Brenna, feeling much better once she'd cleaned up a bit, relieved Karin. She wasn't sure that she should count on trout for dinner, though, and she began assembling ingredients for a one-pot meal of chicken and dumplings, just in case. Her premonitions proved to be right on the mark. Ed lumbered into camp empty-handed a few minutes later, hauling their canoe behind him. Smugly, Brenna fired up her newly-acquired Optimus 111B and blended chicken soup mix into a pot of water, stirred in a can of chicken, and then poured in dehydrated onions, green peas, and carrots. Soon the soup was bubbling cheerfully.

Mosquitos collected under the cooking tarps as the paddlers prepared supper. Brenna dropped biscuit dough into the simmering soup. Pete and Karin concocted a rice dish over the fire, adding freeze-dried shrimp, bonito flakes, miso, and coconut shreds. Pete uncorked a bottle of Merlot that he'd kept wrapped in an insulated sleeve and filled four metal cups. Then they all tucked in, standing or squatting while looking out over the river.

"Hell of a view," Ed said, watching feeding trout dimple the surface of the water. He shook his head ruefully. "We made good time. Should be no problem reaching the take-out tomorrow afternoon."

"Ken's sisters are going to meet us there with his van, right?" asked Karin. "You sure they'll remember?"

"Yeah," Brenna reassured her. "They'll remember all right. And they'll drive us back to Long Lake to pick up our trucks."

Pete burped loudly. "Wine's gone right through me," he said, grinning apologetically. "And that isn't all. Going to see a man about a dog." He walked back into the woods, picking up a trowel and a roll of toilet paper as he left the campsite, searching for privacy. When he found a suitable place, he hurriedly dug a cat-hole in the black loam, dropped his trousers, and squatted. He closed his eyes. Then he heard it—a loud thrashing, grunting noise coming from somewhere near.

"Get a move on!" he mumbled to himself, almost in a panic. The thrashing was coming closer, he was sure of it. The grunting was definitely louder now. Finished at last, Pete snatched at his pants and struggled to rise, but to no avail. His legs were pinioned in folds of cloth. He tugged fruitlessly at his pants, heard a seam rip, and then toppled sideways, his eye narrowly missing the handle of the trowel. Lying on his back, half-stunned, he looked up.

Standing over him, silhouetted against the early evening sky, a sword-like knife gripped tightly in his fist, was none other Stu Clayfoot.

"Sorry 'bout that…uh…Pete, ain't it?…but you really oughta be more careful, ya know." Stu struck out half-heartedly at a sapling with his knife. "I mean, I coulda been a bear. Ya shoulda been more alert. A man's always at his mos' vulnerable when he's on the can, ya know wha' I mean?"

"Jesus!" Pete yelled, rolling onto his knees, his trousers still bunched around his ankles. "What in hell're you doing, bulling through the bushes, you crazy bastard?!" He scrambled to his feet, pulling his pants up as best he could.

"I said I was sorry." Stu stared thoughtfully down into the cat-hole. "You think you're gettin' enough roughage, buddy?"

Pete squinted at Stu in complete disbelief. For perhaps the first time in his life, no words came to him. "Maybe," he thought, "it's the wine. Or maybe I'm dreaming. Maybe this is a nightmare." Then he looked down at his torn pants and at the open cat-hole, and he realized that the nightmare was all too real. "Put that goddamn' knife away!" he snapped, and then he bent over, grabbed the trowel and began tossing dirt into the cat-hole.

When he looked up again, Stu was reached down into his jeans and scratching lustily, his knife still held firmly in his other hand. "Jungle rot," he explained when he saw Pete staring at him with horror on his face. "Got it years ago. Damn stuff never goes away."

Pete gave up, spun round on his heels and started half walking, half running back toward camp.

Stu followed along behind him, in no hurry, still scratching, his knife still in his other hand. "I'm real sorry, buddy. Honest. I'm camped right over there on the other side of those maples, so deep in 'em you can't see my camp 'till you're right on top of it. I'm testing myself, see?"

