Teaching an Old Canoe
The canoe came with the house. I wrote it into the purchase offer. On a battleground of inflated Florida real estate, it was my moral victory. The 16-footer had spent most of its life sheltering lizards, upended in the backyard next to the pond. It wasn’t worth a hundred bucks, the sun-damaged polymer hull had passed the point of no return, a faded red footnote to the American weekend.
Someone had made an attempt to patch a hole in the bow with an indeterminate substance. As its new owner, my first and last restoration project was to apply cross-hatched layers of duct tape to the patch, holding it in place. Every month or two I replace the tape, possibly tighten a screw in the frame.
Otherwise, my canoe metamorphosed into that rare and cherished breed of boat: The kind that requires no care whatsoever. Tethered to my fishing vest, it follows me like an old dog. I wade quietly along an Indian River shoreline, shuffling to warn stingrays of our approach. The canoe holds a few bottles of perspiring ice-water, thawing quickly in the late-morning sun. A pod of silver mullet streaks across the sandy bottom.
There by the decayed pilings is a yard-long shadow. I stop, so close I’m holding my breath. The canoe catches up, nudging my thigh gently with its metal nose. I work a little line out of the fly rod, and drop a white deerhair slider a few feet in front of the shadow. The seatrout bursts forward and snaps at the fly when I move it. The fight, though punctuated by some headshakes and a few quick runs, is surprisingly short. I release the fish and scramble aboard the canoe, standing bow-side of the midship thwart and facing aft, as I prefer. With my long paddle I whisk homeward across inches-deep water. “I like your Indian boat,” a boy says when I step off onto the sandy beach.
It also makes about as good a duck boat as one could find. Four cans of cheap spray paint later, it’s a veritable thicket of cattail, sawgrass, mangrove and spartina. On the St. Johns River marsh, under the subtle glow of LED headlamp, the boat is silent and stealthy. A bag of decoys, a pair of shotguns, bottles of sports drink, boxes of shells, camera gear, two men in waders: the canoe bears the load easily, sliding noiselessly through hydrilla and water hyacinths. Moorhens peep as we pass; a heron squawks uneasily.
The faithful canoe returns to its patch of dead grass, where the lizards and the neighborhood kids take over.
After dispensing its load of decoys the canoe is stashed in its own stand of reeds, a hundred yards distant. Some people give ducks more credit than they deserve, but I have little doubt that on public marshes they become leery of canoe-shaped islands that grow overnight. Reluctantly, I leave my boat behind.
Waist-deep in cool murk, we hunker and await the vermilion glow of sunrise. The birds are restless this morning. Well before shooting hours a half-dozen squadrons of teal hurtle over our blind, their wings like rushing water.
When my wristwatch says it’s time, I spring at the next flight of birds. A drake bluewing drops. My partner downs a hen. More birds fly over: greenwings, ringbills. Before long we’ve got a respectable bag. The sun, now in full blaze, reveals nothing of my boat. Vaguely I recognize the outline of a particular cattail stand. I trudge off to recover my canoe.
What dirt isn’t blown free by the ride home is quickly hosed out in the yard. The faithful canoe returns to its patch of dead grass, where the lizards and the neighborhood kids take over. I keep the paddles, life vests and anchor in the garage, but upon request eagerly issue them to my neighbor’s daughters. No matter how many times I exhort Hannah, 12, and Emily, 10, to be responsible boaters, they cannot resist dumping each other out of the boat into the pond.
I don’t worry too much—It’s indestructible. And something about it looks right, shaking and rocking there on the black water, happy to be included.
Jeff Weakly is the editor of Florida Sportsman magazine. He lives on the Treasure Coast of Florida, near the legendary Indian River Lagoon.