This Canoe’s Life
BY COLLEEN KALEDA
My dog lifts a hind leg over the old canoe’s aluminum skin and even as I listen to the metallic spattering, I know that I won’t scold him. I can’t blame a dog for marking what he thinks is a large piece of garden art.
The canoe belonged to my late father. He bought it new in the late 1950s, a 20-something bachelor with lots of time to paddle the empty lakes and rivers of South Dakota and Wyoming where he worked as an engineer.
By the ‘70s my dad had gone urban. It was time to take the old canoe on a few dates, and in the city of Seattle he found one woman who would get into it with him.
“Want to go catch golf balls?” he’d ask.
“Sure,” my mother would answer.
They’d paddle a slow stretch of the Snoqualmie near a golf course, and use a long-handled scooper to retrieve lost balls from the river bottom. Sometimes they’d have to duck and cover to avoid incoming balls from the links nearby.
As soon as I could sit up on my own, they buckled me into my car seat and bungeed it to the canoe. The three of us plied the Cascadian waterways, with me giggling in every riffle.
A few years later, I’d watch from the shore as Dad, alone on the water, would show me his canoe tricks, perfected during the bachelor days. Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, he’d rise slowly from bent knees until he was standing in the stern. Sometimes he’d lift one leg and balance there. Then slowly, elbows out like wings, he’d begin to bounce the canoe on the water. The front would tip slightly up, and the boat took flight. With a rhythmic thump-thump-thump, he was gone, walking on water.
While the canoe-as-hovercraft worked best on glassy lakes, the facts didn’t lie: we lived near Seattle’s speedboat- and jet ski-infested Lake Washington. We made due though, and searched out the quiet nooks.
Dad built a hand-carrier (two bicycle wheels connected by a heavy piece of wood) to walk the canoe, as if leading a dog by its collar, down to the lake. The neighbors shook their heads as the boat bobbed down the street. Often Sunny and Brandy, our two rescue mutts, flanked the heavy boat like faithful wingmen. Our quiet nook: a nearby swamp, and all the creatures in it.
A wetland full of eagles and turtles and fish and beavers is a wonderful place for a child to visit in a canoe. It’s not, however, a good place for anyone to visit with dogs.
Without fail, Sunny and Brandy would leap out of the canoe. Snoozing turtles resting on thick lily pads were too juicy to resist. Once in the water (realizing hundreds of conjoined lily pads are not terra firma) the dogs would flail, thrash and, covered in swamp muck, require immediate rescue. Canine water-rescue commonly includes thankful-to-be-alive shaking afterwards, then forgetting it ever happened. Within minutes they’d be jumping out of the canoe again, in pursuit of baby ducks.
Enter my tweens. Dad would purposely capsize us to make sure I knew how to get the canoe righted again, by myself, before it sunk. And it would sink if left unattended. Somehow these lessons were scheduled on particularly windy, choppy days on Lake Washington. Speedboat wakes often sent adrift the whole chaotic mess of overboard-father-and-daughter-clutching-an-upside-down-canoe. More than a few times we nearly crashed into someone’s moored sailboat, or a nice dock with a kiddie slide.
A few docks did get rammed. Only a few though.
The ‘80s came and went fast, and my teens with it. Like the family car, the canoe soon had more than one driver. With no license required, friends and I paddled the nearby wetlands. Later, a boyfriend or two joined me in the canoe; I steered, much to their chagrin.
As the decades unfolded and I began my adult life, the old canoe laid still. My parents retired and moved away. The canoe took up permanent residence in their new backyard.
In a way though, that old canoe never stopped moving. It nurtured the wanderlust that carried me around the world. And so wherever I went, the spirit of that canoe followed. It was with me when I navigated Thailand’s hill-tribe territory on lashed-together bamboo poles, when I rode a traditional dugout deep into the Bolivian Amazon, and during a sea kayaking trip in New Zealand. It was there when I paddled Africa’s Upper Zambezi, hippos and crocodiles tracking me with their bulbous eyes. And it was from a canoe that I met the Kuna Yala, a proud and independent indigenous tribe, on their island territory off the Panamanian coast.
I can thank Dad’s canoe, now in my own yard, for those adventures and many more. It’s resting, for sure, but I’m not about to lay it to rest.