Pete didn't reply. Instead, he picked up the pace till he was jogging, glancing over his shoulder to see if Stu was closing he gap. He wasn't. Still, Pete didn't stop till he was stooping under the cook tarp. "What's the matter with you?" Ed asked, seeing Pete's torn pants and ashen face. "You see a ghost?"

"That freakin' Stu What's-his-name…" Pete gestured over his shoulder just as a shambling figure with a large knife in his hand emerging from the woods.

"Evenin', all," the apparition burbled. "I was just telling Pete here that he ought to eat more roughage, ya know? Ya gotta look after yourself in the back-country."

Very slowly, Ed rocked forward from his relaxed slouch till his weight was on the balls of his feet. His eyes searched out the tip of the knife in Stu's hand. Having found it, they never left it. "Why don't you put that knife up and visit a while?" he asked. His voice was quiet, low, and toneless. Just the sort of voice you used in questioning a lost child, Brenna thought.

"We're finishing our supper," Karin said, her voice edged with exasperation.

Stu sheathed his knife and squatted down. He looked at Ed and said, "No problem, buddy. I know where you're comin' from. And while I'd like to stay an' shoot the breeze, I got my own dinner to get." And then he rose and walked away, heading upriver. "See ya!" he called back over his shoulder. "Ya need me, Pete'll tell you where I'm camped."

"Christ!" Pete sat down and drank what remained of the wine in one long, gurgling gulp. "I thought that guy was going to try to stick me with that damn' Bowie knife!" And then he told the others the whole story, looking a little hurt when the tale elicited more laughter than sympathy. "What's so funny, anyway?" he asked petulantly, but no one answered

"Tea water's boiling," Karin interrupted.

"Want some Earl Grey?" Brenna asked, as she spooned tea leaves into a small pot.

"No thanks," said Karin. "We picked up some new stuff at the co-op before we left. It's called…let's see, now…" she squinted in an attempt to read the label, "Mus…Po—Mus Po. That's it." And she poured small black pellets into a mesh tea-ball.

"Mus Po?" Brenna repeated. "Never heard of that one." She examined the contents of the tea-ball. "Looks like mouse droppings to me," she concluded.

"Our Feng Shui consultant recommended it," Pete replied with some asperity, remembering the reception he'd gotten the last time the subject had come up. "It's very relaxing. And that's just what I need."

"I'll stick to Earl Grey," Ed said.

"These mosquitos are awful!" Karin erupted suddenly, waving her arms in exasperation.

"First time you've noticed?" Brenna smiled grimly. "That herbal repellent of yours must work pretty well, after all. I think I know why this campsite, of all the sites we passed, was deserted on the Memorial Day weekend—local knowledge. Can't be beat. It's like the Mosquito Coast here!"

"They're bad because there's a storm brewing," Ed broke in. "At least we've got a snug camp."

"Just think of it," Brenna said, "in a few weeks we'll be doing this up North."

Their tea drunk, the four paddlers made sure all was in order and retreated to their tents. Ed and Brenna had lots of space in their 4-person Eureka Timberline. Pete and Karin—who'd decided to go light with a Kelty Zen that didn't have much elbow room—weren't quite so lucky. They didn't have any trouble falling asleep, though.

By midnight they were awake again, as thunder echoed over the hills and wind gusts ballooned their tents. Ed and Brenna awoke with a jolt, startled by the fury of the storm. Driving rain searched out every gap in their defenses, and Ed had to move the foot of his sleeping bag to avoid a rapidly growing puddle. The tent's aluminum frame rattled and cracked, but it held together, and none of the young birches and aspens in the grove came down. In an hour the worst was over. The occupants of the two tents shouted to one another, asking if all was well. They peeked out of their tents as the rain drummed on the forest duff and retreating lightning illuminated the sky, while their yellow flashlight beams revealed a camp still in good order. The canoes were where they'd been tied down. The tarps stretched taut over the gear. Gradually the storm eased and sleep returned.

Morning came too soon. Brenna wrinkled her nose. She smelled wood smoke, opened her eyes and realized that the sun hadn't risen yet. Probably Pete, she thought. He was always impatient to get started. She snuggled up against Ed. No sooner did she fall back to sleep than she heard Pete's shrill shout, "What the hell are you doing here!?"

Ed sat up, instantly awake, reaching for his glasses. He pulled on his pants, unzipped the tent door and thrust himself out through it, looking around him as he shot through. There, huddled under a newly-raised tarp, was Stu Clayfoot. He sat on a rock, whittling a birch limb with his knife, and flicking off curls of birchwood into a spitting fire. His torso was covered with a clear plastic trash bag,. His head emerged through a slit cut in the bottom seam, and his arms exited through holes in the sides.

"Morning," he said, nodding cheerfully at Ed.

Ed was having none of it. "Just what in hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"I just thought I'd stop in and see how your camp held up," Stu replied in a tone that suggested it was the most natural thing in the world to be tending someone else's campfire. "I thought you'd be grateful for the fire. Hell of a night, wasn't it? My tent blew out, ya know. Wasn't much of a tent, of course, Not like that one over there…." He pointed at the Neary's Kelty. "Don't know if I don't like yours better, though," he concluded.

"How dare you make yourself at home in our camp?" Pete yelled. He was standing in front of his tent, clad only in gym shorts. His fists were clenched. "Get outta here! Go on, get out, you and that damn' knife of yours. Get outta here, now, you lunatic!"

Stu stared at Pete with hooded, dispassionate eyes. Then he shrugged dismissively, dropped his gaze and sliced another long curl of the birch limb. Ed noticed that it was very clean slice. He looked over at Pete and shook his head ever so slightly.

"Free country, ya know," Stu continued, speaking for Ed's benefit alone. "Leastwise it oughta be." And then he changed tacks. "They say this here river is the best dammed little river in the whole world. That's D-A-M-M-E-D, if ya get my meanin'—on account of all those dams downstream, ya know. Some of us at the D-O-E are gettin' a little worried, in fact, what with all them suitcase bombs goin' missin' in Rooshe-a. Not that you'd really need an A-bomb on any of those dams, though—'cause of the crackin', an all. But I'm not supposed to talk about it." And then, suddenly and uncharacteristically, he was silent. He continued to whittle, but he said nothing more.

Pete muttered something under his breath and ducked back into his tent, where a whispered conversation soon ensued. Ed smiled down slightly at Stu, nodded, and then yelled over to Brenna: "Let's pack up and get on the river. It'd be good to get an early start for a change." A muffled acknowledgement from Pete and Karin's tent told him that they, too, had gotten the message.

Once their sleeping bags were stuffed, Brenna dressed and stepped outside. It was pleasantly cool after the damp warmth of the tent. The cold front and the rain had dropped the temperature thirty degrees overnight. Moving quickly, she next struck the tent and packed it. While she worked, Ed pulled down the tarp, flicking it neatly so that it sailed over the now all-but-immobile Stu and sent a torrent of water spilling off into his lap. He made no sign he'd noticed. Only his hands still moved, sending curl after curl of birch wood into the fire. By unspoken agreement, Pete, Karin, and Brenna ferried gear down to the beach, leaving Ed to watch their uninvited guest. Once on the river bank, they found Stu's Coleman pulled up. Shoving it to one side, they launched first one boat and then the other.

At last, when all was ready, Brenna yelled up to Ed, who bowed slightly in farewell and then left Stu where they'd found him—seated on a rock before the fire, whittling a birch limb that was now little more than a twig. The four friends paddled off into the dawn, moving quickly, as if to put distance between themselves and the incidents of the last twenty-four hours. Brenna passed round a bag of jerky. They ate in silence.

Ed was the first to speak. "You know," he said, "I don't think our friend is quite as mad as he'd like us to think, but I'm damned if I can figure out what he's up to. I wonder if there really is a Stu Clayfoot working for the D.O.E.?"

No one had any answer to that question, but conversation slowly picked up.

Gray clouds scudded overhead and patches of blue appeared in the sky. Soon the sun peeked out and made the wet landscape glitter in the drying breeze. The temperature remained pleasantly cool. By late morning they'd put a good many miles between themselves and what they'd started to call "Deliverance Camp." They decided to stop for a brew-up and a proper meal, and a rocky outcrop, sloping down into the dark river, was the perfect place. They got their stoves going and made tea and soup. Brenna even whipped up a bannock for each of them. Then, with full stomachs and a warm sun beaming benevolently down on them, all but Ed laid back and dozed. Finally, even Ed's eyes closed.

They slept far longer than they'd intended. With Zoe and Abby planning to meet them at the Tupper Lake take-out by late afternoon, they'd have to paddle hard. But the river didn't cooperate. It twisted back on itself, sometimes breaking into false channels that ended in cul-de-sacs. Even the current slackened.

Pete fumed. He was the most impatient of them all. He wanted to get home so he could prepare a presentation for a business meeting on Tuesday.

At long last, though, they glimpsed Mt. Morris and knew they were close to the take-out. A group of six people in three tandem kayaks paddled slowly upstream and stopped to ask if they'd heard the big news. "It's in all the papers, and a TV crew are there…at Long Lake," a man in a Remington baseball cap said.

"Yeah," his companion added. "They found some guy with no legs floating in the water next to that island where the lady movie star lives. What's her name? Chadd Wellington? That's it. And they arrested Jerkin' Jake—you know, the crazy disk jockey at WFLU—for manslaughter. Can you believe it? Course I'm sure there's some mistake. He's such a funny guy and all."

Ed and Brenna only shook their heads. They remembered the Hacker inboard roaring around the end of the island. "Poor bastard," Ed muttered. And Brenna knew he wasn't talking about Jake.

That was the end of the conversation. More impatient than ever to get back home, Pete hurried them along. Soon they were paddling into Simon Pond and headed for the highway bridge marking the take-out. An amplified voice boomed out of a loudspeaker at the Angler's Nook bar just up the road: "And now here's what you all've been waitin' fer…our very own Bubba Buck and his Buck-ettes! Let's give 'em a big hand, folks!" Seconds later A Boy Named Sue was echoing over the water.

"Hey! There they are!" Brenna shouted, pointing toward shore, where Zoe and Abby waited next to Ken's blue Caravan. The twins waved and hooted.

"It's really funny," Brenna said to Ed as they paddled toward the take-out. "We only left Long Lake yesterday morning, but it feels like weeks ago."

"I was thinking the same thing," Ed replied. Then he caught sight of a chalky red Coleman pulled up on shore, a little way off from the Caravan. A familiar figure stood beside it. "Can you believe that that?" Ed asked, and the others echoed his astonishment.

"Just look at him!" Pete fumed. "How the hell did that he get here before us?"

"Maybe," said Ed, "he just paddled by us while we were sleeping."

They hauled their canoes ashore. Ignoring the others, Stu nodded to Ed, and Ed returned the greeting. Just as he was looking away, he could have sworn that Stu winked at him.

Abby and Zoe came down to help with the gear. Abby hugged Brenna. "Who's that?" she asked, gesturing toward Stu. "Somebody you know?"

"It's a long story," Brenna replied. "We'll tell you all about on the drive."

Ed put his arm around Brenna's shoulders. He turned toward the others. "Well, guys, that's it. Next stop, James Bay!"

Stu caught Ed's eye again. This time there was no mistaking it. He winked.

End of Book I. To be continued…

Blue Boat

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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